Monday, February 29, 2016

Giveaway: The Fifth Knight Series by E.M. Powell

The first two books in E.M. Powell’s medieval thriller Fifth Knight series, THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT, have sold almost 100,000 copies worldwide. Book #3 in the Fifth Knight series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, will be published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016. To celebrate, E.M. Powell is having a double Giveaway of signed paperback copies of the first two books.

The Giveaway ends at midnight Pacific Standard Time on Sunday March 6 2016. To see some more information about the books, please click HERE.

To enter the draw, comment below on this page and be sure to leave your contact details. Good luck!

"Queen Sarah" Lady Jersey

Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers, Countess of Jersey (nee' Fane), (1785-1867)

By Lauren Gilbert

Best known as one of the feared Lady Patronesses of Almack's, she was born Sarah Sophia Fane in March 3, 1785, the eldest daughter of John Fane, the 10th earl of Westmorland, and his wife Anne Child (or Sarah Anne Child), the only child of the banker, Robert Child. Disapproving of  the earl, Mr. Child tried to stop the marriage when Anne eloped with John at age 17 to Gretna Greene in 1782. (He actually pursued the couple without success.) Determined that neither the earl nor his heir would benefit from the marriage, Robert Child changed his will so that his estate would bypass his daughter and go to either her second son or her eldest daughter. Robert Child died the same year of his daughter’s marriage, so Sarah Sophia was born to be an heiress. There is no indication of what Sarah Sophia’s relationship with her parents or siblings was. Her mother died when Sarah Sophia was eight.

Sarah Sophia married George Villiers, Viscount Villiers, on May 23, 1804, at home in Berkley Square. However, there were several hints of an elopement to Gretna Green for her as well.  Many of the sources I found were careful not to cite the place of marriage. (This may be a result of confusion with her mother, both being named Sarah. It is also possible that Sarah Sophia and George did elope but also had a ceremony to satisfy family or convention.) By all accounts, she held him in great affection. George became the 5th Earl of Jersey and 8th Viscount Grandison in 1805. Sarah Sophia had fully inherited the Child fortune and property after the deaths of her mother and grandmother, including Osterley Park, at a very young age, and took control when she came of age at age 21 in 1806. In an age of women as chattels, Sarah was unique in that her inheritance made her the senior partner of Child & Co., a position she held for over 60 years. She took an active interest in the bank, visiting the premises, checking profit and loss statements, and intervening in employee issues. The couple had five sons and three daughters, seven of whom survived to adulthood.

Sarah Sophia, also known as Sally, became a leader of the "Ton", and wielded a great deal of influence in Society. Considered a beauty, she made a name for herself by being extremely rude and behaving theatrically. She chattered incessantly, acquiring the nickname of "Silence." Determined to stand apart from her mother-in-law, the scandalous Frances, Lady Jersey, who was mistress of the Prince of Wales, Sarah Sophia made a great show of personal virtue, although she apparently throve on gossip. In spite of her affectations, she appears to have been regarded with fondness by many of her peers. In a letter written in 1816 to her brother, General Alexander Beckendorf, Princess Lieven described Lady Jersey as one of her “most intimate friends.” (Princess Lieven also said in a later letter to Prince Metternich that “…Lady Jersey has the most dangerous tongue I know.” Written in 1823, it would appear that there had been a falling out.) Although she called herself Sally, one of her nicknames in Society was “Queen Sarah.” Several novels featured characters supposedly based on Lady Jersey. When Lady Caroline Lamb published her novel GLENARVON in 1816, Lady Jersey was ostensibly the inspiration for the character of Lady Augusta. As a result, “Queen Sarah” banned Caroline from Almack’s, effectively ending Caroline’s social career.

Sarah Sophia and her husband entertained at their home in Berkley Square, and Middleton Park in Oxfordshire. They seem to have spent little time at Osterley Park in Middlesex. Sarah Sophia is supposed to have introduced the Quadrille to Almack's in 1815. She was a noted political hostess for her husband, who legally added the name of Child in 1819 to become George Child-Villiers, Earl of Jersey. An avid hunter and racing aficionado, her husband held offices in the households of William IV and of Queen Victoria. Sarah was interested in politics, and not shy about expressing her opinions. She seemed to have switched from Whig to Tory views by the 1820’s. She supported Caroline against George IV when he tried to divorce Caroline, wearing a portrait of Caroline in public. Sally also spoke openly against the Reform Bill of 1832.

George died October 3, 1859, followed shortly by their eldest son. Her grandson (her oldest son’s son) inherited the title. After her husband’s death, she stayed busy, entertaining and taking an interest in what was going on around her. Charitable concerns were a special interest, particularly the establishment of schools on the family estates to assist tenants and laborers. She died of a ruptured blood vessel, according to her obituary, at Berkley Square on January 26, 1867, at age 81, outliving her husband and six of her seven children. Both Lord and Lady Jersey were buried at Middleton Stoney, Oxfordshire.

[This is an updated version of a post on my own blog January 29, 2013, which was in turn an expansion of some information I posted on Goodreads on Oct. 20, 2011 in the Historical Info for Historical Fiction Readers group. You can see the post on my blog HERE )

Sources include:

Image: Wikimedia Commons. "Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers (nee' Fane), (1785-1867)." by Alfred Edward Chalon (1780-1860). HERE (Photo by Jan Arkesteijn, posted June 27, 2012.)

Gronow, Captain Rees Howell. Reminiscences of Captain Gronow. Originally published 1862: Smith, Elder & Co., London; republished by, McLean, VA.

Quennell, Peter, ed. The Private Letters of Princess Lieven to Prince Metternich 1820-1826. 1938: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc. NY. (P. 283)

Robinson, Lionel G. Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her Residence in London, 1812-1834. 1902: Longmans, Green, and Co. London. (P. 29)

RBS Heritage Hub. "Sarah Sophia Child-Villiers." Here

FIND A GRAVE. "Sarah Sophia Fane Child-Villiers." HERE 

Number One London. "Death of Lady Jersey in 1867," by Kristine Hughes and Victoria Hinshaw. Posted March 3, 2012. HERE 

The Peerage On-line. "Lady Sarah Sophia Fane." HERE

Regency History. “Lady Jersey (1785-1867).” By Rachel Knowles, posted Nov. 4, 2011. HERE 

A Web of English History. “Sarah Sophia Child, Lady Jersey, 1785-1867.” Dr. Marjory Bloy. HERE

Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, and a long-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT.  Visit her website HERE

Sunday, February 28, 2016

King Edgar, his earls, and the birth of politics in England

by Annie Whitehead

In AD937 King Athelstan was declared king of not only England but of the Scots and Irish too. For whatever reason (and there's been surprisingly little conjecture about this) he never married. Upon his death the throne passed very quickly to his two brothers and then, in 955, to his young nephew, Edwy (Eadwig) who reigned for only four years and was succeeded by his brother, Edgar "the peaceable".

Detail of New Minster Charter, showing Edgar

Athelstan's brother Eadred had subdued the Viking kingdom of York, chasing Erik Bloodaxe to his death atop Stainmore, and Edgar was able to rule a kingdom which was free from Viking attack and, ostensibly, united.

But Edgar's succession had only been possible by initially splitting the kingdom, with the old kingdom of Mercia allying itself to him against his brother in Wessex. And nature abhors a vacuum; so too, it seems, does human nature. Anglo-Saxon history now becomes one not of warring kingdoms and marauding invaders, but in-fighting, back-stabbing, and courtly intrigue.

Putting aside the unfortunate but very timely (for some) death of Edwy at just 19, Edgar's court soon filled up with men seeking favour, power, wealth and influence. Edgar was young (14 or 15) and seemingly pious - he recalled the exiled Bishop Dunstan (Who'd been banished by Edwy after he caught Edwy in bed with his wife, and her mother!) and he supported Dunstan and Bishop Aethelwold in their campaign for monastic reform.

The old kingdoms had transmuted into earldoms and the earls of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria became the first 'over-mighty barons'. The old kingdoms might have vanished but tribal sensibilities and border disputes had not (the Mercians, particularly, had rallied behind a nationalist flag when they rose up in support of Edgar)

The Churchmen had the chroniclers on their side, but there is evidence which points to their feathering their own nests, taking land unlawfully, and there is an account of Archbishop Oswald feasting royally in his abbey at Ramsey while outside, folk starved, unable to pay the food rents owed to the Church.

Ramsey Abbey gatehouse - 15thc (nothing remains of the original building)

The earls of East Anglia were members of what amounted to a dynasty, descended from a man whose epithet "Half-king" tells all we need to know about his power.

The earl of Mercia, Aelfhere, was a minor member of the royal family and equally well-connected. Notoriously tempestuous, he took exception to the bishop of Worcester's increasingly frequent attempts to establish centres of power and authority within his earldom. That same bishop, Oswald, also illegally held in duality the archbishopric of York, and thus trod on the toes of the earl of Northumbria, too.

Bickering was kept to a minimum by Edgar. Strong, cocksure, he played the factions against one another and inspired devotion from them all. He recognised the Danelaw, he built up the fleet, and was famously rowed along the River Dee by several kings who bowed in homage to him.

But he, too, died young, although not childless. He left sons - one begotten through a nefarious relationship with a woman who had been promised to the Church and was on the brink of taking holy orders, the other to his queen, the powerful but fragile Aelfthryth.

The factions divided, with the Church and the East Anglians supporting the firstborn son, Edward, while Aelfhere of Mercia supported the queen, citing her son as having been born 'in the purple'. What followed has been labelled the 'anti-monastic reaction' but was essentially a politically driven righting of perceived wrongs.

And there it might have ended, with squabbling and a few land-grabs. But someone, and many pointed fingers at the queen, decided to remove Edward from the scene. Permanently.

"Aelfthryth looks on as Edward is stabbed" Foxe's Book of Martyrs

And so the years of 'peace' had seen the growth of politics, self-serving nobles and the development of sharp elbows in the corridors of power. Now, the king of England was Aethelred. He was young, he was badly-counselled, (as Christopher Brooke puts it, "Dissidence and half-suppressed revolt ... in Aethelred's time now walked openly") and the Vikings were getting ready to sail again. So many young, strong, and politically astute Anglo-Saxon kings had died young, while Aethelred was to live long enough to see all their hard work unravel, in spectacular fashion.

(All illustrations public domain/Wiki Commons)
Select bibliography:
Papers: An Outing on the Dee (Mediaeval Scandinavia 14) & Princeps Merciorum gentis: the family career and connections of Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia (Anglo-Saxon England 10) by Ann Williams
Athelstan 'Half King' and his family - Cyril Hart (Cambridge Journals)
The Saxon and Norman Kings - Christopher Brooke
Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - ed Garmonsway

Annie Whitehead studied Anglo-Saxon history under the tutelage of Professor Ann Williams. She wrote her first book, To Be A Queen, in order to tell the often overlooked story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great. It was long-listed for HNS Indie Book of the year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Aelfhere, earl of Mercia, described both as "The blast of the mad wind from the western territories" and as "The glorious earl".
To Be A Queen - Kindle
Alvar the Kingmaker - Kindle

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Mary Tudor's Double Engagement

By Lizzy Drake

There is nothing like a bit of gossip, especially if it's about a wedding and it's even better if it's Tudor. It's one of those points in history where every book gives a different date. Was Mary Tudor engaged to Charles of Castile or Louis XII of France? The answer of course, is both, but for a point of time she may have been engaged to Charles and Louis at the same time. Mary had been betrothed to Charles of Castile for years (from 1507) before it was abruptly and rather secretively dropped and substituted for a match with the ageing French monarch. The couple were meant to marry in May 1514, but instead of her younger betrothed, she ended up wedding Louis in October 1514. Mary, who reputedly begged to be allowed to marry her first match was highly romanticized by television and historical fiction as having great willful fits in a vain attempt to not be forced to marry Louis. But the question remains – during Henry's secret arrangement for his sister to wed Louis, was Mary still engaged to Charles?

Wiki even gives two different months when her engagement to Charles is ended (my guess here is two different historians have edited it and forgot to check over the whole document – it happens). Some historians cite as early as October for her engagement's end to Charles, but it must not have been official at this point as he writes to her as a groom-to-be, asking about her health and giving full attention to their supposed future together as husband and wife. Is Charles simply ignoring the fact that the engagement has ended or has he simply not been told?

The key for understanding Mary's role (let's face it, she wasn't very active in her choices) is understanding her brother and monarch, Henry's, political allegiances. For while Mary is engaged to Charles, England is at war with France and supporting Ferdinand of Spain, Margaret of Austria (Savoy) and the alliance to the Catholic faith, League of Cambrai. In December 1513, Wolsey is sending out letters to most of Europe's leaders, begging for a peace treaty to be drawn up with France, which Ferdinand does (much to Henry's annoyance) and tells the French king that Henry cannot be trusted, all this as Ferdinand had been using Henry's money to fund his grudge against France and had more than once double-crossed Henry.

Henry is the one truly deciding who his sister will marry and who will become the best political match as a future brother-in-law. He'd already lost one sister to Scotland who had become a political enemy, though now that her husband had fallen (King James was slain at Flodden), she was the country's Regent as the young new king grew into his shoes. Henry needed to make a better match for his sister Mary. Charles of Castile, as nephew to Catherine of Aragon who was still communicating and showing allegiance to her Spanish roots, was part of Ferdinand's plans and could lead Henry's sister to be another pawn for Spain. Now that Ferdinand has once again gone behind Henry's back with France, Henry may have decided it would do to have some of his own blood keeping him informed, and in October 1514, Mary Tudor was married to Louis XII, a man very much her senior and very different from the caring younger man Charles she was first engaged to.

We don't know exactly at what point Mary was informed of her new groom, but as the tension between Ferdinand and Henry grew, one can only assume that Charles was not informed until Ferdinand was. As a revenge plot against Ferdinand as much as a political ploy from Henry, it would have been beneficial to keep everyone save Louis of France (and I imagine Wolsey, who probably put the idea into Henry's head in the first place) in the dark for as long as possible before Ferdinand could undo Henry's work.

Charles eventually did marry – to Isabella of Portugal many years later (1526) which shows how difficult royal matches could be to make. Mary, whose health was never great (there are many apothecary bills for Mary when she was in Henry's court and only lived to the age of 30) only suffered to be Louis's wife for a year before he died from, what was assumed at the time, marital exertions with his young Queen. Mary returned to England and decided to take fate into her own hands by marrying for love, one of the King's favorites, Charles Brandon.


British History Online – December 1513 letters

Wikipedia (to illustrate conflicting dates given by historians)

deLisle, Leanda; Tudor, The Family Story; Vintage Press, London 2014

Doran, Susan; The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603; Metro Books, New York

Tremlett, Giles; Catherine of Aragon, Henry's Spanish Queen; Faber and Faber, London 2010


Lizzy Drake is the author of the Tudor era Elspet Stafford Mysteries. She is currently working on book 2 of the series which involves an early Tudor 'magician' at Framlingham Castle. She has been studying Tudors for over 15 years and has a MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Women Warriors

By Mark Noce

This topic has gotten controversial in recent years, as archaeologists and historians reexamine the historical record in order to identify a history of female warriors across the British Isles. What specifically am I talking about here?

Well, believe it or not, years ago archaeologists identified bodies in very simplistic ways. For instance, if the skeleton had armor on it was considered male and if it had something resembling a dress it was considered female. But recent bone forensics have turned this old time notion on its head, as several instances of female skeletons have been identified from various eras decked out in full armor or with various weapons. So what’s it all mean?

To some, the facts have been staring us in the face all this time. Even written records from the days of Caesar down through the Renaissance depict women going into battle beside men, but many of these remarks were dismissed as exaggeration or even as outright satire. Others have opted for a middle path, suggesting that women in various eras did go into combat beside men, but that these were rare instances. There are several eras of British history, however, that point to a larger cultural involvement of women warriors across Britain and Ireland.

Firstly, the Celts. It’s no secret that women held equal sway with men in ancient Celtic society. An ancient chariot burial unearthed in Yorkshire identified a Celtic woman buried in full battle dress along with her chariot. Both a wealthy woman and one clearly accustomed to using a sword. In west Ireland, an even older grave identified a female skeleton buried with her bow, war horse, and the hide of a red stag. Clearly, these aren’t just one-off instances. Such cultural practices may have even continued into the medieval era in regions where Celtic culture remained strong, such as Wales and Scotland.

Secondly, the Viking era, surprisingly is revealing more and more female skeletons buried in Norse armor throughout the British Isles. The Scandinavian Sagas are replete with tales of Shieldmaidens that until recently were written off as fanciful storytelling, but now it seems that hardly a Viking ship set out without at least one or two women warriors abroad it. Some historians have posited that the rough and tumble Vikings didn’t include women on their raids because they necessarily believed in equality, but because it made sense to utilize as much of their population as possible in order to continue their aggressive expansion into Northern and eventually Southern Europe.

Thirdly, one doesn’t have to look into ancient history to see women contributing to a war effort. Just look at the FANYs and WAAFs who served Britain in uniform during World War II. Some even ended up in dangerous Resistance work as part of SOE (Special Operations Executive) fighting the Nazis behind enemy lines. In one form or another, well over half a million young women served as auxiliaries for the UK during WWII, doing everything from driving trucks to wireless operations to working in factories.

Is it really that difficult to imagine that women have served as warriors throughout the many centuries of human habitation across Britain?

I think that in the years to come both archaeology and historical analysis will only reveal more and more evidence that women warriors have played an integral part in shaping the fate of the British Isles to this day.


Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion. His medieval Welsh novel, Between Two Fires, comes out with Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press on August 23, 2016.

Learn more at or preorder his novel here.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Of peas, princesses and pancakes

by Anna Belfrage

I’m assuming we’ve all heard the story about the princess and the pea. For those who haven’t, this Danish tale by the masterful H.C. Andersen is the story of a princess who had lost her way in life and so arrived bedraggled and wet at a castle, begging a bed for the night. Being without any useful identifying objects such as a crown, an ermine cape or a frog prince, she was naturally met with suspicion by her hosts to be, but the lady of the castle – and the mother of the potential bridegroom, a dashing prince – knew just how to verify if the wet little thing with curly hair down to her waist was a real princess. All she needed was a pea.

Said pea was placed under 20 mattresses. The princess was then carefully tucked in (the prince hovered hopefully in the background more than willing to offer a goodnight kiss. His lady mother told him to forget it: her precious son would not press his lips to anything but the real thing.) Come morning, the overnight guest was black and blue all over, complaining mightily about the lumpy mattresses. The lady of the castle smiled. Their surprise guest was thereby revealed as a true princess, for only a girl of such rare sensibilities would have felt one itty-bitty pea through all those feather mattresses. Ergo, there was a wedding and a happily ever after.

As a child, I had major problems with this fairy tale. (I had problems with quite a few, starting with the rather obnoxious custom of kissing a frog to find your prince) In this case, I simply could not understand how a pea would survive being squashed under 20 mattresses. Peas in my world were soft and green. In H.C. Andersen’s world, they were mostly yellow and hard. In fact, for most of our species relationship with this versatile little legume the pea has been dried and yellow. The pea, you see was a staple, one of those must-have foodstuffs that would ensure the household survived the winter.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world without potatoes – one of our staples. Or chocolate. Yes, I realise chocolate is not considered a staple, but for those addicted to the stuff it most certainly is. However you want to categorise chocolate, it wasn’t around until relatively recently. Nor were potatoes. Or orange carrots. Or tomatoes. Or popcorn. But the pea, ladies and gentlemen, most certainly was.

Humans have been eating peas for eons. Like many other legumes, the pea comes with the benefit of preserving itself – if you leave it to dry on its vine it will do just that, and instead of harvesting when the pods are juicy and green you wait until the summer is gone and pick the desiccated pods and the hard, yellow peas instead.

These days, most of us only eat the pea in its green variety – and chances are we’ll pull out a bag from the freezer whenever we feel inclined to produce a nice Crème Ninon or just have some peas with our wiener schnitzel (as an aside, a wiener schnitzel without peas is simply no wiener schnitzel) Some of us – notably those who live in the northern parts of England – enjoy consuming our peas as mushy peas, often served with fish and chips. Yes, I know mushy peas are made with dried marrowfat peas (which are greenish), and no, I’ll not share my little story about when I visited a plant that produced mushy peas – will put you off them forever...

Few of us take the time to buy the peas fresh and sit down to shell them. I suffered a major bout of nostalgia when watching a recent episode in the rather excellent crime series Shetland where DI Perez (Douglas Henshall) was shelling his peas. Made me love him even more…

The pea originates from the eastern Mediterranean area. In Georgia, they’ve been munching peas for over 7 000 years, and I’d hazard that originally pod and peas were eaten while green. Our distant ancestors lived a nomadic hand-to-mouth existence, so storing stuff was not high on the agenda. Over the years, the pea was domesticated and more and more it was grown for its dry fruit. Roman legionaries foraged for wild peas to complement their rations, and already the old Romans had a predilection for mushy peas. They just never got round to adding the fish and chips.

In the Middle Ages, green peas were a luxury item. Rich people served them to impress, a not-so-subtle reminder that they were rich enough not to worry about their food stores during the following winter. In general, a very small percentage was harvested while green, but in years of famine – and it is important to keep in mind that with depleted stores food was scarce until the next harvest, not just beyond the last frost – the poor and hungry were given leave to pick the peas while green so as not to die of starvation.

Breaking bread
Other than the pea, people of the Middle Ages consumed huge quantities of cabbage and barley. Peas, cabbages, leeks and barley were all used to make various types of pottages – served with bread. It is estimated at least 50% of the daily calorie intake came from bread – baked with wheat in the more affluent/civilised areas of Europe, with barley and rye in the eastern & northern backwaters.

A pottage was essentially a soup. It varied in thickness depending on the means of the household. In poorer homes, the pottage could well consist of cabbage, herbs and a handful of crushed barley or oats to thicken it. In richer homes, a pottage could include meat and various vegetables. Sweet varieties included almonds and dried fruits, were thickened with eggs and eaten with a lot of lip-smacking.

The dry pea was excellent for making pottage – pease pottage. It had the benefit of being rich in nutrients and was relatively cheap. Add some thyme and garlic, and it tasted quite nice as well. Those higher up the financial scale would combine their pease pottage with ham, those somewhat poorer would instead make their pease pottage very thick – when it became a pease pudding (similar to humus in texture) and was quite filling. It could be eaten hot and cold, it could be eaten quite, quite old as indicated in this nursery rhyme:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old

I must say I am somewhat doubtful at eating something that has been “in the pot” for nine days. I’m guessing medieval tummies were more robust than ours.

There were other benefits to cultivating peas. They did not require pampering. Peas could be planted early in spring as they do not require high temperatures to germinate. They didn’t need much sun. They were easy to harvest and, as stated above, easy to store. That being said, there were a lot of superstitions about the planting of peas, such as the fact that they should only be planted during a waning moon and preferably on a Wednesday or Saturday as otherwise the birds might make off with the planted peas. Apparently, birds back then took the days of the week very seriously indeed.

If you eat the same stuff every day, reasonably you’ll get tired of it. For generations, Europeans ate cabbage and peas, cabbage and peas, more peas, more cabbage. Which is probably why we no longer eat quite as much cabbage – or peas. And IF we eat it, chances are we’ll eat the cabbage shredded in a coleslaw (our medieval forebears would be quite horrified: eat it raw?) and the peas when they are at their greenest. We, in difference to our ancestors, do not need to worry about where tomorrow’s dinner will come from. We, unlike our ancestors, rather have the problem of having too much to eat around us. We, just like our ancestors, tend to have a predilection for all things sweet and fat – such foodstuffs were important in the distant past, when that extra layer of fat could well be the difference between survival or death – and green peas are substantially sweeter than the dried variety.

Still: to this day, that ancient dish the pease pottage still survives – although nowadays we tend to call it split-pea soup. What is truly interesting about pea soup is that it exists in most of the traditional European cuisines. The recipes are surprisingly similar – thyme, peas and broth – and accordingly the end result is always a creamy yellow thick soup that requires little in the way of extras to leave you agreeably full.

In my country, Sweden, until very recently Thursday was the traditional pea-soup day. In fact, to some extent it still is – the determined Swede will always be able to find at least one restaurant in the vicinity that has pea-soup on its Thursday menu. The dried peas are left to soak overnight, and then they’re cooked in a rich ham-broth with plenty of thyme and served with mustard and pork sausage. Yummy. Even better, after the pea soup come Swedish pancakes with raspberry jam and whipped cream – essentially one of those meals that require a nap to digest, which is probably why it no longer is the standard Thursday lunch. Productivity suffers while all the semi-comatose workers do some discreet shut-eye.

courtesy Calle Fridén
It is somewhat coincidental that today is in fact a Thursday. It is even more coincidental that the peas have been soaking overnight, that I have fresh thyme on my cutting board and a nice piece of salted pork that has been simmering slowly for quite some time by now. Some hours from now, I’ll be dipping my spoon into a dish that essentially is identical to that my forebears enjoyed, back in the time of the great Canute. In difference to these my ancestors – whom I imagine as being simple, uneducated folk, with little to their name – I shall round off my meal with pancakes.

After such a meal, the bed beckons. And I can assure you that should anyone see fit to place a dried pea or two beneath my mattress I will complain – loudly – about how lumpy and hard my bed is. I may not be a princess, but dried peas make uncomfortable bed companions. Trust me, I’ve tried.


Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.

Anna Belfrage is also the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Great Wash - Laundry in the 17th century

by Deborah Swift

Washing in the 17th century was certainly labour-intensive. In the Stuart period outer garments could not easily be washed because fine fabrics - the silks, brocades and velvets, (beloved of those who wanted to show their status) would not stand up to the harsh treatment. Clothes were hand-made and valuable, and were worn until they were too dirty to be tolerated. However, the undergarments were usually linen, which was tough and hard-wearing, and could be washed.

'Before that you suffer it to be washed, lay it all night in urine, the next day rub all the spots in the urine as if you were washing in water; then lay it in more urine another night and then rub it again, and so do till you find they be quite out' 

Hannah Woolley, in The Compleat Servant-Maid, 1677

So where did this urine come from, and where was it used?

It came from chamberpots and was used neat straight from the pot. Apparently men's was more effective than women's so this was much in demand. (They would say that, wouldn't they?)The ammonia in the urine removed grease and stains before the washing was then soaked in a 'buck tub.' After that a buck cloth was spread over the top and potash or lye was poured through and collected from a hole in the bottom. Sometimes the clothes were layered, hung on sticks, and the lye, which was alkaline, was poured through. This is a possible origin of the term ‘passing the buck’.

modern dolly stick (1950's)
the design stayed unchanged
The water was then boiled up again and passed through as many as eight times. (See the picture of the woman using a buck tub, above.) Then the linen was soaped by hand and paddled with 'dolly sticks' or slapped against washboards before rinsing. Soap was a new commodity - In the 17th century the first soap factory was built in Toulon for the mass production of soap for laundering. The soap was made of goat's or sheep's fat, and ash. Rinsing was necessary to remove the lye before it caused damage to the fabric. In rural England, clothes were taken to the nearest stream or river and either paddled, with a wooden bat, or trodden. Sometimes used wash water was donated to the poor because soap was still an expensive luxury.

Generally a 'Great Wash' would only be done twice a year by most households unless they had many servants. This event could take three days, and usually took place at the same time as a 'spring clean' of the house. The Great Wash was often seen as a symbolic purification of the house. 

From Old and Interesting blog, (do visit it - it's indeed very interesting) here are the laundry expenses for the Duke of Bedford's Great Wash in 1675.

'For washing sheets and napkins before the great wash when the two masters was in town 2s
For four pounds of soap 1s
For six pounds of candles 2s 6d
For three women one day to wash 4s 6d
A woman two days to help dry up the linen 3s
For oil, ashes, and sand to scour 1s 8d
A woman to scour two days 3s
For washing of twelve pair of sheets at 4d per pair 4s
For two pounds of soap to scour the great room 6d
For nine pounds of soap 2s 3d
For four mops 4s
For Fuller's earth and sand to scour the rooms 1s 8d
A woman six days to help to wash all the rooms after the workmen left the house 6s
A woman six days for scouring and washing the rooms and cleaning the irons against the family's coming to town 6s
A woman to help air the bedding when the family came to town 2s' (2s = $0.34)

Some better off English houses had many staff, and used a brass tally of rotating discs to keep track of the linen that had been sent away for starching.. Each disc lists an accessory - for example neckwear -  'Ruffes' and 'Bandes', and lace-topped boot hose. These small items of linen that were worn next to the skin were washed more often than the sheets or napkins for example. Professional whiteners of linen were called 'whitsters' and they would bleach and starch the linen, and sometimes offer crimping or goffering for ruffs, collars and cuffs. This tally board (above) was originally from Haddon Hall, near Bakewell, Derbyshire, Click the picture for more information.

Whenever I think about the characters in my books I have to be aware of this - that people would have taken care not to get dirt on their clothes, because washing was such an ordeal. In my most recent novel, Lady Katherine Fanshawe has lost all her servants because of the Civil War. In a big house, the loss of servants for washing and mundane tasks creates a radical shift in daily life. So many processes were incredibly labour-intensive, and without servants to help, many things were forced to change. In many ways this was echoed three centuries later after WWI.

There is another good blog on washing in the colonies on the Plymouth Pilgrim's site here

Thanks for reading!
visit my website to sign up for a free book, or say hello on Twitter @swiftstory

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Samuel Pepys: A Man of Our Times

by MJ Lee

On the 31st May, 1669, Samuels Pepys wrote in his diary, "And so I betake myself to that course, which is almost as much as to see myself go into my grave: for which, and all the discomforts that will accompany my being blind, the good God prepare me!" It was to be the last entry. For the previous nine and a half years, he had been keeping the diary religiously, writing an account of his life and the world that surrounded him.

He was fortunate (or unfortunate) to live in an amazing time, witness to the great events that shaped Stuart Britain. He lived through a period of turmoil; the death of one king, the reign of a dictator, Oliver Cromwell, the restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II, the deposition of his brother, James II and the crowning of William of Orange, an outsider and king of a country which in 1667 had devastated the Navy he loved.

Two natural disasters, The Great Plague of 1665, and the Great Fire of London in 1666, occurred in his lifetime and he described both in vivid detail. He lived in a period of great social change, when the puritan morality of the Commonwealth gave way to the more licentious and spirited society of the Restoration. He goes into delicious, and disturbingly honest, detail about his home life, his affairs, his ever-increasing wealth, some of it obtained dubiously, and the passions of the court.

He witnessed it all and wrote about it in wonderfully evocative language. Here he is in November 1660, describing a meeting with a friend who reminded him of his attendance at the beheading of Charles I when Pepys was just a 15 year-old boy.
"He did remember that I was a great roundhead when I was a boy, and I was much afeared that he would have remembered the words that I said the day the King was beheaded that, were I to preach upon him, my text should be 'The memory of the wicked shall rot'." ( November 1, 1660)
He remained in London through the plague year of 1665, writing, "I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me". (June 7, 1665)

Later, he seems more depressed as the plague has taken hold of London. Here is his entry for October 16, 1665:
I walked to the Tower. But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that. And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physician, and but one apothecary left, all being dead — but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week: God send it.

The following year, during the Great Fire of London, he was at the centre of the efforts to save the city from the flames, reporting on the events like Dan Rather;
Some of our mayds sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose and slipped on my nightgowne, and went to her window, and thought it to be on the backside of Marke-lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off; and so went to bed again and to sleep. About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was and further off. So to my closett to set things to rights after yesterday’s cleaning. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. (September 2nd, 1666)
And later, he’s examining the fire from a better vantage point.
I up to the top of Barking steeple, and there saw the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw; every where great fires, oyle-cellars, and brimstone, and other things burning. I became afeard to stay there long, and therefore down again as fast as I could, the fire being spread as far as I could see it; and to Sir W. Pen’s, and there eat a piece of cold meat, having eaten nothing since Sunday, but the remains of Sunday’s dinner. (September 4th 1666)

He’s very good on the details. Pepys records burying his parmesan cheese and his wine in a pit in the garden, scorched pigeons falling from the skies, a burnt cat pulled alive from a chimney, the price of a loaf (two pence), glass melted and buckled by the heat and people burning their feet on the scorched ground.

Like the great reporter and observer Pepys is, he puts us in the middle of the action, hearing, smelling, seeing, feeling and touching the events for ourselves.

It is that ability to combine the personal with the political which makes Pepys unique. He can go from describing what he had to eat for breakfast to the latest machinations amongst the mistresses of the King in a couple of sentences. All with a trade mark wit and power of observation.
I now took them to Westminster Abbey and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone (there being other company this day to see the tombs, it being Shrove Tuesday); and here we did see, by perticular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 years old, that I did first kiss a Queen. (Feb 29th, 1669)

There is so much to love and admire in the Pepys Diaries. If you are in the UK, there is a wonderful exhibition on until March at Greenwich featuring the man and his times.

Finally, here is his entry for this day 350 years ago on February 23rd, 1666, when he seems happy with the world.
So I supped, and was merry at home all the evening, and the rather it being my birthday, 33 years, for which God be praised that I am in so good a condition of healthe and estate, and every thing else as I am, beyond expectation, in all. So she to Mrs. Turner’s to lie, and we to bed. Mightily pleased to find myself in condition to have these people come about me and to be able to entertain them, and have the pleasure of their qualities, than which no man can have more in the world.
A wonderful epitaph for the man and his life.


M J Lee

Martin Lee has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, tv commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflake packets and hotel websites.

He has spent 25 years of his life working outside the North of England. In London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai, winning awards from Cannes, One Show, D&AD, New York and London Festivals, and the United Nations.

He first encountered Samuel Pepys when an auntie gave him an edited version of the diaries when he was fifteen years old. The man and his world have remained an obsession.

His latest book, Samuel Pepys and the Stolen Diary, is published by Endeavour Press.

Martin can be contacted at his web page Facebook at writermjlee and twitter @writermjlee. He is nothing if not original in his choice of handles.

The book can be found here:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Gerald of Wales: Colourful Medieval Chronicler.

By E.M. Powell

I think that most lovers of history would agree that very little beats a first-person account. There is something very special about reading the words of someone who was there, who witnessed momentous events or who was in the presence of individuals famous and infamous. And the further back in history one goes, the scarcer such accounts are. Yet in the world of the twelfth and early thirteenth century, we have the work of a prolific chronicler to bring much of it to life.

 Scribe writing the Gospels of Kildare.

Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales, was born around 1146 in his noble family’s castle at Manorbier. He could count leading Anglo-Norman families in south-west Wales as well as native Welsh princes among his kinsmen. Unlike his older brothers, Gerald had no desire to become a knight. From an early age, he was destined for the Church and was educated in Paris. In 1184, Gerald entered into the service of Henry II as a royal clerk and remained so for twelve years. Though he harboured a lifelong ambition to become bishop of the see of Saint David’s in Wales, he was ultimately to be thwarted which caused him much bitterness.

Saint Kevin and the blackbird.

Gerald’s written output was considerable. He wrote poems, the lives of saints, letters, opinion pieces- and histories. Arguably Gerald’s four most important books are those he wrote on Ireland and Wales. The two volumes on Ireland are the Topographia Hibernica (Topography of Ireland) and Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). The images in this post are all from his Topographia Hibernica. His Welsh books are Itinerarium Cambriae  (Itinerary of Wales) and Cambriae descriptio (Description of Wales). The books contain some controversial views, especially the Topographia Hibernica (I have written a previous post for EHFA on it and you can find it here.)

 Bernard blowing the horn of Brendan.

Gerald has also been described as gossipy, opinionated, quarrelsome, prejudiced and critical and that he veers into anecdote. While one can see examples of all of the above, his works also contain a wealth of information about the world as he experienced it. So much of what we know about Ireland and Wales at the time comes from him. And that includes Welsh teeth. In the Description of Wales, Gerald informs us: ‘Both sexes exceed any other nation in attention to their teeth, which they render like ivory, by constantly rubbing them with green hazel and wiping with a woollen cloth.’

Woman playing a harp.

That, for me, is the type of detail that makes a time and a place come alive. Gerald makes people come alive, too and that is one of the aspects of his writing that I enjoy the most. Here are some of my favourite examples.

Diarmait Mac Murchada (Dermot MacMurrough) was the Irish King of Leinster. In 1166, Mac Murchada appealed to Henry II of England for help in the recovery of his kingdom, from which he had been exiled by his enemies. Because of this act, Mac Murchada is regarded as the instigator of English involvement in Ireland. Gerald describes him thus:‘Diarmait was tall and well built, a brave and warlike man among his people, whose voice was hoarse as a result of constantly having been in the din of battle. He preferred to be feared by all rather than loved. All men’s hands were raised against him and he was hostile to all men.’

A man killing another.

Of fellow Cambro-Norman, the second earl of Pembroke Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (familiar to many as Strongbow), Gerald has this to say:‘He had reddish hair and freckles, grey eyes, a feminine face, a weak voice and a short neck, though in almost all other aspects he was of a tall build. He was a generous and easy-going man…In war he remained steadfast and reliable, in good fortune and bad alike. In adversity, no feelings of despair caused him to waver, while lack of self-restraint did not make him run amok when successful.’

A stag, a hare, a badger & a beaver.

Gerald’s description of his king brings Henry vividly to life with its detail: ‘Henry II was a man of reddish, freckled complexion, with a large round head, grey eyes that glowed fiercely and grew bloodshot in anger, a fiery countenance and a harsh, cracked voice. His neck was thrust forward slightly from his shoulders, his chest was broad and square, his arms strong and powerful. His body was stocky, with a pronounced tendency towards fatness, due to nature rather than self-indulgence, which he tempered with exercise. For in eating and drinking he was moderate and sparing.’

Men of Connacht in a boat.

Less favourable is Gerald’s assessment of Henry’s relationship with his young mistress, Rosamund Clifford, the Fair Rosamund of many mythical stories. ‘The King, who had long been a secret adulterer, now blatantly flaunted his paramour for all the world to see, not a rose of the world, as some vain and foolish people called her, but a rose of unchastity. And since the world copies a king, he offended not only by his behaviour but even more by his bad example.’ 

Gerald also provided an opinion of Henry’s sons. Of Richard I, the Lionheart, Gerald states the he ‘cared for no success that was not reached by a path cut by his own sword and stained with the blood of his adversaries.’

A priest and a wolf.

Geoffrey, Henry’s son who was Duke of Brittany fares very badly under Gerald’s pen. Geoffrey was ‘overflowing with words, soft as oil, possessed, by his syrupy and persuasive eloquence, of the power of dissolving the seeming indissoluble, able to corrupt two kingdoms with his tongue; of tireless endeavour, a hypocrite in everything, a deceiver and a dissembler.’ Ouch.

Gerald was of the view that Geoffrey and John (the future King John) looked alike physically: ‘one was corn in the ear, the other corn in the blade.’ As for Gerald’s opinion of John, describing him as a ‘tyrannous whelp’ gives us some idea.

A fox and a wolf.

It is of course easy to criticise Gerald. Much of his writing is his personal, embittered opinion and it can veer into the ludicrous and/or downright dangerous. Yet it can also be wonderful and shines a brilliant light on the medieval world. His words still have the power to surprise, inform and entertain, even after 800 years—and that’s pretty remarkable.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.
Bartlett, Robert‘Gerald of Wales', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2006
Gerald of Wales: The History and Topography of Ireland: Penguin Clasics (1982)
Giraldus Cambrensis: The Description of Wales (Public Domain Books)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)
E.M. Powell is the author of medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT & THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT which have both been #1 Historical Thrillers on Amazon's US and UK sites and on the Bild bestseller list in Germany..

Sir Benedict Palmer and his wife Theodosia are back in book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND. It's 1185 and Henry II sends his youngest son, John (the future despised King of England), to bring peace to his new lands in Ireland. But John has other ideas and only Palmer and Theodosia can stop him. THE LORD OF IRELAND is published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

E.M. Powell was born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State) she now lives in the north west of England with her husband and daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. Find out more by visiting
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Sunday, February 21, 2016

Prelude to the Barbarian Conspiracy of AD367

by James Collins

The Great Conspiracy of AD367 is without doubt one of the most tantalising and enigmatic events in Romano-British history.

Contemporary records, primarily from the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, indicate that the Roman garrison on Hadrian’s Wall rebelled and allowed northern tribes (Picti, Scoti, and Attacotti) to penetrate the frontier and lay waste to the northern provinces of Britain.

At the same time, and purportedly in union, Saxon and Frankish war-bands invaded the British and Gaulish coasts. The assailants ransacked the towns and brutalised the inhabitants, thrashing a trail of devastation through the island which can be corroborated by archaeological records of the time.

This enticing scenario was one of the reasons I chose to set my novel, Sol Limitis, in the prelude to the incursions of 367. As the first part of a trilogy, I wanted to explore the effects of the Great Conspiracy from a ground-level perspective, experiencing this terrifying and violent period of British history through the eyes of my characters caught in the middle of it.

But the concerted attacks of 367 were not an aberration; on the contrary they were the natural culmination of a series of dark and bitter years stretching back to earlier in the C4th. Peter Salway, the noted historian of Roman Britain, wrote in his seminal work that, “one cannot help suspecting that AD340 marks the true beginning of Britain's troubles.”

C16th edition of Ammianus
Marcellinus’ Roman History
A large portion of my research for the novel involved getting to grips with the tenor of Romano-British life in the mid-C4th century.

And this, by most accounts, was grim indeed.


A few years after the death of Constantine the Great in 337, his brother Constans (one of three siblings to assume the role of Augustus) made a personal trip to Britannia. During his visit he reinforced the military presence and attempted to bolster their defences by creating the role of the comes litoris Saxonici, (‘Commander of the Saxon Shore’, referring to the string of forts guarding the vulnerable coastline along the east and south of Britain) and forming the areani, roving agents tasked with working beyond the frontiers.

The situation in Britain must have been dire indeed to warrant such drastic personal intervention by Constans; even the subsequent incursions of 367 did not see the emperor himself set foot upon British shores.

It’s presumed that at this time Britain’s military was woefully depleted following its likely absorption into Constantius II’s army for his failed invasion of Italy in 340. Archaeological evidence suggests there was widespread destruction of northern forts and towns dating from this period, and presumably the diocese was suffering intense pressure from the northern tribes. It may be that Constans created the areani to monitor the terms of his peace-treaties with these groups.

Remains of the Saxon Shore Fort at Portchester.
The D shaped towers are Roman,
adopted into a later medieval castle structure.
We have no detailed records of British events in the following 17 years, though it is likely that there were ongoing small-scale battles along the frontiers. We next hear of Britain in 360 when Emperor Julian received reports of Picti and Scoti breaching their concord and ransacking frontier towns. The magister militum Lupicinus was sent to Britain along with four units of the field army in order to quash these insurgences. Julian’s intention here may have been to strengthen the strained frontiers and instigate a campaign of resistance, but due to imperial politics Lupicinus was recalled and any long-term defence strategy was curtailed.


In addition to the incessant threat of invasion from all angles, the Romano-British also suffered from the fluctuations of their incumbent emperors’ religious devotions.

Although Constantine the Great introduced tolerance for Christianity alongside Paganism, subsequent Christian emperors tended to be more hard-line, effectively driving pagan practitioners underground. When Magnentius defeated Constans in 350 and became de facto emperor of the west, he offered a respite to pagans, legitimising their practices and drawing them into the open. However, he was shortly succeeded by Constantius II, a fervid Christian who reinstated the death penalty for these recently legitimised pagan practices.

Britain was ripped asunder along a key pagan/Christian division which saw the pagans bearing the brunt of Christianity’s intolerance for competing religions.


Magnentius was a usurper raised to the purple by an army dissatisfied with the Emperor Constans. After Magnentius’ defeat by Constantius II at the Battle of Mons Seleucus in 353, Constantius sent a notarius to Britain to identify and eliminate those factions which had supported the usurper and attained power under his brief rule.

This infamous notarius was Paulus, nicknamed Catena (‘The Chain’) due to the ferocity and savagery with which he persecuted the Britons during this period.

Paulus instigated a series of protracted persecutions to such a degree that, as Salway explains, “suspicion became endemic, and no one against whom an allegation was made escaped.” Such limitless persecution can be seen to pre-empt the C17th century witch-hunts of Matthew Hopkins, or even the political purges of the C20th: bureaucrats given carte-blanche for indulging their sadistic whims and empowering the discharging of personal grudges amongst the populace. Certainly Paulus Catena seemed to relish the opportunity for spreading terror throughout the island: it is likely that the notarius overstepped his imperial mandate in the breadth and severity of his purges, though his actions were subsequently endorsed by Constantius.

The injustice the Britons suffered under Paulus was so dire that the vicarius of Britain, Flavius Martinus (a man notably loyal to the emperor) was moved to petition for leniency under threat of his own resignation. He was duly ignored by Paulus who reciprocated by making false accusations against Martinus and his staff. Incensed and desperate, Martinus tried to attack Paulus with his own sword, but was defeated and took the only option available to him: suicide.


Alongside political and religious purges, and endless conflict from tribes pressing at her frontiers, Britain also suffered from wide-scale military corruption and general societal dissolution.

AHM Jones in his book The Later Roman Empire explores how officers would frequently neglect their troops on the frontiers, especially from the middle of the C4th onwards: “Some officers exploited their men shamelessly,” he writes, explaining that many lacked arms, uniforms and even boots. Paraphrasing a C4th Libanius speech, he asserts that the soldiers were “hungry, cold and penniless owing to the peculations of the duces and tribunes, who intercepted what the government provided for them.”

Map of C4th Infrastructure for
overview of the layout of Roman Britain
It was not only the higher ranks who were corrupt. We know from the historian Ammianus that the areani had been abandoning their positions for some time and had been betraying their Roman masters for money: “[they had] fallen into bad practices…[and] had been undeniably convicted of yielding to the temptation of the great rewards which were given and promised to them, so as to have continually betrayed to the barbarians what was done among us.”


Valentinian was the incumbent emperor when he received news of tribal forces acting in concert to attack Britain which had been, according to Ammianus, “reduced by the ravages of the united barbarians to the lowest extremity of distress.” In the course of which at least two of the most senior military commanders (including the comes litoris Saxonici) were either killed or taken hostage. The united tribes were ransacking forts and towns, and looting, pillaging and raping their way through the country. This threat was compounded by the rise of Roman deserters swapping sides, or turning to banditry to further prey on an already devastated population.

This concept of a united barbarian army was a terrifying prospect for Rome whose military superiority depended largely on the lack of a cohesive and unified enemy. Such cooperation implied the presence of powerful charismatic leaders tying together these disparate tribes to threaten their common enemy. This latter part of the C4th was to see the emergence of such leaders amongst the barbarian peoples, ones who could talk to emperors as peers and, if they chose, rise to high ranks within the Roman politico-military hierarchy.

To counter the situation in Britain, Valentinian sent one of his top generals, Theodosius, at the head of an army. Eventually, using counter-attacks, ambuscades and overwhelming force, Britain was back under Roman control and the invaders repulsed; at least temporarily. Theodosius rebuilt forts and cities, strengthened the garrisons, and dissolved the treacherous areani.

A mere four decades later, Britain would cease to be under Roman control for good.

All the available evidence points to a bleak and desperate period of history in the decades leading to the Great Conspiracy of 367. I chose to set my novel Sol Limitis in the winter leading up to the main penetration of Hadrian’s Wall by the northern tribes, and this was because I wanted to focus on the landscape and the inhabitants of this period: scared and beaten people living in squalid, depressed conditions, wearied by endless attacks, religious and political purges and inherently suspicious of each other and, crucially, of Rome. I wanted to show the limitanei, those frontier soldiers grafting at the limit of the empire, as poverty-stricken and ill-equipped mercenaries, hardened warriors as indifferent to the concept of romanitas as they were to a notion of authority that extended beyond their own garrison commander. This was the backdrop into which I wanted to insert my protagonists, and retrieve a ground-level perspective of the events leading up to the incursions.

As a fiction writer, I feel challenged to embrace those aspects of history which others may find unpalatable, and not be afraid of tackling the darker and bleaker aspects of a given period. I believe all authors of historical fiction have a certain degree of responsibility to investigate and invigorate the tribulations of the long-forgotten peoples and to do so in a manner that neither glorifies nor sanitises their hardships according to the tastes of modern readers.

Ruins of the Roman fort of Aesica on Hadrian’s Wall

Roman Britain, Peter Salway, Oxford University Press, 1992
The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus tr. C D Yonge, G Bell & Sons, 1911
A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 1964

Media attribution:
[Fig 1] Photo: Feldkurat Katz (
[Fig 2] Photo: Geni Licensed under GFDL CC-BY-SA (
[Fig 3] Based on Jones & Mattingly’s Atlas of Roman Britain licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (
[Fig 4] – author.


James Collins is an author, editor, freelance journalist and recovering archaeologist. Born in Stoke on Trent in 1979, he studied archaeology at the University of Nottingham and went on to work as an archaeologist in the UK and abroad. Tired of wallowing in muddy holes for a living, he survived various unsavoury menial jobs before catching his breath in the construction and renewables industries for more years than was healthy. He is currently working towards being self-employed and to be able to get paid for doing what he loves: writing. James also plays and teaches classical guitar and spends most of his spare time studying the Daoist arts.

Twitter: @JamesDomCollins