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Posts Tagged ‘Scotland

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.

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War at the edge of the world

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I wasn’t sure what to expect from Ian Ross’ debut, to be honest. I’ve a soft spot for the Late Roman Empire these days, and it often worries me that writers won’t do the era justice. After all, for centuries now scholars have considered everything from the early 3rd century onwards to be the Decline and Fall etc. I needn’t have worried. What should you expect from War at the edge of the world? Rollocking Romans, put simply.

This book, set at the time of the tetrarchy with Constantius as Augustus, is based at a time when the Roman world was on the cusp of new things. Only fifty years earlier was what they call the ‘crisis’ of the third century and an era of soldier emperors. Within fifty years will be the flowering of fully Christian Rome. This is the time when things change. And that was nicely reflected in the book for me.

Essentially, the story and its action and characters could have taken place in any Roman era with just a few tweaks. That is how familiar Ross’ Rome is. At the level of the general soldier much is as it has always been. It’s the detail and the background, oddly, that show us we are in late Rome. Details like the armour, weapons and clothing are not what you would find in Principate books. And in the overall background, there are Christians about, watched with suspicion, but they are there. There is a system of emperors rather than a straight Dynasty. But the most striking thing for me is that, appropriately for the era, Rome is no longer the centre of the world. Yes it’s a great city, but it’s no longer the home of emperors. Imperial courts are held at Nicomedia or Trier, or more or less wherever the emperor is. And the emperors are not Italian these days. In fact the majority descend from Balkan stock. It is nice to see this ‘devolved’ state of later Rome shown in books.

Then there’s the writing and the style. For those of you who read Roman fiction often, the best comparison I can present you with is Anthony Riches. Ross’ book reminded me in many ways of the first three of Riches’ Empire series. The story flows well and hardly ever lags from its fast, adventurous pace. The plot is intelligible but not simplistic, the descriptive atmospheric but not over-the-top. The writing is very easy and engrossing. It is very easy to pick this book up for a 5 minute read and put it down after an hour wondering where the time has gone.

There is, I would say, nothing strikingly unusual about most of the characters for the regular reader of Roman fiction. Grizzled centurions, barely-disciplined ne’er-do-wells, untrustworthy civilians in high authority, barbarous barbarians etc. The exceptions for me are the teacher-turned-legionary, who I found entertaining and would like to see more of, and the female Pict, who broke the mould a little.

In short, War at the edge of the world was a welcome surprise for me. A fast paced, very engaging read, at the same time comfortably familiar and yet strangely exotic, it was one of the best debuts I’ve seen and I shall most definitely be reading the second volume.

Written by SJAT

May 5, 2016 at 7:09 pm

War Games

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wargames

I’ve been a fan of Doug Jackson’s writing for a long time, from his Roman work on the Caligula series and the Hero of Rome series to his Jamie Sinclair novels. Quite simply, unless he contemplated regency romance, there probably isn’t a Jackson novel I wouldn’t read. When I learned that he had taken an unpublished manuscript and released it himself as an ebook I was clearly going to read it.

The first thing that strikes me is that I read a lot of fiction released by big publishing houses and I read a lot of independent fiction (which varies in quality from the sublime to the ridiculous). This is the second time I have read an independent release by an otherwise traditionally published author. And what I noted straight away is that it further blurs the line between the two. A good independently published book is better than a poor traditionally published one. And this is for certain a really good independently published book. In fact, Transworld might have slipped up in letting this one pass. Well, Transworld’s loss is our gain, as you can buy the ebook of War Games for £2.15.

Tell you about the book, you say?

Alright. War Games is a modern thriller rooted in Scottish history, which occupies that same niche as the author’s Sinclair novels, or any number of investigative thrillers. But it is different. The protagonist of War Games is… a psychic investigator. The urge to add ‘Duh, duh, duhhhhhh’ after that is almost irresistable. The concept might put some folk off, I’ll admit. I’m not a huge fan of the psychic angle in book or film myself, but if it is done well, then it’s a great read. I’ll come back to the plot after a couple of tangents.

The book is set in the lowlands and borders of Scotland, which is Doug’s home territory, and the level of depth of knowledge and love that has gone into the descriptions of the locations is wonderful. And I am familiar with the area, having spent time at many of the locations myself, so I can vouch for how spot on Doug’s descriptions are.

The book is set in the present day (give or take a few years) but the plot delves into a background that covers anything from the ancient world up, focusing very heavily on the 12th to 14th centuries. Since we are familiar with the author’s historical knowledge and ability from other books, it should be no suprise how well this informs the plot and text of War Games.

The narration is told in the first person, and with an almost ‘voice-over’ aspect that puts me in mind of the classive film noir detectives, or the original theatrical release of Blade Runner. To some extent this can ham up a plot, but that can be a drawback or a bonus, depending on how it is integrated into the story. In War Games I found it positively endearing. It was evocative of so many detective movies of my youth and cast a certain ‘book noir’ aspect to it that worked for me.

As I said, I generally avoid all things psychic, but saying that I absolutely love the Necroscope novels of Brian Lumley which feature a whole slew of psychically-enabled investigators working for the British government. The reason? It was REALLY well done. It was believable and played to the realist in me rather than promoting the fantastical. Jackson’s hero does the same. The psychic aspect of it is such a minor facet of the whole and is so downplayed and shot through with strains of realism that it comes across as perfectly normal, which is hard to do, and works well.

So go on… back to the plot. Glen Savage – Falkland islands and Northern Ireland veteran and unhappy psychic is living close to the breadline trying to support himself and his wonderful wife, who suffers badly with MS, when he is offered a lucrative contract by a Muslim Scot with seemingly unlimited funds. Having spent the time between his military service and this point with a brief flare of a career as the psychic that helps the police – at least until that cash cow caught foot and mouth – he is the only choice Mr Ali can turn to when his daughter goes missing and the police are particularly unhelpful.

Cue an investigation into a crazed serial killer who is driven by madness and an odd identification with a long-dead crusader to murder those he sees as enemies of the faith.

And that’s enough of plot. I don’t want to ruin it. A last few notes, though. This is a tale with a serious leaning towards religious schism and long-standing creed hatred combined with a serial killer tale on a par with the top writers in the field. The writing is excellent as always, but with a raw edge and ‘noir’ aspect that adds atmosphere to the story. And the sideline exploration into the world of living with Multiple Sclerosis is fascinating too.

In short, War Games is a really absorbing story that hits the mark in a number of ways. I heartily recommend it.

And to give you a great glimpse into the world behind the book, I managed to get the author to answer a few questions. Thank you, Doug, and here we go…

SIMON: Most of the locations in War Games are strewn around the borders and lowlands of Scotland. I’m quite familiar with a few of the sites myself and I know that you’re from the area. How much were the locations selected in line with your plot, or was the plot to some extent tweaked by the inclusion of locations you were dying to use?

DOUG: When I finished my first novel (it became Caligula, but I didn’t then have publisher) I had no idea what to do next, but I’d enjoyed it so much it seemed a pity not to write another. By then I knew I was I capable of writing a historical novel, so why not try something different? What came next was a crime novel written in the first person because the main character started talking to me in my sleep in a kind of Fifties Noir Sam Spade voiceover kind of way. When I started writing it I had an idea that I wanted to make the Borders a character, in the way James Lee Burke does with so successfully with New Orleans and the Bayou. I suppose there was also an element of passing on my love of what is a very special place and encouraging others to visit it.The actual locations were dictated by the need to have links with one of the main historical figures in the book.

*Note from Simon: this answer came after I had written the bulk of the review, and I am fascinated by the synergy between what I got from the book and what Doug intended.*

SIMON: Was it interesting writing about a subject that is local in both time and place rather than the ancient world or thrillers that range around the globe? Did you find anything different about the process?

DOUG: Probably the most difficult thing about writing a contemporary novel in a place you’re very familiar with is to ensure that none of the events or locations comes across as mundane. When Glen Savage walks down a street or drives along a road he always has to be thinking something fascinating to do with the case, or his own, very specialised situation, and experiencing the sense of place very vividly.

SIMON: There is something of a religious conflict theme to the novel which in light of more recent events is actually quite current, but also runs the risk of that old chestnut of something you should never discuss. Were you nervous about touching on the religious theme and the relations between Islamic and Christian characters, and were you forced to make any changes to your story to avoid trouble?

DOUG: I had to think long and hard about some of the religious and cultural aspects of the book and the actions of some of the characters. But when you’re writing a murder mystery about a contemporary killer whose actions are being driven by events that happened hundreds of years ago you’re on relatively safe ground. The events and the inhumanity we see all around us every day go far beyond anything in the book.

SIMON: I have always been impressed by your level of research and knowledge when writing your Roman novels, but it is plainly obvious from your other works that you are well versed in the subject of the modern military. Added to that the police procedural aspects of War Games, and I’m led to ask how much your career in reporting and newspapers has contributed to your wealth of knowledge?

DOUG: My background as a journalist certainly helps. It is amazing the detail you pick up along the way. I’ve attended dozens of trials, several of them involving murder, and that gives you an insight into how the police work. That said I don’t need too much detail about the likes of forensics and pathology because Glen only knows what he knows and any other information he gets is from internet research in the same way I do. I’ve always been interested in military matters. When I was young I wanted to join the army, but as I got older it became clear I was too much of a wimp. I have hundreds of books on the subject and have read many hundreds more over the years. As far as the army etc are concerned I’m comfortable in just about any age, though I sometimes have to research the fine detail. I love playing at being a general. If only they’d let me join at that rank, with a batman with a G&T at hand at all times.

SIMON: Despite writing novels based in the Roman era (a very superstitious time) and esoteric modern thrillers which touch on mysterious subjects, your protagonists have thus far all been solidly rooted in the pragmatic world. For all the realism of the lead character in War Games, the fact cannot be avoided that he is a Psychic Investigator. What led you to explore such an idea, and was it difficult keeping the ‘real feel’ of the novel with such an unusual lead?

DOUG: I think that if you’re writing a contemporary detective novel in such a crowded genre your character has to have something that makes him different, so that and the fact that the police do call on psychics was the trigger for the psychic angle. The Savage character is actually based on a sergeant in the Scots Guards I met on a freezing day in Crossmaglen, young and very personable man, but hard as nails and probably the most – I think the word is competent – individual I’ve ever met. The most difficult part was deciding just how psychic to make him. He can’t know too much or he’d just be able to point to the killer, and he can’t use it too little or what’s the point of having the ability. In the end I decided to make his powers sporadic and relatively unreliable, so that sometimes he’s as sceptical of his ability as other people are. He’s a man who exudes confidence, but his experiences in the Falklands have left him mentally fragile.

SIMON: Will there be another Glen Savage mystery?

DOUG: War Games is actually the second Glen Savage book I’ve written, but people I showed it to thought the first – Brothers in Arms – which documents what happened to him in the war, as well as investigating the mysterious deaths of some of his former comrades – worked better as a second book. The problem with that is that I had to incorporate several key introductory scenes from Brothers into War Games, so I need to do some rewriting before I self-publish it. I’m slightly off the pace with my current Valerius novel, so unfortunately I don’t have the time at the moment but hopefully before Christmas.

Well all I can say is how much I enjoyed the book and how grateful I am that the author took the time to answer my questions. Thank you Doug for your insight.

Go buy the book folks, right HERE

Robyn Young – Scotland 2: England 0

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It seems to have been a few weeks now since I posted a book review. Ill health loomed for three weeks and brought me low, but eventually I clambered out of the other side and into the world of Robert the Bruce.

Robyn young, already well known in the Medieval fiction world for her Brethren trilogy about the Knights Templar, has more recently turned her talents to telling the tale of the English/Scottish wars of the 13th/14th centuries. This is a review not only of the new (second) book in the series – of which I recently received an advance proof – but also the first, which I also recently finished.

 

INSURRECTION

Insurrection immediately took me by surprise. All I really knew of it was that it was a story of Robert Bruce. Now like most of you (I suspect) my knowledge of this great historic figure is fairly limited to the fact that he was King of Scotland, that he won at Bannockburn in 1314, and some guff about sitting in a cave and watching a spider spin a web – oh and Braveheart. Actually, that’s not quite true. Being a Yorkshireman, I also knew that Bruce was actually of the DeBrus family that came from Guisborough near my home and were originally about as Scottish as Kaiser Wilhelm II. But you get my point. My knowledge was sketchy and mostly revolved around his kingship.

And so it intrigued me to discover that Insurrection is a story that begins with Robert as a teenager, freshly returned from fosterage in Ireland to his family’s lands in Scotland. In fact, the story begins more with a little background to Edward I of England and the events leading to the death of King Alexander of Scotland. But I’m confusing the issue there.

Insurrection tells the story of Robert from his youth in a safe, stable Scotland, through the period of disaster following the death of Alexander, and through the wars and feuds with the Comyn and Balliol families that lead to Robert siding with the hated English during the first wave of troubles.

I won’t tell the story beyond that. If you want spoilers, read the book. What I will do is tell you why you should do that.

As with Robyn’s Brethren trilogy, she has not simply told the history, but interwoven a creative new story within the web of the historical fact, turning this from a straight history book to a fresh and much more personal novel.

Among the threads of Edward and Robert’s story are echoes of the Arthurian legends which, while not central to the tale, are important enough to the characters to inform their actions. This additional facet not only helps to deepen the story and flesh out the characters, but also helps to fill in some of the historical gaps in the reasons for their actions.

To me, the greatest strength of the novel is the fairness levelled at the various sides. There is a great tendency when talking of William Wallace, Robert Bruce and Edward – the Hammer of the Scots – to paint the Scots as heroic, hard-done-by highlanders in kilts and woad (thank you Mel Gibson) and the English as stony-faced robots seeking only pleasure in the destruction of the Scottish way of life. Not so Robyn’s treatment.

Robyn has recognised immediately that the nobles on both sides of this war were almost all of Norman descent and were far more similar than they were different. The Scottish lords are fractious and argumentative, half of them supporting the English over their own people, many of them hating each other more than the English. Robert Bruce is, of course, no exception. In fact there are times when the reader despairs over Robert’s actions – a sign that the character has a truly real feel. There are no clear-cut good guys and bad guys in the story.

Insurrection is not a short book – be prepared for a sizeable read but, given that, the story races by at such pace that it seems much shorter. An exciting and involving story, very well written, the book should find a place on your shelves. Read it and finally push the Hollywood glam of Braveheart out of your mind.

RENEGADE

And so to the second book. Really, after finishing the first, you will almost certainly want to wade straight into Renegade. Ha! You’ll have to wait. Not for long, though. Renegade is released on Thursday (30th August). I myself was lucky enough to bag a proof copy.

Renegade surprised me as much as the first book, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

This story picks up where Insurrection left off, with the Bruce having made the decision that the crown of Scotland will be his. While Insurrection told the tale of Bruce’s youth and formative years and the events that made him who he is, in Renegade he is now a grown man. This book moves the story on and tells the tale of how that young man moves from self-imposed exile to build a stairway to the greatest power in Scotland.

Two things unsettled me to begin with. Firstly is knowing that the story begins with the Bruce in Ireland in a self-imposed exile, having given up the guardianship of Scotland. Seemed like a backward step, whatever the motive, and took the action somewhere I wasn’t sure about. Secondly, the blurb on the back cover states that Bruce will, in this book, be forced to ally with his enemy (likely meaning King Edward of England.) This irritated, given how much you really don’t want that to happen, and given the fact that this had also already happened once in the first book.

I needn’t have worried. The section in Ireland is just as fascinating as the sections in Scotland and England and proceeds at good pace. And the submitting to Edward? Well it jarred to begin with, but soon settled into seeming perfectly appropriate and normal. In fact, given Robert’s history with the English nobles from the first book, it was almost like returning home.

There seems to be less attention paid in this book to the Arthurian overtones or the pagan/Celtic shadows on the fringes of society, though I think this is because they have less influence on this particular part of the story (beyond the beginning in Ireland) and there are hints that they will return with great importance in the third book when it comes.

Essentially, what I saw as potential failings in the book before I really launched into it were actually nothing of the sort and, in fact, Robyn has turned the irksome facts provided by history into engaging and fascinating parts of the story.

One thing that I did notice that differed from the first novel was the pace. Insurrection ran at a steady and engrossing pace from start to finish. Renegade, I would say, starts a little slower, but with every quarter of the book the pace increased by a notch, gradually building to a crescendo. I found that I couldn’t put the book down after a while and read the last third of it in one sitting, ignoring almost everything else in life until I finished it.

I also noted something that commends the book particularly for me: the tragic story of the feud between the Bruces and the Comyns which almost tears the nation apart and which, had it been absent, could have seen a peaceful, victorious and united Scotland so early. This is, to me, as good a tragic tale as the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay and it is only the third time in all my reading when I have had cause to compare a writer with Kay (who remains my favourite author of all time.) For me to compare to GGK is one of the highest recommendations I can give.

So…

Read Insurrection and Renegade both. Together they form a tremendous tale of heartbreak, loss, struggle, intrigue, subterfuge, betrayal, war, murder, love, excitement, heroism and so much more.

Scotland the Brave!

Written by SJAT

August 25, 2012 at 9:48 am

Interesting People

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Today I have little to report, so I have instead decided to name 10 people in history that fascinate me. The interesting thing is that none of these people are figures that I knew all about because they were famous, but rather are people that I’ve found out about accidentally and become fascinated as a result.

Philip II of Macedon.

You see everyone knows about Alexander the Great, but fewer know much about his father. And yet, in reading a book a long time ago on Alexander, I came to the conclusion that I prefer his father and find him much more interesting. Philip was a third son of the King of Macedon and spent his entire youth in captivity in Greece. Yet at 22, he returned home, turned the almost collapsed heap that was Macedon once more into a powerful Kingdom, fought back the enemies that threatened it, reorganised the army such that it became the most powerful military machine in the world at that time, and conquered the whole of Greece. If he had not been assassinated by a bodyguard, what could he have achieved. Alexander may be more famous, but without Philip’s groundwork, he’d never have achieved what he did.

William Plunkett

In the belief that the story is true, Plunkett was a highwayman in the early 18th century (see him played by Robert Carlyle in the movie .Plunkett & MacLeane’. The thing about him that fascinates me though, is that he survived, emigrated to America and, according to at least one account, ended up as a colonel fighting for independence against England in 1776. That’s quite a fascinating end for a poor English criminal, eh?

Guzman the Good

Alonso de Guzman. First ever heard of him when I visited Tarifa in Spain many years ago. He is remembered there as a great hero in the mould of El Cid. Guzman was charged by the King with defending Tarifa castle against the moors. His son was held captive by the King’s brother who sided with the Moors and the Prince threatened to kill Guzman’s son unless he surrendered the castle. Guzman said that he would not allow himself to betray his country and that if the Prince killed the boy, he would just damn himself and heap honour on both of them. He even threw his own knife down to them to do it with because it was an untarnished Christian blade. This is a man who put honour above everything. Such people are rare.

Harald Hardrada

Heard of him? Probably not. He was a viking in the 11th century. However (and I think I’ve talked about him before) he lived the most amazing life before dying in battle only 30 miles from where I sit. Though you probably think of vikings as hairy barbarians who lived in the icy north, Harald fought all across eastern europe, making a name for himself, served as an officer in the Varangian bodyguard of the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople, was imprisoned and escaped, fled to Russia where he married a Russian/Swedish princess, became King Harald III of Norway, conquered Denmark for a time, founded the city of Oslo, and invaded England, dying at the battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 where he was defeated by Harold II of England, who then had to rush south to fight the battle of Hastings against William the Bastard less than 3 weeks later. Had the battle gone the other way, we would have grown as a Scandinavian country rather than a middle European one. Harald is widely regarded as the last great Viking and with him, the Viking age passes.

Robert de Brus

The one I’m talking about isn’t the famous Bruce who was King of Scotland and featured in Braveheart, but his dad. The de Brus (or Bruce) family are good Yorkshire folk from near me. They founded the priory at Guisborough and only became involved in Scotland when one of them was made Lord of Annandale. The 6th Lord (the one I’m talking of) fought in the Holy Land during the 9th Crusade, helped the English King Edward I crush Wales, and finally took part in the first war of Scottish Independence, on the side of the English! Yes, the father of the man who became King Robert the Bruce and the greatest symbol of Scottish independence, fought against Saracens, Welshmen and Scots all on behalf of the English, and was from a Norman-French family who settled in northern England.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Agricola is a well-known name among Roman historians, though many of you will never have heard of him. He was a general under the Emperors Nero, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. He was the uncle of the great writer Tacitus, who wrote his biography. Agricola was governor of Britain for a time, is responsible for some of the great roads of the province, built the Stanegate line, the precursor for Hadrian’s Wall, conquered the rebellious north, actually beat the Scots and pacified Scotland (though it was subsequently abandoned) and may indeed have even briefly invaded Ireland. His success and reputation were so great that the Emperor eventually had him recalled and shuffled into retirement, Tacitus suggests because his achievements were outshining the Emperor’s. And yet despite a life of military campaigns, involvment with the Boudiccan revolt, the civil war in Rome in 69, and irritating an Emperor not known for his patience, he died peacefully on his estate in the end.

John Lilburne

Freeborn John. He’s actually very important and deserves to be more famous than he is. I’d never heard of him until wifey and I went to see a ‘folk opera’ called Freeborn John in 2008, starring New Model Army, the Levellers, Maddy Prior and Rev Hammer. Since then I have read much of him, and seen him in ‘The Devil’s Whore’ on BBC TV. Lilburne was a radical during the English Civil War. Even back in the 17th century, John espoused the ‘freeborn rights’ of man. He was repeatedly jailed, punished and tried for illegal pamphleting and causing disturbances. He fought for Parliament in the civil war, but resigned his commission in 1645 because he claimed the army was trying to curb his free rights. He may be considered a member of the ‘Levellers’ movement, though he claimed not.  He drafted three constitutions that were never ratified but have been used as the basis for many great documents since. Finally, he was exiled to the Netherlands, though he returned eventually and was subsequently imprisoned yet again. Finally, his health declined in prison and he died while visiting his pregnant wife. He is remembered as one of the earliest proponents of the rights of man.

Colonel Thomas Blood

You may know that name, but probably not. I had heard of him. Blood is infamous in England as the Irishman who, in the late 17th century, attempted to steal the crown jewels of England. He had been a royalist during the civil war, but had switched sides halfway through to support Cromwell. After the royal restoration, he attempted to kidnap the Duke of Ormonde in Ireland and escaped to the Netherlands when his co-conspirators were caught and executed. He returned as a wanted man and attempted to kill the Duke this time, being foiled once again. Then, in 1671, he, in disguise, ingratiated himself with the keeper of the Tower of London’s crown jewels and as a result, managed to steal them, hammering a crown flat and sawing a sceptre in half for transport! However, he was capture while leaving the castle and the crown jewels retained. Blood was taken before the King where, and this is where he becomes a legend in my eyes, the colonel was cheeky and so engaging that the King discovered he liked the man, pardoned him and gave him land! A familiar figure at court afterwards, he continued to be the same audatious man until he eventually fell ill and passed away a free man, never having served punishment for treason, kidnapping or attempted murder.

Alcibiades

Greek statesman from the 5th century BC. Alcibiades is another of those rogues and scoundrels that I like. He was an Athenian that advocated war against Sparta. However, after he was accused of sacrilege and brought to trial in Athens, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he advocated war against Athens and became a general. However, he pissed off important people in Sparta and ended up having to run away again, this time to Persia, enemy of all the Greek states. Here, he became a military advisor to Persia until Athens cleared his name and invited him back (not sure why!) He served once again as an Athenian general before being exiled. He was once more on his way to seek refuge with Persia when he died, possibly at the hands of Spartans. Alcibiades is the ancient Greek pinball.

Charles Piazzi Smyth

My final choice is local for me. He is buried in a churchyard in a village on the edge of Ripon, my hometown. Smyth is an interesting 19th century man. Born in Naples, he became Astronomer Royal of Scotland, designed a tent with an attached groundsheet, wrote a book about his travels to Tenerife, travelled to Egypt and became a ‘pyramidologist’ and is buried beneath a small pyramid with a cross on top.

I bet you’ve all got favourite interesting people too eh?

Go on… who are they?