31 August, 2012

The Lion Wakes, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper 2011, ISBN 978-0-00-733788-0. 439 pages

Set in southern Scotland in 1296-1298, The Lion Wakes covers the early years of the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence.  The historical figures Robert Bruce, William Wallace, and Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan are major characters, and other historical figures including King Edward I of England, Bishop Wishart of Glasgow, James Douglas, the ‘Red Comyn’ Lord of Badenoch and his cousin the Earl of Buchan appear as secondary characters. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston and the members of his household, are fictional.

In 1297, King Edward I of England has invaded Scotland, sacked the town of Berwick and massacred its inhabitants, declared himself Lord Paramount of Scotland, got most of the Scots nobles to swear fealty to him (with varying degrees of willingness or coercion) and gone back south to England taking the Scots royal regalia (including the Stone of Scone) with him.  A few Scots lords, including Sir William Douglas, have rebelled against Edward’s rule, and Hal Sientcler of Herdmanston has come to Douglas Castle to help defend it if necessary.  As it happens, Douglas Castle has yielded fairly amicably to Robert Bruce, the young Earl of Carrick sent to reclaim it on Edward’s instructions, with no need for fighting.  But Hal soon finds himself embroiled in the deadly rivalry between the Bruce family and the rival Comyn family, a rivalry that extends beyond politics to encompass murder, deception and a secret that holds the key to the kingdom.  Hal’s position is further complicated when he falls in love with Isabel MacDuff, unhappily married to the Bruce’s arch-rival the Earl of Buchan – and in the background, the charismatic guerrilla leader William Wallace is raising a rebellion against Edward’s officials that will set Scotland ablaze…

Braveheart aside, the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence was at least as much a Scots civil war as a nationalistic fight between the Scots and the English, at least in the beginning.  Indeed, the idea of a ‘nation’ in anything like the modern sense was only just starting to take shape, and identities and loyalties were defined at least as much by region and kinship.  When King Alexander III fell over a Fife cliff to his death in 1286, his only direct heir was his daughter’s daughter Margaret in Norway, a little girl of three, and when she died soon after, that left three families, the Bruces, Comyns and Balliols, each with a roughly equally tenuous claim to the crown.  The Scots asked King Edward I of England to adjudicate, which was their mistake, Edward thought he saw an easy way to get himself recognised as supreme overlord in Scotland, which was his, and the Bruce, Comyn and Balliol factions thought they could use Edward as an ally and proxy in their own quarrels, which was theirs.  The ensuing two decades of increasingly vicious fighting ended up imposing on both realms an incalculable cost in money, deaths, destruction and human misery – and a saga-legacy of courage, cruelty, treachery, daring, atrocities, epic battles, heroes and villains (very often the same people) that has caught the imagination ever since.

The Lion Wakes does an excellent job of representing the background to the wars without getting bogged down in the dizzying complexities of Scots dynastic politics.  Hal Sientcler, the central character, is a minor lord from Lothian who does not have much time for any of the great lords and their squabbles, and who ends up (more or less) in the Bruce camp and fighting alongside Wallace at Stirling Bridge and Falkirk through family loyalties, accident and circumstance.  There are Scots on both sides, and much of the ‘English’ army is made up of Germans, Gascons and Welsh.

Two key battles of the Wars of Independence, Stirling Bridge (a victory for William Wallace) and Falkirk (a defeat for William Wallace), feature in The Lion Wakes, so there is no shortage of gripping battle scenes.  The description of a schiltron (formation of spearmen) limping towards safety while under attack from archery and heavy cavalry and leaving a trail of dead and maimed in its wake ‘like a dying slug’ is particularly memorable.  So is the description of a relatively minor duel between Robert Bruce and a Gascon commander – complete with lots of hints foreshadowing the famous story about Bruce’s duel with the Norman knight Bohun on the eve of the later Battle of Bannockburn.  The mystery element of the plot made me cringe at first when I realised it involved Templars, masons, secret codes and Roslin (better known now as Rosslyn) Chapel, so I was relieved when it developed into something that seemed to fit reasonably well into the historical context.

What I liked most about the book, as with the author’s previous Oathsworn series, was the characterisation.  Not just of the main players like Bruce – here a plausibly complex and interesting character, part sulky playboy, part ruthless schemer, part statesman in the making – but also of the ‘commonality’, the ordinary people who made up most of the population and most of the army.  Hal’s retainers Sim Craw and Bangtail Hob represent the tough mounted infantry of the Borders, part soldiers and part cattle rustlers (later romanticised as the Border Reivers), while the Dog Boy, Alehouse Maggie and Bet the Bread represent the working people who kept farmstead and fortress functioning.  On the other side, Addaf the Welsh mercenary gives the perspective of the archers who employed the longbow with such devastating effect at Falkirk and began the emergence of longbow archery as the war-winning weapon of the Middle Ages. 

Much of the dialogue is written with a distinctively Scots accent, and Scots words and phrases dot the narrative.  I liked this, as not only does it help to create atmosphere, it is also cleverly used to indicate social and regional differences.  Wallace speaks broader Scots than Hal, Robert Bruce at the beginning of the novel speaks English and court French but is still finding his way in Scots (reflecting his upper-class background), and Fergus the Beetle, a common soldier from north of Aberdeen, speaks such ‘braid Scots’ that the author actually provides a translation at the back of the book.  I had no difficulty following the dialect – I even understood about two-thirds of Fergus the Beetle’s speech and could deduce most of the rest from context – though it took me a little while to get a feel for it.  Readers who find the dialect troublesome may like to know that most (not all) of the Scots words are explained in a glossary at the back of the book, and may like to bookmark it for easy reference.  I also liked the use of names for Hal’s retinue – Bangtail Hob, Ill Made Jock, Tod’s Wattie, Lang Tam – these are the characteristic names of the Border, familiar from numerous criminal charge sheets over the next three centuries, and from George MacDonald Fraser’s masterly study of the Border, The Steel Bonnets, and his splendid short novel The Candlemas Road.  Like The Candlemas Road, The Lion Wakes gives a powerful impression of authenticity, a sense of having opened a door onto another world and its people, complete with their customs, norms and values.

At the end, the mystery part of the plot is fully resolved, but the Wars of Independence have hardly started, so there is clearly plenty of scope for more adventures for Hal and his companions.  I have a feeling that Bangtail Hob has a story of his own, and that the hints about Dog Boy’s parentage suggest that he is going to turn out to be a significant character in later instalments.

A helpful Author’s Note at the back sketches some of the underlying history, identifies the fictional and historical characters, and admits to some of the liberties taken with historical figures about whom little is known, notably Isabel MacDuff, Countess of Buchan.

Gripping adventure with strong characterisation and a sense of authenticity, set against the background of the Wars of Independence in late thirteenth-century Scotland.

30 August, 2012

August recipe: Courgette moussaka

Moussaka is a Greek dish traditionally made with aubergines. As courgettes grow better than aubergines in Britain, and have a tendency to produce a sudden glut in late summer, I tried adapting the recipe to use courgettes instead of aubergines.  It worked very well.  So, for anyone else with a garden full of courgettes, here’s the recipe.  If you have a glut of fresh tomatoes, you can use those in it as well (if not, tinned tomatoes also work well).

Courgette moussaka (serves 4)

2 lb (approx 1 kg) courgettes
8 oz (approx 250 g) minced lamb or beef
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
Approx 1 lb (approx 450 g) chopped tomatoes, fresh or tinned
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) demerara sugar
2 teaspoons (2 x 5 ml spoon) chopped basil or oregano (or other herbs of your choice)
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) Worcester sauce (optional)
2 Tablespoons (2 x 15 ml spoon) red wine (optional)

For the white sauce and topping
Approx 0.5 oz (approx 10 g) butter
1 Tablespoon (1 x 15 ml spoon) plain flour
Approx 0.5 pint (approx 250 ml) milk
4 oz (approx 125 g) cheddar cheese

Slice the courgettes about 1 cm (approx 0.5 inch) thick, and sprinkle with 1-2 teaspoons of salt. Leave to stand for 30 minutes for the salt to draw some of the juices out of the courgettes.  Rinse the courgette slices in cold water and drain on kitchen paper.

Peel and chop the onion.

Fry the chopped onion and minced lamb or beef gently in olive oil over a medium heat until the onion is softened and the mince starting to brown.  Add the crushed garlic and fry another minute or so.

Add the chopped tomatoes, sugar and herbs and stir well.  Add the Worcester sauce and red wine, if using.  Season with salt and pepper.

Cover the pan and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the sauce is thickened and the meat cooked through.  Remove from the heat.

To make the white sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan over a low heat.

Remove from the heat and stir in the flour.  Gradually blend in the milk, a little at a time.  Remember to keep scraping the flour off the back of the spoon. 

Return to the heat and bring to the boil, stirring all the time, until thickened.  Season with salt and pepper.  Simmer over a low heat for a minute or two, then remove from the heat.

Slice or grate the cheese.

Grease a large ovenproof dish.  A lasagne dish or large casserole dish is ideal.

Arrange the courgette slices and the meat/tomato sauce in alternate layers in the dish, starting and finishing with courgette.

Pour the white sauce over the top of the last courgette layer.  Top with the sliced or grated cheese.

Bake in a moderately hot oven at about 170 C for about 1 hour until the courgettes are tender and the cheese is golden brown and bubbling.

Serve with potatoes or bread.

The meat and tomato sauce can be frozen.  I’ve never tried freezing the finished dish.

14 August, 2012

Post-Roman York: Castle Yard cemetery

York was an important military, ecclesiastical and political centre in Late Roman Britain.  In the early seventh century it was under royal control of the Anglian (‘Anglo-Saxon’) kings of Deira, and later in the seventh century it developed into a major ecclesiastical centre and the seat of an archbishopric, a status it holds to this day. 

In between, the historical record is a blank.  There are no definite references to York between the fourth century and the seventh century, although there are one or two snippets whose meaning is less than clear (see earlier post on Post-Roman York: the documentary evidence for a summary of the documentary records).  Evidence from archaeology provides some clues that may help to fill in the gap. In earlier posts I have discussed the headquarters building, the Anglian cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth, and the inhumation cemetery at Lamel Hill.

This post discusses the Roman cemetery and possible Anglian cemetery at Castle Yard.


Castle Yard

Castle Yard is, as its name indicates, located next to York Castle and the Castle Museum.

Map link here

The arrow shows the location of Castle Yard.  The scale is currently set to show the location in relation to the castle.  Zoom out to see the location in relation to the rest of the city, zoom in for a detailed view showing the street names.

William the Conqueror built a timber motte-and-bailey castle on the present site in 1068, destroying hundreds of houses to do so.  The present Clifford’s Tower is the remains of the thirteenth-century stone keep, which was part of an extensive fortified site between the rivers Ouse and Foss. 

Castle Yard lies between Clifford’s Tower and the River Foss.  It lay outside the south corner of the Roman fortress, and was the site of a Roman cemetery.  The inscribed stone sarcophagus of a centurion of the Sixth Legion, Aurelius Super, set up by his wife Aurelia Censorina, was found in Castle Yard in 1835 (Ottaway 2004, p 60).  Construction of a drainage trench in 1956 identified four more burials, one of which was another inscribed stone sarcophagus, this one for Julia Victorina, wife of a centurion named Septimius Lucianus who had previously served in the Praetorian Guard (Russell 2008, p 17).  Castle Yard may have been a military cemetery serving the centurionate.

In 1828, a hanging bowl and two pottery vessels were found in Castle Yard during construction of the new county gaol.  The pots have since been lost.  The hanging bowl is beautifully preserved, suggesting it may have come from a grave (Tweddle 1999, p 232-3).  A date of the early seventh century has been suggested (Tweddle 1999, p 172).  It is now in the Yorkshire Museum.


Hanging bowls typically occur in high-status ‘Anglo-Saxon’ graves in what is now eastern England. Their original function is unknown.  See my earlier posts on hanging bowls for a discussion of their occurrence and speculation on their possible function(s). 

There is no further information on the context in which the Castle Yard hanging bowl was found, so it is impossible to say whether it came from a grave.  It seems likely, since this is the most common context for hanging bowls, but not proven.  If it did come from a grave, it could have been either as grave goods in an inhumation grave, or as the container for a cremation burial.  The ship burial at Sutton Hoo (an especially magnificent inhumation grave) contained a hanging bowl.  A later excavation on the site of the nearby visitor centre found a cremation burial contained in a hanging bowl (Sutton Hoo Society; Pollington 2003).  

It is perhaps slightly more likely that the Castle Yard hanging bowl was the container for a cremation burial, since no other finds were mentioned and an inhumation burial rich enough to contain a hanging bowl might have been expected to contain other grave goods as well.  If the pots (now lost) were originally cremation urns, this would be consistent with an Anglian cremation cemetery on the site.  However, as nothing is known of the pots, this is speculative.


The hanging bowl from Castle Yard is consistent with the presence of a high-status Anglian burial.  This may indicate an Anglian cemetery in or near the site of the Castle Yard Roman cemetery.*


Ottaway P. Roman York. Tempus, 2004. ISBN 0-7524-2916-7.
Pollington S. The mead-hall. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2003. ISBN 1-898281-30-0.
Russell, B. Sarcophagi in Roman Britain. Available online.
Tweddle D, Moulden J, Logan E. Anglian York: a survey of the evidence. Council for British Archaeology/York Archaeological Trust, 1999. ISBN 1-902771-06-0.

Map links

*In Paths of Exile, I imagined that in 604 there was a small and short-lived royal Anglian cemetery on the site of the old Roman cemetery at Castle Yard, established towards the end of the sixth century and consisting of cremation burials under mounds.  This was based on Mounds 5 and 6 at Sutton Hoo (both cremation burials under mounds, one of which was in a thin-walled bronze bowl that could have been a hanging bowl), and the cremation burial in a hanging bowl found under the visitor centre at Sutton Hoo.  There is weak evidence that these burials pre-date the ship burial, so the rite seemed appropriate for a high-status cemetery at the end of the sixth century.  The Castle Yard hanging bowl is the only evidence for this (I imagine it as a container for one of the cremations).  There is no evidence of burial mounds on the site, but the construction of the castle would have involved extensive earthworks that would probably have obliterated any traces, even if the earlier Anglo-Scandinavian town had not already done so.

02 August, 2012

Ruso and the River of Darkness, by RS Downie. Book review

Penguin 2011.  ISBN 978-0-141-03694-6. 449 pages. 

Also published as Caveat Emptor, and the author’s name sometimes appears as Ruth Downie.

Fourth in the Ruso series of historical mysteries, Ruso and the River of Darkness is set in Roman Britain in Londinium (modern London) and Verulamium (modern St Albans) in 120 AD.  Emperor Hadrian (he of the eponymous not-yet-built Wall) is an important off-stage presence with the Imperial staff in Londinium anticipating his visit to Britain, but does not appear. All the main characters are fictional.

Roman army surgeon Gaius Petreius Ruso is no longer working for the Roman Army.  Newly married to his British wife Tilla, he has returned to Britain and his friend Valens, now in private practice in Londinium, has promised to find him a job.  Unfortunately, although what Ruso wants is a job as a surgeon, what Valens delivers is a job investigating the mysterious disappearance of Verulamium’s tax money and its tax-collector, Julius Asper.  To complicate matters further, Tilla becomes independently involved with the case when she is called on to act as midwife to the missing man’s lover, Camma of the Iceni and becomes emotionally attached to Camma and her new baby.  When Julius Asper turns up dead, and Rome’s sinister secret police get involved, Ruso’s investigation turns out to be only part of something much darker and more dangerous.

The Ruso series gets better and better.  This is Number Four, following Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls, Ruso and the Demented Doctor, and Ruso and the Root of All Evils, all reviewed here previously.  The relationship between Ruso and Tilla continues to be one of the series’ best features, as two intelligent and likeable people with strong characters and very different cultural backgrounds try to find a way to share their life together.  In Ruso and the River of Darkness, they have progressed as far as marriage and are hoping to find somewhere to settle down, make a home together and start a family.  But there are still many obstacles in their path, with a potential personal tragedy as well as the cultural divide coming between them.

In Ruso and the Root of All Evils, it was Ruso’s chaotic family who provided the comedy.  In Ruso and the River of Darkness, Ruso’s family are far away in Gaul, and the chaotic family honour goes to Valens, whose self-centred charm may have been successful in winning him a wife but is proving less successful in keeping her.  Ruso’s ex-clerk Albanus, now making a precarious living as a teacher, makes a welcome reappearance here, and unless I’m much mistaken there’s even a hint of personal happiness in the offing for him (I hope so).

The mystery seems more substantial in Ruso and the River of Darkness than in its three predecessors, where the mystery has often seemed to me to be more of a background to Ruso’s complicated personal life.  This instalment is darker and more complex than the previous Ruso mysteries.  There is a lot going on – fraud, rivalries in local politics, counterfeiting, and hints of inter-tribal politics, as well as the murder.  The memory of Boudica’s revolt, sixty years earlier, still casts a long shadow over Verulamium and its inhabitants.  The captain of Verulamium’s town guard and the town magistrates are still responding to the legacy of the revolt, in very different ways.  It is a contributory factor in poisoning the marriage of Camma (a direct descendant of Boudica) to a Verulamium magistrate whose elderly mother is still traumatised by the events she witnessed as a child.  Motivations are complex, with at least one interestingly ambiguous character doing bad things at least in part for good, even noble, reasons.

Although the atmosphere is darker, the humour that is such an attractive feature of the Ruso mysteries persists.  Valens’ family life, Ruso’s domestic arrangements (including a perennial puzzle over what to do with a huge crate of wedding crockery), and the more shambolic aspects of Roman administration provide an unfailing source of comedy.  The writing is as witty as ever.

A map at the front is helpful for readers unfamiliar with the geography of Roman Britain, and the characteristically wry cast list at the front may be useful if any readers need help keeping the characters straight (and is amusing to read even if you don’t).  An Author’s Note at the back mentions some of the historical and archaeological background to the novel.

Witty, humorous historical mystery set in second-century Roman Britain.