Book Corner: The Crescent and the Cross by SJA Turney

An epic battle of the Reconquista; a personal struggle to survive; a fight for glory.

War is brewing, and the Pope has summoned a crusade. The nations of Christendom are rallying to fight the Almohad caliphate, but they are a formidable foe.

Meanwhile, behind Moorish lines, a fortress held by Castile is under siege. As the siege falls, a knight is lost. Arnau leaves on a dangerous, near-suicidal quest to save him, a new squire in tow.

In the heat of the sierras though, things are not as they seem. War is coming to Iberia and all will be tested. Arnau’s sword arm will need practice, as will his mind.

A riveting and brutal historical adventure, the latest instalment of S.J.A Turney’s Knights Templar series, perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell and Conn Iggulden.

The Crescent and the Cross is book number 5 in SJA Turney’s wonderful Knights Templar series and is as good as, if not better than the rest. Unlike the usual Templar novels Turney has chosen to set his stories against the backdrop of the Muslim invasion of Spain, rather than the Holy Land. What may be seen as an intriguing move has proved to be a hit with me. Having studied the Crusades at university, and read up as much as I could find on the foundation of the Templar order, for some reason, I have always associated the Templars with the Holy Land. The reconquest of Spain is unfamiliar territory, and absolutely fascinating.

You could write in just a few words the amount I know about the Reconquista; basically, that Jamie Douglas took Robert the Bruce’s heart to Spain and threw it into the heat of the battle against the Muslim ruler of Grenada. Douglas was killed in the action; his body and King Robert’s heart were both retrieved and returned to Scotland. The story of the Reconquista is also that of El Cid, and of Ferdinand and Isabella, the parents of Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon.

But it is also the story of the Knights Templar, who fought alongside other knightly orders, such as the knights of Calatrava, to recover Spain from the Muslims. SJA Turney therefore has an area of history that has been virtually ignored by novelists before, and it is such a fertile area of untapped and undiscovered stories which keep the reader gripped to the very end.

At a gesture from the preceptrix, Balthesar closed the door behind them, deepening the gloom further. The three knights walked halfway across the room and then fell into line, standing before the preceptrix like a white-clad parody of the three magi. ‘You sent for us, Mother Superior?’

The silence that filled the room as Balthesar’s words died away was tense, uncomfortable.

‘I did. I am faced with a problem, Brothers, and I fear there is little time in current circumstances to convene a full convent or to send for instructions from the mother house. I need the advice of my knights. This man is Amal.’ Her hand reached out, indicating the Moor. ‘Amal has come to us from within the lands of our great enemy bearing a letter, at great personal risk.

‘A letter, mother Superior?’

‘A personal missive. It would appear that out dear sister Joana’s former suitor, the knight Martin Calderon, is not dead as was believed.’

Arnau frowned. ‘I am unfamiliar with his story, Mother. He was presumed dead?’

The preceptrix nodded, her gaze slipping sideways towards the puffy-eyed Joana. ‘The reason for Joana’s predicament has been somewhat difficult and beyond our moral judgement, despite the damage done to our sister. Sir Calderon heard the calling of the Lord and regretfully parted from our sister, taking his vows with the Order of the knights of Calatrava. While Joana has heard nothing from her former betrothed since the day of their departure, however, I have sufficient contacts in that Order and took it upon myself to remain informed as to Brother Calderon’s activities. Last autumn, he was one of the knights who carried out the heroic defence of Salvatierra against the caliph’s army. While the bulk of the defenders were given safe passage to Aragon upon their surrender, Calderon’s name appears on the roster of the fallen.’

That rather explained the state of poor sister Joana, Arnau realised. His gaze flicked once more to the Moor. Calderon was apparently not dead, though.

Balthesar frowned. ‘Respectfully, Mother Superior, why would you concern yourself woth the an? Quite apart from his treatment of Sister Joana and the gulf now between them, of what interest might such a man be when we have the crusade looming?’

Every writer has his or her own strengths, for SJA Turney, it is that he can write and entire series of books – this is the 5th and there is at least one more to come – where every story in the series is not only a standalone, but is a unique intriguing story that takes the reader – and the protagonist – in a different direction every time. The first book in the series, Daughter of War, told the unlikely – but true – story of a woman in charge of the Templar preceptory at Rourell. Book 2, The Last Emir, took two of the Rourell knights on a quest to Majorca in search of a holy relic, while book 3, City of God saw the series’ hero, Arnau de Vallbona, caught up in the epic siege of Constantinople and book 4, The Winter Knight, was an intriguing murder mystery set in a German castle!

Each story has proved to be unique, edge of the seat action and The Crescent and the Cross is no different. Set in the heart of Spain, Arnau is given the task of recovering a knight held captive by the Almohad caliphate, only to find all is not as it seems. SJA Turney expertly recreates the Iberian landscape; the scorching heat, soaring mountains and vast plains. He builds the Christian army just as the leaders must have done at the time, introducing the alliance of kings, church leaders and knightly orders who have to face their enemies on the Spanish plains.

The Crescent and the Cross is a marvellous story, wonderfully told and gripping to the very end. I can’t wait for the next book! SJA Turney is a first class storyteller who draws the reader in from the very first page, the action frenetic from the first page to the last. The Crescent and the Cross is a truly excellent read, with a wonderful author note at the end, giving the reader a comprehensive background to the fight to reconquer Spain that lasted 9 centuries.

The Crescent and the Cross is available from Amazon UK.

About the author:

Simon lives with his wife, children, rabbits and dog in rural North Yorkshire. Having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites with his grandfather, a local photographer, Simon fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region, beginning with the world famous Hadrian’s Wall. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Egypt, Greece and Byzantium, though his focus has always been Rome. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of country, history and architecture, Simon spends most of his rare free time travelling the world visiting historic sites, writing, researching the ancient world and reading voraciously.

Simon’s early career meandered along an arcane and eclectic path of everything from the Ministry of Agriculture to computer network management before finally settling back into the ancient world. During those varied years, Simon returned to university study to complete an honours degree in classical history through the Open University. With what spare time he had available and a rekindled love of all things Roman, he set off on an epic journey to turn Caesar’s Gallic War diaries into a novel accessible to all. The first volume of Marius’ Mules was completed in 2003 and has garnered international success, bestseller status and rave reviews, spawning numerous sequels. Marius’ Mules is still one of Simon’s core series and although Roman fiction features highly he now has Byzantine, Fantasy and Medieval series, too, as well as several collaborations and short stories in other genres.

Now with in excess of 30 novels available and, Simon is a prolific writer, spanning genres and eras and releasing novels both independently and through renowned publishers including Canelo and Orion. Simon writes full time and is represented by MMB Creative literary agents.

Look out for Roman military novels featuring Caesar’s Gallic Wars in the form of the bestselling Marius’ Mules series, Roman thrillers in the Praetorian series, set during the troubled reign of Commodus, epics of the Knights Templar, adventures around the 15th century Mediterranean world in the Ottoman Cycle, and a series of Historical Fantasy novels with a Roman flavour called the Tales of the Empire.

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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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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Joanna of England, the Lionheart’s Little Sister

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Joanna of England

Joanna of England was born in October 1165, the 7th child and youngest daughter of Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. 10 years younger than her eldest brother, Henry the Young King, she was born at a time when their parents’ relationship was breaking down; her mother would eventually go to war against her husband, before being imprisoned by him for the last 16 years of Henry’s reign.

Born at Angers Castle in Anjou, Christmas 1165 was the first ever Christmas her parents spent apart; with Henry still in England dealing with a Welsh revolt, he wasn’t to meet his new daughter for several months. Although Joanna spent much of her childhood at her mother’s court in Poitiers, she and her younger brother, John, spent sometime at the magnificent Abbey of Fontevraud. Whilst there Joanna was educated in the skills needed to run a large, aristocratic household and in several languages; English, Norman French and rudimentary Latin.

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Joanna’s seals

When Eleanor and her sons rebelled in 1173, Henry II went to war against his wife. When she was captured – wearing men’s clothes – she was sent to imprisonment in England. Joanna joined her father’s entourage and frequently appeared at Henry’s Easter and Christmas courts.

3 years later, Eleanor was allowed to travel to Winchester to say ‘goodbye’ to her youngest daughter, who had been betrothed to King William II of Sicily. Provided with a trousseau, probably similar to that of her sister Matilda on her marriage to Henry the Lion, Joanna set out from Winchester at the end of August 1176; escorted by Bishop John of Norwich and her uncle, Hamelin de Warenne.

Joanna’s entourage must have been a sight to see. Once on the Continent, she was escorted from Barfleur by her brother Henry, the Young King. Her large escort was intended to dissuade bandit attacks against her impressive dowry, which included fine horses, gems and precious metals. At Poitiers, Joanna was met by another brother, Richard, who escorted his little sister to Toulouse in a leisurely and elegant progress.

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William II dedicating the Cathedral of Monreale to the Virgin Mary

Having finally reached Sicily 12-year-old Joanna was married to 24-year-old William on 13th February 1177, in Palermo Cathedral. The marriage ceremony was followed by her coronation as Queen of Sicily. Joanna must have looked magnificent, her bejewelled dress cost £114 – not a small sum at the time.

Sicily was an ethnically diverse country; William’s court was composed of Christian, Muslim and Greek advisers. William himself spoke, read and wrote Arabic and, in fact, kept a harem of both Christian and Muslim girls within the palace. Although she was kept secluded, it must have been a strange life for a young girl, partly raised in a convent.

Joanna and William only had one child, Bohemond, Duke of Apulia, who was born – and died – in 1181. And when William died without an heir in November 1189, Joanna became a pawn in the race for the succession. William’s aunt, Constance was the rightful heir, but she was married to Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor and many feared being absorbed into his empire. William II’s illegitimate nephew, Tancred of Lecce, seized the initiative. He claimed the throne and, in need of money, imprisoned Joanna and stole her dowry and the treasures left to her by her husband.

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William II on his deathbed

Who knows how long Joanna would have remained imprisoned, if it had not been for her brother’s eagerness to go on Crusade? Having gained the English throne in 1189 Richard I – the Lionheart – had wasted no time in organising the Third Crusade and arrived at Messina in Sicily in September 1190.

Richard demanded Joanna’s release; and fearing the Crusader king’s anger Tancred capitulated and freed Joanna, paying 40,000 ounces of gold towards the Crusade in fulfilment of William II’s promise of aid.

Described as beautiful and spirited, Joanna had been Queen of Sicily for 13 years and it seems that, while at her brother’s court, she caught the eye of Richard’s co-Crusdaer, King Philip II of France. Richard was having none of it and moved Joanna to the Priory of Bagnara on the mainland, out of sight and hopefully out of mind.

Richard stayed in Sicily for sometime, negotiating a treaty with Tancred which would recognise him as rightful king of Sicily in return for the remainder of Joanna’s dowry and 19 ships to support the Crusade. He was also waiting for his bride, Berengaria of Navarre, to catch up with him.

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Joanna with her brother, Richard the Lionheart, and King Philip II of France

During Lent of 1191 Joanna had a brief reunion with her mother Eleanor of Aquitaine when she arrived in Sicily, having escorted Richard’s bride. Joanna became Berengaria’s chaperone and they were lodged together at Bagnara, like ‘two doves in a cage’.

Unable to marry in the Lenten season, Richard sent Joanna and Berengaria on ahead of the main army, and departed Sicily for the Holy Land.

The Royal ladies’ ship was driven to Limassol on Cyprus by a storm. After several ships were crippled and then plundered by the islanders, the ruler of Cyprus, Isaac Comnenus, tried to lure Joanna and Berengaria ashore. Richard came to the rescue, reduced Cyprus in 3 weeks and clamped Comnenus in chains (silver ones apparently). Lent being over, Richard and Berengaria were married, with great pomp and celebration, before the whole party continued their journey to the Holy Land, arriving at Acre in June 1191.

Joanna’s time in the Holy Land was spent in Acre and Jaffa, accompanying her sister-in-law and following – at a safe distance – behind the Crusading army, she spent Christmas 1191 with Richard and Berengaria, at Beit-Nuba, just 12 miles from Jerusalem. However, although he re-took Acre and Jaffa, Richard fell out with his allies and was left without a force strong enough to take Jerusalem.

In attempts to reach a political settlement with the Muslim leader, Saladin, Richard even offered Joanna as a bride for Saladin’s brother. His plans were scuppered, however, when Joanna refused outright to even consider marrying a Muslim, despite the fact Richard’s plan would have seen her installed as Queen of Jerusalem.

When a 3-year truce was eventually agreed with Saladin, Joanna and Berengaria were sent ahead of the army, to Sicily and onto Rome where they were to await Richard’s arrival. Richard, however, never made it; falling into the hands of Duke Leopold of Austria, he was handed over to his enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor.

With Richard imprisoned, Berengaria and Joanna arrived back in Poitiers. Berengaria herself set out to help raise the ransom money for Richard’s release, which finally came about in February 1194.

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Raymond VI Count of Toulouse

Joanna spent the next few years at her mother’s and brother’s courts, her wealth having been squandered by Richard’s Crusade. But at the age of 31 she was proposed as a bride for Raymond VI, Count of Toulouse. Her title as Queen of Sicily would give him greater prestige while bringing the County of Toulouse into the Plantagenet fold, a long-time aim of Eleanor’s.

3-times married Raymond does not seem to have been ideal husband material; he had been excommunicated for marrying his 3rd wife whilst still married to his 2nd. And he now repudiated wife number 3, confining her to a convent, in order to marry Joanna. Despite such a colourful history, the wedding went ahead and Joanna and Raymond were married in Rouen in October 1196, with Queen Berengaria in attendance.

Although not a happy marriage Joanna gave birth to a son, Raymond, in around 1197 and a daughter, possibly called Mary, in 1198. Little is known of Mary, and it is possible she died in infancy. Raymond succeeded his father as Raymond VII Count of Toulouse, and married twice.

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Raymond VII Count of Toulouse

Raymond VI was not a popular Count of Toulouse and while he was away in the Languedoc, in 1199, dealing with rebel barons, Joanna herself tried to face down her husband’s enemies. She laid siege to a rebel stronghold at Cassee. Mid-siege, however, her troops turned traitor and fired the army’s camp – Joanna managed to escape, but was probably injured.

A pregnant Joanna was then trying to make her way to her brother Richard when she heard of his death. She diverted course and finally reached her mother at Niort. Hurt, distressed and pregnant, Eleanor sent her to Fontevraud to be looked after by the nuns.

With no allowance from her husband, Joanna returned to her mother and brother – King John – in Rouen in June 1199, pleading poverty; Eleanor managed to persuade John to give his sister an annual pension of 100 marks.

Joanna’s last few months must have been a desperate time. Too ill to travel and heavily pregnant, she remained at Rouen. In September, King John gave her a lump sum of 3,000 marks, to dispose of in her will; she specifically mentioned a legacy towards the cost of a new kitchen at Fontevraud and asked Eleanor to dispose of the remainder in charitable works for the religious and the poor.

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The Church at the Abbey of Fontevraud

Knowing she was dying, Joanna became desperate to be veiled as a nun at Fontevraud; a request normally denied to married women – especially when they were in the late stages of pregnancy. However, seeing how desperate her daughter was, Eleanor sent for Matilda, the Abbess of Fontevraud but, fearing the Abbess would arrive too late, she also asked Hubert Walter, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to intervene. The Archbishop tried to dissuade Joanna, but was impressed by her fervour and convened a committee of nuns and clergy; who agreed that Joanna must be ‘inspired by heaven’.

In Eleanor’s presence, the Archbishop admitted Joanna to the Order of Fontevraud. Joanna was too weak to stand and died shortly after the ceremony; her son, Richard, was born a few minutes later and lived only long enough to be baptised. She died a month short of her 34th birthday.

Joanna and her baby son were interred together at Fontevraud, the funeral cortege having been escorted there by Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John.

The Winchester Annalist said of Joanna, that she was;

a woman whose masculine spirit overcame the weakness of her sex

Winchester Annalist quoted in Oxforddnb.com

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Pictures taken from Wikipedia

References: Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of Kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; Robert Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Alison Weir Eleanor of Aquitaine, by the Wrath of God, Queen of England; Douglas Boyd Eleanor, April Queen of Aquitaine; bestofsicily.com; Oxforddnb.com; britannica.com; geni.com; royalwomenblogspot.co.uk; medievalqueens.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 & 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.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly