Why I chose to write about the Anglo – Saxon period – by Matthew Harffy

Today I am absolutely thrilled to have Matthew Harffy on the blog for the first date of his blog tour, to celebrate the paperback release of his fantastic novel “Killer of Kings” – I’m currently reading this book and let me tell you, it’s brilliant! I’ll be reviewing it as soon as I’ve finished. For now though, I’ll hand over to Matthew as he talks about just why he chose to write about the Anglo Saxon period!

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Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms,Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?

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People often ask me why I chose to write about the Anglo-Saxon period. The answer to that question sounds like a typical author’s cliché answer, such as, ‘the characters have a life of their own’, ‘I cannot not write’, and, one of my favourites, ‘I don’t choose what the characters do, I just write their story as they tell it to me’. I have heard writers say all of the above in one form or another, and I have even said some of those things myself. I used to think they were all trite answers that authors would trot out in order to sound mysterious and intriguing. That is, until I became an author myself and realised that there is an element of truth in every one of them! I suppose that is the case with most clichés. And, as is so often the case with clichés, even though my answer to the question about how I decided on the period to write about sounds contrived, it is actually true.

You see, I didn’t set out to write about the seventh century. This early mediaeval period, often referred to as being in the Dark Ages, chose me.

I can remember the moment when the seed of the first book in the series, The Serpent Sword, was sown. That was one October night back in 2001. But before I get to that, I need to give a bit of my history which will explain why that seed took root.

My parents moved us all to Northumberland when I was nine years old. I didn’t have the easiest time at school there. Being from West Sussex, my accent marked me as an outsider, which the girls seemed to like and the boys appeared to hate. This resulted in me being popular with the girls and being bullied by many of the boys.

But even though school wasn’t always fun, I loved the countryside that surrounded the small village of Norham where we lived. Northumberland is much more rugged and sparsely populated than the south east of England and everywhere you turn there are reminders of the distant past. The village of Norham itself, nestling beside the broad expanse of the River Tweed, is overlooked by the crumbling ruins of a Norman castle and its mediaeval church once housed Robert the Bruce’s forces when they besieged the castle for seven months in 1318. The land is hilly and wild and the coastline is rocky and dotted with ruins, such as the picturesque and magnificent Dunstanburgh Castle, which sparked my youthful imagination.

One of the most famous castles on that coastline is Bamburgh. The fortress that stands on the mighty crag overlooking the North Sea is huge and built in a mediaeval style, having been significantly restored in the nineteenth century. But for a long time I never understood the castle’s significance to the region from long before it was a stone castle that played an important role in the fifteenth century Wars of the Roses.

We moved away from the area when I was still a child, but it had a lasting effect upon me and my view on the world. I remained interested in the natural world and also in castles and the people who had lived in them. Growing up in the eighties, I became obsessed with fantasy novels and films and played role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons, where larger-than-life characters battled evil creatures with swords, spears, shields and magic.

Years went by and so it was in 2001, with my first daughter asleep in her cot and my wife working late, that I found myself watching a documentary on television about Bamburgh Castle and graves which archaeologists were excavating there. The graves dated from the seventh century and earlier and the programme spoke of the importance of Bamburgh, or Bebbanburg as it was known then, in the early mediaeval period. This was the time of the Anglo-Saxons, whom I knew little about at the time. Bebbanburg was the capital of the northern kingdom of Bernicia. I had never heard of such a place, but in the seventh and eighth centuries Bernicia and its neighbouring kingdom Deira, which when unified became Northumbria, were some of the most important kingdoms of the British Isles and even of Europe!

That television programme gave me a brief glimpse into the past of a landscape that I hadn’t visited for twenty years. And something about it spoke to me. I rushed upstairs and started to write the first scene of what would become, many years of research and writing later, the first novel of the Bernicia Chronicles, The Serpent Sword.

As my writing and research continued over the ensuing years, I discovered that the period was perfect for writing epic, gripping thrillers. Good stories need conflict and the seventh century is full of it. You have the Anglo-Saxons invading from the east battling with the native Britons who they referred to as the Welsh (which derives from the Old English for foreigner!). There is the clash between old pagan religions and Christianity. And there is even the conflict between the Roman Christianity coming from the south, and the Irish form of Christianity, spreading from the west and the north. Most of the kings of the time died in battle and there was subterfuge and intrigue aplenty. On top of all of that, there were very few written records, meaning there is a lot of leeway for a novelist to create original stories. I realised that I was able to write stories that indulged my love of swords and battles and great heroes, grounding them in a real historical time and place. The only real difference from the fantasy books and games I loved was that there were no dragons and no magic, though of course, the people of the time believed in both.

And so you see, I did not make the decision to write about the early Anglo-Saxon period. If I hadn’t lived in Northumberland as a child, perhaps that television documentary would never have resonated with me in the way that it did. But as I look back, I am so pleased that my parents chose to move to Northumberland, as without that experience the seeds for The Serpent Sword might never have found fertile ground in my mind and I’m sure that my life would have been much less interesting and rewarding as a result.

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[Review] The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World by Gareth Russell

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When the ship of dreams sank, so did the Edwardian era.
In this original and meticulously-researched narrative history, Gareth Russell considers the real story of the Titanic, and the seismic shift of modernity the 1910s have come to mark in the West.

Had she survived her first voyage, The Titanic probably would have dated like other ocean liners. Instead, within a week of setting sail on 10th April 1912, the disaster of her sinking had turned her into one of the biggest news stories of the century. Writing in his signature prose, Gareth Russell peers through the portholes of six first-class travellers to immerse us into the Edwardian era while demonstrating how modernity shook up the class system of the age.

Lucy Leslie, Countess of Rothes; “son” of the British Empire, Tommy Andrews; captain of the industry John Thayer and his son Jack; Jewish immigrant Ida Straus; and model and movie star Dorothy Gibson. Each subject’s unique story offers insights into the established hierarchy during the fin de siècle of pre-war Britain and America, the Titanic’s respective spiritual and economic homelands. Through these entwining lives, Russell investigates social class – its mores, its foibles, its accents, its etiquette, its benefits, its casual or intentional cruelties, its potential nobility. Those nuances also invite analyses of the shipping trade, the birth of the movie industry, the aristocracy, the American Gilded Age, the Irish Home Rule crisis, and Jewish-American communities.

The Titanic is the vessel in which we can extrapolate lessons on hubris, folly, greed, love, class, magnificent courage and pitiable weakness. She carried thousands of people and, in that way, she still has thousands of stories to tell. Drawing on brand new and unpublished materials, journal entries and film archives from the time, The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World focuses on the symbolism of the Titanic as the floating symbol of Anglo-American success, its clientele an apt illustration of the limitless – technological, financial – possibilities of its time.

I was absolutely honoured to receive a review copy of Russell’s latest book, having read and utterly adored his book on Katherine Howard – so when I received this book I was seriously excited to get stuck in. I must admit it’s taken me a while to get through it, but the fault is entirely my own thanks to that bothersome thing called real life getting in the way. When I did pick it up I found myself lost in the past, on board the Ship of Dreams as it set sail from Southampton and as it sank into the icy waters. I’ll say it now – this book is an absolute gem and needs to be read by everyone, whether they know a lot about the Titanic or not.

Russell once again proves himself to be a master of his craft with a narrative that is both chock full of facts and drama, telling the story of a number of passengers through the medium of eye witness statements and other sources – with such a well known event in history it is hard to believe that there is anything new to uncover, yet Russell has done the impossible. He has crafted a meticulous re-telling of the sinking of the Titanic and how its demise during the early hours of April 15th, 1912, saw the end of the Edwardian era, and his narrative is so incredibly moving that there are many times whereupon I felt myself moved to tears – from the accounts of the sounds those within the water made going silent, to the psychological trauma affecting the survivors, this is a brilliant non fiction narrative that really will tug on your heartstrings and make you see the sinking of the Titanic in an entirely new light.

As someone who lives close to where the Titanic sailed from, I jumped at the chance to read and review this book. And let me tell you, I am so glad that I did. Russell has done a phenomenal job crafting this book and it really has to be placed up there as one of the greatest books ever written on the Ship of Dreams.

The Darksome Bounds of a Failing World is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.

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OTD in history: 12th March 1507

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It’s that time again, folks. A day in history that always chokes me up just a little bit…

On 12th March 1507 Cesare Borgia, the feared Duke Valentino, was killed during a skirmish outside the small town of Viana in Navarre.

Having joined up with the King of Navarre following his miraculous escape from the prison of La Mota in Spain, Cesare and the army of the King decided to take the town of Viana back into the hands of Navarre.

As the weather in Viana turned bad, Cesare believed that in such weather no attack would happen. In his mind, he and his soldiers were safe. Except this was the opportunity that the enemy had been waiting for. They attacked, and as the alarm was raised in the town confusion reigned. Cesare dressed quickly in light armour and ordered his soldiers to ride out with him to meet the oncoming enemy. Cesare, in his excitement, rode out before his soldiers – he rode so fast that he outdistanced himself and did not realise he was alone until it was too late. Three men ambushed Cesare as he rode forward – as Cesare raised his arm to attack one of the men struck him underneath the arm with a lance. He was mortally wounded but still, having fallen from his horse, fought for his life but he was overcome. Stabbed countless times, Cesare Borgia died just days before the Ides of March and the death of his hero, Julius Caesar. He was just thirty-one years old.

Stripped naked, Cesare’s attackers covered his genitals with a stone to cover his modesty. The man had absolutely no idea that they had killed Cesare Borgia, whom they had been ordered NOT to kill if they met him in battle. It was only when Cesare’s squire, Juanito, was shown his master’s armour that they realised. The boy had burst into tears.

Cesare’s body was moved back into the little town and buried inside the church of Santa Maria, within a beautiful tomb. The tomb was inscribed with the words:

“Here in a scant piece of earth, lies he whom all the world feared”

However in 1527, the Bishop of Calahorra had Cesare’s remains removed from inside the Church and destroyed the tomb. His reasoning for this was that a man who was such a ‘monster’ had absolutely no right to be buried in consecrated ground. His bones lay under a pavement, and were walked over for centuries, until the Bishop of Pamplona agreed that Cesare could be moved back inside in 2007. His remains had previously been excavated by and studied by a Spaniard who came to the conclusion that the bones found within the small grave were almost certainly that of Cesare Borgia. Following the re-internment of the bones, a simple slab was placed over Borgia’s final resting place, describing briefly who he was an his military exploits.

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[Looking Back] An Interview With Dan Jones

I’ve been somewhat quiet lately – unfortunately life has taken over and I’ve gotten somewhat buried in new job stuff and editing the work in progress. So today, given as I’m just way too burned out to write any sort of proper blog post, we’re looking back at an interview the amazing Dan Jones gave me! Enjoy!

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Today I am honoured to have Dan Jones on the blog for an interview. Dan Jones is a well-known and highly respected historian who has written books on the Plantagenets, Wars of the Roses and the Magna Carta. He has also presented television documentaries on British Castles, the Wars of the Roses and the Great Fire of London.

Sam Morris: Firstly, thank you very much for agreeing to this little interview. I know my readers will be really excited to see you on the blog! First question then – Growing up, what was it that initially sparked your interest in history?

Dan Jones: I started vibing history in school, relatively late, I guess. You may think I was inspecting battlements as a six-year old or being chaperoned around monuments before I could talk, but put that thought out of your mind. I was about the age of 15 when I ran into a teacher at school who made history burst into life. His name was Robin Green and he taught Tudor history like a demon dog, got me hooked on it and helped push me towards studying it at Cambridge.

SM: You’ve written a range of books with topics from the Tudors through to the Templars – which era of history is your particular favourite and why?

DJ: Well, evidently I have something of a yen for the European middle ages, and particularly for the history of England between about 1150 and 1500. But I couldn’t say for certain that I have a clear favourite. I tend to pick subjects I either know or imagine I will enjoy spending three years wrestling into submission, and I work to a plan. So the Templars was a subject that had some very flimsy overlap in terms of subject matter with my earlier books on Plantagenet England – but it was also a way of easing myself into the history of the crusades, which is an area I intend to stick with for the next few years.

SM: Regarding your upcoming book on the Templars, I myself have visited Templar castles over in Portugal – the Convento de Cristo in Tomar is a personal favourite. Is there a particular place associated with the Templars that made you think “hang on a minute, I’d love to write about these guys?”

DJ: Not really – I just had this instinctive sense that the Templars was a subject that would draw in regular people who don’t read a lot of history, get them intrigued and have them clamouring for more of the same. As regards Templars locations, I have spent a lot of time in the Temple Church in London, which is a true gem on the outskirts of the City, now surrounded by barristers’ chambers, so a hub in the middle of lawyer-town. William Marshal’s tomb is there.

SM: You are regarded as a young and ‘hip’ historian – what advice would you give someone wanting to break into the field of history? (This is something I could have done with before writing my first book!)

DJ: Work hard, read a lot, write a lot, and know exactly what you want to write about. I have had such a weird career that I don’t think I can offer it up as a model pathway – but I don’t think the basics are hard. Graft. Meet people. Specialise. Enjoy.

SM: You studied at university under the eminent David Starkey. What was it like to be taught by someone so respected in the field?

DJ: Well, it’s a long time ago now, but I remember turning up to David’s lectures in my first year at Cambridge, despite not having signed up for a Tudor history paper. I just knew that I wanted to be around someone so manifestly brilliant and (at that time) impossibly famous. I buttonholed David after a lecture one day and demanded that he supervise me (i.e. that he spend one academic term teaching me one-to-one for a single hour, once a week – this is the structural basis for all undergraduate history teaching at Cambridge, or was when I was up at least). He said yes, and then duly came up from London once a week to do the job – a task for which I now realise he was not paid or thanked or rewarded in any meaningful way, and which I basically took for granted at the time. He was a superb teacher, who besides sharing his knowledge of sixteenth century England also took it upon himself to teach me how to write decent prose. I owe him a huge, huge debt of gratitude.

SM: What are your interests outside of history?

DJ: Sport: I write a sports column for the London Evening Standard. Also, I was for a while in my twenties one half of a fairly dreadful DJ combo. Our biggest gig was Ministry of Sound… on an under-sixteens night. We had the knack of emptying any dance floor within three songs.

SM: Following on from your book on the Templars, have you got any other projects in the pipeline?

DJ: I’m working on a lot of TV stuff, as usual. But my next book will be a collaboration with the brilliant digital recolourist Marina Amaral (marinamaral.com), who colours in old black and white photos – to astonishing effect. We are doing a book called The Colours of Time – a new history of the world from 1850 to 1950 and I am loving every second of it.

SM: For a little bit of fun – who should win the Iron Throne?

DJ: Oh, give it to someone who doesn’t want it. Pod, maybe. Or Grey Worm. I am finding the endgame of Thrones rather less enjoyable than the first six seasons.

SM: Whilst writing my books, I found it incredibly easy to get distracted and also found myself hating my subject quite a lot. When you’re writing, do you find yourself getting put off and how do you go about getting your head back in the game?

DJ: Put your cell phone in another room. Turn wi-fi off on your computer. Stop reading this interview and do some goddamn work. Discipline… there are no tricks except for controlling your own environment and practicing self-denial with focus and intent.

Dan’s new book, “The Templars” is out on 7th September and available on Amazon.

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Leonardo: A Life in Drawing ~ Southampton City Art Gallery

It goes to show just how out of touch I am with the local goings on in my town that I had absolutely no idea about the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition that had been going on at my local art gallery. It’s even more shocking that I had let something about a man who is part of an era I’m so passionate about almost pass me by. So today, I took myself up the art gallery for a quick lunchtime jaunt.

The exhibition at Southampton is part of a simultaneous number of events taking place across the country at 12 different venues – all of this is to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the genius’ death. Each venue holds 12 drawings. And then in May over 200 of Da Vinci’s drawings will go on display at Buckingham Palace and Holyrood House.

As such the exhibition at Southampton City Art Gallery is very, very small. But to even be able to see such incredible works of art with my own eyes was absolutely astounding. The 12 drawings featured in Southampton’s exhibit included drawings of anatomy (including some wonderful sketches of muscles, bones and internal organs), sketches of horses and nature. At most it will take you around 15 minutes to peruse the drawings on display, but if you have any sort of interest in the life of Leonardo da Vinci and the era in which he lived, definitely try and take a few minutes out of your day to check this little exhibition out.

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Leonardo: A Life in Drawing takes place between 1 Feb – 6 May 2019 at Southampton City Art Gallery. Entry is free.

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