Longsword by David Pilling

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Dear John

To my right is Sir John Swale, knight of Cumberland, taking a breather from cracking skulls. The release date of Folville's Law is just a few days away, so I thought it worth blogging about the central character.

Unlike many of the other characters in the novel, John is entirely a figment of my imagination. He was born inside my head after I read an article by Nigel Saul, 'The Despensers and the downfall of Edward II"(published by the English Historical Review, 1984). The article concentrated on the reasons behind the collapse of the Edwardian regime in 1326, and why the Despensers were betrayed by most of the men they had promoted to official positions throughout England.

Saul goes into detail about the identity of the 'banner knights', the inner circle of knights and armed retainers that surrounded Hugh Despenser the Younger and his father. Then there were the lesser lights, minor knights who hung about on the outer fringes of the Despenser household, presumably doing what they were told and living off the scraps their lord deigned to chuck at them.

What were they like, these violent and ambitious no-marks, only distinguished from common thugs by their family pedigree? Physically they would have been rather different from the romantic image of dashing knights. To quote Alexander Rose's description of Henry Percy, a border baron and exact contemporary of Swale:

"Dentistry then being in its infancy, his teeth would have been ground down to the flat. His body would have exhibited the tell-tale ailments of the martially engaged. Falls from horses and the clatter of swords upon his armour left a painful catalogue of fractured ribs, stretched tendons, worn joints and sprains. His muscled right arm was longer than the other from wielding swords and lances since he was a youngster."

Swale roughly conforms to this description, and carries a permanent injury from a nasty encounter with a band of Scotsmen. As a man he is ambitious, taciturn, violent and not easily scared, with a touchy sense of honour. Honour and loyalty inform much of his character, for one has crippled the other. A schizophrenic with a sword, then, and not a man to cross.

Such is John Swale. Next up, Elizabeth Clinton...

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