• The battle of Carrickfergus

    As some of you may have read on Facebook, I experienced an odd co-incidence over the last couple of days. I'm currently writing the climax of a novel that will be the sequel to Lions of the Grail (tentatively titled "The Wasted Land") and  found myself writing about a largely forgotten battle that took place in medieval Carrickfergus . 

    I've wanted to write about it for years because it sounds so brilliant- There was an amphibious assault, desperate fighting in the streets and a besieged castle where the defenders had turned to cannibalism. It all happened on Good Friday and Easter Saturday in 1316. 

    When I checked the date of Easter in 1316 I found it was on April 11, and I was writing a fictional account of events that had happened 698 years ago to the day.

    Perhaps those old ghosts were calling to me over the centuries? 

    Anyway, for those who haven't heard about it, this is what happened.

    In 1315, a year after defeating the English at Bannockburn, Edward Bruce (brother of Robert) invaded Ireland, starting a now largely forgotten side war to the Scottish Wars of Independence.

    A year later, in 1316, his war had ground to a stalemate, exacerbated by the onset of the terrible European famine that would kill millions over the coming years. Carrickfergus Castle in Ulster still refused to surrender, something which must have particularly annoyed Edward Bruce who was now using Carrickfergus town as his new capitol (he had had himself crowned “King of Ireland” by this time).

    This is a Carrickfergus castle on a more peaceful morning:

    The besieged garrison in the castle were becoming desperate. Rather than see it fall, Sir Thomas de Mandeville-the exiled Seneshal of Ulster- launched a daring attempt to break the siege by sea, taking five ships packed with soldiers and supplies north from Dundalk. The Scottish poet and biographer of Robert Bruce, John Barbour, lists some of the chiefs of the Irish army:

    "Brynrane, Wedounne, Fitzwarryne,
    And Schyr Paschall of Florentine,
    That was a knycht of Lumbardy,
    And was full of chewalry.
    The Mawndweillis war thar alsua,
    Besatis, Loganys, and other ma;
    Savages als, and yeit was ane

    Hat Schyr Nycholl of Kylkenane."

    If you've read    Lions of the Grail  you'll recognize the name Savage in there. :-)

    The besieging Scots were taken by surprize. One chronicler says De Mandeville took treacherous advantage of a truce supposed to be in place for Easter week (Easter Sunday was April 11 in 1316). Only a small force of Scots, under command of Sir Neil Fleming, were watching the castle. The relief force landed in the harbour beside the castle and on April 10 De Mandeville launched his attack. Hopelessly outnumbered, Fleming choose bravely to fight them in order to buy time for the rest of the Scottish army to arm and arrive from their encampment outside the town.

    Desperate street fighting ensued. Fleming was killed but succeeded in stalling the attackers. Edward Bruce and the rest of the Scottish army arrived and it was the turn of the Irish to be outnumbered. The battle spread throughout the town. De Mandeville, conspicuous among the Irish in his expensive plate armour, was singled out. Gib Harper, Bruce's arming man, felled De Mandeville with his axe.  Edward Bruce finished the old knight off with his knife. With that the relief attack failed. Carrickfergus castle had to once more close its gates to avoid letting the Scots in.

    Amazingly, the defenders managed to hold out for another five months, though this was achieved by eating some of the Scottish prisoners they had taken.

    So does Richard Savage survive? You'll have to read the new book to find out.

    Ironically, as I write this, I find that it seems that some of the current occupants of the town decided to recreate some of these events....

  • Solstice@Newgrange

    This post is part of a blog hop organized by the Helen Hollick (), the theme is “shedding light in the darkness”, an appropriate one for the shortest day of the year.

    21st December is, of course, the shortest day of the year (for those in the northern hemisphere). John Dunne memorably described it as “the year’s midnight”. At this nadir of the calendar whatever life remains in the natural world seems to be withered and frozen to an almost dead stop. The wheel of time has slowed and rattled nearly to a complete stop. Dunne captured it brilliantly in his “ Nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day”:

    '… it is the day's, Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
             The sun is spent, and now his flasks/Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
                    The world's whole sap is sunk;The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
    Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk, 

    However, like all nadirs, this is a turning point. From here on the days begin to lengthen, the sun gets warmer and life begins to slowly but surely return to the world. As the theme of this blog hop goes, light will be shed in the darkness.

    Clearly our ancestors  felt this too, and nowhere is this more plain than in the megalithic monument in Ireland now called Newgrange.

    Older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, this impressive mound sits on a curve in the Boyne, a river still sacred to some in Ireland. The name Newgrange isn’t exactly new - it dates from the 1370s - however some still refer to the place by an older name, “Brú na Bóinne”, and this is the title given to the World Heritage Site that covers Newgrange and the complex of other megalithic tombs and stone circles in the area. The title “Brú na Bóinne” comes from medieval Irish tales written down three centuries earlier, but it’s sobering to think that that even then the place was four thousand years old and whatever the original name for the place was, or what its purpose was, has long been lost in the mists of time.  

    Some clues remain, however. Tantalizing hints that suggest meaning but could just be red herrings left by history to prompt us to jump to incorrect conclusions, or at least postualte theories that can never really be substantiated. In archeology the term “ritual site” seems to have become a common synonym for “we have no idea what went on here” and Newgrange fits into that category. Theories abound: Possibly a tomb, possibly a temple, maybe even a place were our ancestors took hallucinogenic drugs (the last one prompted by the unique spiraling rock art there). One thing is clear and that is that for some reason, the Winter Solstice was important to the people who built Newgrange.

    On the shortest day of the year, the rising sun shines directly along the long passage into the central chamber at the heart of the mound. The sun enters the passage through a special opening, directly above the main entrance.  

    This can’t be a co-incidence, as another tomb nearby in Dowth also captures the sunlight on the soltice day. Clearly this event had enough significance to our distant ancestors to prompt them to take on such feats of engineering.

    Its long been an ambition of mine to be there and witness this phenomenon in person. Mum and Dad took us to Newgrange in the late 1970s and we always talked about “some day” making the pre-dawn trip but somehow the solstice always came and went without us getting round to it. Unfortunately its fame and popularity is such now that the only chance to get in is by entering a lottery. You can enter it yourself if you feel lucky: http://www.newgrange.com/solstice-lottery.htm  

    However, I’m excited to find that the event is streamed live on the internet: http://www.newgrange.com/webcast.htm, a sort of Soltice@Newgrange.com so maybe I will make it, at least virtually, after all. 

    Some people may baulk at the idea of modern technology invading even this most ancient of religious sites but to me it seems appropriate. The construction of Newgrange must have taken the most advanced technological capabilities available at the time: The calculations required to make sure the passage meets the sun on the Solstice alone are impressive and some folk at the time perhaps regarded it as sufficiently advanced to be somehow magic. It is a wonder of architecture, mathematics and engineering as sophisticated for it’s time as the Internet itself is to ours. Why shouldn’t the two come together?

    I will finish with a piece of appropriate music. I thought maybe some sort of piece by Enya but in the end, what could be more appropriate for the Winter Solstice than a bit of Jethro Tull?

    You can find the rest of the participants on the "Light in the darkness" blog hop here:
    1. Helen Hollick : A little light relief concerning those dark reviews! Plus a Giveaway Prize
    2. Prue Batten : Casting Light....
    3. Alison Morton  Shedding light on the Roman dusk
    4. Anna Belfrage  Let there be light!
    5. Beth Elliott : Steering by the Stars: Stratford Canning in Constantinople, 1810 -12
    6. Melanie Spiller : Lux Aeterna, the chant of eternal light
    7. Janet Reedman   The Winter Solstice Monuments
    8. Petrea Burchard  : Darkness - how did people of the past cope with the dark?
    9. Richard Denning The Darkest Years of the Dark Ages: what do we really know? Plus a Giveaway Prize! 
    10. Pauline Barclay Shedding Light on a Traditional Pie
    11. David Ebsworth : Propaganda in the Spanish Civil War
    12. David Pilling  :  Greek Fire Plus a Giveaway Prize!
    13. Debbie Young  Fear of the Dark
    14. Derek Birks Lies, Damned Lies and … Chronicles
    15. Mark Patton : Casting Light on Saturnalia
    16. Tim Hodkinson : Solstice@Newgrange
    17. Wendy Percival  : Ancestors in the Spotlight
    18. Judy Ridgley : Santa and his elves  Plus a Giveaway Prize
    19. Suzanne McLeod  : The Dark of the Moon
    20. Katherine Bone   : Admiral Nelson, A Light in Dark Times.
    21. Christina Courtenay : link and title to be announced
    22. Edward James  : The secret life of Christopher Columbus; Which Way to Paradise?
    23. Janis Pegrum Smith  : Into The Light - A Short Story
    24. Julian Stockwin  : Ghost Ships - Plus a Giveaway Present
    25. Manda Scott : Dark into Light - Mithras, and the older gods
    26. Pat Bracewell Anglo-Saxon Art: Splendor in the Dark
    27. Lucienne Boyce We will have a fire - 18th Century protests against enclosure
    28. Nicole Evelina What Lurks Beneath Glastonbury Abbey? 
    29. Sky Purington  : The Scotch-Irish Impact on American Holidays. 
    30. Stuart MacAllister (Sir Read A Lot) : The Darkness of Depression

  • Historical Tales

    I'm delighted and honoured to say that I have a short story in the latest anthology by the inkslingers (http://www.inkslingerbooks.co.uk/), "Historical Tales". This book is a collection of tales that span the centuries, it's now available in kindle format and includes stories by excellent writers like SJA Turney, Gordon Doherty, Prue Bratten, AJ Armitt, Paul Murphy, Jon Dickman, Rob Wickings and Robert Brooks.
    The stories:
    Fronto & Sybil - By SJA Turney - Set between Marius' Mules books 4 & 5: Fronto visits Rome's most famous oracle in the company of she-who-must-be-obeyed. Dreadful portents are fated to be revealed in the caves of Cumae.
    The Gladiator - By Paul Murphy - It's judgement day for Danaus, the Empire's favorite gladiator, when he finds the past betrayal of his family, through a stolen love with a Senator's daughter, catching up with him on the sand of the arena floor.
    The Pict - By Gordon Doherty - Urcal has known only the bitterness and brutality of war for so many years. But in his final hours he returns to the Wall where it all began, and comes face to face with his dark past. 
    Holmgang - By Tim Hodkinson - 941 AD. A small Irish Norse-Irish village cowers, expecting attack at any moment from a crew of ruthless vikings. A stranger arrives from the sea: Is he friend or foe?
    Gisborne - By Prue Batten - The King’s man – as he nocks his arrow he wonders, is he a kingmaker or a kingbreaker?
    The Conqueror - By AJ Armitt – As Mehmed the Conqueror’s army draws closer to the gates of Târgoviște; an encounter with a captured knight throws the likelihood of an easy conquest into doubt.
    Onna Bugeisha - By SJA Turney - The widowed lady Shimoda Kumiko fights an impossible battle to defend her poor village from bandits, while a powerful ninja spins deadly webs among the powers of the province. 
    Thirteen - By Jon Dickman - In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, two friends, condemned to death, are reunited and discover a higher treachery.
    Trooper Jane - By SJA Turney - In the aftermath of the battle of Marston Moor, Oliver Cromwell pays a visit to the home of Sir William Ingilby in search of the Royalist officer who tried to put a bullet in his brain. 
    Conviction - By Prue Batten - Banished to ‘the arse end of the world’, a convict battles mind and body to stay alive and make sense of his punishment.
    The Penitent - By Rob Wickings - Sister Carmen always believed that St. Ignatius was a refuge for women in a world where they were treated more than harshly-until Mary arrives to show her that forgiveness is just another form of sin.
    Known unto God - By Jon Dickman - A deadly game of cat and mouse plays out beneath the blood soaked fields of Ypres. Lost in the deeper darkness, the hunters become the hunted.
    Master Plan - By Robert Brooks – The Black Forest, Germany, and as the allies close in Hitler continues to plot while the Third Reich teeters towards its inevitable fall.

    You can get the book here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Historical-Tales-SJA-Turney-ebook/dp/B00H3PZ46K
  • The Wonder of Rome

    This post is part of a blog hop (the first one I’ve ever done), the theme of which is “The Wonder of Rome”. At the bottom of the post you can link to, hop over and read more of what other historical fiction writers interpretation of this theme is. Perhaps predictably, mine relates to war.

    There is no doubt that ancient Rome still holds a fascination for us today. The achievement of its Empire and the civilization it created are undeniable, the fact that it’s language-Latin-is still a lingua franca in medicine and science by itself validates the theme of this blog, and there are a myriad of other possible topics that could be described as wonders that still hold the attention and amazement of modern people today. For anyone looking for a quick summary, you can watch this:

    However, setting central heating, roads etc. aside, I think I can name one Roman related object that casts a very long shadow that reaches from the 1st century AD through to the vikings and down to the middle ages. By happy co-incidence that would also manage to provide a connection my new book “Spear of Crom”-set in Roman Britain-with my medieval book, “Lions of the Grail”. 

    For my “Wonder of Rome”, I’ve chosen the spatha, the long, broad-bladed sword first used by auxiliary cavalry units in the Roman army. 

    When we picture the Roman soldier, the image that usually springs to mind is one of the legionary with his rectangular shield and short sword, the gladius. However in terms of longevity and influence (on swords at least) it was the spatha that cast the longest shadow. 
    The spatha was about a meter long, making it about a foot longer than the stabbing gladius. The sides of its 4 to 6 cm wide blade were straight and for most of its length almost parallel, then tapered at the end to either a sharp or rounded point, depending on whether it was the infantry or cavalry version.

    For the cavalry, the tip of the blade was rounded to prevent a trooper stabbing himself in the foot or accidentally injuring his mount. The purpose of the the weapon was for slashing downward at the enemy from horseback and the blade’s extra length helped with that. The infantry version, which seems to have appeared in service during the 3rd Century AD, had a sharp tip that allowed infantry in the front ranks of battle a longer reach. The name appears to have come from ancient Greek however the weapon itself seems to have come from either the Celts or the Germans. As auxiliary troops from those nations joined the Roman army they seem to have brought their own distinctive sword pattern with them, and this migration began with fighting units that were aligned to the particular talents of those nations. Our modern word “ally” (perhaps most famous nowadays from the Word War 2 Coalition of Allies) derives directly from the name of the cavalry regiments who accompanied the legions: the Allae. The word translates as “wing” rather than “friendly nation” but that is due to the placement of these units on the battlefield, where they spread out like the wings of the eagle on either side of the legionary foot soldiers to guard their flanks from attack. 
    The Roman legionaries all had one one thing in common. Every last one of them, from the son of the rich Roman who joined up for adventure, to the merchant who joined the army to escape his debts, to the man who enlisted because he thought it was an honorable career and even right down to the scumbag who had been dragged out of prison and pressed into military service, all of them were Roman citizens. The cavalry came from allied (aka conquered) nations of Rome. They were not citizens, however, through military service (usually 25 years of it) they could earn their diploma, and with it the right to become citizens of Rome. The cavalry around the 1st century were celts and Germans from the newly conquered Gaul and Germania territories and it seems these warriors brought not just their superb horsemanship to the Roman Army but also their characteristic long bladed swords. 
    The First Century Roman historian Tacitus first mentions these swords in his account of how the British King Catactacus during a battle in his insurgency against Rome found himself between a rock and a hard place: with the legionaries and their gladii on one side and the auxiliaries and their spathae on the other. A couple of centuries later and the legionaries themselves were carrying the spatha instead of the gladius. This may have been because of the phasing out of the large rectangular shield and the increased need to put some extra distance between the Roman soldier and his enemy.       
    After becoming the standard sword of the Roman army the spatha design of sword continued to be produced across Northern Europe (or perhaps the design was perpetuated where it had originally emerged from?). It gave birth to the classic ring sword of the Migration Period (most probably the weapon Beowulf wielded against Grendal’s Mother). As Bram Stoker memorably put it in Dracula, when the vikings “bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, aye, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the werewolves themselves had come”, they bore with them swords still recognizable as the spatha pattern. The viking sword is regarded as the last recognizable descendant of the spatha, though the half-civilized offspring of French-settled vikings, the Normans, carried “arming swords” across the English channel in 1066 and these weapons represented the final transition of the spatha from viking weapon to what would become the representative weapon of the medieval knight. Indeed, without his sword a knight could not even be a knight, as it was crucial to his vows and the rituals around the making of a knight.

    So as this journey ends I urge you to continue to explore the Wonders of Rome by visiting the other authors who are participating in this blog hop. You can "hop" to their own takes on this theme at the links below: