Monday 23 December 2019

Christmas in early seventh century Britain

"Come, remove your sodden cloak and take a place on the bench. The fire is warm and there is food and drink a-plenty." The bearded man looks at you askance. "Even one who has travelled so far to be here tonight."

He ushers you towards the long bench where others are seated around the central hearth. The feast is already well underway and the men raise their cups and drinking horns to you as they slide along, making way for you to sit.

"I see from your apparel that you have come a long way to be here in our Lord King Edwin's hall at Gefrin," says the steward as you settle onto the wooden bench. "I note you have no eating knife. I will fetch you one." And with that he is gone, bustling away through the servants and thralls who attend the revellers.

Looking up, you see the rafters of the long hall are wreathed in soot and the smoke from the hearth fogs the air around the beams. Your nostrils are filled with the scent of roasting meat, ale, mead, and the sour stink of dozens of unwashed bodies. The man beside you, a sharp faced brute with a badly set broken nose and a savage-looking scar under his right eye, pushes a wooden cup into your hand. Some of the contents slosh over your fingers and onto the board before you. The man grins. There is a gap between his strong white teeth, and judging from his scarred face you imagine he might have lost the tooth in combat. You suppress a shiver of fear, but he seems friendly enough and the warmth of the hall is welcome after the driving, bitter rain outside.

"Drink!" the gap-toothed man demands.

Nervously, you sniff the liquid in the cup. It smells faintly of a plant. Heather, perhaps. You sip it and it tastes unlike anything you have drunk before. It is not unpleasant and has a slightly floral taste.

"The ale is good, is it not?" the man asks. "It is fresh," he continues, "goodwife Aelswith made it this very morn."

You drink some more, allowing the ale to refresh you, and offering the man a nod. He seems pleased.

"Here is the knife I promised you." The steward has returned and hands you a small scabbarded knife. Its handle is smooth and made from antler. "So, tell me, stranger,” the steward says, “did you travel here with the Christ followers? They have come all the way from Cantware."

He indicates a dark robed, sallow-faced man, sitting at the high table beside the richly dressed man you assume to be the lord of the hall, King Edwin of Northumbria. Before you can answer, the steward continues.

"Now I have nothing against this new religion of the Christ, and my Lord King is wise to invite the learned men from Roma into his lands. But they say that this, the shortest day of the year and the longest night, is the birth of their god, the Christ. I suppose that might be true.” He scratches at his beard for a moment, finds something in the thatch of hair and inspects it. He squeezes whatever it is between his fingernails and flicks it over the laden board and into the fire. “But for me,” he continues, “this night will always be Modraniht, Mother Night, and I will celebrate it as I always have and as my father did and my father's father did before him. See," he waves his hand towards the carcass that was being turned slowly on a spit over the fire by a sweat-streaked youth, "a boar has been sacrificed and its head and blood offered up to the gods, that the coming year will bring us fertility and prosperity. This priest man from the south, with his strangely-shaved head, can preach all he wishes about the birth of a child god, but I think Yule will always be celebrated as we do now. With good food, strong drink, and offering up thanks to our forebears and the gods. For at this, the darkest and coldest time of the year, we must make our own light and merriment and look forward to the turning of the year and the coming of the sun and warmth of summer once more. Then the land will be green and full of life and plenty." He laughs and shrugs ruefully. "Listen to me, I speak as though I were a scop, ready to tell you a tale or sing a song. But that is not my place, I am not a spinner of words. That will come later, after the eating is done. Caedmon the bard will sing then and tell-tales the like of which you have never heard. His voice is like liquid honey poured into the ears. But now I must be away. I see Hrothgar calling for more ale. Where is Odelyna?” He tuts. “I told her to take a fresh jug over there an age ago. If I find her dallying again with young Acennan, I will take a hazel switch to her hide! Enjoy the food, friend." He shakes his head, gives you a friendly pat on the shoulder and hurries away.

One of the servants, a redheaded comely girl with skin as pale as lamb’s wool and eyes the green of a summer orchard, places a trencher of freshly sliced meat onto the board. Unsheathing the small knife, you take your lead from the others sitting around you and skewer a piece of meat. Chewing the succulent flesh, you look about contentedly, allowing the merriment of those gathered in the fug-filled mead hall to wash over you. The dark-garbed priest at the high table catches your gaze and inclines his head, as though he recognises a kindred spirit. You raise your cup to him and drink deeply of the ale that had tasted so foreign only moments before. Now, you savour the brew as you wash down the boar meat.

You look the length of the hall, taking in the throng of revellers, the raucous laughter. The heat from the fire and the redolence of the hearty food is comforting. You lean back, feeling the tension easing from your shoulders and you ponder the steward's words.

Much will change over the centuries, you muse. Until one day, this draughty timber hall is just a distant memory, veiled in an almost forgotten past. In these northern lands, raiders and invaders will come and go, kings will be born, rise to power and then go the way of all things.

And yet there will be a constant through the ages. When the year is at the wane and the longest night is come, then, whether it is known as Yule, Modraniht or Christmas, the people of this island will eat, drink and spend time with their loved ones, looking back at the year behind them and gazing forward to warmer, brighter times ahead.


This article first appeared on Mary Anne Yarde's blog.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

The power of alliance in the Viking Age

This article was first published in Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers' Association on 13th November 2019.

My latest novel, Wolf of Wessex, is set in the south west of Britain in AD 838. It features many fictional characters, but they are placed within the tapestry of real events, places and people. One such real person is a king I had never heard of before researching the book: Ecgberht, King of Wessex.

Ecgberht (also spelled Egbert, Ecgbert, or Ecgbriht) was the grandfather of King Alfred and the more I read about his life and his reign, the more I wonder whether he might have as much right to the epithet ‘Great’ (as seen in 19th-century documents about him) as his more famous grandson.

Ecgberht didn’t have to deal with a great heathen army, but he did become the Bretwalda (overking of all of the English), break the dominion of Mercia over the south-east and, through alliance and battle, not only expanded the influence of his kingdom but also defended his shores from foreign aggressors.

The very late eighth and early ninth centuries were years of upheaval after a period of relative stability for Britain. The first account of Norsemen landing was on the coast of Wessex in 787.
Over the subsequent decade there followed a series of brutal raids all around the coastline of the British Isles. Infamously, the raiders, known now as Vikings (from the word vikingr, the Old Norse word for people travelling to raid and seek adventure), sacked Christian monasteries such as Lindisfarne in Northumbria and Iona in the Hebrides.

These Christian sites were situated in exposed locations, with access to the sea, and had no armed guards. They also housed many rich artefacts which were ripe for the taking. These Scandinavian pirates were not Christian, so cared nothing for the supposed eternal damnation they might face for defiling the sanctity of monasteries and churches.

And so it was that the Viking Age began. A time where the sleek dragon-prowed ships of the Norsemen were a constant threat to anyone living near the coast or navigable rivers of Britain and northern Europe.

For a time in the early ninth century, the number of attacks seems to have reduced. And, as so often in history, we can see how alliance made a smaller kingdom, in this case Wessex, more protected from external threats, and therefore more prosperous.

For the reduction of attacks on the British coast was thanks in no small part to Frankish ships patrolling the narrow sea of the English Channel. Like so many monarchs in the Anglo-Saxon period, Ecgberht had been exiled in his early life. He spent those years in the court of Charlemagne, the Frankish king and the greatest ruler of the age.

At the Frankish court Ecgberht learnt much about how to be a statesman and how to govern a Christian country. This knowledge would serve him well and the alliance with the powerful Frankish royal family must certainly have aided him when he returned to claim his place as the king of Wessex.

Under Ecgberht, and with Frankish support, Wessex quickly became the most powerful kingdom in Britain. While the Frankish navy kept the southern coast relatively safe from plundering Norsemen, Ecgberht focused on conquest and expansion. In 813 and again in 825 he led campaigns against the ‘West Welsh’, conquering what is now known as Devon and subjugating Cornwall to the status of vassal state.

Soon he had defeated the Mercians, his main rivals for power in Britain, at the Battle of Ellandun (probably Wroughton in Wiltshire) and then swallowed up Kent, Essex, Surrey and Sussex. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he even took the oath of Eanred, king of the Northumbrians, leading Ecgberht to be called the ruler of all of the English, or the eighth Bretwalda.

But as with all kingdoms, things didn’t run smoothly for long. Mercia, Wessex’s enemy number one, quickly regained independence in 830. And the Vikings posed an increasing threat along the coast of Wessex. This was largely due to a civil war breaking out in Frankia between the sons of Louis the Pious. As the bloody civil war raged, thoughts of protecting the Channel from Norse ships vanished, and the navy was disbanded.

So, with his Continental European allies otherwise engaged and removing their support, Ecgberht found himself having to fend for himself.

In 836, a fleet of thirty-five Danish marauders landed at Carrum (Carhampton). Ecgberht summoned his levies and they attacked the Vikings. But the Danes defeated the men of Wessex and “had the place of slaughter”.

Ecgberht was getting old by this time and the threat of attack by Vikings must have been an ever-present worry for him. Thoughts of expansion were a thing of the past and Ecgberht began to consider securing the succession to his throne for his son Æthelwulf and the defence of his realm from the Vikings. He managed to defeat a concerted assault by a joint force of Danes and West Welsh from Cornwall in 838 at Hingston Down, but as the century went on, the Viking attacks would continue.

Even as the alliance with Frankia weakened, and the Frankish commercial network collapsed, Ecgberht was still striving to strengthen those bonds of friendship once more, as attested by communication with Louis the Pious shortly before Ecgberht’s death.

It seems that Ecgberht of Wessex knew full well that his kingdom was stronger and more powerful when supported by his allies on the continent. Without the Franks’ aid and trade, he could see his influence waning and Wessex’s power dwindling.

It is often said that to understand the present we must learn from the past. Ecgberht understood that alliance with continental Europe made his kingdom more secure. Looking back from the 21st century, such a conclusion appears obvious; but maybe what Ecgberht had come to understand over a thousand years ago is thought to be too distant to be recognised as relevant today.

Wolf of Wessex by Matthew Harffy was published in ebook and print on demand paperback on 14 November, 2019. Hardback and paperback versions will be out in 2020.

Depiction of Ecgberht from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings (late 13th-century manuscript): British Library via Wikimedia
Map showing places of interest during Ecgberht’s reign: by Mike Christie via Wikimedia
Portrait of Egbert: National Library of Wales via Wikimedia

Tuesday 1 October 2019

New book release: Katherine - Tudor Duchess by Tony Riches

Tony Riches, Author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy, has a new book out!

Katherine - Tudor Duchess

Attractive, wealthy and influential, Katherine Willoughby is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knows all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward.

When her father dies, Katherine becomes the ward of Tudor knight, Sir Charles Brandon. Her Spanish mother, Maria de Salinas, is Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting, so it is a challenging time for them when King Henry marries the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.

Following Anne’s dramatic downfall, Katherine marries Charles Brandon, and becomes Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. After the short reign of young Catherine Howard, and the death of Jane Seymour, Katherine and Brandon are chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves as she arrives in England.

When the royal marriage is annulled, Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr becomes the king’s sixth wife, and they work to promote religious reform. Katherine’s young sons are tutored with the future king, Prince Edward, and become his friends, but when Edward dies his Catholic sister Mary is crowned queen. Katherine’s Protestant faith puts her family in great danger - from which there seems no escape.

Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Available in eBook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon US

(Audiobook edition coming in 2020)

Author Bio

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess and Brandon – Tudor Knight.

For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website and his blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches

Tuesday 10 September 2019

REVIEW: Outside the Gates of Eden by Lewis Shiner

Outside the Gates of EdenOutside the Gates of Eden by Lewis Shiner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, sprawling double gatefold concept album of a novel. It is a poignant and powerful swansong to the end of the twentieth century, to the demise of wide-eyed, often drug-fuelled innocence of the Summer of Love and Woodstock; an elegy to ideals and dreams lost. But through it all, like a pounding John Bonham stomp groove, the enduring power of music and love to redeem us all flows through the heart of the story.

Filled with missed opportunities and wasted time, Outside the Gates of Eden is often bleak, frequently ebullient, but always eminently readable. Shiner takes his endearing cast of characters from students wanting to change the world to retirees who, looking back with regrets at their perception of how little they have achieved, do their best to hand over some hope for the future to the next generation.

Lewis Shiner writes with incredible precision and feeling. With seeming effortlessness he captures the ecstatic joy of live performance, and the rush that comes when music and words slot together perfectly to produce something magical in song writing and recording. His passion for music oozes from every page, but above that, his compassion for the characters drives the narrative and makes the book difficult to put down.

This is one of those rare books that fills me with awe and envy in equal measure. I know I could never have written it, but still I wish I had. I loved it!

View all my reviews

Saturday 7 September 2019

GUEST POST: Capturing Time and Place in a Sentence by Dean Hamilton

Way back in 2016 I read a novella by Dean Hamilton called Black Dog. It featured a swashbuckling tough character called Kit Tyburn and was a richly detailed portrayal of Elizabethan London.

A few days ago I started listening to the audio book of the first novel about the same character, THE JESUIT LETTER, and I have again been impressed with Hamilton's depth of historical knowledge and how he paints a realistic picture of 16th century England.

The creation of a believable setting is one of the key elements in writing convincing historical fiction, so I asked Dean to write a guest post explaining how he goes about casting the spell of time travel over his readers. I think the piece he wrote will interest readers and writers alike.

Capturing Time and Place in a Sentence

by Dean Hamilton

One of the challenges in writing historical fiction, is the effort to capture a setting.  How do you write believably about an era that is long vanished in time? How do you make that setting come alive, in a realistic and accurate way? How does that setting drive the story, characters actions and choices, and how do they interact with that world?

THIEVES’ CASTLE, my new book, is set in the Elizabethan era in 1576 in London. Most fiction embedded in the Elizabethan era tends to be tales of Court intrigue, set amidst the silken splendor of palaces.  Mine tends to hang about in ale-soaked taverns, muddy streets and fetid back-alleys where cold-steel by lantern light offers redemption or grim death by turns…

In THIEVES’ CASTLE, Kit Tyburn, ex-soldier turned play-actor and part-time intelligencer for the Queen’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, is back in London and adrift. Penniless, cut loose from both his playing troupe and his mercurial employer, Tyburn is hired to track down a missing gold-seller who has vanished, along with the monies needed for the completion of London’s first permanent theatre.

But London’s dark and fetid back-alleys hide deadly secrets, as Tyburn uncovers a more treacherous game – a war between two noble houses that pulls him into a murderous conflict on the streets, a deadly Spanish conspiracy and a twisted thief-lord chasing her vengeance.

The defining parameters for the setting of THIEVES’ CASTLE were driven by two ideas:
  1. Take Elizabethan historical fiction out of the silken palaces and court intrigue and into the streets of London. 
  2. Make those streets, taverns and hidden locales into as real place as you can, make London itself a detailed, complex, vibrant character in the books.

Tyburn, the protagonist, spends comparatively little time in the environment that most readers tend to associate with the Tudor world of fiction – the worlds of Kings, Queens, of palaces and grand homes or the splendor and intrigue of the Royal Court. Almost all the story moments that are set in such places are ones that Tyburn is uncomfortable and in an environment that is, at best, somewhat alien to him.

The streets however are different. In the streets, he moves with ease, he can blend in, find his way. He can move through the bustling crowds, the hawkers and the carters. It is a rhythm and a pace that he is familiar with and, in that familiarity, he brings the reader along to discover the discord and colour of the Elizabethan world.
“The weather was cold and damp and Tyburn’s breath hung in the air. A thin skiff of ice crackled underfoot where puddles had formed between desultory sets of cobbles and thick, sagging expanses of mud. Tyburn gave a rooting pig a sharp kick to open up some walking space between the stony wall of a building and a heavily laden cart. The cantilevered upper stories of the timbered houses on Shepard Lane hovered overhead like an oppressive canopy, giving the narrow laneway the feel of a mountain defile.”
Building an evocative setting for historical fiction is difficult, particularly for an era that few physical structures remain, such as the Tudor period. While most Tudor-era structures were laid waste by the impact of time, the Great Fire and, most recently, by the Luftwaffe and modern developers, there are still a wide range of primary and secondary sources that can help.

In trying to understand Tudor London and generate as vivid a picture of the setting as possible, the first and best starting point is to develop a picture of the physical geography of the place. A map is critical and there are a number of historical maps, panoramas, and other sources that you can use to dive into the structure of the city. Understanding how the city developed over time, the growth of population, critical infrastructure, points of entry, key industries and social structures all provide insight into the experience of walking those streets.

In the case of London, the Civitas Londinum map, also called the Agas Map, offers a brilliant view of London from about 1561. If you want, you can lose several hours exploring the interactive version online (, which is a fabulous resource for writers. Beyond whatever maps are available, there are primary sources that touch upon the social structure, geography and commerce of the day. Again for London, I would recommend John Stow’s A Survey of London, published in 1598, which offers up a richly detailed survey of the city and its inhabitants.

One thing the Tudor era does not lack, is written documentation. You can read plays (Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson), commercial records, court records, proclamations, crime or religious pamphlets, sermons, travellers accounts, cookbooks, books on manners, legal records, even books that delve into the vagaries of cozenage (con-artists and tricks), gambling, roguery, crime and begging.

All of these sources together need to be processed, reviewed and considered from the writer’s point of view. Detail and depth are terrific but they need to serve the story foremost. As fascinating as we might find the background of a certain church or street, it needs to illuminate some aspect of the story world or the characters inhabiting it. Details that are immersive, that involve all the senses, such as the stench of a shambles, or the strident shouts of street hawkers, the feel of a starched ruff, are all details used to pull the reader into the setting and to experience it more richly.

The key goal is to make the setting a living place, with hidden depths and byways, and a myriad bustle of inhabitants that make it more than a painted backdrop. Done right, it makes the world your story inhabits one that engages the reader and feels real and lived in. And engagement helps turn the pages!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief dive into settings in historical fiction! Feel free to dive in a little more and grab a copy of my new book THIEVES’ CASTLE, now available for Kindle ebooks and print on AMAZON.


Dean Hamilton works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. He is married, with a son, a dog, and a small herd of cats. He is the author of the gripping Elizabethan thriller series The Tyburn Folios.

Twitter: @Tyburn__Tree

Thursday 8 August 2019

REVIEW: The Lost Outlaw by Paul Fraser Collard

The Lost Outlaw (Jack Lark #8)The Lost Outlaw by Paul Fraser Collard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dusty deserts, showdowns under the blistering sun, bloodthirsty bandoleros, rough whisky and rougher men. Bullets fly, emotions run high and treachery abounds in The Lost Outlaw. This is classic Jack Lark in a classic western. Paul Fraser Collard has done it again and delivered another exceptionally entertaining historical action adventure.

View all my reviews

Monday 22 July 2019

The King’s Furies Blog Tour

Today on the blog I have the great pleasure to welcome author Stephanie Churchill. Stephanie has been a long-time fan of the Bernicia Chronicles and it is always a joy to read her review of each book. Her reviews are long, thoughtful and insightful in ways that make me wonder if she doesn't know more about my books and characters than I do myself!

Like me, Stephanie is also writing a series of novels (Crowns of Destiny), which started back in 2015 with The Scribe's Daughter.

Stephanie’s writing draws on her knowledge of history even while set in purely fictional places existing only in her imagination. Filled with action and romance, loyalty and betrayal, her writing relies on deeply drawn and complex characters, exploring the subtleties of imperfect people living in a gritty, sometimes dark world. Her unique blend of historical fiction and fantasy ensures that her books are sure to please fans of historical fiction and epic fantasy literature alike.

The Scribe's Daughter was followed by The King's Daughter.

The third novel in the series, The King's Furies, is out on 30th July.

MH: Welcome to my blog, Stephanie. Before we start the interview, something to drink?

SC: I’d love a nice craft beer, thanks. What do you have on tap?

MH: I don't have any craft beer on tap, but how about a pint of Wadworth Game of Stones? It is brewed just down the road in Devizes and I think you'll approve.

SC: Thanks, that sounds great. And thanks for letting me stop by for a chat finally. Looks like all that harassment has finally paid off.

MH: Well, it was either give in or face a legal battle, but I decided this was easier. But before you get all smug about it, can we talk about genre for a minute? You and I have talked about this a few times in the past, but I know you like to be clear for readers on the topic of the genre of your books. They are categorized as fantasy, but they are lacking in magic, creatures, and other fantastical elements.

SC: Yeah, thanks for bringing this up. It’s as good a place to start as any.

I love history. Always have. I know a lot of historical fiction authors, and I read a lot in the genre. For people who know this about me, it’s very common for them to ask me why I didn’t just write historical fiction since it seems the most obvious choice. The answer I’ve given most often is that, quite honestly, I am scared off by the research. I know what it would take to do the kind of quality research I’d demand of myself, and I don’t feel like I want to commit to it.

But as I’ve thought more deeply about what motives me to write, I’ve discovered another reason. As much as I love history, the history itself isn’t what draws me to writing; it’s the storytelling. Story moves me more than the history, and I think I knew this intuitively when I started off. I wanted to be free to tell a story any way that worked without being constrained by facts. I read a lot of historical fiction (and much less sword and sorcery fantasy), so a historical-feeling setting became the narrative device that felt most comfortable to me.

Sorry to be so long-winded about it. It’s just a good question.

MH: So historical-feeling. Got it. Let’s talk about your world a bit since there isn’t any real history in your books. What were your influences for the setting?

SC: I’m most comfortable with medieval history and culture, so that was definitely the period I drew upon to create most of the world for my characters (medieval with a smattering of early Tudor). A couple of locations in the books, Elbra and Pania, have some Eastern European influences in language and social ranks of aristocracy as well as some vaguely Mediterranean settings. I created an entire people group in The King’s Furies based on Ethiopian culture. Generally speaking, the worlds will feel familiar to people in Britain and North America. I live in Minnesota, USA, and we have brutally cold winters with comfortable but humid summers. Like Britain, it’s temperate, though quite a bit more extreme on either end of the seasons. It’s easy for me to imagine my characters bundled up in furs and cloaks while tromping through the snow just as much as it is to have them bake in the sun.

MH: How about historical influences on plot and characters?

SC: Historical events and individuals definitely inspired some of the characters and events in my books. Nothing original here, but I’ve always been interested in the Wars of the Roses and the idea of York vs. Lancaster. I know that history has inspired a lot of books, and I can’t say I’m much different. I also can’t help but admit that many of the historical novels written by Sharon Penman have influenced me: the historical events, her characters, her descriptions, and settings, etc.

MH: You’ve made it no secret that you love Beobrand. Are there any similarities between him and any of your characters so that my own readers might find him or her familiar?

SC: Yes, I might love Beobrand. But that’s supposed to be a secret. Can’t we just keep that between the two of us? So… Beobrand tends to brood a bit. He’s dark and moody and broody and conflicted. Just like the main character in my new release, Casmir Vitus, King of Agrius. Like Beobrand, leadership rests uncomfortably on Casmir’s head. He never wanted to be king, but the job is his, and he has to make the best of it. Unlike Beobrand, Casmir was raised to the role forced upon him though, so he performs the task admirably when he remembers he’s not meant to do the job alone. It’s when he acts out of a spirit of entitlement typical of kings (contrasting to Beobrand’s more plebeian upbringing) that he lapses into his imperious and haughty tendencies. Nothing extreme, but readers will sense it. I used this part of his character to explore the dark places of his soul as the events in the book push Casmir to the limits of his strength and test his character.

MH: I’m guessing Casmir doesn’t wield a sword and smite his enemies in the same way Beobrand gets to?

SC: Casmir lives in a peaceful time. Or at least peaceful in the sense that there is no warfare. Agrius has been at peace since his father took the throne. Well, all is peaceful on the surface anyway. Even if Agrius had been at war, kings in his time don’t actually get to fight. So no, he doesn’t get a chance to show off his combat skills except at the pell. His book has more relational tension and political intrigue rather than violence. Courtiers can be very deceitful, so the palace is more viper pit than a gladiatorial arena.

MH: Before I let you finish your [craft beer brand], can you give us a little snippet from The King’s Furies?

SC: Certainly! Here’s a short scene that demonstrates part of the beginning of Casmir’s inner conflict. From the King’s Furies, chapter 53:

It took a moment for me to realize it was the scriptstóri who had spoken. I swung around, taking a menacing step toward him. “What did you say?”
The young man backed up, nearly colliding with the wall at his back. “A-Anton Mathiasen... Your Grace.”
“Irisa, who is this?” I asked, not breaking my visual hold on the scriptstóri.
“This is Annor, the one I told you about. He has been helping me in the evenings while you were away.”
“How do you know that name?” I asked Annor.
Irisa must have sensed my rising fury and reached out a hand for my sleeve. A pallor of sickness washed over the young scriptstóri, and he cast terrified eyes on Irisa. Rather than step in to help him, Irisa stood resolute, waiting for his answer.
“I... I overheard it.”
I pounced like a cat on a mouse. “Where? Where did you overhear the name?”
“In the Bibliotheca.” Annor struggled to find air, grimacing as he sought the words while fighting off his terror. He fumbled with his hands, his fingernails digging into his palms in his anxiety. He could not bring himself to look me straight-on.
“Where in the Bibliotheca? Is it conspiring scriptstórii again?” Annor blanched once more as I grasped a handful of his robe in my fist and twisted, pressing my face so close to his that he had to turn to the side to avoid having his nose crushed. “Who has betrayed me?”

SC: Thanks again for letting me stop by. Now that we’re done here, I’m going to go play with Blue. He’s the real reason I wanted to come visit.

Blue says Hi!
Next on her blog tour, Stephanie is chatting with the fantastic Sharon Kay Penman. Don't miss that!

You can find Stephanie's books on Amazon.

Purchase The Scribe’s Daughter:
Purchase The King’s Daughter:
Pre-order The King’s Furies:

Find out more about Stephanie:

Stephanie’s website:

Monday 24 June 2019

Art imitating art: The birth of an axe

In my current work in progress (working title, Wolf of Wessex, to be released in the second half of 2019), the main character, Dunston ‘The Bold’, wields an extraordinary axe. My first inclination when writing the book was that I would like it to be a double-headed, fantasy style axe like that wielded by David Gemmell’s Druss, or Robert E. Howard's Conan.

Conan by Earl Norem

Alas, a little research told me that double-headed axes of that type did not exist in Viking Age Britain. And so I was stuck with the single-bladed variety, but there was no reason why it could not be special. And so I began to investigate unusual axes from the period and found the famous Mammen axe, which has a head where silver has been forged in intricate patterns into the iron.

The Mammen axe
Such a patterned blade appealed and then I thought of the other ways in which an axe could be made special and the obvious answer was that its haft could be carved, and being a Viking axe, it would be carved with runes of significance and possibly magical power.
In Wolf of Wessex the weapon is described as follows:

"The axe's dark iron head was swirled with intricate patterns of silver, which had been cunningly forged into the metal, and the long ash haft was carved with runes and symbols. The lower end of the shaft was tightly bound in old, worn leather.”

When I finished writing the first draft of the book, I decided that I would treat myself to an axe that I could hang on my wall. Of course the axe as described in the book did not exist and so I looked at what other options were available to me. There are replicas of the Mammen axe, but it isn't much more than a hatchet in size and so not the giant battle axe I had envisaged being hefted by my hero, Dunston.

It was about this time that I saw a post on the Bernard Cornwell Fan Club Facebook group about an axe that the admin of the group, Chris Bailey, had customised for somebody. The axe had carving, runes and some leather wrapping. The resulting weapon looked amazing and so I reached out to Chris and asked whether he would be interested in creating something for me that approximated the axe carried by Dunston.

Chris immediately accepted the challenge, but was very modest about his abilities and in particular, was nervous about the idea of doing anything to the steel head of an axe. I thought it would be possible to etch or engrave into a darkened head, showing the bright metal beneath. Chris had never attempted anything like what I was suggesting before and was worried that it might not work or he might not be up to it. But, deciding to cross that bridge when we came to it, he accepted the commission and off we went.

The first thing we had to do was to decide on the axe that was to be used as a basis for the customization. Anyone who knows anything about Viking period axes will know there are lots of different shaped heads depending on the exact part of the centuries-long period you are dealing with.

Via The Viking Age Compendium.
Wolf of Wessex is set in A.D. 838 and, strictly speaking, the type of axe used by Norsemen in that period would probably be a Petersen type A – E axe head type. However, I decided that this is fiction, and I wanted a bigger head on the axe and so we continued searching until Chris found the Danish War Axe manufactured by Hanwei. Ideally, and historically, the head would be friction fitted rather than pinned, and the shape wasn’t exactly right (it was close to a type M shape, but seemed to be the wrong way up), but, despite these things and the fact that such a long hafted, large headed axe would post date the 9th century, we both liked the size and shape of the axe. What we didn’t like were the aging effects that the producers had decided to inflict upon the metal and wood.

Hanwei Danish War Axe
So, with the axe chosen, I ordered one to be delivered to Chris and we set about designing the carvings. Many messages were exchanged via Facebook messenger with sketches of runes and other shapes found in Viking age carving. We both wanted the final product to be arresting, artistic and eye-catching and, whilst not being necessarily 100% historically accurate, not knowingly anachronistic in design. But we were also cautious of making things too complex. Chris was keen to remind me that he was a novice at this and he didn't want to overstretch himself. I was appreciative of all of the time and effort he was putting in and didn't want to ask for more than was possible. In the end, I needn't have worried. I think his skills surpassed what he thought he was capable of and he produced a thing of true beauty.

For the runes I decided on using the meaning of each rune for a spell rather than having each rune signifying a letter. In that way the runes could be interpreted as an incantation something like the following:

"With the power of Odin and one-handed Tyr, let the mortal man who wields this offspring of Yew, bring speedy anguish, death, hail and destruction on his enemies."

After the design was agreed upon, Chris set about preparing the axe for work. This necessitated stripping back all of the stain on the wood and also grinding off all of the patina of ageing on the metal. This was a large job in itself, but once Chris had finished the axe was already looking better; a blank canvas for him to begin drawing the patterns we had discussed.

The Hanwei axe as it arrived from the manufacturer

Close up of the blade to show the stippled ageing effect

The axe takes its first blood!

Stripped of all the ageing, ready for the real work to begin!
For the head of the axe and the impression of the silver inlay on the Mammen axe, we had agreed that a darkened blued steel which was then engraved with a pattern down to the clean silver steel beneath might give a good effect that would at least mimic the much more complex forging of a Mammen-style axe head. And so Chris set about bluing the metal, applying several coats until it was dark enough. This engraving was the part of the process that Chris was most worried about, but it would wait until the end, after all the carving had been done, before we would see whether he was up to the task.

The head after bluing applied
Once the head was blued, Chris set about drawing on the runes and the wyrm that would encircle the wood. There was some discussion about how to reflect the scales of the serpent. In the end, after an initial sketching out of the scales, we decided on a simpler line and dot motif based on contemporary designs found on things like the Thames seax.

Initial serpent scales idea

Ideas for historically accurate scale designs
Chris then started the carving and managed to complete that in a couple of long sessions. By this point the axe was really beginning to come to life and I was starting to get excited about holding it in my hands.

Next came the stain for the wood and after a lot of discussion, we decided on almost black for the runes and snake with a dark stain for the background wood.

Finally it was time for the etching that had been worrying Chris from the beginning. We decided on having the same design on each side following a sketch made by Chris that captured the right aesthetic. Chris girded his loins and set to it, and to his surprise, he got it done the first time and the result was just as I had hoped for.

The last step was to wrap the handle and for this, Chris used approximately 30 metres of antiqued cowhide thong (more than he had originally thought to use). As with all of the stages of the creation of the axe, there was a lot of debate about the colour of the leather to use, but in the end we chose black, as it was in keeping with the dark feel of the weapon.

I think you will agree that the finished product is superb. Who knows, it may even end up on the cover of Wolf of Wessex, if I get my way!

After Chris had completed the project, I asked him a few questions and you can read his thoughts and experiences of the whole process here:

What was the most challenging part of this process for you?

Probably the most challenging part was engraving the head, this was something I hadn’t attempted previously and it made me a little nervous I have to admit! Matthew was supportive in his encouragement, and I like the way it turned out.

Which part of the finished product are you most proud of?

That’s difficult to say; I think I like the overall effect of the finished article, and all of the separate elements combine to achieve that. I’m quite proud of the designs Matthew and I collaborated on, I think that the colours we discussed and implemented work well, the head finish and the bluing make the engraving really pop, and I am quite pleased with how the west country whipping for the grip portion came together.

Can you give a list of the tools and materials you used?

There are a few tools used in the process:

  • A rotary tool (what you might know as a Dremel, but a different brand) with a long flexible pen grip shaft.
  • Many and varied bits or burrs for the rotary tool, from cutters of different shapes and sizes to diamond titanium coated engraving/polishing burrs, also of varied configurations. Sanding drums and grinding bits also.
  • Diamond hand files.
  • An angle grinder, with discs in degrees of coarseness and a special three disc polishing set with compounds.
  • A basic clamping workbench.
  • Sandpapers of varying grits.
  • A sharpening stone.
  • HB pencils and erasers.
  • Brushes of different sizes, fine grade steel wool, cotton wool and various rags/cloths.
  • A pair of magnifying glasses with varying lense strengths and an LED light (essential for the small detail work).
  • A pair of surgical steel cutters which are apparently designed for ingrowing toenails but work very well for trimming leather wrapping; adapting stuff to a different purpose than intended is always great.
  • A half dozen elastoplasts, for when she bit me.

Materials used were:

  • Varnish stripper, Rustins Strypit
  • Polishing comounds, Dronco.
  • Black special effects wax, Liberon.
  • An acetone clear matt protective coating, Rust-Oleum.
  • A cold blueing solution, Birchwood Casey Super Blue.
  • A lubricant/water repellent, GT-85.
  • A stain, Ronseal Walnut.
  • Isopropyl alchohol.
  • Antiqued cowhide thong, approximately 30m.

How many hours do you estimate you spent on the construction of this axe in total?

Including the design thought processes and the actual physical work, probably around 30-40hrs in total, although this was stretched out over a few months due to general life getting in the way; Matthew was very patient.

What was the most surprising part of the process for you?

I suppose that getting the head engraving pretty clean on the first attempts was pleasantly surprising, given that it was an all or nothing thing due to engraving directly through the gun blue-one slip and it would have been a start again scenario involving re-stripping and finishing before a second go. Phew!

Anything else you'd like to add?

I enjoyed this project very much, working together with Matthew was a great pleasure and his encouragement welcome. It is nice to have someone know, or at least have a strong vision of what it is they’re looking for in the design and execution of the piece. I do feel that my personal craft has been elevated during the project, with the head engraving and designs particularly. This axe is a large and heavy, a real beast of a weapon which took some careful hefting around during the process and that in itself was a learning curve for me. I would like to think that Matthew and I can collaborate again at some point; my techniques are developing and I would love for him to drop in along the way and share that journey again in the future.


The pleasure was all mine and I got a wonderfully crafted axe out of the project! And what a weapon it is – beauty and the beast!

Further reading:

Mammen axe

Hurstwic Viking Age Arms and Armor: Viking Axe