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Ladies of Magna Carta

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Today, I have something of a treat for you. The lovely, knowledgeable and entertaining Sharon Bennett Connolly has just released a new book covering the impressive women with an involvement in the great Magna Carta. You might know that I’m a devotee of Sharon’s work, having read and reviewed her two previous books, and this one holds up her excellent standard. Quite simply I’ve not come across anyone more knowledgeable on the subject of the women of Medieval Britain than her. I’ll review the book at the end here, but first, as part of her Blog Tour, Sharon has kindly penned an article on the book, so feast your historical hunger on this:

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Thank you so much to Simon for inviting me to his blog to talk about Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England.

Family Ties

When writing Ladies of Magna Carta, I was struck time and again by how closely the nobility of England was related, through blood and marriage. Each of the women I wrote of had at least one familial connection to someone else in the book; some had a number of links to several families. It is a tangled and complicated web, but I will try and give you a brief overview here.

My favourite medieval woman is Nicholaa de la Haye, castellan of Lincoln Castle; she successfully defended the castle through 3 sieges, the last 2 when she was a widow in her 60s. Nicholaa was related to King John’s half-brother, William  Longespée, Earl of Salisbury, through her son, Richard, whose daughter Idonea was married at a young age to William, Longespée’s son by his wife, Ela of Salisbury. It was as a result of this connection that William (I) Longespée claimed Lincoln Castle and the shrievalty of Lincolnshire following the Second Battle of Lincoln in May 1217. Longespée claimed they were his by right of his daughter-in-law; Idonea’s father, Richard, had died sometime in the previous 12 months, leaving Idonea as his sole heir. Despite Nicholaa’s stalwart defence of Lincoln Castle during a 10-week siege, Longespée was granted the castle and position of sheriff just 4 days after the battle. Nicholaa’s refusal to accept this saw her presenting herself to the royal court and requesting she be reinstated. A compromise was reached whereby Longespée remained as sheriff of Lincolnshire, but Nicholaa was reinstated as castellan of Lincoln Castle, her home since childhood.

Ela of Salisbury provided at least 2 further familial connections among my Ladies of Magna Carta. Through her grandfather, Patrick of Salisbury, Ela was a cousin of William Marshal and his five daughters. Marshal was the son of Patrick of Salisbury’s sister, Sybilla. Patrick himself had married, as his second wife, Ela de Talvas, who was the widow of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey. From her first marriage, Ela de Talvas was the mother of the heiress, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey in her own right and wife to, first, William of Blois, youngest son of King Stephen and secondly, Hamelin Plantagenet, illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II. Isabel de Warenne, therefore, was aunt to Ela of Salisbury, Richard the Lionheart and King John.

Isabel de Warenne’s own aunt, Ada de Warenne, was married to the son and heir of King David I of Scotland, Henry, Earl of Huntingdon. Ada was the mother of 2 Scottish kings, Malcom IV the Maiden and William I the Lion. She was, therefore, the grandmother of the Scottish princesses, Margaret and Isabella, the only two women, other than the queen, who can be clearly identified in a clause of Magna Carta. Margaret and Isabella had been handed over to King John as hostages following the 1209 Treaty of Norham, agreed between their father, William the Lion, and King John. John was supposed to find suitable husbands for the teenage girls; it had been implied that they would be married to John’s sons, Henry and Richard, but no marriages had ever materialised. Clause 59 of Magna Carta stipulated that John would find spouses for the princesses or send them home.

The two girls were eventually wed to English noblemen, though not until the 1220s. In 1221 Margaret married Hubert de Burgh, Henry III’s Justiciar and widower of another of my Ladies of Magna Carta, Isabella of Gloucester, who also had the dubious honour of having been the first wife of King John. Princess Isabella was married, in 1225, to Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, who was 14 years her junior. The marriage was not a happy one. A third Scottish princess, Marjorie, who was several years younger than her 2 sisters and not part of the conditions of the Treaty of Norham, also married into the English nobility. She became the wife of Gilbert Marshal, 4th Earl of Pembroke, 3rd son of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and regent for Henry III.

Roger Bigod was the son of Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, and Matilda Marshal, eldest daughter of William Marshal. Marshal was the man who had led the army that relieved Nicholaa de la Haye and the siege of Lincoln Castle in May 1220. Matilda married as her second husband William de Warenne, fifth Earl of Warenne and Surrey and only son of Isabel and Hamelin, mentioned earlier. Matilda’s sister, Isabel, was married to Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester; he was the nephew of the same Isabella of Gloucester who had been wife to King John, Geoffrey de Mandeville and Hubert de Burgh. Isabel Marshal then married, as her second husband, Richard, Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III and youngest son of King John. Another sister, Eva, married William (V) de Braose, grandson of William (IV) de Braose and Matilda, the poor woman who was imprisoned by King John and starved to death, alongside her eldest son, in his dungeons in 1210. It was Eva’s husband who was hanged by Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd, after he was found in Llywelyn’s bedroom with Llywelyn’s wife, Joan, Lady of Wales and illegitimate daughter of King John.

Which brings us neatly to the royal family. John’s eldest legitimate daughter, also named Joan, was betrothed as a child to Hugh X de Lusignan, Count of La Marche. The marriage never materialised, however, as Joan’s mother, Isabelle d’Angoulême, decided to marry Count Hugh in her daughter’s stead, causing a rather juicy scandal in the process! Joan was not without a suitor for long and within a year of her mother’s marriage she was married to Alexander II, King of Scots and brother of those same Scottish princesses who were included in Magna Carta’s clause 59. Of Joan’s sisters, Isabella was married to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and Eleanor, only a baby at the time of her father’s death, was married to William (II) Marshal, eldest son and heir of the great William Marshal, at the age of 9. Eleanor was a widow before her 16th birthday, dramatically taking a vow of perpetual chastity in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury shortly after her husband’s death.

As her second husband, Eleanor married Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, despite that pesky vow of chastity, which was to prove costly to Simon when he had to travel to Rome to seek a papal dispensation to have it annulled. Simon de Montfort was to continue the fight for reform that had been enshrined in Magna Carta, but would meet his end at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Simon and Eleanor’s daughter, also named Eleanor, would marry Llywelyn, Prince of Wales, grandson of Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd. Eleanor died in childbirth in June 1282, while Llywelyn was defeated and killed by Edward I’s forces in December, the same year. Their only daughter, Gwenllian, was placed in a convent in Lincolnshire before she was 18 months old and would never leave it, dying there in 1337. Another perpetual royal prisoner was Gwenllian’s distant cousin, Eleanor of Brittany, a granddaughter of Henry II, niece of King John and first cousin of Henry III. Her royal blood meant that she would never be afforded the protection enshrined in clause 39 of Magna Carta and inspired by the gruesome death of Matilda de Braose, that:

“No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”

There are many more familial links between the Ladies of Magna Carta. I could go on…

But I’m guessing that your heads are spinning and this is more than enough … for now.

 

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All that remains is for me to give you my impressions of the book and thereby perhaps encourage you to pick up a copy. ‘Ladies’ is an all-encompassing work. In order to fully explain how each of her chosen characters fits into the tale, we are first treated to a concise history of King John and his immediate family, from his early days until after his death, explaining how Magna Carta came about and in some ways how the important families fit into its history. This alone made the book a worthwhile read for me. I’ve read much about Richard I, with only peripheral reading on John, who is often villainised in a very Richard III way, but this was quite eye-opening. It is a very balanced account of the man, cutting through much of the folklore.

From there we move into an examination, chapter by chapter, of certain women who were either instrumental in the creation of Magna Carta and its specific wording, mentioned in the charter itself, or whose own life contains critical moments that were driven by the charter. As usual with Sharon’s work, it becomes clear that the women of Medieval Europe were in no way as uniformly meek, passive and downtrodden as general culture would have us believe. Indeed, there are some characters in here that deserve a movie of their own, defending castles and threatening kings.

Just two examples of such powerful women include Matilda de Braose and, if I may quote the book: “one legend arose of Matilda building the castle of Hay in one night, single handed, carrying the stones in her skirts.’ Similarly impressive is Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln castle and held positions one would presume to be solely the mark of men. I found at least three characters I would love to write fiction works about within these pages. Oh, and the book also taught me about Anchorites, which was a fascinating sideline for me.

In short, this book is another fascinating and eye-opening work and anyone with an interest in the subjects of Medieval Women, British History, or the legends of King John and the Magna Carta should be rushing out to get their copy.

And while Sharon gets back to work on her next opus, here are the links to check out her work and buy the book:

Blog: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Thehistorybits/

Twitter: @Thehistorybits

Pen & Sword Books: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Ladies-of-Magna-Carta-Hardback/p/17766

Amazon: mybook.to/LadiesofMagnaCarta

Written by SJAT

July 8, 2020 at 7:57 am

Posted in Non Fiction

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Spatha by M. C. Bishop

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I’m going to guess that anyone who knows my work or reads this blog is pretty conversant with military history, and therefore probably knows of Osprey Publishing’s renown in that field. I am the owner of scores of their books ranging from the days of ancient Greece to the Renaissance war galley, though more than half of them are on the subject of Rome and Byzantium. I love my Osprey books, and while I laud them above most military history works, even I can admit that they vary a little in quality. Some are a little assumptive and bold, others more technical and trustworthy. All are good, but from the point of view of a historical researcher one has to be aware of such things. So that’s Osprey. Leaders in their field.

Mike (M. C., which I know makes him sound like a DJ) Bishop is a name I count as a go-to for all things Roman military. Along with John Coulson, he is the preeminent authority on Roman military equipment, having studied it for decades, been involved in the archaeology that has brought some of it to light, written up the excavation reports for some of the most important of Roman military sites, and been a leading light in Roman military circles for some time. His is one of at most half a dozen names that I trust implicitly when I read their work, whether it be on military equipment or a guide to walking Hadrian’s Wall (also his excellent work.)

So when Bishop signed on to do a few ‘weapon’ books for Osprey, I knew these would be up there with the best of their titles. Pilum and Gladius I already have, and have reviewed. Now, he has turned his considerable talent to informing us about the Roman longsword, the spatha.

Spatha is a book that contains everything you need to know about the weapon. There is no need to consult another source. From the archaeological discoveries, largely based on ‘bog finds’ in Northern Europe, Bishop gives us immense detail of the form, composition, design, distribution, use and value of the weapon. Backing this up with accounts from sources such as the Historia Augusta, Arrian and Tacitus, every angle is explored. I consider myself knowledgeable about the subject from years of study, and yet I learned a number of things from reading this work, not least about the development of the ‘semispatha’ as a compromise between the long slashing weapon and the short stabbing weapon, often formed from re-pointing broken spathas.

From the development of the weapon based upon the original Spanish Sword, to the influence the blade would have on following centuries of cultures right to the late Viking era, Bishop provides a detailed narrative that attempts to fill in the gaps in the historical record with source-based logic, never even leaning towards assumptions without giving caveats and explanations, and identifies a number of unexpected aspects that cannot be denied.

Complete with wonderful illustrations from reconstructive paintings, through photographs of artefacts, to technical line drawings, this is the only book you’ll ever need on the subject and joins its peers as one of my go-to texts for research when writing Roman novels.

Written by SJAT

February 21, 2020 at 8:30 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 2)

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And I’m back with another 4 ancient Rome texts I’ve been using to research Gnaeus Julius Agricola. My first example is

With my Agricola research, I’ve looked at the effects of his civil governance, largely through Hertfordshire and Chester, and his early campaigns against Boudicca and in Wales. But the prime evidence of Agricola is the northern campaigns, and that starts in Yorkshire, more or less with the fortress of Eboracum. As such this book was a given, because York is also my local legionary fortress and a favourite haunt.

The author is a curator of the Yorkshire Museum, and it is this fact that largely informs the book. After an initial foray into the reasons Roman York exits, its founding, its form and its archaeological history, the majority of the book covers both the Legionary fortress and the civilian settlement in terms of subject. One at a time, he covers religion, burial, art, architecture, and so on. Each subject is built up for the reader and displayed in terms of finds in the museum’s collection.

In truth, the coverage of Agricolan activity was minimal and nothing I could not have taken from another book, but as a guide to Roman York, or even as a basic text on the Roman world, it has much to offer. The images are fabulous, there are a few gem-like nuggets of info in particular, and the whole thing is well presented and authoritative.

Anyone with an interest in military history is surely aware of the books of Osprey publishing. Most of their titles are excellent, and this is, in fact, one of the best. Where Simon Forder’s book (previous review) proposes, based upon camps, a site for the final battle against the Caledonii not far from Perth, this book centres on the more traditional assumption of Bennachie.

The book covers the Roman frontier north of Hadrian’s Wall from their first arrival in the region to the end of the Severan era. Fully half the book is devoted to the Agricolan campaigns and to the Gask Ridge system, both of which are pertinent to me, and both are covered in detail and with a good deal of authority. Indeed, the rest of the book which covers the Antonine era and the Antonine Wall is also very good, if less pertinent for me at the moment.

As with all Osprey books, this is a good historical book, yet an easy read. Accurate and still light, accompanied by illustrations and maps galore. One of their best.

I’ve had this book for a long time and used it in many circumstances. Though now more than 40 years old (like myself!) it remains a solid and respectable text, and few writers could hope to better it. In truth I’ve never read it cover to cover. This remains one of my textbooks I dip in and out of for specific details.

In this case, I was studying the civic centre of early Verulamium at Saint Albans, which has supplied one of only two pieces of epigraphic evidence for Agricola’s governorship. In truth, I learned far more about the specific subject than I expected, the level of research, deep into the archaeology, exceeds what I needed, but that is Wacher’s book. It is no gleaming starter for new students, but a detailed and archaeologically informed work.

In essence I have yet to find a book on the subject that matches Wacher, whether you are looking for a more wide-spread study of the nature of Roman towns or their development, or specific treatments of individual towns to street and building level.

This is one of my most prized, go-to texts on the subject. Wooliscroft and Hoffman are the preeminent academics on the subject of the Gask Ridge frontier system, and their in-depth knowledge of Roman Scotland is hard to match. Indeed, they run the Roman Gask Project, which is revealing more of the system every year. Moreover, this book focuses only on the Flavian era, which makes the whole thing pertinent to my research.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first being the archaeology of the sites which the authors can put forth largely from personal knowledge, divided into regional groups of like sites. The second is an interpretation of this and the conclusions that can be drawn from it.

I will state at the outset that this book is not for everyone. Whereas Roman York will appeal to the beginner, and the Osprey book to most, and Wacher moves more into the wordy and academic, this book is one of the best available, but with its level of archaeological basis it might be a little dry and detailed for anyone who is not thoroughly invested in the subject,

So there we go. Four more books in my research pile. There are many more to go, so look out for a third review at some point.

