27 March, 2013

March recipe: Tomato and bean soup

This filling soup is simple to make, inexpensive and uses mainly store-cupboard ingredients (a welcome feature if it’s too cold to go to the shop, or if you’re snowed in).  Its bright colour and mildly spicy flavour make it a cheerful and comforting dish on a cold day.  

It works equally well with haricot beans, butter beans or cannellini beans, so you can choose whichever you prefer or happen to have to hand. If using dried beans, remember to put them in to soak the night before.

This recipe serves two as a main meal with bread, or four as a first course.  It freezes well, so you can make double the quantity and freeze half to use later.

Tomato and bean soup

4 oz (approx 125 g) dried haricot beans, butter beans or cannellini beans
1 onion
0.5 oz (approx 15 g) butter
Approximately 7 oz (approx 200 g) tinned chopped tomatoes
1 bay leaf (or 1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) dried mixed herbs)
0.5 teaspoon (1 x 2.5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
0.75 pint (approx 425 ml) water or vegetable stock

Soak the dried beans in cold water for 4-6 hours or overnight.

Rinse the soaked beans two or three times in cold water.

Put the beans in a saucepan with plenty of cold water, bring to the boil, then simmer over a low heat until the beans are cooked (about 1 to 1.25 hours).

Peel and chop the onion.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan, and fry the chopped onion gently in the butter over a low heat until the onion is softened and starting to colour.

Stir in the tinned chopped tomatoes, cooked beans , bay leaf (or dried mixed herbs), sugar and water or stock.  Season with salt and black pepper.

Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes.

Remove the bay leaf (if using).  Serve hot with bread.

Can be frozen.

18 March, 2013

Bride of the Spear, by Kathleen Herbert - coming in June 2013

Bride of the Spear (first published under the title Lady of the Fountain) is the first in Kathleen Herbert's North Kingdoms trilogy.  Set in Cumbria and Lothian (now north-west England and south-east Scotland) in the late sixth century, it tells the story of Taniu, daughter of the King of Lothian, and Owain, son of Urien Rheged.  (For historical background on Owain, see earlier post 'Owain son of Urien').

I am very fond of this trilogy, and am delighted to see that the three books are to be re-published by Trifolium Books UK*.  Bride of the Spear will appear first, with the new edition scheduled for June 2013.  

Here's the blurb: 

Arthur, the last High King of the once civilised Roman province of Britannia, has been dead for fifty years. The last British kings of the North are fighting for survival in a welter of feuding and treachery.
Taniu, neglected and unloved daughter of King Loth of Lothian, is out gathering herbs when she meets a handsome young huntsman, unaware that he is Prince Owain of Cumbria. The two promise to meet in the spring, but when the awaited time comes and the King of Cumbria applies to Loth for the hand of his daughter, Taniu refuses, never connecting huntsman and prince.  Tragedy, bloodshed and separation follow, but there is a satisfyingly upbeat ending.

At last, Kathleen Herbert's Heroic Age books, long out of print, are to be published in their correct order. They have been variously known as The Northumbrian Trilogy and The Cumbrian Trilogy. They have a much wider geographical setting than either suggests, ranging from Lothian and Strathclyde, through modern Yorkshire and North Wales to the Midlands, hence the new title: The Northern Kingdoms.

Bride of the Spear is due out in June, Queen of the Lightning and Ghost in the Sunlight will follow later in 2013.

More details will appear on the Trifolium Books blog and website as available.

*Disclaimer: Trifolium Books UK also publish my own novel, Paths of Exile.

11 March, 2013

Ripples in the Sand, by Helen Hollick. Book review

Silverwood Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-78132-077-8. 310 pages.

Uncorrected advance review copy in PDF format supplied by publisher.

Ripples in the Sand is the fourth in Helen Hollick’s historical fantasy series featuring dashing (ex-)pirate captain Jesamiah Acorne and the white witch Tiola Oldstagh.  The series began with Sea Witch (reviewed here earlier), and continued with Pirate Code and then with Bring It Close (reviewed here earlier).  The historical figures Henry Jennings and James Stuart (father of Bonnie Prince Charlie) appear as secondary characters.  All the main characters are fictional.

Former pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his wife Tiola are on their way to England to sell a cargo of tobacco from Jesamiah’s plantation in Virginia (not to mention some other valuable items that need not trouble the customs officers). Tiola is seriously ill as a result of the hostility of Tethys, the sea goddess; all white witches have difficulty crossing the sea, but Tethys has a particular feud with Tiola because Tethys wants Jesamiah for herself.  Jesamiah is coerced into carrying a passenger, Henry Jennings, ex-pirate and now on a political mission to the English government in which Jesamiah has no interest whatsoever.  All Jesamiah wants is to get Tiola safely ashore and to find a buyer for his tobacco (and the unofficial cargo).  But Jesamiah soon finds himself embroiled in family ties he did not even know he had, and then entangled in a political plot – at risk from an unknown traitor among the plotters, and from the deadly fury of Tethys.

Fans of the previous books in the series will know what to expect.  Despite now being respectably married, a landowner, and (technically at least) no longer a pirate, Jesamiah’s temper, tendency to jump to conclusions and liking for wine and women (not necessarily in that order) still land him in trouble on a regular basis, requiring quick wits, cunning and skill to get himself out again. Tiola’s magical powers and her supernatural conflict with Tethys give the novel a strong fantasy element. The back story of Jesamiah’s complicated family history, Tiola’s supernatural powers and their relationship is explained as required, so although Ripples in the Sand is the fourth in a series, it could be read as a stand-alone.  The scene for Ripples in the Sand has shifted from North America and the Caribbean to the North Devon coast, specifically the estuary of the Rivers Taw and Torridge near the edge of Exmoor. Exmoor is, of course, Lorna Doone territory, and some later generations of the notorious Doone family make an ingenious appearance in Ripples in the Sand

Jesamiah’s complicated family history acquires another layer of complexity in Ripples in the Sand – it’s a wise child that knows its own father, as the saying goes – giving Jesamiah a completely unexpected set of new relatives to come to terms with. Members of Tiola’s family also make an appearance, causing conflict in her relationship with Jesamiah.

The political sub-plot involving an attempted Jacobite invasion makes a dramatic background, and the Monmouth Rebellion and its brutal aftermath a generation earlier still cast a long shadow over some of the characters.  There is plenty of action, including sea chases, a naval battle, a shoot-out with the customs men and a jailbreak.

The fantasy plot revolving around the conflict between Tiola and Tethys worked less well for me; I am not well attuned to supernatural powers that actually work (as opposed to beliefs in supernatural powers, a different matter entirely), and I suspect that a lot of it went over my head.  I got rather lost in the time travel sequences, although I did like the cameo appearance by not-yet-King Harold Godwinson, a thoroughly decent man even when raiding and probably my favourite of Helen Hollick’s historical characters (he stars in Harold The King / I Am the Chosen King, reviewed here earlier). If I understood the supernatural plot correctly, I think it resolves a plot strand that has been running since Sea Witch; the question of why Tethys has an obsession with claiming Jesamiah for herself.

The political adventure plot does not so much end as take a brief pause for breath, and Jesamiah’s predicament at the end is clearly a potential springboard to a further adventure (according to the Author’s Note a further instalment is indeed planned soon). Jesamiah’s unexpected new family ties, as well as Tiola’s family, may also offer scope for further development.

Dialect is used to indicate regional origin and social standing, from the French accent of the Breton sailing master Claude de la Rue to the broad Devon dialect of the ferryman and tavern keeper.  It took me a little while to ‘tune in’ to some of the accents, especially the broad Devon dialect, which I found hard to follow at first.  As expected, given the setting, the text is liberally salted with nautical terms, and these are explained in a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book and a plan of a square-rigged ship at the front.

A helpful Author’s Note at the end describes some of the inspiration behind the novel and outlines some of the underlying history. I was interested to see that one of the most attractive characters, a boisterous boy named Thomas Benson, is based on a historical figure and is planned to feature in further instalments.

Historical fantasy set against a background of smuggling and Jacobite rebellion in eighteenth-century Devon.

02 March, 2013

Owain son of Urien

Owain map Urien (Owain son of Urien) was a warrior-hero of the royal house of Rheged in the late sixth century.  He appears in some of the poetry attributed to Taliesin, and later became a hero of medieval Arthurian romance.  What can we say about him?


Although his father Urien (Urbgen) is mentioned in Historia Brittonum, there is no mention of Owain in Historia Brittonum or Annales Cambriae.  More surprisingly, he also makes no appearance in the Harleian or Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies, which terminate with Urien as the last generation.  Owain son of Urien is known from poetry, mainly the group of poems attributed to Taliesin and preserved in a medieval Welsh manuscript, from the Triads, a collection of aides-memoires for poets and storytellers also preserved in medieval Welsh manuscripts, and from the legends surrounding the conception and birth of St Kentigern.


The Harleian genealogy for Urien terminates with Urien and does not list any offspring

[U]rbgen map Cinmarc map Merchianum map Gurgust map Coilhen

--Harleian Genealogies, available online 

The Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd genealogies (Descent of the Men of the North) contain a very similar genealogy, also terminating at Urien

Vryen uab Kynuarch m Meirchavn m Gorust Letlvm m Keneu m Coel

--Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 

In the Bonedd Y Seint genealogies (Descent of the Saints), Owain appears as the father of St Kentigern

Kyndeyrn m. Garthwys, m. Owein, m. Vryen, a Denw, verch Lewdwn Lwydawc o Dinas Eidin yn y gogled, y vam.

--Bonedd y Seint 17, available online 

The Peniarth manuscript triad mentioned below refers to “Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop”, suggesting that Garthwys is an epithet or nickname, so this would translate roughly as ‘Kyndeyrn Garthwys, son of Owein son of Urien, by Denw daughter of Lewdwn.’

The Death-Song of Owain

The soul of Owain, son of Urien […]
There will not be found a match for the chief of the glittering west
When Flamdwyn killed Owain, there was not one greater than he sleeping
A wide number of Lloegyr went to sleep with light in their eyes
Owain valiantly chastised them, like a pack of wolves pursuing sheep

--Book of Talieisin 44, available online

Translations vary; an alternative translation has Owain slaying Flamdwyn ‘When Owain slew Flamdwyn it was no more to him than to sleep’.  Either version is compatible with the subject matter of the poem.  If Flamdwyn killed Owain it could be a description of the circumstances of Owain’s death, if Owain killed Flamdwyn it could be a description of a famous earlier deed performed by Owain before he died.  It could even be both, if they killed each other in a cataclysmic battle.

The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain

Flamdwyn called out again, of great impetuosity
Will they give hostages? are they ready?
Owain answered, Let the gashing appear
They will not give, they are not ready
And Ceneu, son of Coel, would be an irritated lion
Before he would give a hostage to anyone

--Book of Taliesin 35, available online 

Again, translations vary; the phrase ‘Ceneu son of Coel’ has been translated as ‘a whelp of Coel’, i.e. a descendant of Coel’s line.  For more information on Coel, founder figure of a number of royal genealogies, see post on Coel Hen.


Three Fair Princes of the Island of Britain
Owain son of Urien, Rhun son of Maelgwn, Rhufawn the Radiant son of Dewrarth Wledig.

--Red Book of Hergest, available online 

Three Tribal Thrones of the Island of Britain
Arthur the chief lord in Penrionyd in the north, and Cyndeyrn Garthwys the chief bishop, and Gurthmwl Guledic the chief elder.

Peniarth manuscript 54, available online


The story of King Urien and Modron tells how Urien Rheged came to a ford haunted by a mysterious supernatural force that made all the locals fear to approach it. There he found a woman washing cloaks, and lay with her. Afterwards she blessed him and told him

“I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am daughter to the King of Annwfn, and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive that boy." And so he came and he received there a boy and a girl: that is, Owein son of Urien and Morfudd daughter of Urien.

--King Urien and Modron, available online

Owain appears as the hero of the medieval Welsh romance The Lady of the Fountain, and as an antagonist of Arthur in the medieval Welsh tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, both in The Mabinogion.

Life of St Kentigern

A Life of St Kentigern, now surviving only in part, was commissioned in the twelfth century by Herbert, Bishop of Glasgow.  It names Owain son of Urien as Kentigern’s father and recounts a legend in which Kentigern is conceived as a result of the seduction of Kentigern’s mother Denw (also spelled Taniu, Teneu, Thaney, and many other variations), daughter of the King of Lothian, by Owain map Urien.  For a summary, see Whiddon Green, 1998 (Part 2).   A longer and slightly later Life of St Kentigern written by the twelfth-century monk Jocelyn of Furness recounts a clearly related tale about Kentigern’s birth (with much tut-tutting about fantastical fables), but does not mention the name of Kentigern’s father (translation available online).  


Owain is clearly portrayed in the poetry as a warrior-hero, fighting and winning battles. 

The phrases 'chief of Rheged' and ‘chieftain of the glittering west’ in The Death-Song of Owain are also consistent with Owain having been a king in his own right.  They may indicate that he was a sub-ruler of part of Rheged (the lovely phrase ‘the glittering west’ immediately calls to mind the Lake District, or the coastlands of Cumbria and/or Galloway, although this is pure speculation on my part and I do not know how reliable the translation is), or that he succeeded his father Urien as king of Rheged, or both. 

The fact that poetry survives about him suggests that he was of sufficient status to support a bard.  His presence in the medieval romances and the Triads suggests that there were more poems and stories about him that have not survived, which in turn suggests that he was considered an important figure and a worthy hero to tell stories about. (I should perhaps add the obvious if unromantic caveat here that it is possible that the romances were drawing on poems and stories that were originally about several different figures called Owain, and were only later aggregated around a single character).

It is not known how long Owain’s career lasted.  If he was fighting Flamdwyn when his father Urien was alive, and was himself killed by the same Flamdwyn, that may be a tenuous indication that he did not long outlive his father. 

The poetry is clear that Owain was a son of Urien, who was King of Rheged some time in the second half of the sixth century (more about Urien and Rheged in later posts). 

The story that Owain’s mother was Modron, the daughter of the King of Annwfn (Annwfn is the Welsh name for the Otherworld), may be no more than a late legend, invented after Owain had become a key figure of Arthurian tales to provide a supernatural origin suitable for a legendary hero.  There may also be a possibility that it could have slightly more prosaic roots, perhaps indicating that Owain’s mother was thought to be non-Christian.  At least some of the Picts were non-Christian at the time of St Columba’s visit to King Bridei in the 560s, approximately contemporary with Urien, and the early English kings and aristocrats converted by St Augustine’s Roman missionaries in and after 597 AD were (presumably) non-Christian prior to that.  Possibly there were high-status non-Christians in other kingdoms too.  It may be that Urien married a non-Christian lady, perhaps as part of a dynastic alliance, and that this was later developed into a supernatural liaison long after all other details had been forgotten.  This is pure speculation on my part.

The Life of St Kentigern commissioned by Bishop Herbert dates from the twelfth century, over half a millennium after the events, so should be treated with caution.  It is possible that the story was invented wholesale to provide St Kentigern with a royal parentage and suitably exotic conception story, with Owain’s name simply borrowed out of the romances as a worthy hero to father an important saint.  That said, a dynastic marriage between a prince of Rheged (in what is now south-western Scotland/north-western England) and a princess from the kingdom of Lothian in what is now south-eastern Scotland) is plausible, and the date of Kentigern’s death in Annales Cambriae does not contradict the (limited!) evidence about the likely date range for Owain.  So it is also possible that the story contains a kernel of truth.  No other children of Owain son of Urien are mentioned in the surviving sources. 

Owain’s father Urien is stated in Historia Brittonum to have fought against Theodric of Bernicia, one of the sons of Ida of Bernicia.  Theodric’s reign is not precisely dated, but it falls somewhere between the end of Ida’s twelve-year reign (which, according to Bede, began in 547) in 559 and the twenty-four-year reign of Aethelferth of Bernicia that began in 593 (for a discussion on the dating, see my article ‘Origins of Northumbria: Two Aethelrics?’).  So Theodric ruled some time between 559 and 593.  As Urien is said to have fought against Theodric, it can be inferred that Urien was militarily active at some time in the same period, i.e. in the second half of the sixth century.  Urien and Theodric need not have been exact contemporaries, of course; all that is needed for consistency with Historia Brittonum is that their reigns overlapped long enough for at least one battle. 

As Urien’s son, Owain belongs to the next generation and therefore is likely to belong to a later period, perhaps in the last quarter of the sixth century.  Urien and Owain are shown fighting together in The Battle of Argoed Llwyfain, indicating that their fighting careers overlapped.

Unfortunately, Owain’s and Urien’s adversary Flamdwyn cannot be certainly identified.  The name Flamdwyn is a nickname, meaning something like ‘Firebrand’ or ‘Flamebearer’.  The next line in Owain’s death song refers to ‘the men of Lloegyr’, and as Lloegyr is a common medieval Welsh name for the lands that became England, this is consistent with Flamdwyn as a leader of an English kingdom.  The obvious candidate is Theodric of Bernicia, since Historia Brittonum explicitly says that he fought Urien, but it could be another king, either of Bernicia or of another kingdom. 

Taniu and her father Lewdwn do not appear in Historia Brittonum, Annales Cambriae or genealogies other than Kentigern’s, so they do not add any independent dating evidence. 

Annales Cambriae enters the death of Kentigern in 612.  If Kentigern was really Owain’s son, this is also consistent with a date for Owain in the late sixth century.


For such an important figure in Arthurian legend, Owain map Urien is surprisingly poorly recorded in historical sources (though the same could be said of Arthur himself, so Owain is in illustrious company there).  Taking the Taliesin poetry at face value, it seems reasonable to infer that Owain son of Urien was a warrior hero in the late sixth century, that he and his father fought at least one famous battle against a (probably) English warlord, and that Owain ruled at least part of Rheged, possibly only briefly.  Whether he had a non-Christian mother, and whether he also entered into a liaison or marriage with a princess of Lothian and fathered a famous saint is open to interpretation, though there seems no obvious reason why these would be impossible.

Owain and Taniu's story is imagined in Kathleen Herbert’s novel Bride of the Spear (first published under the title Lady of the Fountain), based in part on the earlier Life of St Kentigern and The Lady of the Fountain. Trifolium Books UK plan to bring out a new edition of Bride of the Spear in June 2013.  For more details, see the Trifolium Books blog. 

Bonedd Gwyr y Gogledd, available online 
Bonedd y Seint, available online 
Harleian genealogies, available online 
Life of St Kentigern, by Jocelyn of Furness. Translated by C Whiddon Green, available online.  
The Dream of Rhonabwy. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9
The Lady of the Fountain. In: The Mabinogion. Translated by Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones. Everyman Classics, 1989. ISBN 0-460-15097-9.
Whiddon Green, C. Saint Kentigern, Apostle to Strathclyde: A critical analysis of a northern saint. 1998, available online.