The Story So Far ...

Monday, 18 September 2017

The Indomitable Nicholaa de la Haye

Some of you will know that I am busily researching for an upcoming history of Mercia, to be published by Amberley. This week I am delighted to turn the blog over to another Amberley author, Sharon Bennett Connolly, whose book, Heroines of the Medieval World, has just been published. 


2017 marked the 800th anniversary of the Battle of Lincoln, when a French force besieging Lincoln Castle were defeated by an army led by the great William Marshal himself. At the time, the defence of the castle was being led by one of the most remarkable people of medieval history; Nicholaa de la Haye.

Almost forgotten by history, Nicholaa was not some fresh-faced beauty in need of rescue, when the French came knocking at the door. She was a mature woman in her 60s and the highly experienced castellan of Lincoln Castle. A formidable matriarch if ever there was one.

Observatory Tower, Lincoln Castle

And it wasn’t even her first siege. Nicholaa was probably born sometime in the early 1150s, she was the eldest daughter of Richard de la Haye, a minor Lincolnshire lord, and his wife, Matilda de Verdun. When her father died in 1169, Nicholaa inherited his lands in Lincolnshire and his position as castellan of Lincoln Castle, a position she would hold for over 30 years.

Nicholaa was married twice, her husbands successively holding the position of Castellan at Lincoln by right of Nicholaa. Her first husband was William Fitz Erneis, who died in 1178. However, before 1185 she was married again, this time Gerard de Camville, son of Richard de Camville, admiral of Richard I’s crusading fleet during the Third Crusade. Although her first marriage was probably childless, Nicholaa and Gerard had at least 3 children; Richard, Thomas and Matilda.

Nicholaa first comes to the attention of the chroniclers in 1191, when Prince John made a play for his brother Richard’s throne. Gerard de Camville was a supporter of John and joined him at Nottingham Castle, leaving Nicholaa to hold Lincoln. Richard I’s Chancellor, William Longchamps, had headed north to halt John’s coup and laid siege to Lincoln Castle. The formidable Nicholaa refused to yield, successfully holding out for 40 days before Longchamps gave up the siege following the fall of the castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. In 1194, on King Richard’s return to England, Camville was stripped of his positions as Sheriff of Lincolnshire and Castellan of the castle; only having it returned to him on the accession of King John in 1199.

Tree carving of Nicholaa de la Haye, Lincoln Castle

Nicholaa was widowed for a second time when Gerard de Camville died around 1215. It seems, however, that the castle remained in her more-than-capable hands.

On one of King John’s visits to inspect the castle’s defences in either 1215 or 1216 there was a rather dramatic display of fealty from Nicholaa:
And once it happened that after the war King John came to Lincoln and the said Lady Nicholaa went out of the eastern gate of the castle carrying the keys of the castle in her hand and met the king and offered the keys to him as her lord and said she was a woman of great age and was unable to bear such fatigue any longer and he besought her saying, “My beloved Nicholaa, I will that you keep the castle as hitherto until I shall order otherwise”. [1]
Nicholaa’s greatest hour came shortly after the death of King John, but as a result of the late king’s tyrannical actions. As we all know, King John’s reign wasn’t exactly smooth sailing. He lost his French lands and was held to account by the barons of England for numerous examples of maladministration, corruption and outright murder. In 1215 he had been forced to seal the Magna Carta in order to avoid war. However, within months John had written to Pope Innocent III and the charter had been declared null and void; the barons were up in arms.

The rebel barons invited the king of France to take the throne of England; Philip II wasn’t interested but his son, Louis (the future Louis VIII), accepted the offer and was hailed as King of England in London in June of 1216.

As Louis consolidated his position in the south, John made an inspection of Lincoln castle in September 1216. During the visit Nicholaa de la Haye, who held the castle for John, even though the city supported the rebels, was appointed Sheriff of Lincolnshire in her own right. Moving south, just 2 weeks later, the king’s baggage train was lost as he crossed the Wash estuary and within a few more days John was desperately ill. He died at Newark on 19th October 1216, with half his country occupied by a foreign invader and his throne now occupied by his 9-year-old son, Henry III.

The elder statesman and notable soldier William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke was appointed Regent and set out to save the kingdom.

Meanwhile, Louis’ forces, under the Comte du Perche, headed north and, in early 1217, took the City of Lincoln and surrounded the castle, laying siege to it with a small force. Although in her 60s, Nicholaa de la Haye took charge of the defences and refused to be daunted by her position. When Prince Louis personally travelled north to Lincoln to ask for her surrender, he assured her no one would be hurt, but Nicholaa refused to yield. When the small force proved insufficient to force a surrender, the French had to send for reinforcements. For almost 3 months – from March to mid-May – siege machinery bombarded the south and east walls of the castle.

West Gate, Lincoln Castle

However, the loyal English forces were not going to leave a woman to the mercy of a siege for long and the regent, William Marshal, organised a force to march to Nicholaa’s relief. The English commanders included William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, his son, Young William Marshal, and nephew, John Marshal, in addition to Ranulph, Earl of Chester, Wiliam Longspee, earl of Salisbury, Peter des Roches, bishop of Winchester, and Faulkes de Breauté. They led 406 knights, 317 crossbowmen and a large number of sergeants-at-arms, foot soldiers and camp followers. The enemy forces in Lincoln were led by Thomas, Comte de Perche, himself a grandson of Henry II’s daughter Matilda and therefore a cousin of King Henry III; the commanders, of the English rebels in the city included Robert FitzWalter and Saer de Quincey. They led over 600 knights and several thousand infantry.

Having mustered at Newark, Marshal’s forces marched on Lincoln, using a roundabout route; crossing the River Trent they came upon the city from the north in the early morning of 20th May. He made a rousing speech before the battle, telling his men: “Now listen, my lords! There is honour and glory to be won here…” [2]

On seeing the arrival of Marshal’s forces, Nicholaa sent her deputy to the regent, who returned with Peter des Roches, secretly entering the castle by a postern gate, in order to inform Nicholaa of Marshal’s plans, and then sneaked into the city to do a little reconnaissance. Des Roches discovered a heavily barricaded gate in the city wall, which Marshal’s forces proceeded to knock through in a few hours. Splitting his forces, Faulke de Breaute was sent into the castle with his crossbowmen, entering through a postern gate, he positioned his men on the walls and proceeded to rain a fire of bolts on the besiegers. The Earl of Chester was sent to attack the North Gate as William Marshal’s men attacked the newly-cleared gate.

It’s not hard to imagine Nicholaa standing on the castle’s walkway, watching the battle unfold, relieved that help had arrived, but desperate for victory.

The hardest fighting took place in the ground between the castle and cathedral; with the enemy’s commander, the Comte du Perche, killed in front of the cathedral itself. And with the death of their leader, the French and rebel barons lost heart and started pulling back. They fled downhill, to the south of the city. Although they briefly rallied, making an uphill assault, but the battle was lost and there was a bottleneck at the South Gate and the bridge across the Witham as the enemy forces fled. The rebel leaders, Saer de Quincey and Robert FitzWalter were both taken prisoner, as were many others. In total, about half of the enemy knights surrendered.

The city, which had supported the rebels and welcomed the French, was sacked and looted by the victorious army; the battle becoming known as the Lincoln Fair, as a result.

The Battle of Lincoln turned the tide of the war. The French were forced to seek peace and eventually returned home. Magna Carta was reissued and Henry III’s regents could set about healing the country.

In a magnificent demonstration of total ingratitude, within four days of the relief of the Castle, Nicholaa was relieved of her position as Sheriff of Lincolnshire. The post was, instead, given to the king’s uncle William Longspée, Earl of Salisbury, who took control of the city and seized the castle.

Not one to give up easily, however, Nicholaa travelled to court to remind the king’s regents of her services, and request her rights be restored to her. Eventually a compromise was reached whereby Salisbury remained as Sheriff of the County, while Nicholaa held the city and her beloved castle.

A staunchly independent woman, Nicholaa issued some 25 surviving charters in her name. She made grants to various religious houses, including Lincoln Cathedral, and even secured a royal grant for a weekly market on one of her properties.

Lincoln Knights' Sculpture of Nicolaa, Lincoln East Gate

A most able adversary for some of the greatest military minds of the time, and a loyal supporter of King John, she was unique among her peers. The chroniclers were full of praise for Nicholaa de la Haye, but seemed to have difficulty in finding the right adjectives for such an incredible; the Dunstable annals refer to her as a ‘noble woman’, saying she acted ‘manfully’. Richard of Devizes said of her first defence of Lincoln Castle, against William Longchamps, that she did it ‘without thinking of anything womanly’.

One cannot fail to feel admiration for a woman who managed to hold her own in a man’s world, who fought for her castle and her home in a time when women had so little say over their own lives – and at such an advanced age. Her bravery and tenacity saved Henry III’s throne.

Not surprisingly, Henry III referred to her as ‘our beloved and faithful Nicholaa de la Haye’.

Nicholaa de la Haye, the woman who saved England, lived well into her 70s. By late 1226 she had retired to her manor at Swaton, dying there in 1230. She was buried in St Michael’s Church, Swaton in Lincolnshire. Nicholaa’s granddaughte, Idonea – daughter of her eldest son Richard and married to Salisbury’s son, William II Longspée - inherited the de la Haye and Camville lands on Nicholaa’s death

Footnotes: ¹Irene Gladwin: The Sheriff; The Man and His Office; ²Histoire de Guillaume le Maréschal translated by Stewart Gregory.


Sources: The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Elizabeth Hallam; Brassey’s Battles by John Laffin; 1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger & John Gillingham; The Life and times of King John by Maurice Ashley; The Story of Britain by Roy Strong; The Plantagenets, the Kings Who Made England by Dan Jones; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett;;;;;; The Sheriff: The Man and His Office by Irene Gladwin; Elizabeth Chadwick; Nick Buckingham;


Thank you so much for this wonderfully informative post, Sharon!
Sharon's book, Heroines of the Medieval World is available now, and features a chapter on my favourite heroine, The Lady of the Mercians, as well as Nicolaa, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and many others.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

English Place Names

I often drive through a town or village and wonder about its name. There are some strange ones out there - Chapel-en-le-Frith, Stoke Poges, Egremont, Kingston Bagpuize, Ashby de la Zouch... 

Also odd are the ones that aren't pronounced anything like they should be. Happisburgh in Norfolk, for example. Yep, that's right, it's pronounced Hazeburra. Oh I know, let's not even get started on the boroughs, and burghs, some of which are pronounced burra, and some bruff! (Although I shall return to them later and maybe clear up the confusion.)

With a lot of place-names, it's easy to break them down into their constituent parts and work out what they mean.

The OE (Old English) place names seem to be are straightforward. In an earlier blog post about Wulfric Spott I mentioned his mother, Wulfrun, who gave her name to Wolverhampton.

Her personal name forms the first part of the town name, and the rest consists of ham and ton:~

Ham = farm, settlement, homestead (ON Toft) but we'll see that this is not quite so straightforward...

Ton = enclosure

So it would seem that many place names contain elements of OE or ON (Old Norse) which are simply words to denote topographical or geographical features.

Wic (OE)/By (ON) = market

Thorpe - secondary settlement
Leigh/ley (OE) = woodland clearing- so my fictional village of Ashleigh in Alvar the Kingmaker is 'clearing in the ash forest'
Thwaite (ON) = clearing in Old Norse
Ing (OE) = people

As you can see, the above village name has the elements ing and ham. Great Massingham is in Norfolk. In Cumbria there are a lot of place names with ON origins : Kirkby Lonsdale, Kirkby Thore, Seathwaite.

So far, so straightforward. But all is not as it seems. In her Signposts to the Past, Margaret Gelling dispels a lot of the accepted thinking.

To go back to the element ham:~ Another OE word was hamm, which was not connected. Kingsholme near Gloucester does not mean king’s home, but Kyngeshamme, a water meadow on the royal estate.
“The uncompounded name Ham offers no problems, as it always derives from the topographical term hamm, which has been considered to mean ‘land in a river (bed), promontory, dry ground in a marsh, river-meadow. It may be used on its own, as in East and West Ham, or in a first element, as in some instances of Hampton, but it occurs most frequently as a final element. The habitative term hām, (village, estate) is not used as a simplex place-name and only occurs as a first element if the name derives form a compound appellative like hāmtūn, hāmstede.”

Another pair of similar words which cause trouble are būr (bower) and burh (fort) - and we need to distinguish beorg, from burh, and its dative byrig. Had they been differentiated in Middle English beorg would give berrow or barrow, and burh would mostly give borough while byrig would give bury. Archaeological evidence is needed in these cases to establish exactly how the place-names developed.

Burh can mean not only a hill fort but also a defended manor house as well as the later 'town'.

In the country as a whole, Bury is more common than Borough, Burgh or Brough. The OE final -h could develop into -f in pronunciation but not spelling, as in laugh and tough, and this led to burh becoming Burf as in Abdon Burf, and sometime Berth.

Later on there are instances of byrig meaning manor house:~ Bibury, from Beage, daughter of Leppa, and burh meaning monastery. In the case of Fladbury, this is probably derived from Flæde’s byrig, possibly a manor house built by a widow.
In the case of the element ing, it had always been assumed that newcomers took what land they chose, and that places such as Hastings (followers of Hæsta) and Reading (followers of Réad) were believed to mark those settlements. But Gelling says these were not 'primary settlement' place-names but actually came much later.

Ing sometimes has no filial relationship at all – Clavering in Essex comes about from the element ing being added to clœfre (clover) to give place where the clover grows. The same construction applies to Docking in Norfolk, from docce, the place where dock grows.

There has been a suggestion in recent times that some names came about because the Anglo-Saxons settlers mispronounced the Celtic names they discovered, much as the English in WWI pronounced Ypres as Wipers. Gelling is not convinced that the newcomers had such poor linguistic skills, and she points out that this was not the fate of all the Celtic place names.

Some tun names might have come about because of the Mercian administrators who might have been in the habit of describing places which had Celtic names as the ea-tun (river settlement) and that these names eventually stuck, but this is only a theory.

Where the Celtic, or Pre-Celtic names have been preserved, it is largely in the names of rivers. 

The use of the word walh to mean slave is probably a misconception, and it's more likely that it means ‘a Celt’; however, the reality is that most slaves would have been (descendants) of British who had that status under the Romans. 

The seventh-century king of the Magonsæte, who appears in my latest novel, Cometh the Hour was Merewalh, which has been translated as 'famous Welshman'. That being accepted, it seems unlikely that walh meant 'slave'. 

If the Angles and Saxons had problems with the place-names they encountered, the same was certainly true of the Norman invaders.

The initial sound Y was a problem for the Normans, so Yarrow became Jarrow, Yesmond became Jesmond. These are fairly easy to spot once armed with the knowledge that the letter was not in use in the Anglo-Saxon alphabet. So too the letter Z, which appears in names such as Belsize.

The initial sound in words such as thorn was unknown to the Normans, and they replaced it with T so that Tilsworth probably would have developed into Thilsworth had the conquest not happened.

Wic, the element identified as meaning market, was borrowed from Latin vicus. Before it was used as salt-working centre and ‘dairy farm’, it might have been used by the earliest English speaking people to refer to Romano-British settlements, or to Roman administrative units.

Gelling points out that more than 75% of the instances of places called wīchām were situated directly on or not more than a mile from a major Roman Road.

Often  tūn (ton) developed where an estate was once part of a larger demesne. An estate given to a thegn named Wulfgar came over time to be called Aughton (Aeffe’s estate, Aeffe being Wulfgar’s widow. Likewise an estate granted to Sibba becomes Sibton. Some ton names are more general, Preston (priests), Charlton, (ceorla-ton, enclosure of the the ceorls).

Grim is a nickname for Woden, but not all Grims- are of this origin. Grimr was a common ON personal name. So we cannot assume that all Grims are the devil.

And speaking of personal names, they aren’t all. Whitchurch could be Hwīta’s church, but it could also simply be the white church. 

Another key place in my new novel is Oswestry, universally believed to have developed from Oswald's tree, the site of his killing. But Warburton developed from Wærburg’s farm or estate, where the religious house was dedicated to St Werburgh, probably because the name suggested it, and the same logic should, according to Gelling, be applied to Oswestry, where the dedication of St Oswald probably arose from a place name which did not originally refer to the saint.

Sometimes the ON and OE elements are hard to differentiate.
Brunum or Brunnum in ON corresponds to burna (OE), which gives us the modern burn. Similarly, Lythe could be from ON lith, (slope) or from OE hlith, with the same meaning.

Beck - ON

But there are some words which have no English cognate. Going back to Cumbria we find Wasdale and Watendlath, containing vatn (lake,) Fossdale containing fors (waterfall,) and thveit, (thwaite -clearing.)

Many Scandinavian settlement names of eastern England can be divided into three main categories -by, -thorp, and those combined with English tun combined with a Norse personal name.

PH Sawyer argued that Norse place-names did not denote the settlements of a victorious army, but more likely inferior land. Older villages were probably already on the best sites.
Alford, for example, is much larger than the surrounding places with -by and -thorpe names.

Kirby/Kirkby generally denotes a church village, and is usually borne by places with desirable locations and it is likely that it replaces an older English, or perhaps Celtic name. It might have simply been that kirkby was an appellative applied to any village with a noteworthy church.

Mitchelgate (gate=ON gata - road) in Kirkby Lonsdale

Moving into the the post-Conquest era brings us the wonderful place-names such as Ashby de la Zouch and Egremont. But many of the French names were just stereo-typical descriptions, giving us beautiful seat, beautiful place, beautiful hill. (Belvoir, Beaulieu, Beauvale, Beaumont)

So, next time you drive past a place-name sign, don't assume the obvious; there may be more to the story of the name than meets the eye... 

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Anglo-Saxons in the Scottish Court: Joining up the Dots

Often, fiction has been the lure for me to explore aspects of history which take me sideways, rather than back or forth from my favourite period.

I was reading Queen Hereafter, by Susan Fraser King, which tells the story of Margaret of Scotland. She was English, a member of the Anglo-Saxon royal house whose rule was brought to an abrupt end by the events of 1066. This blog post was going to be a review, but events took a turn which means it has become an adventure, too...

Of the book itself, I can say that it is an accomplished exploration of Margaret's life, thoroughly researched, with credible dialogue and a good sense of time and place. 

The description of the Scottish locations was brilliantly done, and the indoor scenes were beautifully painted. I finished the book feeling glad that I had read it, and that's always a good sign.

I had two tiny niggles: the slight reliance on the past historic tense - she wore, she sat - left me musing that the use of the past imperfect - she was sitting - would give some of the scenes more immediacy and leave the reader feeling a little less detached from the scene being laid out for them. And, occasionally, characters explain, for the benefit of the reader, things which the other character would already know, but this at least shows that the author has done her stuff. I felt safe that I was learning historical facts, that the fiction was woven on a solid frame of truth.

Margaret is portrayed as fervently religious. Reading the book, I wondered if the authors' suggestion is that she was an obsessive compulsive? If so, it's an interesting proposition. Margaret was certainly revered for her religious observance, but on the other hand, was there anything inherently untoward about someone being devout, in those times?

Margaret arriving in Scotland - attribution

I love it when things all fall into place - and it was at this point that they did so, spectacularly. At the same moment as I began reading the chapter in which Margaret arrives at Dunfermline, I found out that our summer holiday booking was for Fife, in Scotland, and we were going to be staying just a few miles outside Dunfermline, where Margaret was buried.

The medieval abbey, founded by Margaret
and rebuilt by her son, David

Margaret's grandfather was Edmund Ironside, the son of Æthelred the Unready who fought, and nearly beat, Cnut. When Cnut became king, Edmund's son, Edward, was exiled, and Margaret was born in Hungary. 

In 1057 her father was recalled to England, being the heir to Edward the Confessor, who was childless and, at this stage, it seemed inevitable that he would remain so. However, Margaret's father died almost immediately upon arrival in England. Her brother, Edgar, became a figurehead for uprising in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Margaret, her siblings, and their mother fled north, initially to Northumbria.

There is some dispute as to when and how they ended up in Scotland. The chronicler Simeon of Durham recorded in 1070 that "King Malcolm, with the consent of his relatives, took in marriage Edgar's sister, Margaret, a woman noble by royal ascent." Others place the date of Margaret and Edgar's arrival in Scotland as 1068.

Malcom Canmore's Tower - Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline 

What I did know about Margaret was that she was canonised, for her piety, charity and strict observance of the Catholic faith. I had never really joined up the dots though, for her new husband, Malcolm III, also known as Malcolm Canmore, is the same Malcolm who appears in that Scottish play ~ it was this Malcolm who slew Macbeth.

A statue of Margaret in the cave where she
is known to have prayed

The descendants of Malcolm III and Margaret dominated the Scottish monarchy for the next two hundred years, although their reigns were not without challenges.

Malcolm's own journey to the throne was a bloody one. The Annals of England and Ireland are in agreement that Macbeth was put to flight by Malcolm in 1054, and later sources agreed with Shakespeare that this battle took place at Dunsinan. Malcolm killed Macbeth near Aberdeen, at Lumphanan on 15th August 1057, and I just happened to be at Malcolm's power base of Dunfermline/Edinburgh on 15th August this year, 960 years later!

It's a possibility that although Macbeth was killed, his army might in fact have been victorious, because Malcolm was still not considered king.

Macbeth at Dunsinane - John Martin
(Public Domain image)

Macbeth's stepson, Lulach, reigned for a short while but was also killed by Malcolm. The Chronicle of Melrose reported that "[Lulach] fell by the arms of the same Malcolm. The man met his fate at Essie, in Strathbogie."

Even so, Malcolm's slaying of Macbeth and Lulach did not eradicate all rivals to the Scottish throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry for 1078 tells us that "In this year King Malcolm captured the mother of Maelslæta and all his best men, and all his treasures, and his live-stock, and he himself escaped with difficulty."

Maelslæta, or Máel Snechtai, was Lulach's son, and was, according to the Irish Annals, the king of Moray. These same annals record, enigmatically, that Malcolm's son Donald, by his first wife, died 'unhappily' in 1085. Was this retribution for the attack on Máel Snechtai?

Malcolm and his eldest son by Margaret, Edward, were killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093, fighting against Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria, and it seems that Margaret died of a broken heart, just a few months later.

Her relics drew huge numbers of pilgrims to Dunfermline abbey until the Reformation, 'when heretics stole into the Kingdome, trampled underfoot all divine and human lawes and seized the sacred moveables on [Dunfermline] Church.'

Margaret's Shrine

Margaret is best-known for her piety, and her 'reform' of the Celtic Church in Scotland. This is what I knew of her. Somehow I didn't ever really put her together with Malcolm Canmore, Edmund Ironside, and Shakespeare's Macbeth. Nor, perhaps, had I not read Fraser King's novel, would I have taken quite such an interest in the town of Dunfermline when I visited. Well, I probably would've done, because it's a fabulous place for history fans. Watch out for an EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) post about Dunfermline in the near future.

[all photos by and copyright of the author] 

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours ~ Ancient Crete

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

This month, it's the turn of author Martin Lake, who invites us on a journey back to Ancient Crete



Hundreds of people streamed across the fields to the great complex of Knossos. At first, I smiled at their excitement. They were farmers from distant villages, shepherds who dwelt in the wild mountains of the south, fishermen who bore the heady scent of the sea in their hair. And all of them were agog at the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the city. For me, who had lived here all my life, the city was as familiar as my thoughts, as constant as my breath. I congratulated myself on my worldliness, on my sophistication and immunity to novelty. Knossos was the greatest city in the world and I gloried to be citizen of it.

But as they passed close to me I seemed to catch their mood, almost as a person can become infected by an ailment, or the grief of others, or love. Loud chatter filled my ears, the steady trudge of countless feet drummed upon the hard-packed earthen paths until it reached my legs sprawling upon the earth. My heart began to quicken, my breath grew faster and my skin began to tingle. And then, surmounting all this noise, came the mighty bellowing of the great bulls, the aurochs, as they were led into the arena.

I put down my stylus. The papyrus was filled with my marks, listing the harvest which had arrived at the city. Wheat and barley to the weight of ten thousand oxen had been poured into dark vaults beneath the city streets. A thousand barrels, each as big as a man, were crammed with figs, almonds, beans and olives, the most precious gifts of the Great Goddess. Huge jars of wine lay stacked beneath trees which waved their branches to keep the liquids cool. Honey pots nestled beside them, each containing a tiny lake of gold. And all this wealth was recorded by my symbols, as much as if all were stacked in front of me.

Storage jars used for wine - image via Wiki Commons

And below I had scratched more marks, listing the dozen aurochs which had been taken on the most recent hunt. Fine beasts, marvellous beasts, the guardians of our land. Taller than a man, stronger than an ox, faster than a horse, more courageous than a lion. They would, in a short while, charge like tempests across the arena, seeking to slay the puny men who dared to leap them. Some might succeed. The younger bulls, less experienced, might not kill but merely maim. 
I shifted my leg anxiously at the memory. It was bent in an unruly fashion and still, a dozen years later, gave me pain on the coldest nights of winter. 

And then, although I had no wish to do so, I recalled once more my final day in the arena. I was a skilful, experienced bull leaper and had been matched with Krawq, the greatest aurochs of them all. On hearing this I had grown anxious, for few had been able to best him. But all too soon, the encouragement of my friends gave me a sense of invulnerability. I entered the arena, confident that I would leap Krawq and win the acclaim of the crowd.

But then I realised. Krawq was huge, his head half the size of a man, his horns immense, his eyes red as fire. He trotted quickly around the arena, yet, despite this speed, he moved with a delicacy I had never witnessed in any aurochs before, like a young girl dancing for her admirers.

And then he turned towards me. I saw his massive bulk as he charged, smelt the stink of his breath, trembled with terror at his rage. I wondered whether to dodge or leap and saw the look of cunning in his eye. To dodge would mean my death, I realised, so I forced my legs to jump, forgoing now any clever moves, artistic flourishes or acrobatic wiles. High above the rippling back I leapt and heard the applause of the crowd crash across the arena. 

Vain and preening, I raised my hand in triumph. How could I have been so foolish? I lost my focus but my adversary kept his. His vast bulk skidded to a halt and his head lunged, one spear-sharp horn catching me in the calf. I felt the flesh rip away and landed on the creature’s back before sliding to the arena floor.

I still marvel but, despite my injury, I managed to get to my feet and hop towards the arena wall. The aurochs, thankfully, did not pursue me, for if he had my life would have ended. Krawq waited and merely watched me make my escape. I swear that, as I risked a glance over my shoulder, he looked upon me kindly.

I took a deep breath, thrusting the memory back into the past. I glanced down at the papyrus and shook my head in surprise. There, beneath the list of harvest goods, unbeknown to me, I had newly drawn a series of marks. 

I gasped. They seemed to describe the memory of that terrible day. There was a circle, very like the arena, with a gate through which a stick-like man entered. It was me, I realised, it was meant to be me. And there, close by, appeared Krawq, a dark shape with huge horns and powerful back. The stick like figure leapt above the aurochs, the horn slashed out and the figure fell to earth. But then it rose and made its way safely to the edge of the arena. 

I shook my head in wonder. Since leaving the arena and becoming a clerk I had made countless lists of provisions. And this, I realised, told the truth of my last battle with Krawq as accurately as my symbols showed the wealth of corn and oil and fruit within the city. I clapped my hands with joy. 

And then I bent to my papyrus again. I redrew the figure of the aurochs to appear larger, more formidable, even more deadly. And then I made the figure of myself leap higher and appear to be caught by only the tip of the horn. And finally, I added a new drawing, in which the aurochs and man raised hand and hoof to salute each other. 

I sighed with pleasure. This was a finer use of my pen than ceaseless scratching out of lists and inventories. I climbed painfully to my feet and made my way towards the arena, the papyrus tucked into my belt.


Born and raised in England, Martin Lake discovered his love of history and writing at an early age. After graduating, he worked as a teacher before deciding to combine his two passions and write a historical novel. Since then, he has written eleven novels including A Dance of Pride and Peril, set in ancient Crete. When not writing, he can be found travelling, cooking, and exploring fascinating places. He lives on the French Riviera with his wife.
You can find his books here:

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Right to Reply - Round-Up

Who was the most influential character in history? Which was the most significant event? What's the best weapon to use if you're going into battle?

Earlier this year I asked various authors for their answers to these questions and more, separating the posts into eras/settings, and asking authors who write books set in each of those periods or places.

Some played nicely, some didn't...😉

In case you missed any of the posts, here are all the links:~

authors Hunter S Jones, Gayle Hulme and Judith Arnopp 

authors Matthew Harffy, Glynn Holloway and Justin Hill

authors Charlene Newcomb, Edward Ruadh Butler and EM Powell

authors Louise Turner, Malcolm Archibald and Margaret Skea

authors Cryssa Bazos, Jemahl Evans and Deborah Swift

Monday, 14 August 2017

Writing to Music: A Medievalist Approach - Emily Murdoch

For the latest in the series Writing to Music I am delighted to turn the blog over to Emily Murdoch.
Over to you Emily...

If music be the food of love, play on . . . where words fail, music speaks . . . without music, life would be a mistake . . . It is hard to find anyone who does not love music, even if our tastes will vary! As an author, there are very specific conditions that I have to work in to be able to get the Muse flowing, and music is a vital aspect of many authors. The question is, did it for our medieval ancestors?

We can argue about medieval literacy until the cows come home, but the fact that the medieval ear had a true love affair with music is one few would argue with. There is a great deal of sheet music that has come down the ages to us from the time before the 1500s, and much of it from the church. 

Singing praises to God was just as much second nature to them as singing the latest chart songs to us; it brought them closer to each other and to their Maker in a way that only religious harmonies can. 

In fact, the very idea of melody and harmony intertwining, weaving in and out of each other like a woven basket was born in the monasteries, and some believe it was used as a form of concentration – and entertainment – for the scribes copying out new versions of the Holy Scriptures.

That is not, naturally, to say that music was only found in the province of the cloister. The battlefield was just as likely to contain song and instruments, but for very different purposes – and much lewder lyrics! Marching songs, songs to stiffen the sinews, songs to encourage you to move faster, think quicker, kill speedier . . . The Crusades bore a huge medley of different songs, some in English, some in French, and all just as unpleasant about the enemy. 

Just as I may write a quickly-paced scene with a quickly paced tune in the background, so previous generations of soldiers have been spurred on by the beating of their heart and the pounding of a drum. That respect, perhaps, not much has changed. 

As the medieval era began to turn towards the Renaissance, perhaps the last great medieval King took it, and transformed it into something more than an ode to the love of God, or the love of war: but instead, the love of a woman. Henry VIII was more medieval tyrant than reformed Renaissance man, despite his father, and he knew that music itself could be put to work, to do something for you, to sing for its supper. His wooing of Anne Boleyn, no matter which side of the debate you come (Team Katherine? Team Anne?) was a truly transformative change in the way that we see music. Now it wasn’t just the world changing the music. Music was changing the world.

Henry VIII in 1509

We know thanks to modern science and studies that listening to music with lyrics can really hinder our concentration, and I surely can’t be the only one who has been listening to a great song, and then realised that I had typed out the lyrics for the last two sentences! Having low level music, however, has shown in some studies to increase productivity and reduce the stress hormone cortisol in the body, so our ancestors can’t be all wrong. 

Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, absolutely hated writing to music, and instead stated that he would rather write in a soundproofed room on the top floor of a building, with no feet stomping above him. Stephen King loved writing to music so much that he actually created his own band of authors! He called it ‘The Rock Bottom Remainders,’ and it contained writers such as Amy Tan, Scott Turow, Joel Selvin, and Barbara Kingsolver.

I certainly find music an excellent soother when I am trying to work out a key passage in one of my books, and I have found songs, humming, and musicians tripping across my page more than once in a wonderfully poetical irony.

I would be remiss to end the article without sharing some of the music that I listen to when I am writing! When writing in my medieval series, I love to immerse myself in historically accurate tunes: Mediaeval Baebes is a gorgeous vocal group that recreate medieval music and at times, put a modern spin on things. 
Musa Venit Carmine -Youtube

When I’m writing my bestselling Regency series, it’s all about soundtracks: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, even Northanger Abbey! It’s a wonderful way for me to keep the manners and civilities in mind as I write. 

For my most recent series, Western historical, I’ve taken a completely different approach, writing to modern ‘cowboy’ music, to separate myself from my other series! It can get slightly complicated when I write more than one series in a day, but the music grounds me, keeps me close to my (current) historical time period, and forces me to stay centred on what I’m working on.

No matter what, I always have RainyMood on in the background. I love the sunshine so I have no idea why I am always desperate for the sound of the rain behind me, and I absolutely love this free website. 
Rainy Mood 
Check it out, and read any of my books at the same time: you’ll be listening to the same sounds that I did when writing it.

Thanks so much, Emily!

Emily Murdoch is a historian and writer. Throughout her career so far she has examined a codex and transcribed medieval sermons at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, designed part of an exhibition for the Yorkshire Museum, worked as a researcher for a BBC documentary presented by Ian Hislop, and worked at Polesden Lacey with the National Trust. She has a degree in History and English, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of York. Emily has a medieval series, a Regency novella series, and the first volume of a five-part Western series published, and is currently working on several new projects.

Buy her books from Amazon UK and Amazon US
You can follow her on Twitter, Instagram, BookBub, and Facebook.