Longsword by David Pilling

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Robin Hood IV

I've had a few queries lately about my Robin Hood series, and when the next installment is due. I've been busy with other projects recently, but will soon be starting work on Part IV of the series, provisionally titled Robin Hood (IV): The King's Pardon.

I've also decided to offer readers a (small) part in the story - just leave a comment under this post and you get to appear as a character! No name is too bizarre, I'll fit you in somewhere :)

You also win a free copy of the book when it's ready: paperback or Kindle, it's your choice.

Leave a comment, and get to meet this man...
I'll choose a winner after Christmas to join The Hooded Man in his next adventure - and in the meantime, happy holidays!

Monday, 1 December 2014

Folville's Law reboot

The very first novel I had published with Musa back in the autumn of 2011 - how long ago it seems now - has just been returned to my hot little hands after the contract expired. I've decided to repackage and re-release the mini-series - as I'm in the process of doing with The White Hawk - as two complete novels, instead of one novel and a series of episodic sequels.

Below is the spanking new cover, as ever designed by the grand folks at MoreVisual, the blurb as a reminder of the plot, and a link to the new edition on Amazon. I also have some ideas for book prize competitions in the pipeline. Sir John Swale rides again!

England in 1326 stands on the brink of civil war. Due to the incompetence of Edward II's government, the north is virtually overrun by the Scots, while an invasion fleet is massing across the channel, led by Edward's estranged queen, Isabella, the 'She-Wolf of France'. 

The first book in the Folville's Law series follows the adventures of Sir John Swale, knight of Cumberland, as he investigates a murder that threatens to bring disaster to Edward's failing kingdom. Along the way he clashes with Eustace Folville and James Coterel, two of the most notorious and brutal outlaws in England. 

As the death toll mounts, it remains to be seen who will survive and who will perish in the savage game of war and politics.

'Folville's Law (I): Invasion' is a new edition of the first part of the John Swale Chronicles.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Leader of Battles (III) - Gwenhwyfar

"Arthur said, 'Though you do not reside here, chieftain, you shall have the gift your mouth and tongue shall name, as far as the wind dries, as far as the rain soaks, as far as the sun reaches, as far as the sea stretches, as far as the earth extends, except my ship and my mantle, and Caledfwlch my sword, and Rhongymiad my spear, and Wynebgwrthucher my spear, and Carnwennan my dagger, and Gwenhwyfar my wife..."

So said Arthur to Culhwch in the medieval Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen. His passing reference to Gwenhwyfar (who he appears to rank below his weapons in terms of value) is reckoned to be the earliest known reference to his wife, better-known from later stories as Guinevere, his adulterous queen who brings about the ruin of Camelot through her affair with Sir Lancelot. 

Guinevere should be familiar to most from any number of recent films and novels. Depictions of her vary wildly, from Kiera Knightley's, erm, interesting turn as a Pictish warrior princess with a Sloane accent and a leather fetish costume in 2004's King Arthur, to Angel Coulby's more decorous Gwen in the BBC Series Merlin: Coulby was also the first black actress to play the role. 
Howard Pyle illustration of Arthur and Guinevere

Gwenhwyfar - with the original Welsh spelling intact - is the central character of Part III of my Leader of Battles series. Parts I and II were dominated by male figures, Ambrosius and Artorius, and I wanted to do something different with the third book.  I also wanted to try something different with the character of Gwenhwyfar, drawing on the older Welsh tales of her background and upbringing rather than the well-known medieval French/Anglo traditions. 

This was easier said than done, since the Welsh traditions (as usual) are both fragmentary and contradictory. In one of the Welsh Triads concerning Arthur, there are no less than three separate Gwenhwyfars, all of them married to Arthur. Two other Triads deal with only one Gwenhwyfar, but mention a sister, Gwenhwyfach. The sisters argue, and their dispute causes the fateful Battle of Camlann, where Arthur and his war-band perish: Triad 53 talks of Gwenhwyfach slapping Gwenhwyfar, and this being one of the 'Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain', since it leads to Camlann. Triad 54, on the other hand, talks of the villain Medraut (the original Mordred) breaking into Arthur's court at Celliwig and dragging Gwenhwyfar from her chair. This insult to Arthur's wife and dignity leads to the strife of Camlann. 

Angel Coulby as Gwen in Merlin
Keira Knightly as Xena...I mean Guinevere

On the face of it, all these tales would appear to stem from entirely different traditions. None of them mention Lancelot, a character invented and dumped into the story by later French romancers. However, even in these early tales there is a suggestion that Gwenhwyfar was unfaithful to her husband. Caradoc of Llancafarn writes of her being abducted by (or eloping with) Melwas, a prince of the mysterious Summer Country. Arthur has to give chase with his army and storm Melwas' fort to get her back.  

I decided to mix and match some of these elements, and throw in some others to come up with an original - or as original as I can make it - take on the character of Gwenhwyfar. In Part III of the series (still a work in progress) I portray her as the eldest daughter of Ogyrfan Gawr, the King of Powys, the lord of a mighty fortress called Caer Ogyrfan. The remains of this fort can still be seen today at Old Oswestry in Powys, a massive hilltop stronghold covering some forty acres of land. Gwenhwyfar is just sixteen at the beginning of the story, and has a younger sister who she doesn't get on with - shades of Gwenhwyfach, though I've changed her sister's name to Heledd to avoid any name confusion!

Aerial view of Caer Ogyrfan today
The Gwenhwyfar of the Welsh tales is a somewhat mysterious figure, very much in the background, though perhaps not as passive as she was to later become. Apart from her violent row with her sister in the Triads, an old Welsh folk rhyme casts her in an intriguingly negative light:

"Gwenhwyfar ferch Ogrfan Gawr,
Drwg yn fechan, gwaeth yn fawr."

"Gwenhwyfar, daughter of Ogrfan Gawr,
Bad when little, worse when great."

Part III of Leader of Battles begins in the year 481, just two years after Artorius' signal victory over the Saxons at Mount Badon, and two years into his reign as High King over what remains of free Britannia. How Artorius and Gwenhwyfar meet, and their trials as man and wife - well, I'm still working on that...

Thursday, 6 November 2014

The White Hawk pre-order

Book One of my rebooted series, The White Hawk, is now available for pre-order. The book will be released on Kindle on November 9th, and in paperback shortly afterwards. Just click on the link below the cover image to place your order! 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

The White Hawk reboot

I have plans for The White Hawk, my series following the fortunes of a family of Lancastrian loyalists during the turbulent years of The Wars of the Roses - or The Cousins' War, as it is more fashionably called these days (thank you Philippa Gregory...).

First I aim to re-release new and improved versions of the entire series, with the first two books combined into a single volume. I already have a great new cover for it, again designed by the talented people at More Visual Ltd - see below!

The original series will now be condensed into a trilogy, and Book Three will also include a new short story called The Devil's Due, which acts as a lead-in to the next chapter in the series: I intend to write a whole new series about the Boltons set during the period of the English (or British) Civil War between Charles I and Parliament.

More details on all this to follow shortly. For now,  I shall leave you to gaze on the sumptous new cover...

Friday, 17 October 2014

Thunder & Lightning, very very...(etc)

Followers of this blog may have noticed a howling silence in recent weeks - this isn't due to me running out of things to say (fat chance) but a massive storm that hit my part of the country about twelve days ago and burned out our broadband connection.

It was all very dramatic 'rage of the gods'-type stuff, and splendid to listen to from under a blanket in the downstairs cupboard, but has meant that I have had no internet for almost a fortnight. Thankfully we're now hooked up to The Matrix again, so watch this space for news on a revamp of my White Hawk series, and more...

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Leader of Battles reviews

The first two books in the Leader of Battles series are garnering some nice reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I thought I would post a few excerpts of them on here, as well as an idea for the next sequel(s).

"Wow. This was good. Real good. I try everything out there that falls under the title "Arthurian" ' 90 percent of the time I am disappointed and stop reading. Exceptions being the Crystal Cave series by Stewart, Firelord by Goodwin, Rosemary Sutcliffe, and of course Bernard Cornwells trilogy. You can add Pilling to this short list. This book was awesome. I started it this morning after reading a few pages last night, and finished same day, because I could not put it down. Pilling excels here, and I can't recommend this book enough. If you are into literature in the King Arthur genre, then this will be the book for you."

"An interesting interpretation of a rather obscure period of England's history. Very plausible and descriptive. Something I always wondered about was how much of the Roman civilisation remained after the withdrawal of the legions and this book strives to fill that gap, quite successfully, I might say."

"Not a dull moment and so many discoveries to bring history and a hero to live again. Well done. Bravo."

"So good, so good. This is my favorite subject of historical fiction, done by my favorite author of historical fiction. I only wish it were longer. Pilling is a master story teller. Be done with all the lousy Arthurian garbage available out there, and read these instead. Cannot wait for the third, although I dread the end of this trilogy."

Encouraging stuff! As for future developments, I have in mind a mini-series of novellas titled Warriors of Arthur, linked to the Leader of Battles series but not part of the main trilogy. The novellas are intended to focus on each of Arthur/Artorius' most famous warriors in turn - probably Cei, Bedwyr and maybe Tristan or Drustanus - before I move on to complete the series with the third and final instalment of Leader of Battles. This way I can hope to 'flesh out' my version of Arthur's world and explore it thoroughly before coming to the inevitable end.

First, however, I am taking a break from the world of Post-Roman Britain and having a crack at the British/English Civil war...more details to follow soon!

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 withdrew. 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? 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Thief of Barnsdale

I have just compiled the three separate parts of my Robin Hood series to date (currently available on Kindle), and released them as a single volume in paperback.

'Robin Hood: Thief of Barnsdale' is a bit pricey, but at over five hundred pages I was unable to bring the price down from a set minimum. I will be holding various competitions to win free copies of the paperback, so if interested keep your eyes peeled!

Those who have read any of the series so far will know that I have attempted to do something different with the well-worn tale, moving Robin out of his usual Richard I/Prince John comfort zone and re-locating him in the early years of Henry III's reign. The story is based on contemporary chronicles and legal records, principally on the handful of intriguing references in the Pipe Rolls to a Robert Hood or 'Hobbehod', fugitive, who fled from the justices at York in the mid-1220s for crimes unknown.

I have tried to capture the grim and gritty feel of a realistic 13th century England, and merge the content of the earliest surviving ballads with historical events and people. At least three more chapters of Robin's story are sketched out in my head, including a potential trip to Constantinople and the Holy Land.

Note: readers of the Kindle versions may notice that I have changed Robin's name from the more authentic 'Robyn Hode' to the standard Robin Hood - this was more for convenience than anything, so apologies for any apparent lack of continuity.

Link to Thief of Barnsdale on Amazon  

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Goodreads giveaway

I am offering three FREE paperback copies of "Leader of Battles (I) Ambrosius" as part of a giveaway on Goodreads. If interested, please see the link below: the giveaway runs from 10th July-10th August, and you just have to enter your name when the competition opens on the 10th!

Remember...Ambrosius wants you!

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Arthur of the Welsh

Following up on recent posts focused on Ambrosius Aurelianus, the 'last of the Romans', I want to write something about his far more famous successor, and the figure who has largely replaced him in our collective memory as the hero of native resistance after Rome abandoned Britain to her fate: Arthur.

Arthur playing 'gwyddbywll' in The Dream of Rhonawby
Arthur barely needs any introduction. The Once and Future King is virtually inescapable, having endured and flourished over the centuries, and if anything become even more popular in recent years, starring in dozens of novels and films and plays. He has been portrayed as an atypical medieval king, sitting inside a fairy tale castle surrounded by his knights, a Bronze Age chieftain, a Dark Age warlord, a resurrected Victorian gentleman 'of the stateliest port' (Tennyson), and even a sort of green space alien thingy. The character is extremely malleable, and can be re-shaped according to the desires and perceptions of individual writers. Like Robin Hood, he has come to stand for rather basic notions of justice and virtue, and can be turned into just about anything.

My favourite Arthur is the one who storms through the early medieval Welsh texts, hunting magical boars, slaying giants and fighting witches. This Arthur seems to have got lost, hidden behind the shadow of his far more famous counterpart - the one expressed by Chrétien de Troyes and Malory, of Camelot and Lancelot and Guinevere, Round Tables and Holy Grails (and killer rabbits) and all the rest of it. I have no problem with the Arthur of later romance - he informed possibly my favourite Arthurian novel, TH White's The Once and Future King - but there is something altogether more vital and intriguing about his Welsh twin.

The earliest reference to the 'Welsh Arthur' - and Arthur in general - is generally accepted to be a passing reference dating from the 7th century in a stanza from Y Gododdin, an ancient Welsh poem containing a series of elegies to the northern Brittonic kingdom of Gododdin. The stanza reads:

"He glutted black ravens on the rampart of the fort,
Though he was no Arthur,
Among the powerful ones in battle,
In the front rank, Gwawrddur was a palisade."

The stanza is actually written in praise of the exploits of Gwawrddur, but no matter how many ravens he feeds with the blood of his enemies, he is 'no Arthur' i.e. Gwawrddur might be a bit tasty in a fight, but Arthur was even tastier.

Further references to this shadowy Arthur, a hard-edged warrior rather than the urbane monarch of later legend, appear scattered throughout the writings of Nennius and the Historia Brittonum. From these we learn that Arthur was thought to have fought twelve battles against the enemies of Sub-Roman Britain, culminating in the Siege of Mount Badon, where he wore the image of the Virgin Mary on his shield and personally slaughtered 960 enemy warriors. He met his end at the 'the strife of Camlann', where Medraut also died (the chronicle is unclear if Medraut, later turned into Arthur's deadly foe Mordred, was fighting on Arthur's side or not), a mysterious battle accompanied by plague in Britain and Ireland.

No Welsh medieval writer appears to have tried to emulate Geoffrey of Monmouth or Malory, and write an epic narrative spanning the character's life from his birth to Camlann. Possibly the character was already well-known to his audience from earlier stories, now lost, and no such explanation was needed. Instead he tends to appear as a supporting character in tales such as Culhwch and Olwen and The Dream of Rhonawby, both preserved in the 19th century compilation of medieval Welsh poetry and legend known as The Mabinogion.

Arthur's court
The Arthur of Culhwch resides in a court or llys with a company of over two hundred warriors, every one of whom is named by the writer(s). Many of them possess bizzare attributes, such as Henbeddestyr son of Erim, who never found any man who could keep up with him, on horseback or on foot; or Penpingion, who goes about on his head to save his feet, neither looking to heaven nor the ground, but like a rolling stone on a court floor; or Arthur's close friend Cei (the formidable ancestor of the buffoonish Sir Kay of romance), who can withstand fire and water better than any man, and project heat from his hands, a sort of Dark Age superhero.

Like the knights of romance, Arthur and his men embark on quests, but they are strange affairs, full of dark magic and weird imagery. Cei and the one-handed warrior, Bedwyr (later turned into Sir Bedivere) accompany Culhwch on his mission to win a bride from her father, the coarse giant Ysbaddaden. They perform all sorts of feats, such as riding a salmon in order to free a prisoner from an underwater prison, hunting a gigantic magical boar named the Twrch Trwyth and her seven piglets - much harder than it sounds, since the lethal swine destroy most of Ireland and slaughter many of Arthur's warriors - and slay Dillus Farfog, the 'greatest warrior to ever flee from Arthur.'

Cei slays Dillus through treachery, as a result of which Arthur mocks him in verse:

"A leash was made by Cei,
From the beard of Dillus son of Efrai,
Were he alive, he would kill you."

In response to Arthur's mockery Cei goes into a massive sulk and leaves court. Thereafter he refuses to help Arthur, even when the latter's men are being killed, and no peace can be made between the two men. This may reflect some ancient memory of internal tensions in Arthur's war-band, eventually leading to it breaking up and the disaster of Camlann. Shortly after Cei leaves, Arthur is required to go north to heal a feud between warring princes. Before he can get there one of the princes, Gwyn son of Nudd, has murdered a captive, cut out his heart and forced another captive to eat it. Again, the savagery of this episode might reflect some grim Dark Age reality underlying the tale.

The giant shepherd in Culhwch and Olwen
Surreal, offbeat imagery permeates the earlier Welsh tales of Arthur, conjuring up a very different atmosphere to the courtly environment of Malory. There is something wild and untamed about Arthur's men, who appear more supernatural than human, capable of extraordinary feats of strength. In The Dream of Rhonawby, a furious Arthur crushes a set of golden playing pieces to powder in his hands, and laughs in contempt at the 'scum' and 'little men' who are left to defend Wales after he has gone. A giant-slayer, he is himself a giant, the matchless Amheradwyr or Emperor, whom no other Welsh/British hero can measure up against.

And then there is ultimate surrealism of the Cauldron of Annwn, but that shall be for another post....


Sunday, 22 June 2014

Leader of Battles

Following on from my last post, I'd like to announce the release of my latest novel - Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius. 

The Leader of Battles series is my take on the grim Dark Age reality behind Arthurian legend, and Book One focuses on the career of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the 'Last of the Romans', whose life and career I described recently. Book Two will concentrate on his successor, Artorius  - who barely needs any introduction as the 'historical' Arthur!

Leader of Battles (I) is currently available on Kindle and will also be available as a paperback very soon.

"My father was a warrior. He bade me fight..."
Britain, 427 AD. Rome has abandoned the province, leaving it exposed to waves of barbarian invasions. To the west, savage pirates from Hibernia ravage the coastline. In the north, the crumbling defences of the Wall cannot contain marauding bands of Picts as they sweep down from the highlands. Worst of all are the Saxons, the dreaded sea-wolves. Under their chiefs, Hengist and Horsa, they wish to drive out the native Britons and claim the entire island for their own.    

Attacked from all sides, the Britons find a champion in the form of Ambrosius Aurelianus, the last of the Romans. A modest man, riddled with doubts and fears, Ambrosius reluctantly takes on the mantle of Dux Bellorum, Leader of Battles. Placed in command of Britain's only standing army, he fights to preserve the dwindling light of civilisation while the treacherous High King, Vortigern, plots his destruction.

Set before the coming of Arthur, the first book of the Leader of Battles trilogy charts the rise and fall of post-Roman Britain's first great hero, and his desperate struggle to hold back the shadows threatening to engulf his country.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The last of the Romans

 I'm delving back into Roman/Arthurian history today, with a look at a shadowy figure who might have been the inspiration for 'King Arthur'. 

Ambrosius as he may appeared
The figure in question was one Ambrosius Aurelianus, described as 'the last of the Romans' i.e. the last of the Romans to hold any sort of power in Britain after the departure of the legions in the early 5th century. He is an obscure figure, remembered only in a few garbled tales in which he gets hopelessly mixed up with Merlin the magician, and his deeds and existence have been largely crushed under the weight of The Once and Future King. Unlike Arthur, however, we can be reasonably certain that Ambrosius existed, and played a major role in the Romano-British resistance against the Saxons.

The Dark Ages are suitably named. A blank curtain lies over British history from c.400-600 AD, between the departure of the Roman legions and the rise of the Saxon kingdoms. Modern archaeology is helping us to discover more about the period, but the sheer lack of written sources remains a crippling problem in trying to piece together events.

One of the very few surviving sources is De Excidio de Conquestu Britanniae, or ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’, written by a somewhat mysterious and irritating British cleric named Gildas. Probably written in the first quarter of the sixth century, it is intended as a sermon in three parts rather than a history. Gildas doesn’t mince his words, and uses the history of Britain from the coming of the Romans as a stick to beat the British rulers of his own day, condemning them as lazy, sinful and incompetent. 

The red dragon and the white fight over Britain
In fact, Gildas doesn’t have a good word to say about almost anyone. One of the few to escape his censure is Ambrosius, who he describes as ‘the last of the Romans’ and the man who ignited the British resistance against the marauding Saxons in the mid-5th century. 

Gildas has this to say about Ambrosius and his times:

"The poor remnants of our nation, being strengthened by God, took arms under the conduct of Ambrosius Aurelianus, a modest man, who of all the Roman nation was then alone in the confusion of this troubled period by chance left alive. His parents, who for their merit were adorned with the purple, had been slain in these same broils. Under him, our people provoked to battle their cruel conquerors, and by the goodness of our Lord obtained the victory. 

After this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field, to the end that our Lord might in this land try after his accustomed manner these his Israelites, whether they loved him or not, until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity."

The reference to Ambrosius' parents wearing the purple may indicate they enjoyed some kind of senatorial or government rank, or alternatively that they were effectively martyred during the Saxon revolt: 'clothed in scarlet' is another suggested interpretation of the phrase used to describe them, meaning their bodies were covered in blood. 

According to Gildas, following the initial shock of the Saxon revolt, the Britons fled to Ambrosius ‘as eagerly as bees to a beehive when a storm threatens’. Under his leadership, they regained their strength, and challenged the Saxons to battle. The war raged on for an uncertain length of time – Gildas is frustratingly vague on dates – with victories and defeats on either side, until the year of the ‘siege of Mons Badonicus’, where the Britons finally scored a major victory that stopped the invaders in their tracks for a generation. 

Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, is traditionally the career-defining victory won by Arthur, perhaps Britain’s most famous legendary hero. Strangely (or tellingly?) Gildas makes no mention of Arthur. The only British hero he names in connection with the fight against the Saxons is Ambrosius, but he stops short of also naming him the victor of Badon. The earliest feasible dating for Badon is c.482, which makes it a little late for Ambrosius, since the Saxon revolt started some thirty years earlier.

It is possible to reconcile these issues. Possibly 'Arthur' was an officer serving under Ambrosius, his Magister Equitum or similar, and assumed command of the British forces after Ambrosius died or retired. Piecing together a coherent narrative of Ambrosius' career is impossible, since the evidence is so fragmentary, but he pops up in various disparate sources. The Historia Brittonum, written by Nennius in the ninth century, talks of the High King of the Britons, Vortigern, ruling in dread of Ambrosius, and of a battle at Guoloph (Nether Wallop in Hampshire) fought between the forces of Ambrosius and one Vitalinus. 

A depiction of Merlin
The Historia also relates the tale of Ambrosius being discovered as a child by Vortigern while the latter was trying to build a fort in North Wales. The fort kept on collapsing, and the king's advisors told him the only solution was to sprinkle the foundations with the blood of a child born without a father. Ambrosius was said to be such a child, but when brought before the king, he revealed the real reason for the problem: below the foundations was a lake containing two dragons. The dragons, one red and one white, fought a battle representing the struggle between the Britons (red) and the Saxons (white), and the shockwaves of their battle was causing the fort to collapse. One day, Ambrosius prophesied, the red dragon would triumph over the white, and cast it back into the sea. 

Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, written c.1136, took this tale and altered it, giving Ambrosius the name 'Merlin Ambrosius' and conflating him with tales of a 6th century bard named Myrddin Wyllt, who was said to have run mad after witnessing the horrors of battle. Thus the figure of 'Merlin' as we know him today was partially derived from the historical Ambrosius. 

Arthurian novelists have generally been keen to skim over Ambrosius in order to get to the main event, or even omit him altogether. He has a cameo in Marion Zimmer Bradlay's The Mists of Avalon, where he limps on for a few pages before quietly expiring offstage, and doesn't appear at all in Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy. Rosemary Sutcliffe and Mary Stewart did him justice, allowing Ambrosius a share of the limelight before he makes way for Arthur, but he is still a supporting character.  This seems slightly unfair on one of the few definite historical personages we know anything about from this period, and one who initiated the fight-back against his country’s enemies.