27 April, 2007

Pause in posts

The next post on this blog will be on or around Monday 14 May.

In the meantime, Maxine Clarke’s blog Petrona is well worth checking out for articles on crime fiction, publishing and books in general, and Rick now has a new blog, Rocketpunk Manifesto, covering science fiction and much more, including a recent post on the older meaning of ‘romance’.

25 April, 2007

The Conscience of the King: Henry Gresham and the Shakespeare Conspiracy, by Martin Stephen. Book review

Edition reviewed: Little, Brown, 2003, ISBN 0-316-86002-6

Set in London and Cambridge in 1612-1613, at the court of King James I/VI* and in the slightly seedy underworld of London’s thriving theatre scene. The main characters, Sir Henry Gresham, his wife Jane and his faithful servant Mannion, are all fictional. Numerous historical figures feature as secondary characters, including William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, James I/VI, Francis Bacon and Robert Cecil.

Sir Henry Gresham, gentleman and secret agent extraordinaire, is commissioned by the dying Robert Cecil to retrieve some compromising letters written by King James to his (homosexual) lover. Gresham knows the letters are only part of something much darker, connected in some unknown way with the vigorous and unruly new force of London’s theatres. Someone has already tried to murder actor and writer William Shakespeare, and Gresham himself and his wife are attacked on a visit to the Globe theatre. As Gresham unravels the net of deadly intrigue, a secret is revealed that reaches to the highest in the land, and that threatens the lives of Gresham, his beloved wife and even their two small children.

The Conscience of the King is a fast-paced spy thriller with an intricate plot and plenty of (often violent) action. It is told in straightforward prose with modern language and dialogue that doesn’t get in the way of the plot. If Tamburlaine Must Die was long on literary elegance and rather short on story, The Conscience of the King is the opposite way round.

The Conscience of the King should delight lovers of historical puzzles, cover-ups and conspiracy theories. Who really wrote the plays of Shakespeare? When and how did Christopher Marlowe really die? Why did the Globe Theatre really burn down in 1613? (No, of course the answers aren’t ‘Shakespeare’, ‘in a Deptford brawl in 1593’ or ‘by accident’. That would be much too simple). The author weaves these questions and their inventive answers into an espionage thriller with his fictional hero Henry Gresham at its heart. Spy thrillers are uniquely accommodating for fictional characters who interact decisively with real events and people. As long as the story stays mostly in the shadow-world behind the scenes, it doesn’t have to look for gaps in the historical records, since the whole premise is that the official version of history is not telling the whole truth. Naturally the fictional spy and his deeds would have been airbrushed out of the records, so the spy thriller has tremendous scope for invention. The Conscience of the King leaps into the possibilities with glee.

The characterisation is vivid and rather larger-than-life. Most of the politicians are thoroughly unpleasant (no great surprise there, perhaps), and the villain is an evil lunatic with not much in the way of redeeming features. Mannion is a paragon of loyalty and Gresham’s wife Jane seems almost too good to be true – beautiful, spirited, clever, courageous and loving. Gresham frequently reflects that he can’t believe his luck, and I’m afraid I had some trouble believing it too. Gresham himself is a sort of Jacobean James Bond. Handsome, rich, athletic, fearless, clever, ruthless, able to make a full recovery from serious injury, expert at violence and a master of intrigue and deception. I have the impression that male readers are supposed to identify with him and female readers are supposed to swoon. I’m afraid I didn’t swoon, though I can’t figure out why. One interesting contradiction in Gresham’s character is that he loves his wife and children dearly, yet he is hooked on the excitement of danger even though he knows this exposes his family to risk as his enemies will try to strike at him through them. Jane confronts him with this once, but then immediately apologises and backs away. I would have liked to see more of this dichotomy. James Bond was hardly a family man, and that inherent conflict has the potential to make Gresham an intriguing character. As the book is part of an ongoing series, perhaps it will be developed further elsewhere.

Apposite quotations from the King James Bible and the plays and poetry of Shakespeare at the head of each chapter add a neat touch. The epilogue, featuring a future scholar ‘discovering’ a lost letter from William Shakespeare among the Gresham archives in a Cambridge library seemed to me to be an unnecessary embellishment.

Action-packed spy thriller set at the court of King James I/VI in 17th-century England, with a James Bond-style hero and a plethora of historical conspiracy theories.

*James Stuart, son of Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley, was King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England.

22 April, 2007

Paths of Exile - now available

Britain, 605 AD. When his homeland of Deira is invaded by a powerful neighbouring kingdom, Eadwine finds himself on the run for his life. Homeless, penniless and friendless, literally with a price on his head, he must evade his enemies, avenge his brother's murder and rescue his betrothed. Along the way, he will lose his heart to another woman and discover a shattering secret that challenges all the ideals he holds dear.

Paths of Exile is now available for download as a free e-book and as a paperback. As usual, the PDF download from my website is free of charge, and if you prefer to read on paper you can either print out the PDFs, which should print neatly on either A4 or US Letter, or pay Lulu to print it for you as a paperback.

If anyone would like to test the download links and let me know of any problems, that would be very helpful. As ever, comments are always welcome. I hope you enjoy the story.

Edit: Paths of Exile was published by Quaestor2000 in January 2009 (details on my website), so the free download is no longer available. The book can be bought from online suppliers such as Amazon or ordered from bookstores. Free sample chapters are available on my website.

19 April, 2007

April recipe: Stem ginger biscuits

Ginger has been used in cookery for thousands of years, and is also supposed to have all sorts of health benefits. How much truth there is in this I have no idea – and I’m not about to conduct a meta-analysis to find out – but I like ginger anyway. So here’s a recipe for ginger biscuits (cookies) that uses ginger in two forms, preserved stem ginger and ground ginger. These are simple, quick to make (and even quicker to disappear), and the ingredients are available all year round.

Stem ginger biscuits

4 oz (approx 100 g) butter
2 tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoons) golden syrup
1 oz (approx 25 g) sugar
2 oz (approx 50 g) stem ginger
6 oz (approx 150 g) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground ginger

Chop the stem ginger into small pieces (about half the size of a raisin, or whatever size you prefer).
Put the butter, syrup and sugar in a saucepan and heat gently until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved. Remove from the heat.
Stir in the flour, ground ginger and chopped stem ginger. Mix thoroughly. It should form a soft dough that leaves the sides of the pan clean.
Put teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto a greased baking tray, spaced about 1 inch (approx 2-3 cm) apart to allow room for the biscuits to spread as they cook. I usually get about 30 biscuits out of the quantities given, but you can make the biscuits larger or smaller according to taste.
Bake at about 180 C (approx 375 F) for about 15 minutes until the biscuits are golden brown and set.
Remove from the tray and cool on a wire rack.
Store in an airtight tin. If they get the chance, they keep for up to 2 weeks.

If you can’t get stem ginger, you can use crystallised (candied) ginger instead. If you don’t like pieces of ginger in biscuits, you can miss out the stem ginger and use 2 teaspoons of ground ginger.

14 April, 2007

Land of Angels, by Fay Sampson. Book review

Edition reviewed, Robert Hale, 2006, ISBN 0-7090-8097-2.

Set mainly in Kent in the period 583-604 AD, with scenes in Rome, Frankish Paris, the South of France and southern England, Land of Angels tells the story of St Augustine’s mission to preach Roman Christianity in England. The major characters are historical figures, including King Aethelbert of Kent, his Frankish Christian queen Bertha, their son Eadbald, Pope Gregory the Great, St Augustine and the various abbots and bishops of the mission to England.

Bertha is a Frankish Christian princess who makes a political marriage with the non-Christian English King of Kent, Aethelbert. Freedom of Christian worship for Bertha is a condition of the marriage, but she has to stand up to her husband to enforce the agreement. Meanwhile, in distant Rome, Gregory (not yet Pope) encounters two handsome English boys in the slave market, makes his famous pun “not Angles but angels” (the source of the novel’s title), and vows to convert the English to Christianity. Circumstances intervene and Gregory cannot go himself, but despatches the timid monk Augustine in his stead. Bertha makes Augustine welcome, but Aethelbert is suspicious of this new religion and the English priests and priestesses are actively hostile. Has Gregory picked the right man for the job?

This period of history rarely makes an appearance in fiction, so I’m naturally very pleased to see an author exploring it. I have always been curious about the factors that persuaded the early English (‘Anglo-Saxons’) and Norse to change to Christianity. Both early English and Norse culture placed a high value on loyalty, so how did they reconcile this with changing their allegiance from their established gods to a new one? Kipling explored it obliquely in his short story The Conversion of St Wilfrid, and Fay Sampson explores it here. The novel illustrates how the image of Christ as hero – as seen in early poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, and therefore a genuine image of the time – could have appealed to a king whose power was earned, maintained, and always at risk of being lost, in battle. The political and status aspects of religious conversion are also mentioned, and the power struggle between king and priesthood. Aethelbert sees Augustine as a way of checking the power of the priests of the English gods and asserting his royal will. Does he recognise that this new religion, with its connections to power-bases across Europe, will challenge the authority of kings to come? I can’t help but feel a shiver of foreboding for the struggle between Henry II and Thomas a Becket that would be played out at Canterbury in Kent more than half a millennium after Aethelbert’s decision.

Land of Angels is narrated in third person, mainly from the viewpoints of Bertha and Augustine. Having two narrators provides some variety of scene and outlook, as Bertha and Augustine have different concerns. Aethelbert is an attractive and interesting character, and I would have liked to see more of him and the political, diplomatic and military concerns he must have had.

The novel makes the conventional assumption that English-British relations were governed by ethnic purity, racial conflict and genocide, and that the English settlements in Britain formed some sort of strategic grand plan. The characters talk of “English conquest” and of the Britons being “driven west” or enslaved, and Aethelbert looks at the hills of what is now Wales and muses that “we” will “take” that too. As I have said before, I think the reality of post-Roman Britain was probably a good deal more complex than this simple ethnic conflict model.

Land of Angels takes an uncritically pro-Roman-Christian line. The non-Christian English treat Augustine and Bertha with courtesy, permitting them freedom of worship and being prepared to listen to and engage with new ideas. Neither Augustine nor Bertha shows a similar open-mindedness. They take the English tolerance as no more than their due, because their Roman Christianity is right. The English religion is referred to as magic, superstition, barbarism, evil and ‘darkness’, for all the world as if one were reading about Sauron. The British bishops who refuse to accept Augustine’s authority over them are shown as obstinate, arrogant and filled with vengeful racial hatred. The episode and Augustine’s subsequent curse is taken from Bede and no doubt reflects the orthodox Roman Christian view – the conservatism and independence of Irish and British clerics was clearly a regular source of annoyance to the Roman Church at Canterbury from the Synod of Whitby to the Welsh bishops of the Middle Ages, and the Church in Wales is an independent entity today. No doubt this one-sided portrayal reflects the devout beliefs of both the primary characters in the novel, Bertha and Augustine, for whom anything other than their own religion is misguided at best. I doubt that it looked quite so clear-cut from the other sides, and I personally would have liked to see alternative views explored.

Curiously, there is no reference to Byzantine links with Britain, although luxury goods from the Mediterranean have been identified from archaeological excavations on sites of the mid-to-late sixth century in many of the kingdoms in western Britain. The British bishops who met Augustine in the novel may have been isolated from Rome, but not because of geography. It would be surprising if the trade links that brought a jewelled Byzantine seal ring to North Wales, Spanish glass to Tintagel and Mediterranean wine jars to Dinas Powys near Cardiff did not also carry letters, people and ideas. It’s interesting to wonder whether the British bishops may have been in touch with contacts in the other Churches of the Eastern Mediterranean and whether doctrinal disputes may have contributed to their opposition to Augustine's authority.

A retelling of St Augustine’s mission to preach Roman Christianity to the English Kingdom of Kent.

Has anyone else read it?

12 April, 2007

Tra-la, 'tis spring

I managed to get out on my first long bike ride of the year at the weekend (despite all my best intentions, I rarely get further afield than the shops and the library during the winter). Our route took us through the pretty village of Brent Eleigh, where the bank outside the church was thick with primroses and dog violets.

The village also sports this rather handsome village sign, which appears to feature a knight in shining armour with a pigeon on his head, apparently being barbecued. I have no idea what its significance might be. The 'Brent' in the village name means 'burned', which would explain the flames, but what's with the knight and the pigeon? "Frying to-Knight", maybe? Knight and pigeon pie? Is there a legend that the village seigneur once annoyed the patron saint of pigeons and this represents him getting his just deserts? Anyone care to hazard a guess?

10 April, 2007

Thinking Blogger Awards

I was surprised and pleased to find that Alianore, Daphne and Susan Higginbotham had nominated me for a Thinking Blogger Award. I gather it started here, and the rules are as follows:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think.
2. Link to the original post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme.
3. Optional: Proudly display your "Thinking Blogger Award" with a link to the post that you wrote.

I don't quite know how to get the rather pretty Thinking Blogger Award button to display, so I'll skip the Optional point 3 for now. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to recommend the blogs that tagged me, but they are well worth reading, so here they are:

  • Daphne (Tanzanite's Shelf) - book reviews and more.
  • Susan Higginbotham - book reviews, humorous takes on history and historical fiction (such as the solution to the Princes in the Tower mystery), occasional posts on her own historical fiction, and posts on medieval history
  • Alianore - fascinating and informative history blog covering everything you ever wanted to know about the life and times of Edward II
And here are five more recommendations, in no particular order:

  1. An Innocent a-Blog (Bernita Harris) - witty musings on writing and life, with occasional snippets from her own fiction
  2. The Lost Fort (Gabriele Campbell) - informative posts on Roman and German history, opera and architecture, plus some lovely photos and links to her other blogs, The Lost Chronicles for more academic posts, and The Lost Scrolls for excerpts from her fiction
  3. Living the History (Elizabeth Chadwick) - news about her historical fiction, snippets of medieval history from research and re-enactment
  4. Memorabilia Antonina (Tony Keen) - posts on classical history and texts (updated only occasionally)
  5. Wordcarving - John Ahearn's poetry blog

Many more deserve an award - see the list in the sidebar for a start, plus Rick whose comments always make me think - but the rules say I have to stop at five.

03 April, 2007

Dating the Battle of Chester

One of the delights - if that's the word - of the early medieval period in Britain is the patchy nature of the history. There's hardly an undisputed date in the two centuries between the Rescript of Honorius in 410 AD (when the then Emperor told the British civitates to look after themselves) and the arrival of St Augustine's missionary party from Rome in 597 AD. And precious little for a half-century after that, too. This makes writing historical fiction in the period great fun (!) and definitely a challenge. You know an important event took place that would have had a major effect on characters and plot, but when did it happen? The battle of Chester, some time in the early seventh century, illustrates the problem.

In The Reign of Arthur, Christopher Gidlow says there is a discrepancy between Bede and Annales Cambriae in the date for the battle of Chester, with Bede dating it to 603 AD and Annales Cambriae at 613. He considers that the Annales Cambriae date is defective due to a scribal error, and says, “This is an easy mistake to explain away, caused by placing the event in the next numbered decade.”

Quite true, such a mistake could easily be explained in that manner. But I don’t think there is a discrepancy. My reading of Bede is that his account does not provide an exact date for the battle and that the information he does provide can accommodate the Annales Cambriae date without having to postulate a scribal error. Here’s why.


Annales Cambriae
“613. The battle of Caer Legion. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept.”

Bede, Book II Ch. 2
“Augustine urges the British bishops to cement Catholic unity and performs a miracle in their presence. Retribution follows their refusal. [A.D. 603.]
[...] Augustine summoned the bishops and teachers of the nearest British province to a conference.... They asked that a second and fuller conference might be held.... The bishops would not recognise Augustine as their archbishop, saying among themselves that if he would not rise to greet them in the first instance, he would have even less regard for them once they submitted to his authority. Whereupon Augustine, that man of God, is said to have answered with a threat that was also a prophecy, that if they refused to preach to the English the way of life, they would eventually suffer at their hands the penalty of death.
[...] Some while after this, the powerful king Ethelfrid... raised a great army at the City of the Legions – which the English call Legacastir, but which the Britons more correctly named Carlegion – and made a great slaughter of the faithless Britons... It is said that of the monks who had come to pray about twelve hundred perished in this battle and only fifty escaped by flight....Thus, long after his death, was fulfilled Bishop Augustine’s prophecy.”

Bede, Book II Ch. 3
“In the year of our lord 604, Augustine, Archbishop of Britain, consecrated two bishops, Mellitus and Justus.”

Bede, Book II Ch.4
“Augustine was succeeded in the archbishopric by Laurence... on the 27th of February 610, Mellitus brought back [from Rome] letters from the Pope to God’s beloved Archbishop Laurence.”

(Translation by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, ISBN 0-14-044565-X)

Archaeological excavations by the Chester Archaeological Trust at Heronbridge, south of Chester, have discovered a ‘battle cemetery’ of approximately the right date.

“Part of a mass grave pit was exposed in which the bodies (all seemingly male like those excavated in the 1930s), aligned west-east, had been laid side by side in partially overlapping rows. Within a space measuring only three metres by two metres, there were at least fourteen individuals. Two skeletons were fully excavated and removed for analysis and radiocarbon dating. Both had clearly sustained fatal head injuries. The results of subsequent osteoarchaeological study (by Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd) confirmed them as males and showed that both had died as a result of several sword blows to the head. They were both well-built individuals and the elder, aged around forty, if not both, had been in battle before, suggesting that they may have been experienced soldiers.
Bone samples from the two skeletons removed from the mass grave, along with two flax seeds from the fort ditch fill, were submitted to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre for Carbon 14 dating. The results for the former were as follows: Sample 1 = 95% probability within range AD 430-640, 59% probability within range AD 530-620. Sample 2 =95% probability within range AD 530-660, 51% probability within range AD 595-645.
The date of the Battle of Chester – circa AD 613 – lies right in the middle of these date ranges and, in the absence of any other known substantial engagement in the area, the mass grave seems likely to be associated with that event.”


It seems quite clear from Bede’s account that the first of Augustine's conferences happened in 603 and the second conference may have been later the same year, and then there was a gap of unspecified length (“Some while after this”) before the battle at Carlegion/Legacastir (modern Chester).

Bede says unequivocally that the battle took place after Augustine’s death. He does not give the year of Augustine’s death, except to say that it occurred in the reign of Aethelbert of Kent. However, a date range for Augustine’s death can be deduced. He cannot have died before AD 604, as Bede says that Augustine consecrated bishops Mellitus and Justus in AD 604, and he must have died before 27 February 610 when the Pope sent letters to his successor Archbishop Laurence.

So the battle of Chester cannot have happened in AD 603, since Bede says it happened after Augustine’s death and Augustine was still alive in 604. The Annales Cambriae date of 613 would be 9 years after the earliest date for Augustine’s death (604) or 3 years after the latest date (610), which would be consistent with Bede’s statement that it happened “long after” his death.

The radiocarbon dates for the skeletons from the Heronbridge excavation are consistent with this date. Though radiocarbon dating is not precise enough to differentiate between 603 and 613, it is consistent with the identification of ‘Carlegion/Legacastir/Caer Legion’ as Chester, rather than as Caerleon-on-Usk (whose name also means ‘city of the legion’).

As Christopher Gidlow argues, the dates in the Annales are unlikely to be exact to the year. Some of the other entries in the Annales around the same period can also be linked to events recorded by Bede, and these may give an idea of the likely range of error around the date. Here are all the events in the Annales that I can also find in Bede from 595 to 631 inclusive (18 years either side of the Battle of Chester):

595 Augustine and Mellitus converted the English to Christ.
Bede says that Augustine arrived in Kent in 597 (Book I Ch. 25). Annales Cambriae is 2 years earlier than Bede.

601 Gregory died in Christ.
Bede says Pope Gregory died in 605 (Book II Ch.1). Annales Cambriae is 4 years earlier than Bede.

617 Edwin begins his reign.
Bede says that Edwin was killed on 12 October AD 633 and his reign lasted 17 years (Book II Ch. 20). If this means 17 full years, then he began his reign on or before 12 October 616, if it means he was killed in the 17th year of his reign then he began his reign between 12 October 616 and 11 October 617. Annales Cambriae agrees with Bede or is one year earlier.

626 Edwin is baptized.
Bede says Edwin was baptised on 12 April 627 (Book II Ch 14). Annales Cambriae is one year earlier than Bede.

631 The battle of Cantscaul in which Cadwallon fell.
Bede says that in the summer after Edwin’s death (i.e. the summer of 634 AD), Cadwalla killed Edwin’s successor Osric and after this ruled in Northumbria for a full year until he was killed by Oswald in battle at a place called by the English Denisesburn (Book III Ch. 1). Bede doesn’t give the British name for Denisesburn so it may well have been Cantscaul. If one takes this text at face value, Cadwalla/Cadwallon was killed in the summer of AD 635. However, Bede also says that Oswald died on 5 August 642 having reigned “nine years if we include the fatal year made abhorrent by the British King Cadwalla” (Book III Ch. 9), which would mean that the ‘fatal year’ began in 633 and Oswald’s actual reign (after he had killed Cadwallon in battle) began in the summer of 634. This would be more consistent with Cadwalla/Cadwallon having ruled in Northumbria for a full year after Edwin’s death, rather than for a full year starting in the summer after Edwin’s death, and would place Cadwalla’s death in 634. Annales Cambriae is three or four years earlier than Bede, depending which way one reads Bede.

So the dates in Annales Cambriae are 0-4 years earlier than the equivalent dates in Bede. Applying this to the date for the battle of Chester would suggest that the battle occurred some time in the period 613 to 617 AD, which is consistent with Bede’s statement that it happened “long after” Augustine’s death.

So on balance I would say this is the likeliest date range for the battle, and I would need a good reason to place the battle outside this date range.

Isn't this fun?