Book Corner: Interview with Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s latest book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, was also released yesterday.

Our books are twins!

Both books were commissioned, written and submitted at within days of each other. It has been a bit of a roller coaster experience, with the advent of the Corona virus. In order to get the books published on time, it was decided that they would be released in paperback first. But at the last minute, Pen & Sword changed their minds and went for the hardback release. As a result, the books look fabulous!

For me, it has been that bit more special, having Annie and her book taking the journey with us – having someone to talk to, who was going through the same experience – has made all the difference.

Annie and I have done an interview swap where we each answer the same questions, just to give you an idea of who we are and what we write.

You can find my interview over on Annie’s blog.

What motivated you to write the book?

I’d already written about a few of these women both in fiction and nonfiction. My first novel, To Be A Queen, tells the life story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians and my second, Alvar the Kingmaker, features Queen Ælfthryth, said to be the first crowned consort of an English king, and Queen Ælfgifu, who was accused of getting into bed, quite literally, with her husband and her mother. My third novel, Cometh the Hour, also has some strong, influential women in it, from King Penda’s wife, who was left in charge of a kingdom, to various queens and abbesses who made important policy decisions and had direct influence on the men in charge; women like St Hild, for example, founder of Whitby Abbey. My first nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, featured some equally powerful and notorious women, so I suppose this new book was inevitable.

The idea was to tell the stories of these women, with minimal reference to the men, and discover all I could about them. There are over 130 named women in the book, most of them royal wives, sisters and daughters, and some of them women who are familiar to us – Lady Godiva, for example – who weren’t royal but still left their mark on history.

What were the research challenges?

Tracking them down! The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle sometimes mentions them but, up to the arrival on the shores of Emma of Normandy in the 11th Century, there are fewer than 20 instances in that chronicle where the women are named. However, a lot can sometimes be deduced: Wulfrun is named as a hostage taken by the ‘Vikings’ and from this it’s clear that she was high status. Luckily we don’t have to rely on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and through other sources we discover that she was the lady after whom Wolverhampton was named and that her son was known as Wulfrun’s son, rather than his father’s. So there’s a whole other story; was his father somehow disgraced? Of lesser status than Wulfrun? When doing this kind of research it’s as well to be prepared to drop down plenty of ‘rabbit holes’!

The other challenge is keeping pace with the archaeological discoveries, of which there were more than a few while I was writing the book. Often I had to add details to footnotes, because the editing process was too far advanced to allow me to alter the main text. All were truly exciting discoveries, including the siting of the original Anglo-Saxon abbeys at Coldingham, and at Lyminge in Kent, the possible identification of Queen Emma’s bones in Winchester and the fascinating tale of the blue-toothed nun, who, it’s believed, stained her teeth by licking her paintbrush whilst working on illuminated manuscripts. Here was yet more evidence that women worked as scribes.

Do you have a particular favourite amongst the women you’ve written about?

Too many to choose, really. Because I’ve written so much about her already, I suppose most people might expect me to say Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, but there are some others whom I grew to like and/or admire. Among them would be Eanflæd, Queen of Northumbria, for sheer determination and overcoming personal loss. She travelled north from Kent, no small undertaking, to marry a man who murdered one of her kinsman. She demanded, and received, recompense for that. She outlived most of her children, which must have been heart-breaking (although mercifully she had died by the time her adult daughter was murdered) and most likely had to tolerate her husband’s infidelity and fathering of at least one illegitimate child. She sponsored the career of St Wilfrid and it’s clear that she ran her own, separate, and highly influential household.

Other women brought a wry smile to my face, such as Queen Æthelburh who arranged for her servants deliberately to trash the royal residence while she and the king were out one day, so that she could demonstrate to him the transience of earthly pleasures. She gets the briefest of mentions in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but what a mention – she razed a town to the ground. We’re not told the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to assume she was a woman with a lot of personality and fortitude!

Another lady who intrigued me was Siflæd. We know about some noblewomen because their wills are extant. Siflæd is unusual because she left not one, but two wills. It seems as if one was made before she went off on her travels ‘across the sea’. I’d love to know where she went, and what sort of adventures she had. I think of her as the original ‘merry widow’, setting her affairs in order at home before going off gallivanting.

Can you tell us briefly about your other books?

As well as the novels and the nonfiction book I mentioned earlier, I contributed to 1066 Turned Upside Down, in which nine authors re-imagined the events of 1066. Lady Godiva featured in my story, as the elderly matriarch of a powerful Mercian family. She’s often thought of as a young woman – erroneously in my view – riding naked through Coventry but she lived to a ripe old age and was a witness to many extraordinary events.

What’s next?

I’ve just finished a collection of short stories about women in history, and am part of the Historical Fictioneers Co-operative who will be producing an anthology of stories centred on the theme of betrayal, for which I’m contributing a tale of scandal from the tenth century. I’ll also be writing the follow-up to Cometh the Hour, which will feature the sons and daughters of King Penda of Mercia and his nemesis, King Oswiu of Northumbria.

Finally, where can people find you on Social Media and where can they buy your books?

Book http://mybook.to/WomeninPower

Amazon http://viewauthor.at/Annie-Whitehead

Blog https://anniewhitehead2.blogspot.com/ 

Twitter https://twitter.com/AnnieWHistory

Website https://anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/

Facebook https://www.facebook.com/anniewhiteheadauthor/

I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Annie for taking the time to give such wonderful answers and wish her every success with Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Look for my review of this wonderful book, coming in the next few days.

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My Books

Out Now!

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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 and Annie Whitehead

David Hey Memorial Lecture

It was an honour and a privilege to be asked to present the David Hey Memorial Lecture for the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival 2020. Due to the current Coronavirus outbreak, the lecture was moved online and broadcast via You Tube.

Conisbrough Castle

To keep it relevant with Doncaster and South Yorkshire, I decided to talk about one of my favourite subjects, and my current research project; the Warennes, the earls of Surrey who held Conisbrough from the Norman Conquest until the death of the last earl in 1347.

A family at the centre of English history for almost 300 years. It is a story of strong family loyalties, national and international rivalries, rebellion and civil wars, lost loves and royal connections. It’s also the story of Conisbrough’s iconic castle!

This talk is dedicated to David Hey. In the 1970s he was one of few professional historians to respond in a positive way to the growing interest in family and local history. David was a highly regarded and pioneering figure in this field.He held posts of importance such as being Professor of Local and Family History at the University of Sheffield and President of the British Association of Local History. But he was first and foremost a Yorkshireman at heart and never forgot his roots. He was the Patron of the Doncaster and District Heritage Association and gave a talk at the 2013 Heritage Festival.

