Book Corner: Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones

Dan Jones’s epic new history tells nothing less than the story of how the world we know today came to be built. It is a thousand-year adventure that moves from the ruins of the once-mighty city of Rome, sacked by barbarians in AD 410, to the first contacts between the old and new worlds in the sixteenth century. It shows how, from a state of crisis and collapse, the West was rebuilt and came to dominate the entire globe. The book identifies three key themes that underpinned the success of the West: commerce, conquest and Christianity.

Across 16 chapters, blending Dan Jones’s trademark gripping narrative style with authoritative analysis, Powers and Thrones shows how, at each stage in this story, successive western powers thrived by attracting – or stealing – the most valuable resources, ideas and people from the rest of the world. It casts new light on iconic locations – Rome, Paris, Venice, Constantinople – and it features some of history’s most famous and notorious men and women.

This is a book written about – and for – an age of profound change, and it asks the biggest questions about the West both then and now. Where did we come from? What made us? Where do we go from here?

Well, isn’t this an epic undertaking. The history of the Middle Ages, across Europe and into the four corners of the world (except Australia because it still hadn’t been discovered) – in 16 chapters, 633 pages and about 25 hours of reading. And it is awesome!

I couldn’t read this book at a leisurely pace because I was actually scheduled to interview Dan Jones on 29 September, for Lindum Books in Lincoln and I desperately wanted to make sure I had read the whole thing beforehand. So, I had 10 days to read it and I am quite proud of myself that I managed it. I put all other books aside and concentrated on this, hoping it would keep my attention. I was a little worried. It is a long book and covers such a wide historical arena. Could it keep my interest? Well, the simple answer is YES!

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is a thoroughly enthralling read encompassing over a thousand years of history, from the Sack of Rome in 410AD to the sack of Rome in 1527. Writing the story of the entire medieval era was a massive undertaking that Dan said he wanted to do, both as his 10th book and to mark his 40th birthday. And it is, indeed, a magnum opus to be proud of. Powers and Thrones is a perfectly balanced book, giving just enough attention to each area of interest and geographical location, going from Rome, to Byzantium and on to the rise of Islam, Dan Jones manages to cover the significant events and influences that drove change and development through the entire Middle Ages.

Powers and Thrones demonstrates how climate change, disease, technology and ideology were often the forces behind change. For example, the Guttenberg Press was revolutionary in every way, allowing the mass production of books, pamphlets and the dissemination of knowledge to a far-wider audience. It was the medieval equivalent to our social media, both in its reach and influence, and Dan Jones highlights how significant it was in Europe’s emergence from the medieval era, with its impact on learning, communication and – perhaps above all – religion.

For those alert to signs hidden in the fabric of the world, the Roman Empire’s collapse in the west was announced by a series of omens. In Antioch, dogs howled like wolves, night-birds let out hideous shrieks and people muttered that the emperor should be burned alive. In Thrace, a dead man lay in the road and fixed passers-by with a unnerving, lifelike glare, until after a few days the corpse suddenly disappeared. And in the city of Rome itself, citizens persisted in going to the theatre: an egregious and insanely sinful pastime, which, according to one Christian writer, practically invited the wrath of the Almighty. Human beings have been superstitious in all ages and we are especially good at adducing portents when we have the benefit of hindsight. Hence the opinion of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, who looked back on the end of the fourth century into which he was born and reflected that this was a time when fortune’s wheel, ‘which is perpetually alternating prosperity and adversity’, was turning fast.

In the 370s, when Rome’s fatal malady set in, the Roman state – monarchy, republic and empire – had existed for more than a millennium. Yet within little more than one hundred years, by the end of the fifth century AD, every province west of the Balkans had slipped from Roman control. In the ancient heartlands of empire, Roman institutions, tax systems and trade networks were falling apart. The physical signs of Roma elite culture – palatial villas, cheap imported consumer goods, hot running water – were fading from everyday life. The Eternal City had been sacked several times, the western crown had passed between a succession of dimwits, usurpers, tyrants and children, until eventually it had been abolished; and territory that formerly comprised the core of a powerful mega-state had been parcelled among peoples whom the proud-hearted citizens of Rome’s imperial heyday had previously scorned as savages and subhumans. These were the ‘barbarians’: a derogatory word which encompassed a huge range of people from itinerant nomadic tribes quite new to the west and ignorant or dismissive of Roman mores, through to longstanding near-neighbours, whose lives were heavily influenced by Roman-ness, but who had not been able to share in the fruits of citizenship.

With Dan Jones at The Collection, Lincoln

What makes this book special is the way Dan Jones manages to make Powers and Thrones relevant to today. Writing it in the midst of a pandemic certainly must have helped to give Dan a sense of history all around him and he alludes to this in the book. When interviewing him, Dan told me that living through Covid gave him a better understanding of the plague years of 14th century Europe, of the fear and panic that must have consumed people. And by referring to modern-day equivalents, such as world leaders, the pandemic and the rise of social media, Dan is able to draw the reader in and make medieval history relevant in the modern age.

Dan Jones does not shy away from the harsh questions, either, examining the development and morals of slavery, the reasoning behind the crusades and the rise of Protestantism. What may surprise readers is the facts this book is essentially Euro-centric – it made me realise how Anglo-centric my study of history has been over the years. By focusing on change and development in mainland Europe, whilst encompassing England and the British Isles in various guises where appropriate, it gives the reader a whole new outlook on the medieval era, whilst also demonstrates how events in Europe – even back then – could influence events in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Powers and Thrones highlights the driving forces of change, whether it was people, ideas or technology, and demonstrates how such change effected Europe in general and individuals in particular, whether it was the empire of Charlemagne, the rise of monasticism, or even the development of the humble stirrup that led to the emergence of the knightly class.

In Powers and Thrones, Dan Jones combines a narrative of international events with case studies that focus on individual people, organisations and movements. By highlighting such diverse subjects as Empress Theodora, the rise of Islam, El Cid and the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, the author manages to personalise what might otherwise have been a wide, sweeping narrative. The Warennes also get a mention in the involvement of William de Warenne, the 1st Earl, and his wife, Gundrada, in founding the first Cluniac priory in England, St Pancras Priory in Lewes, Sussex. From my personal point of view, it is fabulous that Dan Jones chose to include Empress Theodora so prominently – a woman who rose from extremely humble roots to become Empress of Byzantium and a woman who was influential in holding that empire together, especially in adroitly soothing religious dissension. It is impossible to get everything from 1,000 years of history in one book, but by showing the big picture, whilst highlighting particular events, ideas, buildings or people, Dan Jones manages to provide a fascinating narrative that is fast-paced and engaging without being overwhelming.

Powers and Thrones is, quite simply, an amazing book. It is chock full of little snippets of information that you may never have known, it relates medieval events to our modern day equivalents, such as the Black Death to Covid. Such references to the modern era could easily have backfired, but they serve to make the book more accessible and entertaining and not a little amusing. The moments of light-heartedness often provide an extra depth to the reading experience and make the book accessible to every reader.

Powers and Thrones was certainly an ambitious project, but in the hour-long interview I had with Dan Jones, he spoke about every aspect of it with passion and enthusiasm an that same passion and enthusiasm comes across throughout the book. The book is a pleasure to read and would be a welcome addition to any bookshelf.

Powers and Thrones by Dan Jones is available from Amazon and Bookshop.org.

My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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

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

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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Launch: Hauntings, An Anthology

FEAR IS AS OLD AS TIME ITSELF
Chilling Tales that will take you through a labyrinth of historical horror.
You will encounter a tormented Roman general.
A Norse woman who must confront her terrifying destiny.
Meet a troubled Saxon brother, searching for his twin’s murderer.
A young nurse tries to solve the mysteries of an asylum for the insane.

Down the passages of time, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wander through a haunted garden and elsewhere,
a lost slave girl is the soul survivor of a mass slaughter.

These are just a few of the eerie tales which ensure that Hauntings is not for the faint-hearted.

Hauntings, an Anthology

Since time immemorial, people have sat around the hearth, in the dark of night with storms raging outside, telling each other ghost stories. Even the fairy tales told to children over the centuries have bordered on horror stories, with a wicked stepmother here, an evil witch there and the candy-selling man who turned out to be a child-catcher; all just waiting to scare and horrify the unsuspecting. Many were moralising tales, told to scare children into being good. But the effects linger. As children become teenagers, they tell scarier stories, staying up late into the night on sleepovers and camping expeditions. The aim has always been to frighten and entertain with ever greater levels of horror, often shining torches into their faces at odd angles to create special effects.

The enduring need to push our fear to the limits has been with us since childhood.

Such camp-fire tales belie the fact that horror and ghost stories have a place deep in the culture of society. They have always been a way to explain the unexplainable.

We have all had that moment, that sense of being watched. But when we turn around, there is no one there…

Or seen that movement out of the corner of our eye…

The room suddenly turning cold for no reason…

The most famous incident of this kind gave birth to not only the vampire but also what is probably the most famous horror story of all time. And it started, as it always does, with a gathering of friends, in their late teens and early 20s, trying to shock and scare each other as a storm raged outside.

Europe had just emerged from its own horror story. Over twenty-five years of warfare had ignited with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended on the battlefield of Waterloo in June 1815, raging across Europe, from the Iberian Peninsula to frozen Russia and even venturing into Africa. A generation had grown up with the shadow of war looming over them. This man-made tragedy had been exacerbated by volcanic eruptions, famine and epidemics; the volcanic ash would cause 3 years of darkness, crop failure and cholera outbreaks. It was a time ripe for dark and desperate literary endeavours.

In the aftermath of Waterloo, a young couple, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, travelled to Lake Geneva in May 1816, ostensibly looking for rest and relaxation. Their party included their four-month-old baby and Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont. At the time, Claire was pregnant with a child by Lord Byron, the ground-breaking poet whose personal affairs and love life had proved too scandalous for England. Most recently he had divorced his wife, abandoning his young daughter, Ada Lovelace, and, so rumour had it, pursued an affair with his own half-sister. Plagued by gossip and debt, he had left England for Europe. Claire, it seems, had decided to surprise her lover by following him.

Mary had fallen in love with Percy in 1814; the couple had run away together, despite Percy already being married, and travelled around Europe for the next 2 years. After Byron left England, a distraught Claire convinced Mary and Percy to travel to Geneva with her. A few days later, Byron—clearly unaware that Claire would be there—arrived in town. Mary, whose own love life not without controversy, sympathized with the scandalous poet.

With Percy and Lord Byron soon forming an intense friendship, the small party abandoned their various travel plans and rented properties close to each other along Lake Geneva. They would gather together in the long, dark, cold evening at the Villa Diodati, the stately mansion Byron had rented for his stay along with John Polidori, his doctor. They read poetry, argued, and talked late into the night. After three nights of the party being trapped inside by the raging storm, tensions were running high. Byron was annoyed by Claire’s obsessive attentions, Mary likewise had to fend off the unwanted attentions of the equally obsessive Doctor Polidori.

They spent their evenings reading horror stories and ghostly poems to each other until one night, they were given a challenge. Byron proposed they each write a ghost story that was better than the ones they had just read. Inspired by a tale of Byron’s, Polidori produced his novella “The Vampyre,” which would be published in 1819. It is the first work of fiction to include a blood-sucking hero—which may have been modelled on Byron himself. Mary took a little longer to settle on the subject of her story but after a long, sleepless night she produced her offering, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Considering what happens when men play gods, and perhaps with the upheaval of the last three decades in her mind, she would later call the story her “hideous progeny”.

Frankenstein would be Mary Shelley’s enduring legacy and the inspiration for so many hopeful writers.

Fast forward a little over 200 hundred years. The year was 2020, the world was in the midst of a pandemic of horrifying proportions. Travel to the neighbouring town was frowned upon, you were allowed out for exercise once a day, families were forced apart, the schools closed and writers the world over were sat in their studies, or at their kitchen tables, tapping away on keyboards, alone, solitary…

Well, not quite…

We now have the internet, so when you are alone, you are still not totally alone. Once again, with the storm raging outside, a group of writers have come together, not in a luxury Swiss mansion, but via the miracle that is the internet. Despite the miles and oceans apart, and across the continents, these ten historical fiction authors were given a challenge: to write a ghost story, to regale each other with terrifying stories of ghosts and ghoulies. Through history and legend, from the legions of Rome to a spooky hotel, from Tudor England to an asylum for the insane, those who have suffered injustice may finally be laid to rest, those who have sought loved ones across the centuries may finally be reunited and those who have borne nightmares for past deeds may finally find peace.

A year after the idea first formed, those stories are set to be unleashed on the world.

Dare you read them?

Hauntings, an Anthology is dedicated to the memory of Sharon Penman, an amazing historical fiction writer, author of The Sunne in Splendour, who inspired so many of us to become writers ourselves.

Hauntings, an Anthology is an anthology of stories that span 2,000 years of history. Featuring short stories by S.J.A. Turney, D. Apple, Judith Arnopp, K.S. Barton, Lynn Bryant, Paula Lofting, Stephanie Churchill, Samantha Wilcoxson, Jennifer C. Wilson and Kate Jewell, and with a foreword by yours truly!

Hauntings, an Anthology is now available as an ebook from Amazon in the UK and the US and will be available in paperback shortly.

Hauntings Launch Party

And we’re having a launch party over Zoom.

Meet the authors and hear the stories behind the stories. It’s free. Come and join us!

It’s on Saturday 23 October at 7pm (UK time) – 2 pm if you’re in New York! Book here!

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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 in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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

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

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Roman Conquests: Britain by Simon Elliott

The Roman Conquests series seeks to explain when and how the Romans were able to conquer a vast empire stretching from the foothills of the Scottish Highlands to the Sahara Desert, from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf. How did their armies adapt to and overcome the challenges of widely varied enemies and terrain? In this volume, Dr Simon Elliott draws on the latest research and archaeological evidence to present a new narrative of the conquest (never completed) of Britain. From Julius Caesar’s initial incursions in 55 and 54 BC, through the Claudian invasion of 43 AD and the campaigns of expansion and pacification thereafter, he analyses the Roman army in action. The weapons, equipment, organization, leadership, strategy and tactics of the legions and their British foes are described and analysed. The ferocity of the resistance was such that the island was never wholly subdued and required a disproportionate military presence for the duration of its time as a Roman province.

Roman Conquests: Britain by Simon Elliott is a fascinating study of the Roman campaigns in Britain, from the time of the first forays by Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC to the final departure of the legions in the 4th century AD. 400 years of conquest.

I have to confess, I hadn’t read much on Roman history until a holiday on Hadrian’s Wall – at Corbridge – about 8 year ago. Standing on a 2,000 year old High Street in the middle of a Roman town has a way of drawing you in. Since then, I have spent many enjoyable hours reading up on Roman history, particularly in relation to Britain.

Simon Elliott’s Roman Conquests: Britain concentrates on the military aspects of Roman invasion and occupation, and the reactions and rebellions of the various British tribes they wanted to subjugate. With that in mind, the book is an in-depth study of Roman military might and tactics. However, it goes much further, using the evidence of tombstones, archaeology and contemporary sources to give the reader a picture of what it was like to be a Roman – or and Briton – during the 400 years that the Romans held sway over the land at the farthest reaches of its empire.

Caesar made his decision to carry out a second expedition to Britain before the end of 55BC, giving orders to his legates to start building a bespoke fleet of ships more appropriate for a large invasion than those used in his first incursion. He then headed back to Cisalpine Gaul to winter in his usual quarters there.

Early in the new Year, after a brief visit to his other province of Illyricum, he returned to the territory of the Morini where he gathered his entire army of eight legions again, together with 4,000 Gallic allied cavalry. This time we learn the name of the chosen port of embarkation for Britain, Portus Itius. Grainge usefully sets out the various candidate sites in the region, all to the south of modern Calais with its short journey across Oceanus to Britain. The most northerly is Wissant near Cap Gris Nez, while the most southerly is the later major port site at Boulogne (the future headquarters of the Classis Britannica regional fleet). The latter seems the most likely given the fine harbourage there in the estuary of the River Liane.

When Caesar arrived he was pleased with the work of his legates and their shipbuilders, with 600 specially built vessels ready for service. These, based on designs of the Veneti, featured lower freeboards than his earlier Mediterranean designs to enable easier disembarkation, banks of oars as well as a large sail to give good manoeuvrability in shallow waters, and wider beams to carry bulkier loads. To these he added 200 locally chartered transports, over 80 Roman transport ships that had survived the previous year’s incursion, and his 28 remaining war galleys.

Simon Elliott gives a pacy narrative, detailing the various attempts to conquer Britain, and the massive effort needed – in men and resources – to hold on to it. Not that it was ever fully subjugated – the tribes in the far reaches of Scotland made sure of that. Replete with detail, from weapons and personnel to military strategy, Roman Conquests: Britain covers every aspect of the various Roman invasions of Britain, and the men who led them, from Julius Caesar to Agricola and the numerous generals assigned to control the island.

Roman Conquests: Britain highlights what a massive undertaking it was to invade, conquer and subjugate Britain – both in men, money, time and resources. Simon Elliott provides invaluable analysis of the large-scale campaigns and their varying degrees of success, and of the men who led them. However, he does not forget the tribes who opposed them, providing fair assessments of the Boudiccan revolt, the Brigantes’ rebellions and the reasons behind abandoning the newly-built Antonine Wall in favour of the more secure Hadrian’s Wall.

Simon Elliott highlights what we do know about the Roman campaigns in Britain, but clearly identifies how much we do not know. Roman Conquests: Britain is an investigative journey into the first centuries AD, using the evidence we have to explain the possible scenarios and pointing out the information that is still lacking. It is a jigsaw puzzle in which the author pulls together the pieces we have available to give the reader and overall picture of events. Roman Conquests: Britain is a detailed, fascinating look into the conquest of Britain by the massive Roman war machine. Impressive research combines with an engaging narrative to make this an eminently readable book.

A must for anyone with interest in Roman Britain.

Roman Conquests: Britain by Simon Elliott is now available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon UK.

About the author:

Dr Simon Elliott is an award winning and best selling archaeologist, historian and broadcaster with a PhD in Classics and Archaeology from the University of Kent where he is now an Honorary Research Fellow. He has an MA in Archaeology from UCL and an MA in War Studies from KCL. Simon is widely published with numerous works in print on various themes relating to the ancient world, with a particular focus on the Roman military, and he makes frequent appearances on TV as a Roman expert. Simon lectures widely to universities, local history societies and archaeological groups, is co-Director of a Roman villa excavation, a Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology and an Ambassador for Museum of London Archaeology. He is also a Guide Lecturer for Andante Travels and President of the Society of Ancients.

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My Books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Land of Fire by Derek Birks

Late Spring, 455 AD.

After a brutal winter struggle against the High King Vortigern, outcast imperial officer Ambrosius Aurelianus has led his weary followers to south-west Britannia in search of his mother’s kinfolk. But Vortigern, thirsting for revenge is already forging a dangerous alliance against him.

Taking refuge in a ruined Roman fort near the decaying town of Vindocladia, Ambrosius finds an ally in Lurotriga, the widowed queen of the Durotriges. Though still sworn to his Saxon lady Inga, he is soon beguiled by the British noblewoman.

Between Inga and her new rival there can be no compromise and their enmity threatens to cause a rift between the Britons and Saxons of Ambrosius’ company.

If Vortigern attacks before the fort is repaired Ambrosius fears the outcome. He must find allies fast but, in a land of squabbling rival tribes the Roman encounters more enemies than friends. A treaty with neighbouring Dumnonia offers Ambrosius some hope, but commits him to defend the south coast against Scotti raiders. Ambrosius’ forces are stretched perilously thin putting the lives of Lurotriga and others at risk.

As Ambrosius prepares to pursue Vortigern for a final reckoning, his quest to discover his mother’s kin suddenly delivers a startling revelation, but will it help him to defeat the High King?

Heavily outnumbered in the thick forests and steep valleys of Vortigern’s homeland, Ambrosius must rely upon the fighting spirit of his small force of bucellarii and raw recruits. But sometimes courage alone is not enough.

Many of my readers will already know that Derek Birks is one of my favourite authors. Ever since reading his debut novel, Feud, set during the Wars of the Roses, I have devoured every one of his books. And Land of Fire was no exception. The 3rd book in Derek Birks’ The Last of the Romans series is a fabulous, action-filled adventure set in post-Roman Britain. The series follows the experiences of Ambrosius Aurelianus, his lover, Inga, and his small band of armed warriors, trying to make a new life for themselves inn this abandoned outpost of the Roman Empire.

As I have come to expect from this author, the action is relentless, with Ambrosius and his band fighting for their lives from the very first page. The plot is cleverly laid out, with a number of twists and turns that the reader cannot see coming. Ambrosius has to face the might of Vortigern, the High King who is eager for revenge. Life is even more complicated by Ambrosius’ attraction to two women…

The various plot threads make for an explosive combination that will leave the reader on the edge of their seats.

Below he surveyed once more the gravel hard where fishermen had drawn their small boats high up above the tideline. Close by, a rickety wooden jetty thrust a stubby finger out into the estuary channel and Ambrosius smiled to see children playing on the foreshore. But his grin of satisfaction froze half-formed, as a vessel emerged from the mist.

“What’s that?” asked Inga, clutching his arm.

After a tense moment he chuckled with relief, for it was just a single ship and not a Scoti vessel either. If anything, it looked Roman in origin.

“A trader,” ventured Inga.

“Could be,” he said, but something about the ship irked him and by the time Inga’s grip tightened upon his arm he had worked out why. The vessel was a navis lusoria, made for short, coastal journeys and river navigation; and its arrival here irked him far more than any Scoti incursion.

“That’s … your ship,” cried Inga. “Our ship!”

The previous year Ambrosius had brought them, against all odds, to the shore of Britannia in just such a navis lusoria. Their ship was a supply craft built to patrol the Rhinus River but it was very like the one he saw below. This one could, of course have been any vessel… except that it certainly looked like the ship stolen from him at the onset of winter by his embittered half-sister.

open-mouthed in shock, he stared as it lowered its sail and glided out of the mist into the harbour and there at its prow, like some carved image, stood Florina.

“No,” he moaned, as if conjuring up a long dead spirit – except she looked far from dead. “How can she be here?”

“Because Frigg has delivered her into our hands,” breathed Inga, the fire of revenge already beginning to sparkle in her eyes.

Land of Fire is superbly written and full of action. The characters are wonderful, colorful and unique individuals, including the magnificent war-dog, Ferox, who steals every scene he is in. Derek Birks is renowned for putting strong women into his stories. In his Rebels & Brothers and Craft of Kings series, it was Eleanor Elder who stole the show, using all her strength to fight for her family. In The Last of the Romans series, we have Inga and a number of other women who fight for themselves, their friends and loved ones. That is not to say that these women are therefore unrealistic, Derek Birks achieves the perfect balance in making the women into warriors, while also remembering the vulnerability of their sex and the male-dominated world in which they lived.

Ambrosius Aurelianus is a sympathetic hero, burdened with the weight of leadership, he also has a vulnerability about him, in his ability to command and fight. He is well aware of his own mortality and the mortality of those who fight alongside him. This makes him the perfect hero – you want him to succeed and, as with every Derek Birks book, are nervous that he might not. That is because Derek Birks has a unique outlook as an author. He is not afraid to kill off a key character, if it furthers the story. As a reader, that gives his book an edge – you are on the edge of your seat because you know that even the hero might not survive the battle. It makes the tension palpable – right to the very end of the book!

Well written, and with meticulous research, the book expertly depicts the lawlessness and factional warfare of the post-Roman period., where warlords are fighting to fill the vacuum left by the Roman withdrawal. Derek Birks’ knowledge of Roman Britain’s history serves to rebuild the long-lost world, and to draw the reader in, so that they can imagine the sights, sounds and -even – the smells of fifth century Britannia.

Land of Fire has depth and scope. The action is ferocious. The tension constant. It is, quite simply, impossible to put down. I read it in two days and enjoyed every moment of this fabulous novel. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a great way to lose a weekend!

To Buy the Book

Land of Fire is now available on Kindle from Amazon.

About the Author:

Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. On his return to England, he read history at Reading University and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Whilst he enjoyed his teaching career and it paid the bills, he found a creative outlet in theatrical activities, stage-managing many plays and outdoor Shakespeare performances. Derek always wanted to write and began, aged 17, writing stories, songs and poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, work and family life took precedence for a long period of time but in 2010 Derek took early retirement to indulge his passion for history and concentrate on his writing. He is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period.

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

His historical fiction works include:
Rebels & Brothers – a 4-book series set during the fifteenth century, which follows a fictional family, the Elders, through their struggle to survive the Wars of the Roses up to 1471. The Craft of Kings – a sequel series which finds the Elder family ten years later in 1481. The latest book in this series is book 3, Echoes of Treason, which is set during the short and turbulent reign of Richard III. The final book in the series, Crown of Fear, will be published later in 2020. He has recently embarked upon a new Post-Roman series and the first book, The Last of the Romans, is out now. A sequel, Britannia: World’s End, was released in in 2020.

Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – sometimes, but not always, to carry out research for his books. He also spends his time walking, swimming and taking part in archaeological digs. He was a regular presence at the Harrogate History Festival, is an active member of the Historical Novel Society and you will also find him each summer signing books – and selling them – at the Chalke Valley History Festival outside Salisbury in Wiltshire.

Derek welcomes feedback from readers.
Feel free to get in touch with him via his website: http://www.derekbirks.com or follow him on twitter: https://twitter.com/Feud_writer
or facebook: https://www.facebook.com/derek.birks.14

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My Books:

Coming 31 May 2021:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Roman Britain’s Missing Legion by Simon Elliott

Legio IX Hispana had a long and active history, later founding York from where it guarded the northern frontiers in Britain. But the last evidence for its existence in Britain comes from AD 108\. The mystery of their disappearance has inspired debate and imagination for decades. The most popular theory, immortalized in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel _The Eagle of the Ninth_, is that the legion was sent to fight the Caledonians in Scotland and wiped out there. But more recent archaeology (including evidence that London was burnt to the ground and dozens of decapitated heads) suggests a crisis, not on the border but in the heart of the province, previously thought to have been peaceful at this time. What if IX Hispana took part in a rebellion, leading to their punishment, disbandment and _damnatio memoriae_ (official erasure from the records)? This proposed ‘Hadrianic War’ would then be the real context for Hadrian’s ‘visit’ in 122 with a whole legion, VI Victrix, which replaced the ‘vanished’ IX as the garrison at York. Other theories are that it was lost on the Rhine or Danube, or in the East. Simon Elliott considers the evidence for these four theories, and other possibilities.

Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania by Simon Elliott is a fascinating investigation into the fate of the 9th Legion. Immortalised in Rosemary Sutcliff’s iconic novel, The Eagle of the Ninth.

In Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania, historian Simon Elliott examines all the possible fates of the famous IX legion, examining every scenario in which the legion may have met its end, from revolt in Britannia to the wars in Germany to ignominious defeat in one of the Jewish revolts. Each conflict is explained in detail, with the possible involvement of the IX legion examined and explained, the level of plausibility carefully measured and detailed.

Simon Elliott ruminates on why this one legion disappears so completely from history, with no contemporary records – Roman or otherwise – giving reason or explanation as to its ultimate fate. This is a fascinating book, not only for its enquiries into the fate of the Legio IX Hisapana, but also for its detailed explanations into the make-up of the Roman army in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD.

Using contemporary records, historical investigations and archaeological discoveries, as well as his extensive knowledge of the Roman Empire and the Roman military, Simon Elliott finds traces of the IXth legion in Britain, Rome and elsewhere, but to discover their eventual fate must be a mammoth task.

This book is a historical detective story concerning the mysterious disappearance of the 5,500 men of legio IX Hispana, one of Rome’s most famous military units. Uniquely among the Roman legions, of which there were over time more than sixty (and at any one time in the Empire a maximum of thirty-three), we have no idea what happened to it. It simply disappears from history.

The historical conundrum has grabbed the attention of academics, scholars and the wider public for hundreds of years. One of the first to write on the subject was British antiquarian John Horsley who published his Britannia Romana or the Roman Antiquities of Britain in 1732. In his work he detailed when each Roman legion arrived and left Britain. However, he noted that there was no leaving date for legio IX Hispana, a fact he found difficult to explain. Then, in the 1850s, the renowned German scholar Theodor Mommsen published his multi-volume The History of Rome. In this he speculated that the IXth legion had been the subject of an uprising by the Brigantes tribe of northern Britain around AD 117/118, it being wiped out in its legionary fortress at York (Roman Eboracum). Mommsen speculated it was this event that prompted the new Emperor Hadrian to later visit Britain in AD 122 and initiate the construction of Hadrian’s Wall.

Such was Mommsen’s reputation that his theory became the received wisdom regarding the legion’s fate well into the twentieth century AD, when it was then popularized by a number of historical fiction works. One above all others cemented the fate of the legio IX Hispana in the popular imagination. This was The Eagle of the Ninth, the seminal work published by children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff in 1954. Her second book, this told the story of her hero Marcus Flavius Aquila who travelled north of Hadrian’s Wall to track down the fate of his father’s legion, legio IX Hispana. Her conceit was that the IXth legion had been annihilated in the far north of Britain, beyond the northern border rather than York, during yet another uprising. This novel proved as popular with adults as with children, and is still a bestseller to this day.

You don’t have to be an expert on Roman military history in order to read and enjoy this thorough investigation into the fate of the legio IX Hispana, Simon Elliott dedicates the first chapter to explaining the foundations of the Roman military machine, and how units are divided into legions, centuries, vexillations and the rest. This comprehensive introduction means the general reader can enjoy the book without getting lost in the various description of diverse Roman units. The author also explains the extent of Roman influence throughout Europe and beyond, from Roman incursions into Scotland, to its actions in Egypt, Syria and beyond.

He then goes on to examine the breadcrumbs left behind by the IXth legion, including tablets, small altars and inscriptions in York. Carlisle and elsewhere in the empire. These examples of the legion’s existence also serve to remind the reader that we are investigating the fate of men, around 1,000 men, who just disappear from history.

Incredibly well researched, Simon Elliott uses his extensive knowledge of this Roman military machine to offer all possible scenarios for the fate of the IXth legion and, with confidence, explain how likely or unlikely each scenario could ultimately be. I won’t tell you his conclusions, that would spoil it! However, the investigation process is just as entertaining as the conclusions that the author draws; perhaps more so, in that the reader learns so much about the various theatres of war in which the IXth legion may – or may not – have been drawn into.

Whether or not you agree with Simon Elliott’s arguments and conclusions, Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania is well worth a read. It takes you on a fascinating detective journey through all the corners of the Roman Empire. And what is certain is that something extraordinary must have happened to the IXth legion to make them disappear so completely from contemporary records. Their fate remaining open to speculation for 2 millennia – so far.

This review has been written as part of Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania week-long blog tour. You can follow the rest of the tour:

To buy the book:

Roman Britain’s Missing Legion: What Really Happened to IX Hispania by Simon Elliott is available from Amazon and Pen & Sword Books.

About the author:

Dr Simon Elliott is an historian, archaeologist and Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Kent where he studied for his PhD in Archaeology on the subject of the Roman military in Britain. He also has an MA in War Studies from KCL and an MA in Archaeology from UCL. For a day job he runs his own PR company, and is a former defence and aerospace journalist at titles including Jane’s Defence Weekly and Flight International. He frequently gives talks on Roman themes and is co-Director at a Roman villa excavation. He is also a Trustee of the Council for British Archaeology. His website can be viewed at: simonelliott.net.

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: How to Survive in Ancient Rome by LJ Trafford

Imagine you were transported back in time to Ancient Rome and you had to start a new life there. How would you fit in? Where would you live? What would you eat? Where would you go to have your hair done? Who would you go to if you got ill, or if you were mugged in the street? All these questions, and many more, will be answered in this new how-to guide for time travellers. Part self-help guide, part survival guide, this lively and engaging book will help the reader deal with the many problems and new experiences that they will face, and also help them to thrive in this strange new environment.

What a fun and entertaining read!

How to Survive in Ancient Rome by LJ Trafford is a tour guide to the ancient city of Rome for the inexperienced and seasoned traveller alike. The book takes a snapshot of the city, its society and the state of the Roman Empire in the time of the Emperor Domitian – and more specifically in the year 95 CE. It tells you all you need to know about Roman history and society so that you may get the best from a visit to the eternal city in the First century AD.

LJ Trafford covers all aspects of Roman life, from the history and family, to entertainment, shopping and crime and punishment. The tone is light-hearted, entertaining and often outright hilarious. Some anecdotes stretch credibility, but the author has clearly done her homework and includes endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography. The stories may be unbelievable, but LJ Trafford has the evidence to back her up.

The beauty of How to Survive in Ancient Rome is the book’s simplicity, which makes it accessible to all ages. I read excerpts out to my husband and teenage son, and both enjoyed the stories I recited. In fact some of the stories are – apparently – particularly appealing to the mind of a teenage boy!

The young Caligula, for instance, was said to enjoy donning a robe and wig and hitting the town. Otho’s floggable youthful pursuits involved wandering about the city bundling drunks and women into blankets and tossing them into the river Tiber, Mark Anthony, so Cicero alleges, dressed as a woman and took up prostitution in his youth.

There are less alarming leisure activities available. Watching chariot racing, for instance. Or wrestling. Or the Games. Or placing high-stakes bets on all of them, a pastime that is all the more appealing when you have a living pater familias responsible for all the family finances: including debts.

Probably the best example of the struggling pater familias is the Emperor Augustus. Augustus made a big show of family. His series of morality laws included inducements to have three children or more, penalties for failing to marry and stiff punishments for adulterers.

He paraded his own family as an example to follow, sharing the strict education of his daughter, Julia, as the model. He chose all three of Julia’s husbands for her and arranged the marriages. The first was to her cousin, Marcellus. The second was to her father’s right-hand man, Agrippa, who was over twenty years her senior. Her third marriage was to her stepbrother, Tiberius.

Augustus similarly orchestrated his male relatives’ lives, appointing them to public positions from a young age and insisting that they serve the state in unending duty. This is how family was done properly, he declared to the world. This is the traditional pater familias role.

Naturally, it all went wrong. Daughter Julia, knee deep in woven underpants, embarked on a full-scale rebellion against her father. She did this by ‘having some fun’, saying ‘things which might be considered by some stick in the mud Romans as undignified to her sex.’, and by putting it about a bit.

Don’t get me wrong! This may be a light-hearted look at life in ancient Rome, but you will be laughing as you are learning. How to Survive in Ancient Rome is chock-full of facts and interesting anecdotes. It delves into the structure of society, government and family, giving insight into the daily life of the average – and sometimes not-so-average – Roman. However, it also looks into the murkier side of Roman life; crime and punishment, prostitution, gambling and slavery. LJ Trafford takes you to the market, the forums and the gladiatorial games in a fascinating illumination of life in ancient Rome.

And you will enjoy every minute and every word.

Whilst the book focuses on a year in the reign of the Emperor Domitian, it also draws from the entirety of Roman history, from its legendary origins through the babies Romulus and Remus and the wolf that suckled them, through the greats such as Julius Caesar, Emperor Augusts and Vespasian, to the less admirable characters such as Caligula and Nero – who apparently had at least 3 people impersonate him after his death (and they each attracted followers proclaiming the survival of the emperor). LJ Trafford uses How to Survive in Ancient Rome to illuminate the diversity and experiences of ancient Roman life.

How to Survive in Ancient Rome by LJ Trafford is a brilliant, entertaining book. Easily readable for the avid fans of ancient Rome and novice Romans alike, it is not to be missed. It is thoroughly researched and beautifully written, with a view to entertaining and informing the reader in equal measure. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

How to Survive in Ancient Rome by LJ Trafford is available from Pen & Sword Publishing and Amazon.

About the Author:

After gaining a BA Hons in Ancient History LJ Trafford toured the amphitheatres of western europe before a collision with a moped in Rome left her unable to cross the road. Which was a shame because there was some really cool stuff on the other side. Returning to the UK somewhat battered and certainly very bruised she spent several years working as a tour guide. A perfect introduction to writing, involving as it did, the need for entertainment and a hefty amount of invention (it’s how she got tips). She now works in London doing something whizzy with computers.

Palatine is the first in the Four Emperors series. Book Two is Galba’s Men, and is followed by Otho’s Regret and Vitellius’ Feast. See also two short stories featuring the same characters: The Wine Boy and The Wedding (in the Rubicon collection)

Follow me on Twitter, if you dare! @traffordlj

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey will be released in the UK on 31 May and in the US on 6 August. And it is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Corner: Masters of Rome by Gordon Doherty and Simon Turney

Their rivalry will change the world forever.

As competition for the imperial throne intensifies, Constantine and Maxentius realise their childhood friendship cannot last. Each man struggles to control their respective quadrant of empire, battered by currents of politics, religion and personal tragedy, threatened by barbarian forces and enemies within.

With their positions becoming at once stronger and more troubled, the strained threads of their friendship begin to unravel. Unfortunate words and misunderstandings finally sever their ties, leaving them as bitter opponents in the greatest game of all, with the throne of Rome the prize.

It is a matter that can only be settled by outright war…

Oh boy! What a story!

Last year I read a wonderful book by two of my favourite authors, Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty. Sons of Rome was a fabulous adventure looking at the early years of two future rival for the Roman imperial title, Maxentius and Constantine. Told from two viewpoints, each author had his own character: Turney was Maxentius and Doherty was Constantine. In Masters of Rome, they have continued the story and increased the pace, getting to the heart of the struggles and threats the two leading protagonists face.

Masters of Rome is a fascinating tale of the Roman Empire and the struggle between its various rulers and the factions they engendered. The politics are high drama, the manipulations of friends and advisers demonstrate the dangers of great power and politics; you cannot trust anyone! Friendships are stretched to the limits, though Maxentius and Constantine are reluctant to break that tenuous link, the inevitability of it, as both try to realise their ambitions, is a driving force in the book.

And then there are Maxentius and Constantine themselves. As a reader, you feel that you must pick a side. I thought I would be on Team Constantine, but then Maxentius did something notable and I wavered. The conflict in the pages causes a reciprocal conflict in the reader. The truth is, both emperors did things they should be proud of, and both made big mistakes. At the heart of this books is the truth about all men; they have their strengths and weaknesses. Each has noble traits, and each has his flaws. Ultimately, they are both likable characters, which is what makes their story so fascinating.

As a reader you are torn, between the two, just as Rome was.

The tension is relentless.

The drama is palpable.

Constantine

Land of the Seven Mountains, East of the Rhenus, 1st December 308 AD

The greatest affront happened at the imperial river city of Carnuntum. That day, in those marbled halls, the Lords of the Tetrarchy assumed they could strip me of my station. I had rebuffed their attempts and let them know in no uncertain terms that I was Constantine and I would remain Augustus of the west, heir to my father’s realm. A mere month had passed since that grand congress and my stubborn refusal. I must admit it had fired my pride to assert myself so and witness them gasping in ire. Yet what might those curs think were they to see me now: crouched in the musty ferns of a Germanian hillside nook like an outlaw, my bear pelt and black leather cuirass blending into the earthy hillside like my dirt-streaked face in the half-light of this sullen winter’s day?

A few shafts of watery sunlight penetrated the sea of freezing mist around me, illuminating the semi-frozen hillside: strewn with a frosty carpet of leaves, dotted with dark green spruce and skeletal brown larch. The valley floor below – the once clear path through these roughs – was carpeted with bracken. The cold gnawed on my skin and stung my nostrils, but not so much as to mask that ubiquitous musty stink of the Germanian woods. Hardy ravens cawed somewhere in the skies above the sea of mist, as if to remind me just how far I was from home, yet all down here was still and silent … eerily silent. Then the sudden, hollow drumming of an unseen woodpecker nearby sent an invisible lance of ice through my breast. With a puff of breath I cursed the winged menace, as if it were scouting for the enemy who had drawn me out here.

The Bructeri – one of the many tribes in the Frankish confederation – were on the move. Coming this way to cross the Rhenus and pour once more into Gaul… my realm. I only had myself to blame, for early last year I had put two of their many kings to death in Treverorum’s arena. Yes, it was in the name of vengeance that the tribes had mobilised. But now, of all times? Marching to war in the grip of winter? I seethed. And you wonder why we Romans call you barbarians!

I could not ignore the tribal threat, yet equally I could ill afford to be here. For back across the river and all over imperial lands, the hearsay and consequences of Carnuntum were already spreading like a plague. A chatter rose within my mind, each voice urgent and shrill, like hooks being dragged through my head, all demanding attention…

Masters of Rome is a tense, thrilling story charting the lives of two unique individuals, Maxentius and Constantine, both seeking to become the Roman Empire’s sole emperor. The triumph of this book – and indeed the series – is that each lead character has a unique voice, due to the fact each has his own writer. Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty work well together to give each emperor their own voice, viewpoint and story. It is a fascinating concept that could have gone very wrong, if not for the individual strength of the two authors. With Turney and Doherty, it works beautifully.

The research is impeccable and the depth of that research helps to recreate not only the buildings of Rome, but also the atmosphere of the Roman Empire, and the personalities of all those who touched the lives of Constantine and Maxentius, as well as the two protagonists themselves. Both Doherty’s and Turney’s unrivaled understanding of the Roman war machine helped to make Masters of Rome a riveting read.

If you have never read a novel about Rome, this series would be a good place to start. It draws you in, envelops you and involves you so deeply in the drama that you find yourself shouting at the book! Masters of Rome is a fabulous, absorbing read that you never want to end – but at the same time can’t read quick enough! The drama, the politics and the personalities all serve to make Masters of Rome a masterpiece of fiction.

It is, quite simply, a must-read.

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Pre-order link for Masters of Rome: Amazon: https://amzn.to/2ZpfUJC

Follow Aries: Twitter: @AriesFiction; Facebook: Aries Fiction; Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

Blog Tour Hashtag: #MastersofRome

About the Authors

Simon Turney is from Yorkshire and, having spent much of his childhood visiting historic sites, he fell in love with the Roman heritage of the region. His fascination with the ancient world snowballed from there with great interest in Rome, Egypt, Greece and Byzantium. His works include the Marius’ Mules and Praetorian series, as well as the Tales of the Empire series for Canelo and The Damned Emperor series for Orion. http://www.simonturney.com @SJATurney.

Follow Simon

Twitter: @SJATurney; Instagram: @simonturney_aka_sjaturney; Website: http://simonturney.com/

Gordon Doherty is a Scottish author, addicted to reading and writing historical fiction. Inspired by visits to the misty Roman ruins of Britain and the sun-baked antiquities of Turkey and Greece, Gordon has written tales of the later Roman Empire, Byzantium, Classical Greece and the Bronze Age. His works include the Legionary, Strategos and Empires of Bronze series, and the Assassin’s Creed tie-in novel Odyssey. http://www.gordondoherty.co.uk @GordonDoherty.

Follow Gordon

Twitter: @GordonDoherty Instagram: @gordon.doherty Website: https://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/

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My books

Coming 31st May:

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. 

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

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

©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Book Corner: Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia by Samantha Morris

Myths and rumour have shrouded the Borgia family for centuries – tales of incest, intrigue and murder have been told of them since they themselves walked the hallways of the Apostolic Palace. In particular, vicious rumour and slanderous tales have stuck to the names of two members of the infamous Borgia family – Cesare and Lucrezia, brother and sister of history’s most notorious family. But how much of it is true, and how much of it is simply rumour aimed to blacken the name of the Borgia family? In the first ever biography solely on the Borgia siblings, Samantha Morris tells the true story of these two fascinating individuals from their early lives, through their years living amongst the halls of the Vatican in Rome until their ultimate untimely deaths. Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia begins in the bustling metropolis of Rome with the siblings ultimately being used in the dynastic plans of their father, a man who would become Pope, and takes the reader through the separate, yet fascinatingly intertwined, lives of the notorious siblings. One tale, that of Cesare, ends on the battlefield of Navarre, whilst the other ends in the ducal court of Ferrara. Both Cesare and Lucrezia led lives full of intrigue and danger, lives which would attract the worst sort of rumour begun by their enemies. Drawing on both primary and secondary sources Morris brings the true story of the Borgia siblings, so often made out to be evil incarnate in other forms of media, to audiences both new to the history of the Italian Renaissance and old.

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris is a fascinating look at two of the most famous villains in history; a brother and sister renowned for murder, intrigue and incest. Or are they? Samantha Morris’s beautifully written dual biography of these siblings aims to peal away the centuries of rumour and accusations and find the real people beneath the legend.

Samantha Morris combines a lively, engaging narrative with keen historical analysis, uncovering the facts embedded in the legends, rumours and scandals. She demonstrates a deep understanding not only of her subjects and their motivations but of the political theatre of Italy, the papacy and Europe in general at that time.

In Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family, Samantha Morris expertly separates rumour from fact to provide a balanced appraisal of these famous siblings; their strengths and weakness. Using creditable sources, papal records and even family letters, she clearly establishes the facts behind the lies of the incest accusation, whilst demonstrating how such accusations came about and the various efforts to sully the name of the Borgia family.

The careers of the Borgia children were decided and laid out before them before they could even waalk. Juan was chosen as the son who would be the military leader, the great Duke who would go on to continue the Borgia line; Cesare was destined for a life in the Church; Lucrezia would be forced into diplomatic marriages and Gioffre would do the same. The children were their father’s pawns, important chess pieces but Cesare in particular did not like the career path that was chosen for him.

When Cesare was just six years old, the Pope granted a dispensation that allowed him to hold Church benefices despite his illegitimacy and the following year, 1482, King Ferdinand of Aragon exempted him from a law that would stop him from holding lordships in Spain due to his illegitimacy. Being bastard born would not get in the way of raising Cesare Borgia to the heights that his father so wanted for him.

By the age of just fifteen, Cesare had already been given a vast number of Church benefices including the Bishopric of Pamplona, the ancient capital of Navarre. This caused particular outrage as the young man had not yet taken his holy orders and Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia did his best to calm down the populace, telling them that Cesare’s elevation was simply down to his merits and hard work. Cesare, on a break from the University of Perugia and busy on a hunting trip, found himself having to write a letter to the people of Navarre to try and soothe their anger. But it didn’t work and the Pope had to intervene to halt the rebellion.

From tracing their origins in Spain, to the spectacular heights to which the family rose, to the politics that brought about the demise of Cesare and meant the family were embroiled in constant struggles for land and power, Samantha Morris charts the successes and failures – and underhand dealings of the infamous family. The siblings’ father and family patriarch, Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI is depicted as a scheming but capable man and pope who loved his children dearly. He sought to establish his illegitimate children in lives and careers appropriate to their rank as the children of a reigning pope.

Lucrezia Borgia comes across as an intelligent, passionate woman, far removed from , the poisoner of legend conducting a love affair with her own brother. She proved herself capable of ruling and was loving and loyal to her family. She pursued an active political career despite her almost constant pregnancies, and suffered incalculable griefs and family loss. Lucrezia, however, is not depicted as a pure, innocent virgin, but a well educated, politically astute woman who may also have conducted certain indiscretions, or at least platonic love affairs, during her lifetime. She is a woman who made the best of the life that was mapped out for her.

Cesare, on the other hand, is a ruthless man not cut out for the career in the church to which he appeared destined. The untimely murder of his older brother meant he went from cardinal to soldier, a job to which he was much better suited and a thousand times more capable and dedicated. Cesare is a complex character; accused of numerous murders, including those of his own brother and Lucrezia’s second husband, he is remembered to history as a ruthless, scheming murderer and seducer of his own sister. While he may have been ruthless and scheming – and a murderer to some extent, Samantha Morris goes on to prove that not all the murders laid at Cesare’s door were his responsibility.

As an aside, the reader cannot fail to notice the prevalence of syphillis in Italy at the time. A countless number of the protagonists in the story suffered from this disfiguring disease, Cesare Borgia among them. The French, attempting to conquer Italy at the time, called it ‘the Italian disease’, though in England it was known as ‘the French disease’ – those same invading French soldiers took the dreadful disease with them when they returned home.

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family is an engaging narrative of the history of not only these most famous Italian siblings, but also Italy, the papacy and wider European politics at the time when the world was moving from the Medieval era into the Early Modern, when the Renaissance was in full swing and the Reformation was just around the corner. Samantha Morris demonstrates the power of the papacy, of Pope Alexander VI in particular, and how papal factions caused the rise – and fall – of the Borgia family.

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family is an entertaining and enthralling read – one not to be missed!

Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia: Brother and Sister of History’s Most Vilified Family by Samantha Morris is available from Pen & Sword Books and Amazon.

About the author:

Samantha Morris studied archaeology at the University of Winchester and it was there, whilst working on a dissertation about the battlefield archaeology of the English Civil War that her interest in the Italian Renaissance began. Her main area of interest is the history of the Borgia family and the papacy of Pope Alexander VI, however she also has a keen interest in the history of other Renaissance families. Samantha has previously written on the Borgia family and runs a successful blog based mainly on the history of the Italian Renaissance, but with snippets of other eras thrown in too.

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Lucia by Steven A. McKay

What makes life worth living for a slave of Rome?

The promise of vengeance no matter how long it takes.

At eight years old, Lucia is torn from the life she knew. Her village burned to the ground and parents murdered by Romans, she is kidnapped, sold and shipped abroad to the Villa Tempestatis in Britannia to serve the young Roman army officer Castus.

Faced with a bleak future of decades of servitude to her master, as well as sadistic brutality at the hands of his manageress, Paltucca, she finds herself fixated by one thought alone: vengeance.

Yet Villa Tempestatis, with its picturesque surroundings in Britannia’s green countryside, offers a life that’s a little easier than elsewhere in the Roman empire. The slaves form strong bonds of love and friendship, enjoy feasts and holiday celebrations together, and are even allowed, sometimes, to start a family. Many of them are happy enough with their lot.

Despite that, every moment of Lucia’s life is blighted by her hatred for Castus and Paltucca, and only seeing them both destroyed will bring her a measure of peace, even if it takes decades of work and planning…

From the moment you read the dedication in the front of Lucia, you will know you are in for an emotional rollercoaster:

Dedicated to all the men, women and children forced into slavery and forgotten by history.

And you would be right!

Lucia is one of those novels that will stay with you long, long … long after you have read the final page and closed the book (probably with a tear on your cheek). To say it is thought-provoking would be an understatement. This is one of those stories that will really get under your skin.

I have read everything Steven A. McKay has written, from his unique take on the Robin Hood stories to his wonderfully atmospheric Warrior Druid of Britain series, but Lucia is on another level. It is probably his best writing yet. It is a story that is at once desperate and uplifting, a story that touches you deep in your soul.

Set in a splendid villa in Roman Britain, Lucia captures perfectly a life of slavery. The brutality, the feeling of helplessness, the inhumanity is contrasted with the compassion, the humanity and the sense of family and comradeship with fellow slaves. Steve A. McKay clearly and cleverly depicts the blurred lines of the master and slave relationship and the slaves serve the Roman family, being detached from it and at the same time an integral part of the family life.

The villa was a wonderful sight on a July day like this, with its white plastered walls and red-tiled roofs seeming to glow in the sunshine, while its position on the hill afforded superb views of the land around: well-tended fields of corn and grain; groves of trees once sacred to the native Britons; and the sparkling waters of the narrow river that flowed past the western wing, providing their water for drinking, cleaning, cooking and, of course, bathing.

Sometimes, on particular beautiful days, Lucia forgot about her previous life, as the daughter of a warlord in Germania. Forgot about her previous existence before she was captured by the Romans who had destroyed her village, slaughtered her people and sold her at the market to her master.

It had been a year already since Publius Licinius Castus, a young Roman officer himself, had bought her from that terrible slave-market and shipped her here, to his lavish country villa in this damp land.

Villa Tempestatis

A lump came to her throat as an image of her parents – happy, smiling down with pride on their beloved daughter – came to her, and she angrily brushed away the tears forming in her eyes before they had a chance to streak her grimy cheeks.

Yes, sometimes she was able to forget her previous, free life in Germania, but it was never long before reality returned and she felt her spirit crushed so hard that it almost stopped her heart from beating.

The beauty of the villa and its surroundings hid the pain of dozens of slaves who had lived here over generations, young and old. Some of them, like Paltucca, were able to adapt and even thrive in such conditions, while others wilted and eventually, under the weight of what they’d lost, rendered themselves useless to the master. Those unfortunates soon disappeared, never to be heard of again.

Lucia wondered if she would end up like that one day, sold to be worked to death in a mine perhaps, when the stolen memory of the joy of her childhood became too much to bear.

Lucia explores the life of a girl forced into slavery by the Romans at the age of 8, and her relationship with her master and her fellow slaves. The book does a wonderful job of depicting not only the life of a slave but also their emotions, the fact that they do live their lives despite a lack of freedom, that they lived, loved, even raised families. It clearly demonstrates the contrast between the acceptance and cooperation that you still have to live, despite not being free, and that deep, constant yearning for freedom.

Lucia is one of those books for which you can write an awesome review – and yet, still know that your review will never do the book justice. It is, beyond doubt, the best thing Steven A. McKay has ever written, simply because it makes the reader re-evaluate the way they think and feel – and takes them to a depth of their soul they probably have never visited before.

Touching a topic that has affected lives throughout history, and yet seems just as relevant today; slavery. Lucia plays on all your emotions: anger, pity, empathy, love and hate. At times, Lucia is a hard book to read, but is essential reading on so many levels. Steven A McKay has written a truly riveting depiction of the life of a slave.

This is how books should be written, with passion and compassion. If you only read one more book this year, it should be Lucia.

Lucia is now available from Amazon

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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

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Sons of Rome by Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty

As twilight descends on the 3rd century AD, the Roman Empire is but a shadow of its former self. Decades of usurping emperors, splinter kingdoms and savage wars have left the people beleaguered, the armies weary and the future uncertain. And into this chaos Emperor Diocletian steps, reforming the succession to allow for not one emperor to rule the world, but four.

Meanwhile, two boys share a chance meeting in the great city of Treverorum as Diocletian’s dream is announced to the imperial court. Throughout the years that follow, they share heartbreak and glory as that dream sours and the empire endures an era of tyranny and dread. Their lives are inextricably linked, their destinies ever-converging as they rise through Rome’s savage stations, to the zenith of empire. For Constantine and Maxentius, the purple robes beckon…

Ever wondered what happens when two of your favourite authors get together and write a book?

Well, when its Simon Turney and Gordon Doherty, the result is a real page turner of an adventure that is impossible to put down!

Sons of Rome is the first in a new series by these two stalwarts in the field of Roman fiction. I only finished it yesterday and I am already desperate to read part two. The book fulfills the promise offered by combining two incredible authors. It is beautifully written, fast-paced and completely addictive.

Telling the story in alternating chapters, from the viewpoints of Constantine and Maxentius, it highlights the power struggles of the latter part of the Roman Empire. The Empire has got so big that a tetrarchy of two emperors and two caesars shared control of the eastern and western empires, with one emperor claiming seniority – Augustus – over the three other rulers.

Constantine and Maxentius – friends since childhood – are set to challenge the existing order of the tetrarchy, testing their friendship to its limits and beyond. Distrust and misunderstandings abound when destiny and the quest for ultimate power forces the two into opposition to each other.

Maxentius

By the Milvian Bridge across the Tiber, the next day

off to the left a centurion screamed imprecations at his men, driving them on across the churned turf and into the press of battle, while the clash and clamour of Rome’s armies at war filled the air around us.

I had to pause to adjust my rich wool hat, for it had become so sweat-sodden that it constantly threatened to slip down across my eyes, and it doesn’t do for an emperor to be cursing and blind as he fights for his throne. IN the searing heat of the sun’s glaring fiery orb, my horse stank of sweat and my purple cloak clung damp to my back, sticking to the beast’s rump behind me.

My sword had become heavy in my hand. I’d had only a brief chance to use it that morning, when I had managed to slip my overprotective bodyguard and join the cavalry in a brief push. But I had waved it around enthusiastically from time to time, giving orders to charge here and hold there. I knew my histories. Julius Caesar’s men would have followed him into the jaws of Cerberus himself just because of that great general’s presence on the field.

And I, Maxentius, emperor of Rome, had to be a new Julius Caesar this day, or I would be no one.

Briefly, across the sea of glinting helms and the forest of spear points, I caught sight of him. My enemy. The man who would wrest Rome from me. Constantine. My brother, my oldest friend, and yet my last and most bitter adversary. Like a hero of ancient myth, he rose in his saddle, sword rising and falling in a constant spray of blood.

The two leading characters, Constantine and Maxentius, are skillfully recreated by Turney and Doherty, each with their own personality and quirks; and each with their own pain and ambition. Constantine is the more martial of the two – you get the impression that he could march across the whole empire and subdue any who stand in his way. Whereas Maxentius has a first-rate political mind; what he lacks in military experience, he makes up for in his own battle arena, the corridors of power.

The contrasting qualities and abilities displayed by Constantine and Maxentius serve to create a unique story that has the reader gripped from the very first pages. You can’t help but have a favourite when you read of Constantine’s exploits and how he won the loyalty of the legions once sworn to his father. And then, of course, he was proclaimed emperor in York and I’m a Yorkshire lass…. But you may feel your allegiance changing when reading of Maxentius’ own abilities in winning favour with the people of the city of Rome itself, with the way he wins the loyalty of the African legions.

This is a totally absorbing book which combines action, political intrigue and divided loyalties to recreate a story that is fascinating to read and unputdownable – there’s that word again, it needs to be a real word. Honest!

Oh, and you get to spend the whole book, trying to work out which author is Constantine and which is Maxentius. Or, indeed, wondering if they even wrote it that way. The transition from one author to the other is seamless; the styles of each certainly complement the other. The benefit of two authors is obvious; each of the two leading characters – Maxentius and Constantine – narrating the story have clearly defined, individual voices. It gives Sons of Rome a strength and individuality that you rarely come across in a book.

I can heartily recommend it!

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About the authors

Simon Turney

Simon Turney is the author of the Marius’ Mules and Praetorian series, as well as The Damned Emperor series for Orion and Tales of the Empire series for Canelo. He is based in Yorkshire.

Gordon Doherty is the author of the Legionary and Strategos series, and wrote the Assassin’s Creed tie-in novel Odyssey. He is based in Scotland.

Pre-order links
Gordon Doherty

Amazon: https://amzn.to/3gfhvIr

Follow Simon

Twitter: @SJATurney

Website: http://simonturney.com/

Follow Gordon

Twitter: @GordonDoherty

Website: https://www.gordondoherty.co.uk/

Follow Aries

Twitter: @AriesFiction

Facebook: Aries Fiction

Website: http://www.headofzeus.com

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My Books

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

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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

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

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly