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Book review -Essex Tudor Rebel by Tony Riches

Genre – Historical. This is the second book in Tony Riche’s Elizabethan series.

The story is set in England during the later years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth 1. It follows the life of Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, from his father’s death in Ireland in 1576, leaving him “the poorest earl in England” to his own death in 1601.

It is peopled with a wide range of historical characters including Robert’s cold, distant and ambitious mother, his sisters Penelope and Dorothy and his younger brother Wat. Queen Elizabeth herself, an ever-present background threat, is onstage at times, along with Drake, Raleigh and the queen’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who becomes the young Robert’s stepfather and friend.

Each chapter is from a different time period, chronicling every twist and turn of Robert’s life, year by year. It describes in great detail his childhood separation from his family, his increasingly difficult relations with the powerful Cecils, his warm relationships with his sisters and supporters such as valet Anthony Bagot and lifelong friend Gelly Meyrick.

As the growing boy becomes a young man, he transforms from impoverished ward of the Cecils to an ambitious young courtier who quickly supplants his stepfather in the dangerous position of the queen’s favourite.

From the first chapter, I was impressed by the everyday details of 16th century life from lace coifs and beeswax candles to manchet bread and the steps of the galliard.

“After three quick hops with alternate feet, on the word cadence, Robert jumped, landing with one leg ahead of the other, in a move called the posture.”

Every intrigue Robert participates in throughout his life is described, from the ongoing military campaigns and plotting by and against the Spanish, to the many court intrigues and rivalries of the Elizabethan court.  The end result is a wealth of convincing detail which left me with a much greater knowledge of this famous nobleman, courtier and military general.

Despite being surrounded for most of his life by those who seek to guide him, Robert remains prey to others who, jealous of his position at court, seek to profit from him or to oust him. Somewhat surprisingly for the modern reader, having been born the poorest earl in England leads Robert, in the author’s portrayal of him, into a lifelong and fruitless quest to restore his fortunes. He is hampered by his inherited love of gambling, by his fondness for beautiful women, and by the cynical use the queen makes of her leading courtiers. In his anxiety to please her, Robert is led further and further into debt as he repeatedly raises troops at his own expense to fight military campaigns.

I could not fault the historical detail.  The author resists the temptation of describing only the romantic side of the era. London’s Strand is already dominated by great houses, but St Paul’s cathedral has only a broken spire and the sound of bear-baiting drifts across the Thames. Yet Robert Devereux himself remained elusive. Despite the many dramatic events described, it was only in the closing scenes that I felt the emotion behind this doomed and tragic figure.

Like many established historical novelists, Tony Riches sticks closely to the facts and includes as much as possible about his subject. It might be interesting if he adopted a slightly different approach, focussing on a few of the major episodes. This would give him the opportunity of bringing each event to life, even if it means taking chances, rather than risking it being overshadowed by a swift transition to the next. This is the first novel I have read by this successful author, but it will probably not be the last.

A turd in your teeth (and other colourful insults)

Image by reki-woo- Unsplash

I came upon this pungent epithet in a book by Ruth Goodman on renaissance Britain. Roughly translates as “eat shit”! Many people know that popular swear words like “struth” originated in the more religious times of pre Reformation England when “shock factor” in swearing came from using sacred words to add colour and emphasis to speech. (“God’s truth”). That one evolved (or lingered?) in Australia. Anyone heard this being used elsewhere in the English-speaking world?

Parts of the body on the other hand – those parts which now are regularly used as insults were once used quite matter of factly, and were not considered “rude”, resulting in common place names like “Gropecunt Lane” in Cheapside, London. There was a wide variety of puns in use for body parts as well. Arse was the usual term for backside, which everyone knows today, but perhaps not “postern” as in postern gate (an entrance), stern (as in the back of a ship) or (my favourite for being totally obscure) caudel, which was a popular hot drink for pregnant women and invalids, because “cauda” is Latin for tail.

Sex acts naturally spawned (sorry) a wide range of jokey terms and euphemisms. “Riding St George” was an imaginative term for sex with the woman on top, while “milking” was sex-for-one.

I was surprised to learn that the term “bobtail” meant not only a horse with its tail docked but a loose woman. Gave a somewhat different meaning to the bedraggled and defeated army in Tawny Sash arriving at Basing House.

The drums, silent for much of the night, started up again so that the tag, rag and bobtail crowd might march through Garrison Gate like soldiers.

What the heck – I decided to leave it in. And “ladybird” apparently means the same as “bobtail”. Which the nurse calls Juliet… but of course everyone knows the nurse is not sweet and innocent. Makes me wonder though why a dear friend gave me a teacup covered in ladybirds.

Image Vincent van Zalinge – unsplash

First wipe your spoon

He took a last mouthful of potage, wiped the worst of the mess off his spoon and replaced it in his purse.

The Tawny Sash

I may have mentioned before the common misconception (born of Hollywood) that table manners were non existent during the times of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Wrong! Sitting down to eat with unwashed hands was an absolute no-no.

But it was only when I started researching the civilian aspects of 17th century life that I discovered cutlery was pretty much BYO. Only in the houses of the wealthy were you likely to find cutlery for your personal use (possibly silver) beside your trencher.

If you were incredibly lucky, you might have encountered knives with musical notes on the blade, known as notation knives. This would enable grace to be sung before and after the meal. The one in the possession of the Victoria and Albert museum was the inspiration for this scene from The Tawny Sash.

Did you ever see the singing knives from Italy?

No, Father.”

“Nor will you, for they are gone. The first Marquess bought them. Fine silver knives, the blades engraved with musical parts, with Latin prayers. They are a part of the birth right of the present fifth Marquess. They have disappeared and who would take them but one of the Protestants in the garrison, for their private gain?”

You were unlikely to encounter forks except in the grand houses belonging to a handful of “early adoptors” – gentry who had seen them in France. Forks, for those who used them, were for pinning down your food while cutting it with your knife. Nobody at that time thought you should put the fork, if you had one, in your mouth!

The use of forks was similarly frowned on in the American colonies in the 1630s, but the gradual increase in their use, combined with the change in the shape of knife blades, led to different fork etiquette evolving on each side of the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. Americans cut food up and then switch the fork to their right hand, while Europeans “hang on to their knives” as an American character in a novel complained.

Knives and spoons, on the other hand were in universal use, but that did not mean they were necessarily provided by your host. Carrying your knife and spoon was like carrying your mobile phone today. Soldiers carried them on campaign. Civil war armies supplied their soldiers with snapsacks (a kind of kitbag) but no cutlery.

Roundhead soldiers screamed abuse at other men rifling through their handful of belongings, while their comrades tried to drag them away. Horn spoons, eating knives, odds and ends of match and ribbon, a cup, a wooden fife, a small soldiers’ bible and a tattered blanket, all strewn in the mud.

(The Tawny Sash)

In the Great Hall of a manor or castle, everyone ate together in the sense of under a single roof. What we now call share plates were the order of the day. People ate in “messes”, usually of four. The word “mess” has survived in this context for the military.

Everybody ate from their own plate, but if a bowl of soup or stew was brought to the table it was shared between the four people, who all ate from the same dish with their spoons. At the end of that course, hygiene consisted of wiping your spoon on a napkin before reusing it for the next course.

As to the idea that floors were covered in dirty rushes and dogs chewing bones, contemporary books of etiquette prohibit throwing bones on the floor (or spitting). Left overs from each person’s plate were placed in a “voider” which was removed, and the table cloth brushed, at the end of each course. Diners were to wipe their messy hands and mouth on their shoulder napkins, not on the tablecloth!

And after dinner and supper “the place to be swept and kept clean and sweet, with perfumes, flowers, herbs, and boughs in their season,” instructed the young Viscount Montague in his “book of orders and rules“, a last ditch attempt to make his sloppy household staff behave properly.

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/a/a-notation-knife/

Book review- Fireflies and Chocolate by Ailish Sinclair

This historical romance, by the Scottish author of The Mermaid and the Bear, continues following the Monteith family. Sinclair’s second novel is set in the 1740s during the fateful years leading up to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion and its aftermath. Beginning in the castle near Aberdeen, the action quickly shifts away from Scotland however, with most of the story taking place on a tobacco plantation in Pennsylvania.  The Scottish heroine, Lady Elizabeth Monteith from “the castle” is kidnapped from her native Scotland and views its tragedy from the far-off American colonies. She is sold as an indentured servant, cook to an enlightened, mysterious “master”, Michael.

The novel is written in the first person with Beth relating the events in chronological order. Elizabeth, or “Beth” as she becomes, is a warm, likeable and very determined character. Her humanity and sense of humour rarely desert her. It is only in the aftermath of Culloden when she hears of the Jacobite defeat that her resilience flags and she succumbs to depression. Wisely, Sinclair chooses not to second guess the events of Culloden. Although most readers will already know the outcome of the Jacobite rising, Beth does not and a suitable period of time rolls by until the news crosses the ocean from Scotland.

The story follows Beth’s transformation from scared teenage captive to a capable and confident, practical young woman as she adapts to her new situation, ultimately leading to a decision between the old life and the new. It is set against the background of slavery, the social inequalities between free whites, indentured servants, native Americans and black slaves. Beth has a disarming acceptance of all races which today might be dismissed as “colour blindness” but in the context of an 18th century character is refreshing. Relations between the different racial and social groups are handed sensitively, even if it is sometimes a little difficult to believe in Beth’s naïve and childlike views.

There is an interesting range of characters from the evil (historical) Alexander Young, first mate on the ship which transports Beth to her new life, to the central figures of Sarah, the unpleasant Mrs Sauer, the elderly man Comfort and the two men in Beth’s life. Peter, her young companion in captivity, a fellow Scot, disappears from the story for much of the book, while Michael, the manager of the estates, emerges from the shadows in a series of revelations and surprising twists. 

The sense of time and place is well drawn; and the modest sprinkling of Scottish dialect words adds to the authentic voice of the narrator. Despite the central themes of slavery and racial intolerance, the occasional savagery of a scene (the pregnant Nivvie being whipped by the foreman) and the references to the brutal traitors’ deaths of the captured Jacobites, this is a gentle, hopeful and entertaining book. The plot keeps the reader guessing its outcome until the very last page.

(And) when did you last see your father?

When Did You Last See Your Father? - History

The Victorians have a lot to answer for. I love this famous 19th century painting by Yeames, with all its colourful, misleading detail. The bad guys are dressed in black with tall hats. The good guys (who are mainly damsels in distress) wear lace, velvet, satin. Unfortunately for the story, it is somewhat spoiled by the fact that King Charles I, the doomed commander of The Other Side also sometimes dressed in black.

Yes, Puritans wore clothes in dark, subdued colours, but so did many people, and the wealthy wore black as a sign of wealth. Black dyed cloth was very expensive. Hats with tall crowns were popular, whatever your political leanings.

But we shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Victorians were romantics and so the image of the ‘romantic’ cavalier, heroes dressed always in silks and satin, was born. Sadly this contrasted with the reality which on closer investigation was often plundering troops, drunken officers who turned a blind eye.

The king’s nephew, the handsome, brilliant cavalry commander Prince Rupert, paid so little attention to the niceties of how to treat civilians that he was nicknamed “Prince Robber”. Disorganised royalist supply chains partly explained the plundering; and a haphazard approach to medical care which often left the sick and wounded royalist soldier at the mercy of the goodness of the local populace. Parliament on the other hand set up some proper hospitals for their own forces.

He pushed past her to see two malignant soldiers… setting down a make shift stretcher on the floor of his parlour. On it lay an unconscious man, presumably an officer, ashen faced. His white shirt and pale blue breeches were soaked in blood. A young officer was bending over the stretcher … Seeing the minister he gave a stiff nod.

“Sir, I require you to allow our Captain to be tended here. He is gravely wounded. … I understand you are the minister for this village and I have judged your house the most proper place …”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

And returning to the vexed question of military attire – this is how cavalry on both sides dressed on the battlefield. And yes, it got very confusing at times.

Cavalry uniform 1640s Britain

A mass of Horse ahead, men fighting, dimly seen through smoke-drenched air. The din like a thousand tinkers mending pots that was the clash of swords, the steady beat of drums, screams from man and horse alike… an officer riding right at him, an enemy officer. But no, that could not be, for Will had seen the white paper in the man’s helmet, the token that declared him a king’s man. “Hold!” That had been his own voice. Flinging up his left hand and dropping the reins. “God with us” he had shouted, but the man struck with his sword.

(From The Tawny Sash)

And not a plumed hat in sight!

Tracking the Real Virginia: The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck’s sixth novel The Invisible Woman (PenguinRandomHouse 2021), is something of a departure from her previous works. Robuck is best known for “wife-of-famous-male-writer” plots, as the author herself describes it.  Ernest Hemingway’s wife Pauline in Hemingway’s Girl (Berkley 2012) and Zelda Fitzgerald in Call me Zelda (Penguin Group USA 2013) are typical examples. In 2014, Robuck was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year.

In her latest novel, Robuck once more chooses a real-life story featuring an American woman of the 20th century, but this time the woman, Virginia Hall, World War II spy in occupied France, is the centre of the story. The man in her life, who she later married, is only introduced towards the end of the book. “Paul came late to the war and their story began after most of her work was complete,” Robuck says. “It felt like a breath of fresh air that she would meet him when she did.”

Robuck is constantly seeking “extraordinary people from the past who come from places familiar to me, or to whom I feel a personal connection”. Virginia hit the mark on both counts, growing up in Robuck’s home state of Maryland and being such an extraordinary woman that Robuck suggests she could launch a subgenre of “husband-of-famous-woman” books. Virginia was an unlikely choice for an undercover spy in a foreign country. Although, as her niece described her to Robuck she was “intimidating and scary-smart” she came with two great disadvantages – one was that despite being fluent in French she spoke it with a strong American accent. The second was that she had lost a leg below the knee following a hunting accident in her twenties.  Her wooden prosthetic leg (nicknamed Cuthbert) gave her a pronounced limp. Once the Gestapo discovered her existence, they called her “The Limping Lady”.

Robuck overcame a number of challenges writing the book. First was the difficulty of writing it in the Covid year of 2020 which ruled out her travelling to the site of the events of the novel. Virginia Hall’s work covered in the story took place in France, while Robuck lives in the USA. For settings, she relied on Youtube, firsthand accounts, and her video treadmill that allowed her to “walk” and “hike” the paths Virginia traveled.

Fortunately, a great deal of material exists about this woman who was not only a much-decorated war heroine, but an early member of the CIA. Robuck researched her subject using periodicals, biographies, buried mentions in war memoirs, even Virginia’s declassified personal files at the National Archives to get the details of her missions. Some of the source material was written in French. She was thrilled at being granted access as a researcher to the museum at CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Among the exhibits are Virginia’s Distinguished Service Cross, one of her passports, and a wireless transceiver, tricks of the trade (including rat “letterboxes”), and a painting of Virginia Hall with one of her maquisards—“Les marguerites fleuriront ce soir” (the daisies will bloom at night).

Perhaps more important to Robuck’s research was Virginia’s niece Lorna in Baltimore who Robuck met with many times. Lorna coloured in the details behind the “black and white sketch” Robuck had built up, “with her photographs, artifacts, and remembrances of her ‘Aunt Dindy’.”

author photo by Catsh Photography

Next came the task of making this brilliant and forceful character, the ultimate strong woman, into a heroine that readers of a novel could sympathize with and wish to succeed. Robuck confesses that this was difficult. Multiple readers gave feedback that she needed to make Virginia more likeable. Even Virginia’s landing partner on her third mission did not think highly of her because of how she cut him off from the network. Several leaders of French resistance fighters had contentious relationships with her. The dangerous rivalries between groups reminiscent of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the insubordination from male resistance leaders resentful of having a female commander imposed upon them, all contributed to Virginia as an unapproachable figure. It was Robuck’s editor, Amanda Bergeron, who suggested a solution to the problem might be giving the reader a look at young Virginia in a prologue. Robuck took her up on the idea, showing Virginia before the war and all its losses—not only before the amputation—and the early days of Virginia’s love affair with Paris.

The last major challenge was deciding on which parts of Virginia’s life to focus on. After training by the British she spent 13 months in France in 1941-42, working for the United Kingdom’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE). She organized spy networks, ran safehouses, and delivered important intelligence to the British government – all while staying one step ahead of the Gestapo. After narrowly escaping from France, she returned in 1944 shortly before the D Day landings, this time working for the Americans.

It took two and a half years and four iterations of the novel, to find the story that needed to be told told, Robuck says. She began writing the book as a dual period novel including a female Iraq War veteran. The second version was a dual protagonist novel with another SOE agent, but Virginia “insisted this was all about her”. Robuck started the novel again, set during Hall’s first WWII mission to France, but decided that was all backstory. Finally, she wrote the novel as it is, set during Hall’s second WWII mission to France, overcoming the guilt and trauma of having survived the destruction by the Nazis of her first network, conquering her demons as she builds, arms and trains a new network. It was a painful exercise to chop all those pages, Robuck says, but the sacrifice has clearly been worthwhile.

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes fiction set in 17th century England during the English Civil War. Book 2 The Tawny Sash will be released in 2021. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature by AJ Lyndon first appeared on the website of the

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Ghostly warriors

“Would Byron’s men haunt the Down in years to come, a restless and wild eyed horde charging into the guns of Waller’s army for evermore?”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Visiting battle fields is a melancholy, but addictive, pursuit. At some places the air remains thick with the ghosts of the dead. I visited Culloden at the age of 11 with my parents and I still recall the shivers which ran down my spine as we inspected one weather-beaten clan memorial after another. In the days before the existence of a visitors’ centre, we were the only visitors on a summer’s day among a host of highland warrior war dead.

Since then (but sadly not in 2020) I have visited other battlefields, particularly those of the English Civil War.  Thanks to Zoom (and a certain amount of very early rising due to the time difference between the UK and Australia) I am currently able to participate in Battlefields Trust and National Army Museum talks on everything from Boudica to my personal consuming passion, Basing House. The other Zoomees clutch glasses of wine, while I hold a mug of coffee and wear a sweatshirt hastily tugged on over my PJs. It is an unexpected, beneficial side effect of the Plague Year.

But writing historical fiction about battlefields is so much easier when you have climbed the hill to appreciate a particular vantage point. Despite being partly obscured by trees, the view from Edgehill’s 700 ft high ridge of where the fighting took place below gives wonderful perspective.

“From his position high on Edgehill, Rafe … could see empty fields stretching before him, far down below…

So distant they could have been pieces on a chessboard, Rafe saw the forces of the enemy streaming onto the fields below the ridge. As he watched, the antlike columns assumed the shapes of men and horses. Regiments were taking their places, the patterns changing as they moved from marching order into battle formation.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

View of the battlefield from Edgehill

In other places both view and landscape have remained the same. I was so haunted by the carpet of poppies on Roundway Down above Devizes, with its associations of the Great War overlaying those of the 1643 cavalry battle between the forces of King and Parliament, that the photo became my screensaver for many months.

“He shuddered at the thought his corpse might be left upon the Down to rot…until nothing remained of him but bones bleaching among the poppies.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Roundway Down, Devizes

As I discovered when I began writing historical fiction, and searching for “what really happened”, the location of a battle is not always clear. Those present at the battle were not generally concerned with pinpointing the location for future generations. “Facts” in their reports were obscured by clouds of gun smoke, their inability to see the entire battlefield from where they were fighting, and the desire to portray their own performance in the best possible light.

They would refer to “a little hill”, a wood, or rising ground. Sometimes archaeologists come to the rescue when a dig uncovers civil war ammunition. This may pinpoint where the action took place, and what types of soldiers were fighting. Musket balls mean infantry or dragoons, while pistol suggests cavalry. A complete lack of any pistol (or musket) balls suggests the battle took place in a different location. If they are lying thickly in the ground it is evidence of heavy fighting (but beware, it might also mean the baggage train, with its stores of ammunition, was waylaid at that point).

For a writer of fiction, a dispute is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us more wiggle room. But it can be fantastic to get an indisputable feel and proof of how an event went horribly wrong.  Walking the site of the battle of Cheriton (March 1644), I became lost in the maze of narrow lanes the Royalist cavalry had charged down. So narrow I could touch them with both hands, no wonder the cavalry were beaten for the first time in open battle.

“Bramdean Lane was so narrow that it scarcely permitted the passage of two horses side by side. The enemy would pick his men off as they filed into the open two by two like the animals into Noah’s ark…

Behind him, the riders were forming up in two files, their movements hampered by the confinement of the lane and the musketeers crouching in the hedges.

… Ahead were confused sounds of fighting from the unseen battlefield, the clash of sword play, gunfire, screams of man and beast mingling with the urgent beat of drums.”

(From forthcoming novel The Tawny Sash)

Cheriton battle field

The best illustration for me was when visiting Chester in 2018. King Charles I was said to have “watched the battle” of Rowton Moor, which lay outside the city, from a tower on the city walls now known as “The King’s Tower”. My guide took me inside the tower where I inspected the view from the window. Then she drove me out to the site of the battle which, even today, remains well outside Chester’s suburbs. I tramped across the rising ground (now farmland) and agreed with her that even with a telescope (which did exist in 1644), It would have been totally impossible for the king to watch the battle. That particular battle is yet to feature in my writing, but watch this space…

Review of Thorne Moore’s “The Covenant”

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This historical saga, subtitled “The Life and Death of a Righteous Woman” is set in rural Wales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a prequel to Moore’s first novel “A Time for Silence” and follows the lives of the Owen family, tenant farmers on a small piece of land “twenty-four acres, one rood, eight perches.”

The righteous woman is Leah Owen, daughter of Thomas Owen, “Tada”, a towering and uncompromising figure of biblical proportions whose relationship with the land he farms and his rigid attitudes to life and faith, dominate his family.

Leah herself is strong, patient and loving although she hides softer feelings beneath a rigid exterior born of duty and suffering. Her siblings gradually take different means of escape, leaving her with the responsibility of the farm and their father. Her younger brother Frank’s life is tainted from childhood because he is not their beloved older brother Tom, the lost heir to Cwmderwen. Gradually Frank himself becomes a malignant figure, struggling with an unwished-for destiny and the evil influence of his friend Eli John.

The other characters, Leah’s sisters, the rising man David George and the irritating but harmless Betty, contribute to the plot, providing a contrasting perspective and occasionally intervening in major events.

Each chapter is from a different time period as we follow Leah and the Owen family from the tragic prologue, back to their childhood and then forward, a few years at a time, from the 1880s until the 1920s. From the very start, we know that Leah’s life will not be a happy one. How the tragedy unfolds is gradually revealed as one after another the people she loves, those who might offer her support and save her, vanish from her sphere through fate, bad choices or the awful pressures of life on the Owen land.

If the prologue promises personal tragedy, it is Tom’s death aged 16 which seals it, shaping much of the ensuing succession of disappointments and disasters. My one criticism is that although we are told repeatedly that Tom’s early death changes his father’s character, the brief glimpses of Eden before the fall are insufficient to highlight the subsequent transformation.

The plot could not exist without the landscape, the harsh depiction of the Pembrokeshire countryside and claustrophobic village life reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But, undoubtedly, we are in Wales not England, surrounded by the grim “chapel” culture without the male voice choirs. A light sprinkling of Welsh phrases reinforces the place and the time.

Sometimes the next chapter in the unfolding cataclysm is clearly foreshadowed so that I was mouthing “No, don’t do it”. Alas, my warnings did not prevent a single murder, accident or drowning.

This is a well-constructed novel, beautiful but painful and raw, filled with the inevitability of an inescapable fate. If you enjoy books like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Anna Karenina, you will love The Covenant.

(This review by AJ Lyndon first appeared on Rosie Amber’s blog 6 December 2020.)

Interview with historical novelist Penny Ingham

If I had made it to the UK in 2020 as planned, I might have been able to sit in the same room with Penny as we chatted. But this year it was of course done remotely.

Penny has written three historical novels, all set in the early medieval period: The Saxon Wolves, The Saxon Plague, and The King’s Daughter (a story of Aethelflaed, the Lady of the Mercians).She is a keen amateur archaeologist and has dug at many different sites including Silchester Roman town, Fishbourne Roman Palace and Basing House in Hampshire (which endured an English Civil War siege, as featured in The Welsh Linnet). She has two grown up children and lives with her husband in rural Hampshire.

When and why did you start writing? How did your family feel about it?
My father was a journalist and novelist, and even from a young age I knew I wanted to follow in his footsteps. My first ‘novel’ (written when I was about 8 years old) was just five pages long and featured a wizard named Ambrosius. My husband and children have always been very supportive of my writing. I worked on my first novel in a small walk-in wardrobe. It was the only spare space in the house! My kids would say, ‘mum’s in the cupboard again.’

What got you interested in the Anglo Saxon period? Is it a long standing interest?
I’ve been fascinated by history and archaeology since I was a child. My interest began with the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliffe is still a favourite novel of mine. I studied Classics at university, which in turn led to a curiosity about the post Roman period. What happened in Britain after the Empire fell? Just how ‘dark’ were these so called Dark Ages?

What research techniques do you use? Do you ever get lost down the Google rabbit hole?
Yes, I do! But initially, I buy a lot of books, and make notes – although the original source material for The Saxon Wolves and the Saxon Plague was extremely thin on the ground. Gildas, a monk writing in the sixth century AD, tells us the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain with fire and slaughter, but modern historians are divided on this. some insisting it was a relatively peaceful migration.
I was delighted to learn that recent archaeological discoveries are beginning to shed light on these so called Dark Ages. Both The Saxon Wolves and The Saxon Plague feature Tintagel in Cornwall, birth place of the legendary King Arthur. Excavations have shown there was a thriving high status settlement on the cliff top in the fifth century AD. I love that archaeology is finally proving there is a grain of truth in these ancient legends.
There was more original source material available for The King’s Daughter, which is set in the late ninth century. However, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle can’t be taken at face value either. It was compiled at King Alfred’s instigation, so it can also be seen as the PR exercise of an Anglo Saxon king determined to enhance his reputation for future generations!
And finally… volunteering at Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire is one of the most enjoyable ways to immersive myself in the Anglo Saxon world. I love donning my costume and spending a day in their authentically constructed Saxon Hall. I grind wheat on the quern stones with the younger visitors, make bread cakes and bake them on the hearth. Like King Alfred, we do occasionally burn them!

I’ve been lucky enough to visit all the sites in my novels and I’ve ‘dug’ at quite a few of them. King Alfred’s capital at Winchester has largely disappeared beneath the modern city – which was a chance for me to use my imagination. But the Roman baths complex at Bath has survived largely intact. So too have the towering walls and towers of the Roman ‘Saxon Shore Fort’ at Portchester on the south coast. But my favourite site has to be Tintagel with it’s spectacular cliff top setting.

What are you working on at the moment? When will it be published and how has Covid affected your writing techniques?
My current work in progress, which will be published in late 2021, is quite a departure from my previous novels. It’s set in Elizabethan London and features William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. Elizabethans endured recurring outbreaks of the plague and the theatres regularly closed whenever the death toll rose. Living through the current Covid pandemic has certainly given me an unexpected insight into their terrifying plight.

Who are your favourite authors? What 3 books would you take to a desert island with you and why?
If I had to choose three historical novelists, they would be Philippa Gregory, Bernard Cornwell and Mandy Haggith.

Three books to take to a desert island:
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, because I can get lost in it for hours and it never fails to inspire me.
The Complete Works of Shakespeare, because for me, he is the greatest wordsmith of all time. It’s all there – history, tragedy, comedy, romance!
And finally, because it makes me feel warm inside : Still Me by JoJo Moyes (the third book in her Me Before You trilogy).

Bloody Dock

(extract from short story published by Sundial historical literary journal)

Ned’s sudden, violent death had left no clues as to his wishes for the disposal of his body, nor the settling of his affairs. “Roses,” was his final word as blood gurgled from his mouth.

Robert had paid the sexton to dig a grave in a quiet corner of the Oxford churchyard, bought a shroud and wrapped its woollen folds about the bloated, lifeless flesh. The parson had read in English from the Book of Common Prayer while Robert, the only mourner, bowed his head, praying silently in other, different, words. He took note of the spot so that Ned’s family might visit the anonymous mound. It was May, and Robert heaped a cloud of bluebells from a nearby wood upon the piled earth.

The City of Oxford surrendered to Parliament’s red-coated New Model Army in June. The civil war was over, and Robert was released to resume his bleak and cheerless existence. Now he was writing a letter to Ned’s family. It was not easy informing a father of his son’s death. He stared at the blank sheet of paper as if willing the words to write themselves while the ink dried on the nib and the tallow candle smoked its way down the untrimmed wick. There was a creak from the door and his mother entered silently, her skirts brushing the worn rush matting.

“Robert, why did you not call for a fire? How many hours have you sat like this, my son, growing chilled?”

He lifted his head, the flickering flame throwing the long scar on his cheek into grotesque relief.

“A cold hearth is no hardship to an old soldier like me. You should go to bed, Mother. I too. The candle is almost burned down, and they are too precious to waste now that we must pay Parliament to live on our own estates.”

“Robert, will you not say the rosary with me first?” He kissed her hand and picked up the candlestick.

“Tomorrow, Mother.” He must beg the forgiveness of man before he sought that of God. He must finish the letter.

* * *

https://sites.google.com/view/sundial-magazine/short-stories_1/bloody-dock?authuser=0

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