Book Corner: The Last Berserker by Angus Donald

The greatest warriors are forged in the flames

Two pagan fighters

771AD, Northern Europe. Bjarki Bloodhand and Tor Hildarsdottir are journeying south into Saxony. Their destination is the Irminsul, the One Tree that links the Nine Worlds of the Middle-Realm. In this most holy place, they hope to learn how to summon their animal spirits so they can enter the ranks of the legendary berserkir: the elite frenzied fighters of the North.

One Christian king

Karolus, newly crowned King of the Franks, has a thorn in his side: the warlike Saxon tribes on his northern borders who shun the teachings of the Church, blasphemously continuing to worship their pagan gods.

An epic battle for the soul of the North

The West’s greatest warlord vows to stamp out his neighbours’ superstitions and bring the light of the True Faith to the Northmen – at the point of a sword. It will fall to Bjarki, Tor and the men and women of Saxony to resist him in a struggle for the fate of all Europe.

I have read Angus Donald’s books since the first of his Robin Hood series, Outlaw, came out many moons ago. And I absolutely adored his series set around the 1688 Glorious Revolution with unlikely hero Holcroft Blood. But there is always a risk when an author starts a new series; will it live up to previous stories?

Well, with The Last Berserker there is no need to worry. From the first few lines you are reassured that Angus Donald starts as he means to go on; with an action-filled storyline that will take the reader on a breathtaking journey through the turbulent years of the 8th century. It is quite the adventure!

The story derives from the many tales of the berserkers, men who went wild in battle, killing dozens at a time. Angus Donald has created a world in which the berserkers were not just mad men, but legendary fighters who honed their skills through belief, training and discipline. They were heroes who used their unique talents to lead men into battle and deliver victory after victory. Set in the time when the great Charlemagne was waging his campaign of conquest against the German tribes, The Last Berserker tells the story of Bjarki Bloodhand, who joins the fight to defend his homelands.

‘How about you, son? You look like a strapping fellow. Care to try your strength? Bjarki realised the tall blond man was speaking to him.

He shook his head.

‘No need to be afraid. I’ll tell Black Svein to go easy on you.’

‘I’m not afraid,’ Bjarki said.

‘Then come inside the hazel square and prove it.’

Bjarki shook his head. He smiled.

The straw-haired man turned away. ‘There must be one or two here today who are not snivelling cowards,’ he said, his back turned to Bjarki.

Bjarki stopped smiling. He felt suddenly cold. He took a step forward.

‘He’s not a coward,’ said a voice at his elbow, a cool hand there, too, restraining him. ‘He just doesn’t want to fight your friend today. And calling him one won’t change his mind.’

The straw-haired man turned back and looked at Bjarki – and Tor, who was now standing beside him.

‘You his girl then?’ he said. Then to Bjarki: ‘Aren’t you a one – getting your little girlie to speak for you. I see now why you won’t fight.’

‘He won’t fight your friend,’ said Tor, ‘but I will. You said you had quarterstaffs? Yes? All right then, I accept your challenge.’

The straw-haired man was nonplussed. This scrawny young woman, with arms like kindling sticks, was about half of the weight of Black Svein – and a head shorter than him too. It was a ridiculous match.

‘You can’t fight him,’ he said.

‘Oh yes? Why is that? Is he afraid of me?’

That started a howl of laughter from the crowd, which had thickened considerably by now. The straw-haired man flushed pink with irritation.

‘You cannot fight him, girlie. It would not be a fair contest.’

‘What if I go really easy on him?’ said Tor. ‘I promise I won’t hurt him all that much – hardly at all. I’ll be as gentle as a lamb with the poor idiot.’

Angus Donald weaves together, myth, legend and history to recreate a world where the berserker not only flourished, but was revered as a great warrior.

As an author, Donald is very adept at creating unique, interesting protagonists. Holcroft Blood was an autistic officer who had a knack for uncovering spies and a skill in artillery that was unrivalled. Robin Hood was a vicious killer, not the cuddly Robin Hood from legend. And with Bjarki Bloodhand, we have another individual who is not, at first sight, your typical hero. He is a rather dull, awkward boy; quite unassuming in fact. He comes across as naive, a little too trusting and not overly ambitious. He is, however, loyal to ahis friends, a good fighter and as brave as they come. He doesn’t shirk from a fight, but doesn’t necessarily seek it out. And he is incredibly likeable.

Bjarki’s sidekick, for want of a better word, is Tor, a slip of a girl with an attitude that belies her size. A born fighter, she is always looking to prove herself. Tor is a fascinating character who has secrets of her own to hide and ‘issues’ to work through. The two make an unlikely pairing but a firm friendship that helps them through their many trials.

Angus Donald wonderfully recreates the world of 8th century central Europe, from the landscape and the natural borders that separate the various nations, to the contrasting religious beliefs – both Christian and pagan – that lie at the centre of the conflict. A natural storyteller when it comes to warfare, Donald vividly evokes the song of battle, with seax, sword, axe and shield. The frenetic energy of the battle scenes leave the reader breathless and eager for more. The intricacies of the story, with its various twists and turns, some rather surprising, keep the reader on the edge of their seat throughout.

The Last Berserker is a truly enthralling story, not easy to put down – and a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience. It is one book that is not to be missed!

The Last Berserker by Angus Donald is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

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About the Author:

Angus Donald is the author of the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles, a series of ten novels set in the 12th/13th centuries and featuring a gangster-ish Robin Hood. Angus has also published the Holcroft Blood trilogy about a mildly autistic 17th-century English artillery officer, son of notorious Crown Jewels thief Colonel Thomas Blood. Before becoming an author, Angus worked as a fruit-picker in Greece, a waiter in New York City and as an anthropologist studying magic and witchcraft in Indonesia. For fifteen years he was a journalist working in Hong Kong, India, Afghanistan and London. He now writes full time from a medieval farmhouse in Kent.

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My books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Corner: A Time for Swords by Matthew Harffy

When the Vikings attack, a novice monk’s life is changed forever in Matthew Harffy’s new historical adventure.

Lindisfarne, AD793.

There had been portents – famine, whirlwinds, lightning from clear skies, serpents seen flying through the air. But when the raiders came, no one was prepared.

They came from the North, their dragon-prowed longships gliding out of the dawn mist as they descended on the kingdom’s most sacred site.

It is 8th June AD793, and with the pillage of the monastery on Lindisfarne, the Viking Age has begun.

While his fellow monks flee before the Norse onslaught, one young novice stands his ground. He has been taught to turn the other cheek, but faced with the slaughter of his brothers and the pagan desecration of his church, forgiveness is impossible.

Hunlaf soon learns that there is a time for faith and prayer . . . and there is a time for swords.

It is my pleasure to be a part of Matthew Harffy’s blog tour for the release of the first book in what will be a new series, A Time for Swords.

It is always a worry when one of your favourite authors starts a new series – for author and reader, alike – that you may not like it, that the new hero doesn’t live up to the promise of the last hero – or even that the new hero is too similar to the last and the book appears formulaic.

Well, with Matthew Harffy, you needn’t worry about that. He seems to be able to create distinct characters and storylines at the drop of a hat. To be fair to Matthew, I am sure that it is not that easy – though he does make it look so! With Wolf of Wessex, his first foray away from the heroic Beobrand, Matthew Harffy proved his ability at storytelling did not just lay in one direction, and that he did have so much more in his repertoire.

With A Time for Swords, he has done it again!

