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

Medieval She-Wolves: Part One

Throughout history – and particularly in medieval times – strong, determined women have been labelled ‘she-wolves’. It is a term that has been used as a criticism or insult. It has often been applied to suggest a woman of serious character flaws who would invariably put her own interests ahead of others, who fought for what they wanted, be it a crown, their children or independence. Men who performed similar actions and had similar aims tended to be called strong and determined rulers. However, the term can also be used to show women in a positive light, women who didn’t give up, fought for themselves and their families. So I have chosen 6 women who could have been termed ‘she-wolves’ to show women from both viewpoints, and to demonstrate the strength of the characters and the challenges they faced. And while their actions were not always exemplary, their stories were always remarkable.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

The daughter of King Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia. Æthelflæd was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. Although she exercised regal rights in Mercia even before her husband’s death, after Æthelred died in 911, it was left to Æthelflæd to lead the Mercians in the fight against the Danes. Alongside her brother, King Edward of Wessex. It is universally acknowledged that Æthelflæd helped to push back the Viking incursions. Losing four of her greatest captains in the battle to capture Derby in 917, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported:

‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates.’

Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited by Michael Swanton

In 918, Æthelflæd captured Leicester, ravaging the countryside around the town until the Danes surrendered. The combination of her indefatigable forces and compassion in victory saw the Danes soon suing for peace; in the summer of 918, the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her. She personally led campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes – though whether she actually wielded a sword in battle is unknown.

While often magnanimous in victory, Æthelflæd could be ruthless when it was her friends who were attacked; even she was not immune from the desire for revenge. In June 916, on the feast of St Cyriac, Æthelflæd’s good friend, Abbot Egbert, was murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot and his retainers were ambushed and killed while travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog. The abbot had been under Æthelflæd’s protection and within three days she was leading an army into the Wales to exact revenge.

Statue of Aethelflaed and Athelstan

Æthelflæd’s army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom and taking many hostages. Although King Tewdr escaped Æthelflæd, his wife did not; Queen Angharad and thirty-three others, many of them relatives of the Welsh king, were taken back to Mercia as hostages. Æthelflæd’s strength and determination was complemented by her quick actions and an impressive ruthless streak. When the Welsh king eventually submitted to Æthelflæd, he promised to serve her faithfully, and to pay compensation for the murder of the abbot and his people.

Æthelflæd died suddenly in June 918. She did not live to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had worked tirelessly to achieve; between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered.

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France, Queen of England (died 1204)

Tomb effigy of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Fontevraud Abbey, France

Eleanor of Aquitaine is iconic. Probably the most famous woman of the middle ages, she is the only woman to have ever worn the crowns of both England and France. She has even been promoted as the first feminist.

Eleanor’s long life saw her weather the dangers of crusade, scandal, siege, imprisonment and betrayal to emerge as the great matriarch of Europe.

When her first husband, Louis VII, led the Second Crusade, Eleanor went with him, only to find herself mired in scandal.  Eleanor’s uncle Raymond of Toulouse, Prince of Antioch, welcomed Eleanor warmly and lavished such attention on her that rumours soon arose of an affair. Despite a lack of concrete evidence, but accused of adultery and incest, Eleanor spent most of the crusade under close guard on her husband’s orders.

Louis and Eleanor’s marriage had been dealt a fatal blow; they left the Holy Land in 1149 and their divorce was finally proclaimed 21 March 1152. By May 1152 Eleanor was married again, to the man who would become her first husband’s greatest rival. Henry of Anjou would become King of England in 1154 and eventually built an empire that extended 1,000 miles, from the Scottish border in the north to the Pyrenees in the south and incorporating most of western France.

Later rumours again mired Eleanor in scandal, accusing her of murdering Henry’s lover Rosamund Clifford. In one extravagant version, Rosamund was hidden in her secret bower within a maze but, with the help of a silken thread, a jealous Eleanor still found her and stabbed her while she bathed. In another the discarded queen forced Rosamund to drink from a poison cup. Of course, a closely guarded prisoner in Old Sarum or at Winchester as Eleanor was at the time of Rosamund’s death, it was impossible for her to do any such thing. But who are we to let facts get in the way of a good story?

Eleanor did, however, commit one of the most heinous crimes a woman could in the medieval world. As a she-wolf, protecting her cubs, she rebelled against her husband. In 1173 her eldest son by Henry, also called Henry, rebelled against his father and fled to the French court for support. His father-in-law, King Louis VII welcomed the disgruntled Angevin prince and Eleanor of Aquitaine, having sided with her sons against her husband, sent two of her other sons, fifteen-year-old Richard and fourteen-year-old Geoffrey, to join their older brother at the French court, while she rallied her barons in Poitou to their cause. In 1174, when the rebellion failed, Henry accepted the submission of his sons.

Eleanor, who was captured as she rode towards safety in France, wearing men’s clothing – an act itself highly frowned upon – was not so fortunate. While it was not encouraged for sons to rebel against their father, it could be seen as boys flexing their muscles. For a wife to rebel against her husband was practically unheard of, and went against the natural order of society, and therefore deserved harsher punishment – where would the world be if women refused to behave?

Unforgiven and defeated, Eleanor was sent to perpetual imprisonment in various castles throughout southern England. She was only released after Henry II’s death in 1189, when her favourite son, Richard I, the Lionheart, ascended England’s throne. If she had done everything of which she was accused – murder, incest, adultery and rebellion – Eleanor would be the ultimate she-wolf. As it was, her rebellion, an act unprecedented for a queen, meant she paid the price with her freedom for the next fifteen years.

Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France

Isabeau of Bavaria

If all the stories of Isabeau of Bavaria were to be believed, she would be the most ruthless and wicked queen to have ever lived. For centuries Isabeau has been accused of almost every crime imaginable, from adultery and incest to treason and avarice. Variously described as being beautiful and hypnotic or so obese that she was crippled, the chroniclers have not been kind to Isabeau. According to them, her moral corruption led to the neglect of her children and betrayal of her husband and country.

However, they ignored the challenges faced by a queen whose husband was sinking deeper and deeper into the realms of insanity, going so far as killing four of his own knights during one mental breakdown and thinking he was made of glass in another. Married to King Charles VI of France, also known as Charles ‘the Mad’, Isabeau was left to raise her children and navigate the dangers and intrigues of court politics with little assistance from her mentally disturbed husband. Her political alliance with Louis of Orléans, her husband’s brother, led to her imprisonment amid slanderous rumours of adultery and incest – from the opposing political party.

To add to this, France was – not that they knew it at the time – halfway through the conflict with England that would become known as the Hundred Years’ War. The war was going badly for France – Henry V defeated them decisively at Agincourt – and Isabeau was forced to put her signature to the Treaty of Troyes in 1420. In that instant she disinherited her own son, the Dauphin, making Henry V heir to King Charles and handing France over to England. Much of Isabeau’s life and career has been re-examined in the twentieth century and she has been exonerated of many of the accusations against her, but, despite the fact Isabeau was backed into a corner, she still signed away her son’s inheritance in favour of a foreign power…

Although not all their actions were womanly, and some of what they did could be seen as dishonourable and ruthless, what is certain is that these women – and many others from their time – left their mark on history. With each of them, applying the term ‘she-wolf’ highlights their strengths, their determination, and the challenges they faced and overcame. They fought for what they wanted, often against impossible odds, and achieved much. At a time when the perceived main purpose of a wife was to produce and raise children, these women made a remarkable imprint on history that has ensured their stories are still being told today.

Look out for Part Two of Medieval She-Wolves, next week.

Selected Sources:

The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Plantagenets, the Kings who Made England by Dan Jones; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; http://www.britannica.com; oxforddnb.com; finerollshenry3.org.uk; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Mercia; the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

A version of this article first appeared in the 2019 edition of All About History magazine.

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. 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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

Book Corner: Fortune’s Child by James Conroyd Martin

Theodora: actress, prostitute, mistress, feminist. And Byzantine Empress of the civilized world. Stephen: handsome Syrian boy, wizard’s apprentice, palace eunuch. And Secretary to the Empress. How does this unlikely pair become such allies that one day Empress Theodora asks Stephen to write her biography?

From a very young age, Theodora, daughter of a circus bearkeeper in Constantinople, sets her sights well above her station in life. Her exquisite beauty sets her apart on stages and in the eyes of men.

Stephen, a Syrian lad of striking good looks, is sold by his parents to a Persian wizard, who teaches him a skill in languages that will serve him well.
By the time Destiny brings them together in Antioch, Theodora has undergone heart-rending trials and a transformation, while Stephen has been sold again . . . and castrated.
Discover the enduring bond that, however imperfect, prompts Theodora—as Empress—to request palace eunuch Stephen to write her biography.

This is a true rags to riches story, of a girl from the lowers echelons of society who rose to be empress of Constantinople. Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora tells the story of Empress Theodora, born in 500, into a poor Greek family; her father a circus worker for the Greens, who rose to be Master of the Bears. Theodora’s future was to be an actress, a popular one, but little more than a prostitute in the eyes of many, and with no prospects to ever improve her situation, unless she forced matters.

Although a novel, Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora flawlessly blends history and story-telling to draw the reader into the exotic world of 6th century Constantinople and the East. Recreating the life of Theodora and the world in which she lived, James Conroyd Martin takes you on an adventure that explores every aspect of Theodora’s world, the challenges, grief and struggles that she had to face to climb out of the fate into which she was born and make her own fortune.

This is a novel that will take you through the full range of emotions. It is not all glamour and success, but neither is it all dull and gloom. The author imbues a humanity that invokes both sympathy and compassion for the title character, even when her actions are less than noble.

It is late at night when a soft knock, almost imperceptible, comes at the door. I open it to find Theodora standing there, a finger to her lips. She is dressed in a purple bedchamber robe. She wears no veil or headdress. Her hair falls about her face like an ebony frame about the portrait of a ghost. I stand aside and she enters, gliding like some visitant saint into a monk’s cell.

But she is no saint. And since I am no monk, I take the comfortable chair.

“You know the circumstances of my birth, Stephen, how my mother kept me from being … abandoned – exposed to the elements.”

I nod, taking up a kalamos.

“The story is legend by now. Of course, it may be quite accurate, but my mother would relate it as a way of upbraiding a thoughtless and unappreciative daughter who would drolly mimic the ways of the adults around her, as well as the pretentious airs of an older sister. I was two when the mid-wife was called again and mother gave birth to a third child – alas, another girl.” She pauses, appraising me, her biographer. “Take what I tell you, Stephen, and bring my life to parchment. Breathe life into my past.” The empress grimaces as she settles in without complaint against the hard back of the chair, bringing her hands together in her lap, the interlocking fingers pale as moonbeams against the purple of her robe. “I shall begin, Stephen, where my memory begins.”

For my pettiness in my choice of chair, I feel a tinge of guilt, but I dust away and begin taking the notes that will become her biography.

Sixth century Byzantium is a period that is not often featured in historical fiction, which is such a shame, if Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora is anything to go by. It is a thoroughly engaging read, immersing the reader in 6th century Byzantium, through the sights, sounds and smells of Constantinople; the challenges and prejudices faced by lower class women, however beautiful and alluring, and the rules and restrictions of the privileged classes and the imperial court.

It is, at times, a hard book to read, when the reality of a woman’s lot and the prejudices and attitudes Theodora had to face and overcome. And yet, she never seems to forget her roots. The author avoids melodrama to bring you a story that is, at once, the story of Theodora and of her biographer, and how their lives are intertwined with Theodora’s own rise through the ranks of society.

As you read the novel, you can understand why James Conroyd Martin chose to tell Theodora’s life, it is as mesmerising and engaging as Theodora herself must have been. From the first pages the reader is immediately and irrevocably invested in the story of this incredible woman. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a must-read. Many aspects of it will remain with you long after you have finished the last page.

Fortune’s Child: A Novel of Empress Theodora by James Conroyd Martin is available in hardback, paperback and ebook from Amazon UK.

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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