Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Real Arthurs

While researching the Leader of Battles series, one thing swiftly became clear: there is very little evidence for a historical 'Arthur'. Unlike Robin Hood, the other big hitter of medieval English/British legend, there is a surprising lack of historical candidates for the real man behind the story. This post will take a look at the tiny handful of credible contenders.

1) Riothamus. Proposed as a viable Arthur by the historian Geoffrey Ashe, Riothamus is still a tantalising mystery. He is described as a 'King of the Brittones', though it is unclear whether this means the Britons of Britain or Britons who had emigrated to Amorica (now Western Brittany). In the year 470 he came to Gaul via the sea (presumably via the Channel) with an army of twelve thousand men to help the Western Emperor, Anthemius, fight the invading Visigoths. Sadly, thanks to the machinations of Arvandus, Prefect of Gaul, the Romans failed to support Riothamus in battle and his army was slaughtered. He is last mentioned fleeing in the direction of a town named Avallon in the land of the Burgundians: famously, the wounded Arthur was supposed to have been carried to Avalon after his last battle. 

The defeat of Riothamus
His name is a problem, but could possibly have been a title, meaning 'High King' or 'Supreme Ruler'. However, Riothamus/Rigotomos was also a personal name, which doesn't help much. Overall, Riothamus remains perhaps the most intriguing of the known historical Arthurs.

2) Lucius Artorius Castus. On the face of it, this man doesn't look much like Arthur at all, despite his middle name. A second century Roman officer, Lucius was a career soldier who served all over the Roman Empire, including a few months (the exact term is uncertain) on one of the forts on Hadrian's Wall in Britain. Also stationed on the Wall were units of armed cavalry called Sarmatians, originally drawn from conquered Roman territory in Scythia and Rus, now parts of modern-day Russia.

The theory goes that Lucius was a cavalry officer in charge of the Sarmatians for a time, and that he led them in a series of smashing victories over invading Picts and other enemies. This left a lingering folk memory in the north of the country, which eventually became the legend of King Arthur and his knights. It's all highly speculative, but at least one big cheese Hollywood producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, found it persuasive enough for a film. 'King Arthur', released in 2004 and starring Clive Owen, Ray Winstone and Keira Knightley, was based on a somewhat garbled version of Lucius' career. The film was not a success, critically or financially, and Lucius has faded from view since.

The Once and Future King of legend
3) Artúir mac Aedan. Another slightly left-field choice, this man was a prince of Dál Riata, a British or Scotti kingdom in western Scotland, in the late sixth century. His father, Aedan, was King of Dál Riata, and it was prophesied (accurately) that none of his sons would live to succeed him as king. Aedan spent his reign fighting the Picts and Saxons that bordered his territory, and in one of the many battles his son Artúir was killed, probably when he was in his mid-30s: dates for his death range from c. 582 to 596.

David F. Caroll and Michael Wood, among others, argue that Artúir was known as a great warrior during his brief life, and active in the region north of the Wall known as Y Gododdin. The earliest poem to mention Arthur is found in a collection of poetry from this region, so it could be that Artúir was the original inspiration for the warrior, since changed out of all recognition. However, like Riothamus and Lucius Artorius Castus, the connections between Artúir and the legendary king are tenuous at best. The most that can be said is that he did at least bear the right name, and probably fought in an area of the country where 'Arthur' was remembered in poem and song.

4) Ambrosius Aurelianus. Ambrosius, whom I have talked about in recent posts and made the star of the first book of the Leader of Battles series, was a Romano-British hero of the mid-5th century. Gildas, pretty much our only native source for the period, describes him as 'a modest man' and 'the last of the Romans' who by chance happened to be left alive after the Saxons had gutted the country.

Clive Owen as 'King Arthur'
In spite of his modesty, Ambrosius managed to rally British resistance and led a campaign of fluctuating fortunes against the Saxon threat. The war ended with the siege of Mount Badon, where the Britons won a victory that led to peace in the land for an entire generation. Annoyingly, Gildas does not name Ambrosius as the leader of the British forces at Badon, though later tradition names the victorious general as Arthur. The fate of Ambrosius is unknown, though there are later stories of him being poisoned by jealous rivals.

And that's about it! There are various other princes and kings named Arthur (or variants) in the records, but details are sparse to non-existent, and the nature of the records themselves provoke endless debate among academics and enthusiasts. Whether the real Arthur will ever step out of the shadows of Dark Age history seems unlikely, but the continued mystery does at least provide writers like myself with an enduring source for fiction.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Release day!

The second book in the Leader of Battles series, 'Artorius', is now available on Kindle! 

"Beware the shadow, and the storm in the north..." 

Britain, 470 AD. Ambrosius Aurelanius, the defender of Britannia, is dead, murdered by the son of his greatest enemy. His successor, the heroic General Artorius, is meant to take the crown his predecessor refused and reign as High King. With the Saxons defeated, and the Picts and Scotti driven out, all is set for a golden age of peace and prosperity.

Artorius, however, chooses to step aside and allow another to seize power. The new king, Constantine, despatches Artorius and his army across the sea, to aid the Western Empire in her fight against the Visigoths. Betrayed on all sides, the general narrowly avoids death and returns home to disgrace and exile. 

Now reduced to a mercenary, fighting the enemies of British kings, Artorius gathers a band of elite horsemen around him. As Britannia’s enemies slowly recover their strength, and the realm slides back into darkness and ruin, he proves to be the only hope of his people. All the while, a terrifying new threat arises in the north, from the lands Artorius once called home...

Book Two of the Leader of Battles trilogy chronicles the military exploits of Artorius, destined to be remembered as King Arthur, in the treacherous, crumbling world of Sub-Roman Britannia, where every man was a potential enemy, and the sword ruled..."

Leader of Battles (II): Artorius on Amazon US

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Artorius pre-order

Book Two of the Leader of Battles series, 'Artorius', is now available for pre-order! The book will be officially released on 15th September, so if interested just follow the links at the end of this post to order, and you will receive a Kindle version on that date. The paperback version should be available soon.

As anyone who read Book One of the series will know, 'Leader of Battles' is my attempt at depicting the historical reality behind Arthurian legend, with a reasonably sized dollop of magic and folklore thrown in. Like many other writers, I have set Arthur's career firmly in the Sub-Roman Britain of the mid to late-5th century AD.

Britain or Britannia is caught between the end of the Roman era and the rise of the Saxon kingdoms. The hapless Britons, having grown used to the prosperity and security of Roman rule, have been left to fend for themselves against waves of pagan invaders pouring in from all sides.

Saxon warriors - Arthur's chief enemy
Book One chronicled the efforts of the first great Romano-British hero of the era, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and his efforts to stem the tide. This next instalment, as the title suggests, picks up after the death of Ambrosius and focuses on his adopted son, Artúir or Artorius. Artorius is, of course, the man destined to be remembered as the immortal King Arthur, though he bears little resemblance to the romantic king of legend. Instead he is a tough, sometimes brutal soldier, a terror to those who threaten his homeland, and perhaps the one man who can save Britannia from falling into darkness.

The novel tries to depict a realistic image of 5th century Britain, a grim, violent and dirty place, where most of the Roman towns have been abandoned and left to decay as the natives return to the countryside. Roman names and customs are gradually falling into disuse, and the imperial province of Britannia is breaking up into various petty British kingdoms: the Roman province of Venedotia in North Wales, for instance, becomes the Kingdom of Gwynedd.

Some of the locations from the first book reappear, such as the impressive hill-fort Curia (now called Traprain Law) north of Hadrian's Wall, the restored capital Londinium, and Eburucum, capital of Britannia Secunda. Other locations such as Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) an even grander and more dramatic hilltop fortress than Curia, and Arthur's court at Caerleon, are also included. The villains are mostly Saxons, but there is also a terrifying sadist named Gwrgi Wyllt, whom I plucked from an obscure Welsh triad.

Traprain Law as it appears today
Din Eidyn c.5th century AD

Late Roman horseman in battle
Artorius - or General Artorius - and his 'knights' are as realistic as I could make them, a band of late Roman/British horse-soldiers known as buccelari, a term generally describing the mounted retinues of various nobles and kings during this period. Later on, as the British elite ceded more territory to the Saxons and their ilk and retreated into Wales, these retinues became known as a lord's teulu or household guards.

Unlike the heavily armoured knights of later legend, Artorius' men wear light mail and carry throwing javelins, round shields and long-bladed swords with a heavy chopping edge called spathas. Artorius uses them to great effect in hit-and-run attacks on Britannia's enemies. I see him as a talented guerrilla fighter and captain of light horse, more a Cossack than the medieval European king he later became in fiction.

Imperial coin from Ricimer's era

Though increasingly cut off from the remains of the Western Empire on the Continent, Britannia wasn't completely isolated. I have included references to Ricimer, the remarkable Roman general who made and broke Emperors as he pleased, the Western Emperor Anthemius and his successors, and the war in Gaul against the invading Visigoths under the warlord Euric.

Artorius finds himself caught up in the exceptionally nasty, back-stabbing politics of the era, and must use his head as well as his sword (though mainly the latter) to survive...

Leader of Battles (II): Artorius available as pre-order:

Saturday, 6 September 2014


This blog has been very quiet recently - apologies for the silence, but I have been beavering away on the sequel to LEADER OF BATTLES (I) AMBROSIUS. Part II, which focuses squarely on Artorius/Arthur and his wars against the Saxons (among other enemies) should be ready soon...ish.

Just to whet the appetite, below is the cover, designed by the splendid folks at Morevisual. I think it looks fab, and hopefully you will too!

More updates to follow...

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

King Edmund I (not Blackadder...)

I meant to write something on King Edmund I (reigned 1272-96), youngest son and successor of Henry III, to mark the anniversary of his death on 5th June, but got caught up with other things. Hence this is late...very, very late! Hopefully still of interest though.
The arms of Edmund of Lancaster, before his coronation

As we all know, Edmund became king unexpectedly after the death of his older brother Edward, stabbed by an assassin in the Holy Land in 1271-2. Edward's surgeons managed to cut away most of the diseased flesh around the wound, but the knife was poisoned, and Edward eventually succumbed.

Edmund himself was traveling to join his brother on Crusade at the time of the assassination, having contracted in England to serve Edward at the head of a hundred knights in return for 10,000 marks and shipping. He only reached the Holy Land in the late summer of 1271, by which time (we're uncertain when exactly Edward was killed) his brother may have already been dead. Stricken by grief, and hard pressed financially - he was forced to borrow money from creditors in Acre, and to send home to his mother for more funds - he departed in May 1272, having accomplished little of note. His little army made its way safely but sadly back to England, carrying the body of his older brother. For the rest of his life Edmund harboured frustrated ambitions to return to the Holy Land, and even took a second Crusading vow in November 1289, never to be fulfilled.

He eventually arrived home in 1274, having sent the grievous news of Edward's death on ahead to his parents. Henry III had died two years earlier, struck down by a fatal stroke as soon as word of his eldest son's demise was delivered to him by a trembling envoy. His queen Eleanor never really recovered and, after receiving King Edmund in London, retired to spend the rest of her days in the quiet sanctuary of the Abbey of St Mary and St Melor at Amesbury, praying for Edward's soul. 

As king, Edmund's chief domestic concern was to maintain the fragile peace in England, still recovering from the effects of the Second Baron's War, and to hang on to the remaining Plantagenet territories in France. Shortly after his coronation he was besieged by complaints of the abuses of local sheriffs, which he made some effort to rectify by removing the worst offenders from office. He also tried to improve the chaotic state of law and order, the inevitable result of civil war, but with only limited success: by the 1290s, twenty years into his reign, much of the north and midlands remained unsafe, and there were complaints of outlaw bands roving to and fro at will, 'despoiling and slaying religious and secular persons'. Edmund was much hampered by the attitude of ex-baronial rebels, such as Henry de Hastings, John Giffard and John Deyville, who instead of enforcing the law actively helped to break it, and were often accused of sheltering bands of robbers on their estates. 


Before he left for the Holy Land, Edmund had acquired the vast estates that later came to form the duchy of Lancaster: many of them in dubious circumstances following the harsh legal actions taken against Robert de Ferrers, Earl of Derby. Edmund had also received many other grants from his father, including a great number of lands and castles in Wales. Even before his brother's death, Edmund was in receipt of immense power and landed wealth, making him one of the most important Marcher barons in the kingdom. As such, he had a personal interest in the enforcement of crown authority in Wales. This set him on an inevitable collision with Llewellyn ap Gruffydd, the ambitious prince of Gwynedd who had caused so much trouble for Edmund's father. Three times Edmund summoned Llewellyn to London, to pledge his allegiance to the English crown. Three times Llewellyn refused, probably suspicious of English intentions, especially since Edmund had given shelter to his rebel brother Dafydd. 

Surviving copy of the Treaty of Conway
It soon became clear that a military settlement would have to be forced on the prince, but this was far easier said than done. Edmund was only too aware of the appalling defeats Anglo-Norman armies had suffered in Wales, the most recent being the destruction of a mercenary army under Stephen Bauzan at Coed Llathen in 1256. A competent but cautious soldier, Edmund was unwilling to summon the vast resources needed to break Llewellyn, and effectively pawn the English crown to Italian bankers. Instead he followed the example of his grandfather, King John, and attempted to exert pressure on Llewellyn by using his fellow Marcher lords and native Welsh rulers to increase royal territory and power in North Wales. 

The prince remained obdurate, and was only brought to the negotiating table after a partial invasion of North Wales in 1278. Edmund built a new castle at Rhuddlan and, using it as his base, advanced some way into Welsh territory at the head of an army of Marcher lords and a limited number of Gascon and Basque mercenaries. The campaign ground to a halt in bad weather, but Llewellyn was sufficiently unnerved by the scale of the king's Welsh support to agree to terms. The Treaty of Conway, signed in May 1279, agreed that Llewellyn would acknowledge the King of England as his feudal lord, in return for which he would be permitted to rule Gwynedd unmolested by Marcher or Crown ambitions.

The campaign of 1279 and subsequent treaty may have been mere face-saving exercises for Edmund, but he quickly took advantage of the peace. He bestowed a number of marcher lordships on Dafydd, setting up an effective buffer zone between Gwynedd and the English heartlands, and tacitly encouraging Dafydd to encroach on his brother's territory. Llewellyn and Dafydd were at daggers drawn for the next five years, until Dafydd contrived to have his brother poisoned. The treacherous nobleman duly succeeded to the lordship of Gwynedd, but spent the rest of his days fighting off ambitious kinsmen and outraged supporters of his late brother. England, by and large, was left in peace until the accession of Dafydd's fiery son, Owain y Gwyall (Owain 'of the axe') in 1301.

Scotland and France Edmund was anxious to maintain good relations with his brother kings in France and Scotland, and went to great efforts to do so. Upon the death of his sister, Margaret, wife of King Alexander III of Scotland, in 1275, he offered his daughter Mary as Alexander's new bride. Alexander accepted, but no children were born to the royal couple before his untimely death in 1290, breaking his neck while out hunting. Unable to agree a successor, in 1296 the Scottish barons invited Edmund to choose a new king from among them. By now seriously ill, Edmund half-heartedly proposed that his eldest son, Thomas, be married to Alexander's only living child, the infant Margaret, the 'Maid of Norway.' Edmund didn't live to witness the untimely death of Margaret in September 1296, and the English crown under his eighteen-year old successor Thomas I (1296-1318) had no influence on the choice of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, as the new King of Scots. Aside from Scotland and Wales, Edmund was chiefly interested in retaining Gascony, Ponthieu and Aquitaine, the rump of the once-mighty Angevin Empire in France. A better diplomat than he was a soldier, he managed to keep on largely friendly terms with his cousins Philippe III and Philippe IV of France until the very end of his reign. Upon the death of his first wife, Queen Aveline, he married Blanche of Artois in 1275, the widow of the King of Navarre. By virtue of this union Edmund was de facto governor of Champagne until 1284, and acquired the courtesy title of Count of Champagne and Brie. When duty allowed, he paid regular visits to Champagne and Navarre, and personally quelled a civil revolt at Provins in January 1280. 

Despite his personal ties to France, Edmund was unable to deter the energetic and ambitious French king, Philippe IV, from exploiting the trouble that flared up between sailors of Normandy and Gascony in 1293, resulting in the bloody sack of La Rochelle. Various conferences between English and French diplomats came to nothing, and in 1294 Aquitaine was formally confiscated by Philippe. 

Furious at being duped, Edmund made immediate preparations for war. He was hampered by the indifferent attitude of his barons, who had little enthusiasm for military service overseas, and his own increasingly bad health. Accompanied by Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, Edmund finally sailed at the head of an army of mercenaries to reinforce his garrisons in south-west France. The following campaign achieved little. After sailing up the Gironde to Bourg and Blaye, Edmund collected what forces he could and advanced on Bordeaux in late March, but the occupying French forces had had time to prepare and the city proved impregnable. A few English soldiers did manage to force an entry, but the gates were closed behind them and they were taken. It seems that an attempt was then made to bribe some citizens into handing the city over to the English, but this was discovered. With money running short, and, in the knowledge of the approach of a large French force, Edmund raised the siege and moved to Bayonne. He fell ill about Whitsun and died on 5 June 1296 at Bayonne. 

Detail from tomb effigy of Edmund I

He had instructed that his body was not to be buried until his debts had been paid, so the body was embalmed and kept by the Franciscans of Bayonne until it was shipped back to England in 1297 and honourably buried in Westminster Abbey. Edmund's elaborately carved tomb survives, fittingly, next to his brother's. His first wife, Avelina, is also buried there, her small canopied tomb surviving on the north side of the presbytery. With his second wife, Blanche, who survived him, Edmund had three sons, Thomas, Henry, and John, and one daughter. 

During the disastrous reign of his ill-fated successor, Thomas, the modest successes of Edmund I came to be fondly remembered as a sort of golden age. Following the assassination of Thomas in 1318 by his own wife, Alice de Lacy, the crown passed to Edmund's younger son Henry IV (1318-1333) who abdicated on account of blindness in favour of his son Henry V (1333-61), known to later generations as Henry the Conqueror, or Henry the Great.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Caesar's Sword in paperback

Hot on the heels of Robin Hood: Thief of Barnsdale, Books Two and Three of my Caesar's Sword trilogy are now available in paperback.

Caesar's Sword (II): Siege of Rome and (III): Flame of the West follow the later adventures of Coel ap Ahmar, grandson of 'King' Arthur, in the lethal and glittering world of 6th century Constantinople and the Eastern Empire. Battles, imperial wars and deadly court intrigue galore!

Siege of Rome on Amazon

Flame of the West on Amazon

Next, I plan to release all four volumes of The White Hawk on paperback, possibly as compilations. Might see about getting some nice new covers done first though...

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Tom of Newbold Revell

Arthur smiled vaguely and shook his head. He would have nothing but the truth.
   "Everybody was killed," he repeated, "except a certain page. I know what I am talking about."
   "My lord?"
   "This page was called young Tom of Newbold Revell near Warwick, and the old King sent him off before the battle, upon pain of dire disgrace. You see, the King wanted there to be somebody left, who would remember their famous idea."

Arthur goes to his rest, by Aubrey Beardsley
The above is an extract from the final chapter of The Candle in the Wind, the third book in TH White's The Once and Future King. The aged King Arthur, on the eve of his last battle, is hoping to preserve something of his idealism by sending away the young squire, Tom of Newbold Revell, to spread the message of Camelot after Arthur and all his men are slain. 

White's Arthur was fictional, but Tom wasn't. In a neat trick, merging fantasy with reality, White briefly introduces his tragic King to the author of La Morte d'Arthur, possibly the most famous and certainly the most influential version of the Arthurian cycle. White seems to have adored Malory for his achievement, and describes himself at the end of The Book of Merlyn as the 'humble disciple' of 'Thomas Malory, Knight', whom he asks his readers to pray for. 

The New York Times described White's book as 'a glorious dream of the Middle Ages as they never were, but as they should have been.' A similar description could be applied to his depiction of Malory. Since the late nineteenth century the author of La Morte has been generally accepted to be one Thomas Malory of Newbold Revell (there are other candidates, but he is by far the likeliest) in Warwickshire, born between 1415-18 to Sir John Malory of Winwick and Lady Philipa Malory.

We know little of Malory's early life, save that he was knighted before 8th October 1441, possibly as a reward for military service in France: we know he was a professional soldier for a time under Henry de Beauchamp, 1st Duke of Warwick.  In 1443 he was elected to Parliament, and appointed to a royal commission charged with distributing funds to poor towns in Warwickshire. 

So far, so standard for a minor gentry figure of the era. Then things take a turn for the nasty. In the same year as his election to Parliament, Malory and an accomplice were accused of assaulting and kidnapping one Thomas Smythe and stealing 40 pounds' worth of goods from him. The charges failed to stick, and Malory was free to go on his merry way as a respectable member of society. He married one Elizabeth Walsh, who bore him one son and possibly a couple of other children. 

Perhaps Malory found the quiet life of a country gentleman a tad dull, or perhaps he just flipped. In 1451 he and 26 other men were accused of having tried to ambush no less a person than the Duke of Buckingham. Again, the charge was never proved, and Malory remained a free man. Next he dabbled in a spot of extortion, extracting 100 shillings from Margaret King and William Hales of Monks Kirby, and 20 shillings from John Mylner, presumably via threats with menaces. He was also accused of breaking into the house of Hugh Smyth of Monks Kirby, stealing 40 pounds' worth of goods and raping Hugh's wife for good measure. Eight weeks later he attacked the same woman in the street in Coventry.  

Sir Lancelot. Not much like Malory. 
By now a picture should be emerging of a very different man from the honourable, chivalrous knights of La Morte. Malory was a vicious gentrified thug, taking advantage of the general disorder of Henry VI's chaotic reign to break heads and grab what he fancied. Little could be done to stop him. Arrest warrants went out in March 1451 for him and his gang, but they remained at large for months, committing over a hundred violent robberies. At one point Malory himself was captured and imprisoned in Maxstoke Castle, but - in an exploit worthy of one of his characters - he broke out, jumped the wall and swam the moat to freedom. 

The man Malory betrayed - Edward IV
For the next 17 years he was in and out of various prisons, including The Marshalsea in London, from which he escaped after bribing the guards and gaolers. More a sort of medieval Dick Turpin than Sir Lancelot, he took to horse-stealing, and was finally - incredibly - given a royal pardon by Edward IV in 1461. He remained free for another seven years, when he pushed his extraordinary luck too far by swapping his allegiance from York to Lancaster and supporting the ill-fated rebellion of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. In 1468 the plot was uncovered and Malory shoved back into prison, this time at Newgate. 

Edward seems to have taken serious umbrage at Malory's treachery, and excluded his name from two general pardons in 1468 and 1470. With little else to do save cool his heels in his (probably quite comfortable) prison, Malory settled down to write, drawing on a great pile of older material to craft his Arthurian epic. Thus one of the great sagas of medieval knightly chivalry was penned by a ruthless career criminal. It has been suggested that he based the downfall of King Arthur on the bloody events of The Wars of the Roses, with Henry VI as Arthur and Edward IV as the treacherous Sir Mordred. If so, he was hardly endearing himself to Big Ed. 

Given his appalling crime sheet, various efforts have been made to identify some other Thomas Malory as the author, but there can be little doubt it was him: the initial versions of Books I-IV of La Morte printed by William Caxton end with the following line:

"For this was written by a knight prisoner, Thomas Malleore (Malory), that God send him good recovery." 

In 1471 the Yorkist regime collapsed and Henry VI restored to his throne. Malory was released from prison, but didn't live to witness the triumphant return of Edward IV and the final destruction of the Lancastrians. He died on 14th March 1471 and was buried in Christ Church Greyfriars, near the prison at Newgate where he spent so much quality time. The inscription on his tomb reads:

"Here likes Thomas Mallere, Valiant Soldier. Died 14 March 1471, in the Parish of Monkenkirby in the county of Warwick."

Presumably there wasn't enough space on the tomb to add 'thief, bandit, kidnapper, extortioner and rapist' to his epitath. I wonder what Sir Galahad would have made of him?