Collins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-00-733789-7. 389 pages
Scotland, northern England and London in 1304-1307, The Lion At Bay is the
second in Robert Low’s series about the Scottish Wars of Independence, following
The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier).
Robert Bruce, Isabel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, William Wallace and Edward I
of England are important characters, and other historical figures including the
future Edward II of England, ‘Red John’ Comyn of Badenoch and James Douglas
also feature. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston,
the members of his household, and Bruce’s henchman, spy and fixer Roger
Kirkpatrick*, are fictional.
Wallace is back in Scotland
and resuming his fight against Edward I. Robert Bruce, whose secret ambition is
to gain the Scottish throne for himself, has temporarily submitted to Edward I
to further his feud with his arch-rivals, the Comyn family. Hal of Herdmanston
is in the Bruce retinue, sick at heart for the loss of his home and his love
Isabel MacDuff, who has reluctantly returned to her husband the Earl of Buchan.
Murder, treachery and betrayal abound, as various factions search for the Black
Rood of Scotland, stolen from Edward’s treasury in London. And when the Bruce-Comyn feud erupts
into violence, Scotland
is plunged yet again into war.
predecessor, The Lion At Bay is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of
violent action, political scheming and a mystery sub-plot. Although the
struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence has often been portrayed
in later ages as a nationalistic fight between Scotland and England, at the
time it was at least as much a Scottish civil war between powerful noble
factions, chiefly the Bruce family and the Comyn family. This political chaos,
with the Bruce-Comyn feud as apparently the only fixed point, provides a
turbulent backdrop to the novel. Only one major battle features in this
instalment, the battle of Methven (a disaster for Robert Bruce), but there is
no shortage of other violent action, ranging from a knightly joust a l’outrance to a street brawl in a
slaughterhouse, from siege to assassination and murder. The mystery sub-plot, a
quest to recover the Black Rood of Scotland – necessary for the proper
coronation of a King of Scots – and its fictional reliquary set with twelve
magnificent rubies, forms a unifying thread to hold the narrative together.
Bruce is no idealised hero in this portrayal. He is harsh, ruthless, deceitful
and capable of treachery and murder – occasionally with his own hand, more
often via the enigmatic Kirkpatrick. Hal of Herdmanston, a minor Lothian lord
who became a Bruce supporter almost by accident (recounted in The Lion Wakes)
is ambivalent towards Bruce, repelled by some of his actions but fighting for
him anyway.If I have any quibble with
this portrayal, it is that I am not entirely clear why men like Hal were
willing to fight and suffer for Bruce, especially in the days after the
disastrous battle of Methven when Bruce must have looked like a lost cause.
Perhaps because Bruce was the last man standing; perhaps because Edward I
(nicknamed in the novel ‘The Covetous King’) had earned himself the undying
hatred of a lot of Scots by then; perhaps because by this stage many were
concerned less with Bruce personally and more with the abstract ideals of
independence and a contract between people and king. The stirring words of the
Declaration of Arbroath make an appearance more than once in The Lion At Bay.
Many of the
characters introduced in The Lion Wakes reappear in The Lion At Bay, older now
and many growing weary of war. William Wallace has dwindled to an outlaw
leader, ‘a monstrous frightener of bairns’, as he wryly muses to himself. Hal
and Isabel are older, their love undiminished but thwarted by circumstances.
Their love affair has a terrible poignancy amidst the sweetness, especially for
a reader who knows Isabel’s eventual fate.Even the indestructible Kirkpatrick is not immune from age and injury.
Conversely, Dog Boy, who was a child in The Lion Wakes, has now grown into an
energetic and able young man and become a key member of Hal’s retinue (and I
was right about his parentage, which is confirmed in the character list).
is vivid, with a vein of black humour and a scattering of Scots words and phrases
to set the scene. Readers who find the Scots words problematic may like to
bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where many of them are explained.
A list of characters identifies those who are fictional and those who are
historical figures, and a short Author’s Note outlines some of the underlying
history and the fictional additions and alterations.
violent adventure full of action and intrigue, set against the turbulence of
the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century.
Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, he of the famous ‘Mak’ siccar’ line, is a historical
figure. The Roger Kirkpatrick in Robert Low’s series is a fictional kinsman and
namesake of the historical figure.
is a rich and comforting fruit cake for the winter, not to be confused with the
much darker and heavier traditional Christmas cake.It will happily share a slow oven with a
casserole, such as beef and vegetable hot pot.
can vary the dried fruit as you please, depending on taste and availability.
(approx 125 g) light brown soft sugar
(approx 125 g) butter
of 1 orange (optional)
(approx 250 g) self-raising flour
teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice
teaspoon (1 x 2.5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
(approx 400 g mixed dried fruit of your choice*
a loaf tin about 8 inches by 4.5 inches by 3 inches (approx 20 cm by 11 cm by 7
cm).Line it with a strip of greased
the glace cherries (if using).Chop the
apricots and dates (if using) into pieces about the size of a raisin.
the butter in a large mixing bowl.Beat
in the sugar.
in the eggs and orange rind (if using).
in the flour, spices and chopped dried fruit.Mix well.
in a little milk, until the cake mixture is a soft dropping consistency (i.e.,
if you lift a spoonful of mixture out of the bowl and hold the spoon vertically,
most of the cake mixture will drop off the spoon and fall back into the bowl).
the cake mixture into the greased and lined loaf tin and level the top.
in a slow oven at about 150 C for about 1.5 hours, until set and a skewer
inserted into the cake comes out clean (i.e. with at most one or two crumbs
clinging to it, not coated in a layer of uncooked cake mixture).
for a few minutes in the tin, then turn the cake out of the tin and cool on a
cake will keep in an airtight tin for a week or so, and freezes well.
sequence of posts, I have summarised some documentary and archaeological
evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman
centuries. For a summary, see the preceding post in the series.
I have also discussed the Brittonic ruler Peredur,
recorded in the late sixth century and associated with York in later medieval
suggested that York continued to be inhabited, probably at a low density, and
to be used at least on occasion by the local rulers during the fifth and sixth
centuries. If correct, this could provide a mechanism for York to retain its
status as a political, ecclesiastical and military centre, and possibly some of
its cultural heritage, throughout the gap in the historical record.
the context in which such a status functioned clearly changed between the
fourth and seventh centuries.In the
fourth century, York was under the control of Roman officials, part of the
diocese of Britain and the Western Roman Empire, the base of a legion of
regular army troops, and the seat of a bishop.In the early seventh century, York was under the control of the early
English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king of Deira/ Northumbria, had no established
bishopric (or at least not one that Pope Gregory recognised), and was not part
of a political entity bigger than the kingdom of Northumbria (or possibly of
whatever was represented by the title of ‘Bretwalda’, which on the most
generous interpretation only extends to most, not all, of modern England and
parts of southern Scotland).How might
this transition have come about?There
are several broad possibilities.
Direct transfer of power from Rome to
possibility is that power was transferred directly from the last Roman
officials to the first English king, some time after Emperor Honorius told the
British civitates to ‘look to their own defences’ in the early fifth century.
The Late Roman Army was in the habit of recruiting Germanic ‘barbarians’ as
allies and mercenaries, some of whom reached positions of great power.
Stilicho, the general and de facto Emperor in the early fifth century, had a
Vandal father. In the 360s the Dux Britanniarum had a Germanic name,
Fullofaudes, and in 300 a Germanic warrior-king called Crocus and his troops
helped to elevate Constantine the Great to Emperor in York. If the Roman Army
based at York in the early fifth century was either commanded by a Germanic
general like Fullofaudes or Stilicho, or relied heavily on a Germanic mercenary
ally like Crocus, it is not hard to see how such an individual could have
become in effect the ruler of York and its surroundings, and effectively
founded a kingdom with little more than a change of terminology. In this model one
of the last Roman officials could also have been the first English king.
like this happened in parts of Continental Europe, where Germanic kings such as
Clovis in Gaul (roughly modern France) effectively took over chunks of the
former Western Roman Empire wholesale. However, such a direct transfer does not
fit easily with some aspects of the situation in York. First, the Christian
church hierarchy seems to have disappeared in York, or at least was no longer
recognised by Rome, since Pope Gregory clearly expected to establish a new
bishopric there. This contrasts with the situation in Gaul, where Christian
bishops continued under Clovis and were recognised in Rome. Second, although
Clovis was a Frank and Frankish was a Germanic language, the language that
became dominant in his territory was a descendant of Latin (eventually evolving
into modern French). By contrast, the language that emerged in York was
English, a Germanic language. It is possible that a particular set of
circumstances could explain both of these differences – e.g. if the leader who
took over in York happened to be a committed pagan who chased out any Christian
church hierarchy, or if Germanic languages were already widely spoken in and
around York after generations of recruiting Germanic soldiers who retained
connections with friends and relatives across the North Sea. Nevertheless, my
interpretation is that these differences are consistent with a less direct
transition in York.
Invasion and conquest
second possibility is that English warriors invaded and conquered Roman York
and its surrounding area, destroyed the Roman aristocracy and the Christian
church, expelled or oppressed the Roman population, and established their own
kingdom without reference to anything that had gone before.Such a hypothetical conquest could have
happened at any time between the early fifth century and the late sixth or
early seventh century. This model explains the absence of a bishop in the early
seventh century, and the presence of pagan English cremation cemeteries at The
Mount and Heworth in York in the fifth-sixth century.
York’s importance in Roman Britain, one might have expected to find such a
conquest recorded in Annales Cambriae alongside battles such as Arthuret, or as
a comment on an early king of Deira in the king-lists in Historia Brittonum or
the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘X who conquered York’ like the enigmatic comment
or to appear at least as a passing reference in poetry or the Triads. It may be
possible that the reference to Soemil was supposed to mean that he had
conquered York, expressed in an oblique way. It may also be possible that the
un-located battle of Caer Greu mentioned in the Triads, where Peredur and his
brother Gwrgi were killed (see post on Peredur),
could be an oblique reference to a battle at York, called for some reason by
the name of ‘Caer Greu’ instead of its more usual ‘Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘Caer
Efrawg’.It may also be possible that
the enigmatic entry for the death of ‘Bishop Ebur’ in Annales Cambriae in 501
AD (see post on the documentary sources for post-Roman York)
could be an oblique reference to an invasion and conquest that extinguished the
bishopric. I am not convinced, because these are all very oblique; they could refer to a conquest of York, but
that’s mostly because it isn’t clear what they refer to, so they could mean
almost anything. It seems odd to me that there is no clear ‘X conquered
Eboracum/ Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘X was killed in the battle of Eboracum /Caer
Ebrauc’. However, the sources are so sparse that absence of evidence cannot be
taken as evidence of absence.
Staged transition from Roman to a Brittonic
kingdom to an English kingdom
third possibility is that Roman York became an independent Brittonic kingdom
that later became an English kingdom. Brittonic kingdoms are recorded in the
late sixth and early seventh century in what is now northern England, such as
the kingdom of Elmet in the area around modern Leeds, a few miles west of York
(see post on Elmet),
and the kingdom of Rheged somewhere in what is now north-western England and/or
south-western Scotland (more on Rheged in a later post). If York was the centre
of a similar kingdom, that would fit with the pattern.
a kingdom could have evolved from the military authority held by the late Roman
army commander based at York (by a mechanism similar to the first possibility
outlined above) and/or from the civilian political authority held by the
leader(s) of the colonia. It could be similar to the situation at Birdoswald,
where someone was building timber halls fit for a chieftain in the fifth to
sixth centuries, presumably using the Roman fort for its defensive capability
or its prestige or both. If some of the people in authority in Late Roman York
were members of, or had close links with, the local British aristocracy, such a
hypothetical post-Roman kingdom in York could have developed into a Brittonic
model can accommodate the reference in Annales Cambriae to ‘Bishop Ebur’ in 501.If the hypothetical Brittonic kingdom had
developed out of a Late Roman Christian Brittonic aristocracy, it may also have
retained the Late Roman Christian church hierarchy, at least for a while*. It
can also accommodate the medieval tradition that the late sixth-century
Brittonic king Peredur was associated with York (see post on Peredur).
In this model, Peredur would have been the king of this hypothetical Brittonic
kingdom that had developed in or around York. Peredur’s genealogy extends back
to Coel Hen, the founder figure of most of the northern Brittonic
dynasties.Generation counting places
Coel Hen somewhere in the early to mid fifth century, i.e. in the immediately
post-Roman period, a plausible context for the emergence of a ruling dynasty
(caveat, as always, that distant founder figures in genealogies may owe as much
to imagination as to history).Peredur’s
father Eliffer had the epithet “of the Great Army”, which may imply that he had
considerable military power in his time.These scraps are consistent with a powerful Brittonic kingdom based in York from the immediate
post-Roman period up to the later sixth century, though they do not prove it.
staged transition model is not necessarily inconsistent with the presence of
the pagan English cremation cemeteries at York; those only pose a problem if
one assumes that populations must be ethnically, culturally and religiously
homogeneous. The cremation cemeteries may represent one element of a mixed
population living in post-Roman York, perhaps Germanic mercenaries hired by a
Brittonic king or people descended from Germanic soldiers in the Late Roman
Army, who happened to practice a particular funerary custom.
transition from such a hypothetical post-Roman Brittonic kingdom to the English
kingdom of Deira recorded by Bede could have occurred by conquest, alliance,
intermarriage or inheritance, or any combination thereof. Peredur was killed
in battle in 580 according to Annales Cambriae, and his son did not (re)claim
his inheritance according to the Triads. Peredur’s death is a plausible context
for a shift from Brittonic to Deiran control of York. Whether it represents
direct military conquest by Deira, or an alliance hastily patched up after a
military defeat by a common enemy, or an inheritance (disputed or otherwise) by
the English-oriented children of a dynastic intermarriage in the previous
generation, is open to interpretation.
A speculative model
prefer the staged transition model, for several reasons. First, because it
seems to me to fit with fragmentation of Roman Britain into a large number of
small local polities, each ruled by whoever happened to be in the best position
to grasp and maintain power in a given place at the time, which then changed
and evolved over the following centuries.Second, because a Brittonic kingdom based at York fits easily among the
known post-Roman kingdoms ruled by kings with Brittonic names elsewhere in the
region of what is now northern England/southern Scotland in the sixth century.
Third, because it can accommodate the tradition associating Peredur with York
(this is hardly strong evidence, since it comes from a medieval romance written
centuries later, but it may reflect a genuine tradition).
speculative model for the development of post-Roman York sees a Brittonic
tribal kingdom established in and around York, initially developing from the
local Brittonic aristocracy and/or Roman officials based in York in the early
to mid fifth century. By the mid to late sixth century it was a powerful kingdom
capable of fighting a battle many miles away at Arthuret, whose rulers were
important enough to be mentioned in the Annales Cambriae and were the subject
of stories that survive in cryptic references in the Triads and later medieval
this speculative model, the early English kingdom of Deira is postulated as
separate from Brittonic York, based on the Yorkshire Wolds with an important
centre near the extensive early cemetery at Sancton near Market Weighton and
extending east to the coast and west towards the River Derwent.If Soemil’s action that ‘first separated Deur
from Berneich’ (see earlier post on Soemil)
refers to gaining Deiran independence from a polity based in York, Deira may
have initially been a sort of sub-region of Brittonic York, perhaps a
land-grant to federate troops employed by the Late Roman Army based at York and/or
the postulated Brittonic kingdom that succeeded it.(More on the possible origins of Deira in a
later post). I see Brittonic York and early English Deira as more or less
independent neighbouring kingdoms for much of the fifth and sixth centuries,
sometimes rivals and sometimes allies, depending on circumstances and the
personalities of their respective leaders.If Deira was initially founded by people who were formally granted land
by Roman or post-Roman authorities at York, it is possible that both kingdoms
may have shared a sense of Roman heritage (however hazy it may have become over
time) and a tradition that they were supposed to co-operate militarily (whether
they always did so in practice is a different matter).Intermarriage could have reinforced such a
(hypothetical) tradition, eventually leading to the effective merger of the two
kingdoms under a Deiran king after the deaths of Peredur of York and his
brother Gwrgi in 580 AD. Whether this
was voluntary, forcible or somewhere in between is open to interpretation.
Since Peredur’s son Gwgaun is said in the Triads not to have (re)claimed his
inheritance, implying that he was displaced, such a hypothetical merger may not
have been entirely voluntary.I lean to
‘somewhere in between’, with the aristocracy of Brittonic York accepting a
Deiran king as the least-bad option available to them in a chaotic situation
after their own kings had been killed in battle.And thus this speculative model arrives at a
situation in which York is a royal centre under the control of the early
English kings of Deira in the late sixth century, ready to reappear in that
guise in the documentary records in 627.
need hardly say that this is speculative.
if the Annales Cambriae record means that there was a bishopric in York that
came to an end in 501, it does not necessarily mean that Christianity disappeared
along with the bishop. Monasticism was a powerful force in western Britain and
Ireland in the early medieval period. If a monastery was established in
Brittonic York during the fifth century, it may be possible that it had
supplanted the local bishopric by 501.
Hawk Quest is set in 1072 in
most of Europe, the North Atlantic, European Russia and Anatolia. All the main
characters are fictional.
Vallon, a Frankish outlaw
and soldier of fortune, is on his way through the Alps to join the Varangian
Guard in Byzantium when he encounters a dying Greek scholar and his assistant,
a Sicilian medical student named Hero, who are on their way to England to
deliver a ransom demand to the family of a captured Norman knight. After the
scholar’s death, Vallon is talked into accompanying Hero to England to deliver
the letter.But the ransom demands a
fabulous price, four pure white gyrfalcons, found only in Greenland. Vallon and
Hero undertake the impossible quest, each for their own reasons – which have
little to do with the captured knight – accompanied by the downtrodden younger
step-brother of the captured knight, a German soldier, and an English peasant
falconer and his giant dog. Pursuing them and intent on murder is the knight’s
elder step-brother, Drogo, who stands to inherit the family estate if the
ransom is never delivered. So begins an epic journey to the limits of the known
world, from the everlasting ice of Greenland to the ship-destroying Russian
rivers and the deserts of Anatolia, a journey on which the travellers find
friendship, love, betrayal and heartbreak. Not everyone will reach the end.
Hawk Quest is a classic
adventure quest on a grand scale. At over 650 pages, this is a huge book, and
the story is big enough to justify the length. The journey itself covers a vast
area, from the north of Greenland far beyond the Arctic Circle to Anatolia
(modern Turkey). The travellers face just about every imaginable hazard –
storm, shipwreck, hunger, cold, marauding Vikings, hostile tribes, cheating
merchants, double-crossing officials, bandits, and dangerous wildlife including
a polar bear. Not to mention Drogo’s murderous threat, and the perils posed by
a beautiful, fiery Icelandic noblewoman, Caitlin, and her violent, selfish
brother. Astonishingly for such a long book, the pace never flags and the tale
is gripping from end to end.
Part of this is due to the
quality of the writing. Lyrical, terse, poignant or humorous as occasion
demands, the prose brings the events and landscapes of the journey to vivid
life. On occasion I would look up from the book and experience a slight shock
on realising that I was not watching an elk in the forests of northern Russia
or on a glacier in Greenland. The various obstacles the company have to
overcome are explained clearly enough that the reader understands enough to
share the experience, so that erecting a ship’s mast or tracking an escaped
falcon becomes as thrilling as any battle scene or chase sequence.
The other reason why the
book was so compelling was the characterisation, which I thought was outstanding.
All the central characters of Vallon’s company are individuals, with their own
strengths and weaknesses, their own reasons for joining the expedition, their
own hopes and objectives and motivations (sometimes in conflict). All have
their own talents and contribute to solving the problems faced by the
expedition in their own way. Deep friendships and romantic relationships are
forged on the journey.Even enemies can
develop a grudging respect for one another and can co-operate when mutual
survival depends on it (even if they promptly revert to type when the immediate
danger is over). The variety of individual characters and the interactions
between them was the best feature of the novel for me.
Was there anything I didn’t
like?Very little. It took me a while to
get into the story, partly because the storytelling in the early chapters has
quite a number of flashbacks, which I initially found confusing, and partly
because the captured knight’s Norman family and their military retainers all
seem so thoroughly unpleasant (Richard, the younger son who joins the
expedition, is an exception, but this doesn’t become apparent until much later
in the book).Once the journey gets
under way, the book gets into its stride and all these initial problems
disappear.I also found the relationship
between Caitlin and Vallon a little puzzling, probably because Caitlin’s
thoughts are never shown and Vallon is – understandably, given his history –
reluctant to think much about his emotions.
A word of warning: the cover
strap-line breathlessly promises “An epic novel of the Norman Conquests”.‘Epic’ is entirely justified, but ‘of the
Norman Conquests’ is misleading. The Norman conquest of England is at most a
minor background event. Readers expecting an adventure involving William, the
Battle of Hastings, et al will not find it here.The title Hawk Quest gives a much more
accurate idea of the novel.
A map at the front is
invaluable for following the characters on their extraordinary journey. There
is no author’s note, just a few comments on the price of gyrfalcons in medieval
Europe and the dates of the handful of historical events mentioned in the
written epic quest spanning most of the world known to medieval Europe, with
high adventure, convincing characters and a vivid sense of place.
I'm a scientist with an interest in history, particularly the history of Britain in the 5th-10th centuries AD (i.e. between the departure of Rome and the Norman invasion).
I write scientific journal articles, for which I get paid, and historical and fantasy fiction, for which I don't. I'm a keen hillwalker, though I live in the flatlands of East Anglia.
I'm a devotee of BBC Radio 4, the network that justifies the license fee all by itself.
Carla Nayland is a pen name.