So, here it is:

I hope you enjoyed it!

I would like to express my immense gratitude to the Doncaster Local Heritage Festival for inviting me to present such a prestigious lecture. I truly hope I did justice to the memory of David Hey.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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: David and Goliath

Today it is a pleasure to welcome Alistair Forrest to History…the Interesting Bits, with an article about the history behind the biblical story of David and Goliath.

David and Goliath by Caravaggio

David & Goliath

Making the facts fit the story!

ALISTAIR FORREST draws on an upbringing in the Middle East and a love of ancient history to explore fact and fiction surrounding a famous Bible story

I’m an author of fiction, not a historian. So I can assure you that some historians reading Line in the Sand, my account of the David & Goliath story, might get very hot under their academic collars.

I hope lovers of historical fiction will take a different view and accept that I have filled in some gaps that the ancient scribes left in their telling. We know there are inconsistencies and contradictions across the several Biblical books that report the story of King David, leaving many questions unanswered.

So, following my journalist’s mantra, ‘Never let the facts get in the way of a good story’, I have drawn on my studies of the ancient Near East and Old Testament history – let’s call these ‘the facts’ – and unleashed my imagination and love of ‘a good yarn’.

In reality, there are very few facts. The only archaeological reference to King David would appear to be a reference to the House of David on a ninth century stela found at Tel Dan in northern Israel in 1993. Most of the Biblical texts were written down long after the events surrounding David’s rise to power, with the two books of Samuel the earliest account.

Tel Dan Stela House of David

Fair game, then? I decided that this bullied young shepherd should become a spy, find himself betrayed in the Philistine city where giants lived, be tortured and face branding as a slave, fight a giant called Golyat (Goliath) in a gladiatorial arena, rescue a Philistine princess and ultimately escape to warn the Israelites of pending doom.

You might think you know what happens next. I couldn’t possibly comment. But then, I have tried to anchor the story in certain Biblical facts, such as the tensions between the agricultural kingdom of Judah and the five Philistine city states, and the settling of scores in single combat (and who wouldn’t nominate a nine-foot warrior as champion?).

David and Goliath, Andrea Vaccaro

Which brings us to Goliath, or more accurately, ‘Golyat’.

At the outset of writing Line in the Sand, I listened to a very convincing lecture by Professor Jeffrey R. Zorn of Cornell University, entitled Who Was Goliath?, in which he suggests that the Philistine giant was an elite chariot warrior. Most modern depictions of Goliath are as a very large foot-soldier, but Zorn points out his armour and weapons as detailed in 1 Samuel 17: 4-7 would indicate an Aegean/Levantine chariot warrior who was probably transported to the ideal position in a battle to wreak the most havoc.

While researching for the book, I was in touch with Professor Aren Maier, director of the Tel es-Safi excavations that have uncovered so much about ancient Gath, whence the giant came, including an inscription thought to include his name or at least something similar.

Excavating Goliath’s Gath

I am also indebted to the British Egyptologist and author David Rohl, not least for succinct explanations of his New Chronology theories, specifically his interpretation of the Amarna letters and probable references to King Saul.

Books that have helped me include the Bible of course, The King David Report by Stefan Heym; The Source by James A. Michener; David’s Secret Demons by Baruch Halpern, and various books published by Osprey about warfare in the ancient Middle East.

I have read many books about ancient Israel both on-line and in my studies, too numerous to mention, all influential in their way. But somehow I still feel as though I know nothing when compared with the likes of Maier, Zorn and Rohl. I hope these knowledgeable historians will forgive my diversion from ‘what is known’ to ‘what might have been’.

What next? I count myself lucky to have spent my childhood and early teens in three Middle Eastern countries and subsequently to have travelled widely as a journalist, always delving into the history that made each place what it is today. A burning passion to write historical fiction fuelled by two years studying theology straddled by my early years as a newspaper reporter.

Although currently focusing on post-Republic Roman themes at the behest of my publisher Sharpe Books, especially the upheaval following the assassination of Julius Caesar (Libertas, Nest of Vipers), I hope one day to return to my formative years in the Middle East and extensive studies of ancient Mesopotamia, including the amazing stories waiting to be reimagined of Assyrians, Israelites, Phoenicians and Philistines.

An Iron Age skeleton is discovered beneath a Roman floor at Longis, Alderney. Photo: David Nash

And while there’s ink my pen, I must surely make the most of the archaeological dig just a few yards from my home in Alderney (Channel Islands) where archaeologists Jason Monaghan and Phil de Jersey have uncovered well-preserved remains of Roman and Iron Age settlements. The historian Dan Snow is keenly interested in the site. But that’s yet another story…

I would like say a huge thank you to Alistair for such a fascinating article and wish him all the best with his latest book.

Line in the Sand

(Sharpe Books 2020)

1000 BC 

His mother is reviled as a whore and his half-brothers despise him. 

The best Dhavit of Beth Lechem can do is escape. But just as life couldn’t get much lower for the youth they call Leper, he is recruited as a spy. His mission – to find out about the superior weapons and invasion plans of the warlike Philistines. 

When he is betrayed, Dhavit is thrown into an arena with two other misfortunates to fight a pair seemingly invincible warriors. Only speed and quick wits can save him. 

Dhavit believes he is chosen by the gods and finds himself revered in the Philistine court, whose rulers want to declare war on his people. 

At the head of the Philistine forces is the famed Golyat, a man bred for war and destruction. 

A vicious conflict for supremacy is sure to follow.

Two armies will go to war. But also two soldiers – Dhavit and Golyat.

A king and country will rise.

To buy the book:

Amazon UK Amazon US

About the author:

Alistair Forrest is a journalist, editor and author of historical fiction. He has worked for several UK newspapers, edited magazines in the travel, photographic and natural products sectors, and owned a PR company.

He lives in the Channel Islands with his wife Lynda. They have five children, two Maremma dogs and a Spanish cat, Achilles. His books are published by Sharpe Books of London. Alistair loves to hear from readers.

Alistair Forrest is the author of Libertas and Nest of Vipers.

You can find Alistair Forrest:

Twitter Handle: @alistairforrest

Website: https://www.alistairforrest.com

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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  and Alistair Forrest

Book Corner: Camelot by Giles Kristian

Britain is a land riven by anarchy, slaughter, famine, filth and darkness. Its armies are destroyed, its heroes dead, or missing. Arthur and Lancelot fell in the last great battle and Merlin has not been seen these past ten years. Now, the Saxons are gathering again, their warbands stalk the land, their king seeks dominion. As for the lords and kings of Britain, they look only to their own survival and will not unite as they once did under Arthur and his legendary sword Excalibur.

