23 February, 2011

To Defy a King, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

US: Sourcebooks 2011, ISBN 978-1-4022-5089-7, 508 pages.
UK: Sphere 2010, ISBN 978-1847442369, 550 pages.
Uncorrected advance review copy of the US edition kindly supplied by publisher, UK edition sourced independently.

Set in England in 1204-1218 during the turbulent reign of King John, To Defy a King tells the story of Mahelt Marshal, daughter of William Marshal, and her marriage to Hugh Bigod, heir to the Earl of Norfolk. All the main characters are historical figures.

Ten-year-old Mahelt Marshal is the beloved eldest daughter of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke and the greatest knight in England. Used to doing as she pleases and getting what she wants, Mahelt expects the same when she goes to live with the Bigod family, Earls of Norfolk, as the betrothed bride of eldest son Hugh Bigod. But the Bigods are less indulgent, and Mahelt finds herself having to navigate the tricky transition to adulthood at the same time as adapting to a different set of family values and loyalties. When the tyrannical King John turns against her father, Mahelt’s sense of security is severely undermined, and not even the growing love between her and Hugh can make her forget her fears for the Marshal family. As John becomes ever more cruel and unpredictable, the Bigods find their own loyalty tested to breaking point – and as England lurches towards civil war, Mahelt’s marriage and future happiness may be among the casualties.

Elizabeth Chadwick’s Marshal and Bigod novels are beginning to take on some of the character of a multi-generational family saga. John Marshal’s story was told in A Place Beyond Courage, and his son William Marshal’s in The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion. The Time of Singing (US title: For the King’s Favor) told the story of William Marshal’s colleague Roger Bigod and his wife Ida de Tosney, previously mistress to King Henry II. Now To Defy a King moves to the next generation, and brings the Marshal and Bigod storylines together with the marriage between Mahelt Marshal, daughter of William Marshal, and Hugh Bigod, son of Roger Bigod. Like the other Elizabeth Chadwick novels I have read, the heart of To Defy a King is in the relationships between the characters. Hugh and Mahelt’s romantic relationship forms the core of the story, shaped and influenced by a complex web of familial and other ties. The family relationships between Hugh and his father, between Mahelt and her father and brothers, between Mahelt and her family by marriage and between Hugh and his illegitimate royal half-brother William Longespee (son of Ida de Tosney by Henry II) interact to create a vivid, complex picture of the workings of medieval high society.

Readers with fond memories of Roger Bigod and Ida in the hopeful days of their marriage from The Time of Singing may be saddened to see them in To Defy a King. Gentle Ida has been worn down by constant loneliness and strain and now retreats into the background with her sewing. Mahelt, as vigorous and strong-willed as her great father – but, it has to be said, sadly lacking in his tact – is determined not to fade away as Ida has, but she will face a hard struggle to learn to assert herself without alienating her husband and her new family.

Although the novel covers the events that culminated in the signing of Magna Carta and the eventual French-allied rebellion against King John, most of the political and military events take place off-stage. Like The Time of Singing, To Defy a King focuses on the domestic lives of the characters, particularly Mahelt. Political upheavals in the wider world are experienced mainly through their personal effects, introducing tensions in the characters’ feelings, fortunes and relationships.

King John has long had a reputation as a Bad King, and in To Defy a King he thoroughly deserves it. Here he is not just a tyrant but almost a psychopath, obsessively inflicting hurt and humiliation just because he can, apparently regardless of the destructive consequences, and he is a disgusting sexual predator into the bargain. If this King John has a redeeming quality I missed it; even gentle Ida has difficulty finding excuses for his behaviour.

John’s half-brother William Longespee, the illegitimate son of Ida de Tosney by King Henry II before she married Roger Bigod, is a particularly interesting and complex secondary character. He has an uneasy relationship with his Bigod half-brothers, developing into an outright feud with Hugh at one stage, perhaps rooted in the same sense of insecurity as his love of fine clothes and his obsession with seeking glory on the battlefield. Longespee has it all – and never misses an opportunity to flaunt it – but only on John’s sufferance, and he knows it only too well.

A set of family trees at the front of the book will help readers new to the Marshals and Bigods keep track of the characters and the complex family relationships between them. At the back, an extensive Author’s Note explains the history underlying the novel and the (sometimes scant) historical sources, and there is an interesting interview with the author.

Third generation of Elizabeth Chadwick’s Marshal-Bigod family saga, exploring family and social relationships in medieval England through the marriage between Mahelt Marshal (daughter of William Marshal) and Hugh Bigod (son of Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk).

21 February, 2011

February recipe: Treacle tart

Treacle tart is simple to make and delicious to eat, especially on a cold day. Comfort food for the fag-end of winter. It’s made with golden syrup (not black treacle), breadcrumbs and lemon.

Treacle Tart

Serves 4-6

3 oz (approx 75 g) plain flour
3/4 oz (approx 20 g) butter
3/4 oz (approx 20 g) lard

4 oz (approx 100 g) golden syrup
1 oz (approx 25 g) breadcrumbs
Juice and rind of half a lemon

Grease a flan dish about 7 in (approx 18 cm) diameter.

Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Mix with a small amount of water until it forms a soft dough. If too sticky, add a little more flour. If too dry and flaky, add a little more water.

(Or you can use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer).

Roll out on a floured board, and line the flan dish with the pastry. Keep the pastry trimmings to make decorations.

In a small saucepan, mix the golden syrup, breadcrumbs, lemon rind and lemon juice. The easiest way to weigh out the golden syrup is to stand the pan on the scales and spoon syrup directly into the pan to the required weight. Two large tablespoons (15 ml spoons) of golden syrup is about right.

Warm the syrup mixture gently over a low heat until the syrup is liquid, and mix well.

Pour the syrup mixture into the pastry case. Roll out the spare pastry and use to make leaves or other decorative shapes, and arrange these on top of the tart.

Bake in a hot oven at about 200 C for 25-30 minutes until the filling is set and the pastry is golden.

Serve hot or cold, with cream, custard or ice cream.

If there is any left over, the tart will keep for three or four days at room temperature.

16 February, 2011

Rebellion, by James McGee. Book review

Harper Collins, 2011. ISBN 978-0-00-732024-0. 529 pages. Uncorrected advance review copy supplied by publisher.

This historical thriller is set in London and Paris in the autumn of 1812, during Napoleon’s Russian campaign. The central character, Matthew Hawkwood, is fictional. Important secondary characters such as Eugene Vidocq (founder of the French Surete police force), Colquhoun Grant (British intelligence officer) and the main players in the attempted 1812 Paris coup are historical figures.

Ex-soldier and Bow Street Runner Matthew Hawkwood is as tough as they come and no stranger to intrigue and danger. When he is seconded to a mysterious department of the Home Office and sent on a clandestine mission to France, Hawkwood knows it will probably take all his experience and nerve to survive, let alone carry out his mission (when he finally finds out what it is – the secrecy is such that even Hawkwood is not told before setting off). Shipwreck on the French coast is just the start of his troubles, as he is drawn into a deadly conspiracy. Success could bring down Napoleon and end the war – but failure risks taking Hawkwood and his colleagues to the guillotine….

Rebellion is Book 4 in the Hawkwood series. I haven’t read Books 1-3, so I have no idea how Rebellion compares. It seemed to me to work as a stand-alone, although there may be subtleties relating to the previous books that I missed. The central character, Matthew Hawkwood, is a sort of early eighteenth-century James Bond (in Bond’s more macho incarnations; think Sean Connery rather than Roger Moore). Part soldier, part secret policeman, part spy, he is a tough, violent man in a tough, violent world. Hawkwood also has brains as well as brawn, which is just as well as the central conspiracy – an attempted coup d’etat against Napoleon – is a lot heavier on political intrigue than on action.

The first part of Rebellion is suitably action-packed, with a chase sequence through the hills of Portugal and then a stormy Channel crossing. The shift between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is something of a jolt, and on first reading I found it hard to make any sense of (it turns out to be a cunning piece of authorial sleight of hand, explained about 100 pages later). After this adventurous beginning, the middle third of the book was a startling change of pace, slowing right down to provide a lengthy history lesson in conversation form as various characters explain the intricate ins and outs of French civilian and military politics to each other. This background is interesting stuff in its own right, and essential to follow what’s going on when the action starts up again, but readers who like their thrillers to be full of thrills and spills every few pages may find this section rather slow going. The pace starts to pick up again from about page 350 on, as the conspiracy and its aftermath play out.

I found Rebellion to be distinctly un-gripping. This surprised me, given the subject matter. The stakes could hardly be higher, and although I knew the outcome of the coup in advance (as, I am sure, does every reader the moment they look at the date), the how and why, not to mention the fate of the fictional characters, should offer plenty of scope for suspense. Perhaps it was because Hawkwood seemed to walk in to a ready-made conspiracy without actually having to do very much. The plotters have already made their plans and decided on their actions, and events are already in motion by the time Hawkwood appears on the scene. He just lends a bit of moral support and a helping hand, rather than driving events. As a result, Hawkwood is something of an outsider to the central plot, and I think this contributes to the uninvolving feel of the narrative. On the plus side, it’s a fast and easy read.

For me, the most appealing aspect of Rebellion was the presence of the historical figures Colquhoun Grant and Eugene Vidocq. Like Admiral Cochrane, these two men led lives more extraordinary than anything a novelist would dare to make up. Grant was one of Wellington’s Exploring Officers in the Peninsular War, riding reconnaissance missions deep behind enemy lines. Captured in Portugal, he escaped from custody and then promptly bluffed his way to Paris, where he established himself in the disguise of an American officer and proceeded to spy for British intelligence. Vidocq started out as a thug in the French criminal underworld, before going on to found the French Surete Nationale and then a private detective agency – a case of setting a thief to catch a thief if ever there was one. Beside these two colourful characters, everyone else in the novel rather fades into the background.

The attempted coup of 1812 really did happen, and many of its leading figures appear in Rebellion (Google if you want a potted history). Like Grant and Vidocq, the coup looks like a case of truth being stranger than fiction. Whether it contributed as much to undermining Napoleon as claimed in the novel, it can hardly have helped the Emperor’s cause, and it was fascinating to see the political side of the Napoleonic Wars as a change from the naval and military settings familiar in many historical novels. There is no Author’s Note in the advance review copy, and I hope there is one in the finished version. It would be most interesting to see how much of the conspiracy is fact and how much fiction (I suspect all the most unlikely elements are factual).

Political intrigue in Paris, as disaffected military officers attempt a coup d’etat against Napoleon in 1812.

14 February, 2011


The snowdrops are in flower again, heralding the approach of spring. A week ago they were in bud, and a couple of fine days last week seems to have brought them fully into flower. It never ceases to amaze me how such fragile-looking flowers can be so tough.

04 February, 2011

Guallauc ap Lleenauc

Guallauc ap (son of) Lleenauc was an important king in late sixth-century Britain, and may have ruled the kingdom of Elmet. What do we know about him?



[G]uallauc map Laenauc map Masguic clop map Cene├║ map Coyl hen
--Harleian genealogies, available online

Gwalla6c m lyeynac m mar m coyl hen.
--Jesus College genealogy, available online

Both genealogies stop at Guallauc and do not list any descendants.

Welsh Triads

Three Adulterers' Horses of the Island of Britain:Fferlas [Grey Fetlock] horse of Dalldaf son of Cunin, and Gwelwgan Gohoewgein horse of Caradawg son of Gwallawc, and Gwrbrith [Spotted Dun] horse of Rahawd.
--Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online

Three Pillars of Battle of the Island of Britain:Dunawd son of Pabo Pillar of Britain, and Gwallawg son of Lleenawg, and Cynfelyn the Leprous
--Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online

Canu Taliesin
aeninat yn ygnat ac eluet.
--Canu Taliesin poem XXXVIII, ‘Song on Gwallawg ab Lleenawg’, available online

Translations vary. Skene’s translation, which you can find online at Mary Jones’s Celtic Literature Collective along with the original text quoted above, translates the line as follows:

He will judge all, the supreme man.With his will as a judge; and let him be benefited
--Canu Taliesin poem XXXVIII, ‘Song on Gwallawg ab Lleenawg’, translation available online

John Koch translates the phrase “ygnat ac eluet” as “Judge over Elmet”, and concludes that this is equivalent to being ruler or king of Elmet (Koch 1997, page xxiii, footnote 1). A king Ceretic of Elmet is recorded in Historia Brittonum and Annales Cambriae in the early seventh century (see earlier post on Ceretic of Elmet). No patronymic is recorded for him. A Caradawg son of Gwallawc (variant spellings of Ceretic ap Guallauc), with no territorial affiliation recorded, appears in one of the Welsh Triads (see above). On this basis, John Koch identifies Guallauc ap Lleenauc in the genealogies and Canu Taliesin as the father of Ceretic of Elmet.

Historia Brittonum

Adda, son of Ida, reigned eight years; Ethelric, son of Adda, reigned four years. Theodoric, son of Ida, reigned seven years. Freothwulf reigned six years. In whose time the kingdom of Kent, by the mission of Gregory, received baptism. Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien.
--Historia Brittonum, ch. 63, available online


Both genealogies show Guallauc ap Lleenauc as a descendant of the founder figure Coel or Coyl Hen (Coel the Old)*. As such, he was related to Urien Rheged (more on Urien in another post) and to Peredur (possible king of York, see post on Peredur), whose genealogies also go back to Coel Hen.

Historia Brittonum lists Guallauc as one of the kings who fought with Urien Rheged against Hussa and/or Theodoric of Bernicia. This is consistent with identifying this Guallauc as the same individual as the Guallauc ap Lleenauc in the genealogies, who was related to Urien Rheged and who was evidently famous as a warrior since he was listed as one of the Three Pillars of Battle in the Triads. Alliance between two kings who were also relatives is reasonably plausible, although by no means a given, as kings from the same family could also be enemies.**

Urien is listed in the genealogies as the fifth generation from Coel Hen, while Guallauc ap Lleenauc is listed as the third or fourth (depending on the version). The difference in generation count is not inconsistent with Guallauc and Urien having been contemporaries. We know from Bede’s information about the Deiran royal family that Eadwine’s great-niece Hild (daughter of his nephew) was of a comparable age with two of his sons, and that his children from his later marriage were of comparable age with his grandson by a son of an earlier marriage, so generations could easily get mixed up.

Neither Hussa nor Theodoric of Bernicia is securely dated, although they can both be assigned to the period between 559 (the end of the 12-year reign of Ida of Bernicia) and 593 (the beginning of the reign of Aethelferth of Bernicia). Both these book-end dates can be deduced from information given in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Guallauc’s campaign with Urien Rheged against Hussa and/or Theodoric therefore dates to some time in the late sixth century.

The first element of the name Guallauc means ‘wall’, so Guallauc may mean something like ‘man of the wall’. This immediately calls to mind the two Roman walls in what is now northern England (Hadrian’s Wall) or southern Scotland (the Antonine Wall). This is a likely sort of location for the king mentioned in Historia Brittonum, who fought against kings of Bernicia located between the two Roman walls in what is now north-east England. However, the name may be unrelated to the Roman walls, and even if it did originate in the area, there is no reason why the name and/or its bearer(s) could not have moved to other regions.

John Koch translates a line in Taliesin’s poem about Guallauc ap Lleenauc to mean “…judge over Elmet…”, and concludes from this that he was a king of Elmet. Elmet was a kingdom located in what is now Yorkshire, east and south of modern Leeds, during the seventh century (see post on Elmet). If Guallauc was a king of Elmet, this does not preclude him from fighting a campaign in Bernicia in alliance with his relative Urien Rheged. Early medieval armies were capable of campaigning over considerable distances on occasion (see post on Early medieval armies: campaigning range), so there is no reason why Guallauc could not have led an army from Elmet to campaign in Bernicia if he wished. The same applies in reverse; it may be possible that Guallauc originally came from somewhere in what is now northern England or southern Scotland and became king of Elmet by inheritance, marriage or conquest.

Was Guallauc ap Lleenauc the father of Ceretic of Elmet?
Both the genealogies stop at Guallauc ap Lleenauc and do not mention any offspring. A Ceretic of Elmet is recorded in the early seventh century (see post on Ceretic of Elmet), but no patronymic is given for him.

One of the Welsh Triads refers to a Ceretic ap Guallauc. John Koch uses this Triad to connect Guallauc ap Lleenauc in the genealogies (no son named) with Ceretic of Elmet in Historia Brittonum (no father named), and thus to identify Guallauc ap Lleenauc as the father of Ceretic of Elmet (Koch 1997, page xxiii, footnote 1). If the translation of the line in Taliesin’s poem as ‘judge over Elmet’ is correct, then it seems reasonable that two rulers of the same territory, one dated to the late sixth century and one to the early seventh century, could be related and might well be father and son. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that this identification rests on an inferred connection between separate sources.

Part of John Koch’s argument for identifying Guallauc father of Ceretic in the Triad as identical with Guallauc ap Lleenauc in the genealogies and Guallauc ally of Urien in Historia Brittonum is that the name Guallauc is extremely rare and occurs only once. However, I can think of at least one other Guallauc, mentioned on the Pillar of Eliseg in the genealogy of an eighth-century king of Powys (see post on Powys: the early medieval kingdom). This Guoillac or Guallauc, father of Eliseg, occurs two generations after a king of Powys called Selyf map Cynan, who was killed at the Battle of Chester in around 616, and so Guoillac/Guallauc must date to the mid seventh century at earliest. He cannot possibly be the same individual as the Guallauc of Historia Brittonum who was fighting battles in north-east England in the late sixth century. So I think we can safely say there were at least two individuals called Guallauc, and if there were two, there may have been more.

I am therefore cautious about identifying Guallauc in Historia Brittonum and/or Guallauc ap Lleenauc as the father of Ceretic of Elmet. It is a plausible inference from the evidence available, and as far as I know there is nothing to the contrary. However, I would be wary of accepting it as an established fact.


Annales Cambriae, available online
Bede, Ecclesiastical history of the English people. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price. Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X.
Harleian genealogies, available online
Historia Brittonum ch. 63, available online
Jesus College genealogy, available online
Koch J. The Gododdin of Aneirin. Text and context from dark-age North Britain. University of Wales Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7083-1374-4.
Red Book of Hergest Triads, available online

*Yes, he may well be the origin of the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme. No, absolutely nothing reliable is recorded about his cheerful disposition or his taste in music. Pity.

**For example, the battle of Arderydd was fought between two branches of the same family descended from Coel Hen (see post on the Battle of Arderydd).