Written by SJAT

October 21, 2019 at 12:42 pm

Finding Agricola – a review of texts (pt 1)

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You may or may not know that I am currently departing from the world of fiction briefly to pen a non-fiction work on the life and career of Gnaeus Julius Agricola, ‘The man who conquered Britain’. As such, I have probably read more texts on the subject than any other I have covered in my life. Seriously, the research pile might rival Trajan’s column. And having worked through many books, I am forming opinions of them as I go. Since currently I rarely seem to have time to read fiction, and my book reviews have taken a major back seat, I thought to myself ‘why not review the books I am reading, then?’ So I am. There have been many, but due to time constraints I’m going to look at them four at a time. So if you have an interest in the formation of Roman Britain and you want to know what to read, here’s part one of my review/guide to the subject:

Alright, I hear you. Agricola was in the 80s, along with bands like the Cure, while Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t built until the 120s. I make it my job to acquire all books on subjects that fascinate me, and I pick up HW books at a rate of knots. This one, being written by the most excellent Pat Southern, I could hardly miss. Her books are uniformly great. And having flicked through it I realised that there was a section in the early part on ‘Before the wall’ that delved nicely into Agricola’s time. And unlike many other books out there which have a chapter or less on the man in relation to another subject, this book was pretty sharp, in depth and challenging on our fave general. In fact, it contributed more nuggets of info to my notes than some books that are more or less centred on him. So this book is already a win, just on ‘before the wall’.

Books on the wall tend to fall into categories. ‘What it was like’, ‘What it’s like now’, archaeological treatises and suchlike. And there are many books. What Southern has done here, which was nice, is to cut across all the current literature and produce a nice one-piece book that explores almost every aspect of the wall’s history, purpose, archaeology, life and so on. Never does is dip too deeply into academia (and I have read texts that try to make analysis of pot-sherds in Agricolan Scotland sound like The Dirty Dozen and fail dismally, so steering clear of ‘too-dry’ is to be commended.) But equally it does not gloss over, or miss out. It is, in effect, just deep enough that the scholar will still find something that makes them ponder and question and say ‘ooh, I didn’t know that’, while the amateur enthusiast will not become bogged down in archaeological detail. It’s a lovely read and highly recommended.

For me, of all the texts I’ve used, this one presents me with the most problems, because there is something nagging that I didn’t like about it, but other than that it is one of my favourite books on Roman Britain. As such, I recommend it, but will provide a caveat. This book follows the history of Roman Britain chronologically, attacking each ‘era’ as a chapter, from initial Roman contact to the withdrawal and beyond. And it is really well written. I mean you could read this purely for leisure and consider it a win.

The up? Other than readability? It is fairly wide-ranging and probes well into each era and subject, providing a great deal of material (and I concentrated on Agricola, of course). It is written with occasional touches of dry humour, a lot of reference to sources and clearly a great deal of academia behind each revelation. What it does do, unfortunately, in my opinion, is occasionally make leaps in judgement. It has a tendency on occasion to state as fact something that might well be argued against, and I find that a little naughty in a textbook. It is what put me off getting more than partway through Dando-Collins’s book on the legions. But if you can either ignore such occasional points, or are happy with blissful ignorance of them, this book still has a great deal to offer and is eminently readable. Recommended, with said caveat.

To some extent this book irked me greatly, because it recently came out and covers half of what I was planning with my own manuscript. Damn the man! But then at least the angle for this book is different. The book focuses on Agricola’s great battle and the evidence that surrounds it, examining everything from geography to contemporary accounts. It covers my subject thoroughly, but from that fairly focused point of view, while my own work will be a broader subject, concentrating on Agricola more than the critical part he played in Scotland. In his own words, he has gone beyond Agricola for there is more to the subject that the man himself, while I will be doing in some ways the opposite.

Forder has done his research well, as I can attest, having done much of it myself. I now kick myself that I didn’t read this first, which might well have cut out a whole chunk of my required research. It is presented not chronologically, as a story, but more by subject, as Forder delves into what he concludes and why he does so, leading to his endgame. His reference to archaeological and historical evidence is excellent, and the book, while perhaps not having the easy readability of the previous tome, is much more accurate and laudable. Buy this book, but buy it now so that your wallet is full again when my Agricola comes out!

This book I bought on a bit of a tangent. In planning my own book, I knew I needed to revisit many sites of Agricolan interest in Scotland, and to visit some I’d never been to. This book had just come out. It is my third gazetteer-like tome of Roman sites in Scotland, but the prettiest! I’ll say from the outset that it’s also my favourite.

A listing by geographical region and then by a-z of all Roman sites in Scotland, it covers everything from the impressively visible to the ‘vanished under a housing estate’. That’s both wonderful and occasionally frustrating, but on balance I’d rather have EVERYTHING than miss something. Each site is looked at with brief history, what is known of the archaeology, its current status, and even maps. It is therefore probably the very best source for anyone wanting to visit Roman Scotland.

My only niggle with the book is that on occasion one of the sites will not be quite in-depth enough for me. In fairness, I think that’s my problem and not Tibbs’s. I am looking for a great deal of info on certain sites about which there is little interesting to write, and no guide like this could realistically be expected to cover what I want. So the upshot is this: this is the best book on the subject. It’s beautiful, informative, and eminently usable. Go buy it.

So that’s part one of my review on Agricolan books. Hope it’s of interest and use. Back soon with part two.

Richard the Lionheart and Robin Hood

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So I started reading this book:

rl

And I started reading it, sadly, just a few short months after I finished writing my novel set in 1204, including odd events mentioned in this text. But that being said, I did confirm that what I had written conforms with Bartlett’s accounts (mainly of post-Byzantine Cyprus). So that’s my background to the book. And unusually, I’m going to review two books at once, and you’ll understand why half way through.

Why read any bio of this famous/infamous king of England? And why read this one in particular? Well, not just for the names, although Conan the Duke, Count Vulgrin and Grimaldo Grimaldi certainly draw the eye and make it sound like a work of fantasy. Why? Because Richard is probably England’s most famous king, and I reckon that if you ask the average person in the street, they wouldn’t be able to tell you why. That’s why. And why this one? well because, I reckon, it’s a great all-round and accessible work.

And this is the thing. Biographies can sometimes focus so much on the individual that it becomes meaningless, lacking context. This book does not. In fact, it is a biography of a dynasty more than a man. And even broader: of an age as much as a family. With kings being such a force at the centre of national, religious and military policy, any biography of the king should by rights include something of a general history. This book does that.

It covers every major flashpoint of which I have been aware in the history of the Angevins: the murder of Thomas Beckett, the battle of Horns of Hattin, the Jews of York, Acre, Jaffa and Chalus among others. And in doing so, it ties it all to Richard and his Angevin family, a dynasty that it turns out is as riven and troubled as any imperial Roman one.

I will state here my only two gripes. One is that the book could really have done with a family tree to which to refer, and I had to find one online to help me at times. The other was the author’s use of the phrase ‘both orders had been decimated at Hattin’, which niggles me as a Roman historian, for decimation specifically relates to the execution of one man in ten, and is frequently misused in place of obliteration.

The book is set out in a reassuringly chronological manner, covering the subject in stages: Early life, the politics of family, coronation and consolidation, the rise of the crusade, and then its fall, capture and imprisonment, John’s betrayal and release, war with France and finally demise and its impact. The treatment of John is also very fair, I think, which is unusual in a world in which he is uniformly villainised without adequate explanation. Parts of the tale, which reads often like a general history, are boosted by anecdotal asides, which is nice.

Several things occurred to me and were noted down during my read:

  • I’d never considered how much impact the death of Barbarossa had on the crusade
  • The collapse of the bridge at Gisors under Phillip mirrors the collapse of the Milvian Bridge under the emperor Maxentius, about which I’ve written. An odd symmetry.
  • The only assessment possible of Richard (like Marcus Aurelius) is only possible against a background of constant war, and we have no idea what kind of a peacetime king he would have been.
  • I’d forgotten how cool the Blondel and captivity story was.

The book ends in a summing up and what effects Richard had on history. All in all, this was a cracking read and one of the better biographies I have read. I highly recommend it. And to give you a taste, here’s a lovely quote:

“Only one son stood by his deathbed and he, ironically, was illegitimate […] Henry reportedly said of him that he was his only true son; it was the others who were bastards.”

My favourite line in the book. And during the closing parts of the book, unsurprisingly there is a short nod to the legend of Robin Hood and Richard’s part in it. And that’s the interesting thing. I’ve also just finished a ‘biography’ of Robin Hood, which I received ahead of publication and was planning to review, and this just seems to be kismet, the two being so aligned. So I now also give you:

rh.jpg

Now in fairness, I fully expected to hate this and to poo-poo it. I’m too rooted in historical record to give great credence to legends. That being said, there is an element of truth to all legends, and so, like King Arthur, or Achilles, or Troy, or Springheeled Jack, I occasionally indulge to see what other people think. I did so here.

It is a brave, and interesting, premise to launch your book treating Robin as a historical figure and then looking into the historiography of it, trying to ascertain how valid it is. And that warmed me to it. For Matthews is not stating that Robin was definitely real, lived in Privet Drive with his aunt Flo and worked for the water board. He presents evidence and himself treats it with suspicion as well as fascination. So my initial scepticism was gradually worn away.

The first thing the book did, and its first quarter is devoted to this, is to examine the earliest surviving ballads. Here, I encountered a tale that was at one and the same time the old, familiar Robin Hood of legend, but also a new and surprising take. I find myself even now wondering why no author or filmmaker has ever tried to turn this original medieval tale into a movie or book. It would surely be a new angle, despite being also the earliest. Robin comes across a lot more brutal and wily here.

And the thing that really struck me is that despite the traditional treatments I’ve seen and read, the Robin of earliest legend may not have been born during the time of Richard the Lion heart and King John. In fact, in the quoted text, there is reference to King Edward, making it likely Edward I or II, at the end of the 13th century, not the 12th! I was astounded. For this alone, the book was worthwhile.

Another interesting assertion is that Robbinhood might be a now-lost medieval term for an outlaw. That would make tracking the legend down nigh-on impossible, of course, so Matthews continues to examine any historical Robins. What he presents, based on the works of medieval tale-tellers, is more than one plausible historical Robin Hood, or the basis for them. This fascinated me.

The book then moves into investigations into possible pre-Medieval origins for the Robin legend, connecting ancient mythology, Saxon legend and more with the tale. For me, the book got a little bogged down at this point. The depth of the mythological work was impressive and probably deserves a book in its own right, but at times it seemed to me somewhat peripheral or tangential to the purpose of the book. I may be being unfair here, and will leave that to other readers to decide for themselves.

We then go on to examine the potential historical background of the other characters in the tale, being Marian and the ‘Merry Men’. This, again, fascinated me, and made it worthwhile.

What did surprise me was that half the book turned out to be recounted ballads of Robin Hood, the last 120 pages given over to these appendices. I felt that this was somewhat unnecessary and lacked the focus on the subject that I saw in the early chapters, since without Matthews’ commentary on it, it became little more than source material.

The upshot? A brave attacking of a tricky subject. Despite a couple of negatives, one of which being the brevity of the actual work, it threw my preconceived notions aside and provided me with fascinating new nuggets of information that I treasure.

I enjoyed it. If you have an interest in the subject, you probably will, too.

So there you go. Two books in one post, the first out now the second in May. Fascinating reading, for sure.

Written by SJAT

April 23, 2019 at 9:00 am

Pharaoh’s Treasure

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Fancy a fascinating dip into some non-fiction history? Here’s a subject you might not have sought out, but one that might capture your fascination. I read the title and the description and simply decided I wanted to know more. It’s not a text I need for research, but like so many good books, it is one that when read will inform everything I ever look at hereafter. It is the history of paper, and with it the written word.

It’s a subject that’s always hovered on the edge of what I do, since the day I wrote about Caesar’s ‘paperwork’ and then panicked about the fact that the Romans didn’t have paper. But did they? Now that’s a question that this book will address. It is informative and interesting, yet despite everything for me the most important value it has is that it has defined the word ‘paper’ and I will cite it forever in my author notes for books.

The book begins with ancient Egypt, as you might guess from the title. The Pharaoh’s Treasure? *Said in a worryingly Rolf Harris voice*: ‘Can you guess what it is yet?’ Well, without wanting to spoil the book for you, said treasure is the oldest paper ever found, in a box, in a tomb. We move from there to the first written record. No surprises that this is also Egypt, the records of one of the pharaoh Khufu’s administrators. Typical of humanity that the earliest writing found was not left by a playwright or a comedian, but a bureaucrat, eh? Still, an astounding discovery.

There is a lot of focus on the importance of the written word. In Egypt this means the book of the dead and all the burial texts. The Eighteenth to Twentieth centuries unearthed ever increasing numbers of important texts in Egypt. The vital part paper had in the Egyptian world is clear, and the book moves from there into the Judeo-Christian world and the same value that is applied to paper and written records there.

There is some fairly in-depth discussion of the manufacture of papyrus (yes, we get the word paper from it, as the book reminds us), and on its production, which reached an almost industrial scale in later Egypt. We move on from there into Greece and particularly Rome. This is, of course, my specialist subject. Anyone who studies Rome will know that their culture were the first to become almost obsessively bureaucratic, and Rome moves the written word to the next level. Apparently (according to Pliny who lists the different grades of Roman paper) there was even a type of Roman packing paper!

The book then moves on to examine the new value of paper and the written word for fiction, text books, theatre, and on to libraries, the vast trade in writing, in ink, in pens and so forth. The existence of the Great Library. We move on into the Byzantine world, where bureaucracy reaches a peak perhaps unseen in the history of man, and then to the Roman Church, where it’s value and use is blindingly clear.

Then there was something that brought a massive surprise to me. Something that probably made more impact than anything else in the book. The history of paper and the written word changed immeasurably, following the events of a specific battle in the 8th century. I’m not going to spoil that one for you, and I’m not even going to mention the battle or its long-reaching effect. You’ll have to read the book for that.

There is some final rounding up of the data and conclusions, but that’s it. And if you don’t read the book for anything else, I hope you’re intrigued enough about the battle to go for it. It’s a very specifically-aimed book and will be of little direct actual use to most folk, but as a fascinating piece of historical research with some startling conclusions, it is well worth the time. Recommended.

Written by SJAT

February 7, 2019 at 11:41 pm

A Gross of Pirates

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While there’s really no way I could claim to have read this for research, read it I did, and entirely for fun. I have written about pirates many times: the fictional Ghassan and Samir in Dark Empress, Kemal Reis and other Barbary sailors in The Priest’s Tale, and the Mauri pirates in my forthcoming fourth book in the Praetorian series (Lions of Rome), and so I thought I had a pretty good handle on pirates of all sorts of eras and cultures. Heck, I even own three textbooks on historical piracy.

This book opened my eyes. And gave me so many ideas for novel plots it’s untrue, to boot. A gross of pirates is exactly what it claims to be. I expected it to be another informative, and perhaps dry, history of piracy. This it is not.

What it is is a catalogue of real historical figures. A gross of them, in fact, categorised into eras and cultures. There are well-known names in there: John Paul Jones, Barbarossa, Morgan, Drake, Calico Jack. But with 144 pirates in there, clearly you are going to find names you’ve not discovered before.  For me, particularly fascinating were Jeanne de Clisson, Uluj Ali, and Henry Every.  In fact, of 144 pirates, I could say in truth that I knew less than 20, which is pretty good.

