Sunday, 3 December 2017

What Sharon Bennett Connolly learnt when writing Heroines of the Medieval World

It is my pleasure to welcome to my blog, Sharon Bennett Connolly, author of Heroines of the Medieval World and blogger extraordinaire!

Sharon has been fascinated by history for over thirty years and before embarking on her writing career she had many jobs including being a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle.


She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.

She runs the fabulous blog, History…the Interesting Bits, where she writes about the lesser-known stories and people from European history. Her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, was published by Amberley in September 2017. Sharon is now working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published in late 2018.

What Sharon Bennett Connolly learnt when writing Heroines of the Medieval World


Getting the opportunity to write Heroines of the Medieval World was a dream come true – I have always wanted to write a book. It came about after I entered a competition run jointly by Amberley and the Historical Writers Association, where I had to send in a synopsis of the book, chapter plan, 2,000 word introduction and a short bio of myself. I got the best rejection letter ever – and email from Amberley saying I didn’t win the competition, but they liked my idea so much they would like to publish it anyway. Writing your first book is a huge learning curve. Heroines of the Medieval World is a non-fiction book, so it took a huge amount of research, checking and double-checking facts and sifting the fact from the fiction.



The first task was picking my Heroines. I had to decide who to include, who to leave out. I wanted a wide-ranging assortment, with a combination of the famous, not-so-famous and even the obscure. Some heroines more-or-less refused to be left out – such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Joan of Arc. You can’t have a book about medieval heroines and leave out the two everyone knows about. They were also two of the easiest to find information on, because there has been so much written about them over the years. Although, the fun part with each of these women was that some of the sources were in French. I have ‘A’ Level French and have worked in Paris and at Eurostar, so I’m not ‘scared’ of French. Although medieval French is a different level! It was challenging and time consuming, but it was good to get the old brain cells working overtime.

With the more obscure Heroines, however, it can prove difficult to find enough information in order to write their stories. I like to use as many sources as possible, preferably primary sources, to make sure I get a full picture of the lady in question. Some of my Heroines were very local to where I grew up, in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, such as Nicholaa de la Haye; luckily, although Nicholaa is practically unknown on the national and international stage, as Castellan of Lincoln Castle, she is a local celebrity and as a result there was a lot of information in and around Lincoln itself, including the church in which Nicholaa is buried. It also meant I could visit the locations associated with them, explore Lincoln Castle and chat with the guides there, to get a more personal view of Nicholaa. It also helps that Nicholaa has been in the news in 2017; this year is the 800th anniversary of the Lincoln siege in which Nicholaa held the French at bay until William Marshall could get to her with his army.

These days there are some very useful sources available at your fingertips, including some of the greatest chronicles of the medieval era, such as Froissart and Orderic Vitalis. British History Online provides historic documents such as wills, pipe rolls, court proceedings etc. A fabulous resource came from Columbia University, who have a project known as Epistolae, in which you can find the Latin letters – and their translations - of some amazing medieval women, such as Heloise, Hildegard of Bingen and Adela of Normandy. These are the letters written, or dictated, by the women themselves and provide the best insight into what these women thought and what they were concerned about, not just in their everyday lives, but in their wider influence on the world. The problem with this, of course, was having to try to stay focused and avoid getting side-tracked with so many fascinating letters to read.

The research itself helped me to define the structure of the book. It made me realise that the best way to organise the chapters was to use the reasons the women were heroines – such as the warrior women, the writers, the rulers and the survivors. Divided into twelve chapters, this meant the book can be read from cover to cover, or by dipping into each individual chapter, depending on which type of Heroine you would like to read about.

I hope it works.

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Useful links:

Blog: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/
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Twitter: @Thehistorybits

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Thursday, 16 November 2017

It's UK release day!

The gorgeous looking paperback of THE SERPENT SWORD and the sumptuous hardback of THE CROSS AND THE CURSE are available today in all good bookshops in the UK.

You can also buy them anywhere in the world from The Book Depository with FREE DELIVERY.


Wednesday, 25 October 2017

What inspires my stories?

Where does inspiration come from? Here is a guest post I have written on fellow historical fiction author Mary Anne Yarde's blog about some of the inspiration behind The Bernicia Chronicles.

https://maryanneyarde.blogspot.co.uk/2017/10/authors-inspiration-matthew-harffy.html

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Inspiration from The Dark Ages: Why I Wrote The Serpent Sword

If you’d asked me to name some Anglo-Saxon kings before I started writing The Serpent Sword, I would probably have managed Alfred the Great, perhaps Ethelred the Unready and that last great Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, of the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and arrow-in-the-eye fame. I think most people would probably be in the same boat as I was. There are other periods that I knew a lot more about. School history lessons focussed more on the Tudors, the Norman Conquest, the medieval period of the Crusades and the Hundred Years War, and then of course, the Industrial Revolution, and the two World Wars of the twentieth century.

The Romans might have got a mention at school, and those ever-popular raping and pillaging Vikings. They were always a firm favourite with teachers and students alike. Especially young boys like me, who imagined themselves riding the waves on a dragon-prowed longship and relished the horrific tales of battle and the perhaps fictional blood-eagle. But the Vikings didn’t come to Britain until the end of the 8th century, long after the stories I write have finished.



So, if I knew next to nothing about the early seventh century, why did I choose to write my debut novel about a young man in Northumbria in 633 AD? After all, writing a novel is hard enough, without choosing a subject you haven’t got a clue about. The real answer is that I didn’t choose the period, it chose me. So what makes someone who has never written a novel decide to pick up a pen, or more likely nowadays, sit down at their computer?



Well, in my case, it was a television programme one evening back in 2001. It was about archaeological digs taking place in and around Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland. I had lived near there as a child and always loved the area, so I watched with interest. I was alone at home that evening and something sparked inside me. I fired up the PC and started to type descriptions of the images that were thronging in my mind. I wrote a scene of a young man arriving on the beach at Bebbanburg (the old name for Bamburgh). I had never written anything of novel length before and I had a full-time job, a young family and I was halfway through studying for a degree, so progress was never going to be fast.

But something about the story just kept nagging at me. Who was this man I saw in my mind’s eye? Why had he arrived by ship? Where had he come from?



I started buying any books I could find on the period, and the more I learnt about the so-called Dark Ages in Britain, the more I became hooked. I discovered that Britain was made up of small kingdoms. The Romans had left a couple of centuries before, but war was still frequent between the different Anglo-Saxon rulers. And there were also regions ruled by native Britons. Welsh, Scots and Picts all vied against the Germanic peoples who had settled the land after the Romans had left these shores. I learnt the names of Anglo-Saxon kings that should be taught in all schools: Edwin, Oswald, Oswiu, Penda and many more. They were not kings of England, but kings of exotic sounding places like Bernicia, Deira, and Mercia. But these were men who helped to forge the land we know as England (the name itself comes from Angleland).

My research in the area brought back memories of my childhood in a village on the border of England and Scotland. The wildness of that land had always stayed with me. The rocky coastline of the North Sea, birds wheeling in a leaden sky, the snow-capped Cheviot Hills on the horizon. It was easy to imagine men and women living, fighting and dying in that land 1,400 years earlier. Men and women just like you and me, with loves, passions, fears, and yet so far removed from us that they could easily be thought of as truly alien.



They lived in a time of turmoil and uncertainty. Kings with retinues of warriors defended their people against attack, but such protection was often short-lived, with most kings meeting their ends in bloody battles. Religion too was in flux, with the resurgence of Christianity spreading over the land. However, in the early part of the seventh century, it was still very much the new religion, in competition with old gods we more commonly relate with the Vikings.



The term ‘Dark Ages’ has become outmoded in recent years, with academics now preferring ‘Early Medieval’. But I believe that despite the enlightenment of some during that time and the incredible skill of craftsmen who produced intricate and exquisite jewellery, weapons and armour, the period really is dark. It is lost to us in the gloomy distance of the past. Something about the men and women of the seventh century inspired me one night fifteen years ago, and they have been speaking ever since.

All I can do is listen and tell their tales as best I can. 

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

What Mary Anne Yarde Learnt about the folklore of King Arthur when writing The Du Lac Chronicles

It is my pleasure to welcome to my blog Mary Anne Yarde, award-winning author of the International Bestselling series, The Du Lac Chronicles.


Mary Anne grew up in the southwest of England, surrounded and influenced by centuries of history and mythology. Glastonbury, the fabled Isle of Avalon, was a mere fifteen-minute drive from her home, and tales of King Arthur and his knights were part of her childhood.

What Mary Anne Yarde Learnt about the folklore of King Arthur when writing The Du Lac Chronicles


I have always been passionate about history. One Christmas, I must have been around three-years-old, my Grandmother bought us a set of encyclopaedia — I know that does not sound particularly exciting, but I loved those books. I would often take one of these massive books off the shelf. I would then lie on my stomach, on the floor, flick through the pages and look at the pictures. I don’t know how I knew which one was the history encyclopaedia, but that was the one I always got down. History fascinated me, and it still does.

Growing up near Glastonbury meant that I knew, from a very early age, all about the stories of King Arthur and his Knights. What I didn’t know was that this love for history and King Arthur was not only going to inspire me to write an award winning book series, The Du Lac Chronicles, but also I was going to become a lover of folklore.



Researching the life and times of King Arthur is incredibly challenging. I am not going to say I have discovered who Arthur was because I haven't. There are so many possible Arthurs, so many theses as to who he was. But one thing where Arthur is prevalent, and you are sure to find him, is in folklore.

Folklore isn’t an exact science. It evolves. It is constantly changing. It is added to. Digging up folklore, I found, is not the same as extracting relics!

Arthur, as I said, lends himself to folklore, but it isn’t just Arthur the man I found myself looking for. I wanted to discover what influence he has had on Britain over the centuries, and what I found, surprised me.


The Dark Ages, where the majority of Arthurian stories are set, is notoriously difficult to research because of the lack of primary written sources. Of course, there are the works of Gildas, Nennius and Bede as well as The Annals of Wales, that we can turn to, but again, they are not what I would consider reliable sources, even the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which were compiled in the late 9th Century, have to be treated with caution. Archaeologists have had more luck, but even they have not found Arthur, and they did try — they spent four years trying to locate his body at Glastonbury Abbey and came up with nothing. Which begs the question...

Why did the monks claim that they had found Arthur's body in the first place?

I have learnt of three reasons.

Firstly the Welsh were revolting and Arthur had become their figurehead. The English needed a body to prove that this Welsh figurehead was dead. Secondly, there was a new interest in Arthur thanks to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s newly released, History of the Kings Of Briton and thirdly, there had been a fire at the abbey and it was in desperate needs of funds. The monks of Glastonbury were nothing if not pragmatic and they knew that Arthur would bring in the coins.

Glastonbury Abbey
Geoffrey of Monmouth's book is now considered a ‘national myth,’ but for centuries his book was considered to be factually correct. Can you imagine that?  A work of fiction that was believed to be a true account of Arthur's life! Monmouth did have his critics, but they were mostly brushed aside and ignored. Monmouth made Britain glorious, and he gave us not Arthur the general, but Arthur the English Christian King. And what a king he was.

Let’s take a quick look at Edward III (1312-1377). Edward wanted his reign to be as wondrous as Arthur's. Edward believed in the stories of Arthur and his Knights. He had even started to have his very own Round Table built at Windsor Castle. He also founded The Order of the Garter— which is still the highest order of chivalry that the Queen can bestow. Arthur, whether fictional or not, influenced kings, and I find that fascinating.

Edward III

In have discovered that there is always a little ring of truth in Folklore, and I love that. I guess all stories have to start somewhere. I never thought I would be a champion of folklore, but now I have discovered that I am.

Folklore can tell us a lot about a nation and I have learnt not to overlook it. I am just sorry that it took me so long to understand what a priceless treasure it really is.

In my series, The Du Lac Chronicles, I decided to weave history and folklore together and I am so glad I did because I get to embrace two of my favourite things at the same time — history and the stories of King Arthur!

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Image attribution

Edward III as he was depicted in the late 16th century ~ Wikipedia
Picture of the Knight ~ Pixabay
All other photographs are copyright Mary Anne Yarde.

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Thursday, 15 June 2017

What Ruadh Butler learnt writing Lord of the Sea Castle

Today's guest blog post in the "What I Learnt..." series comes from historical fiction author, Ruadh Butler. Ruadh as born in County Derry at the height of the Troubles. A degree in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ulster, as well as study in Virginia and London, couldn't entice him into a life of scientific research, but to keep the wolf from the door he worked in laboratories, in newsrooms, and in bars. He even tried his hand as a soldier, musician, security guard and lifeguard during his twenties. Ruadh lives in Northern Ireland and Lord of the Sea Castle is the second novel in his Invader series.


I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Lord of the Sea Castle. It's a great read. Here's what I said about it:

"From tourneys to treachery; from Welsh Marches to Irish marauders, Ruadh Butler propels us into the tumultuous times of the twelfth century. The clangour of swords and battle cries of knights echo from the pages of 'Lord of the Sea Castle', as Butler tells a gripping tale with skill, verve and gusto."

What Ruadh Butler Learnt writing LORD OF THE SEA CASTLE


1. You can still visit ruins built by the Normans in 1170.

My new novel, Lord of the Sea Castle, takes place in the summer of 1170 and follows directly the events of Swordland. This book charts the activities of a small advance force of some 120 men (and one woman) that cross the Irish Sea in order to build a bridgehead and prepare the way for an invasion by a Welsh baron named Strongbow. Led by the wonderfully named Raymond the Fat, the historic figure upon whom my lead character is based, they immediately began constructing a defensible position on a headland called Dun Domhnall in south County Wexford. I had the pleasure of visiting the site (which is now called Baginbun) a few summers ago as part of my research and was amazed to find that the earthworks his men had built almost a millennia ago were still visible. And what a construction! The wooden palisade which had once topped the double entrenchments would’ve disappeared or been stolen soon after 1170, but the bulwarks still soared over my head, running between the sea cliffs for two hundred yards or so. It was not difficult to stand atop those dramatic ruins, in that wind swept place, and imagine what it might’ve been like to be a Norman invader beset on all sides by enemies and pounded by the weather off the ocean. Given the importance of the campaigns that followed I admit to wondering if the site deserved better than a mere sign noting the date of Raymond’s arrival.

Baginbun Head with the Norman earthworks running east-west between the two beaches at the narrowest point in the headland.

2. Irish names can be tough!

While Ireland was an easily accessible place for traders from across Europe in the Age of Invasions it nonetheless remained, culturally at the very least, an alien place to those from the Romanised world of Christendom (as well as to us now in the western world). This is perhaps most readily seen in the difficulties pronouncing the non-Anglicised versions of places and people. Where does one start when attempting Máel Sechlainn Ua Fhaolain, Donnchadh Ua Riagháin and Máelmáedoc Ua Riagain?! They are certainly confusing, but to go with ‘Connor’ rather Conchobar or ‘Rory’ rather than Ruaidhrí would be for me to lose an immediate and easy access to what the Normans experienced when they first arrived in medieval Ireland. That is the distinct and very real feeling of unease with the unfamiliar. My desire is to transport and immerse the reader in the twelfth century and I hope that this small ruse helps that cause! In Lord of the Sea Castle, the second instalment of the Invader Series, readers will be introduced to the world of the Ostmen. They were the descendants of the Viking Norse and Danes who had founded the great cities of Ireland such as Waterford and Dublin in the ninth and tenth centuries. A three hundred year old and unique culture by 1170, the Ostmen retained many of the customs of their Scandinavian ancestors, mingling them with Gaelic beliefs adopted from the natives. It was against them that the full force of the Norman war machine would be directed. So rather than names like Diarmait we will have to contend with Sigtrygg and instead of Osraighe we visit places as easy to remember as Veðrarfjord and Strangrfjord!

3. The Normans were the first proponents of Ikea-style self-assembly wares.

They were the descendants of Scandinavians after all! However, the Norman version of Ikea products was less about furniture for inside the house and rather more about exteriors. They brought ready-to-assemble wooden castles with them whenever their sights settled upon a new land to conquer. Many of these fortifications were subsequently rebuilt in stone, but when they first took England, swarmed across Wales, and later invaded Ireland they erected motte and bailey castles. Speed of assembly was essential. The castle was the greatest weapon that the Normans had to help them survive beyond the frontier in hostile terrain and so in preparation they cut and numbered timber boards and trunks to bring with them. With these they formed the lower portion of the castle, the bailey, bringing all they had with them inside and secure. The longer process – the building of the high earth hillock, the motte, and the digging of a defensive ditch – could then begin safe in the knowledge that their horses and supplies were behind a sturdy barricade. While it is not recorded whether the men who invaded Ireland brought a ready-made castle with them to Ireland, they did leave remnants of their work for us to see. In a bend of the River Slaney at Ferrycarrig just outside Wexford Town, the first invader of Ireland, Robert FitzStephen, built his castle. While that fortress has long since disappeared, you can still visit its location and the castle reconstruction at the Irish National Heritage Park.


4. It was the Welsh bow, rather than the Norman lance, that really conquered Ireland.

From the very early days of their invasion of Wales the Normans had fallen in love with the natives’ most deadly weapon, the longbow. The Lords of the March soon began employing Welshmen into their armies and quickly found out how effective they could be when deployed in combination with Norman cavalry. Needless to say when the time came for a new adventure across the Irish Sea the Norman lords made sure they had archers from Gwent on their side.

At the Siege of Baginbun in 1170, Raymond the Fat’s force of 120 was almost two-thirds made up of archers with only a handful of the heavy cavalrymen we consider so characteristic of the Normans of the period. The remainder, usually treble that of the heavy cavalry, was made of ‘half-armoured’ horsemen believed to be esquires or apprentice knights. The same structure would continue to be used by the Cambro-Normans throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and would remain all most irresistible even when the invaders were outnumbered many times over in a hundred different battles against the Gael and the Ostmen.

Picture taken looking down between the earthworks at Baginbun Head in Wexford. They were constructed by Raymond the Fat in 1170.

5. The final conquest of Ireland by the English crown came as a result of the murder of Thomas Becket.

The invasion of Ireland began as a private enterprise undertaken, not by the state or a king, but by individuals. The first to try their luck in 1169 were the Geraldines, a family from west Wales linked through their shared kinship to the famed Nest, daughter of the last King of Deheubarth, and led by Robert FitzStephen. This clan had been considered all but outside the control of the centralised state created by King Henry II of England. In Ireland they no longer felt the need to make even token acknowledgement to the throne as overlord. They found freedom beyond the frontier. The Geraldines were followed to Ireland by Strongbow. Though a rich landowner in Wales, he had been exiled from the royal court for fifteen years and was suffering under the financial and social constraints imposed by his disgrace. In Ireland he sought a crown of his own. King Henry feared that he might succeed and raise a rival Norman state in Ireland. He feared the potential drain on his warriors and the threat to his western borders. He feared losing control. But Henry II was not the sort of man to waste money on military escapades. His campaigns were more often led by lawyers and justices and fought with court decrees rather than sword and steed in glorious battle. His first attempt to derail Strongbow and the Geraldines was to ban shipping to Ireland from all English ports. Without supplies or hope of reinforcement from their homeland, the Norman adventurers only just managed to maintain their hold over their new lands. Little did the adventurers realise, but the murder of Becket in December 1170 would bring about an end to their, and by extension Ireland’s, independence.

According to some sources, Pope Adrian IV had issued a Papal Bull in 1155 granting governance of Ireland to Henry II in return for his enforcement of Papal reforms on the island. However, the king, having only just taken the throne, had his hands full imposing control over his unruly subjects in England and put a pin in the idea. Fifteen years later, when Henry found himself under the threat of excommunication by Pope Alexander III following Becket’s murder, and with a sudden and very real need to absent himself from England, the king remembered Pope Adrian’s Bull. Bringing the hitherto self-governing Irish Church (particularly all the associated revenues and profits) back under the auspices of the Church of Rome was, Henry considered, something that might just put in back in the good graces of the pope. It was even worth the great expense of putting an army in the field overseas, the miserly king reckoned. But of course there remained another reason for him to take a force of 4,000 men across the sea: Strongbow and the Geraldines. The price of appeasing King Henry in October 1171 was a heavy one for the insubordinate adventurers to pay. Strongbow was forced to give up the cities of Waterford and Dublin in order to retain the rest of Leinster. The Geraldines fared worse. They lost all their hard won Irish estates while their leader, Robert FitzStephen, was imprisoned for several months by the king. The Irish princes and chieftains probably thought that they had a good deal when they made their submission before the might of King Henry. Little did they know that in the decades to follow Henry and his sons would use this compliance as an excuse to award their kingdoms to Norman knights in need of reward.

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Thursday, 1 June 2017

KILLER OF KINGS - It's publication day!

The wait is finally over!

KILLER OF KINGS is published today by Aria, an imprint of Head of Zeus.


AD 636. Anglo-Saxon Britain. A gripping, action-packed historical thriller and the fourth instalment in The Bernicia Chronicles. Perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwell.

Beobrand has land, men and riches. He should be content. And yet he cannot find peace until his enemies are food for the ravens. But before Beobrand can embark on his bloodfeud, King Oswald orders him southward, to escort holy men bearing sacred relics.

When Penda of Mercia marches a warhost into the southern kingdoms, Beobrand and his men are thrown into the midst of the conflict. Beobrand soon finds himself fighting for his life and his honour.

In the chaos that grips the south, dark secrets are exposed, bringing into question much that Beobrand had believed true. Can he unearth the answers and exact the vengeance he craves? Or will the blood-price prove too high, even for a warrior of his battle-fame and skill?

As part of the release activity, there is going to be a KILLER OF KINGS Blog Tour next week, where you can read reviews, extracts and Q&As.



KILLER OF KINGS is available as both e-book and paperback from all good online stores.

I hope you enjoy Beobrand's continuing adventures, and after you've read KILLER OF KINGS, please leave a review online.

Thanks!