23 August 2019

Special Guest Post by Matthew Harffy, Author of The Bernicia Chronicles

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

AD 643. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the sixth instalment in the Bernicia Chronicles. Heading south to lands he once considered his home, Beobrand is plunged into a dark world of piracy and slavery when an old friend enlists his help
to recover a kidnapped girl. 

STORM OF STEEL and the ships of the Anglo-Saxons

One of the many great things about writing historical fiction is doing the research, particularly visiting sites that appear in the novels. There is nothing quite like walking on the same ground as the characters you are writing about to get into their mind-set.

My series, The Bernicia Chronicles, is set in seventh century Britain, mostly in what is now Northumberland and Yorkshire, and when I manage to visit the locations, it is always a wonderful experience. People ask why I didn’t choose to write novels set in some far away warm and sunny clime. Of course, apart from how expensive it would be to travel abroad, I didn’t really choose the time and place I write about, the setting chose me. But that is a whole different blog post!

It has become a bit of a running joke in my family that when I write about a new place I always end up visiting it long after completing the novel in which it appears, often even after publication. This means I have no chance to rectify any mistakes I may have made. As usual, my wife and daughters are right. In Storm of Steel, the protagonist of my series, Beobrand, travels to the north of France, to Rouen, more precisely.

The book has already been published and I have yet to visit that city! However, not only does Beobrand travel further afield than in previous novels, he also spends a lot of the action aboard different ships. As I am not an experienced sailor by any means, I decided this was one aspect of the story that needed some hands-on research.

Matthew in Weymouth

Of course, there are very few replica ships from the early medieval period, so I decided on the next best thing: a chartered fishing boat. I contacted the skipper, Euan McNair, before the trip and told him the purpose of my visit and he was incredibly helpful. It turned out he was also a sailing instructor and ex-Royal Navy, and so he knew everything there was to know about the winds and tides of the English Channel that would affect my characters on their storm-swept voyage.

Sirius and skipper

Heading out from the harbour at Weymouth aboard his boat, Sirius, McNair took me and my friend Gareth (who took all the great photos) along the coast showing us likely locations for where a seventh century ship might be wrecked in rough seas.

He also explained how the different tides, surges and prevailing winds would affect seagoing vessels. It was an invaluable experience, especially as I got to see the rocks, cliffs and coastline of Dorset from the perspective of a sailor rather than a landlubber.

We only went to sea for a few hours on a boat fitted with all the modern gadgets, GPS, radar, radio, and let’s not forget the diesel engines. Clearly this is a far remove from the ships that feature in Storm of Steel.

While a considerable amount is known about the vessels sailed by the Norsemen a few centuries after the period in which my novel is set, less is known about the ships of the Anglo-Saxons. As no Anglo-Saxon ship has been found with evidence of a mast and sail, there is much debate about whether they actually had sails or were instead rowed everywhere.

A book with insights into both sides of the argument is Dark Age Naval Power by John Haywood. As well as analysis of historical evidence and archaeology, great work has also been done by E. and J. Gifford, who reconstructed a half-scale replica of the ship from the Sutton Hoo burial. They named it the Sae Wylfing and rigged it with a mast and sail and carried out a series of practical tests proving it could be navigated very effectively under sail.

Both of these works, and common sense led me to believe it is almost certain that ships from the period had sails. The Romans, whom the Saxon tribes had interacted with for centuries, used wind power, as did the people from Scandinavia a couple of hundred years later, so, despite there being no firm evidence to prove it, I think it highly unlikely that the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had not worked out how to rig a mast and sail in their ships.

Sutton hoo ship
I was lucky enough to see the Sae Wylfing on display at Sutton Hoo, which helped give me extra understanding of the construction of the ship and the placement of the oars, the rigging, and the mast.

While researching the book, I also read Tim Severin's wonderful book The Brendan Voyage. In it he recounts his epic journey in a leather-skinned currach in which, along with a small crew, he travelled between Ireland and North America, thus proving that the tale of St. Brendan's voyage in the sixth century could in fact be a fictionalised account of a real journey, using the different islands of the North Atlantic as stepping stones to the New World.

This resource was invaluable to me. The first-hand account of travelling the North Atlantic aboard a Dark Age vessel enabled me to add extra colour and depth to the descriptions of the seafarers’ life in Storm of Steel.

I loved researching and writing this book and I have been overjoyed by the comments of some reviewers with experience of sailing who have mentioned that the seafaring passages are very believable and realistic. This is the ultimate goal of any historical fiction author, and makes all the effort worth it.

The next novel in The Bernicia Chronicles series, Fortress of Fury, involves a siege and a great fire. Now, where did I leave those matches?

Matthew Harffy

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About the Author

Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria's Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. Matthew has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing, just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters. When not writing, or spending time with his family, Matthew sings in a band called Rock Dog. Find out more at Matthew's website www.matthewharffy.com and find him on Facebook and Twitter @MatthewHarffy.

All Weymouth coast photos Copyright Gareth Jones 2018.
Sutton Hoo photos Copyright Matthew Harffy 2018.

The Bernicia Chronicles:

Wolf of Wessex:

Novella – Kin of Cain:

22 August 2019

The death of Sir Charles Brandon, Tudor Knight, 22 August, 1545

King Henry VIII had few close friends, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, was his closest throughout his life. Brandon’s father, Sir William Brandon, was standard bearer for Henry Tudor at the Battle of Bosworth Field - and is thought to have been killed by King Richard III on 22nd August, 1485.

Young Charles Brandon was brought up at King Henry VII’s court and became a favourite of the king  as well as a childhood friend of his second son - the future King Henry VIII.  

In 1515 Henry VIII sent Brandon to France to escort back to England his young widowed sister, Mary Tudor, whose husband King Louis XII of France had died. Brandon risked his life by secretly marrying Henry's sister (against the king's explicit orders) before they returned to England.  He was forgiven (although he was never able to repay the massive fine.) 

Charles Brandon's Garter Stall Plate
St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle

Brandon's military exploits in France mostly ended in failure, although his prowess as a champion jouster made him one of the most popular Tudor knights.  

Charles Brandon led the jousting at the meeting of King Henry VIII and King Francois I of France at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, and in 1523 commanded the English army in an attack on Calais. He was High Steward at the wedding of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in 1533 and was rewarded with land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries.

Thomas Cromwell’s reforms to the royal household created the new position of ‘Lord Great Master’ to oversee everything. Charles Brandon was the first to hold this post until his death, when King Henry said that in all their long friendship Charles Brandon had never knowingly betrayed a friend or taken advantage of an enemy. He is reported to have asked his council, ‘Is there any of you who can say as much?’

Charles Brandon lived a full and active life right up to the day he died on 22 August, (by coincidence on the anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, the same day as his father) 1545 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. He'd attended a meeting of the Privy Council in Guildford the day before his death, and his fourth wife Catherine was at his bedside with his daughters Frances and Eleanor to comfort his last hours.

He'd asked for a modest funeral and to be buried in the college church of Tattershall in Lincoln. King Henry decided instead that Brandon should be buried with full honours at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, where he had been made a Knight of the Garter.

I visited Windsor Castle as part of the research for my new book, and discovered Brandon's tomb in the fourth bay of the south quire aisle, near the south door, partly covered by a wooden bench seat and under a life-sized portrait of King Edward III.  It seems that it was originally as modest as he would have wished, but the chapel records show that in 1787 it was 'ordered that leave be given to lay a stone above the grave of Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk, according to His Majesties directions'. 

The resulting stone was put in place during the repaving of the quire aisles and nave. The simple inscription states only that Charles Brandon married Mary, daughter of Henry VII,  widow of Louis XII of France.

I also discovered that the jousting helm mounted on the wall adjacent to his tomb is not a funerary helm and is not thought to have any connection with Brandon.

Brandon was sixty-one when he died, and fortunately unaware that both his young sons, Henry and Charles, would die within an hour of each other of the sweating sickness on the 14 July, 1551. I think Brandon would have been amused to know he lies alongside King Henry VI - and a few yards from the equally unimpressive tomb of his lifelong friend and benefactor, King Henry VIII.

Tony Riches

21 August 2019

Special Guest Post by Author Judith Arnopp ~ Keeping perspective in A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England. His Sister Elizabeth is married to the invading King, Henry Tudor. Years later, when the boy returns to claim is throne, Elizabeth is torn between love for her brother and duty to her husband. As the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out, Elizabeth is torn by conflicting loyalty, terror and unexpected love.

There is just something about the Tudors, whether it is the costumes, the politics, or the violence, they are never boring. There are so many avenues to follow, and new perspectives to take up. I am not mad-keen on revisionist history which is in danger of turning everyone into a saint but I am keen on looking on events from a new perspective. The thing that makes Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies great for me, is that instead of showing the Tudor world through the eyes of a victim, she shows it instead from the viewpoint of an abuser.

Usually Cromwell is depicted as a grim, self-serving monster, reaping, without compunction, the victims that come between him and his all-consuming ambition. Mantel’s genius is to consider how he came to be that way, and why.

There are no thoroughly evil people, even the hardest criminals among us justify our actions. Cromwell was doing a job, a dirty job that few others could have done. In the end he was consumed by his own ruthlessness, destroyed by his own laws. In the last screen of the BBC production of Wolf Hall, when he is embraced by the increasingly manic King Henry VIII, the realisation of his own eventual end is written clearly in Cromwell’s eyes. And, for the first time (possibly) in history, and in literature, we have empathy for him. That is the beauty of perspective, the joy of approaching a well-known subject in a fresh manner. It opens our eyes.

Tudor history, well, all history I suppose, is full of people yet to be treated in this way. Historical fiction is replete with stock figures, cardboard ‘monsters’ and plastic ‘saints.’ My hope is that Mantel has helped other writers of historical fiction to see the benefits of viewing these things afresh. I don’t mean white-washing, I mean trying to understand and perhaps empathise.

It is something I strive for in my own writing. There are negative characters, we need those for the sake of the plot, but I always try to provide a reason for their behaviour. No one is born ‘bad’; life experiences form our characters, and even the worst offenders among us never see their own actions as monstrous. When you study a character in depth, you will, in most instances, find possible motives or an event that altered their path.

There are few characters in my novel A Song of Sixpence who are traditionally treated negatively. Margaret Beaufort, for one, is usually an ageing, overly pious, sometimes neurotic termagant but there is nothing to suggest this in the historical record. She was very religious, most people were, but there is no suggestion that she was unhinged. Devoted to her son Henry, she worked tirelessly and determinedly to restore his rightful inheritance. It wasn’t until much later that she schemed to put him on the throne. There is nothing wrong with that, she should be praised for it. I am sure we’d all fight tooth and nail for our children.

When it comes to her relationship with Elizabeth of York, I have some suspicion Margaret may have been an interfering mother-in-law. Many of us have experienced those, but why do we always suppose her intentions were negative? Maybe her motives were born of affection and concern. The historical record suggests that she and Elizabeth of York were quite close so, in my novel their relationship is a slow burner; they start off at odds but mutual goals ensure they end up as friends.

And then there is Henry VII. Traditionally he is seen as a miser, the thief of another man’s throne, but he couldn’t have been all bad. He lived in harsh times. He saw the throne as his right – we all fight for what we see as our rights, don’t we? Once he was king, he did a good job – when he died the royal coffers were comfortably full; he put down all the pretenders to his crown, and made numerous advantageous alliances. He also left an heir, Henry VIII. There is very little more required of a ‘good’ king.

In A Song of Sixpence Henry is at first insecure, unsure of Elizabeth, and distrusting of his courtiers but in all likelihood, given what he’d witnessed of Richard III’s reign, he had good cause. He is quiet, calculating and wise. I’ve mixed negatives with a dollop of good intentions and, I hope, produced a credibly complex character.

As for Elizabeth of York whose fictional representation is usually meek, and sometimes cowed, I have tried to provide her character with more depth. History presents her as a good queen, obedient and supportive of Henry VII. She took no part in the politics of Henry’s reign, but her charitable work is well recorded. She kept close to and cared for her sisters and also had a direct hand in the upbringing and education of her younger children, keeping them close to her and teaching them their letters.

Prior to their marriage, Henry and Elizabeth had fought on opposing teams. It is more than likely that there were some initial misgivings on both parts. In A Song of Sixpence, I tried to explore Elizabeth’s inner mind, her thoughts. She is determined to be a good queen, has ambition for her children, love for her country and fights to break down the barriers between her and Henry.

When Perkin Warbeck appears on the scene, claiming to be her brother Richard, the younger of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower in 1483, her emotions are conflicted. She does not know if Warbeck’s claim is true. If he is indeed her brother, what will she do once Henry gets his hands on him? How will she stand by and watch her husband execute her brother? Yet, if he is her brother and he is victorious, can she stand by as he destroys her husband and takes her son’s throne. She is faced with a complex situation and an unenviable mix of emotions.

I take great pleasure in reconsidering historical figures. My other novels depict Anne Boleyn, Katheryn Parr, Margaret Beaufort and I am currently working on Queen of England, Mary Tudor. For me, the thing that makes Tudor era a great setting for my fiction is the host of figures still to cover; Margaret Pole, Katherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour and ultimately … when I pluck up sufficient courage … there is Henry VIII himself. The scope is endless, the prospect exciting, and my time in Tudor England far from over. I hope you will join me there.

Judith Arnopp

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About the Author

A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English and Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Writing both fiction and non-fiction, Judith works full-time from her home overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales where she crafts novels based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life, prostitutes to queens. Her books are available in paperback, Kindle and some are available on Audible. Find out more at Judith's website www.judithmarnopp.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @JudithArnopp

20 August 2019

Guest Post by Sarah Kennedy: City of ladies (The Cross and The Crown Book 2)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Henry VIII’s England has not been kind to many of the evicted members of religious houses, and Catherine has gathered about her a group of former nuns in hopes of providing them a chance to serve in the village of Havenston, her City of Ladies

When I began my novel series, The Cross and the Crown, I wanted to present Tudor England from the perspective of a woman who was not noble, not royal, not famous—but who is intelligent and resourceful. Staying away from the famous characters, whose stories we all already know, gave me some wiggle room to create Catherine Havens, my heroine. 

I wanted to explore what might happen to a “regular” woman who is confronted with the upheavals of Tudor England under Henry VIII. In the second book, City of Ladies, Catherine moves away from the convent but not away from her struggles with belief

Historical fiction is an important way of seeing the past in new ways, and since I’ve always had an interest in “real” history, I have mixed feelings about how rigorous historical novelists must be in recreating their periods. It does allow, I think, for imaginative re-creation of a distant place and time, and it can, in doing that, provide a fresh perspective on the present—how we got here from there. (I believe good science fiction does this as well—just in the opposite direction in time!)

I do blend fiction with the facts of my Tudor series, though I wouldn’t change the well-known details of the monarch or well-researched historical figures. I’m more interested, generally, in the development of character than in plot, so I have chosen to create Catherine as a character who has only passing (though significant) interaction with the famous people.

Of course, I love the famous people. My interest in Tudor England comes from an inherent fascination with turbulent times in the past and in charismatic leaders, and how they affected the people “under” them. My doctoral work focused on the late Renaissance, so I have a long personal background in reading and teaching Tudor literature, and that’s probably why I set my story in the 1500s.

But when I turned to fiction after seven books of poems, I wanted to “flesh out” the culture, and so I created Catherine Havens. She’s entirely a fiction, a novice who, by this second book, has been thrown out of her home, the convent, during the English Reformation. She is given permission to marry. 

Did this happen? Not that I’m factually aware of, in any particular instance. Could it have happened? It certainly could have. The laws of England were firm, including the stricture against marriage by former nuns (of course, mine is a novice—more wiggle room) but those laws were also subject to interpretation—and to twisting by clever lawyers and people with access to money and influence.

I wanted to dramatize about how the centralization of power in the English court after the seizure of the religious houses might have changed people who struggled to understand how and why the new religion and the court could control their everyday lives. People revolted. They challenged authority. They went on with their lives, sometimes in spite of the king (or queen).

Half of these ordinary people were women. We have many more records about men, but women worked and prayed alongside their brothers, husbands, and fathers, and I wanted to re-imagine these invisible foremothers into flesh-and-blood life. They raised families, healed wounds, treated the sick, and washed the dead. They oversaw households and undermined expectations.

I travel frequently, and I love to be in the spaces where people lived, because I can feel their lives when I can see where they lived. Even ruins seem to talk to me, and though I rarely take photographs (I prefer my own faulty memory) experiencing these places alters the way I perceive the lives women lived. I particularly like looking at kitchens (Hampton Court and Sutton House are favorites), because I can see the women (and men) who sweated and labored in them to feed the people above, who might not even know their names.

Catherine is not unknown to her “betters,” but she still wants the sisterhood that she lost when she lost the convent. The title of the book alludes to Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies, a sort of catalogue of good women. Catherine is given a copy and she treasures it. Like me, my Catherine hungers for answers to the past. She is on a journey to understand herself, and what she believes and what she will do about it if her opinions conflict with the powers that be. She, like many of us, wants understand her history. And don’t we all wonder about the people who came before us and want, in finding out some answers, to better understand how we have come to be who we are today?

Sarah Kennedy

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About the Author

Sarah Kennedy is the author of the novels The Altarpiece, City of Ladies, and The King’s Sisters, Books One, Two, and Three of The Cross and the Crown series, set in Tudor England, and Self-Portrait, with Ghost.  She has also published seven books of poems.  A professor of English at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia, Sarah Kennedy holds a PhD in Renaissance Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing.  She has received grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.  Find out more at Sarah's website:  http://sarahkennedybooks.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @KennedyNovels

19 August 2019

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Confessor's Wife, by Kelly Evans

Available on Amazon UKAmazon US

In the 11th Century, when barren wives are customarily cast aside, how does Edith of Wessex not only manage to stay married to King Edward the Confessor, but also become his closest advisor, promote her family to the highest offices in the land, AND help raise her brother to the throne? And why is her story only told in the footnotes of Edward’s history?

Not everyone approves of Edward’s choice of bride. Even the king’s mother, Emma of Normandy, detests her daughter-in-law and Edith is soon on the receiving end of her displeasure. Balancing her sense of family obligation with her duty to her husband, Edith must also prove herself to her detractors. 

Edward’s and Edith’s relationship is respectful and caring, but when Edith’s enemies engineer her family’s fall from grace, the king is forced to send her away. She vows to do anything to protect her family’s interests if she returns, at any cost. Can Edith navigate the dangerous path fate has set her, while still remaining loyal to both her husband and her family?

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About the Author

Kelly Evans was born in Canada of Scottish extraction, and graduated in History and English from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. She now lives in Toronto, Canada with her husband and two rescue cats. I worked in the financial sector as a trade technology project manager for over 20 years and retired last year to write full time. My short stories have been published in numerous magazines and E-zines as well as a horror anthology, where my fourteenth century historic-horror story was received with enthusiasm. Find out more at Kelly's website https://kellyaevans.com/ and follow her on Twitter @ChaucerBabe.

18 August 2019

Book Launch ~ Mudlarking: Lost and Found on the River Thames, by Lara Maiklem

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US


Mudlark (/'mAdla;k/) noun A person who scavenges for usable debris in the mud of a river or harbour

Lara Maiklem has scoured the banks of the Thames for over fifteen years, in pursuit of the objects that the river unearths: from Neolithic flints to Roman hair pins, medieval buckles to Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes to Victorian toys. These objects tell her about London and its lost ways of life.

Moving from the river's tidal origins in the west of the city to the point where it meets the sea in the east, Mudlarking is a search for urban solitude and history on the River Thames, which Lara calls the longest archaeological site in England.

As she has discovered, it is often the tiniest objects that tell the greatest stories.

'Driven by curiosity, freighted with mystery and tempered by chance, wonders gleam from every page' Melissa Harrison

'The very best books that deal with the past are love letters to their subject, and the very best of those are about subjects that love their authors in return. Such books are very rare, but this is one' Ian Mortimer

'Fascinating. There is nothing that Maiklem does not know about the history of the river or the thingyness of things' Guardian

'A treasure. One of the best books I've read in years' Tracy Borman

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About the Author

Lara Maiklem, known as 'London Mudlark', moved from her family's farm to London in the 1990s. She now lives with her family on the Kent coast within easy reach of the river, which she visits as regularly as the tides permit. Mudlarking is her first book. Lara is on Facebook and Instagram @london.mudlark and you can find her on Twitter: @LondonMudlark 

Devices and Desires: Bess of Hardwick and the Building of Elizabethan England, by Kate Hubbard

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The remarkable story of Bess of Hardwick, her ascent through Elizabethan society and the houses she built that shaped British architectural history.

Born in 1521, Bess of Hardwick, businesswoman, money-lender and property tycoon, lived an astonishing eighty-seven years. Through canny choices, four husbands and a will of steel she rose from country squire’s daughter to Dowager Countess, establishing herself as one of the richest and most powerful women in England, second only to Queen Elizabeth.

Bess forged her way not merely by judicious marriage, but by shrewd exploitation of whatever assets each marriage brought. At a time when women were legally and financially subordinate to their husbands, Bess succeeded in manipulating hers to her own and her children’s advantage, accumulating great riches and estates in the process. 

Bess of Hardwick, Countess of Shrewsbury,
by Rowland Lockey, 1592

Wealth took concrete form in her passion for building and she oversaw every stage of the construction of her four country houses: Chatsworth, Hardwick Old Hall, Hardwick New Hall and Owlcotes. Hardwick New Hall, her sole surviving building, is stamped all over with Bess’s identity and her initials: it stands as a celebration of one woman’s triumphant progress through Elizabethan England.

In Devices and Desires, Kate Hubbard examines Bess’s life as a builder within the context of the male-dominated Elizabethan architectural world. This new biography traces the creation of Hardwick and Bess’s lost houses, as well as estates such as Longleat, Holdenby and Theobalds, all known to and coveted by Bess. Throughout, it seeks to locate Bess within Hardwick, her greatest achievement and her lasting monument.

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About the author

Kate Hubbard's first book, a short life of Bess of Hardwick, was published in 2001, followed by three children's books - biographies of Charlotte Bronte and Queen Victoria and "Rubies in the Snow", the fictionalised diary of Anastasia Romanov. Her most recent book, "Serving Victoria" follows the lives of six members of the Queen's household. She also works as a book reviews and freeland editor and lives in London and Dorset.