Recreating the world of 8th century Northumbria, Matthew Harffy has left the 7th century behind to document the arrival of the Vikings on Britain’s shores, with the raid on Lindisfarne – Holy Island. A Time for Swords takes this raid as its starting point and pursues the likely reactions on the people of Northumbria following this unexpected explosion of violence on the peaceful island monastery. As we have come to expect from Matthew Harffy, the action starts on the very first page and doesn’t let the reader stop for breath until the very last.

My feet pounded the soft earth as I sped back towards the dwellings of the ceorls. A green plover, startled by my passing, burst from the long grass that brushed against my bare legs as I ran. I stumbled in shock and surprise at the bird’s screeching call, so like that of the screams of the people dying in the minster and the huts of the villagers. I rushed on, my lungs burning and the thickening smoke stinging my eyes.

I came up over the low rise from the beach to a scene of chaos. When I had left the minster at dawn, its buildings had rested peacefully, close to the natural harbour and overlooked by the mound of rock at the island’s tip. A few small fishing boats had been canted in the shallows of low tide, and teh morning had been still and quiet. Now the brightening day was filled with noise, fire and smoke.

And death.

In the harbour were three huge ships, sleek and menacing with terrifying carven serpent head prows. Around the ships were congregated several men. The land all around was full of movement. Dozens of armed warriors had poured from the ships and had made their way into the grounds of the minster. Three of the monastery buildings were burning, great pillars of flame and smoke smudging the sky. My heart lurched as I realised one of the fires was the scriptorium. I imagined the gold cover of The Treasure of Life melting, the parchment leaves curling, smouldering and then bursting into flames. Leofstan and I would never unpick the secrets within its pages now. I felt tears prickle my eyes as I thought of so many books being consumed, just like in my nightmare of Alexandria. Countless days of painstaking work and skill gone in an instant. So much knowledge snuffed out and lost. I was a long way off, but as I crested the rise I could feel the heat from the fires on my face.

The lead character, Hunlaf, is a monk who has discovered a skill with the sword, and who wants nothing more than to protect his brethren at the monastery at Werceworthe (Warkworth) from the attack that he knows is coming. The intrepid warrior monk manages to attract a small but fierce group of fighters to his cause, including Runolf, a Viking left behind in the raid on Lindisfarne, who has his own motives for confronting the Norse raiders.

Hunlaf is a likeable character, torn between his love of the church and the draw of the sword and the comradeship of warriors. He is a young, gifted fighter with an eagerness to learn and a desire to protect that means he will find it hard to back down from a fight. Each of the characters surrounding Hunlaf have their own stories and reasons for joining the fight, from the monk, Leofstan, with a warrior past of his own, to Runolf the Norseman fighting his own kind, to a Welshman always in need of proving himself and a young, fiery Irishman, Cormac, seeking vengeance for the fate of his family.

The storyline of A Time for Swords draws the reader in from the outset, taking you on a journey from the ruined Lindisfarne to York and on to the monastery at Warkworth. Matthew Harffy demonstrates his knowledge of the area, the people and the landscape, in Hunlaf’s travels. Harffy skillfully combines impeccable historical research with his wonderful storytelling, to create a novel that has a sense of authenticity about it. While the raid on Lindisfarne is historical fact, the subsequent events that young Hunlaf gets involved in are a creation of the author. However, Matthew Harffy supplements the fictional fighting by using the original landscape, the weapons used, fighting tactics and the very real threat of the Viking raiders, to add a sense of realism,

As you may have come to expect with Matthew Harffy, the fight scenes are where he is in his element. Beautifully choreographed, they are frenetic and vividly described with a passion unique to the author. and there is no guarantee that your favourite character will survive…

In short, A Time for Swords is one of those books which is not to be missed. Entertaining, exciting and totally gripping, the novel reaffirms, once more – if more affirmation is needed – Matthew Harffy’s status as one of the best authors of historical fiction around.

Read it – I promise, you will not be disappointed!

About the Author:

Matthew Harffy grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

Pre-order links:

Amazon UK: https://amzn.to/39T3MqJ

Follow Matthew:

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy

Website: www.matthewharffy.com

Follow Aries:

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Betrayal

“Loyalty breaks as easily as a silken thread.”

Misplaced trust, power hunger, emotional blackmail, and greed haunt twelve characters from post-Roman Britain to the present day. And betrayal by family, lover, comrade can be even more devastating.

Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges.

AD455—Roman leader Ambrosius is caught in a whirlpool of shifting allegiances
AD940—Alyeva and cleric Dunstan navigate the dangers of the Anglo Saxon court
1185—Knight Stephan fights for comradeship, duty, and honour. But what about love?
1330—The powerful Edmund of Kent enters a tangled web of intrigue
1403—Thomas Percy must decide whether to betray his sovereign or his family
1457—Estelle is invited to the King of Cyprus’s court, but deception awaits
1483—Has Elysabeth made the right decision to bring Prince Edward to London?
1484—Margaret Beaufort contemplates the path to treason
1577—Francis Drake contends with disloyalty at sea
1650—Can James Hart, Royalist highwayman, stop a nemesis destroying his friend?
1718—Pirate Annie Bonny, her lover Calico Jack, and a pirate hunter. Who will win?
1849/present—Carina must discover her ancestor’s betrayer in Italy or face ruin.

Betrayal: Historical Stories is a wonderful anthology of 12 short stories exploring the concept of betrayal, either of country, family or lovers. Featuring some of the best authors of the moment, Betrayal: Historical Stories features stories from post-Roman Britain to an alternative reality in modern times, where the Roman Empire never fell but continued under powerful, influential women in Roma Nova.

There is something in this book for everyone. There are kings and queens, knights, pirates and cavalier highwaymen. There are stories of love, loyalty and friendship combined with implacable enemies, broken promises, family secrets and – above all – betrayal!

The remarkable diversity of the stories make this anthology a gripping read. You never know what story you are going to come across next, whether its the exploits of Sir Francis Drake, the heartbreaking story of 13-year-old Edward V’s journey to London, from his proclamation as king to his deposition and imprisonment in the Tower of London. Each story is written by a different author; their voices are as distinct as their characters.

In a book of short stories, it is impossible to pick an extract that shows the full range of writing on offer. However, it is possible to choose and extract that highlights the high standard of writing throughout the book. So here’s an excerpt from Honour of Thieves by Cryssa Bazos:

A panicked rider appeared from around the bend, twisted in the saddle, his attention fixed behind him as though the hounds of hell snapped at his feet. When he finally turned to face the road ahead, he saw James barring his way and screamed. the rider yanked hard on teh reins, and his horse skidded to a bone’jarring halt. He fought to keep himself from launching over his horse’s head.

James levelled his pistol at him. ‘Stand and deliver!’

A bead of sweat trickled down the man’s brow. ‘Ah, Master Highwayman. Do you not remember me? I passed this way before. You afforded me a free pas through Moot Hill.’ When he received no acknowledgement, he pressed on, his voice cracking, ‘I’m the pauper you took pity on. Do you not recall?’

James studied the man. Same battered hat and frayed cloak, a nearly broken horse better suited for the pasture than the road. True, he had last taken the man for a beggar, as he was meant to, but since then he had learned the truth. ‘A thrice of days ago; I haven’t forgotten. I allowed you the freedom of the highway.’

‘Blessed be the day.’ The man beamed and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. ‘Naturally, there’s no profit accosting me.’ His smile faded when he realised that the pistol was still trained on him. ‘I’m not even a Parliamentarian – I’m a good Royalist still mourning his fallen king … like yourself.’

James lifted a brow, satisfied to see the man squirm. Lying sod. Many travellers had passed this way over the last year pretending to share the highwayman’s abhorrence for their Parliamentarian usurpers in order to save their purse. James had seen through their ruses, but this one had somehow rooked him. That set his teeth on edge. ‘You pled your case well, claiming to be a half-starved hare.’ He swept his gaze to the man’s new leather boots. Clearly, the man’s subterfuge did not extend to the discomfort of ill-fitting shoes. ‘I took pity on you – instead of taking, I gave you a goodly sum to keep you well and a few coins besides to drink my health.’

‘God save you -‘

‘Did you have that drink?’ James asked.

‘Of course! I sang your praises at a public house that night.’

‘Are you certain?’

Silence.

I have read some of the authors before. Derek Birks, Tony Riches, Annie Whitehead, Cryssa Bazos and Anna Belfrage are among my favourite authors and I have reviewed their books before. These short stories allowed me to revisit some of their best characters, from Ambrosius Aurelianus to Captain James Hart, Sir Stephan de l’Aigle and Kit and Adam de Guirande of Anna Belfrage’s The King’s Greatest Enemy series.

Reading Betrayal: Historical Stories was a combination of spending a few hours with old friends and meeting new ones. Elizabeth St John, Judith Arnopp and Alison Morton were authors I was familiar with, but had not read before. I am now going to rectify that and go through their back catalogue to catch up. Alison’s Roma Nova short story provided an intriguing alternative to the modern day, showing us how the world might be, had a Roman Empire survived and flourished into the modern world, under the auspices of 12 ruling families.

The stories are beautifully written, enjoyable diversions. It is impossible to choose a favourite! Betrayal: Historical Stories showcases some of the best writing in historical fiction today. It is a pure pleasure to read.

What a fabulous way to discover new authors and new adventures!

The Betrayal: Historical Stories anthology is available for free from Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Birthday Giveaway

Competition Closed

Competition is now closed and the draw has been made. The winner is… Lisa Graham. Thank you so much to everyone for taking part – there were over 300 entries! And thank you for the many wonderful birthday wishes. Apparently a ‘big’ birthday doesn’t feel as overwhelming when you have so many wonderful friends. THANK YOU!!!!

It’s my birthday!

Today is my birthday, and its one of those big ones with a ‘0’ on the end. I’m not going to say exactly, but here’s a few clues:

I’m not 40 or 60;

My son keeps telling me that I’m now a part of history;

and he keeps making sly remarks about half centuries.

So, you work it out…

Anyway, seeing as its such a big birthday, I thought it would be nice to celebrate with a giveaway, seeing as I haven’t done one in a while.

The Giveaway!

The giveaway is a signed and dedicated – for you or someone you love – hardback copy of one of my books. And its your choice of book You can choose from my first book, Heroines of the Medieval World. my second book Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest or the latest, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century Europe.

It’s easy to enter!

The competition is open to everyone, wherever you are in the world. To win a signed and dedicated copy of one of my books, simply leave a comment below or on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

The draw will be made on Monday 12 October.

Good luck!

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post: All the Ælfgifus by Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Annie Whitehead to History … the Interesting Bits as a stop on her Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England Blog Tour.

Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.

Over to you Annie….

All the Ælfgifus

I was recently interviewed on BBC Radio Northampton where we chatted about a lady known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. During the pre-recording chat, it became clear that there was some confusion over the name. I told the presenter that I wasn’t the least surprised, as there are no fewer than eight ladies with that name featured in my new book. I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce them. (The name, incidentally, translates as Elf-gift, which I think is rather beautiful.)

Ælfgifu, daughter of Edward the Elder

Edward the Elder

We don’t know a great deal about her but I do feel rather sorry for her. She and her sister, Eadgyth, were, apparently, both sent to Germany so that the future emperor, Otto, could choose one of them as his bride. He married Eadgyth – it was, apparently, ‘love at first sight’ – and Ælfgifu married another prince. What Ælfgifu felt about being rejected by Otto, we can only surmise. Of course, Otto might not have been every young girl’s dream, in which case Ælfgifu might have considered that she’d had a lucky escape. It must have rankled though, being declared less attractive than her sister.

Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury

King Edmund was the son of Edward the Elder and a half-brother of the Ælfgifu mentioned above. He became king at around the age of eighteen and his first wife, Ælfgifu, bore him two sons, both future kings. Her identity is debateable and her background unknown. She wasn’t married for long. Her son Eadwig (I’ll come back to him) was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and it would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury Abbey in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely a benefactor.

Ælfgifu the Harlot

Mortimer portrait of Dunstan scolding 
Ælfgifu the Harlot

In 955 Edmund’s brother, who’d succeeded him, died and was in turn succeeded by Edmund’s son, Eadwig (see, I told you I’d come back to him). Life at court got rather interesting when Eadwig, still only a teenager, married a young woman named Ælfgifu. Many of you will know the story of how he was found in bed on his coronation day with his wife, and her mother. Depending on which version one reads, the mother was banished and/or hamstrung in punishment, or she threatened the abbot who found them, and who was himself subsequently banished, that she would have his eyes put out if he ever returned. The young couple’s marriage was annulled two years later, on the grounds that they were too closely related. However, Ælfgifu is presumed to be the same woman who left a will, in which she’s identified as being descended from the brother of Alfred the Great. This being so, she was descended from the branch of the royal family that had risen up in rebellion. Ælfgifu’s marrying the king might have been seen as an attempt to strengthen those claims. It’s not a theory which I whole-heartedly embrace but it does seem that there was a lot of political manoeuvring at court and I suspect Ælfgifu was an innocent caught up in the turmoil. She was certainly welcomed back to court by Eadwig’s brother when he became king.

Ælfgifu of York – Possibly

Aethelred the Unready

That brother of Eadwig’s had a son, known to history as Æthelred the Unready. His first wife’s identity is a bit of a mystery. The chronicler John of Worcester said that she was called Ælfgifu, and that she was the daughter of an ealdorman called Æthelberht. But there is no evidence of this woman’s father; no ealdorman named Æthelberht is recorded elsewhere. Roger of Wendover said that she was a ‘woman of low birth’, while Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the mid-twelfth century, said that she was the daughter of a man named Thored, but he didn’t name her. It is possible that Æthelred was married first to a woman named Ælfgifu and then to the daughter of Thored, but it is generally accepted that this was one woman and, combining the two versions, that she was Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored.

We don’t hear much from her as she didn’t witness any charters and is otherwise unnamed in the sources. What she did do, though, is have at least nine children, (one of whom was also called Ælfgifu, whose husband was murdered by her sister’s husband, which must have made for awkward family Christmases)! She must have lived until the eleventh century, for her youngest son, Edgar, did not appear on charter witness lists until 1001. We do not know exactly how old the royal children would typically have been when they first appeared on the witness lists, but we do know that they were sometimes still babes in arms. It is not known what happened to Ælfgifu and it is possible that she died at around the same time, for King Æthelred got married again in 1002…

…To a woman named Emma, but who was given the English name of Ælfgifu. As if this wasn’t confusing enough! And after Æthelred the Unready died, Emma married again. Her husband was King Cnut, who already had a wife/concubine:

Ælfgifu of Northampton

Emma – Ælfgifu of Northampton’s rival

This Ælfgifu came from a powerful Mercian family. Her father was ealdorman of Northumbria, her uncle founded Burton Abbey and her grandmother founded Wolverhampton. Ælfgifu’s father was murdered and her brothers were blinded and generally Æthelred the Unready mistrusted the family, as well he might. For at some point, possibly around 1013, Ælfgifu married Cnut, the son of the invader, Swein Forkbeard. She had two sons by Cnut, and they were given Danish names – Swein and Harold – as if recognised as potential heirs, but when Cnut became king, he married Emma and also had a son with her, who was named Harthacnut.

Emma, with her credentials as an English queen, was no doubt important to Cnut, but so too was Ælfgifu of Northampton, and Cnut had a task for her to perform. Cnut had an empire to rule, and Harthacnut was sent to Denmark while in 1030, Ælfgifu and her son Swein were sent to Norway, there to rule for Cnut. The regency in Norway may have been hugely symbolic, and it is telling that the period was remembered in Scandinavian history as ‘Ælfgifu’s time’, but for various reasons it wasn’t hugely successful. Swein died in 1035, but so too did Cnut.

Now a (rather unseemly at times) battle began as Emma and Ælfgifu fought for their sons to succeed. You can read all about these fraught years in my new book but the upshot was that Ælfgifu was successful in the short term and Harold ‘Harefoot’ became king. Sadly though he died in 1040. We don’t know what happened to Ælfgifu after this, but there is a French twelfth-century story which speaks of a woman named Alveva and it’s possible that she lived out her years as an exile in southern France.

By 1066, another Harold was on the throne. He had a wife/concubine who’s known to history as Edith Swanneck, and one of her children was a daughter named Ælfgifu.

Ælfgifu the Unlucky

But the last Ælfgifu I want to talk about is one I’ve nicknamed ‘unlucky’. You’ll recall that Ælfgifu of Northampton’s brothers were blinded. They weren’t the only ones and in 993 a man named Ælfgar suffered the same fate. His wife was another woman named Ælfgifu. When Ælfgifu of Northampton’s father was killed and her brothers blinded, another man was named as being deprived of all his property. With a little bit of detective work I was able to say with some degree of certainty that this man was the second husband of our last Ælfgifu, which means that her first husband was blinded and the second was deprived of all his property. Given that it’s clear the name Ælfgifu seems to have been given only to noblewomen, I think this one must have expected a slightly more comfortable and uneventful life!

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Annie’s book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Pen & Sword Books in June 2020. It can be purchased from Pen & Sword and online.

About the Author:

Annie is an author and historian and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society and has won awards and prizes for her fiction and nonfiction.

Published works include Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) and novels and stories set in Anglo-Saxon England, including To Be A Queen, the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, longlisted for HNS Book of the Year 2016. She was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition in 2017. You can connect with Annie through her Website, on Facebook, Twitter and on her Blog and Amazon Author Page.

All images are in the public domain.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: The Northern Throne by Steven A. McKay

Bellicus the Druid and his friend Duro, a former Roman centurion, have already suffered a great deal in recent years but, for them, things are about to get even worse.
Britain is changing. The Romans have gone and warriors from many different places seek to fill the void the legions left behind. In the south, the Saxons’ expansion seems unstoppable despite the efforts of the warlord Arthur, while north of Hadrian’s Wall various kings and chieftains are always looking to extend their borders.

In Dun Breatann, Bellicus believes the disparate northern tribes must put aside their differences, become allies, and face the Saxon threat together, under one High King.

Or High Queen…

Small-minded men don’t always look at the bigger picture though, and, when Bellicus and Duro seek to form a pact with an old enemy, events take a shocking and terrible turn that will leave the companions changed forever.

This third volume in the Warrior Druid of Britain Chronicles is packed with adventure, battles, triumph, and tears, and at the end of it a new course will be set for Bellicus.

But at what cost?

One of the highlights of my reading year is when Steven A. McKay publishes a book, This year I have had the pleasure to read two! Steven has a book, Lucia: A Roman Slave’s Tale, coming out in October, which is incredibly thought-provoking – but more of that one nearer the time…

This summer the 3rd book in the Warrior Druid of Britain series was finally published. It seems like it has been a long wait since book 2, Song of the Centurion came out, but it has been well worth it! Steven A. McKay takes us on another, suspense-filled adventure with Bellicus the Druid and his Roman friend, Duro.

Bellicus’ story started with The Druid and a rescue mission into the heart of Anglo-Saxon England to recover young princess Catia. It continued in Song of the Centurion where Bellicus and his friend Duro, the former Roman centurion, fought to save Alt Clota from the machinations of its enemies and the growing paranoia of its king, Coroticus. Each story has led us to The Northern Throne, an adventure that proves more perilous and personal for Bellicus and Duro.

Set in the time of King Arthur and the Saxon invasion of Britain, the story takes us north of Hadrian’s Wall and into the lands of the Scots and Picts. As with the previous novels, Arthur is a supporting character, making a handful of cameo appearances, though I suspect his time will come, when he and Bellicus team up to fight the Saxon threat.

“Nicely done, lads,” Gerallt said approvingly. “With the Votadini taken care of, and the Dalriadans in disarray, all we have left to deal with are the Picts.”

Bellicus bodded. If they could defeat Drest it would put Narina in a very strong position. Ultimately, the druid would like to see her crowned High Queen of all the northern lands, and it seemed that day might be close. A Damnonii High Queen would nullify the growing threat the Christians’ posed to the old ways, while allowing the united tribes to face the Saxon threat at the side of Arthur and Merlin. The druid just had to find a way to steer events towards such a favourable outcome.

“How long have we got before Drest arrives in Alt Clota?” Gerallt asked the messenger, disturbing Bellicus from his reverie.

“At the speed they were marching when I observed them,” the messenger reported, “I’d say about 3 or 4 days, my lord.”
“That should be more than enough,” Duro said, resting his left hand on the pommel of his spatha. “If we leave here tomorrow at sun-up, we’ll be able to head them off on the road before they get anywhere hear Dun Breatann.”

“And we’re thirty men stronger now, too,” Gerallt said, smiling grimly. “We’ll be able top ambush the Pictish bastards just like we did the Votadini.”

“Hopefully you’re right, and we do surprise them,” Bellicus muttered, gazing hopefully into his half-empty cup. “Because if Cefin’s numbers are accurate, Drest’s army still outnumbers us.”

The triumph of these books is in Steven A. McKay’s portrayal of Bellicus the Druid. An author could easily fall into the realm of fantasy and explain the druidic rituals as magic. That is not the case with the Warrior Druid of Britain books. Bellicus is a clever, educated man who has studied the nature of humanity. Insightful and intelligent, he knows how to read people, their actions and expressions, and how to interpret their intentions.

His years of training have made him a well-respected, authoritative character and he uses his skills to great advantage. There is an air of mystery about him, but he is also portrayed as a man who is all-too-human, and whose flaws and pride can sometimes lead him into trouble of his own making.

And that is what makes these books so special!

The characters in The Northern Throne are wonderful creations, each one vivid and individual, from the heroes such as Duro and Bellicus, to the villains such as Drest and down to little Catia, the princess who is growing up and trying to find her role in the world, who is learning to fight, to command and to judge people for herself.

Steven A. McKay skillfully recreates the landscape, people and legends of 5th century Scotland. His knowledge of the area, and its traditions, shines through on every page, transporting the reader to the stark fortresses, wooded valleys and fast-flowing rivers; taking you on an astonishing adventure without leaving your seat. He brings all this together in a rich tapestry that forms the backdrop of these incredible stories.

