30 December, 2012

The Lion At Bay, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins, 2012. ISBN 978-0-00-733789-7. 389 pages

Set in Scotland, northern England and London in 1304-1307, The Lion At Bay is the second in Robert Low’s series about the Scottish Wars of Independence, following The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier). Robert Bruce, Isabel MacDuff Countess of Buchan, William Wallace and Edward I of England are important characters, and other historical figures including the future Edward II of England, ‘Red John’ Comyn of Badenoch and James Douglas also feature. The main characters, Sir Henry (Hal) Sientcler of Herdmanston, the members of his household, and Bruce’s henchman, spy and fixer Roger Kirkpatrick*, are fictional.

William Wallace is back in Scotland and resuming his fight against Edward I. Robert Bruce, whose secret ambition is to gain the Scottish throne for himself, has temporarily submitted to Edward I to further his feud with his arch-rivals, the Comyn family. Hal of Herdmanston is in the Bruce retinue, sick at heart for the loss of his home and his love Isabel MacDuff, who has reluctantly returned to her husband the Earl of Buchan. Murder, treachery and betrayal abound, as various factions search for the Black Rood of Scotland, stolen from Edward’s treasury in London. And when the Bruce-Comyn feud erupts into violence, Scotland is plunged yet again into war. 

Like its predecessor, The Lion At Bay is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of violent action, political scheming and a mystery sub-plot. Although the struggle that became known as the Wars of Independence has often been portrayed in later ages as a nationalistic fight between Scotland and England, at the time it was at least as much a Scottish civil war between powerful noble factions, chiefly the Bruce family and the Comyn family. This political chaos, with the Bruce-Comyn feud as apparently the only fixed point, provides a turbulent backdrop to the novel. Only one major battle features in this instalment, the battle of Methven (a disaster for Robert Bruce), but there is no shortage of other violent action, ranging from a knightly joust a l’outrance to a street brawl in a slaughterhouse, from siege to assassination and murder. The mystery sub-plot, a quest to recover the Black Rood of Scotland – necessary for the proper coronation of a King of Scots – and its fictional reliquary set with twelve magnificent rubies, forms a unifying thread to hold the narrative together. 

Robert Bruce is no idealised hero in this portrayal. He is harsh, ruthless, deceitful and capable of treachery and murder – occasionally with his own hand, more often via the enigmatic Kirkpatrick. Hal of Herdmanston, a minor Lothian lord who became a Bruce supporter almost by accident (recounted in The Lion Wakes) is ambivalent towards Bruce, repelled by some of his actions but fighting for him anyway.  If I have any quibble with this portrayal, it is that I am not entirely clear why men like Hal were willing to fight and suffer for Bruce, especially in the days after the disastrous battle of Methven when Bruce must have looked like a lost cause. Perhaps because Bruce was the last man standing; perhaps because Edward I (nicknamed in the novel ‘The Covetous King’) had earned himself the undying hatred of a lot of Scots by then; perhaps because by this stage many were concerned less with Bruce personally and more with the abstract ideals of independence and a contract between people and king. The stirring words of the Declaration of Arbroath make an appearance more than once in The Lion At Bay. 

Many of the characters introduced in The Lion Wakes reappear in The Lion At Bay, older now and many growing weary of war. William Wallace has dwindled to an outlaw leader, ‘a monstrous frightener of bairns’, as he wryly muses to himself. Hal and Isabel are older, their love undiminished but thwarted by circumstances. Their love affair has a terrible poignancy amidst the sweetness, especially for a reader who knows Isabel’s eventual fate.  Even the indestructible Kirkpatrick is not immune from age and injury. Conversely, Dog Boy, who was a child in The Lion Wakes, has now grown into an energetic and able young man and become a key member of Hal’s retinue (and I was right about his parentage, which is confirmed in the character list).

The writing is vivid, with a vein of black humour and a scattering of Scots words and phrases to set the scene. Readers who find the Scots words problematic may like to bookmark the glossary at the back of the book where many of them are explained. A list of characters identifies those who are fictional and those who are historical figures, and a short Author’s Note outlines some of the underlying history and the fictional additions and alterations.

Gripping, violent adventure full of action and intrigue, set against the turbulence of the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century.

*Roger Kirkpatrick of Closeburn, he of the famous ‘Mak’ siccar’ line, is a historical figure. The Roger Kirkpatrick in Robert Low’s series is a fictional kinsman and namesake of the historical figure.

28 December, 2012

December recipe: Fruit cake

This is a rich and comforting fruit cake for the winter, not to be confused with the much darker and heavier traditional Christmas cake.  It will happily share a slow oven with a casserole, such as beef and vegetable hot pot.

You can vary the dried fruit as you please, depending on taste and availability.

Fruit cake

4 oz (approx 125 g) light brown soft sugar
4 oz (approx 125 g) butter
2 eggs
rind of 1 orange (optional)
8 oz (approx 250 g) self-raising flour
1 teaspoon (1 x 5 ml spoon) ground mixed spice
0.5 teaspoon (1 x 2.5 ml spoon) ground nutmeg
14 oz (approx 400 g mixed dried fruit of your choice*
milk to mix

*e.g. glace cherries, dates, dried apricots, raisins, sultanas, currants, cut mixed (candied) peel

Grease a loaf tin about 8 inches by 4.5 inches by 3 inches (approx 20 cm by 11 cm by 7 cm).  Line it with a strip of greased greaseproof paper.

Halve the glace cherries (if using).  Chop the apricots and dates (if using) into pieces about the size of a raisin. 

Melt the butter in a large mixing bowl.  Beat in the sugar. 

Beat in the eggs and orange rind (if using). 

Stir in the flour, spices and chopped dried fruit.  Mix well. 

Stir in a little milk, until the cake mixture is a soft dropping consistency (i.e., if you lift a spoonful of mixture out of the bowl and hold the spoon vertically, most of the cake mixture will drop off the spoon and fall back into the bowl). 

Put the cake mixture into the greased and lined loaf tin and level the top. 

Bake in a slow oven at about 150 C for about 1.5 hours, until set and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean (i.e. with at most one or two crumbs clinging to it, not coated in a layer of uncooked cake mixture). 

Cool for a few minutes in the tin, then turn the cake out of the tin and cool on a wire rack. 

The cake will keep in an airtight tin for a week or so, and freezes well.

21 December, 2012

Roman York to Anglian York: a speculative model

In this sequence of posts, I have summarised some documentary and archaeological evidence that may help to sketch out a picture of York in the post-Roman centuries. For a summary, see the preceding post in the series.

I have also discussed the Brittonic ruler Peredur, recorded in the late sixth century and associated with York in later medieval tradition.
I suggested that York continued to be inhabited, probably at a low density, and to be used at least on occasion by the local rulers during the fifth and sixth centuries. If correct, this could provide a mechanism for York to retain its status as a political, ecclesiastical and military centre, and possibly some of its cultural heritage, throughout the gap in the historical record.

However, the context in which such a status functioned clearly changed between the fourth and seventh centuries.  In the fourth century, York was under the control of Roman officials, part of the diocese of Britain and the Western Roman Empire, the base of a legion of regular army troops, and the seat of a bishop.  In the early seventh century, York was under the control of the early English (‘Anglo-Saxon’) king of Deira/ Northumbria, had no established bishopric (or at least not one that Pope Gregory recognised), and was not part of a political entity bigger than the kingdom of Northumbria (or possibly of whatever was represented by the title of ‘Bretwalda’, which on the most generous interpretation only extends to most, not all, of modern England and parts of southern Scotland).  How might this transition have come about?  There are several broad possibilities. 

Direct transfer of power from Rome to English kings

One possibility is that power was transferred directly from the last Roman officials to the first English king, some time after Emperor Honorius told the British civitates to ‘look to their own defences’ in the early fifth century. The Late Roman Army was in the habit of recruiting Germanic ‘barbarians’ as allies and mercenaries, some of whom reached positions of great power. Stilicho, the general and de facto Emperor in the early fifth century, had a Vandal father. In the 360s the Dux Britanniarum had a Germanic name, Fullofaudes, and in 300 a Germanic warrior-king called Crocus and his troops helped to elevate Constantine the Great to Emperor in York. If the Roman Army based at York in the early fifth century was either commanded by a Germanic general like Fullofaudes or Stilicho, or relied heavily on a Germanic mercenary ally like Crocus, it is not hard to see how such an individual could have become in effect the ruler of York and its surroundings, and effectively founded a kingdom with little more than a change of terminology. In this model one of the last Roman officials could also have been the first English king.

Something like this happened in parts of Continental Europe, where Germanic kings such as Clovis in Gaul (roughly modern France) effectively took over chunks of the former Western Roman Empire wholesale. However, such a direct transfer does not fit easily with some aspects of the situation in York. First, the Christian church hierarchy seems to have disappeared in York, or at least was no longer recognised by Rome, since Pope Gregory clearly expected to establish a new bishopric there. This contrasts with the situation in Gaul, where Christian bishops continued under Clovis and were recognised in Rome. Second, although Clovis was a Frank and Frankish was a Germanic language, the language that became dominant in his territory was a descendant of Latin (eventually evolving into modern French). By contrast, the language that emerged in York was English, a Germanic language. It is possible that a particular set of circumstances could explain both of these differences – e.g. if the leader who took over in York happened to be a committed pagan who chased out any Christian church hierarchy, or if Germanic languages were already widely spoken in and around York after generations of recruiting Germanic soldiers who retained connections with friends and relatives across the North Sea. Nevertheless, my interpretation is that these differences are consistent with a less direct transition in York.

Invasion and conquest

A second possibility is that English warriors invaded and conquered Roman York and its surrounding area, destroyed the Roman aristocracy and the Christian church, expelled or oppressed the Roman population, and established their own kingdom without reference to anything that had gone before.  Such a hypothetical conquest could have happened at any time between the early fifth century and the late sixth or early seventh century. This model explains the absence of a bishop in the early seventh century, and the presence of pagan English cremation cemeteries at The Mount and Heworth in York in the fifth-sixth century.

Given York’s importance in Roman Britain, one might have expected to find such a conquest recorded in Annales Cambriae alongside battles such as Arthuret, or as a comment on an early king of Deira in the king-lists in Historia Brittonum or the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (‘X who conquered York’ like the enigmatic comment about Soemil), or to appear at least as a passing reference in poetry or the Triads. It may be possible that the reference to Soemil was supposed to mean that he had conquered York, expressed in an oblique way. It may also be possible that the un-located battle of Caer Greu mentioned in the Triads, where Peredur and his brother Gwrgi were killed (see post on Peredur), could be an oblique reference to a battle at York, called for some reason by the name of ‘Caer Greu’ instead of its more usual ‘Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘Caer Efrawg’.  It may also be possible that the enigmatic entry for the death of ‘Bishop Ebur’ in Annales Cambriae in 501 AD (see post on the documentary sources for post-Roman York) could be an oblique reference to an invasion and conquest that extinguished the bishopric. I am not convinced, because these are all very oblique; they could refer to a conquest of York, but that’s mostly because it isn’t clear what they refer to, so they could mean almost anything. It seems odd to me that there is no clear ‘X conquered Eboracum/ Caer Ebrauc’ or ‘X was killed in the battle of Eboracum /Caer Ebrauc’. However, the sources are so sparse that absence of evidence cannot be taken as evidence of absence.

Staged transition from Roman to a Brittonic kingdom to an English kingdom

A third possibility is that Roman York became an independent Brittonic kingdom that later became an English kingdom. Brittonic kingdoms are recorded in the late sixth and early seventh century in what is now northern England, such as the kingdom of Elmet in the area around modern Leeds, a few miles west of York (see post on Elmet), and the kingdom of Rheged somewhere in what is now north-western England and/or south-western Scotland (more on Rheged in a later post). If York was the centre of a similar kingdom, that would fit with the pattern.

Such a kingdom could have evolved from the military authority held by the late Roman army commander based at York (by a mechanism similar to the first possibility outlined above) and/or from the civilian political authority held by the leader(s) of the colonia. It could be similar to the situation at Birdoswald, where someone was building timber halls fit for a chieftain in the fifth to sixth centuries, presumably using the Roman fort for its defensive capability or its prestige or both. If some of the people in authority in Late Roman York were members of, or had close links with, the local British aristocracy, such a hypothetical post-Roman kingdom in York could have developed into a Brittonic tribal kingdom.

This model can accommodate the reference in Annales Cambriae to ‘Bishop Ebur’ in 501.  If the hypothetical Brittonic kingdom had developed out of a Late Roman Christian Brittonic aristocracy, it may also have retained the Late Roman Christian church hierarchy, at least for a while*. It can also accommodate the medieval tradition that the late sixth-century Brittonic king Peredur was associated with York (see post on Peredur). In this model, Peredur would have been the king of this hypothetical Brittonic kingdom that had developed in or around York. Peredur’s genealogy extends back to Coel Hen, the founder figure of most of the northern Brittonic dynasties.  Generation counting places Coel Hen somewhere in the early to mid fifth century, i.e. in the immediately post-Roman period, a plausible context for the emergence of a ruling dynasty (caveat, as always, that distant founder figures in genealogies may owe as much to imagination as to history).  Peredur’s father Eliffer had the epithet “of the Great Army”, which may imply that he had considerable military power in his time.  These scraps are consistent with a powerful Brittonic kingdom based in York from the immediate post-Roman period up to the later sixth century, though they do not prove it.

This staged transition model is not necessarily inconsistent with the presence of the pagan English cremation cemeteries at York; those only pose a problem if one assumes that populations must be ethnically, culturally and religiously homogeneous. The cremation cemeteries may represent one element of a mixed population living in post-Roman York, perhaps Germanic mercenaries hired by a Brittonic king or people descended from Germanic soldiers in the Late Roman Army, who happened to practice a particular funerary custom.

The transition from such a hypothetical post-Roman Brittonic kingdom to the English kingdom of Deira recorded by Bede could have occurred by conquest, alliance, intermarriage or inheritance, or any combination thereof. Peredur was killed in battle in 580 according to Annales Cambriae, and his son did not (re)claim his inheritance according to the Triads. Peredur’s death is a plausible context for a shift from Brittonic to Deiran control of York. Whether it represents direct military conquest by Deira, or an alliance hastily patched up after a military defeat by a common enemy, or an inheritance (disputed or otherwise) by the English-oriented children of a dynastic intermarriage in the previous generation, is open to interpretation.

A speculative model

I prefer the staged transition model, for several reasons. First, because it seems to me to fit with fragmentation of Roman Britain into a large number of small local polities, each ruled by whoever happened to be in the best position to grasp and maintain power in a given place at the time, which then changed and evolved over the following centuries.  Second, because a Brittonic kingdom based at York fits easily among the known post-Roman kingdoms ruled by kings with Brittonic names elsewhere in the region of what is now northern England/southern Scotland in the sixth century. Third, because it can accommodate the tradition associating Peredur with York (this is hardly strong evidence, since it comes from a medieval romance written centuries later, but it may reflect a genuine tradition).

So my speculative model for the development of post-Roman York sees a Brittonic tribal kingdom established in and around York, initially developing from the local Brittonic aristocracy and/or Roman officials based in York in the early to mid fifth century. By the mid to late sixth century it was a powerful kingdom capable of fighting a battle many miles away at Arthuret, whose rulers were important enough to be mentioned in the Annales Cambriae and were the subject of stories that survive in cryptic references in the Triads and later medieval romance. 

In this speculative model, the early English kingdom of Deira is postulated as separate from Brittonic York, based on the Yorkshire Wolds with an important centre near the extensive early cemetery at Sancton near Market Weighton and extending east to the coast and west towards the River Derwent.  If Soemil’s action that ‘first separated Deur from Berneich’ (see earlier post on Soemil) refers to gaining Deiran independence from a polity based in York, Deira may have initially been a sort of sub-region of Brittonic York, perhaps a land-grant to federate troops employed by the Late Roman Army based at York and/or the postulated Brittonic kingdom that succeeded it.  (More on the possible origins of Deira in a later post). I see Brittonic York and early English Deira as more or less independent neighbouring kingdoms for much of the fifth and sixth centuries, sometimes rivals and sometimes allies, depending on circumstances and the personalities of their respective leaders.  If Deira was initially founded by people who were formally granted land by Roman or post-Roman authorities at York, it is possible that both kingdoms may have shared a sense of Roman heritage (however hazy it may have become over time) and a tradition that they were supposed to co-operate militarily (whether they always did so in practice is a different matter).  Intermarriage could have reinforced such a (hypothetical) tradition, eventually leading to the effective merger of the two kingdoms under a Deiran king after the deaths of Peredur of York and his brother Gwrgi in 580 AD.  Whether this was voluntary, forcible or somewhere in between is open to interpretation. Since Peredur’s son Gwgaun is said in the Triads not to have (re)claimed his inheritance, implying that he was displaced, such a hypothetical merger may not have been entirely voluntary.  I lean to ‘somewhere in between’, with the aristocracy of Brittonic York accepting a Deiran king as the least-bad option available to them in a chaotic situation after their own kings had been killed in battle.  And thus this speculative model arrives at a situation in which York is a royal centre under the control of the early English kings of Deira in the late sixth century, ready to reappear in that guise in the documentary records in 627. 

I need hardly say that this is speculative.


*Even if the Annales Cambriae record means that there was a bishopric in York that came to an end in 501, it does not necessarily mean that Christianity disappeared along with the bishop. Monasticism was a powerful force in western Britain and Ireland in the early medieval period. If a monastery was established in Brittonic York during the fifth century, it may be possible that it had supplanted the local bishopric by 501.



11 December, 2012

Hawk Quest, by Robert Lyndon. Book review

Sphere 2012. ISBN 978-1-84744-497-4. 658 pages.
Hawk Quest is set in 1072 in most of Europe, the North Atlantic, European Russia and Anatolia. All the main characters are fictional.

Vallon, a Frankish outlaw and soldier of fortune, is on his way through the Alps to join the Varangian Guard in Byzantium when he encounters a dying Greek scholar and his assistant, a Sicilian medical student named Hero, who are on their way to England to deliver a ransom demand to the family of a captured Norman knight. After the scholar’s death, Vallon is talked into accompanying Hero to England to deliver the letter.  But the ransom demands a fabulous price, four pure white gyrfalcons, found only in Greenland. Vallon and Hero undertake the impossible quest, each for their own reasons – which have little to do with the captured knight – accompanied by the downtrodden younger step-brother of the captured knight, a German soldier, and an English peasant falconer and his giant dog. Pursuing them and intent on murder is the knight’s elder step-brother, Drogo, who stands to inherit the family estate if the ransom is never delivered. So begins an epic journey to the limits of the known world, from the everlasting ice of Greenland to the ship-destroying Russian rivers and the deserts of Anatolia, a journey on which the travellers find friendship, love, betrayal and heartbreak. Not everyone will reach the end.

Hawk Quest is a classic adventure quest on a grand scale. At over 650 pages, this is a huge book, and the story is big enough to justify the length. The journey itself covers a vast area, from the north of Greenland far beyond the Arctic Circle to Anatolia (modern Turkey). The travellers face just about every imaginable hazard – storm, shipwreck, hunger, cold, marauding Vikings, hostile tribes, cheating merchants, double-crossing officials, bandits, and dangerous wildlife including a polar bear. Not to mention Drogo’s murderous threat, and the perils posed by a beautiful, fiery Icelandic noblewoman, Caitlin, and her violent, selfish brother. Astonishingly for such a long book, the pace never flags and the tale is gripping from end to end.
Part of this is due to the quality of the writing. Lyrical, terse, poignant or humorous as occasion demands, the prose brings the events and landscapes of the journey to vivid life. On occasion I would look up from the book and experience a slight shock on realising that I was not watching an elk in the forests of northern Russia or on a glacier in Greenland. The various obstacles the company have to overcome are explained clearly enough that the reader understands enough to share the experience, so that erecting a ship’s mast or tracking an escaped falcon becomes as thrilling as any battle scene or chase sequence.
The other reason why the book was so compelling was the characterisation, which I thought was outstanding. All the central characters of Vallon’s company are individuals, with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own reasons for joining the expedition, their own hopes and objectives and motivations (sometimes in conflict). All have their own talents and contribute to solving the problems faced by the expedition in their own way. Deep friendships and romantic relationships are forged on the journey.  Even enemies can develop a grudging respect for one another and can co-operate when mutual survival depends on it (even if they promptly revert to type when the immediate danger is over). The variety of individual characters and the interactions between them was the best feature of the novel for me.

Was there anything I didn’t like?  Very little. It took me a while to get into the story, partly because the storytelling in the early chapters has quite a number of flashbacks, which I initially found confusing, and partly because the captured knight’s Norman family and their military retainers all seem so thoroughly unpleasant (Richard, the younger son who joins the expedition, is an exception, but this doesn’t become apparent until much later in the book).  Once the journey gets under way, the book gets into its stride and all these initial problems disappear.  I also found the relationship between Caitlin and Vallon a little puzzling, probably because Caitlin’s thoughts are never shown and Vallon is – understandably, given his history – reluctant to think much about his emotions.
A word of warning: the cover strap-line breathlessly promises “An epic novel of the Norman Conquests”.  ‘Epic’ is entirely justified, but ‘of the Norman Conquests’ is misleading. The Norman conquest of England is at most a minor background event. Readers expecting an adventure involving William, the Battle of Hastings, et al will not find it here.  The title Hawk Quest gives a much more accurate idea of the novel.
A map at the front is invaluable for following the characters on their extraordinary journey. There is no author’s note, just a few comments on the price of gyrfalcons in medieval Europe and the dates of the handful of historical events mentioned in the novel.
Compelling, beautifully written epic quest spanning most of the world known to medieval Europe, with high adventure, convincing characters and a vivid sense of place.