But in an isolated monastery in the marshes of Avalon, a novice of the order is preparing to take his vows when the life he has known is suddenly turned upside down in a welter of blood. Two strangers – the wild-spirited, Saxon-killing Iselle and the ageing warrior Gawain – will pluck the young man from the wreckage of his simple existence. Together, they will seek the last druid and the cauldron of a god. And the young man must come to terms with his legacy and fate as the son of the most celebrated yet most infamous of Arthur’s warriors: Lancelot.

For this is the story of Galahad, Lancelot’s son – the reluctant warrior who dared to keep the dream of Camelot alive . . .

A couple of years ago, I read Lancelot by Giles Kristian, not really expecting to like it. After all, Lancelot was the villain of the King Arthur story and lover of Guinevere; he caused the downfall of Camelot. However, Kristian skillfully put a different spin on the story, presenting Lancelot as a flawed but talented knight, torn between the love for his lord, Arthur, and that for for his true love, Guinevere. Lancelot became a tragic hero and the cause of his own downfall. Lancelot was a story of complex loyalties, tested to the limit by war and circumstance beyond the control of the leading protagonists. In short, it was an incredible piece of storytelling that totally changed my view of Lancelot and the Arthurian legend.

This new book, Camelot, had a lot to live up to!

And, of course, it did not disappoint. In fact, I think Camelot surpasses Lancelot in so many ways. The story follows Galahad, Lancelot’s son in the attempts of the British tribes to form one last alliance that will see them fighting off the Saxon advance. The old heroes – Gawain, Arthur and, of course, Merlin – are there to help the new generation find their way. And the love interest is no defenceless little girl in need of saving – she’s a strong, independent character you will not fail to love, with a story all her own. There is humour, sadness, action and adventure. Giles Kristian cleverly weaves his own story into the existing legend, recreating a world lovers of all thing Arthurian cannot fail to appreciate.

‘You must leave this place and you must do it without delay,’ Gawain said, not looking up from his bowl. He fished out a scrap of meat and blew on it as it steamed between his finger and thumb. Then he thrust the scrap into his mouth and closed his eyes for a moment as if seeking to commit the taste and pleasure of the food to memory.

Father Brice and Father Judoc, standing across from Gawain on the other side of the hearth, looked at each other. ‘We cannot leave Ynys Wydryn,’ Father Brice said.

‘Why would we?’ Father Judoc asked. ‘We are safe here. Hidden.’

‘We found you,’ Gawain said, chewing, juices running into his beard.

‘The Saxons do not know we are here,’ Brice said. ‘The ones who attacked Galahad -‘

‘If they were Saxons,’ Judoc interrupted.

‘- They must have wandered in search of plunder, straying far from King Cerdic’s army,’ Brice went on, ‘which I believe is some miles east of Camelot and -‘

‘The Saxons are already here,’ Gawain cut him off, looking up now, holding Brice’s gaze. There were rumours and rumbles around the fire then.

‘We had to slip past them to get across the White Lake,’ Gediens said, thumbing at the east wall. He was the youngest of the four men, though he could not have been less than forty years old. ‘And not just a few scouts and foragers but war bands. Spearmen by the score. Saw their fires on Pennard Hill. Too many to count.’

Camelot by Giles Kristian is a wonderful crafted novel that leads the reader on a winding tale through Arthurian Britain. It takes you on a legendary quest, to the wondrous castles of Tintagel and Camelot, to the wilds of Anglesey and the Isle of Man and through various skirmishes, political intrigues, disappointments and love – with many twists and turns along the way. While you are desperate to read on through the next chapter, you simultaneously, never want the book to end.

I truly believe that the sign of a good book, is one that will take you through a range of emotions, from laughter to tears, and that will – when you get to the final page – leave you bereft that there is no more to read, and disappointed that you know will not read anything so good any time soon. Camelot fills all this criteria. It surprises you at every turn. It is probably the best book I will read this year – and its only April! This book is a keeper, and one I’ll be getting my dad for Father’s Day, that’s for sure!

Camelot is one of those rare books that will remain with you for days to come, musing over why Arthur acted the way he did, how Galahad managed to achieve what he did, how Gawain’s loyalty and perseverance saved the heroes on more than one occasion and how Merlin managed to weave his magic through the whole story, all the way to the final, climactic battle.

Camelot by Giles Kristian is due for release in the UK on 14 May 2020 and is available for pre-order from Amazon.

About the author:

Family history (he is half Norwegian) and a passion for the fiction of Bernard Cornwell inspired GILES KRISTIAN to write. Set in the Viking world, his bestselling ‘Raven’ and ‘The Rise of Sigurd’ trilogies have been acclaimed by his peers, reviewers and readers alike. In The Bleeding Land and Brothers’ Fury, he tells the story of a family torn apart by the English Civil War. He also co-wrote Wilbur Smith’s No.1 bestseller, Golden Lion. In his most recent novel, the SundaTimes bestseller Lancelot, Giles plunged into the rich waters of the Arthurian legend. For his next book, he continues his epic reimagining of our greatest island ‘history’.
Giles Kristian lives in Leicestershire.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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 

Mother’s Day Giveaway

Competition Closed: And the winner is Carolyn Hester

Sunday 22nd March 2020 is Mother’s Day in the UK this year and what better way to celebrate the 1st birthday of the paperback of Heroines of the Medieval World, than a giveaway for everyone’s favourite Heroine – MUM?!?!

“As Connolly ably demonstrates, knowing about these fascinating women is essential to filly understanding medieval Europe.” (Publishers Weekly)

About Heroines of the Medieval World

Heroines come in many different forms, and it is no less true for medieval heroines. They can be found in all areas of medieval life; from the dutiful wife and daughter to religious devotees, warriors and rulers. What makes them different compared to those of today are the limitations placed on them by those who directed their lives – their fathers, husbands, priests and kings. Women have always been an integral part of history, although when reading through the chronicles of the medieval world, you would be forgiven if you did not know it. We find that the vast majority of written references are focussed on men. The chronicles were written by men and, more often than not, written for men. It was men who ruled countries, fought wars, made laws and treaties, dominated religion and guaranteed – or tried to guarantee – the continued survival of their world. It was usually the men, but not all of them, who could read, who were trained to rule and who were expected to fight, to defend their people and their country…

And don’t worry, the offer is open worldwide – even if it isn’t Mother’s Day for you just yet.

It’s easy to enter!

