Leader of Battles (I): Ambrosius

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

King Edmund I (not Blackadder...)

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

As we all know, Edmund became king unexpectedly after the death of his older brother Edward, stabbed by an assassin in the Holy Land in 1271-2. Edward's surgeons managed to cut away most of the diseased flesh around the wound, but the knife was poisoned, and Edward eventually succumbed.
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Edmund himself was traveling to join his brother on Crusade at the time of the assassination, having contracted in England to serve Edward at the head of a hundred knights in return for 10,000 marks and shipping. He only reached the Holy Land in the late summer of 1271, by which time (we're uncertain when exactly Edward was killed) his brother may have already been dead. Stricken by grief, and hard pressed financially - he was forced to borrow money from creditors in Acre, and to send home to his mother for more funds - he departed in May 1272, having accomplished little of note. His little army made its way safely but sadly back to England, carrying the body of his older brother. For the rest of his life Edmund harboured frustrated ambitions to return to the Holy Land, and even took a second Crusading vow in November 1289, never to be fulfilled.

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

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

Wales

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Detail from tomb effigy of Edmund I

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

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

Monday, 28 July 2014

Caesar's Sword in paperback

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



















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

Siege of Rome on Amazon

Flame of the West on Amazon

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

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Tom of Newbold Revell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, 17 July 2014

Thief of Barnsdale

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


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

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

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

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

Link to Thief of Barnsdale on Amazon  

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Goodreads giveaway

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


Remember...Ambrosius wants you!


Monday, 30 June 2014

The Arthur of the Welsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Leader of Battles

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

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

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


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

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

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