The tension is high throughout The Northern Throne. One crisis leads to another, loyalties and friendships pushed are to the limits; and love and betrayal are two very fine lines. This combination makes for a thoroughly absorbing tale which entwines history, legend and myth and takes the reader along on Bellicus’ heroic journey.

In short, The Northern Throne is a wonderful, engaging adventure that, once again, leaves the reader desperate for the next instalment.

The Northern Throne is available now from Amazon UK.

About the Author:

Steven McKay was born in 1977 near Glasgow in Scotland. He live in Old Kilpatrick with his wife and two young children. After obtaining his Bachelor of Arts degree with the Open University he decided to follow his life-long ambition and write a historical novel.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up.

You can check out his website here. Steven also has an Amazon Author page and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Interview with Matthew Harffy

Today it is a distinct pleasure, at History … the Interesting Bits, welcome Matthew Harffy, best-selling author of the Bernicia Chronicles. Matthew’s latest book, Fortress of Fury has just hit the shops. Book no. 7 in the series, Fortress of Fury is that rare book that is – literally – impossible to put down. It is spellbinding!

I last chatted to Matthew about his writing 3 years ago, after the release of Killer of Kings, book no. 4 in the series. In that time, an awful lot has happened. So, without further ado…

Hi Matthew, thanks for agreeing to do an interview. And congratulations on the release of Fortress of Fury, book no. 7 in the Bernicia Chronicles. And you’re currently writing book no.8, I believe (thankfully, because I really need the next book, now!)

1. So, first question, have you always wanted to be a writer?

Not at all. I have always wanted to do something creative. When I left school I auditioned for drama school and wanted to be an actor. My acting never really amounted to anything, so, after getting a real job I pursued my second creative passion, which is music. I sang in bands on and off until my mid-forties when the writing had started to take off and I was running out of hours in the day to have a full-time job, sing with the band, write and promote my novels, and find any time to spend with my family!

2. Who are your writing influences?

When I was a teenager I read a huge amount of fantasy and my writing is heavily influenced by writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien, David Gemmell, Robert Holdstock and Stephen Donaldson.

Later I became slightly obsessed with Westerns and read every Louis l’Amour book I could find. I later discovered that Gemmell was also huge l’Amour fan, so that makes sense! Another Western writer I love and one that veers into the literary genre is Larry McMurtry. His Pulitzer prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove is one of my all-time favourite books.

And then, of course, you have the influence of historical fiction giants such as Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden (another fan of Gemmell).

3. What do you love about writing?

I love the freedom of being able to tell a story that I would like to read. I love the moments when a story takes a turn I hadn’t expected and a character makes a decision that sends the plot in a different direction than my original plan. These are often the moments that bring something truly special to a story.

4. What do you hate about writing?

Hate is a very strong word, but I dislike the feeling of pressure that I have to always be working on the next story. Someone once said (Lawrence Kasdan, I think) that being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life! That is so true.

5. What advice would you give to someone starting out on their writing career?

The most important difference between an amateur writer and a professional writer is that the professional finishes what they start. So my advice to anyone wanting a career in writing would be to finish every project and then move onto the next.

6. Social media – do you love it or hate it?

Both! I love the fact that I can connect with other writers and readers from all over the world. It is a real leveller and helps to alleviate the loneliness inherent in the job of being a writer.

However, I also hate the shallowness of social media. With the ability to reach out to the world there should also be a responsibility. It is all too easy for people to spread rumours and lies, which by virtue of a huge platform can take on a life of their own and manipulate public discourse in a way that has never been possible before. This has been clearly evidenced in recent elections and referendum results with devastating effects.

7. What attracted you to setting your stories in the 7th century?

I saw a documentary about Bamburgh Castle and the Anglo-Saxon graves that were being excavated there. I knew the castle and the area, as I had lived near there as a child for a few years. But I knew nothing of Northumberland’s rich past and the fact that in the seventh century it had been probably the most powerful kingdom in Britain. When I started to research the period I quickly saw that the amount of conflict between the small kingdoms of the island, the different people and tribes, and the rise of Christianity, all provided the conflict that is necessary for good storytelling.

8. Did you ever expect to be still writing about Beobrand 8 books later?

Not really! When I first started the Serpent Sword nearly 20 years ago I naïvely thought I would tell Beobrand’s story in one novel! I believed that I would be able to cover his life from the age of seventeen until he was an old man in a single book. When The Serpent Sword reached novel length, I had only covered

about six months! At that point I knew I had a series on my hands, but I never really anticipated I would write anything longer than a trilogy. Now I can imagine there might be 12 books in the finished series, perhaps more!

9. I’ve just this weekend seen The Serpent Sword proof of concept trailer; what was it like, seeing your imagination brought to life on camera?

It is a truly amazing experience. I was on set for most of the filming and there were several moments when I had to pinch myself. These were characters I had dreamt up!

I am extremely proud of what the team has put together. We have worked for about a year behind the scenes to get to this point, so it is difficult to see the final product with “fresh eyes”. You get so into the details, and see each part of the creative process from so many angles, that in the end you can’t really see the wood for the trees. In many ways that’s the same as writing a book. By the end of the writing process you have been over and over it so many times that you cannot tell whether it’s actually any good or not and it’s only through other people’s response to it that you receive validation.

Luckily, the vast majority of the people (over 70,000 at the time of writing) who have seen the trailer have loved it, which makes it all worthwhile and makes us realise that we have produced something quite special. I hope we get funding for a full series. I think the results would be incredible and I think there is a real appetite for this type of series. To watch THE SERPENT SWORD TRAILER: and With Audio Description.

10. What comes first, the research or the story?

The research comes first for the main historical thread of the story. I choose one or two historical events to act as the tent poles of the plot and then create the individual characters’ stories around those main points.

11. How do you decide where Beobrand goes next?

To some extent the history guides me. As Beobrand tends to follow historical events, where they happen, you can usually find him nearby.

12. There seems to be a lot more at stake for Beobrand in Fortress of Fury, than in previous books. Without giving too much away, there’s forbidden love, tests of his loyalty and that of his men, and a momentous decision – or maybe a realisation – at the end of the book. It really does seem like it’s a pivotal point in Beobrand’s story, was that deliberate with this book, or am I reading too much into it?

I don’t think it was a deliberate decision on my part, more a logical progression of Beobrand getting older and his relationships becoming more complex. As he grows closer to the power of the throne, so the intrigues around him become deadlier and more momentous. Beobrand also has a lot more enemies by this point in his life and so danger lurks wherever he turns. And as any loyal reader of the series will know, he’s often his own worst enemy and in Fortress of Fury that is no different, so it will come as no surprise that Beobrand himself has created some of the difficulties he faces by the end of the novel.

13. With Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series we’ve known, almost from the beginning, that the books will end at the famous Battle of Brunanburh, does Beobrand similarly have a final battle that will be his swansong?

From the very beginning, I thought I knew how Beobrand would end his days (as I said, I thought the first book would include his whole life story). However, I am not so sure now that I do know how the series will end. And if I did, I certainly wouldn’t tell you!

14. You have also written a standalone novel, Wolf of Wessex, with an aged warrior named Dunston as the lead character. He became quite a hit. Are we going to see more of Dunston, or was it really a one-off?

I loved writing about Dunston and I can certainly imagine returning to his character in the future for a sequel or even a prequel to Wolf of Wessex. But at this moment I am focusing on book 8 of the Bernicia Chronicles and the first in a new series, A Time For Swords.

15. Was it hard to create a whole new range of characters for Wolf of Wessex? Were you conscious of differentiating the story from that of Beobrand?

It was no more difficult than writing a new Beobrand story really. In each new story I tend to create new characters, and in some ways having a completely blank canvas to start with made it easier, rather than more difficult. When writing a Bernicia Chronicles novel I have to maintain the storylines of many characters who have appeared in past stories. Their motivations need to make sense and I need to remember all of their previous interactions. In Wolf of Wessex I was able to create whatever back story I needed for the characters to help the plot.

Fabulous talking to you, Matthew. Thank you so much for being so candid.

Thank you for having me on your blog, Sharon. It has been a pleasure as always!

Author bio:

Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, THE SERPENT SWORD.

Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

Links:

To buy:

The Bernicia Chronicles: The Serpent Sword; The Cross and the Curse; Blood and Blade; Killer of Kings; Warrior of Woden; Storm of Steel; Fortress of Fury.

Novella – Kin of Cain

A Time For Swords

Wolf of Wessex

Website and social media:

Website; TV Series website; Twitter: @MatthewHarffy; Facebook.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Conisbrough Castle – its Life and History

ConisbroughCastle

Growing up near Conisbrough Castle, South Yorkshire, I did not know much about its history. It was rather underrated. We always thought it was just a bland old place – it was great for exploring and rolling down the hills and playing hide and seek in the inner bailey. However, being so far from London, the centre of power,  it didn’t seem to have much history or national importance. The most famous thing about it was that it was used as the Saxon castle in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

The castle’s early history

English Heritage have spent a lot of money on it in recent years. When I worked there in the early 1990s there was no roof, it was open to the elements, with green moss on the walls and erosion caused by acid rain. And there was just a very narrow walkway around the inside of the keep. It was just a shell. Now it has a roof, floors on every level, sensitive lighting, information videos on each floor and a fantastic little visitor centre with a small museum. It looks so much better (although I still wouldn’t want to stand on the battlements on a windy day like today).

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Conisbrough’s hexagonal keep

When I joined the castle team as a volunteer tour guide, I started looking into the actual history of the Castle, seeing it more for what it has been, than for the visitor attraction it is now. Instead of being a forgotten, unimportant little castle in the middle of nowhere, Conisbrough Castle comes to life through the history it has been a part of, and the people who have called it home.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Conisbrough was founded as ‘Conan’s Burg’ by a British leader called Conan. It was said to have later belonged to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a candidate for the legendary King Arthur. As Geoffrey of Monmouth says, Ambrosius captured the Saxon leader Hengist, once a mercenary for Vortigern, at the battle of ‘Maisbeli.’ And brought him to his stronghold at Conisbrough. Hengist was then beheaded on Ambrosius’ orders and buried at the entrance to the castle of ‘Cunengeburg’, that is Conisbrough. A small hill, locally called Hengist’s Mound, is in the grounds of the outer bailey.

What we know, for certain, is that by 1066 the Honour of Conisbrough belonged to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and later King Harold II of England, though there is no evidence that he ever visited. On a prominent, steep hill, the castle guards the main road between Sheffield and Doncaster to the east, and the navigable River Don to the north.

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The kitchen range in the inner bailey

Following Harold’s defeat and death at the Battle of Hastings, and shortly after the Harrying of the North of 1068 Conisbrough was given to one of William the Conqueror’s greatest supporters, William de Warenne. Warenne was a cousin of Duke William of Normandy and fought alongside him at the Battle of Hastings. He was given land in various counties, including Lewes in Sussex and Conisbrough in Yorkshire; and although he developed his property at Castle Acre in Norfolk, little was done at Conisbrough. In those days the castle itself was little more than a wooden motte and bailey construction, surrounded by wooden palisades and earthworks.

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A thoroughly modern Castle

It was not until the reign of Henry II that the Castle began to take on the majestic appearance we know today. Conisbrough came into the hands of Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II; Hamelin had married the de Warenne heiress, Isabel, 4th Countess of Warenne and Surrey, and became 4th Earl of Warenne and Surrey by right of his wife.

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Fireplace in the bedchamber in the keep

It was Hamelin who built the spectacular hexagonal keep that we can see today. The stairs to the keep were originally accessed across a drawbridge, which could be raised in times of attack. The ground floor was used for storage, with a basement storeroom below, housing the keep’s well,  and accessed by ladder.

The first floor holds the great chamber, or solar, with a magnificent fireplace and seating in the glass-less window. This is where the Lord would have conducted business, or entertained important guests. Henry II, King John and King Edward II are known to have visited Conisbrough: King John even issued a charter from Conisbrough Castle in March 1201.

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The chapel’s vaulted ceiling

The second floor would have been sleeping quarters for the lord and lady. Both the solar and the bedchamber have impressive fireplaces, garderobes and a stone basin, which would have had running water delivered from a rainwater cistern on the roof.

On this floor, also, built into one of the keep’s buttresses is the family’s private chapel. This may well have been the chapel endowed by Hamelin and Isabel in 1189-90, and dedicated to St Philip and St James (although there was a, now lost, second chapel in the inner bailey to which the endowment could refer). The chapel is well-decorated, with quatrefoil windows, elaborate carving on the columns and a wonderful vaulted ceiling.

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Chapel carvings

There is a small sacristy for the priest, just to the left of the door, with another basin for the priest’s personal use, and cavities for storing the vestments and altar vessels.

The winding stairs, built within the keep’s thick walls, give access to each successive level and, eventually, to the battlements, with a panoramic view of the surrounding area.

These battlements also had cisterns to hold rainwater, a bread oven and weapons storage; and wooden hoardings stretching out over the bailey to aid in defence. The keep and curtain walls – which were built slightly later – were of a state-of-the art design in their day. The barbican, leading into the inner bailey, had 2 gatehouses and  a steep passageway guarded by high walls on both sides; an attacking force would have been defenceless against missiles from above, with nowhere to run in the cramped corridor.

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View from the battlements

Although the encircling moat is dry (the keep is built high on a hill), all the detritus from the toilets and kitchens drained into it; another little aid to defence – imagine having to attack through that kind of waste?

None of the buildings in the inner bailey have survived, although you can see their stone foundations in the ground. Along one wall there were kitchens and service rooms leading into a great hall, with a raised dais at the far end, and a solar and living quarters above. Another range of buildings attached to the western wall also held living quarters, possibly for the garrison and any guests. There’s even a small jail cell just to the side of the barbican.

Although Conisbrough is not a large castle, the extensive range of buildings, the magnificent decorations of the fireplaces and chapel, suggest it would have been impressive in its day; and reflects the importance of the castle’s owners and occupants.

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The Castle’s Residents

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The inner bailey

The Warenne Earls of Surrey were close to the crown, and the centre of government, for the best part 3 centuries. The daughter of the 2nd Earl, Ada, had married the heir to the Scots throne and was mother to 2 Scottish kings; Malcolm the Maiden and William the Lion.

Hamelin’s son and heir, William, 5th Earl of Warenne and Surrey, married Maud Marshal, daughter of the Greatest knight, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and Regent during Henry III’s  infancy. A cousin of King John, William was deeply involved in the Magna Carta crisis, though not always in support of his cousin. Their son John, the 6th Earl, was Edward I’s lieutenant in Scotland and beat the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1296, though he had been defeated by William Wallace at Stirling Bridge the following year. John’s daughter, Isabella, married John Balliol, King of Scots, and was mother to Edward Balliol, another Scottish king. John’s sister, Isabel, married Hugh d’Aubigny, 5th Earl of Arundel, and is remembered as the countess who stood up to Henry III, invoking Magna Carta, when he appropriated land that was rightfully hers.

The 7th – and last – Warenne earl, John, was a colourful character who lived through some of the most dramatic events of English history; the reign of Edweard II. John was the grandson of the 6th earl; his father, William de Warenne, had diedbeen killed in a tournament at Croydon, in December 1286, when John was just 6 months old. Although he was married to Joan of Bar, a granddaughter of Edward I, John lived openly with his mistress and made several unsuccessful attempts to obtain a divorce from his wife. A private feud with Thomas Earl of Lancaster saw John arrange the kidnapping of Earl Tomas’ wife, Alice de Lacey, possibly in retaliation for Lancaster standing in the way of Surrey’s longed-for divorce. The result was the 1st – and only – siege of Conisbrough Castle.

Lancaster sent forces to seize the Warenne castles at Sandal and Conisbrough. His men found the gates of Conisbrough closed to them. The castle was defended by only six men, including the town miller and three brothers, Thomas, Henry and William Greathead, who were men-at-arms. The siege lasted less than two hours and the defenders appear to have relinquished the castle after apparently putting up a token resistance; the three brothers were fined for drawing blood. The chapel in the castle’s inner bailey may have been damaged in the brief altercation, as the following year, Lancaster sent orders to his castellan at Conisbrough, John de Lassell, to ‘repailler la couverture de la chapele de Conynggesburgh.’1

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The bedchamber in the keep, with wash basin and stairway leading to the garderobe and battlements

The last Earl of Surrey died without heirs in 1347 and Conisbrough passed to John de Warenne’s godson, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III. Edmund’s wife Isabella of Castile gave birth to her 3rd child, Richard Earl of Cambridge (also known as Richard of Conisbrough) at Conisbrough, possibly in the lavish bedchamber within the keep itself. Cambridge had the dubious reputation of being England’s poorest Earl and was executed following his involvement in the Southampton plot against Henry V; however, he is remembered to history as the grandfather of the Yorkist kings, Edward IV and Richard III.

Following Cambridge’s execution for treason in 1415 his 2nd wife, Maud Clifford, made Conisbrough her principal residence until her death in 1446. Maud entertained her Clifford family here and her great-nephew and godson John Clifford, known to Yorkists as the Butcher of Skipton was born there in 1435. In a strange twist of fate, John Clifford is the one accused of murdering the Earl of Cambridge’s 17-year-old grandson Edmund, Earl of Rutland, following the Lancastrian’s defeat of the Yorksists at the Battle of Wakefield on 30 December 1460. Maud died at the castle in August 1446 and is buried in Roche Abbey, about 10 miles from her home.

The castle underwent repairs during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, in 1482-3, but by 1538 a survey revealed the it had fallen into neglect and decay, with parts of the curtain wall having slipped down the embankment.

From then on, although it has had successive owners until it came under the protection of English Heritage, Conisbrough Castle has been a picturesque ruin, a wonderful venue for picnics and exploring its many hidden treasures.

Conisbrough Castle from the outer bailey

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All photographs are copyright to Sharon Bennett Connolly, 2015.

Footnote:

1 Hunter’s South Yorkshire ii; Deanery of Doncaster ii quoted in F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, p. 213

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Sources:

Further reading: East Yorkshire Charters Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne, edited by William Farrer & Charles Travis Clay; English Heritage Guidebook for Conisbrough Castle by Steven Brindle and Agnieszka Sadrei; English Tourist Board’s English Castles Almanac; http://www.kristiedean.com/butcher-skipton; On the Trail of the Yorks by Kristie Dean; F. Royston Fairbank, The Last Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and the Distribution of His Possessions, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal.

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy

Beobrand is besieged in the action-packed instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles set in AD 647 Anglo-Saxon Britain.

War hangs heavy in the hot summer air as Penda of Mercia and his allies march into the north. Caught unawares, the Bernician forces are besieged within the great fortress of Bebbanburg.

It falls to Beobrand to mount the defence of the stronghold, but even while the battle rages, old and powerful enemies have mobilised against him, seeking vengeance for past events.

As the Mercian forces tighten their grip and unknown killers close in, Beobrand finds himself in a struggle with conflicting oaths and the dreadful pull of a forbidden love that threatens to destroy everything he holds dear.

With the future of Northumbria in jeopardy, will Beobrand be able to withstand the powers that beset him and find a path to victory against all the odds?

In recent years, the Matthew Harffy new book release has become one of the highlights of my year, and 2020 is no exception. Fortress of Fury is the 7th book in his wonderful series, The Bernicia Chronicles. And it is probably the best so far! Beobrand has returned home after his recent journey to France in Storm of Steel, and now must defend the kingdom of Bernicia (now known as Northumbria) – and Bebbanburgh itself – from Welsh and Mercian invaders.

Fast paced, full of suspense and action, it is a non-stop rollercoaster ride of action and emotion for the reader. Matthew Harffy expertly combines the story with the known history and recreates 7th century Northumbria perfectly, giving the reader vivid descriptions of the landscape, the harsh reality of life in a kingdom suffering from invasion and fight scenes to die for – literally!

The fears of the characters are palpable.

Matthew Harffy’s storytelling abilities are second-to-none, he pulls you into the story from the very first, action-packed pages, and keeps you constantly gripped to the very last. And he always leaves you wanting more. Fortress of Fury is no exception! Waiting for book no. 8 is going to really test my patience!

They chased the raiders westward as the sun slid down through a crimson sky towards the desolate hills and moors of western Bernicia. Far beyond the horizon, before the land dipped into the sea that separated Albion from Hibernnia, Beobrand knew there rose great snowcapped mountains. But that land was days’s ride away and they would run their quarry to ground long before they saw the craggy bluffs and peaks of Rheged. He glanced over his shoulder at the score of warriors that rode hard behind him. Given their pace and the freshness of their steeds, they might well catch the men they pursued before sunset. He hoped so. He did not wish to lose them in the night. They had burnt a steading, killing folk whom Beobrand had sword to defend. And they had injured one of Beobrand’s gesithas. These Mercians must pay.

Beobrand squinted into the lowering sun. He could make out no details in the glare. A prickle of unease scratched the nape of his neck. Could they be riding into an ambush? With a twitch of the reins, he slowed his black stallion, Sceadugenga, almost imperceptibly. Beside him, Cynan shot him a glance and guided his mount closer.

“What is it?” asked the Waelisc warrior. He rode his bay mare effortlessly, and as always, when Beobrand watched the man ride, he marvelled at how one who had been so unsuited to horseback at first had gone on to become the nest horseman of his warband, and arguably in the kingdom.

Beobrand was no great rider, but he had the finest of horses. Sceadugenga was no longer young, but the horse was still hale and strong and there was a deep understanding between horse and rider. Beobrand knew it was foolish to care for a beast, but the bond he shared with Sceadugenga was unlike anything he had felt with other animals. The stallion and he had been through much together and it often seemed to him that the animal knew what he was going to command before he even knew himself.

“Something is not right,” Beobrand said, raising his voice over the thunder of the horses’ hooves on the summer-dry ground.

