Blog Tour: The Last King: England: The First Viking Age
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By M J Porter
July 14th – September 15th 2020
Please welcome MJ Porter to my blog as part of her blog tour, to talk about an aspect of her research into The Last King. As a writer of pre-Conquest England myself, her post here resonates with me! Imagining the landscape of England in times gone.
Mapping the 870’s
The Last King is set in Mercia in the Ninth Century, one of the ancient kingdoms of England.
One of the particular challenges of writing about Mercia, or any early English period, is trying to reconstruct the physical landscape. Places that could be assumed to be prominent, were simply not, and vice versa. The most obvious of these is that London was not England’s capital at the time. Equally, river courses may have changed, and bridges may have been built in the modern era, although there are a surprising amount of ancient bridges that might surprise you.
While there are many maps of the time period available, they never (in my experience) actually show everything that you want to know. They don’t tell you where the roads went in great detail, or even what the roads looked like. They don’t always make it clear which side of a river was inhabited, and which side wasn’t. The size of the population is unknown, and even more, the size of the Viking forces is impossible to calculate.
In writing the three books to date in the Ninth Century series, I’ve had a bit of an ace up my sleeve. My father is known as the ‘mapman’ and my ‘mapman’ has hundreds, and hundreds of antique maps of England, Scotland and Wales. And so, rather than spending hours pouring over google maps, I’ve spent my time looking at these antique maps, in conjunction with the maps available from historical non-fiction sources.
For the third book in the series, I wanted to write about both Northampton, and Cambridge. I’ve never visited either place, and more, I don’t know what they might have looked like in the past.
So, to my ‘mapman,’ and his 1610 Speed Maps of both of these places. John Speed (1551/2 – 28 July 1629) was an English cartographer and historian and is one of the best-known English mapmakers of that time period. His maps are highly decorative, and they also show little ‘cut outs’ of the county towns. And so, for Northampton, and Cambridge, I had an idea of what those places looked like in the Seventeenth Century. Still, eight hundred years later, but much closer than visiting those sites today and trying to decipher what might have been there long ago.
Yet, even here, there was a piece of information waiting to trip me up, because unlike the Cambridge of today, it’s believed that Cambridge in the 870’s was actually on the opposite side of the river.
Finding the landscape of the historical past is difficult, but I’ve found that using antique maps, rather than more modern ones, can be incredibly helpful, especially when they include images of the landscape (trees and hills)!
M J Porter
I’m an author of fantasy (viking age/dragon themed) and historical fiction (Early English, Vikings and the British Isles as a whole before the Norman Conquest), born in the old Mercian kingdom at some point since AD1066. I write A LOT. You’ve been warned!
Today I have the great pleasure of hosting Samantha Wilcoxson, author of many Tudor/Plantagenet novels, trying her hand at something different, as we follow her on her journey into the world of injustice. Samantha’s blog tour visits PAULA’S PEOPLE to talk about her latest novel, Luminous, in which she tells us what happened to the Ottawa dial painters at Radium, the company that destroyed their lives unnecessarily. Take it away, Samantha.
Paula, thank you for welcoming me to your blog to celebrate my new novel. I was inspired to write about Catherine Donohue after reading about her in Kate Moore’s book, The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women. I was astounded by the tragic history of the women who worked with radium, and I wanted to take a closer look at what it would have been like to live this history.
Catherine was nineteen when she started working as a dial painter using the radium infused paint at Radium Dial in Ottawa, Illinois. Women counted themselves lucky to obtain a job there for the high wages and relatively pleasant working conditions. They wouldn’t realize until years later that the material they were using every day was slowly poisoning them.
Once the women understood what was happening to them, they were faced with the fact that few were willing to help. The radium industry denied liability. Doctors were reluctant to label radium as a poison when they had been using it as a medicine. Legally, they had little or no protection or path of receiving compensation. Therefore, small-town girl Catherine Donohue decided to stand up for herself and her friends to make a change.
In this excerpt, Catherine’s friend, Peg, admits that she is secretly suffering and does not know the cause.
Excerpt from Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl by Samantha Wilcoxson
It was not until they broke for lunch that Catherine had the opportunity to tell Peg that she had brought enough to share.
“That’s too kind of you, Catherine, but I couldn’t take advantage.”
“You wouldn’t be,” Catherine insisted, thrusting the sandwich into Peg’s hands.
“You don’t understand.”
Peg’s voice was quiet, her words oddly slurred. Catherine realized that she hadn’t heard Peg speak much lately.
“Then help me understand.” Catherine placed her hands on Peg’s shoulders, gently but firmly. “Tell me what is wrong. Let me help you.”
Peg sighed and gave in, gesturing for Catherine to follow her into the tiny bathroom shared by all the dial painters. Once they were snugly closed inside, Catherine examined Peg’s face and saw her own concern mirrored there.
Peg surprised her by not speaking. Instead, she opened her mouth wide and pulled at the side of her mouth for Catherine to see inside.
“Oh, Peg! How in the world?”
“They just fell out,” Peg whispered.
Having seen the inside of Peg’s mouth, understanding flowed over Catherine. Her friend wasn’t avoiding food and conversation because of money problems. She must be in constant pain from the throbbing, angry abscesses that flared irritably where two of Peg’s teeth should have been.
“You poor thing!” Catherine wrapped her arms around Peg, which was easy to do in their close quarters. Peg’s shoulder blades and ribs felt sharp. “How long have you been suffering?”
Peg only shook her head as her tears began to fall.
“Oh, shush, love,” Catherine murmured, swaying slightly on her feet. “We will talk about it when you’re ready, and we will find you help.”
“That’s just it,” Peg suddenly cried out. “I’ve been to the dentist. He doesn’t know what could be wrong, and four more of my teeth are loose.”
“Four?” Catherine’s voice was scarcely more than a whisper, and she felt a sliver of fear pierce her heart. What could be wrong?
SamanthaWilcoxson is a history enthusiast and avid traveler. Her published works include the Plantagenet Embers series with novels and novellas that explore the Wars of the Roses and early Tudor era. Luminous is her first foray into 20th century American history, but she suspects that it will not be her last. Samantha enjoys exploring the personal side of historic events and creating emotive, inspiring stories.
Samantha thank you for coming on my blog today, its been a pleasure to host you. One of the most poignant things I found in the story was how this could have been so easily avoided. This would never have happened today, and if it had, those giant companies would not have got away with it. They would have been imprisoned for corporate manslaughter. It is so tragic. This is a story that really makes a mark on you, one of those that will stay with you for the rest of your life. With all the injustices going brought to our attention today, we must not lose focus of the fact that this happened to these girls because they were from poor and working class backgrounds and this must never be forgotten that whatever your colour, creed, religion or race, injustice is NOT acceptable.
Thank you, Samantha, once again for highlighting this awful thing that happened in America the 20s and 30s.
Today I welcome author Stuart Rudge with a research post on the history of Eleventh Century Spain. Stuart, who has recently released his first book in this series, discusses the background to his story.
“A Castilian prince defeats and kills his Aragonese uncle in order to preserve the territorial integrity of a Muslim ally”
So says Richard Fletcher in one of his best works, The Quest for El Cid. The event he is referring to is the Battle of Graus, generally accepted to have been contested in the summer of 1063. The context behind the battle highlights the complexity of Spanish politics at the time. It is also the first battle in which Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, known later as El Cid Campeador, is mentioned by name.
To begin with, it is important to understand the setup of the monarchs at the time. Sancho III el Mayor of Navarre ruled over what is now Navarre, Aragon and Castile. Before his death he divided his kingdom between his sons; Garcia would receive Navarre, Ramiro would claim Aragon, whilst Fernando would be gifted Castile. Fernando wrestled control of the kingdom of Leon from his brother in law, Bermundo, to create a large domain, then was successful in defeating and killing Garcia at the battle of Atapuerta in 1054. Navarre was reduced to a vassal state, and Fernando claimed some of its lands as his own. In the following decade he launched a series of raids against the Muslim taifas of al-Andalus; by 1062 Zaragoza, Toledo, Badajoz and Seville all paid parias to Fernando. The parias tribute was a sum of money and luxury goods gifted to the Christians to defer warfare, for the taifas could not match the strength of Christian knights on the battlefield.
So when Ramiro of Aragon besieged Graus, then under the control of al-Muqtadir of Zaragoza, the Muslim amir appealed for aid to reclaim it. Fernando did not hesitate to strike at his final remaining dynastic rival. He sent his eldest son Sancho with a force of knights to Zaragoza, and from there the combined Christian and Muslim forces met the Aragonese. Ramiro was killed and Sancho carried the day. Thus, a Christian king aided a Muslim king to defeat another Christian. The conflicts at Atapuerta and Graus show us that political gain took precedence over religious motives in most conflicts in the Iberians peninsula at the time.
In the retinue of Sancho was a young knight by the name of Rodrigo Diaz. Little is known of his upbringing, and some of what we know is shrouded in obscurity, but we know he was born around 1043 in the village of Vivar, some six miles north of Burgos. His father was Diefgo Lainez, who allegedly fought with Fernando in the Atapuerta campaign, but is rumoured to have fell afoul of the king and punished. Rodrigo was sent to the court of Sancho, and could have served as a squire for the young prince, certainly one of his knights, at least. By the time of Graus he would have been twenty years of age, and had won his knightly belt. A young knight in the service of an infante, a royal prince, was well placed to advance his name in the world.
Rodrigo and Sancho may have been present when Fernando marched in to modern day Portugal and captured the city of Coimbra from the taifa of Badajoz in 1064, after a long siege. Yet in the east of the peninsula, another siege has taken place. A force of Christians, comprising of Franks, Burgundians, Aquitanians, Catalans and Aragonese, under orders from the Pope, laid siege to the Muslim town of Barbastro. When the inhabitants surrendered, they were butchered, and the Christians seized the town for themselves. In the aftermath, it appears the Muslims of Zaragoza were outraged by the act, and in turn Christian Mozarabs were attacked and even killed in retaliation for the barbarous acts. At some point al-Muqtadir refused to continue with his parias payments.
In retribution Fernando led a campaign of punishment against Zaragoza. Al-Muqtadir relented and bowed to the Christian king once more. It is also likely that Sancho and Rodrigo accompanied the king in his final campaign; Fernando attempted to force the taifa of Valencia to recognise his rule with parias payments. The Christians besieged the city and were victorious at the battle of Paterna, but Fernando soon became ill and died in Leon a few days after Christmas, 1065.
The death of Fernando saw the coronation of his three sons; Sancho inherited Castile, Alfonso became king of Leon, and Garcia had the crown of Galicia. But the brothers were not content with the domains they had. Soon the Christian kingdoms north of the Duero would be embroiled in a series of conflicts, where Rodrigo Diaz would be central in the story.
Fletcher, Richard (1989) The Quest for El Cid, London
Stuart Rudge was born and raised in Middlesbrough, where he still lives. His love of history came from his father and uncle, both avid readers of history, and his love of table top war gaming and strategy video games. He studied Ancient History and Archaeology at Newcastle University, and has spent his fair share of time in muddy trenches, digging up treasure at Bamburgh Castle.
He has worked in the retail sector and volunteered in museums, before working in York Minster, which he considered the perfect office. His love of writing blossomed within the historic walls, and he knew there were stories within which had to be told. Despite a move in to the shipping and logistics sector (a far cry to what he hoped to ever do), his love of writing has only grown stronger.
Rise of a Champion is the first piece of work he has dared to share with the world. Before that came a novel about the Roman Republic and a Viking-themed fantasy series (which will likely never see the light of day, but served as good practise). He hopes to establish himself as a household name in the mound of Bernard Cornwell, Giles Kristian, Ben Kane and Matthew Harffy, amongst a host of his favourite writers
What happened on October 24th 1055 would most likely have stuck in the minds of many of the people who lived in Herefordshire for many years to come. I’m sure the names of Gruffudd and Alfgar would invoke terrible memories of burning buildings and blood strewn streets for a long time after that fateful date. As for the Welsh people, the Cymry, they would remember it as one of their great successes, a victory over the Saes invaders who had stolen their land. These days, the ravaging of Hereford is little known. It certainly wasn’t a fight on the scale that the Battle of Hastings was eleven years on, and it wasn’t a hard won victory for the vanquishers; but it was a devastating blow to the Franco-Norman Earl of Hereford, who, in his effort to pre-empt the Welsh King Gruffudd and the outlawed English Earl Alfgar from sacking his burgh, lost both his reputation and his standing in English affairs, when overwhelmed by the sight of the enemy, he and his Norman contingent left the field and many of his mounted men to die.
Gruffudd, self-proclaimed King of Wales, became so after he had won his bid to become supreme leader over the other British kingdoms of Wales. He had become King of Gwynedd and Powys after he fought against a Mercian army c 1040, killing Edwin, who was the paternal uncle of his later ally, Alfgar. Gruffudd soon began harbouring ambitions of uniting Wales against her enemies and so set about ridding himself of any impediments to realising his goal. One of these impediments was Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, ruler of South Wales. This he did, with the aid of Alfgar of Mercia in a sort of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours type arrangement.
After being exiled from England for uttering treason against the king, Earl Alfgar washed up on the shores of Rhuddlan, Gruffudd’s northern stronghold looking for an ally. With him he’d brought a fleet of mercenaries from Dublin. It would be the second time that Gruffudd had used a renegade outlaw exiled from England to assist him. The first was Swegn Godwinson, the scandalous older son of Godwin, outlawed for bad behaviour. Gruffudd was not above taking advantage of the discord that often went on at the English court. He was an astute and ruthless ruler, and to the Welsh, he was the Shield of the Britons. Unfortunately for him, he was to be betrayed by his own people some years later when murdered, they sent his head to Harold, Earl of Wessex.
Alfgar, Earl of East Anglia, was the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and the legendary Godiva of the naked horse-ride fame. An unruly, truculent man, Alfgar was simply envious of the success the Godwins were having, and who could blame him, with the king based mostly in the south (he never seemed to go further than Gloucester) he was surrounded by Godwins all clamouring for power. The Anglo Saxon Chronicles don’t go into a lot of detail but he was banished from England after an angry outburst, the words, said to have been treasonous, seemed to have left his mouth without thinking. One might wonder just what those words were. Something, no doubt, very insulting about the king’s relationships with the Godwinson brothers. He was stripped of all his wealth and lands. Like the Godwinsons before him, he was determined to return and first went to Ireland to gather a force of Hiberno Norse, before approaching Gruffudd, his family’s natural enemy.
The King’s nephew Ralph was made Earl of Hereford around 1052. Ralph was the son of Edward’s sister Goda and her deceased husband Drogo de Mantes who had been the Count of Valois, the Vexin and Amiens. His older brother Walter, became the Count after Drogo and appears to have died along with his wife in tragic circumstances. Ralph may have been raised at the court of Normandy and travelled to England either with Edward or perhaps arriving shortly afterwards. He was most likely to have been in his mid to late twenties at the time of the battle. Ralph wanted to introduce Norman style tactics into English warfare and although it was not unheard of for English troops to fight on horseback, it was not the usual preferred method.
The mounted warrior would have looked very different to previous warriors who fought on foot. The mail that was being worn by this time was becoming longer than the usual byrnie that had formerly graced the bodies of 11thc warriors. The byrnie (or haubergeon) was more of a mail ‘shirt’ where as the hauberk covered the thighs and groin areas. Kite shields were also becoming popular as we see in the Bayeux Tapestry and they were more practical for using on horseback as the kite shield gave greater coverage to the unprotected side of the warrior’s body. He could hack or spear with his weapon-hand which would defend his other side from his shoulder down to his foot whilst he was horsed. He would also wear a conical shaped helmet like this spangenhelm wearing warrior. This chap is also wearing a mail coif under the helm to further protect his head, neck, and chest. The nose piece was a must to deflect sharp tips but would not necessarily prevent injury to eyes.
The mounted warrior Norman style, would go into battle with a few javelins to project at the enemy, or a spear to skewer them with. His sword or hand axe would be for closer hand to hand fighting when proximity to his opponent made the longer arms too difficult to use. If he was able to afford them, he would no doubt be wearing some mail chausses on his legs to protect them whilst he was in the saddle, though this does not seem to be reflected in the Bayeux Tapestry but hey, the its the Tapestry, right? Therefore it must be true!
Ralph had been working on his Norman style defences, too, building wooden structures with palisades, the pre-runner to castles. These would have consisted of a motte, a mound of earth with a towered structure within an inner bailey. The wooden fencing would have contained ramparts and lookouts. These were posted around the marcher borders and in Hereford itself. Ralph was obviously out to impress his uncle the king and may have considered himself worthy of being his successor, although there is no evidence to believe that he ever did, apart from the fact he was of the Royal bloodline through his mother. This might have been one reason why he was never declared an aetheling; he came from the distaff side of the House of Wessex. A great resounding defeat against the Welsh might have brought him the adulation and respect that he desired. Perhaps it would have gained him the title aetheling. Unfortunately for Ralph, it was not to be.
On October the 24th, the two armies faced each other across the plain. Here is what the D version of the AS Chronicle said about it
“…And soon after that, Earl Alfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed well-nigh without fault; but he turned to Ireland and Wales and there got himself a great band, and travelled thus to Hereford; but there Earl Ralph came against him with a great raiding party, and with a little struggle they were brought to flight, and many people killed in that flight, and then turned into Hereford market town and raided it, burned down the famous minster which Bishop Athelstan built, and killed the priests inside the min- -ster, and many others as well, seized all the treasures in there and led them away with them. And then when they had done most harm, it was decided to reinstate Earl Alfgar, and give him back his earldom and all that was taken away from him. This raid was made on October the 24th…..”
Why the date of the 24th was chosen is not known. The initial battle was said to have taken place 2 miles outside of Hereford’s walls where Ralf and his men had gone to meet with the enemy. They must have had prior intelligence of the coming army, spies most likely had been seeking out intel on Alfgar’s whereabouts and doings, but this is not known.
The Abingon Manuscript elaborates a little more on the precipitating events of the battle and states that after Alfgar was outlawed, he went to Ireland and raised an army and then sought asylum with King Gruffudd of Wales. The allied forces then go into Hereford and Earl Ralph comes against him with a ‘great army’. “But before a spear could be thrown, the English people fled because they were on horse; and great slaughter was made”. The Manuscript also states about 400-500 English were slaughtered and the enemy lost none. It has also been suggested that Ralph and his men left the field leaving the English to die. Hence he is later known as Ralph the Timid. As there is little evidence of a full eyewitness account of what happened that day, one has to imagine how this might have occurred. Whatever happened, the day belonged to the victorious duo, Gruffudd and Alfgar. Alfgar, we see was reinstated and Gruffudd most likely given Lordship over the lands around Archenfield. Harold Godwinson later followed with a great army to chase the Welsh and their allies back into the mountains but there was no return match and Gruffudd’s Welshmen and Alfgar’s Hiberno-Norse made away with slaves, livestock and treasures from the church they had sacked.
The people of Hereford were left to lick their wounds and Harold rebuilt the defences that seemed to have been neglected by Ralph. The fact that Alfgar was never called to account for this outrage shows how brutal and non-consequential life could be in these days. The fact that he got away with it shows how little regard there was for the ordinary people concerned. The razing and ravaging of lands was often a punishment levelled at the nobility but although it is an absurd notion for us to protest the irony of it with our 21st century outlook, the lower echelons of life in medieval times mattered only to their immediate lords for what they were worth in economical terms. A simple local thegn may have been devastated at the loss of his ‘people’ but for the major nobility it was more of a financial disaster than an emotional one. As for Ralph, it seemed he may not have ever got over the disgrace and he disappears from the pages of history until he dies in 1057. The Earldom of Hereford later passed to his son Harold, after the Conquest.
Barlow F (1997) Edward the Confessor (2nd ed) Yale University Press, US.
Stenton F (1971) Anglo Saxon England (3rd Ed) Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Swanton M (2000) The Anglo Saxon Chronicles (2nd ed) Phoenix Press, London.
This Battle features in my novel Sons of the Wolf and was part of the research I did for it.
Please welcome Cliff May to Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature spot. As you can see by the premise of this blog, I’m very interested in the period once called the Dark Ages, but now called the early Middle Ages. Cliff is an author I’ve known for sometime and we have a shared interest in the post Romano period and the later Anglo-Saxon era.
Cliff, I’ve had your books on my TBR list for what seems like an eternity, but getting closer! To help me decide which one to read, I thought I’d ask you some questions about your books as I know you have written quite a number. Firstly, tell me how long you’ve been writing, and a bit about the series you have published.
Hello Paula, thanks for inviting me here! I began writing full-time at the end of 2012, so I
am now in my seventh year as a full-time writer.
At the beginning I was unsure whether to write historical fiction or fantasy, but I read an
article which advised aspiring authors to begin with a subject they already knew a fair bit about to cut down on the research needed, stop procrastinating, and actually get some words down. I am a long term fan of the Beowulf poem and it combined elements of history and the fantastic, so this seemed a good place to start. My original idea was to tell Beowulf’s story from childhood through to glorious death in old age fighting the dragon, but once I reached the Grendel episode I found that I wanted to spread my writing wings; so I ended it with the death of Grendel’s mother and it became the trilogy known as Sword of Woden.
Next I moved back a thousand years in time for my Conqueror of Rome duo, drifting south geographically to tell the story of the migration of a Gallic tribe from what is now
Northern France. Known as the Senones, they crossed the Alps to settle in Northern Italy
around the year 390BC. Naturally the peoples already living there were a bit put out
having eighty-thousand hairy barbarians turn up out of the blue, and in the fighting which followed both the Etruscans and Romans were comprehensively defeated. They sacked and occupied Rome itself for the good part of a year; it was a pivotal moment in the growth of the then small city state, in many ways the shock which led to the creation of the Roman Empire.
I really enjoyed my research and writing about the ancient Celts but I missed the Anglo-Saxons which have always been my first love, so it was back to the sixth Century for my
following trilogy, King’s Bane. The main character, Eofer, had earned the sobriquet by
killing the Swedish king Ongentheow in battle. An Angle, he had featured as a minor
character in the Beowulf books, so this gave me the opportunity to continue the timeline
from my Sword of Woden series and shift the focus of the tale from Scandinavia to the
migration of the Angles from Jutland to what is now East Anglia in England where I live.
The final book, The Scathing, sees Eofer and his war band helping to found the kingdom of Mercia in the Trent Valley.
One of the advantages of being a truly independent author is the fact that you can write
about any subject which appeals to you, so I jumped forward four centuries for my current Erik Haraldsson series. Better known to history as Erik Bloodaxe, he was the favourite son of Harald Fairhair, the first warlord to unite the scattered provinces of Norway into one centralised kingdom. At the end of the first book, Bloodaxe, a hostile political act by the English king Athelstan undermines Erik’s position at home forcing him to give up the kingdom and go Viking. I am writing the final book of the trilogy now which will see him become the last king of an independent Northumbria.
Well, that gives me quite a bit to go on I reckon! Definitely a man after my own heart, especially where the Anglo-Saxons are concerned. So, where did you get the inspiration for your books? Do you have an author who has influenced you in your writing?
My ideas all come from my love of history in general and the Anglo-Saxon period in
particular. We are surrounded by history in this country. Within a short walk or bike ride as a child I could visit a Battle of Britain spitfire airdrome, a Palaeolithic watering hole where the bones of mammoth, lions and hippopotamuses were discovered and one of the very earliest Saxon settlements at Mucking. I believe that people in the past were the same we are today with all our strengths and weaknesses, only technology has changed, so for anyone with imagination it is easy to repopulate the landscape with those who have gone before us, be they pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, children watching Luftwaffe air fleets filling the skies or Viking raiders on the nearby River Thames. As for author influences I read very little fiction; I have too many stories in my own head and I am always afraid that I will unwittingly plagiarise.
Who are the main characters in your books and tell me and my readers a bit about them?
Beowulf, I am sure, needs little introduction. A Dark Age monster killer, I wanted to delve beneath the superhero image and discover what made him tick, the influences and
experiences in his childhood and youth which made him the man in the poem. That
Beowulf can appear to be a bit of a braggart to modern ears, a bit one dimensional, so I
introduced compassion; he rescues a young girl from sexual abuse and finds her a home in a loving family, supporting her financially until she reaches adulthood. I also added a
psychological condition due to a head wound gained in battle to make him appear less
invincible. This worsened as the tale developed until… Well you will have to read the
series to find out who cures the hero, but the title Sword of Woden may offer a clue!
The Conqueror of Rome duo really contains three main characters: a female druid, a boy
destined to be a great British warrior and a young Gaul at foster who will become
chieftain of his clan. The boys become part of the warlord Brennus’s Gallic migration to
Italy, while the druid is driven by vivid dreams to discover the destiny the gods have in
mind for her. It is a story of journeying – physically, mentally and emotionally as the trio
grow from childhood to adulthood and go out to make their names in a violent world.
Eofer Wonreding is the hero of the King’s Bane trilogy, the man made famous by killing the king of Swedes in the Beowulf tale. He is highly regarded by his king and people, the go-to warrior if a difficult job needs doing and doing well. However his undoubted abilities cause problems for our man. The king and leading men of the Angles wish to elevate him from thegn to ealdorman. Following the death of King Hygelac of Geats in battle against the Franks and Frisians (which you can read about in my short novel Dayraven, which loosely links the Sword of Woden and King’s Bane series’) Eofer’s wife is now the sister of the new king of Geatland and no longer content to be the wife of a lowly thegn. Eofer resists both entreaties for as long as he can as he clings to the freedom to raid and generally come and go as he pleases without the added responsibility which would come with the advancement. Eofer is the last of the Angles to leave Jutland for the new home across the North Sea, but as Jutes, Danes and finally the Britons of Powys fall beneath his sword and the Angles become established in their new home the situation smoulders until a final tragedy strikes.
Unlike my other main characters, Erik Haraldsson is the son of a king and born to rule.
Unfortunately his father, Harald Fairhair, appears to have sired at least twenty sons, most of whom felt they too deserved to be high king on Harald’s death. A brother war followed which Erik won, only for a dimly remembered half-brother who had been fostered with King Athelstan to return with English help. But Erik is nothing if not a fighter, and along with those who remain loyal to him and his royal Danish wife Gunnhild he wins new kingdoms to rule in, first the Orkneys and Hebrides, and then the kingdom of York and Northumbria itself.
Tell us who is your favourite main character and your favourite supporting character and why you enjoy them so much?
It always surprises people when I say that Catumanda, the female druid in the Conqueror of Rome series is without doubt my favourite main character. She actually started out as a he, but when I did my first rewrites it just became more and more obvious as I read the story that the character was crying out to be changed to female. She is a very strong young woman, and deadly if you get on the wrong side of her; confident, cheery and outgoing, I am a little besotted with her to tell the truth!
My favourite supporting character is Thrush Hemming, Eofer king’s bane’s senior hearth
warrior. Steadfast could be his middle name, so much so that he earns himself a war band of his own by the end of the series. There is a period in book two, Gods of War, where Hemming has to take command of the hearth troop in desperate circumstances and he doesn’t bat an eyelid. Loyal and capable, he is the perfect second in command.
When starting a new book, how do you structure it? Do you set an outline for yourself, or do you write freely and let the story come? Or do you use any other method?
Once I have researched the subject I have a pretty good general outline of the whole story from start to finish in my mind, down to the closing scene and even the last line. I roughly sketch out the story arc for each volume so that they work both as stand-alone tales and as part of a series, and after that the details tend to take care of themselves. I use a series of sketch books for each volume in which I jot down lineages, the names of ships and other details which need to remain constant throughout the books and then just start writing. I liken it to a long motorway journey; you know the start point and destination, and you have a pretty good idea of what will happen en-route, but the smaller details are unknowable until they occur.
I like that comparison! Is there anything of you in your writing, your experiences, characteristics etc?
Coggeshall after the renovation in 2010
I think that there must be for all writers. I do believe that my own work draws on my life
experiences, and that some of the tougher times have been the most valuable. I have
crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour, renovated a medieval hall and
suffered the joys of childcare; it all goes in there. Writing full time can be a tough gig
when you are the only source of income for the family, but there is no place to hide and I
am sure that the determination to fight against the odds is reflected in quite a few of my
characters. Historical fiction, like history itself, tends to be written through the eyes of
the upper echelons of society (it is more interesting than a life tilling soil after all) but I
like to think that I manage to give the common folk if not an equal voice, at least visibility in my tales.
Do you have a favourite author at the moment?
As I said above, and I know this goes against perceived wisdom, I read very little fiction.One author I do follow is Harry Sidebottom. One of his main characters, Ballista, is an Angle fighting in the service of Rome so I can get my Anglo-Saxon fix without worrying about inadvertently duplicating his ideas. It also helps that he is a terrific writer ofcourse!
What books are you reading?
Just one at the moment, The Last Grain Race by Eric Newby. He is a retired travel writer
and journalist who as a young man in 1938 crewed a tall ship to Australia and back – the
grain race of the title. I am a bit of a people watcher so enjoy reading first-hand accounts
of travel and action. Being a travel writer his descriptions of mountainous seas and broody skies are breathtaking and useful for my own work.
What are you working on currently and what are your future writing plans?
I am a third of the way into the final book of the Erik Haraldsson trilogy which will be
available this autumn. At the same time I am writing a series of short stories which will
present alternative outcomes for the various invasions of 1066 to be published this
summer. Early next year I have a book to write which will tidy up a few loose threads left hanging at the end of the king’s bane trio, in a similar way that the short novel Dayraven straddles the earlier series’.
I have it in mind to tell the story of the Angles from the time of their involvement in the Beowulf poem, through the migration to Britain and culminating with the death of their first Bretwalda, the high king Raedwald of Sutton Hoo fame. There is still a fair way to go, so the new main character for the following Anglian trilogy will come to the fore there. To give myself a little variety I may well expand on the Erik Haraldsson books by writing a string of Scandinavian/Viking trilogies at the same time.
Is there anything else we should know about you or your books – let us know of any significant appearances or events.
As I said above, I am a single parent and have been for five years now. My youngest was still in primary school at that time so I had to get my head down and make this writing lark work. That of course meant that giving book talks and attending book fairs etc were out of the question without bringing the whole tribe along with me so I learned to get by without such things. The upside was that I could concentrate my efforts on producing new material; every book written brought in new readers, and I gradually built up what can only be described as a worldwide fanbase. Very few people successfully combine the skills of authorship and marketing and I know that I am not one of them, so I concentrate on what I do best which is writing new stories. The majority of my books have been Amazon bestsellers, so thankfully most readers appear to enjoy them.
Cliff May is a writer of historical fiction, working primarily in the early Middle Ages. He has always had a love of history which led to an early career in conservation work. Using the knowledge and expertise gained Cliff moved with his family through a succession of dilapidated houses which he single-handedly renovated. These ranged from a Victorian townhouse to a Fourteenth Century hall, and he added childcare to his knowledge of medieval oak frame repair, wattle and daub and lime plastering. Cliff crewed the replica of Captain Cook’s ship, Endeavour, sleeping in a hammock and sweating in the sails and travelled the world, visiting such historic sites as the Little Big Horn, Leif Eriksson’s Icelandic birthplace and the bullet-scarred walls of Berlin’s Reichstag.
Now he writes, only a stone’s throw from the Anglian ship burial site at Sutton Hoo in East Anglia, England.
Well, that was fabulous talking to you Cliff, you sure have had some exciting adventures and this is obviously reflected in your writing. I was particularly intrigued by your admission that you have been to the site of the Little Big Horn, I can’t imagine how moving that must have been. I would definitely find that very emotional and also the Endeavour, which growing up in Australia as a kid I had learned so much about. The awful conditions that must have been faced by those transportees must have been horrific. The medieval hall experience must have also been very poignant, being able to touch the walls intimately and walk on the same floorboards that have been walked on over hundreds of years is just amazing. Thank you for guesting on my blog Cliff, it has been a great honour and here at 1066: The Road to Hastings we wish you the very best.