Thursday, January 29, 2015

A CASE OF MISTAKEN IDENTITY? Perhaps and perhaps not: A reply to Catherine Armstrong's essay on the Marshal Effigies.

Photo Elizabeth Chadwick
Some time ago I read a post on the Castle Wales site by Historian Catherine Armstrong where she laid out her case for the purported Marshal effigies in the Temple Church, London, being of debatable identity and perhaps not the Marshals at all. While I agree with her that precise evidence doesn't exist and the effigies could indeed have been mis-identified because after all, none of them have inscriptions, I do disagree with her assessment of the arms and armour of the effigies. I believe that at least one of them can be circumstantially identified as Gilbert Marshal.
I wrote to Catherine setting out my case for disagreeing with her on the issue of the arms and armour some years ago, and received a thank you note, but nothing more.   I've been intending to write out my refutation argument and put it in the public arena for several years now, and I have finally got around to it.

Here is Catherine's highly detailed article. Catherine Armstrong on the Marshal Effigies  I must emphasise I don't disagree with her on the point that these effigies cannot be identified with absolute conviction and I applaud her diligent research into the life of the effigies before the 21st century. That in itself is a fascinating, wonderful and sometimes horrifying story!

 I do, however, vigorously disagree with her on the issue of the dating of the arms and armour for which I can make a strong case.  I also believe I can make a good case for identifying the effigy of Gilbert Marshal despite lack of written evidence. 

Catherine Armstrong uses engravings of the Marshals by Edward Richardson to state her case. The work was published in 1843. So it's good to look back to a historical context a hundred and seventy years closer to the construction of the effigies, but at the same time we are relying on engravings, and also with the knowledge that Victorian antiquarians were extremely inquisitive but not always on the ball with their historical accuracy. You can read the book here for free. Edward Richardson Temple Church Effigies
Catherine's argument is that the effigy of William Marshal I cannot be him since it is older in the style of armour than the ones purporting to be his sons.

Catherine says of the  effigy below, now thought (erronously or not) to be William Marshal Junior (died 1231)  "The effigy was described by Richardson as wearing a chain mail coif and a hauberk of chain mail to his knees. However he is wearing what appears to be chausses of leather or some reinforced material from his waist to just below his knees.  Lankester describes this covering as possibly gamboised cuisses which were quilted tube-like padded armour worn to protect the thighs, but they are show without covering of full chain mail which would have been the usual practice."
Richardson's effigy engraving of  the effigy now known as
William Marshal's son William II
 The thing is that it WAS the usual practise. The leather covering from the knee upwards seems to have arrived in the thirteenth century and continued for over a hundred years as a style. It overlapped with mail chausses which went all the way up the leg and were around throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. It wasn't a case of one or the other. Military historian David Nicolle in his Medieval Warfare Source book tells us that mail chausses date from the mid 12th century and covered the leg from 'mid thigh to foot.' He tells us that cuisses appeared in the late 13th century (p 138)  But mail chausses were the norm in the 12th and early 13th, not the cuissed style.   Robert Curthose, son of the Conqueror is kitted out like this - dateline mid or late 13th century, so the same period as the purported effigies of William Marshal II and Gilbert Marshal.
Before anyone protests that Robert Curthose died in the early 12th century, let me say this is an effigy created in the 13th century and not at the time of Robert's death, so it's in the style of that later time.

photo credit Nilfanion  Wikipedia
Tomb of Robert Curthose, Gloucester Cathedral. Mid 13thC. Same legs as on the Marshal effigy.

 Here's St Theodore on Chartres CathedralDateline 1230.  He's wearing mail chausses.
This guy prefers his cuisses. He dates to 1250

This one's in chausses. Before 1225. British Library.

And here's Thomas Becket being murdered from a manuscript dating to circa 1200. British Library. Mail chausses again on the far left knight.

photo Elizabeth Chadwick
 And then William Longespee earl of Salisbury - died 1226 and the first effigy to be buried in Salisbury Cathedral. We have a dateline for him. He's opted for chausses too a la William Marshal I. No cuisses for him.

The above illustrations state my case.  You can see that cuisses often appear later than mail chausses although there is an overlap nevertheless.  This chap from the Temple Church - purported early 13th likes to wear his with suspenders!
photo  Elizabeth Chadwick
Onto the next point.
Catherine Armstrong tells us that on the William II effigy the guard on the sword is relatively small and not as wide and visible as on the other effigies.

Yes. That would be because the ends have broken off... - see further down for evidence of it happening to Gilbert's effigy.

Catherine comments that smaller guards appear on the seals of Robert FitzWalter and Richard the Lionheart but swords had long lives and forty years isn't a hill of beans anyway in terms of that particular style.  It's  only a minor point though. The chausses/cuisses question immediately tells us we are probably dealing with mid 13thc,  especially when combined with other details. The shield for example. If you look at the effigy purporting to be William Marshal I, his shield is of an older style that had gone out by the mid 13th. It's a shield in the process of transitioning from the old style kite shield into the smaller triangular shield but not there yet and a massively telling detail.  The William II and Gilbert Marshal effigies both have the new style of smaller shield. Indeed the Gilbert effigy has them in decoration on his baldric strap.  You can see the older transition kite in the 1200 illustration above of Becket's murder.  Add the shield style to the leg fitments and the more raised style of the William and Gilbert effigies and it's as clear as daylight that the William I effigy is older.
photo Carole Blake
Here I am paying my respects to the William I effigy, lying beside his son. Note the length of his transition shield. It comes down to his knee. Check too the Becket drawing above and you'll see it in use. Now look at the William II effigy. His shield only comes to his hip. It's what the transition kite becomes in the mid to late 13th century. Even if William II's shield is a little higher on his shoulder, it's still quite a bit shorter an a different shape to the William I effigy.

Photo Elizabeth Chadwick
Note the new style smaller shields on the strap on Gilbert Marshal's effigy.

Now to the matter of Gilbert Marshal's scallop shell sword. This is one of the identifiers that tell me this is likely to be Gilbert.
Photo Elizabeth Chadwick
This is the sword hilt in question. Looks a bit like a scallop shell doesn't it?
Catherine Armstrong  observes that she has 'found no record that states that Gilbert Marshal made a pilgrimage to St James de Compostella  (scallop shell was a symbol of such a pilgrimage) or that a scallop shell was any part of his coat of arms,  She says it's an unusual design and basically we should be looking for someone other than Gilbert Marshal to be wielding it.

However, sword expert Ewart Oakeshott tells us that it's a common design in the North of England in the mid 13thc and there has actually been a find of one at Cartmel - and who were the patrons of Cartmel Priory? Yep, the Marshals.  It's nothing to do with Compostella.   And note that the sword guard has broken off re the comment on short guards.

Now then.
Here's Gilbert Marshal suffering his fatal accident at a tournament when his reins were cut by his enemies and his foot caught in his stirrup and he was dragged to his death.  Note the sword hilt. Not exactly the same, but a darned good approximation for a chronicler. So we have circumstantial ID that this effigy IS Gilbert Marshal. On this illustration he's wearing full mail on his legs, demonstrating the overlap of armour styles. One size doesn't fit all.

What further nails the identity of this particular effigy as Gilbert Marshal is that the serpent he is trampling, the symbol of evil, is actually chewing on his spur strap. I was told by a guide at the Temple Church that this was a comment on the way he had died. Add in the sword hilt and the style of the armour and circumstantially we have our man. It is highly likely that the effigy of William II was carved by the same hand, so for my money it's very possible that we are looking at the two Marshal brothers William II and Gilbert.

Richardson - Google Books

Richardson's engraving of Gilbert Marshal. As you can see the sword had more of its guard when this was made in the mid 19th century compared to now (see my photo above of the scallop shell hilt). The same has happened to William II's guard.  They're not shorter, they're just broken off.

Spur strap munching serpent.  Photo Elizabeth Chadwick

Catherine Armstrong makes the point that the William Marshal I effigy is wearing mailed gloves which are of a later date than mail mittens.  However, mail mittens continue well into the 14th century. Nicolle opines that gloves are late 13th, but that they were being used in Byzantium much earlier. So it's not beyond the scope of reason that if William adopted crusader designs when remodelling his castles, he also may have returned from the Holy Land with mail gloves too. Or it could just be a stylistic conceit on the tomb aimed at showing the shape of his hand around the sword grip.

Conclusion:  While it is impossible to say whether these are the effigies of William Marshal and his sons William and Gilbert  it becomes very clear that we can say:
1. The effigy claimed as that of William Marshal I is older than the other two in terms of armour style and of overall effigy type (it's not as raised, it doesn't have the vigour that came in later or the finesse. It has an older style shield and tried and tested mail chausses that had been around for most of the 12th century as opposed to the cuisses which didn't arrive until later).  Historian H.A. Tummers considers that the 'lively martial attitude' of effigies (such as Robert Curthose and the Marshal sons) was a 'limited late development.' i.e. well into the 13thc. So the William I effigy is of the right dateline to have been created circa the time of William Marshal's death.

2. Of the two effigies purported to be the sons, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the one with the scallop shaped sword hilt and the serpent attacking his spur strap is, in fact Gilbert Marshal.

I do hope that Catherine Armstrong will reconsider  her essay in the light of this information.

Thank you
Elizabeth Chadwick.
Close up of the face of 'the effigy known as William Marshal II
Photo Elizabeth Chadwick

Close up of the face of the effigy known as William Marshal. Note the
detail is not as fine as on the son's effigy, suggesting a less developed
sculpting style in keeping with earlier tomb sculptures.
Photo Elizabeth Chadwick

You can see more effigies for comparison on these sites:

Books for further reading:
Medieval Warfare Source Book vol 1 by David Nicolle 1995
The Sword in the Age of Chivalry by Ewart Oakeshott - Boydell revised 1994

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

MAGNA CARTA by Dan Jones. My review for The History Girls.

I've just reviewed Dan Jones' book MAGNA CARTA  for The History Girls.  Here's the url.  I thought the book was excellent and would recommend it for anyone's bookshelf. My review of Magna Carta by Dan Jones

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

IF IT'S CHRISTMAS IT'S CHINON: The festive itinerary of Henry II.

I post over at THE HISTORY GIRLS  blog on the 24th of every month.  I thought I'd give you all a link to a blog post I wrote for them last Christmas eve about King Henry II and his whereabouts on every Christmas of his reign. IF IT'S CHRISTMAS IT MUST BE CHINON

Monday, October 06, 2014

INVENTING ELEANOR By Michael R. Evans: My thoughts.

Inventing Eleanor: the mediaeval and post-mediaeval image Eleanor of Aquitaine by Michael R. Evans.  Bloomsbury Academic ISBN 978 1 4411 6900 6

While browsing the Internet for research, I came across a reference to this book and feeling it would be a really useful addition to my shelves, I went ahead and bought it.
 During my research into Eleanor of Aquitaine, I constantly come across misconceptions and false information in secondary sources including biographies. I also come across comments about Eleanor being a great feminist icon and a woman way ahead of her time, and then I want to bang my head on the desk (metaphorically speaking).  So it was great to come across a work that aims to set the record straight and that tells us just where these odd notions about Eleanor originate.

From the back of the book:
‘Eleanor of Aquitaine (1124- 1204) Queen of France and England and mother of two Kings has often been described as one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages. Yet her real achievements have been embellished - and even obscured - by myths that have grown up over eight centuries. This process began in her own lifetime, as chroniclers reported rumours of  scandalous conduct on crusade, and has continued ever since. She has been variously viewed as an adulterous queen, a monstrous mother and jealous murderess, but also was a patron of literature, champion of courtly love and proto-feminist defender of women’s rights. Inventing Eleanor interrogates the myths that have grown up around the figure of Eleanor of Aquitaine and investigates how and why historians and artists have invented an Eleanor who is very different from the 12th century queen. The book first considers the mediaeval primary sources  and then proceeds to trace the post-mediaeval development of the image of Eleanor, from demonic Queen to feminist icon, in historiography and the broader culture.’

This is exactly what the book does in a very readable form that still remains scholarly and detailed in its sources.   The contents include an introduction where the author sets out his reasons for writing the book and argues that she was ‘far from unique amongst 12th century royal and noble women.’ Professor Evans seeks to unravel how she acquired her reputation for exceptionalism. He remarks on the opening page  that Eleanor’s biographers must take some of the blame for this. ‘In the absence of hard evidence (these) biographies have often been fleshed out by speculation and the creation or perpetuation of myths.’

Following a detailed introduction, Professor Evans traces Eleanor’s reputation, through the blackening of her name during her own lifetime and the time soon after her death.  He explores too the legends surrounding Rosamond de Clifford and how both women’s reputations have suffered at the hands of myth and legend.
Chapter 2 looks at Eleanor in historiography and how realistically she is portrayed. He observes that ‘historians may have striven to create (in the words of Edmond-RenĂ© Labande) ‘a realistic image of Eleanor of Aquitaine’, but that image has struggled to replace that of the more colourful meta-Eleanor in the public consciousness. Hence an online author in 2013 is still able to write of Eleanor in stereotypical terms that would have been familiar to a mid-19th-century readership of popular history.’  He goes on to explore the way in which Eleanor’s reputation has been distorted to suit the ideologies of particular historical periods and historians with axes to grind. So ‘In the late 20th century, second wave feminist movement gave birth to a new interest in Eleanor of Aquitaine as a female hero, but often at the expense of exaggerating her deeds and influence, and reinforcing the myth of her exceptionalism.’  He also explores Eleanor’s depiction as a new-age neopagan type!  He comes the conclusion that ‘historians of Eleanor have created an image of her, and mediaeval women as a whole, that is misleading.  My thoughts exactly.
The third chapter deals with Eleanor the woman of the South and very quickly puts paid to the notion of the original Eleanor as propitiating a great Southern cause.  He says that Eleanor is ‘arguably a northern as much as a  southern figure…It was Poitou, not the south-west that was the heartland of Eleanor’s realm and where the Dukes of Aquitaine held the greatest concentration of demesne lands.’  …. He also explores a suggestion from a recent set of essays about Eleanor that claims she  didn’t actually speak Occitan at all.  The courts of love and literary patronage are shown to be relatively insignificant in Eleanor’s life. He comes to the conclusion that Eleanor of Aquitaine ‘can in no way be considered a southern figure in an alien and hostile northern world. Her native duchy straddled the divide between the North and the South, and its main power centres were closer to Paris than to the Mediterranean.’  Bam, another dearly held myth bites the dust.
The next chapter deals with Eleanor’s portrayal in drama before 1900 and goes into great detail via Shakespeare, operas and sundry plays and dramas. From there it’s onto Eleanor in drama post-1900, and of course the iconic Lion in Winter. TV series such as Robin of Sherwood also receive a mention for how Eleanor is portrayed in cameo roles.
  Professor Evans  then takes an overview of how Eleanor is portrayed in fiction and there is a fine accolade for author Sharon Kay Penman. Jean Plaidy’s take on Eleanor is discussed too and there are some ‘interesting’ quotes from Alison Weir’s the captive Queen.  There’s also a section on Eleanor in young adult fiction.
Then it’s onto Eleanor in the visual arts including mediaeval images. This was particularly interesting for me because Professor Evans discusses the mural at Chinon that is often said to portray Eleanor and Henry. Indeed many novels and biographies feature this portrait on the cover with the middle crown figure depicted as Eleanor. However, it ain’t necessarily so, and it seems,according to art historian Ursula Nielgen who has examined the work in detail and dated it to the late 12th century that the figures are all male and more likely to represent Henry II and his four sons. I was also pleased in this section to find that Evans had picked up my research on various biographer’s beliefs on Eleanor’s appearance and I receive a mention at the beginning of the chapter.

Having thoroughly explored Eleanor in the visual arts, right up to modern ‘headless’ covers in historical fiction, Professor Evans goes on to make his conclusion, which is basically that finding the real Eleanor remains an uphill struggle because of all the myths perpetuated. However, with continuing scholarship that doesn’t pander to these myths and stereotypes we may gradually begin to see a more nuanced Eleanor than of yore.
 During his summary he remarked that while historians may shake their heads at the likes of certain recent works of historical fiction about Eleanor, ‘historical novelists such as Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick are seeking to apply modern scholarship to their fiction, and consequently avoid the most egregious of the legends surround Eleanor.’  That’s nice!

Highly recommended for those who want to take a look under the surface and who are prepared with an open mind to have their perceptions and preconceptions challenged.

I would add that it is rather expensive - which seems to be the case with most academic books these days.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Just a note to say that THE HISTORY GIRLS blog where I post once a month is running a competition, open internationally, to win a copy of THE WINTER CROWN.   Ends October 7th

Friday, September 05, 2014


SO THERE I WAS back in July, minding my own business at a writers' event bringing together both Indie and traditionally published authors when my excellent friend and fellow speaker Helen Hollick drew me aside for a gentle little chat.  She explained that she was organising an award to celebrate, recognise, and encourage the best of independently published historical fiction through the auspices of the Historical Novel Society of which we were both long-standing members. 

Helen co-ordinates the online editorial reviews for Indie historical fiction, the best of which are awarded an 'Editor's Choice' accolade. Books receiving this accolade are automatically forwarded onto a longlist for the the award.   Orna Ross, founder of The Alliance of Independent Authors had very generously offered a prize for the award winner and runner up and had agreed to read the longlist of selected novels and whittle them down to a final four.  More details of how it works here

Helen twisted my arm asked me I would read the final four and choose a winner and a runner up.  Now, those of you who know the, kind, enthusiastic and generous Helen Hollick, also know she is a force to be reckoned with when she wants something and that her lovely nature is only one facet. She outdoes John Wayne for true grit and bloody minded determination when she wants to get something done.
Somehow I found myself agreeing to read the shortlist, and then wondering just what I'd let myself in for.
I soon discovered that what I had let myself in for were four wonderful meaty reads, all very different that whisked me away to other times and places with such skill and involvement that while reading them, I was lost to the here and now.  

But how to choose a winner.  Helen told me that I should take presentation into account because that's one of the steep learning curves for an Indie writer to face.  You can't just write the words onto a PC and then let the publisher do the rest. You are own publisher, marketing director and Public relations person. To stand a chance in an overcrowded market your work has to be presented both inside and out in a thoroughly professional way.

All of the novels were of a high standard in this department. Some could have been tweaked, but truly they were only nitpicks.

 I organised a score sheet with 5 marks for the cover and another 5 marks for the internal presentation.  Then scores out of 10 for historical feel, characterisation, plot, language and pace.  So, a total of 60 marks.
I am an avid reader and this is how I looked at these four novels. As a keen reader rather than an academic literary critic. What I wanted was something that absorbed me so completely that I couldn't put it down. I wanted the sustenance of a superb story that would transport me to another time, make me think, create wonderful paintings in my mind and keep me turning the pages until the last one, where I would feel sorry it was over but satisfied too, and most importantly for the author, make me want to dash out and buy everything else he or she had written.  I love books.  As a reader I don't care whether they are Indie or mainstream. Just give me the story already and the words to make me live with your characters.
All of the novels had some of this element and I loved reading them, but when it boiled down to it, there was one outright winner, even though the second place gave it a run for its money.
I must add the caveat that I am only one person and others may disagree with me.  It does come down to what each individual reader enjoys too, but since I was the individual asked to judge the contest this year, this is my choice.


The novel is set in Italy at the time of the Borgias and is based in part of events in Machiavelli's Prince.  Indeed, Machiavelli has a cameo role in the novel as does Leonardo da Vinci. It tells the story of Matteo de Fermo, a young man struggling to survive into the violent world of the closing years of 15th century Italy.
Matteo's story is told with pace, panache and many intriguing twists and turns that are complex without ever being convoluted. The history felt real and right. It was an immersive experience.  It was one of those books where I needed to know what happened next and kept having to go back and pick at it - you know like when you have that opened bar of chocolate in the fridge!  How does he get out of this scrape? Oh my goodness, what's he doing now!  I don't believe what just happened! The characterisation was stunning. It was a fairly long book at 450 pages, but they flew past and although it's a pity the author's name isn't on the book's spine, the internal layout and font size made it the easiest on the eyes of all the shortlisted novels.
 I was also a little bit frustrated when it ended - like eating that last piece of chocolate.  I now need to go out and get another bar.  I sincerely hope that Virginia Cox is writing a sequel, and I shall be waiting in line to buy it!


Before anyone says that I must have a fan thing for Renaissance Italy - I don't!  Honestly I don't!  It's just that the winner and runner up happen by coincidence to be set in 15thC Italy with A Gift For The Magus beings set a little earlier than The Subtlest Soul.
This is the tale of the notorious Fra Filippo Lippi, an artistic friar of supreme talent and dubious morals. His mistress, a nun and the mother of his children, was the model he used for the Virgin Mary. I knew nothing of Lippi's paintings before I read A Gift for the Magus but by the end of the novel I was eager to go exploring and discover his work. I loved the humour in the novel and the scenes of everyday life that put me right there in the heart of Padua and Florence, in the household of the Medici, in nunnery, chapel and hovel. I learned a great deal about Renaissance art, and I came to be very fond of Fra Lippi, his eccentricities and human failings, and his genius.



were also very worthy shortlistees (mentioned here only as they enter my brain and not as 3rd and 4th, but as equals)  I loved the Mitchener-esque scope of Samoa and some of the descriptive language was breathtaking.  
I enjoyed the coloured maps and the illustrations too and found them very useful for getting around in the novel.  The sense of history in The Jacobite's Apprentice was palpable and it was useful to have a glossary to refer to at the back.  It's told in first person present tense which gives it a strong sense of the here and now too, even though the characters are magnificently of their time. The book was also very professionally produced.

All opinions are obviously my own but I hope readers will take a chance on these books and enjoy the stories they have to tell. Congratulations to all four authors, but especially to Virginia Cox.
And a thank you too to Helen Hollick for asking me to read the shortlist.  I may have thought about running away at the outset, but at some point over the course of the conference I am going to hug her!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM. Author interview with James Aitcheson

Those of you who have been acquainted with me for a few years know that I rarely give quotes or endorsements for novels.  Even so, 'rarely' does not mean 'never.'   My pact with myself and my readers is that I will only endorse novels that I have read under my own steam and that I have thoroughly enjoyed and would love to share.
A couple of years ago, I picked up a debut novel at the library called SWORN SWORD by James Aitcheson and was immediately hooked.  Here I should say that I often try out new to me authors at the library and if I love them then I go out and buy their work. This is what happened with SWORN SWORD.  I loved the rendition of post Conquest England and seeing it through the eyes of its personable hero Tancred a Dinant, an ambitious young Breton hearth knight.  I've since gone on to buy, read and love the second novel  THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM and the third KNIGHTS OF THE HAWK.

THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM is just being published in the United States by Sourcebooks and so I asked James if he would like to be interviewed on my blog and give me and other readers some insights into these fine works of historical fiction - how they came to be written and just what it entails behind the scenes. 

Over to James:
1. James, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your novels ever since picking up SWORN SWORD when it was first published and THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM was no exception.  I have become something of a fan of your hero Tancred a Dinant.  I’d love to know how his character and his story came to you in the first place?

Tancred’s evolution was a gradual thing. I didn’t start out with a fully formed protagonist in mind, but rather the sketch of an outline of an idea that then grew and developed as I began writing what later became Sworn Sword.

Right from the beginning I decided that I wanted to tell the story of the Norman Conquest from the unconventional perspective of the invaders rather than from that of the native English. My main character should be a man of action, I thought, and what better than a knight serving in William the Conqueror’s army?

Still, though, Tancred remained something of a blank canvas, and in those early drafts of the first few chapters, he wasn’t terribly well defined. It was only when I made the switch from writing in the third person to writing in the first person that I really began to probe his character and find out what made him tick.

As soon as I began writing in Tancred’s voice, things began to click. I found it easier to get inside his head and discover not just what drove him, but also his fears, doubts and dreams. Over time this intriguing individual emerged: ambitious, principled but tortured by guilt; an experienced warrior with a keen sense of honour, who nonetheless a maverick streak that often lands him in trouble.

And he continues to develop in each new book according to the various struggles and triumphs that he undergoes. Thus the Tancred we see The Splintered Kingdom, the second book in the series, is a different man in some respects to the one we saw in Sworn Sword. He’s maturing as he acquires new responsibilities but at the same time growing more ruthless in pursuit of his goals.

2. Have you written anything before and if so was it historical?

I’ve always written stories since I was very young, and for as long as I can remember I harboured ambitions of being a professional writer, although back then I never imagined myself as a historical novelist. As a teenager I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, and so I used to write a lot in those genres.

It was only when I went to study History at Cambridge, where I became hooked on the Middle Ages and the Norman Conquest in particular, that I started to consider turning to historical fiction. Since then I’ve never looked back.

3. I particularly like the way you paint the characters as individuals with dilemmas that a modern reader can immediately identify with, but at the same time your people are firmly grounded in the 11th century.  Is this something you consciously thought about while writing?

One of the biggest challenges that the historical novelist faces is getting inside the heads of his or her characters. To write convincingly about the Middle Ages, you need to try to get yourself into a medieval mindset. Understanding their thought-world – that is to say, their attitudes towards religion, family and society – is vital, since all of those things will have an impact on how your characters reason, speak and behave.

Unfortunately there are no shortcuts you can take towards achieving this; I think it only comes through deep immersion into the period and extensive research into all the small details of life at the time. For me, it’s also essential that I go back to the primary sources – the original chronicles, poetry and other writings that provide us with the voices of the past – since these offer useful glimpses into the preoccupations of people living at the time.

Offa's Dyke path overlooking the Teme Valley near
Knighton, Powys, which is only a few miles to the west
of where Earnford, Tancred's fictional manor is sited.
4. You have a very firm and visual sense of time and place. It’s so evocative that whatever it is, mist or moonlight, or the wide fenland marshes, it’s there with me in the room. Did you visit any of the locations or similar landscapes?

My research takes many forms, and while I love nothing more spending time in the library engrossed in the literature surrounding the subject, I also enjoy getting out in the field. When it comes to visualising and recreating landscapes in the novels, I find that there’s no substitute for going and treading the very soil that my characters would have stood upon.

My travels have taken me all over England, and I’ve used my on-the-ground research to help construct a virtual guide to the country c.1066, which you can find on my website. It’s called Tancred’s England, and it features mini-histories of several of the principal locations featured in the series, for readers who are interested in finding out more.

Members of Regia Anglorum in 11thc Norman kit
Photo courtesy of Rosemary Watson
5. And you must have intensively researched the weapons, warfare and tactics of the time to be able to write such convincing battle scenes?  I got a real feel for being in the desperate thick of it that showed emotional investment that went well beyond the technical blow by blow.  These were always real people with too much to lose.  How do you do that element of your research?

To learn about the various elements of arms and armour and how they were used, I not only turn to books but also speak with re-enactors. But when it comes to trying to capture something of the feel of a medieval battle, that’s not something that can be easily recreated in today’s world, nor would anyone want to! However, reading and listening to interviews with modern soldiers are very useful for getting an insight into how individuals deal emotionally with fighting and killing. The historian John Keegan’s pioneering book The Face of Battle, an absorbing study of the psychology of battle, was also an eye-opener for me.

6. The politics of the time between the different factions was pretty complicated but you explain them very well in THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM – no mean feat.  I assume you had to do a lot of reading around the subject in order to distill it for the readers?  In broad brush strokes can you tell us about some of the factions in play at the time.

As you say, there were many different factions competing for power and territory at this time. In the wake of the Norman victory at Hastings, everything suddenly became very uncertain, and the invaders battled for several years to consolidate their hold on England and put down various waves of native risings.

Taking advantage of the uncertainty were the Welsh kings, who launched repeated raids across the border, and the Danes, who saw in the chaos an opportunity for plunder, and whose king, Sweyn Estrithsson, had long had designs on the English crown. Meanwhile, the last in the ancient Anglo-Saxon royal line, Eadgar Ætheling, who also believes he is the rightful king, is marching at the head of a Northumbrian army to which the king of Scots has also lent his support. So within a few years of their arrival in Britain, the Normans suddenly find themselves in a very precarious position, under attack on all sides.

In researching this particular episode of the Norman Conquest I had to open myself up to completely new avenues of research. My specialism until then had been largely in Anglo-Saxon and early Norman England, and so in order to write about the Welsh March where the novel is largely set, I needed to become acquainted in fairly short order with the complicated and turbulent history of early medieval Wales. Naturally only a very small fraction of all my research made it into the book, but without it I wouldn’t have felt properly equipped to begin writing.

7. You clearly have a love for language and I enjoy the light seasoning you use in your novels including THE SPLINTERED KINGDOM.  A little allied to the above question, can you explain (in short!) about the languages that would have been spoken in Britain at the time of the Norman Conquest.

As the Normans extended their reach throughout the British Isles, they found themselves in contact not just with English, but with Welsh, Norse and Gaelic speakers too. One of the key things I wanted to show in the series was how disconcertingly alien the cultures of Britain would have seemed to the Normans when they first arrived, and how strange its languages would have sounded to a French-speaker.

That’s one of the reasons I chose to refer to places by their contemporary names – Eoferwic (York), Lundene (London) and Brycgstowe (Bristol), for example – and to use old forms of personal names in favour of modern ones – thus Eadgyth instead of Edith.

In time, many of the conquerors, especially those who had been granted land under the Norman kings, did learn to speak the native tongues, if only so that in everyday life they could converse with the folk who lived on their estates without needing an interpreter. But French remained the language of the elite and continued to dominate court life for several generations after 1066.

8. If you could go back in time and do your historical research on the ground so to speak, what would be the things you would really like to know?  I know the reply is probably all of it, but could you give a couple of examples?  I know, from my own work that I would love to go back to a 12th century tournament and see just how they grabbed each other by the bridles in the thick of the fight.  What would be on your wishlist?

That’s a difficult question to answer! I think what I’d most like to see is how the Normans went about constructing the castles and cathedrals that you see across England today, and which are among their greatest legacies. They were well practised in the art of building fortifications quickly, and indeed contemporary chronicles suggest that the first castle at Dover (1066) and the second at York (1069) were thrown up in just eight days, which if true is quite incredible, given the scale of the work involved.

UK cover for Knights of the Hawk
9. I understand KNIGHTS OF THE HAWK is coming to Sourcebooks next year, and Tancred has more adventures in store I am pleased to say.  Can you say a little about that?

Yes, the third book in the series, Knights of the Hawk, is due to be published by Sourcebooks in summer 2015. (It’s already out in the UK.) Set in autumn 1071, one year after The Splintered Kingdom, it sees Tancred waging war in the Fens, where a group of rebels, including perhaps the most famous outlaw of them all, Hereward the Wake, are making one final, desperate stand against the Normans.

There will be further adventures for Tancred – I’ve got plenty more ideas for where his travels might take him in future. In the long term I’d very much like to send Tancred on the First Crusade, although by that point he’d be in his mid-fifties, so perhaps a little bit old for front-line fighting.

For the time being I’m working on a new project, which is also set during the Norman Conquest but which features an entirely new set of characters. It’s slightly different in style and tone, but (I hope) equally exciting. I can’t say too much about it just yet, but I will be posting updates on my website in the following months.

10. Can you suggest a good reference book for someone to read if they wanted to find out more about the period?

Anyone seeking a general introduction to 1066 and its significance would be well-advised to try Marc Morris’s The Norman Conquest, an up-to-date and accessible study that combines a historian’s scholarship with a storyteller’s flair and narrative drive.

For a more in-depth view of life in England during this period and the changes wrought by the Conquest, I can highly recommend A Social History of England, 900–1200, edited by Julia Crick and Elisabeth van Houts.

11. And for fun, what was a fiction read you’ve recently enjoyed?  Any subject, doesn’t have to be historical.

Recently I’ve very much enjoyed reading Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon. A light-hearted, swashbuckling novel, it features Zelikman and Amram, two Jewish bandits and swords-for-hire, who are plying their trade in the Caucasus c. 950 and find themselves drawn into a campaign to restore the rightful heir to the Khazar throne. It’s a slim volume – only a couple of hundred pages long – but crammed with twists and turns, ploys and deceptions and feats of derring-do, written in a grandiose and captivating style. 

Thank you very much for those detailed and enlightening answers James.  I shall certainly be looking up Gentlemen of the Road.  The Marc Morris book is on my TBR; I'm definitely a fan of his.
Everyone, do add James Aitcheson's terrific novels to your TBR pile if your interest has been piqued!