Mastodon The Writing Desk

26 November 2023

Book Review: Women of Power: Formidable Females of the Medieval World, by Teresa Cole

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Historian and author Teresa Cole has taken six 'formidable' women of the medieval world, and explored their influential lives in this intriguing new book. 

We start with Emma of Normandy, who she calls 'The Great Survivor'.  Emma did survive being married to two kings, which in itself is a rare accomplishment, but I was particularly interested in how she managed the narrative in what seems a very modern way by overseeing the written account of her life - although the anonymous author doubted he was up to the job.

I recall how Queen Emma 'resurfaced' in a recent documentary about DNA testing the bones in Winchester Cathedral, which were scattered during the English Civil War. One again, Emma wins, as she was the only female, so her bones were happily reunited.

I knew less about Matilda of Tuscany, whose story was nearly cut short by her plan to retire to a nunnery after being accused of adultery with the Pope and of ordering her husband's murder. Instead, Matilda fought back against the misinformation campaigns of her enemies, who called has a 'Jezebel' and a heretic. One of the most important leaders of the Italian Middle Ages, Matilda  has the distinction of being buried in three different tombs, the final one being at St. Peter's Basilica, where her inscription says she was 'a woman with a man's soul.'

15th century portrait of Empress Matilda (Wikimedia Commons)

The stories of Empress Matilda and Matilda of Boulogne which follow requires close reading, as we switch from one to the other, and it does not help that they have the same name. Both stories are complex, and worthy of anything in 'Game of Thrones', so it was a relief to move on to Melisende, Queen of Jerusalem, and finally a favourite of mine, Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

Tomb effigies of Eleanor and Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey
(Wikimedia Commons)

All these women left their mark on history, and inspired artists in a way few of their male contemporaries did, yet often their stories are of hardship and survival against the odds. I found myself remembering my own history lessons and wondering if each generation sees them in a different light, judging the extent of their success as 'Women of Power' by the standards of the time.

Tony Riches

# # #

About the Author

Teresa Cole was a teacher for many years before turning to writing. She is the author of Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415, and three books about the Normans – The Norman Conquest: William the Conqueror’s Subjugation of England, After the Conquest: The Divided Realm 1066-1135, and Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England. 

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publishers, Amberley.

22 November 2023

Book Review: School of Aces: The RAF Training School that Won the Battle of Britain, by Alastair Goodrum

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

I followed my father into the Royal Air Force, and ended up teaching the theory of flight at the central training school, so I have a keen interest in the history of RAF training.

School of Aces is a meticulously researched and detailed story of the work of RAF Sutton Bridge, up to the end of what became known as the 'Battle of Britain'. The one training base specialised in a seven week  training programme, from which 525 Hurricane pilots graduated, and 390 becoming a key part of the mostly young men we remember as 'The Few'.

In October 1939 No. 266 Squadron reformed at RAF Sutton Bridge as a fighter squadron, and from January 1940 became the RAF's second Spitfire fighter Squadron after RAF Duxford.

Hurricane Mk I, R4118, similar to what would have been flown at RAF Sutton Bridge and used during the 'Battle of Britain' 
(Wikimedia Commons)

The detailed history of RAF Sutton Bridge is brought to life with plenty of first-hand accounts which serve to remind us all of the great risk and sacrifice made by these young men.  

RAF Sutton Bridge is now vanishing under an industrial estate, and marked only be a memorial plaque and a few remaining buildings, which is why books such as this are important part of the history of the Royal Air Force.

Tony Riches

# # #

About the Author

Alastair Goodrum is retired and lives in Lincolnshire. He has written aviation history articles and five books since 1984, and has given illustrated talks to a variety of clubs for more than twenty years. 

21 November 2023

Special Guest Post by Samantha Wilcoxson: Masterworks ~ Historical Short Fiction Inspired by Works of Art

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Strolling through an art gallery gives art appreciators a glimpse at the heart of creativity artists from across time and distance have poured onto canvas, into clay, through wood, metal, and stone. Art inspires us and helps us connect with emotions and ideas. But have you ever wondered what inspired the artists themselves? Perhaps it was a loved one, a moment of suffering or despair, a celebration, or a victory. Have you ever wondered what stories these works tell?

Masterworks is an anthology of short stories curated by Historical Writers Forum. This is HWF’s third annual collection, and the 2023 theme is stories inspired by works of art. Eleven participating authors explored stories behind famous works, lives of artists, and even the point of view of a portrait through time.

The artwork I chose for my Masterworks story is a marble statue of Alexander Hamilton that was sculpted by Robert Ball Hughes in 1835. This statue captures Alexander as most of us envision him, in the prime of his life, handsome, and ready to take on the world – or at least Thomas Jefferson. This statue was destroyed in New York’s Great Fire of 1835 less than a year after its installation and after James, Alexander’s son, failed in his efforts to save it.

I am currently writing a biography of James A Hamilton for Pen & Sword, so this short story enabled me to share some of my research and write about James with the freedom of fiction. I enjoyed delving into James’s role as the son of a famous, some might say infamous, father and whether he felt he had lived up to the Hamilton name.

 James shared his father’s intellect and passion for law and finance. His Reminiscences include pages of economic and banking advice sent to presidents and other government officials. He was a quieter man than his father, only serving as temporary Secretary of State and never grasping at a permanent cabinet position. James also was much more diplomatic. Alexander Hamilton famously said too much with excessive candor. James made friends among people with diverse political beliefs and explored Europe making favorable connections everywhere he went.

While writing this story, I was able to include some fantastic lines that are taken directly from the writing of James and his brother, John, such as, ‘Can freedom loving Americans stand before the world as a great republic that holds people in fetters while tyrants free their slaves?’ As the Civil War tore the country apart, the Hamilton brothers boldly spoke out against slavery and in favor of abolition.

This story not only shines a light on James, but also on the era between the American Revolution and Civil War, which I hope causes readers to contemplate how much more complicated of a task it was to form a new nation and compromise on laws and issues that seem non-negotiable to us. As James thinks to himself in my story, ‘It had seemed reasonable to them to leave some problems for their sons to solve. And so here I am.’ Instead of accusing historical figures of failing, perhaps we should be more willing to do our own part in the present.

Stories in this anthology take place throughout history, from ancient Mesopotamia to the 20th century, and feature interesting characters related to diverse works of art. Readers can get these stories and maybe find their next favorite author for only .99 on Kindle or free with Kindle Unlimited.

Samantha Wilcoxson
# # #

About the Author

Samantha Wilcoxson is an author of emotive biographical fiction and strives to help readers connect with history's unsung heroes. Her historical fiction novels include the Plantagenet Embers series, Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl, and But One Life, a novel of Nathan Hale. Saantha also writes nonfiction for Pen & Sword History. Her most recent work is Women of the American Revolution, which explores the lives of 18th century women, and she is currently working on a biography of James Alexander Hamilton. Samantha loves sharing trips to historic places with her family and spending time by the lake with a glass of wine. Find out more at Samantha's Blog and find her on Facebook and Twitter/X @carpe_librum

20 November 2023

Book Review of Uncrowned: Royal Heirs Who Didn't Take the Throne, by Ashley Mantle

Available from Amazon UK 
and pre-order from Amazon US

Ashley Mantle takes twenty-five unlucky heirs to the throne and explores the reasons they were uncrowned.  Some were in the wrong place at the wrong time, others victims of treachery and many simply fell ill before their chance to rule, but all have their day in this new account. I found the less well known the most interesting, but will highlight three I feel particular sympathy for.

I remember visiting Canterbury Cathedral as a boy and peering in fascination at the effigy of Edward of Woodstock, the 'Black Prince'.  He had little coverage in my history lessons, and now I realise it's partly because he never had the chance to rule, and his story is not so well documented and he remains what Ashley Mantle describes as 'an elusive figure; as a consequence. 

Edward's tomb in Canterbury Cathedral (Wikimedia Commons)

Sadly for Edward, he survived a lifetime of hand-to-hand fighting against the French, as well as the 'Black Death' which killed half the population, (including his sister) only to suffer a debilitating illness, and die a year before his father,  King Edward III.

The sad fate of Lady Jane Grey has had a lot more attention in recent years, but I found it interesting to be reminded of the known facts. The great-granddaughter of King Henry VII through his daughter, Princess Mary Tudor (Queen of France), Jane really was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  it her reported words are true, it's hard not to be impressed by her stoicism. 

16th century portrait of Jane Grey (Wikimedia Commons)

Ashley Mantle hints that seventeen-year-old Jane might have escaped execution if she had converted to Catholicism - but she refused, so we will never know, although she would have been a threat to Queen Mary I while she lived. 

Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was the eldest son and heir of King James VI and I, and I find it fascinating to wonder if we would have had the Civil Wars if he had lived to become King of England (and Scotland).

The grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots, young Henry lived his short life being prepared to become king, and was trained to shoot and fight and hunt, as well as studying law and the arts.   

Henry, Prince of Wales, by Robert Peake the Elder 
(Wikimedia Commons)

Described as tall and broad shouldered, Henry began to show a keen interest in foreign affairs and the development of naval ships. Created Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Earl of Chester at the age of sixteen, henry began recruiting his household, but began having sudden fits of fainting. He made light of it, hiding his illness and playing cards, but his condition worsened. Despite his well-meaning doctors shaving his head and 'applying pigeons' (droppings?), he succumbed to what was most likely a typhoid fever. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and his younger brother Charles became the new heir.

I enjoyed reading 'Uncrowned' and recommend it to anyone who, like me, somehow missed most of this at school and have been trying to make sense of history ever since.   

Tony Riches

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publisher, Amberley Books. 

# # #

About the Author

Ashley Mantle is a writer and historian with particular focus on the Norman, Angevin and Wars of the Roses periods of English history. He is the author of King John: A Brief History. Ashley has a degree in screenwriting from Bournemouth University. You can find him on Goodreads

19 November 2023

Book Launch Guest Post: Henry VIII’s True Daughter: Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life, by Wendy J Dunn

Available from Amazon UK
and for pre-order from Amazon US

The lives of Tudor women often offer faint but fascinating footnotes on the pages of history. The life of Catherine – or Katryn as her husband would one day pen her name – Carey, the daughter of Mary Boleyn and, as the weight of evidence suggests, Henry VIII,
is one of those footnotes.

I write this on the 19th of November in Melbourne, Australia. That means there are only eleven days left before I will celebrate the publication in the UK of Henry VIII’s True Daughter: Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life. True Daughter (my nickname fort this work) is my first full-length historical nonfiction book. It explores the life of Catherine Knollys, an immensely important Tudor woman. Catherine is someone I have had a long association with, after first giving her voice as a teenager in my second Anne Boleyn novel, The Light in the Labyrinth

The wonderful Tudor historian Dr Owen Emmerson wrote in the foreword of True Daughter, ‘…women in history, previously relegated to the margins, can, and must, be afforded scholarly attention.’ His words speak the truth. There is so much we do not know about herstory, the stories of women from our past. For writers of historical fiction like Tony Riches, myself, and countless others, this ‘not knowing’ offer us with welcomed gaps. 

They invite our imaginations to reconstruct the past. But for a work of nonfiction, these gaps invite and require detective work. Philippa Langley’s recent investigation in the fate of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ shows how much work this involves — and also how difficult it is to nail down absolute answers. I wrote in True Daughter how ‘history leaves us grappling with slippery speculations.’ [1] This is especially the case if the subject of your investigation was born into the female gender.

Take my Catherine Knollys, for example. History fails to record Catherine's achievements, focusing solely on her marriage to Francis Knollys. But Catherine was a woman of substance, a woman of power and intelligence, a woman who also wrote letters. How can we doubt that when we have letters written in reply to her, including the famous Cor Rotto (Latin for broken hearted) letter Elizabeth I wrote to Catherine on hearing about the Knollys’s plan to go into exile during the reign of Mary I. But, to my frustration, I could not find any writings by Catherine. 

I still wonder if this was because I remained stuck in Melbourne, Australia during long COVID lockdowns. While I counted my blessings for the internet's digital archives, it was painful not being able to search physical archives in British libraries – especially when I believe there must be letters from Catherine somewhere. She was the mother of a large family, with thirteen of her known fourteen babies growing into adulthood. Her descendants stretch far and wide around the globe and include many figures still remembered in history — like the fascinating Penelope Devereux, the subject of Tony Riches’ fine novel, Penelope — Tudor Baroness.

I have now started work on a second nonfiction work for Pen and Sword Books. If I can find the funds, I plan to go to England to research the archives at as many important British libraries as possible. Researching True Daughter reminded me of the importance of on the ground research. Breakthroughs can happen — like when someone discovered the letters of the daughter-in-law of Catherine Knolly archived under the name of another family member.

The reason I decided to write this second nonfiction work on another little-known Tudor woman is because I emerged from writing True Daughter feeling more committed than ever to reclaim these most forgotten stories about women from the past.
I recently wrote on Judith Arnopp’s blog, ‘Women are an equal part of humanity’s shared past. Yet, history describes the lives of so many women with such brevity that it also speaks of the reality of what it was to be born in the female gender. It results in erasure. If we do not restore the stories of women from the past to recorded history, then half our human story remains hidden in the dark’ [2].

In the past, I have written fiction to question ‘these societal narratives in an attempt to build a bridge of empathy that may lead to change’ [3]. My questioning now includes writing in the nonfiction form — and for the same reasons. To give voice to the silencing of the past only makes it clear how much women like Catherine Knollys contributed to their societies.

Reclaiming their stories is vital if we want history to tell us the complete story of the past.

 Wendy J Dunn 

Works Cited:

1. Dunn, W.J., Henry VIII’s True Daughter: Catherine Carey, A Tudor Life. 2023, Great Britain: Pen and Sword Books.
2. Dunn, W.J. Origins of True Daughter. 2023; Available from:
3. Dunn, W.J., The light in the labyrinth: young adult novel and exegesis. 2014, Swinburne University: Melbourne, Australia.

# # #
About the Author

Wendy J. Dunn is an Australian author, playwright and poet who has been obsessed by Anne Boleyn and Tudor History since she was ten-years-old. She is the author of two Tudor novels: Dear Heart, How Like You This?, the winner of the 2003 Glyph Fiction Award and 2004 runner up in the Eric Hoffer Award for Commercial Fiction, and The Light in the Labyrinth, her first young adult novel. While she continues to have a very close and spooky relationship with Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder, serendipity of life now leaves her no longer wondering if she has been channeling Anne Boleyn and Sir Tom for years in her writing, but considering the possibility of ancestral memory. Her family tree reveals the intriguing fact that her ancestors – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally. Wendy tutors at Swinburne University in their Master of Arts (Writing) program. Find out more at her website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyjdunn

18 November 2023

Book Review – The Moon Gate, by Amanda Geard

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

The letter opens a hole in the earth, and through the darkness she tumbles. Falling. Falling. Slowing. Slowing. Until she reaches light and arrives at an island on the other side of the world. The place where she once was. The place where they once were. Tasmania.

I’ve not read a novel set in Tasmania before, and Amanda Geard’s evocative descriptions bring its beauty and dangers to vibrant life. Also set in London and County Kerry, Ireland, The Moon Gate is a real page turner and a demanding read.

I mean this in a positive sense, as a deep mystery develops throughout the book, and I enjoyed keeping a lookout for ‘clues’ which could prove to be vital as the story progresses.

I soon became used to the pendulum swinging from 2004 to 1985, back to 1939, into the war years, then to 1974 and back to 2004. We know the different storylines will come together, but the device provides a depth and scope rarely achieved in most novels.

My favourite character was Grace, and her love of writing prose, which lifts some chapters to another level. This is a masterclass in complex storytelling using unusual settings, which I am happy to recommend.

Tony Riches

# # #

About the Author

Amanda Geard is passionate about capturing the wilds of County Kerry in her writing and was inspired to pen her first novel, The Midnight House after a trip to Listowel Writers’ Week in 2019.  She has written for The Irish Times, The Journal, The Gloss and  In 2022, she was the recipient of an Arts Council Agility Award and a Kerry County Council Arts bursary, as well as being selected for the 2022/23 Evolution Programme with the Irish Writers Centre. She was awarded a teaching internship at the University of Galway BA (Creative Writing). Find out more at Amanda's website and find her on Facebook Twitter @amandageard and Bluesky

17 November 2023

Blog Tour Interview with Tim Walker, Author of London Tales

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

This collection of eleven tales offers dramatic pinpricks in the rich tapestry of London’s timeline, a city with two thousand years of history. They are glimpses of imagined lives at key moments, starting with a prologue in verse from the point of view of a native Briton tribeswoman absorbing the shock of Roman invasion. The first story is a tense historical adventure set in Roman Londinium in 60 CE from the perspective of terrified legionaries and townsfolk facing the vengeful Iceni queen, Boudica, whose army burnt the fledgling city to the ground.

I'm pleased to welcome author Tim Walker to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book 

Hi and thanks for inviting me to The Writing Desk. My new book is London Tales, a collection of eleven short stories that offer pinpricks in the rich tapestry of London’s two-thousand-year history. The stories start in Roman Londinium, then to Medieval London at the time of the Peasant’s Revolt, on to the Great Fire of London, an Ice Fair in Georgian London, Jack the Ripper copycat killings, a Blitz romance, the Swinging Sixties and the London terror attacks of 2007. The collection is capped with a futuristic tale set during the final evacuation as rising sea levels claim the city.

What is your preferred writing routine?

Now I’m retired, I prefer to write in the mornings when my mind is alert and I can recall ideas that have been filtering overnight. I often start by reviewing and editing what was written the day before, then get onto the new stuff. I type into Word documents on an aging laptop, often referring to handwritten notes.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Write in the genre you enjoy reading. With me, it’s usually historical fiction, as I enjoy researching history. It’s important to convey your enthusiasm for the subject matter to the reader, otherwise if your writing comes across as flat, the reader will lose interest. Your enthusiasm is a key factor in tying the reader into your story.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

I post a lot on social media – Facebook, X, Instagram and I’ve even joined TikTok! Following Twitter’s weird rebirth as ‘X’, new rival platforms have emerged that are slowly gaining traction, namely Hive, Threads and Bluesky. If I’ve got a new book, then I’ll blog about it on Jetpack/Wordpress, Medium and Blogger. If I do a Kindle price promotion, then I might pay for a Facebook Page Boost and raid the Kindle Facebook groups. I will do a launch blog tour and have been known to run an advert or two on the Fussy Librarian!

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

The slow reveal of England’s history is an ongoing affair, with new discoveries, often made by archaeologists, opening our eyes to hitherto unknown details of our past and of the lives of our ancestors. I learned much about Roman Londinium from Life in Roman London by Simon Webb. I was able to include details of the buildings and layout of pre-Boudican revolt Londinium, including that the main east to west road was named the Via Decumena, and that the early settlement grew around two army camps on the highest hills – Ludgate Hill and Cornhill. 

The city that was overrun and burnt down by Boudica in 60 CE, the subject of my story, Londinium Falling, had only a ditch and earth bank defence, perhaps with two corner towers and a simple wooden gatehouse to the north road. This was because the Romans were not expecting attack from the land side as the local tribes had been pacified. The sacking of London, Colchester and St Albans by the vengeful Icini queen led to a policy of settlements being contained within stone block walls for greater security. Webb tells us that because there were no suitable building stones in or close to Londinium, a stone quarry was established in Kent and blocks would have been transported to Londinium on barges down the River Medway and onto the Thames. Most of London’s stone comes from the hills of Kent.

What are you planning to write next?

I am currently working on an audiobook script for London Times, and hope to have it produced and available by March 2024. As for a winter novel, I might go back to a historical fiction sequel to my Roman Britain novel, Guardians at the Wall. 

Tim Walker

# # #

About the Author

Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. Although born in Hong Kong in the sixties, he grew up in Liverpool where he began his working life as a trainee reporter on a local newspaper. After attaining a degree in Communication Studies he moved to London where he worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business. He returned to the UK in 2009. His creative writing journey began in earnest in 2013, as a therapeutic activity whilst recovering from cancer treatment. He began writing an historical fiction series, A Light in the Dark Ages, in 2014, inspired by a visit to the part-excavated site of former Roman town Calleva Atrebatum at Silchester in Hampshire. The series connects the end of Roman Britain to elements of the Arthurian legend and is inspired by historical source material, presenting an imagined historical fiction of Britain in the fifth and early sixth centuries. The last book in the series, Arthur, Rex Brittonum, was published in June 2020. This is a re-imagining of the story of King Arthur and follows on from 2019’s Arthur Dux Bellorum. Tim took early retirement on medical grounds and now divides his time between writing and helping out at a Berkshire-based charity, Men’s Matters. Find out more about the author at his website and find him on Facebook, Bluesky and Twitter @timwalker1666