To win a signed copy of Heroines of the Medieval World dedicated to a heroine of your choice – your mum, aunt, sister, grandmother, daughter or yourself (I won’t judge!), or someone else’s mum – for Mother’s Day, 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 Wednesday 18th March, so you should get the book in time for the big day.

Good luck!

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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: Faces of Darkness by Steven A. McKay

CROFTUN, ENGLAND AD 1328
Lady Isabella de Courcy is found alone in a room bolted from the inside, unconscious, and with a dagger brutally forced through her hand into the floorboards beneath, but this is just the latest in a line of similar, terrifying incidents. For months now she’s been stalked by some shadowy tormentor who leaves no trace of his movements and has never been clearly seen by anyone, even Lady Isabella.

Can the bailiff, John Little, along with his friend – the legendary friar, Robert Stafford – uncover the truth and, more importantly, will they be able to save the troubled victim before she ends up dead?

This new standalone tale from the author of The Druid sees the return of two much-loved characters from the Forest Lord series and is based on a shocking real-life case which remains, to this day, unsolved.

I have been a fan of Steven A McKay‘s writing for several years now. His Forest Lord series, retelling the story of Robin Hood in Barnsdale Forest, rather than Sherwood, was a refreshing new take on the outlaw’s legend. And the 2 books in his new series, Warrior Druid of Britain, the Druid and Song of the Centurion are among the finest books I have read in recent years. So Faces of Darkness had quite a lot to live up to.

And it did not disappoint.

Faces of Darkness is a novella featuring two of Robin Hood’s best friends, Friar Tuck and Little John, and is a detective novel-cum-psychological thriller of impressive quality. The story revolves around Lady Isabella de Courcy, who is being tormented by a mysterious stalker no one has seen. Friar Tuck and Little John are brought int o investigate the matter.

“Did you see him, Isabella?” the nobleman was demanding, in a hard tone of voice which Tuck felt inappropriate given the young woman’s ordeal. It wasn’t his place to interfere in the dynamic of their relationship though, and unbidden, he began to inspect the rooms for signs of what had taken place.

“No,” the lady sobbed. “Please, Adam, my hand is really hurting. Can you fetch me something for it?”

“Anne,” de Courcy said irritably. “Go and fetch some wine for the lady, hurry.”

“No,” broke in Isabella, eyes wide. “I can’t stay in this room another moment.” Tuck turned to look at her and realised there was a length of fabric tied around her neck, which also bore tell-tale red bruising. Clearly, she had suffered a most violent assault – no wonder she wanted away from the scene of the crime.

“John,” he said. “Could you help Lady Isabella to the room we came from? Would that be acceptable, Sir Adam? Aye? Good. Anne will make the place comfortable, with some unwatered wine to numb the pain a little and …” he stood next to the bed as the injured woman rose to her feet. “Fear nothing, my lady. If the person who did this to you is still around, Little John will deal with them.”

“You can be sure of that,” rumbled John who, at over six-and-a-half feet, had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe. “You’re safe with me, my lady.”

Faces of Darkness is quite a departure for Steven A. McKay. A psychological thriller, it could be set in any era, but he has ingeniously set it in the world of his Forest Lord series, so that the astute Friar Tuck and redoubtable Little John can take the lead in solving the mystery, giving the reader the comfort of familiar characters in a story that is both emotional and evocative.

The novella keeps you guessing the true cause of Lady Isabella’s misery to the climactic end. There were several points where I thought I had solved the mystery, only to be disabused of my theory a few pages later, which, of course, makes the book even more riveting!

This is fabulous story that has only one downside – it is too short. I would have loved the book to be a full-length historical novel. It was enthralling! Here’s hoping that Faces of Darkness sparks a new career for Friar Tuck and Little John, solving medieval mysteries.

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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

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Amazon UK 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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 UK, Amazon US 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 

The History and Legend of Lady Godiva

Lady Godiva

While researching Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest I came across some incredibly interesting characters. One of the most misunderstood women of the 11th century has to be Lady Godiva. Although she would have been known as Godgifu in her lifetime, we shall call her Godiva, the name we have all grown up with, and to distinguish her from several notable ladies of a similar name in this period. Known for her legendary naked ride through Coventry in order to ease the tax burdens of its citizens, finding the true story of Lady Godiva was a fascinating experience. She was the grandmother of three of the leading English characters of the Norman Conquest; Harold II’s queen, Ealdgyth and the earls of Mercia and Northumberland, Edwin and Morcar.

The origins of Lady Godiva herself, are shrouded in mystery and the distance of time. We know nothing of her parentage or relations. There is some suggestion that she was the sister of Thorold of Bucknall, who is said to have founded a Benedictine abbey on his manor at Spalding, Lincolnshire, which he then gave to the great abbey at Crowland. However, there does appear to be some confusion and the charter from Crowland which mentions Thorold could well be spurious. The situation is further confused by the fact the land later passed to Ivo Taillebois, who founded a church at Spalding as a satellite of the church of St Nicholas at Angers. Ivo’s wife, Lucy, was the daughter of Turold, Sheriff of Lincoln. It is difficult to say whether Turold of Lincoln and Thorold of Bucknall are one and the same person, but it is possible; Turold and Thorold are both a derivative of the Scandinavian name Thorvaldr. Later legends even name Lucy as a daughter of Earl Ælfgar and therefore a granddaughter of Godiva. However, there is no surviving evidence to support this theory and the identity of Thorold and his relationship to Godiva is just as uncertain.

St Mary, Stow (Stow Minster) Lincolnshire

Godiva was probably married before 1010 and so it is possible that she was born in the early 990s. She possessed considerable lands in the north-west of Mercia, suggesting that this is where she and her family were from. Mercia, in that time, covered almost all of the Midlands region, spreading from the Welsh borders across the centre of England. Her lands in Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire, which amounted to sixty hides, may have constituted her own inheritance.1 Godiva’s high family status is also attested by the fact that she made a very good marriage, to Leofric, who would later become Earl of Mercia.

Leofric was the son of Leofwine, who had been appointed Ealdorman of the Hwicce, an ancient kingdom within the earldom of Mercia, by Æthelred II in 994. While the family lands were given to victorious Danes on the accession of Cnut, Leofwine was allowed to keep his rank and title and may have succeeded the traitorous Eadric Streona as Ealdorman of Mercia after his death in 1017. The family’s lands and influence appear to have been in the eastern part of Mercia, where they were known religious benefactors; Earl Leofwine was recorded as a benefactor at Peterborough Abbey. Leofric’s marriage to Godiva, therefore, may have been a way of extending his family’s influence into the western parts of Mercia. He was attesting charters as minister between 1019 and 1026, perhaps as sheriff under Hakon, Earl of Worcester.

His father, Leofwine, probably died in 1023 or shortly after, as that was the last year in which he attested a charter. There is no clear indication as to whether Leofwine was ever Earl of Mercia, although Leofric certainly held that title through the reigns of four kings; Cnut, Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. Leofric’s backing of Harold Harefoot, over Harthacnut, may have been a result of his son’s marriage. Ælfgar is thought to have married Ælfgifu, who was possibly a kinswoman of Harold Harefoot’s mother, Ælfgifu of Northampton, sometime in the late 1020s. Such a relationship would explain Leofric’s support for Harold Harefoot. Of course, so would the fact that Harthacnut was in no hurry to return from Denmark and Harold was on the spot and able to take charge.

Lady Godiva and Leofric were great benefactors to the church and acted in partnership, particularly in their endowment of Coventry Abbey which, according to John of Worcester, was made out of lands held by each of them. They also endowed the minster church of Stow St Mary, just to the north of Lincoln, and an Old English memorandum included both Leofric and Godiva in a request to Wulfwig, Bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames ‘to endow the monastery and assign lands to it.’2 Stow St Mary is a beautiful building at the centre of the small village of Stow. Founded in the seventh century, it boasts the faded graffiti carving of a Viking longboat on one of its inner walls. The endowment included provision for secular canons, under the supervision of the bishop and was made between and 1053 and 1055.

Information board explaining the links with Lady Godiva, Stow Minster, Lincolnshire

It is often difficult to work out the extent of Godiva’s involvement in her husband’s religious endowments. The Evesham Chronicle names both Leofric and Godiva (as Godgifu, of course) as the founders of both Coventry Abbey and Holy Trinity Church at Evesham. The couple also gave a crucifix, with the supporting figures of the Virgin and St John the Evangelist, to Holy Trinity Church. Moreover, Godiva had a reputation as a patroness of the Church throughout Mercia during her own lifetime. Orderic Vitalis said that Godiva gave ‘her whole store of gold and silver’ for the provision of ecclesiastical ornaments for the foundation at Coventry and John of Worcester also records Godiva’s devotion to the Virgin.3

There is one example that counters this argument, however, which involves a joint grant by Leofric and Godiva, of Wolverley and Blackwell, Worcestershire. The Second Worcester Cartulary, compiled by Hemming on the orders of Bishop Wulfstan, claims that Leofric returned Wolverley and Blackwell, and promised that the manors at Belbroughton, Bell Hall, Chaddesley Corbett and Fairford, seized by his father Leofwine, would revert to the Church on his death. Hemming, however, claims that Godiva held onto the lands for herself, rather than returning them; although she is said to have given the Church expensive vestments and ornaments, and a promise not only to pay the annual revenues from these estates to the Church, but to return the lands on her own death.4 That Edwin and Morcar seized the lands after their grandmother’s death, surely cannot be laid at Godiva’s door?

During her marriage, Godiva held several manors in her own right. Coventry, although little more than a village at this time, and appears to have belonged to Godiva herself. She also had lands in various other parts of Mercia, including Newark, which she may have bought from her son, Ælfgar, as it was part of the comital lands (the earldom). Her lands at Appleby in Derbyshire were leased from Leofric, the Abbot of Peterborough, who was nephew and namesake of her husband, Earl Leofric.

Leofric died in 1057, on either 31 August or 30 September, at his manor of King’s Bromley in Staffordshire. John of Worcester said of him; this ‘man of excellent memory died at a good old age, in his own manor called Bromley, and was buried with honour in Coventry, which monastery he had founded and well endowed.’5 The 1057 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘The same year died Earl Leofric, on the second before the calends of October; who was very wise before God, and also before the world; and who benefited all this nation’.6

Godiva was to live on as a widow for at least ten more years. She would be there to see her son’s inheritance of the earldom of Mercia. Although titles and land did often pass from father to son, it was not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Ælfgar’s rebellion in 1055 – which led to a subsequent exile – may well have been in fear of losing his inheritance, given that Edward the Confessor had just given the earldom of Northumbria to Tostig, son of Godwin, on the death of Earl Siward in place of his son and natural heir, Waltheof. Waltheof was still a child, however, and this may well have been a practical decision, in that it would be dangerous to leave such a powerful earldom, and the border with Scotland, in the control of a child. Ælfgar was banished again in 1058, but for a very short while, apparently, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reporting; ‘Earl Ælfgar was expelled but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd.’7

We do not have the exact date of Godiva’s death. Most historians seem to believe that she survived the Norman Conquest and died around 1067. She is mentioned as a pre-Conquest landholder in the Domesday Book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was alive in 1066. Hemming, who compiled the Worcester cartulary, says that some of her lands passed directly to her grandsons, Edwin and Morcar, offering evidence that Godiva also outlived her son, Ælfgar, who probably died in 1062. If Godiva did live into 1067, then she would have seen the dangers that the Norman Conquest brought to her family. Although her son was dead, most of her grandchildren were very much alive, and at the heart of events. By 1065 her 2 surviving grandsons were both earls (a 3rd grandson, Burgred, died in 1060 while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome).

Morcar became Earl of Northumbria in 1065, chosen by the Northumbrians to replace the unpopular Tostig. His tenure, however, was of short duration and he was replaced with Copsig, an adherent of Tostig, by William the Conqueror. Edwin had succeeded his father as Earl of Mercia in 1062 but neither brother flourished under the rule of William the Conqueror. Their sister, Ealdgyth married Harold Godwinson (King Harold II) sometime in late 1065, or early 1066, and was the uncrowned Queen of England until Harold’s death at Hastings in October 1066. Following the battle, Ealdgyth was taken to Chester by her brothers, where she may have given birth the king Harold’s son, Harold, before disappearing from the records.

Godiva is believed to have died in 1067 and was most likely buried alongside her husband at Coventry; although the Evesham Chronicle claims that she was laid to rest in Holy Trinity, Evesham. In the thirteenth century, her death was remembered on 10 September, but we have no way of confirming the actual date. After the Conquest, Godiva’s lands were held by various personalities.

Statue of Alfred Lord Tennyson in the grounds of Lincoln Cathedral

We have no contemporary description of Godiva, of her personality or appearance. Her patronage of such religious institutions as Stow St Mary and Coventry Abbey is testimony to her piety and generosity. Stories of this generosity and piety were known to later chroniclers, such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. Henry of Huntingdon said of Godiva that her name ‘meriting endless fame, was of distinguished worth, and founded the abbey at Coventry which she enriched with immense treasures of silver and gold. She also built the church at Stow, under the hill at Lincoln, and many others.’8 Although Henry of Huntingdon’s geography is a little skewed – Stow is a few miles north of Lincoln, rather than to the south, which ‘under the hill’ would suggest – it is obvious that Godiva’s fame was still alive in the twelfth century.

Lady Godiva is, perhaps, the most famous Anglo-Saxon woman in history. Everyone knows her legend – or a variation of it. And that legend has only grown and expanded down the years; like the game of Chinese whispers, the story has been added to and enhanced with every retelling. It was probably her reputation for generosity that gave rise to the legend for which she is famous today. The story of Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry appears to have been first recounted by Roger of Wendover, who died in 1236:

The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for the love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter in so much that she obtained this answer from him: ‘Ascend,’ he said, ‘thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.’ Upon which she returned: ‘And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?’ ‘I will,’ he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal.

Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover, translated by Matthew of Westminster

This legend has grown and expanded over time, providing inspiration for ballads, poetry, paintings and sculptures throughout the centuries, the most famous being the poem, Lady Godiva, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written in 1840, which included the lines:

“The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him, and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray’d him, ‘If they pay this tax, they starve.’
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
‘You would not let your little finger ache
For such as – these?’ – ‘But I would die,’ said she.”

Godiva by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The legend arose from a story that Earl Leofric had introduced a toll on Coventry that the people could not afford to pay. Godiva went to her husband, begging that he rescind the taxes. He proved reluctant to offer the slightest reduction and is said to have told Godiva that he would only rescind the taxes if she rode naked through Coventry. In the earliest accounts Godiva rode through the market place, accompanied by two of Leofric’s soldiers, with her long, golden hair let loose to protect her modesty. In the early versions, the religious element of the story is highlighted, with Leofric hailing the fact no one had seen her nakedness as a miracle. While the legend is almost certainly distorted beyond recognition from the true story, it has guaranteed the immortality of a remarkable lady.

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This article, The Real Lady Godiva, first appeared on Paula Lofting’s wonderful blog The Road to Hastings and Other Stories in December 2018.

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Pictures:

Lady Godiva statue image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum; Stow Minster and statue of Alfred Lord Tennyson ©2018Sharon Bennett Connolly;

Footnotes:

[1] Godgifu (d. 1067?) (article) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com; [2] ibid; [3] The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Ordericus Vitalis; [4] Godgifu (d. 1067?) (article) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com; [5] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton; [6] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; [7] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton; [8] The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. Comprising the history of England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, the Acts of Stephen, King of England and duke of Normandy Translated and edited by Thomas Forester. London, H.G. Bohn, 1807.

Sources:

The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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Godiva’s story appears in my book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest. From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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.

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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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly


Book Corner: Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict

This is a story about Yorkshire and its people, from the earliest period up to recent times. Foremost it is a story about invasion. Archaeological finds have shown that Yorkshire was occupied at a time when early hunters from continental Europe were not supposed to have ventured so far north. Growing populations on the European mainland made Yorkshire s fertile land and receding woodland a prime landscape for these first European farmers, and over time they would be followed by waves of invaders intent on pillage and land grabbing. From the north and west came the Picts and the Scots, while the Romans, Angles and Vikings arrived via the River Humber. The Normans would be the last to invade and seek to dominate everything they saw. Each invasion would leave its stamp on Yorkshire s culture and life, while battles would later be fought on Yorkshire soil during both the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil Wars. More than just a romp through the ages, this book reveals the key places where battles were fought and Yorkshire history was made.

Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict by Paul C. Levitt is a fabulous, fun and entertaining overview of the history of Yorkshire, from the earliest times to the 20th century. As a Yorkshire lass myself, it was a pleasure to sit back and soak up this history of this unique county. The author obviously enjoys his work, and writes about Yorkshire’s history with an enthusiasm that makes the book impossible to put down.

The beauty of Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict is that it tells Yorkshire’s story within the context of England’s wider history. So we see the Norman invasion of 1066 through the very harsh and dramatic effects it had on Yorkshire, with the Harrying of the North. We also Yorkshire’s part in the Anarchy, the almost-20 year civil war between Stephen and Matilda, and in such events as the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War of the seventeenth century.

Paul C. Levitt also brings to the fore events particular to Yorkshire, such as the dreadful massacre of the Jews in York, while also explaining the wider context of anti-semitism in England and the time. The author manages to portray Yorkshire’s unique personality and place in history, both of the county and its people and the relationship of the county with the country as a whole.

Throughout the first millennium, the tribes of Europe were taking part in unprecedented levels of migration. The collapse of the Roman Empire released unbridled waves of Huns, Goths and Vandals who moved across Europe displacing native tribes. On the edge of this disturbance was Scandinavia, from where people would come to British shores from the late eighth century until AD 1100 looking for richer land and more space to live. The question arises, when exactly does a ‘migration’ become and invasion? The Vikings were thought to have left their homelands in Scandinavia initially due to overcrowding and declining resources, but later on their mass migration was equally due to a weakness they perceived in the English. Although they shared similarities and kinship with the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings viewed them as being weak and cowardly…

Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict by Paul C. Levitt is a thoroughly enjoyable read that I’m definitely going to pass on to my dad – as a true Yorkshireman, he will love it! This book will be useful for anyone with an interest in Yorkshire and it history.

Fun and informative, it clearly demonstrates the reason we Yorkshire folk are said to have ‘grit’. I can highly recommend it!

To Buy the Book:

Yorkshire: A Story of Invasion, Uprising and Conflict by Paul C. Levitt is available from Pen & Sword and also from Amazon in the UK and US.

About the author:

Born into a military family in the historic market town of Beverley, East Yorkshire, Paul Levitt has always been intrigued by the past. He developed a keen awareness of Yorkshire’s rich heritage as a schoolboy and developed a particular interest in the medieval period. Yorkshire’s unique landscape and especially the North York Moors made a strong impression on him and to this day remains a magical place. He has written professionally on a wide range of subjects for the past 25 years.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from 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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

I think after the wonderful insights of last week’s Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One, we have all been eagerly awaiting Part Two of James Wright‘s brilliant article – I know I have!

So, without further ado. Here it is:

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

In my last guest blog for History the Interesting Bits, we discussed five common myths about mediaeval buildings. These tall tales included stories of secret passages, yarns about the twist of spiral staircases relating to right-handed defenders and anecdotes that lepers were provided special windows in churches to watch the mass through.

As a buildings archaeologist I often meet folk who are eager to tell me all about their properties and their enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. I’m a great lover of historic architecture and believe that we can learn so much of value about a society by what it builds. However, romanticised and elaborated stories often grow up around certain mysterious features in mediaeval buildings – and it is surprising how often these get repeated all across the country in so many different structures.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss five more common misconceptions, attempt to explain how they come about and what the underlying truth behind each myth is. Hopefully this will help to give a broader and deeper understanding of historic buildings that will bring us that little bit closer to their former occupants.

  • Ship Timbers
Ship timbers, Tattershall

Perhaps the most tenacious and persistent mediaeval building myth is that lots of timber-framed buildings were constructed from salvaged ship timbers. There is even a house in Hertfordshire that is actually called Ships Timbers! Given that traditional British boozers have a reputation as hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, it will come as no shock that many pubs have the reused ship timbers story associated with them – often linked to a famous battle such as Trafalgar. Is there any truth in these tales?

On extremely rare occasions, it can be demonstrated that specific pieces of timber may have genuinely originated from a ship. I cannot stress just how rare this is and that documentary evidence is often lacking. My former colleague, Damian Goodburn, Historic Timber Specialist at MOLA, has pointed out that ship timbers rarely lend themselves to reuse in terrestrial buildings due to extreme weathering, their shaping designed for aquatic settings and the overall unworkability of seasoned oak. Instead, timbers from ship-breaking yards tend to be reused in marine or inter-tidal architecture, such as the Bermondsey foreshore of the River Thames in London. Alternatively, ship timbers may occasionally be found in the foundations of structures located very close to waterways, such as the three pieces recorded in the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London.

The vast majority of timber-framed buildings were constructed from newly felled trees and/or reused terrestrial structures such as barns, granaries and houses. The reuse of buildings is widely documented – for example the building accounts for Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, refer to the removal of timber from nearby Revesby Abbey in 1434-5. Reused timber will often be placed in a different part of the new building to the original structure leaving rectangular holes, known as mortises, visible and it is probably this which gives us the origin of the romantic story of timbers salvaged from wrecked ships.

  • Arrow-sharpening Grooves
Arrow grooves, Lambley

Worn into the hard stonework of the interior of many a church porch can be found clusters of strange vertical grooves which visitors are commonly told were created by archers sharpening their arrows, such as those at Holy Trinity, Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Given Edward III’s law of 1363, that all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 must practice their archery on Sundays and holy days, plus the location of many archery butts close to the parish church, the arrow-sharpening story has become received wisdom wherever the grooves are found.

There is neither any documentary evidence to suggest that archers sharpened their arrows on the stones of church porches, neither would this be a practical solution to the problem of dulled arrowheads. As churchyards were consecrated ground, archery butts were located elsewhere in the manor, creating a laborious trek to the porch. Instead, the sixteenth century archery expert, Roger Ascham tells us that bowmen would sharpen their arrows using hand-held files and whetstones. Equally, the majority of the grooves are orientated vertically and are located relatively low-down in the porches which render them as impractical for drawing a metre long arrow shaft across. Finally, these grooves are often found on soft limestones entirely useless for honing an edge.

The swashbuckling tales of English victories at Crécy and Azincourt have led to nationalistic myths of an epic proportion. Not only have accounts of the battles become rather knotted, but the desire to connect local history to the heroic archers has led to a misreading of the evidence. Folk traditions from pre-modern Germany and France, collected in the nineteenth century by Charles Rau, refer to parishioners scraping powder from church stonework to use in rituals. The stone was seen as a powerful holy material which was ingested as cures for fever or impotence. It is likely that similar ritualistic practises associated with holy buildings were also once common in Britain and the grooves in church porches relates to this folk ritual.

  • Murder Holes
Murder holes, Berry Pomeroy, Devon

Look up whilst you are visiting castles and you will often see voids in the overhead masonry associated with the defence of the building. These can take the form of slots overhanging the walls, known as machicolations (for example at Berry Pomeroy, Devon), or holes in the gate passage, known as murder holes (such as those at Caernarfon, Gwynedd). The popular story is that they were built so that the defenders could pour boiling oil down upon attackers.

Although it is not a myth that these holes were created to potentially hurl items into the spaces below them, including projectiles, stones and caustic lime, their uses were even more complicated. They could act as safe observation points from which the wall foot or passageway could be seen. If fires were started, either accidentally or deliberately, during a siege the slots could also be used to douse the flames with cold water.

Boiling oil was rarely used – it was prohibitively expensive, not often available in large enough quantities to be effective, would have been difficult to heat (it has a boiling point at 2040C), problematic to transport around the parapets and could have been a fire risk in itself. There are a very small number of scattered references to the use of hot oil, including at the siege of Orléans in 1428. For the most part, castles were rarely laid siege to and murder holes were mostly left untested. In fact many of them were intended to be nothing more than symbols of architectural prestige: the machicolations at Tattershall would have directly overlooked the roofs of the castle’s Inner Ward – not the best place to drop offensive weapons or scalding materials!

  • Templar Graffiti
Templar graffiti, Worksop

Type “Templar graffiti” into a search engine and you will find a mind-boggling number of links to hundreds of castles and churches, from the dungeons of Warwick Castle to the porch of Worksop Priory, Nottinghamshire. The websites invariably refer to cross-shaped graffiti left behind by the enigmatic Order of the Knights Templar (founded 1199 and dissolved 1312) and their crusading brethren. The legend that he Templars harboured the Holy Grail is all-consuming and many believe that the location of the cup of Christ can be found by decoding intriguing symbols and carvings at sites such as Royston Cave, Hertfordshire.

One of the principle problems with these romanticised notions is that they have more akin to conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels than to historical research. In particular, it can be demonstrated that the “dungeon” at Warwick Castle was actually the storage basement of Caesar’s Tower, built over 30 years after the Templars were dissolved. Similarly, the carvings at Royston Cave, have been identified, by archaeologist Matthew Champion, as dating to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, this falls outside of the Templar period and the religious character of the carvings is entirely consistent with those in a wide variety of other sites of the period.

Ultimately, crosses are a very common discovery in mediaeval graffiti surveys. They may be related to devotional activities such as prayer, but, as large numbers – around 80% – are found in church porches (as at Worksop) it is also likely that they relate to more secular behaviour. In particular, there is good evidence for mediaeval porches being used as sheltered meeting rooms, places where manorial courts were held, locations for reading wills and a site for parish notices to be read or fixed. As such the graffiti crosses may have been left as contractual memorials akin to swearing on the Bible or signing a document.

  • Devil’s Door
Devil’s door, Warkworth

Many churches, such as St Lawrence, Warkworth, Northumberland, have their north aisle doors blocked up – a phenomena which has been increasingly referred to as the Devil’s Door. Tradition states that this door, nearest to the font, was left open during baptisms so that demons could escape from the new-born child upon command of the priest. The north side of the church was thought of as being connected with the devil and after the Reformation these doors were blocked up as they were considered to relate to superstitions incompatible with the Protestant faith.

Francis Young has written eloquently on the subject of baptismal folklore and suggests that the sacrament was never considered to be a true exorcism, thus we might not be expecting demons to come flying out of the north door. Furthermore, Nicholas Groves has pointed out that the part of the baptism when the devil was commanded to leave the body of the infant, actually took place outside of the south porch in the churchyard. Equally, the belief that the north side of the church was particularly feared also does not stand up. Many churches have their principle entrance to the north, including Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, they face the principle access route from the settlement. It is also the case that large numbers of churches retained both their north and south porches, as at Kelham, Nottinghamshire.

Although it is acknowledged that north aisle doors may have been left open during baptisms, this was never part of the established liturgy. However, a number of formal church processions, including that on Palm Sunday, required the north porch as an exit point prior to walking, clockwise, around the east end of the church and back in through the south porch. Following the Reformation, these processions no longer took place making the door and porch essentially redundant. Churchwardens eventually decommissioned many of them as an expensive maintenance liability.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

All images courtesy of James Wright.

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I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to James Wright for taking the time to write two incredibly fascinating post. I owe you one, James.

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly and James Wright

Book Corner: Song of the Centurion by Steven A. McKay

Autumn, AD 430. After the Princess Catia’s disappearance, and Bellicus’s adventures trailing her Saxon abductors south to the fabled Hanging Stones, the giant warrior-druid is finally returning home. 

Battle-scarred, and mourning the loss of a loved one, Bellicus has learned from bitter experience that the gods rarely make things easy. Even if he can evade Horsa’s vengeful pursuit and get back to the North safely, his troubles may be far from over. In a land beset by the rivalries of petty warlords, Dun Breatann has stood solid and secure for untold generations. Trouble brews though as King Coroticus has cracked under the pressure of his daughter’s abduction. When the king’s rage finally boils over during a winter feast, Bellicus finds himself with two choices: accept exile, or complete another seemingly impossible undertaking. So much for the returning hero…

Accompanied by his massive war-dog, Cai, and the former centurion, Duro – who has his own painful issues to contend with – Bellicus must somehow survive a journey east into enemy-held lands. Folklore, superstition, the healing power of song, and even a wondrous white stag will all play a part in the companions’ continuing adventures, but armies are gathering and, when spring returns, the people of Dun Breatann will surely find themselves under siege once again. Will their legendary warrior-druid be there to help defend them this time, or will the new ways sweep away the old, once and for all? Find out in Song of the Centurion, the action-packed sequel to 2018’s The Druid!

Tracing the story of Bellicus’ mission to rescue the Princess Catia, The Druid was one of my Top 5 books of 2019 and so I have been eagerly awaiting the sequel with some trepidation; could author Steven A. McKay improve on this great story and the character who drives it?

But … Wow! What a book!

Song of the Centurion not only builds on the story started in The Druid, but takes it in a wholly unexpected direction. Sequels can often suffer by being ‘much of the same’. Not this time. Bellicus returns to his king as the hero rescuer of the princess, but comes home to petty jealousy and court intrigues which see the druid’s life take several unexpected turns.

Song of the Centurion works not only as a sequel, but as a standalone novel. Steven A. McKays’ skillful summary of the first book, interwoven into the story of Bellicus retracing his steps north with the rescued princess, serves to remind the reader of preceding events or act as a backstory if you haven’t read The Druid.

Set in a time of great turmoil in Britain, where the Romans have left and the Saxons are pushing further west and north, Bellicus’ ultimate task is to end the bitter infighting between the clans in Alt Clota and to unite them to fight against the Saxon invaders. Not an easy task.

“Duro isn’t to blame for what happened here today,” Bellicus said, voice low but powerful enough thanks to his years of specialist training that it penetrated even the grief-ravaged minds of the angry townsmen. “We all are.”

“What does that mean?” the blacksmith demanded, eyes fixed on the sobbing man in the centurion uniform. “It’s not my fault the Saxons came here looking for revenge.”

“Aye,” one of his companions agreed. “We just wanted to be left alone.”

“And that’s the problem,” the druid nodded, looking down at the ground sadly. “We all just want to be left alone.” He waited until there were murmurs of surprise agreement from the angry blacksmith and his friends then his head came up and his eyes blazed. “Left alone? That is why your town was targeted by the sea-wolves. They knew you people were an easy target after their last visit here, when only your fat baker was willing to stand against them.”

“Why would we stop them?” the blacksmith demanded. “That lass was nothing to us -“

“That lass was a Briton, and you knew that!” Bellicus roared, the rage in his voice making more than one of the men facing him step back warily as a crowd of soot-blackened locals began to form around them.” “If more of you were as brave as Duro there, the Saxons might have been cut down like the animals they have shown themselves to be here today. If you -” he pointed directly at the blacksmith whose eyes narrowed “- had used that hammer to help a little girl, well …” He trailed off shaking his head, looking around at the scattered bodies sorrowfully. “None of this would have happened.”

The men were either mollified by the druid’s words, or perhaps embarrassed. Shamed by his accusations maybe. Whatever it was, most of them just stood there, looking dumbly at the druid. One stepped forward threateningly, clealy hoping his companions would follow his lead, but none did and, when Cai bared his teeth and barked at him, he stopped instantly in his tracks.

As has come to be expected with books written by Steven A. McKay, from the earliest novels in his Forest Lord series, the story is fast-paced and energetic, leaving the reader little time to stop for breath. The frantic battle scenes contrast remarkably well with the political and personal actions of the characters, recreating the life-or-death existence of Britons in the post-Roman era.

The author has a knack of drawing the reader in, so that they are totally invested in Bellicus’s story and desperate for the druid to succeed. As Bellicus inspires loyalty in Song of the Centurion, so too does he inspire it in his readers! He is a wonderful, noble character, made wise for his years by his druidic training. That his training extended to the martial arts – his proficiency with both sword and staff a testament to this – make for a story that melds both war and diplomacy into the character of the hero.

Song of the Centurion is a unique story, melding the mystical world of the druids with the legends and history of post-Roman Britain. The story drives the hero, the book and the reader to a riveting climax. And the promise of more to come…

Song of the Centurion is available in paperback and ebook 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.

All images are courtesy of Steven A. McKay.

My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, 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 UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from 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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly