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

# # #

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:

No comments:

Post a comment

Thank you for commenting