Each pirate is treated with a brief precis of their life – a mini but well-presented biography. With 308 pages and 144 pirates, you can immediately work out roughly how much page space is given to each character. As a writer, I can tell you that this is no bad thing. Having a word limit imposed makes you hone and pare down the text so that what you end up with is a really well-written and pertinent piece of writing, rather than perhaps a rambling account given to descriptive. The old Dragnet line leaps to mind: ‘Just the facts, ma’am’. And Breverton does an excellent job with this. Each account is engaging and informative.

In short, if you are an academic or writer with even a remote interest in the sea and its history, this book will give you endless resources. If you are just a lover of history or the sea, this will be an engaging and fascinating collection. If you simply like to read something fun, then this is actually for you too. Read. Enjoy. ’nuff said…

You can buy the book here, and I urge you to do so. 🙂

Written by SJAT

December 15, 2018 at 10:29 pm

Silk and the Sword by Sharon Bennett Connolly

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Almost a year ago, I read and reviewed one of the most innovative and refreshing historical texts I have ever come across, that being Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly (my review can be found here).

Imagine my glee in being able to dive in to Sharon’s second treatment of historical women, then. Silk and the Sword: the women of the Norman conquest is released in just three days’ time (15th of November). You can pre-order it here.

In ‘Heroines…’ Sharon gave us a very detailed, thought provoking, and fascinating view into an aspect of history that is rarely covered in academia: the feminine perspective. She explored what it meant to be a woman in the Medieval era, illustrating her narrative  by telling us the tales of some of the most interesting women ever to grace the pages of history.

Silk and the Sword is at one and the same time a similar sort of treatment, and yet quite different. Once more we are shown the lives and events and personalities of some incredible women, but in this case, those women tell a tale in almost chronological order. ‘Silk’ attempts to give us the events of the 11th century, and the book is split into three constituent parts.

Part one sets the scene from the beginning of the century, explaining the lead up to those tumultuous events of 1066. The political and social situation is revealed, and the acts and struggles of the kings, dukes, earls and other great men are shown to us through the lives of the women who were part of it all. From an initial chapter of ground-laying, we move into the lives of Emma of Normandy, the famous Godiva of Mercia, Gytha of Wessex and Judith of Flanders. Given the regions I’ve just described in the names of these women alone you can also see another aspect of this book that I appreciated. Too often the tale of 1066 is told with a focus on Normans, Harold Godwinson and the Norwegian invaders. This treatment gives us a much more holistic view, approaching the events of that year, the lead-up, and the aftermath, from many angles.

Part two deals with the conquest itself, again with an opening chapter to set out the facts before leading us through this critical time via the lives of Edith of Wessex, the series of women in the life of the fascinating Harald Hardrada, the mysterious Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia (Harold’s early love and his later wife). And do not think because Sharon is focusing on the women of the time that any of the war and politics of the invasion is missed out. This is not the case.

Part three leads us through the aftermath of the conquest, once more with an opening chapter setting out the facts. This chapter ends with one line that seems to seal the fate of the country: “England had been conquered by the Normans.” But there is more to the aftermath of 1066 that simply a change in the ruling family. We’ve all seen right down a century and a half later in the tales of Robin Hood how the land is still portrayed as a broken and divided one between Norman overlord and Saxon underdog. This section of the book deals with the events following the conquest and the world it creates, seen through the lives of Matilda of Flanders, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Gundrada de Warenne (and here, for me, we start to enter more familiar territory, for I am aware of the powerful de Warenne family.) But the very last chapter of this part is for me the most fascinating of the book, for I love a historical mystery, and I enjoyed watching Sharon attempt to piece together the possible identity of a mysterious women shown in the Bayeux Tapestry (Aelgyva).

On a personal note, I wrote Caligula a couple of years ago, and Commodus this past year, both of which deal with famous, or more realistically infamous, Roman emperors and great events, and both are told from the point of view of the women in those emperors’ lives. So it was nice to see something similar happen to the great men of the Norman conquest. And in an odd moment of synchronicity, the paperback of Caligula is released on the very same day as Silk and the Sword.

Once more a refreshing and unique look at the women of British history, this book offers a perspective you’ll not find in any other work on the events of 1066. If you know the era and it’s already of interest to you, then you’ll find something new here and if, like me, you only knew the bare bones and the more famous names involved, then you’ll learn much in an enjoyable and innovative way.

Silk and the Sword is a valuable addition to any reference library on the Medieval world and simply a very good read.

Highly recommended.

Written by SJAT

November 12, 2018 at 11:33 am

Lucius Verus by M.C. Bishop

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Sometimes books just appear at serendipitous times. Last month this book was released, penned by one of the top scholars in his field, a man whose work I trust implicitly. I happened to have just finished writing my novel on Commodus and sent it to my editor. But since Verus was the uncle of my emperor and has an important role in my tale, I simply had to read this. Glad I did. There was so much in here that I needed to add to my story, and fortunately I had that opportunity during the editing stage. ‘Lucius Verus’ was something of an eye-opener.

Bishop starts out on his journey through Verus’ life by explaining that he is not attempting to ‘rehabilitate’ Verus and remove the stigma that history has left, but rather to remove the chaff from accounts and reveal only what truths or perceivable truths lie beneath the endless bias of biographers ancient and modern. In a way, he might have failed in that task in the nicest possible way, because by the end, I found Verus thoroughly rehabilitated and sympathetic. Much, fortunately, like the character in my novel. Phew.

This book is actually two subjects rolled into one, as the title suggests. It is at one and the same time a detailed and as accurate as it is possible to be biography of the man who co-ruled the empire with the great Marcus Aurelius, and a military narrative on the Parthian campaigns of the 160s AD. That it achieves both aims smoothly and without feeling at odds with one another is superb.

For those who are unfamiliar with Verus, you will probably be aware of his adoptive brother Marcus Aurelius and his nephew Commodus. From 161 AD until his death in 169, he shared the rule of the Roman empire with Aurelius, the two working in consort as co-emperors. Verus is not one of those emperors who was damned by the state (with whom I am gradually dealing) but perhaps by dint of being an easy comparison with his famous brother, he has been somewhat tarnished and sullied by biased historians after his death in much the same way the damned emperors were. Aurelius is the great philosopher-king, an emperor who shunned war, yet spent much of his reign on the borders fighting the enemies of Rome. A man of wit and wisdom and a calm and mellow one, even. Verus has ever been painted as the dissolute playboy prince. He is presented to us by historians as a drinker, a hedonist, lazy and a poor comparison to Aurelius. Bishop set out to pull apart the clear bias and try to find the real man beneath. An admirable attempt, I have to say. Throughout the text, Bishop repeatedly shows two facets that make his work stand out:

  • An almost unparalleled knowledge and understanding of the Roman world, which manifests in every tiny detail he produces being presented with clarity, sureness and relevance.
  • A wry wit and easy style that prevents any danger of the book slipping into dusty irredeemable academia.

The book begins by explaining its purpose and goals. Bishop then goes on to examine in detail all the sources on Verus’ life and evaluate them carefully. From there, he moves onto a biography of the emperor’s life until his accession to power with his brother. We then learn of the situation in the east and are treated to a little history of the borderland. An examination of the joint emperors’ rule and the nature of their sharing of power follows before we head east with Verus to examine his campaign in more detail than I expected. On the conclusion of that, Bishop then goes on to tell us of Verus’ life from there until his untimely death, before evaluating the ‘wastrel’ emperor and presenting his conclusion to the reader. The appendices are as interesting and important as the rest of the text, too, including copies of the emperor’s letters ans, most impressive of all, an attempt at redacting the infamous Historia Augusta, trimming the chaff and presenting a more factual, more reasonable selection within it.

I am not going to go into any further detail on the contents here, though I will say that there was not a section or even a page that I was tempted to skim over. And I challenge anyone to read the book and not have their opinion of Verus altered. In short, the book is probably my favourite of Bishop’s works (and I have a dozen or so), and as a clarified biography of a maligned man, it matches Winterling’s Caligula, which was the main basis for my own last imperial work. Pride of place on my shelves and a more than worthy exploration of a man who has been largely ignored thus far by historians.

HIGHLY recommended.

Written by SJAT

June 15, 2018 at 11:47 am

Joan of Arc by Moya Longstaffe

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Joan of Arc is one of those fascinating iconic figures that we are all drawn to: an underdog who stands her ground and defies the establishment. I have had a minor fascination with her since I was a kid, standing in Rouen and looking up at the tower that bears her name, or looking at the horseshoe she reputedly nailed to the door of a church in Chablis.
That being the case, this was guaranteed to be an interesting book for me. But it was so much more than I expected. I should have noticed the clue in the title. Joan of Arc and the Great pity of the land of France. This is more than just a biography of the maid of Orleans (it is that too, and it’s a good one, but she’s been dealt with often.) What this really excels at is putting Joan in the historical and political context.
I expected to belt through the first few chapters that were essentially scene-setting. Mistake. Partially due to the fascination of the subject, and partially due to the way Longstaffe puts it over, I as dragged deep into the text on every page, always learning, always fascinated. The mad king of France in particular impressed me. By the time we started to learn about Joan, it was extremely easy to see how the Franco-English situation had created the perfect world for such events, and how she fitted into it.
The portrayal of Joan and the examination of her life and events that follows is detailed without being a slog, colourful, interesting, and above all objective. In fairness, I’ve read other biographies and seen documentaries and films, so little was truly new for me, though there was some deeper investigation into some of the more obscure angles. It was a good, solid biography though, as I said before, made far superior by the context into which it fit.
The last third of the entire book deals with her capture, trial, execution and the ongoing story. This was nice. All too often a book on Jeanne skips the preamble and the later moves. Often they rush to Joan believing she was given a task by god so they can trawl through the military and political manoeuvrings that constituted her life and works, and then pretty much end with the gruesome burning. Not this book. Just as it sets the scene and then places Joan in it, it slowly, methodically, and very thoroughly, wraps it all up. we are treated to an in-depth investigation into her trial and then tantalising ideas of what it meant for the future.
All in all, this was an excellent biography. Not necessarily new ground, but examined in a new way for me, and made richer and more meaningful in doing so. I heartily recommend it not just for research but also simply for the joy of learning. A lovely read.

Written by SJAT

March 21, 2018 at 11:23 pm