“You think it a trap?” said Cynan

There is not just one aspect of this book you can look at and point to and say ‘that’s what makes this a good book’; it is the combination of history, atmosphere, action, characters and storytelling that makes Fortress of Fury the perfect novel. Matthew Harffy uses the background of real events behind the invasion of Bernicia, and weaves it seamlessly into the lives of his characters. Beobrand, now the most feared and renowned warrior in Bernicia, is tasked with defending the great fortress of Bebbanburgh.

Fortress of Fury feels like it is a seminal book in the series, a turning point for Beobrand, as he matures into a great leader of men, whose own men are now becoming leaders. The decision he takes in this book will decide his future. I have yet to see if I’m right – I will have to wait for book no. 8 – but this feels like a momentous book for its hero. The events of Fortress of Fury will have a major influence on where Beobrand goes next – I can feel it!

I still haven’t worked out if ‘unputdownable’ is a word, but it is the best way to describe Fortress of Fury. I lost two afternoons of work because I couldn’t leave the book at crucial moments in the story, then stayed up til midnight, just so I could finish the last 50 pages.

I have long thought that the books of the Bernicia Chronicles are addictive and Fortress of Fury is no exception.

Simply put, Fortress of Fury by Matthew Harffy is a fabulous feat of storytelling.

It is available from 6 August. Buy link: Amazon UK

About the author:

Matthew grew up in Northumberland where the rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline had a huge impact on him. He now lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.

 Follow Matthew Harffy:    

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy, Facebook: @MatthewHarffyAuthor, Website: http://www.matthewharffy.com/

Buy link: Amazon UK

My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Britannia: World’s End by Derek Birks

454 AD.
Even after years of Roman rule, Britannia is a conflicted and largely untamed land.
Disgraced Imperial Officer, Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus, flees to its shores seeking sanctuary in the land of his deceased mother. His years of loyal service to the emperor count for nothing now. He must carve out a new life beyond the empire.
Accompanying Ambrosius is a disparate group of fellow refugees: Inga, a freed Saxon slave, his bucellarii – warriors sworn to him – and the surviving members of his estranged family.
The burden of command weighs heavy on his shoulders, for when he lands in the country, winter is fast approaching.
But the weather is not the only thing inhospitable towards the newcomers.
Plagued by troubles, Ambrosius faces opponents among both the native Britons and Saxon settlers. He discovers that no-one in Britannia – least of all, the High King, Vortigern – still fears the soldiers of the decaying empire.
When those he loves are savagely abducted and betrayal divides his company, Ambrosius is left with only a handful of his bucellarii. Though heavily outnumbered and unfamiliar with the land, Ambrosius remains undaunted.
Pitted against powerful opponents, the Roman will need new allies if he is to free the hostages and make Britannia his home.
There will be blood.

Derek Birks has fast become one of my favourite authors. His first novel, Feud, is still one of my personal favourites. He has a knack for fast-paced action woven into a wonderful story that keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the last. This latest offering is no different. Trouble arrives almost at the very first page and leaves the reader on the edge of their seat to the very end. Survival is far from certain and each character has their own battle to fight – and their own demons to face – within the larger story.

Britannia: World’s End is the second book in Derek Birks’ new series based in the twilight of the Roman era, which follows the exploits of Ambrosius Aurelianus and his small band of loyal warriors, and a disparate group of waifs and strays that he has picked up since being chased out of the Roman Empire. Ambrosius leads his people to the island of Britain, in the hope of finding a new home, but only finds more problems and more enemies to fight.

Set in the age of King Arthur, there are suggestions of the famous Arthurian legends, and the links to Ambrosius Aurelianus, though the story is firmly set in the history and reality of Britain at the waning of the Roman Empire, where land and people were open to exploitation and manipulation.

With a final scowl at Remigius, Ambrosius leapt from the boat onto the stony shore where dog-tired men were cheering and clapping each other on the back. They deserved to celebrate, he thought, for though they were some yards east of the camp now, at least they had salvaged the boat. By the time he heard the hooves, it was too late and he could only stare, helpless, as a dozen horsemen cantered through his camp.

By the time he roared: “To arms!”, women were already scattering in fear. Obliged to retrieve their scattered weapons from all along the beach, Ambrosius and his bucellarii were slow to return to the camp. Ambrosius was still trying to disentangle his spatha from his belt when he heard Inga’s voice, heaping Saxon abuse at her assailants.

“I’m here, Inga!” he cried, as he watched her trying to fend off one of the riders with her knife. “Run – this way! Run to us!”

Defiant as ever, she retorted: “I have Ferox with me!”

Thank God for Ferox, thought Ambrosius, as he stumbled towards her. Of course, the damned dog had not been warning him about the boat at all, for how would a dog know the boat was drifting out to sea? No, Ferox had caught the scent of strangers and their horses, but Ambrosius, like some green recruit, had ignored the animal’s alert and allowed himself to be drawn away from camp.

Though he had told Inga to run, of course, she had not. Armed only with her long blade, she stood her ground, flailing at her mounted assailants. Ambrosius cursed under his breath as he ran, for had he not told her how brave she was – as brave as any one of his bucellarii? And because he encouraged her, she fought, when she should have run. One moment Ambrosius glimpsed her, slashing out in vain, the next she was grappling with her captor. Racing to her side, spatha in hand and ready to dispense death to the villains who had dared to assault his camp, he was relieved to see that she had broken free.

“Stay behind me!” he ordered, but Inga’s blood was up and she took a snarling pace towards one of the horsemen. Thrusting out an arm to pull her back, Ambrosius’ fingertips scarcely brushed hers, as she was lifted clean off her feet and borne away.

Derek Birks has several great strengths as a writer. He is a natural storyteller and has a knack for knowing how to draw a reader in and holding their attention, so that you’re always promising yourself ‘just one more page’ or ‘just one more chapter’. His actions scenes are second-to-none and help to keep the tension high throughout the book.

His greatest skill, however, is in his characters. Despite a large number of supporting characters, Derek Birks has the ability to make each and everyone of them an individual. Not just in their appearance, but in their actions and in their individual stories. Each character has a legend that is his or her own; this means that each character has their own motivations and their own set of rules.

The author is also known for creating strong, independent female characters, such as the great Eleanor Elder in his two series set in the Wars of the Roses. In The Last of the Romans, it is Inga, a former sex slave, who steals the show with her strength and quiet determination. And then there is the dog, Ferox, a ferocious war dog with a soft spot for Inga, and a scene stealer in every chapter in which he appears. He is such a unique character!

There is one other thing Derek Birks has become renowned for in his books;; no character is so precious that he cannot be killed off, if the story asks for it. Not even the hero of the book is safe. And this brings an added tension to the book; the reader does not know who will make it out alive!

These 3 great strengths in the author are a fantastic combination that leads to another amazing novel. I have never had any qualms about recommending Derek Birks’ books to any fan of action-packed historical fiction, and Britannia: World’s End is no exception.

It is an awesome book!

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About the author:

Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. 

On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances.

Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. 

Derek writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history. He also produces podcasts on the Wars of the Roses for those interested in the real historical background to his books. Check them out on his website at: https://www.derekbirks.com/history-podcasts/

His historical fiction works include: 
Rebels & Brothers – a 4-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses up to 1471.  The Craft of Kings – a sequel series which finds the Elder family ten years later in 1481. The latest book in this series is book 3, Echoes of Treason, which is set during the short and turbulent reign of Richard III.

He has recently embarked upon a new Post-Roman series and the first book is out now: The Last of the Romans

Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs.

He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.

His books are available on Amazon in the UK and US.
You can find Derek at: Amazon; Blog; Facebook; Twitter 

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly