Saturday, November 30, 2019

Review: Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen by Samantha Wilcoxson

26086754. sy475 Synopsis: She was the mother of Henry VIII and wife of Henry VII, but who was Elizabeth of York? Raised as the precious eldest child of Edward IV, Elizabeth had every reason to expect a bright future until Edward died, and her life fell apart.

When Elizabeth's uncle became Richard III, she was forced to choose sides. Should she trust her father's brother and most loyal supporter or honor the betrothal that her mother has made for her to her family's enemy, Henry Tudor?

The choice was made for her on the field at Bosworth, and Elizabeth the Plantagenet princess became the first Tudor queen. Did Elizabeth find happiness with Henry? And did she ever discover the truth about her missing brothers, who became better known as the Princes in the Tower? Lose yourself in Elizabeth's world in Plantagenet Princess Tudor Queen.


I shelved this as "to read" in 2015 on Goodreads and got the opportunity to read it this year.

I'm not a fan - sorry. I don't think I was the target audience - I am thinking this was aimed at a younger reading audience, then again I might be wrong, but that's how it comes off to me. A little to much "fluff" (romance) for me - I like my historical fiction with a bit more edge to it - warts and all. Here, I am presented with - a the start - with a young woman who appears much older than she is - a 4yo (1470) with an adult's perception of events around her - not a good start. The story whisks along - years pass over mere pages; characters walk on and off as if on cue. There was no real attachment to any of them for me. The usual mythologies are given a new light, and whilst some authors take liberties with plot-lines and characters, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. 

I will applaud the author for taking on the person of Elizabeth. Very little is really known about this woman who lived through so much yet remained in the background for a greater part of her life. She was the peace-weaver between the Lancastrians and Yorkists; she was the sister and mother of kings; but she had no political role in her husband's reign - except for that of wife and mother.

I have no interest in pursuing the rest of the books in this series. Just doesn't fit in with what I am looking for in my historical fiction - I will probably tackle something a little more in the realm of non-fiction. 


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Map of Scottish Witches

logoMap of places of residence for accused Witches from the University of Edinburgh

The Data and Visualisation internship project at the University of Edinburgh had as its core aim to geographically locate and visualise the different locations recorded within the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft Database.

You can read an excellent summary of the project to date on Anne-Marie Scott's blog here: Some witchy history and a very smart woman in data science




Monday, November 25, 2019

Tausret by Richard H. Wilkinson

Cover for 

Tausret






One of only a few women who ruled ancient Egypt as a king during its thousands of years of history, Tausret was the last pharaoh of the 19th dynasty (c. 1200 BCE), the last ruling descendent of Ramesses the Great, and one of only two female monarchs buried in Egypt's renowned Valley of the Kings. Though mentioned even in Homer as the pharaoh of Egypt who interacted with Helen at the time of the Trojan War, she has long remained a figure shrouded in mystery, hardly known even by many Egyptologists. Nevertheless, recent archaeological discoveries have illuminated Tausret's importance, her accomplishments, and the extent of her influence. 

Tausret: Forgotten Queen & Pharaoh of Egypt combines distinguished scholars whose research and excavations have increased our understanding of the life and reign of this great woman. This lavishly illustrated book utilizes recent discoveries to correctly position Tausret alongside famous ruling queens such as Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, figures who have long dominated our view of the female monarchs of ancient Egypt. Tausret brings together archaeological, historical, women's studies, and other approaches to provide a scholarly yet accessible volume that will be an important contribution to the literature of Egyptology — and one with appeal to both scholars and anyone with an interest in ancient Egypt culture.

A Byzantine Government in Exile by Michael Angold

Front CoverA Byzantine Government in Exile Government and Society under the Laskarids of Nicaea (1204-1261)

The Empire of Nicaea was a successor state to the Byzantine Empire, or rather a Byzantine Empire in exile lasting from 1204 to 1261 CE. The Empire of Nicaea was founded in the aftermath of the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and the establishment there of the crusader-run Latin Empire in 1204 CE and was ruled by the Laskarid Dynasty. When the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos recaptured Constantinople in 1261 CE, the Empire of Nicaea, an empire in exile no more, effectively became the Byzantine Empire once again, until it ultimately fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Review: Far Away Bird by Douglas A Burton

48381373Synopsis: Inspired by true events, Far Away Bird delves into the complex mind of Byzantine Empress Theodora. This intimate account deftly follows her rise from actress-prostitute in Constantinople's red-light district to the throne of the Byzantine Empire. Her salacious past has left historians blushing and uncomfortable. Tales of her shamelessness have survived for centuries, and yet her accomplishments as an empress are unparalleled. Before there was a legendary empress, there was a conflicted young woman from the lower classes. And her name was Theodora


Burton seduces the reader as Theodora seduces all around her. This is a powerful, evocative narrative, that draws you into the human rather than mythical aspect of the "notorious" Theodora from her early childhood to her return to Constantinople. It is as though Burton is channeling his subject as her life dances across the pages before you, the reader. You are drawn into her life as if walking side by side, her contemporary, her ethereal other self - her far away bird.


More on Theodora

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Traitor and the She Wolf by David Adkins

The Traitor and the She Wolf by [Adkins, David]
Isabella, daughter of King Philip IV of France, marries the new English king, Edward II, at the tender age of thirteen. Although it was an arranged marriage, young Isabella has high hopes of nurturing a loving relationship with her handsome new husband. But these dreams are gradually eroded, as Edward reveals his narcissistic traits and preference for sharing his bed with his favourite, Piers Gaveston. Instead, he ignores and humiliates her.


Roger Mortimer is a young lord, a landowner of the Welsh Marches. At Isabella’s coronation, he is instantly taken with her beauty and intelligence, and makes an instant connection with her, eventually leading to love.

It is not long before the barons of the land become dissatisfied with the weak and unfair administration of Edward, and the country falls into a protracted period of unrest. Roger himself struggles with his allegiance to the king alongside his growing sense of protection towards Isabella. When Edward’s new favourite, Hugh Despenser, has Mortimer imprisoned and seizes control of the royal children, Isabella can take no more, and all the love she tried to give to Edward is replaced with a burning desire for revenge.

The Traitor and the She Wolf is a fictionalised account of real historical events and reveals how loyal and loving people can be driven to do things they never imagined.


see also The Tudor Saga


The Hero of Italy - Paperback byGregory Hanlon

The Hero of Italy - Odoardo Farnese, Duke of Parma, his Soldiers, and his Subjects in the Thirty Years' War examines a salient episode in Italy's Thirty Years' War with Spain and France, whereby the young duke Odoardo Farnese of Parma embraced the French alliance, only to experience defeat and occupation after two tumultuous years (1635-1637).  Gregory Hanlon stresses the narrative of events unfolding in northern Italy, examining the participation of the little state in these epic European events.

The first chapter describes the constitution of Cardinal Richelieu's anti-Habsburg alliance and Odoardo's eagerness to be part of it. A chapter on the Parman professional army, based on an extraordinary collection of company roster-books, sheds light on the identity of over 13,000 individuals, soldier by soldier, the origin and background of their officers, the conditions of their lodgings, and the good state of their equipment. Chapter three follows the first campaign of 1635 alongside French and Savoyard contingents at the failed siege of Valenza, and the logistical difficulties of organizing such large-scale operations. Another chapter examines the financial expedients the duchy adopted to fend off incursions on all its borders in 1636, and how militia contingents on both sides were drawn into the fighting. A final chapter relates the Spanish invasion and occupation which forced duke Odoardo to make a separate peace. 

The volume includes a detailed assessment of the impact of war on civilians based on parish registers for city and country. The application of the laws of war was largely nullified by widespread starvation, disease and routine sex-selective infanticide. These quantitative analyses, supported by maps and tables, are among the most detailed anywhere in Europe in the era of the Thirty Years' War.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Denmark, Iceland at odds over priceless medieval manuscripts

They recount tales of Viking raids, Norse history, kings and gods: a priceless collection of medieval manuscripts, bequeathed by an Icelandic scholar to the University of Copenhagen in the 18th century, that Iceland now wants back.

UNESCO, the U.N. cultural organization, has called them “the single most important collection of early Scandinavian manuscripts in existence,” with the earliest one dating from the 12th century.

Some of the texts — known as the Arnamagnaean Collection — have already been returned to Reykjavik, but 1,400 documents are still locked away in Copenhagen.

The jewel of the collection is an almost complete early 15th century copy of “Heimskringla” — the best known of the Old Norse kings’ sagas, originally written in the 13th century by Icelandic poet and historian Snorri Sturluson.

Unlike many Icelandic medieval manuscripts, which have few decorative flourishes, this version of the Heimskringla is richly illustrated with intricate red lettering on each page.

read more here @ The Japan Times

Book review of King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne by Janet L. Nelson

 (University of California Press)Michael Taube reviews Janet Nelson's "King and Emperor" for The Washington Post

The tale of Charles I, more commonly known as Charlemagne, has been recounted by historians for centuries. Between 768 and 814, he ruled as king of the Franks, king of the Lombards and, most impressively, Holy Roman emperor. An enlightened reformer with a warrior-like ferocity, he united most of Western Europe and spearheaded the Carolingian Renaissance that enhanced arts and culture in medieval society.

It’s an incredible and almost unbelievable story. That’s why some historians now wonder if it really happened or if it’s a tall tale that would make Baron Munchausen laugh with sheer delight.

Janet L. Nelson, a professor emerita of medieval history at King’s College in London, is determined to resolve this issue in her intriguing new book, “King and Emperor: A New Life of Charlemagne.” With a small tip of the detective cap to Sherlock Holmes, she gathers the pertinent details (and there are many) in an attempt to unravel the mystery of who this king, emperor and man really was.

While most of us aren’t medieval scholars, the challenge of trying to figure out which Charlemagne is the real Charlemagne is enjoyable and intellectually stimulating. Whether Nelson has actually solved the centuries-old mystery isn’t, shall we say, elementary.


read full review here @ The Washington Post

Stolen Women in Medieval England by Caroline Dunn

Stolen Women in Medieval EnglandStolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction, and Adultery, 1100–1500 offers a comprehensive overview of female ravishment, from forced rape to consensual elopement, in medieval England whilst presenting a scholarly treatment of an emotive subject, dealing with rape victims with sensitivity, but acknowledging that some women feigned ravishment to elope.

This study of illicit sexuality in medieval England explores links between marriage and sex, law and disorder, and property and power. Some medieval Englishwomen endured rape or were kidnapped for forced marriages, yet most ravished women were married and many 'wife-thefts' were not forced kidnappings but cases of adultery fictitiously framed as abduction by abandoned husbands. In pursuing the themes of illicit sexuality and non-normative marital practices, this work analyses the nuances of the key Latin term raptus and the three overlapping offences that it could denote: rape, abduction and adultery. 

This investigation broadens our understanding of the role of women in the legal system; provides a means for analysing male control over female bodies, sexuality and access to the courts; and reveals ways in which female agency could, on occasion, manoeuvre around such controls.

Learning in a Crusader City by Jonathan Rubin

Learning in a Crusader CityLearning in a Crusader City: Intellectual Activity and Intercultural Exchanges in Acre, 1191–1291 provides a unique picture of a 'new' Latin-dominated centre of intellectual activity

Did the Crusades trigger significant intellectual activity? To what extent and in what ways did the Latin residents of the Crusader States acquire knowledge from Muslims and Eastern Christians? And how were the Crusader states influenced by the intellectual developments which characterized the West in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries? 

This book is the first to examine these questions systematically using the complete body of evidence from one major urban centre: Acre. This reveals that Acre contained a significant number of people who engaged in learned activities, as well as the existence of study centres housed within the city. 

This volume also seeks to reconstruct the discourse that flowed across four major fields of learning: language and translation, jurisprudence, the study of Islam, and theological exchanges with Eastern Christians. 

The result is an unprecedentedly rich portrait of a hitherto neglected intellectual centre on the Eastern shores of the medieval Mediterranean.

Review: The Ismaili Assassins by James Waterson

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Synopsis: The Ismaili Assassins were an underground group of political killers who were ready to kill Christians and Muslims alike with complete disregard for their own lives. These devoted murderers were under the powerful control of a grand master who used assassination as part of a grand strategic vision that embraced Egypt, the Levant and Persia and even reached the court of the Mongol Khans in far away Qaraqorum. The Assassins often slayed their victims in public, cultivating their terrifying reputation. They assumed disguises and their weapon of choice was a dagger. The dagger was blessed by the grand master and killing with it was a holy and sanctified act poison or other methods of murder were forbidden to the followers of the sect.



The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history, stretching over more than 12 centuries, during which they subdivided into a number of major branches and minor groupings. They came into existence as a separate Shi‘i community around the middle of the eighth century; and, in medieval times, they twice founded states of their own, the Fatimid caliphate and the Nizari state. 

The first group of assassins to be found in the historical record is that of the Hashshashin who operated in Persia, Syria, and Turkey, eventually spreading throughout the Middle East. Being much weaker than their main adversaries in conventional military terms, the Nizaris relied on guerrilla warfare that included espionage, infiltration of enemy territory, and targeted killings of enemy leaders. 

When the fortress of the Assassins was conquered in 1256, their library was destroyed so there are no written historical accounts from the sect itself available to us. Those accounts that have survived into our times have come down to us in the form of the recollections from two openly hostile sources - Sunni Muslims and Crusaders.  The more outlandish aspects of the legends, such as the use of drugs, are not supported by Ismaili sources. Even the name Assassin, from the Arabic hashashi, was a pejorative term and was never used by the Nizaris themselves. Nor were the Nizaris unique in their use of political murder. Sunnis and Crusaders in the Middle East also practiced assassination. And, of course, Europeans were perfectly adept at killing off their political rivals long before the Nizaris came along.

The distorted image of the Ismailis in general and the Nizari Ismailis in particular was maintained in orientalist circles until the opening decades of the twentieth century, although this fanciful impressions of the Orient had long persisted since the Middle Ages. Like the proverbial Chinese whisper, these idea evolved over time until legend was regarded as fact. A truly scholarly assessment of the Ismailis had to await the recovery and study of a large number of Ismaili texts, a process that did not start until later in the 20th century when progress in Islamic studies, and a remarkable modern breakthrough in the study of the history and doctrines of the Ismailis, have finally made it possible to dispel once and for all some of the seminal legends of the ‘Assassins’.

Image result for ismaili assassins
As per the synopsis, "The Ismaili Assassins explores the origins, actions and legacy of this notorious sect. Enriched with eyewitness accounts from Islamic and Western sources, this important book unlocks the history of the Crusades and the early Islamic period, giving the reader entry into a historical epoch that is thrilling and pertinent."

I came into this wanting to know more about the sect that I had come across in my own studies of the Crusades - those allegedly responsible for the murders of Raymond II of Tripoli and Conrad of Montferrat. I was not disappointed. Waterson presents us with a historically accurate and detailed account of the Ismaili Asaassins, from their earliest inception to their devastation at the hands of the Mongols, and all the complicated political and dynastic maneuvering in between. definitely one for the history shelf of my Library.


further reading
The Templars and the Assassins: The Militia of Heaven by James Wasserman
Eagle's Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria by Peter Willey
The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis by Farhad Daftary, Antoine Isaac Baron & Silvestre de Sacy
The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam by Bernard Lewis
The Assassins of Alamut by Anthony Campbell
Ismaili History and Intellectual Traditions by Farhad Daftary
Hasan-I-Sabbah: His Life and Thought by Dr Ali Mohammad Rajput
The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizârî Ismâʻîlîs Against the Islamic World by Marshall G. S. Hodgson
The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines by Farhad Daftary


further reading online
National Geographic Magazine
History Net



Saturday, November 16, 2019

Review: Stephen and Matilda's Civil War - Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis

Synopsis: The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favorite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

Again, this is not a period that I have come into blindly - I have a number of books on the subject matter on my own books shelves. What I found in Lewis' book, with his alternating chapters between Stephen and Matilda, was a more balanced history of this turbulent period.

For most, the most common definition of this period is summarised as follows:
The Anarchy was a civil war in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153, which resulted in a widespread breakdown in law and order. The conflict was a succession crisis precipitated by the accidental death by drowning of William Adelin, the only legitimate son of Henry I, in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120
However, what Lewis questions is that whilst this period was called The Anarchy, did this period between the death of Henry I (1153) and the accession of Henry II (1154) - see a complete and total breakdown and absence of government during Stephen's reign. For the very definition of the word anarchy is ".. a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems ..." and ".. absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual, regarded as a political ideal. ..."  For this was not the case - a king was in situ and recognised by both the Church and the Anglo-Norman Magnates, including Robert of Gloucester.

The Anarchy was quite simply a civil war in which there were four potential claimants - with only two interested enough to battle it out for a period of 19 years - Stephen and Matilda. I am taken back to the events of the Norman Conquest, when the death of a King left the playing field wide open - in this instance, we are not only left with a male relative who was favoured by the late King but with a female, whilst of unquestionable royal blood, at a time when such acceptance of a sole female monarch was just not on the cards. There was only one crown ... and for as long as one wanted it and the other refused to give it up, there were be no coming to terms.

The actual violence and destruction was not as widespread as is documented by the three main contemporary writers of the times, all of whose accounts are riddled with their own forms of bias. These chronicles were in essence, written by churchmen, recounting localised events and their direct effects whilst providing an opportunistic moral lesson at the same time.

England was hardly the peaceful realm when Stephen took the throne (for succession was still not hereditary at this point) - Normandy was in rebellion, Scotland and Wales were simmering with tension, and the selection of a king was more preferable to ".. the enforcement of lineal descent ...'' and the oaths made under duress in favour of the late king's nominated heir. Matilda was absent and in no hurry; Stephen, like his uncle before him, was on the spot, and once anointed, few with loathe to remove him  "... for who can stretch out his hand against the Lord’s anointed ....".

As I mentioned, Lewis portrays both Stephen and Matilda evenly.  Stephen is lauded for his careful balancing act in governing and maintaining unity of the realm whilst not upsetting the powerful magnates around him and on both sides of the Channel; and Matilda, who had " ... achieved more than many of her sex in her period .." and like so many women both before and after her, is only remembered for the men in her life. This is a fascinating period of history filled with powerful personalities that is worth exploring, and this book will provide a good introduction into the period.



further reading:
The Anarchy of King Stephen's Reign edited by Edmund King
Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley
King Stephen and the Anarchy by Chris Peers
Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-53 by Jim Bradbury
The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English by Marjorie Chibnall
The Reign of Stephen: Kingship, Warfare and Government in Twelfth-Century England by Keith J. Stringer
King Stephen's Reign (1135-1154) edited by Paul Dalton & Graeme J. White
King Stephen by Donald Matthew
Henry I by C. Warren Hollister
Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy by Judith A. Green
The Government of England Under Henry I by Judith A. Green

Review: The Brothers York by Thomas Penn

Synopsis: Thomas Penn's brilliant new telling of the wars of the roses takes us inside a conflict that fractured the nation for more than three decades. During this time, the house of York came to dominate England. At its heart were three charismatic brothers - Edward, George and Richard - who became the figureheads of a spectacular ruling dynasty. Together, they looked invincible. But with Edward's ascendancy the brothers began to turn on one another, unleashing a catastrophic chain of rebellion, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide. The brutal end came at Bosworth Field in 1485, with the death of the youngest, then Richard III, at the hands of a new usurper, Henry Tudor. The story of a warring family unable to sustain its influence and power, The Brothers York brings to life a dynasty that could have been as magnificent as the Tudors. Its tragedy was that, in the space of one generation, it destroyed itself.


The Wars of the Roses were a series of English civil wars for control of the throne of England fought between supporters of two rival cadet branches of the royal House of Plantagenet: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. Eventually, the wars eliminated the male lines of both families. Although the conflict lasted through many sporadic episodes between 1455 and 1487, there was related fighting before and after this period between the parties. 

Penn's narrative begins with the rise and Edward IV and his ascendancy over Henry VI in claiming the throne of England (1461), first sought by Edward's father Richard, Duke of York (1460). For those who are unfamiliar with this period, Penn's book provides a springboard from which to launch your own journey. All the major players and events are covered off in a detailed history that is neither dry nor sleep inducing. 

So as I read, I was being tempted with interesting passages describing the wars as "... a destructive chain of rebellion, deposition, vendetta, fratricide, usurpation and regicide ..... they dynasty's end was brutal .." and of the character of the brother York who ".. burned fiercely and died young .." as being ".. shaped [by] the way the saw the world and their place in it ..". Penn further tempts us with ".. the tragedy of the brother York was that they destroyed themselves ..." and Penn was going to enlighten us as to how and why.

What is abundantly clear is that Edward himself was the architect of the demise of the House of York. His blantant favouritism, initially of his brother George and then of his collective in-laws (the Rivers and Woodville clans) at the expense of his own family and loyal supporters, created an atmosphere of bitter and petty rivalry and jealousies, punctuated by backstabbing, paranoia, treachery and ultimately, betrayal and rebellion.

Prior to his brother's marriage, George Plantagenet found himself in the enviable and complicated position of heir presumptive. As the brother of the newly crowned Edward IV, whose succession was not hereditary, George's own position needed some serious elevation. Edward began to groom George as his successor - he was endowed with lands and titles whilst still a teen, creating a strong sense of entitlement in a young man ill-strained and ill-suited for such a role. For when Edward announced his marriage to Elizabeth Woodwville, George is more or less side-lined in favour of Elizabeth's extensive family, upon whom honours and lands are loaded, and advantageous marriages are arranged. George's position as heir presumptive is now uncertain, and as he is finding himself more and more on the outer, falling ever more under the sway of the Earl of Warwick (his uncle) who sees George as the perfect foil against Edward and possibly a new tool for his kingmaking pursuits. Warwick and George collaborate and make a plan to take the crown from Edward but after their attempts fail, they are declared traitors and driven out of England.

Richard figures very little in this story as he really doesn't come into his own until late into the second part of Edward's reign. He is not the heir presumptive and spends much of his time away from Court. He is the doting and loyal younger brother of the King, not involved in the machinations of brother George and the Earl of Warwick. His character is very different from that of his brothers - he had never really known a time when war was not prevalent and was said to have been unbending in his beliefs. However, as he reaches his teens and in the wake of George's rebellion, Richard is given more responsibility in the northern part of England - afterall, Edward is far too busy satiating is carnal pursuits, preferring to leave the government to others. 

I am in two minds with this book. On the one hand, it is a very well researched and engaging history of the Wars of the Roses, that was fascinating and dramatic. However, to me, it was more of a chronicle of the rise and fall of a prominent family, with a heavy focus of Edward, his court and courtiers, contemporary politics, peppered with quite a few side journeys into other areas which I found to be both distracting, unnecessary, and of no real interest to me. 

I came into this with an already sound knowledge of the Wars of the Roses, so what I was hoping for was more of an analytical approach to the three brothers and their inter-personal relationships; I felt that there should have been more focus on this aspect to explain why the dynasty imploded ".. within a generation.." I guess I wanted a more psycho-analytical approach to explain the family dynamic - Edward (the sunne in splendour), George (the petulant middle child), Richard (the broody dark horse) - these explorations were few and far between.  Edward's nepotism on a grand scale was hardly a secret and that this would have created bitterness and tension amongst his brothers and his supporters is not surprising but this is hardly unique as history is, quite frankly, full of similar stories.



I hugely enjoyed Penn's Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England (bio on Henry Tudor) so was looking forward to this - but left feeling just a little disappointed in that it was not structured how I thought it would have been and really, for me personally, there was nothing that I had not already read in various other tomes.  

As I mentioned, nothing should be taken away from this book as it is a quite good re-telling of the Wars of the Roses.







The Likeness of Venice. A Life of Doge Francesco Foscari 1373-1457 by Dennis Romano

Immortalized in later centuries in works by Lord Byron, Giuseppe Verdi, Eugene Delacroix, and others, Francesco Foscari reigned as the powerful doge of Venice during tumultuous years from 1423 to 1457. The stuff of legends, his life was marked by political conflict, vengeful enemies, family heartbreak, and, at the end, the forced relinquishment of the ducal throne. Yet Foscari left behind no personal papers, and until now, no complete biography of him has been written. 

This book, a thorough and fascinating biography, fills that longstanding gap, illuminating not only the life of the man but also the history and culture of fifteenth-century Venice. Dennis Romano reconstructs Foscari's life through careful reading of extant governmental records and chronicle sources. He also uses architectural monuments built by Foscari and his heirs as critical interpretive keys for unlocking the personality and policies of the doge. Romano analyzes how art and power intersected in Renaissance Italy and how the doge came to represent and even embody the state. With this biography, Romano clears away longstanding myths, fills in previously unknown details about Foscari's triumphs and ordeals, and allows to emerge the first intimate portrait of this singular doge.


Reviews in History - Review by Dr Jon Law
Political biography has a relatively minor part in medieval and renaissance Venetian historiography when compared to other European states – such as England – or Italy’s other major republic in the period, Florence. The explanation may be in part due to the enduring and influential ‘myth of Venice’, an aspect of which stressed the corporate discipline of the Venetian nobility, and its loyalty to the state, qualities that transcended individual, family or factional interest. However under scrutiny this aspect of the myth does not hold up given, for example, the prominence of tomb monuments in Venetian churches, attention seeking palace building along the Grand Canal, the widespread placing of coats of arms and inscriptions on public and private buildings, the prominence of portraiture in Venetian art. If it were possible to identify more of these portraits and had not the fall of the Republic in 1797 led to the slighting or destruction of many noble coats of arms, the image of a faceless or selfless Venetian nobility would appear even less convincing.

read more here @ Reviews in History


HNet: Review by Alison Smith
This is a remarkable book. Dennis Romano's biography of Francesco Foscari not only gives us an elegant and persuasive account of the doge's public and private life but also provides us with a compelling account of some of the most important decades in the history of the Venetian Republic and the development of the Renaissance state system. Foscari's reign, one of the longest of any Venetian doge, lasted from 1423 to 1457. During this time, Venice consolidated its control over the mainland territory it had conquered at the very beginning of the fifteenth century in an effort to contain the expansionist threat of the Visconti in Milan. Called on to lead one of the wealthiest and most powerful European states, Foscari grappled with urgent fiscal, diplomatic, and military challenges caused by nearly constant warfare and shifting alliances with Italian states. He was a man of great intelligence and personal ambition as well as a consummate politician with particular skill as an administrator. Notwithstanding the length and achievements of his reign, Foscari was deposed by the Venetian Senate just before he died and just after his son Jacopo was tortured and exiled from Venice. Foscari has been regarded as a tragic figure ever since, the subject of plays, an opera, and innumerable morality tales. His story has been used to promote both the myth of Venice (beginning with Bernardo Giustinian's famous funeral oration) and the anti-myth (which highlights oppression and lack of freedom in an increasingly authoritarian early modern Venice). In the final chapter of the book, Romano examines the way in which George Byron, Giuseppe Verdi, and Eugène Delacroix, among others, handled the Foscari story, and grapples with the interpretive problems faced by the biographer of this enigmatic and extremely important figure.

read more here @ HNet



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe by Alexander O'Hara

Cover for 

Columbanus and the Peoples of Post-Roman Europe






The period 550 to 750 was one in which monastic culture became more firmly entrenched in Western Europe. The role of monasteries and their relationship to the social world around them was transformed during this period as monastic institutions became more integrated in social and political power networks. This collected volume of essays focuses on one of the central figures in this process, the Irish ascetic exile and monastic founder, Columbanus (c. 550-615), his travels on the Continent, and the monastic network he and his Frankish disciples established in Merovingian Gaul and Lombard Italy.

The post-Roman kingdoms through which Columbanus travelled and established his monastic foundations were made up of many different communities of peoples. As an outsider and immigrant, how did Columbanus and his communities interact with these peoples? How did they negotiate differences and what emerged from these encounters? How societies interact with outsiders can reveal the inner workings and social norms of that culture. This volume aims to explore further the strands of this vibrant contact and to consider all of the geographical spheres in which Columbanus and his monastic communities operated (Ireland, Merovingian Gaul, Alamannia, Lombard Italy) and the varieties of communities he and his successors came in contact with - whether they be royal, ecclesiastic, aristocratic, or grass-roots.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559 by Steven Gunn, David Grummitt, Hans Cools

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War, State, and Society in England and the Netherlands 1477-1559






Exploring the effects of war on state power in early modern Europe, this book asks if military competition increased rulers' power over their subjects and forged more modern states, or if the strains of war broke down political and administrative systems. Comparing England and the Netherlands in the age of warrior princes such as Henry VIII and Charles V, it examines the development of new military and fiscal institutions, and asks how mobilization for war changed political relationships throughout society.

Towns in England, such as Norwich, York, Exeter, and Rye, are compared with towns in the Netherlands, such as Antwerp, Leiden, 's-Hertogenbosch and Valenciennes, to see how the magistrates' relations with central government and the urban populace were modified by war. Great noblemen from the Howard and Percy families are set alongside their equivalents from the houses of Cro and Egmond to examine the role of recruitment, army command, and heroic reputation in maintaining noble power. The wider interactions of subjects and rulers in wartime are reviewed to measure how effectively war extended princes' claims on their subjects' loyalty and service, their ambitions to control news and opinion and to promote national identity, and their ability to manage the economy and harness religious change to dynastic purposes. 

The result is a compelling but nuanced picture of societies and polities tested and shaped by the pressures of ever more demanding warfare.

The Rise and Fall of a Champenois Dynasty in the Age of the Crusades, c. 950–1356 by Guy Perry

The BriennesThe Briennes were a highly important aristocratic family who hailed from the Champagne region of north-eastern France, but whose reach and impact extended across Europe and into the Crusader States in the Middle East. It is a highly dramatic and wide-ranging story of medieval mobility, not only up and down the social ladder, but in geographical terms as well. Although the Briennes were one of the great dynasties of the central Middle Ages, this book represents the first comprehensive history of the family. Taking the form of parallel biographies and arranged broadly chronologically, it explores not only their rise, glory and fall, but also how they helped to shape the very nature of the emerging European state system. This book will appeal to students and scholars of medieval France, the Mediterranean world, the Crusades and the central Middle Ages.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Review: Scottish Series by Clio Gray

Down in the coalmine, underneath the ground
Where a gleam of sunshine never can be found
Digging up the dusky diamonds all the seasons round
Deep down in the coalmine, underneath the ground


I came to this series after reading Gray's "Legacy of the Lynx" so was looking forward to a change of scenery - 1860s Scotland - a time of pivotal change in the Scottish Highlands. Poverty had always been one of the main reason for Scottish emigration. Two-thirds of the land is harsh – rocky, ill-drained, swept by rain-bearing winds off the Atlantic, and far from the centre of Mediterranean and European trade and culture. The first Scottish communities away from home were founded by traders.

In the 1800s, Scotland's population was on the decrease - until about 1855, when a vast number of the local population of the Highlands were forced to leave the land because of enforced evictions. In the Lowlands, emigration was almost always the outcome of wanting to improve one’s living standards. 

Scottish MysteriesThe eviction of Highlanders from their homes peaked in the 1840s and early 1850s as the Highland economy had collapsed, while the population still rose. When the earnings from kelp production and black cattle dried up, the landlords saw sheep as a more profitable alternative. The introduction of sheep meant the removal of people, and this become known as ‘the Clearances’. Combined with the prospect of starvation faced by much of the crofting population when the potato crop failed in the late 1830s and again in the late 1840s, emigration seemed the only option. 

The Emigration Act of 1851, however, made emigration more accessible to the poorest, with the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society set up to manage the process of resettlement. The Duke of Sutherland was one of a number of landlords who financed emigration schemes. The main exodus occurred in the islands, particularly Skye, Mull, the Long Island and the mainland parishes of the Inner Sound. After 1855, mass evictions were unusual and emigration became more a matter of choice than compulsion. Between 1855 and 1895 the decline in the Highland population was actually less than in the rural Lowlands. 


So a little bit about each of the books in the series and the historical background before I get down to the review. 

Book One: The Broro Murders (aka: Deadly Prospects) 
Deadly Prospects: A gripping historical thriller with a brilliant twist (Scottish Mysteries Book 1) by [Gray, Clio]1869, Sutherland, Scotland, and the Kildonan Gold Rush is in full swing. And then one of the panners is murdered, and strange scratchings left on stones where he is found. Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay are on hand to investigate the extent of the Gold Rush, and it falls to them to solve this murder, and the others that soon follow. 

Historical Background: 
Sutherland: isolated, remote, with rugged mountains, steep cliffs and deep fjords, dates from viking times. This was the home of the powerful and warlike Clan Mackay, and was considered relatively poor compared to rest of Scotland, with the majority of its people eking out a living from fishing. 

Sutherland is perhaps best known for the Highland Clearances, the eviction of tenants from their homes and/or associated farmland in the 18th and 19th centuries century by the landowners. Typically, this was to make way for large sheep farms (see above). The Sutherland Estate (consisting of about two thirds of the county) had the largest scale clearances that occurred in the Highlands, much of this being carried out in 1812, 1814 and 1819-20. In this last period (the largest of the three listed), 1,068 families were evicted: representing an estimated 5,400 people. This population was provided with resettlement in coastal areas, with employment available in fishing or other industries. However, many instead moved to farms in Caithness or left Scotland to emigrate to Canada, the US or Australia.

The Brora Mine was indeed owned by the Dukes of Sutherland up to 1873. Although the area was already being mined, this particular colliery came into existence (c.1810) as a result of a partnership between William Hughes, a mining engineer and William Young, lawyer and a sub factor of the Sutherland Estate (who became infamous for his part in the Clearances under Elizabeth, Countess & Duchess of Sutherland d.1839). Work continued in 1814 and 1815 not only on the mine but on the surrounding infrastructure, including a distillery, the development of a harbour and a railway to take the coal down to the sea. It was, however, during this period, financial challenges, mismanagement and accidents beset the mine before a survey by mining engineer, William Bald, reported favourably about the coal. Despite some misgivings the Sutherland family continued to back Young financially even though expenditure was vastly exceeding estimates. It all soon fell apart. The salt tax was abolished in 1823; its production then became unremunerative, and as coal was not in much demand among a people who were accustomed to, and could easily get, plenty of peat, the Brora works, after languishing for nearly five years with the 2nd Duke unwilling to sanction further expenses, were closed in 1828.

However, in 1872, the 3rd Duke of Sutherland re-opened Brora Colliery, and for a number of years had it under estate management. Queen Victoria visited the mine just after its reopening, travelling on the newly completed railway pulled by a locomotive named “Florence”. The colliery was managed by M.Crowe in 1893 before being leased to a Mr John Melville (c.1896). From this point, coal was mined for manufacturing purposes - specifically salt - and was eventually abandoned in 1975. It was the only Jurassic coal mine in Scotland and was never taken into state ownership. 

The Kildonan Gold Rush was a gold rush that occurred in the Strath of Kildonan, Sutherland, in the Highlands of Scotland in 1869. Gold was first discovered in the area in 1818 when a solitary nugget of gold weighing about ten pennyweights was found in the River Helmsdale. It is claimed a ring was made out of this and is in the possession of the Sutherland family. But when public interest was sparked following a newspaper announcement in 1868, a gold rush started. 

The credit for the discovery goes to Robert Nelson Gilchrist, a native of Kildonan, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia. On his return home, he was given the permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the Helmsdale River. Many of the prospectors were novices but a hard core of miners from Australia and America helped to provide some much-needed expertise in gold recovery. In April 1869, however, the Duke of Sutherland introduced a system of licenses which cost one pound per month for each claim measuring 40 square feet. In addition to this, the prospectors were expected to pay a royalty of 10% on all gold found; not surprisingly, much gold was never declared but was used in barter for food, tools and accommodation. Two small 'towns' had come into being. Baille an Or - a settlement of huts (shanty town) catering for over 600 prospectors - was established by the banks of the Kildonan Burn, and Carn na Buth (meaning Hill of the Tents) served the workers on the Suisgill Burn. Very soon a 'saloon' was added to the Town of Gold (Baille an Or) and provided meals and accommodation for the mining fraternity.

However, the falling price of gold coupled with diminishing levels of finds and better opportunities in the local herring fishery, meant numbers fell to around 50 by the autumn. The Duke was losing potential income from salmon fishermen and deer stalkers, so in December he announced that “all exploration for gold would cease with effect from 1 January 1870"; despite this, the lure of gold tempted several opportunists over the following years.


Book Two: Burning Secrets 
Burning Secrets: A gripping historical mystery (Scottish Mysteries Book 2) by [Gray, Clio]1869, Strontian, Scotland, a village on Ardnamurchan Peninsula, is inhabited by mining folk and crofters, eking out a living from the unforgiving land and turning a blind eye to the smugglers who plague the coast. But one man sets himself apart from the rest – Gustav Wengler, the owner of the mine and an eccentric mathematician, who isolates himself on Havengore Island with a collection of unexplained white monuments. His assistant Archie Louden acts as his only envoy to the outer world; however Archie never makes it home from an important mission to Copenhagen. 

Historical background: 
In 1830 sources write that "The village of Strontian is very pleasantly situated, directly at the head of Loch Sunart, the hills adjoining to which are crowned with beautiful and very thriving plantations. The Loch itself is here extremely picturesque ... In a neighbourhood civilized and populous it would speedily become a favourite retreat." 

In the 1830s, residents from Strontian and the surrounding area were among the first to use the "Bounty Scheme" to emigrate to Australia. The Brilliant, a Canadian-built ship, sailed from Tobermory to New South Wales in 1837 with 322 passengers, 105 of whom were from Ardnamurchan and Strontian. The Bounty Scheme, which ran from 1835 to 1841, was proposed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield as a way for Australian settlers to subsidise the emigration of skilled tradespeople from Britain. 

In the hills to the north of Strontian, lead was mined in the 18th century and in these mines the mineral strontianite was discovered, from which the element strontium was first isolated. The history of mining in the Strontian area dates to 1722. The first large-scale application of strontium was in the production of sugar from sugar beet. Although a crystallisation process using strontium hydroxide was patented by Augustin-Pierre Dubrunfaut in 1849, the large-scale introduction came with the improvement of the process in the early 1870s. The Strontian mine was abandoned by June 1889.


Book Three: Hidden Pasts 
Hidden Pasts: A gripping historical thriller (Scottish Mysteries Book 3) by [Gray, Clio]Hestan Island, marooned in the Solway Firth, is tethered to the mainland at low tide by a causeway called The Rack; Hestan was home to two men quietly living out their lives, until a boy is almost crushed to death in their tiny copper mine, when their shared past begins to unravel. Over at Balcary House, Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay arrive, and soon become involved in the affairs on Hestan, which in turn leads them back through the bloody wars of Crimea and the lands of the Tartars. 

Historical Background: 
The isle of Hestan lies at the mouth of Auchencairn Bay in the region of Dumfries and Galloway in the former county of Kirkcudbrightshire. A lighthouse was built on the eastern side of the island by Alan Stevenson in 1850, with a small cottage of the light-keeper. Other notable buildings in the are include Balcary Tower, built c. 1860, for the french mistress one one Colonel Johnstone when he was Laird of Auchencairn House, which itself was built around this time for Ivie Mackie, Lord Mayor of Manchester (1857 - 1860) - though I can find very little on any of these real-life characters! 

At certain conditions of low tide the island is accessible on foot as there is a natural causeway of shingle and mussels from Almorness Point to the northern tip of Hestan (known as The Rack). The island can also be reached on foot from Rockcliffe during the time of spring tides, but requires wading knee deep across the lowest parts of the river Urr out on the mudflats. 

At the southern tip of the island are the so-called “Daft Ann’s Steps”, a series of rocky outcrops that jut out into the sea and are permanently submerged. Apparently they take their name from a girl who lived in the nearby village of Auchencairn. She drowned while attempting to reach the mainland from the south end of the island via the “steps”, instead of using the longer but safer approach from the north. 

In the 18th century the island was used as a centre of smuggling activity, with goods being stored in the caves on the south west of the island where there was reputed to have been shelves cut into the rock. Balcary House, on the opposite shore, now Balcary Bay Hotel, was used by a firm of smugglers - the Mull of Galloway Smuggling Company (established by Messrs Thomas Clark, Hugh Crain and Matthew Quirk, and Englishman Richard Barton). These smugglers used its cellars to conceal their contraband (mainly salt) and was said to have been large enough to house 200 horses!. One of the more colourful local characters of this period was Johnnie Girr and the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright was the birthplace of one John Paul Jones, whose friends and enemies alike would accuse him of piracy!.

As Walter Scott observed: “Smuggling was almost universal in Scotland for people unaccustomed to imposts and regarding them as an unjust aggression upon their ancient liberties; made no scruples to elude them where it was possible to do so.” Solway Firth and Galloway is said to have provided some of the most active smuggling routes in the country, with the proximity to the English Border making it the stop-off of choice for those shifting illegal goods. Much of the contraband was stored on the Isle of Man - which was independent during the 18th Century - and brought in fast moving smuggling fleets to the Scottish mainland. The poet Robert Burns was amongst those trying to halt the free traders in the area after being appointed an excise man at Dumfries in 1791.

Now the mining theme for this outing is copper. Hestan has had copper mines on the eastern side of the island since the 1840s, though this could hardly be considered as a large-scale operation as the island itself measures approximately 460 by 270 metres. The copper mined from Hestan was shipped to Swansea.


The stories in Clio Gray's "Scottish Mysteries" are spread across both the Scandinavian world and northern Scotland. For centuries there were political links across the North Sea. The first Viking raid on Iona is thought to have taken part in 794, and much of the Hebrides and Caithness would come under Norse rule. Orkney and Shetland continued to be earldoms under Norway until 1468. This settlement resulted in the Scandinavian-derived Norn language being spoken on Orkney and Shetland until the 18th Century, and influencing the Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects to this day.

As RM Ballantyne in Erling the Bold (1869) says: "Yes, there is perhaps more of Norse blood in your veins than you wot of, reader, whether you be English or Scotch; for those sturdy sea rovers invaded our lands from north, south, east, and west many a time in days gone by, and held it in possession for centuries at a time, leaving a lasting and beneficial impress on our customs and characters. We have good reason to regard their memory with respect and gratitude, despite their faults and sins, for much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, of our intense love of freedom and fairplay, are pith, pluck, enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old Sea-kings of Norway!"

Each of the books feature a mining theme: coal and gold, strontium, copper; as well as links to events in the past. As we are taken on a journey over the northern parts of Scotland, what I appreciated in the all the books was the location map - for whilst I was familiar with a few of the place names, the maps help put things into perspective. 

The author makes use of the chapters to introduce characters that form part of the narrative - whether fleetingly or on a more permanent basis - so the setting of each scene is crafted before things begin to take off. I especially enjoyed the characters of Brogar Finn and Sholto McKay, trouble-shooters for the Pan-European Mining Company, who make a nice change from your standard fictional amateur investigator.

With each book, Gray tempts us - the reader - with a story peppered with well researched historical fact and a carefully woven plot, that like the dangerous quicksand of the Solway Firth mudflats, can suck the reader in unawares, escape being nigh on impossible.


further reading:
Scottish Mining website
Smugglers Britain
Scandinavian Scotland






The Sultan's Renegades by Tobias P. Graf

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The Sultans Renegades






The figure of the renegade - a European Christian or Jew who had converted to Islam and was now serving the Ottoman sultan - is omnipresent in all genres produced by those early modern Christian Europeans who wrote about the Ottoman Empire. As few contemporaries failed to remark, converts were disproportionately represented among those who governed, administered, and fought for the sultan. Unsurprisingly, therefore, renegades have attracted considerable attention from historians of Europe as well as students of European literature. Until very recently, however, Ottomanists have been surprisingly silent on the presence of Christian-European converts in the Ottoman military-administrative elite.

The Sultan's Renegades inserts these 'foreign' converts into the context of Ottoman elite life to reorient the discussion of these individuals away from the present focus on their exceptionality, towards a qualified appreciation of their place in the Ottoman imperial enterprise and the Empire's relations with its neighbours in Christian Europe. Drawing heavily on Central European sources, this study highlights the deep political, religious, and cultural entanglements between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe beyond the Mediterranean Basin as the 'shared world' par excellence. The existence of such trans-imperial subjects is not only symptomatic of the Empire's ability to attract and integrate people of a great diversity of backgrounds, it also illustrates the extent to which the Ottomans participated in processes of religious polarization usually considered typical of Christian Europe in this period. Nevertheless, Christian Europeans remained ambivalent about those they dismissed as apostates and traitors, frequently relying on them for support in the pursuit of familial and political interests.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Emotions in a Crusading Context, 1095-1291 by Stephen J. Spencer

Cover for 

Emotions in a Crusading Context, 1095-1291






Emotions in a Crusading Context is the first book-length study of the emotional rhetoric of crusading. It investigates the ways in which a number of emotions and affective displays — primarily fear, anger, and weeping — were understood, represented, and utilized in twelfth- and thirteenth-century western narratives of the crusades, making use of a broad range of comparative material to gauge the distinctiveness of those texts: crusader letters, papal encyclicals, model sermons, chansons de geste, lyrics, and an array of theological and philosophical treatises. In addition to charting continuities and changes over time in the emotional landscape of crusading, this study identifies the underlying influences which shaped how medieval authors represented and used emotions; analyzes the passions crusade participants were expected to embrace and reject; and assesses whether the idea of crusading created a profoundly new set of attitudes towards emotions.

Emotions in a Crusading Context calls on scholars of the crusades to reject the traditional methodological approach of taking the emotional descriptions embedded within historical narratives as straightforward reflections of protagonists' lived feelings, and in so doing challenges the long historiographical tradition of reconstructing participants' beliefs and experiences from these texts. Within the history of emotions, Stephen J. Spencer demonstrates that, despite the ongoing drive to develop new methodologies for studying the emotional standards of the past, typified by experiments in 'neurohistory', the social constructionist (or cultural-historical) approach still has much to offer the historian of medieval emotions.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

An English Varangian by Gabriel Stein

An English Varangian by [Stein, Gabriel ]An English Revenge:
The greatest battle lies within…
England is at war.
Edmund has fought the Normans all his life.

But as the rebellions fail, Edmund leaves England and eventually travels to Constantinople, where he joins the Byzantine Emperor's elite Varangian Guard.  Yet Edmund is at war with himself too, torn between his new life and his dreams of revenge against the Normans - of leading an army of battle-hardened Englishmen back home to restore an English King.  But not all will go according to plan. War - and revenge - always exacts a price.


An English King:
Constantinopolis. 1096.
Sometimes the enemy comes from within.

Edmund’s dream is to lead an army of battle-hardened warriors back home and expel the Normans from England.  But there are rumours of a new threat. Large hosts of armed Latins – westerners – are marching towards the city, brandishing the sign of the Cross. One of the Crusader leaders is Bohemond of Taranto.  England will have to wait, while Edmund is tasked by his Emperor with a delicate and dangerous assignment: find out if Bohemond is friend or enemy. And if he is an enemy – stop him.


An English Succession:
Constantinopolis. 1101.

With his adopted city threatened from both East and West, Edmund, an English warrior in the elite Varangian Guard of the Byzantine Empire, faces plenty of combat. But he is getting old and he is feeling it.  When his Emperor tells Edmund that there is one last task for him, Edmund cannot refuse.  In the meantime, Edmund’s wife Irene is hiding something from him.   Once again, Edmund’s body and spirit will be tried to the utmost, with fate throwing up new challenges to the very end.


Monday, November 4, 2019

Review: Tomb for an Eagle by Lexie Conyngham

41883100. sy475 Sysnopsis: A man lies under the tawny earth, hands still clutching the knife that killed him. Thorfinn Sigurdarson, Earl of all Orkney and Caithness, has made a mistake, and he won’t let himself forget it. Now rumours have started in the Norse lands that he might be getting a second chance – but should he take it, when it means that dead men are walking?

Thorfinn Sigurdsson - Thorfinn the Mighty - was the youngest of the sons of Earl Sigurd "the Stout" Hlodvirsson, each of whom would also bear the title Earl of Orkney.  The inheritance was initially divided among the three older brothers as Thorfinn was said to have been only five years old at the time, then held the lands jointly with his nephew, Rögnvald Brusason.  Thorfinn had an exceptional pedigree being the grandson of Malcolm II of Scotland and the great-grandson of Thorfinn "Skull-Splitter".

The Heimskringla of Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson, and the anonymous compiler of the Orkneyinga Saga wrote that Thorfinn was the most powerful of all the earls of Orkney and that he ruled substantial territories beyond the Northern Isles. A sizeable part of the latter saga's account concerns his wars with a "King of Scots" named Karl Hundason whose identity is uncertain. In his later years he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and he was instrumental in making Orkney and Shetland part of mainstream Christendom. On his death in the latter half of the 11th century (the actual date still in dispute even today), his sons inherited.  Thorfinn was buried in the grounds of the Christchurch he built at Birsay, on Orkney, since replaced by St Magnus Church.

Our story is set after Thorfinn's pilgramage to Rome (1048) and at a time when Birsay was undergoing a bit of a construction boom. The Orkneyinga saga suggests that, as a result of Thorfinn's request, the first Bishop of Orkney - possibly Thorulf - was appointed at about this time (c.1035) - even these dates don't marry up!. The original seat of the bishops of Orkney was Thorfinn's new Christ Kirk at Birsay, (or perhaps the Brough of Birsay), near the Earl's palace where Thorfinn had his residence in his later years. Much about Thorfinn and his reign is rather ambiguous.

This period in history, of which I consider myself to be fairly widely and well read, should have provided the perfect backdrop for murder and skullduggery, with a plethora of characters to choose from for both perpetrator and victim.  However, the story was so slow to start that it really did fail to capture my full attention, and the characters themselves felt flat, almost but not quite, one dimensional.  I skipped through pages, hoping that - when the body is found - that things would pick up; sadly they did not.

For me, I would rather take on the real man; though I applaud the author for taking on a larger than life character and choosing a different period in time in which to set their story. There is a book two (see below for details), however, I won't be pursuing this series.


A Wolf at the Gate:
Ketil had not intended to return to Orkney, but when you work for Thorfinn Sigurdarson, you obey orders. Thorfinn wants him back to help with a visiting Abbot from Saxony, escorted by an old colleague of Ketil's. Then people who know the Abbot start dying, and Ketil must once again work with his friend Sigrid to find out why - and to face dark memories from his own past.This is the second in the Orkneyinga Murders series.


further reading
Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney, trans Pálsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul Geoffrey
Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, trans Lee M. Hollander 
Thorfinn the Mighty: The Ultimate Viking by George M. Brunsden