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Tuesday 30 January 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick : My King Arthur's women and children

I was highly honoured to learn that a wonderful lady is writing her university thesis based around my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy. Honoured, flattered, and I must admit, awed - in my opinion, she has taken on a mammoth task. But she loves the books (again I am highly flattered) so is, I think, enjoying herself.

© original drawing Amani G.
Several months ago I went up to London to meet her (over a wonderful lunch) and I don't think we stopped talking. My only problem was that as I wrote the trilogy over twenty-five years ago (I was accepted for publication by William Heinemann UK in April 1993 - a week after my 40th birthday,) so not having read it through for quite a few years, I could not remember all of it. I am tempted to read it again - but I know I'll then want to fiddle, and after all these years in print, fiddling is probably not a good idea. 

However, I did tell my new friend all I could, and promised to answer, to the best of my ability, any further questions that cropped up.

About the Trilogy:

#1 The Kingmaking  #2 Pendragon's Banner  #3 Shadow Of The King.

The 'tagline' is: 

The Boy - who became the Man
Who became the King
Who became the Legend

My Arthur is set firmly in the mid fifth century Post Roman era. The Legions have left and Britain is in chaos, a free-for-all. May the best, and strongest, survive. 

My Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) is a fiesty red-head Celtic born and bred. There is to be no 'love-triangle' for her. She admires Arthur, comes to love him (and has the occasional volatile fight with him!) but she is way too sensible to throw away her pride, her position, her status and everything in between on a Lancelot type character.

I must add here: I have no patience or liking for the later Medieval knights in armour / holy grail stories of Arthur. Can't stand them. Also, confession, Zimmer Bradley's novel annoyed me. Her Guinevere was so irritating. Many readers loved the book, although alas, the author has now also fallen from favour.  The one nod I will give to the book - it annoyed me so much it made me determined to write my own.

The early tales, though, of a war lord who has to fight to gain his kingdom, and queen, and fight even harder to keep them - ah that is a different matter entirely!

Much of my version is based on the research and ideas of Geoffrey Ashe, for no other reason than I liked his suggestions. (Let's face one fact here - Arthur is NOT FACT. There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever to prove that he did, actually, exist. Very probably he is a composite of several - even many - people). We are talking fiction here - and we all have our own ideas and beliefs and squabble like mad with anyone who dares disagree with us. 

Anyway: my Arthur is flawed. He is a pagan, not the Christian 'good king' of latter tales (told I am certain to encourage men to go on Crusade). My Arthur has affairs, is not always kind,  is occasionally violent. He is a warlord - such men were not the goody-two-shoes type. Sorry to disappoint!) You will not find Lancelot, the Holy Grail, turreted castles, white Samite or ladies wielding dangerous swords in lakes, between the covers of my novels. Nor will you find Merlin. Again, so sorry to disappoint, but he didn't exist either.

However, there's plenty to make up for all these missing figures!

Morgause is the lover of Uthr, Arthur's father - and through jealousy, she loathes Arthur. Figures of 'fact' are included - King Vortigern, (although this may be a title - something like 'High King', not a personal name),  his son Vortimer, Ambrosious, Gildas, the first Gwynedd and North Welsh princes... as Geoffrey Ashe suggested, Arthur initially marries Vortigern's daughter Winifred by his Saxon wife, Rowena, daughter of Hengest. The marriage is a disaster. Their son is Cerdic... the founder of the West Saxon kingdom.

Winifred is a spiteful bitch (I thoroughly enjoyed writing her and Morgause - they are so deliciously horrible!) 

You will also meet Cei and Bedwyr, and some more familiar - pre-Medieval tales names.

So, back to my friend and her thesis: One  recent email question was:

"The more I think I've 'finished' your trilogy, the more I feel I'm only skimming the surface and that there is much more to see. I've come across sources that place Morgaine/Morgause's first appearance in literature in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Vita Merlini (1150) and Historia Regum Britannia (1136) respectively rather than in the earlier Welsh legends. The Arthur/Morgaine incest story doesn't appear until Mort Artu (early 13th century).  Can you point me in the right direction and correct me if I'm wrong.

 "Another question is regarding the children in the novels. The amount of detail you've included recreating their childhoods is both unique and amazing. However, a number of them have very unhappy childhoods (almost all children except Gwenhwyfar and her children, as far as I can tell):  Arthur and Morgaine were abused by Morgause; Winnifred was unloved by her family; Cerdic is over-indulged, but not loved, and in turn, is eventually hated by his son; and Cadwy is scorned by Ambrosius.  I was wondering about the social context of the stories - was there anything that would have affected the way you wrote the children's stories?

"Your characters are fascinating and so real, I feel that I want to know everything about them and how they came about.  Honestly, it takes an incredible talent to create 'people' rather than fictional characters."

(Blush - but isn't that last sentence a nice thing to say?)

My answer went something like this: (Warning, may contain spoilers)

Yes you are quite right about the Morgause/Morgaine/Lady of the Lake character appearing later than I set my trilogy, [5th/6th Century] but Mordred/Medraut is there in the older legends and his back-story fitted with a Morgaine character. I also wanted him to be on Arthur’s side at the end, so had to develop him towards that aim. I also wanted to use Glastonbury Tor in its pre-Christian setting – but without the magical side, so again Morgaine fitted... and Morgause was such a delightfully horrible character to write, she had to stay in! I also felt their underlying characters fitted well into the pre-Medieval tales... so I used them as mother and daughter, but in my own imaginative way.

The children. Hmmm you make an interesting point, one I hadn’t consciously thought about. Gwenhwyfar’s three boys - Llachue, Gwydre and Amr, were very much loved by Arthur and Gwenhwyfar, but they had to die because they never appeared as adults in any of the early stories or Welsh legends. They were mentioned though: a son who died in battle, one killed by his father (Arthur the soldier) and one killed by a boar. As an author of fiction these brief  'facts'  needed to be interpreted and incorporated into my version of the story of Arthur. While writing the scenes of the deaths of these three  children, I sobbed for hours. Especially one scene which I imagined while on holiday camping near the River Wye when my own daughter was only about four or five years old.

I needed a reason for Medraut/Mordred, as an adult, to go to join Arthur, and I wanted to be completely different to the usual, familiar, tales. Morgaine, his mother,  did love the boy, but poor girl, because of the abuse by her horrid mother when she was a child, she was quite mentally unstable by the time we get to her and Arthur being in Avalon in ‘France’. Had Medraut survived Camlaan I think he would have been a good chap. I liked him. Morgaine was devoted to Arthur because he was the first person in her entire life to be kind to her. She never forgot his smile, and never stopped loving him. Of course, she - nor Arthur - had any idea that they were half-brother and sister until it was too late.

For Cadwy, son of Ambrosius Aurelianus, I needed a reason for him to turn from Ambrosius to Arthur, plus their relationship was an ideal ‘plot mechanism’ to get across the difference between Ambrosius v Arthur’s ideals, the former, a staunch Roman, certain that Rome would return to Britain, the latter as certain Rome was finished and treaties had to be made with the incomer Anglo-Saxons. Opposing views, which caused great conflict.

Ditto Cerdic – I had to make his preference for supporting the Saxons believable. What triggered his character for me was that his name is British, yet he led what was to become the West Saxons. Who was he? A son of Arthur was an obvious conclusion.

And to any social reasoning? No nothing really. I originally started writing the books in the mid 1970s, so I would have been in my early 20s. I started writing the trilogy properly (i.e with a determination to write a novel and get it finished) in 1985 when my daughter was three and had started playgroup. A 'now or never' situation.

So why create these unhappy children? I do not think I wrote this consciously (apart from Morgaine).  I was a lonely child, very shy and very lacking in self-confidence, had very few friends, and preferred the company of imaginative friends from the pages of books. I think my extreme short sight was the reason behind all this. When you cannot see you make enormous blunders, which means people laugh at you. Better to stay quiet and unnoticed in the background, nose stuck firm in a book where the people within do not mock you. 

Perhaps it is interesting that my pirate character, Jesamiah Acorne from my Sea Witch Voyages series also had a dreadful childhood - but just as with Arthur, as an adult he is self-confident, competent and well, a Hero. 

I will admit to making my characters confident and self-assured because I am not!

Die Krönung Pendragons: Pendragon-Trilogie: Band 1 (Pendragons Banner-Trilogie) or The Kingmaking in German, published by SadWolf Verlag ... click here for Amazon Germany - or for my page on an Amazon near you click here 

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What are your views about Arthur's women? Do leave a comment below! 

< previous article Smugglers - Rogues or Romantic Heroes? ... next: What Pirates Needed... >

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Tuesday Talk with Helen Hollick: Smugglers? Romantic rebels? Or despicable thieves?

I have recently completed a commisioned non-fiction book about smugglers and smuggling (I think it will be called Smugglers the Fact and the Fiction) and will, (I hope) be published some time in 2018.

Meanwhile I'll occasionally be posting a few tit-bits here on Tuesday Talk  to whet your appetite... 

the other twenty are ... elsewhere! LOL
Five and twenty ponies, 
Trotting through the dark – 
Brandy for the Parson, 'Baccy for the Clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by! 

(From A Smuggler's Song Rudyard Kipling)

‘Gentlemen’? Were smugglers  of the past (seventeenth - nineteenth century in this case) really gentlemen? It depends on your opinion, view, and which side of the fence you are sitting on. 

Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary of the English Language, published 1755,  described a smuggler as: ‘A wretch who, in defiance of justice and the laws, imports or exports goods as either contraband or without payment of the customs.’ Obviously, he was not impressed by the Gentlemen Free Trade.

On the other hand, Adam Smith, an eighteenth century economist and supporter of Free Trade,  said: ‘The smuggler is a person who, though no doubt blameable for violating the laws of his country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.’

That might be OK, but some smugglers, especially those of the large, organised gangs, were not innocent of violence, torture and murder.

A skirmish with smugglers 1853.
A painting by Vasily Hudiakov.
There is a romantic idea that surrounds these bygone-age smugglers. We tend to shrug aside the fact that they were, all of them, from fisherman to country gent, lawbreakers. Except, how many of us occasionally break the law by speeding that little bit more than the restrictions, or pay the gardener or handyman in cash to avoid the extra Value Added Tax? Minor things, but to smugglers bringing in their kegs of brandy, or packets of tobacco, their misdemeanour were equally as minor.

Smuggling. The word produces an image of a moonlit night, a tall ship at anchor  in a wind-ruffled bay, and men wearing three-cornered hats making their swift, but silent, way along remote West Country lanes that zigzag between high banks and thick, foxglove and cow parsley-strewn hedgerows.

The men are leading pack ponies tied nose-to-tail, hooves muffled by sacking. On their backs casks of brandy or kegs of tobacco… But is that how smuggling really did happen?

In reality, smuggling was - is - the illegal importation of goods, be they mercantile, narcotic substances, migrating people, or secret information. The motivation being to avoid paying tax and to make a hefty profit, the latter being the ultimate goal. The smugglers of the past would argue different regarding the legality. They bought and paid for the goods which they smuggled into England; these were not stolen items. Contraband was transported, carried and delivered at the smugglers’ own expense, in their own time. Leaving aside that small matter of not paying import tax, there was nothing illegal about it. The items they smuggled were in high demand by the majority of people, many of whom could not afford the official cost of purchase. The smugglers’ maintained that to refuse to pay government duties on prohibited goods was justified because of a person’s right to buy or sell with the freedom of choice, unrestricted by law, and that ‘freedom of choice’ should not be a crime. 

A 'Tubman'
© Mia Pelletier
After all, the only victim suffering from the effects of smuggling (leaving out that unsavoury aspect of violence) was the government. Few of us would lose much sleep about that small fact!

Unfortunately, rogues and ruffians often corrupt the bending of the law to extremes of  criminality to suit their own mind. What started with the relatively harmless smuggling of everyday items by a few villagers and quiet-minded fisher-folk, was swept aside by the gred of the organised gangs who had no qualms against fighting bloody battles, torturing and murdering those who opposed them. 

So, alas, somewhat like the pirates, most smugglers were not the derring-do romantic rebels we see portrayed in fiction or on the TV and movie screen. 

© Helen Hollick

Don't want to wait for Smugglers?
Try pirates instead!
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Tuesday 16 January 2018

Tuesday Talk: Old London and Constable Sam Plank by Susan Grossey

London Old and New

Maybe it’s because I’m not a Londoner, but I love London town – as a writer of historical fiction, that is.  To be fair, once I had decided on the subject of my series of novels, I had no choice about their location: they are set in the 1820s and narrated by a magistrates’ constable – and nearly all of these fellows were in London.  But what a gift of a location it is.
London is a vast city, but that is a fairly recent development.  At the time of my books – at the end of the Regency, and not long before Victoria became queen – London was a much smaller place. And I often have to remind myself (and my readers) that when Constable Plank goes to, for instance, Green Park, he is venturing to the very edge of his city.  A visit to Vauxhall is like a trip to the countryside, involving a picnic basket and much planning.  One of my main characters lives in a densely-populated part of north London that was completely flattened not long afterwards to make way for Euston and King’s Cross railway stations.

Vauxhall Gardens circa 1826
What all of this means is that I have to be very careful to consult contemporaneous maps when describing locations, journeys, premises and so on. Luckily there is a terrific one called Greenwood’s Map of London, which was produced in 1827 and is available on various websites in zoomable PDF format; what an amazing resource that has been, and a prime example of how lucky we modern writers are to have access to online research materials.  I cannot imagine how difficult it would have been to have to visit a library to look at this map every time I wanted to check a street name.

Adding to the fun is the way in which street names were frequently changed, perhaps to reflect political loyalties, or when a wealthy patron bought a few streets and wanted them renamed to reflect his generosity.  My constable lives in Norton Street, but you won’t find that on any modern map of London; in the 1870s it was renamed Bolsover Street in homage to Bolsover Castle, ancestral home of the Cavendish family who bought up Norton Street and much around it in the mid nineteenth century.  Even small changes can trip up the unwary: in my current book I was merrily writing about a location in Old Street – until I was peering at Greenwoods and noticed that in Plank’s day it was known as Old Street Road.  You can be sure that someone would have spotted that!

The real joy of setting a book in London, however, is not how much it has changed but how much it has stayed the same.  Lift your eyes above street level – above the cars and the neon shop signs and the clutter of street furniture – and much of what you now see is original.  Step down a side road and – behind the frontages put up by later generations – you can see the original rooflines.  Wander into almost any part of the city and the street pattern is original; unlike Paris and many other cities, London has not had a wholesale rebuilding programme (at least, not since the enforced one following the Great Fire in 1666).  Even the Blitz missed many of the important buildings and districts.

This means that I can frequently indulge in one of my favourite activities.  As authors, we are often looking for fun things to do that we can kid ourselves are “research”, and my personal weakness is what my husband calls “walking the Plank”. This is where I decide that my constable has to journey from, say, his base in Great Marlborough Street to the vaults in Pennington Street, and I have to plan his route, describe it and work out how long it would have taken him.  In almost all circumstances he would have walked everywhere, and because the street layout is still so similar, I can calculate fairly accurately where he would have gone, what he would have seen – and how many pints he would have needed to revive himself on arrival.  And on the rare occasions when I can’t walk the Plank myself, another online resource – the Transport for London travel planner – comes to my rescue: put in the start and end point, indicate that the only mode of transport to be used is walking (I doubt my constable would have used the Emirates cable car…) and ask for the route.  That’s London in a nutshell: old and new working together perfectly.

© Susan Grossey

Susan Grossey spends her weekdays fighting money laundering, and her evenings and weekends writing historical financial crime novels. 

There are now four Sam Plank novels, with a fifth underway and a further two planned. 

The fourth in the series – “Portraits of Pretence” – was chosen as “Book of the Year 2017” by Discovering Diamonds.

You can follow Sam’s progress on Susan’s author website and blog

 and through his own Twitter feed @ConstablePlank

an extra short story :
Susan Grossey A Suitable Gift
< Previous article Blackbeard's Book Club?  .... next >

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Tuesday Talk: Blackbeard’s Book Club?

Now that a New Year is under way I thought I’d have a brief re-vamp of my blog. Nothing drastic, just a few updates, images shifted around etc, and a Resolution to post an Article of Interest (presented by Moi) every other Tuesday, alternating with, if I can find a few willing victims, an invited guest with something of interesting to tell.
 Well that’s the plan.
It might change...


I was sent a link a short while ago to a newspaper article. It was about pirates – Blackbeard to be precise – so of course I was interested. In fact, I was sent two links to similar articles, one far more interesting than the other because it was more accurate. The article was about the ongoing underwater archaeological search of Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Edward Teach Commonly Call'd Black Beard (bw).jpgBlackbeard is one of the best known of all pirates because we have a full account of his more outrageous escapades, his somewhat grisly end, and a record of the trial and hangings at Williamsburg, Virginia, of what remained of his crew. His real name was Edward Teach or Thatch, and he is believed to have been born around 1680 in or near Bristol, England. The names ‘Thatch’ and ‘Teach,’ are also noted as ‘Tache’ or ‘Thach’, the discrepancy caused by the frequent inconsistent spelling of the period. The written word tended to follow the spoken word, so regional accents played an important part in how spelling was interpreted. If Edward Teach was born and raised in the West Country he would have had a broad Somerset accent, which could have resulted in him pronouncing his name as something like ‘T ... aa ... tch’. He could almost certainly read and write, for he wrote to and received letters from the Chief Justice and Secretary of Carolina (with whom he had ‘business dealings’.)

Coming from what was possibly a reasonably-placed, if not a well-to-do, family within the social network Teach had some sort of career as a mariner, either as a merchant seaman or serving in the Royal Navy prior to turning to a life of piracy, for he knew his job when it came to sailing a ship. He seems to have been a privateer during the War of Spanish Succession, but when war ended and peace settled, temporarily, between Spain and England (and variations of France, Holland and Portugal supporting one side or the other,) Teach ended up at Nassau to take advantage of the New Providence benefits offered to those with a tendency towards piracy. He joined with the crew of Benjamin Hornigold between 1714 and 1716, meeting several of the men who also become notable pirate captains in their own right, such as Sam Bellamy, Charles Vane, Stede Bonnet and Jack Rackham.

Teach became commander of his own fleet and brought terror to the Caribbean, the Colonial waters off the coast of the Carolinas and along the Chesapeake Bay sea-lanes. He was not known to be a compassionate man, and his reputation put the fear of dread into anyone who heard the name ‘Blackbeard’. It has been suggested that his alleged violence towards his victims may have been exaggerated, a deliberate ploy on his part to instil fear into the crew and passengers of any ship he encountered, but there is very little evidence, beyond anecdotal, to confirm or deny his reputation, although the stories that were related are more than horrific and I personally believe, despite the speculations of those who regard him as something of a hero, that Edward Teach was not a very nice man.

 His appearance alone was enough to make anyone opposing him to use common sense and surrender without a fight. Teach was a tall, stout man, broad shouldered, broad chested. He went into battle with several pistols suspended across his chest hanging from coloured ribbons, while entwined in his hair and his great black beard (for which he was named) would be several of the fuses used to ignite gunpowder. These would burn slowly and let off a cloud of smoke about his face. With what appear to have been bulging eyes and a cruel grin his victims must have thought that Old Nick himself had come for them.

On 28th November 1717 he acquired his prestigious Prize of a French slaver, La Concorde, which he promptly renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge, which may have indicated his support towards the Jacobite cause of attempting to put James Stuart on the throne of England instead of German George of Hanover. We can only speculate why, but Queen Anne’s Revenge ended up foundering on a sandbank in the shallows off Beaufort Inlet, her damage so great she was irreparable. The wreck was found a few years ago and since then many treasures and artefacts have been brought to the surface.

The most recent discovered is a bundle of shredded paper found stuffed down the mouth of a cannon, which turned out to be pages of a book. It was a common, almost standard, practice to use old rage, shreds of paper, bits of old rope and such to keep the barrel dry, so finding something stuffed there is no surprise – but what is interesting is that the book itself has been identified…


Woodes Rogers was a successful privateer. He served as a merchant sailor, circumnavigated the World, amassed a fortune in treasure for the British Crown and Government, became Governor of the Bahamas and, almost single-handedly, put an end to piracy in the Caribbean. Alas, as with many a hero, his achievements were not appreciated at the time.

Statue of Woodes Rogers
Hilton British Colonial Hotel
Born circa 1679, his childhood was spent in Poole, Dorset. The eldest son of a successful shipping family Rogers found himself apprenticed to a Bristol mariner. Completing his apprenticeship in 1704, his nautical career took off in 1708, when he led an expedition to the Pacific, privateering against the French and Spanish. The expedition comprised of two ships, Duke and Duchess. He returned to England in 1711 with both ships intact, Andrew Selkirk, who had been marooned on an island off the coast of Chile aboard, (and who became the inspiration for Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe),  a circumnavigation of the world under his belt, most of his men alive and enough profit to double the investment of his sponsors, even after the Crown had taken its share. That said, he had lost a brother in a battle, with himself badly wounded and disfigured when a bullet tore into his jaw and another his heel. Nor was the profit of benefit, for the crews demanded their share, which they had not received, and sued him, as did the East India Company with whom he’d disagreed. In consequence, he became a bankrupt. Was this why he published a book detailing his nautical adventures?

His account was entitled A Cruising Voyage Round the World but it was beaten to publication by several months by one of the officers who had been aboard Duchess. Edward Cooke, wrote A Voyage to the South Sea and Round the World but it was not as successfully acclaimed as Rogers’ epic tome – one possible reason being that Cooke made no mention of Selkirk, who had gripped many a reader’s interest. Rogers’ book also had a sideline of interest for other seafarers as it had the practical purpose of aiding navigators and potential colonists. Most of his introduction supported the possibility of expanding the South Seas trade, with about a third of his writing detailing the places he explored, primarily those suited for trade.  Cooke’s book, however, is the one found stuffed into Blackbeard’s cannon.

Text of a paper fragment and text from Edward Cooke's 1712 adventure tale.
Credit: Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Now, the not-so-good newspaper report claimed that because pages of a book had been found the obvious conclusion is that Blackbeard and his crew were great readers and loved books.
In fact, it’s more likely that our Edward read Cooke’s version, recognised it as poorly written or of little value and tore it up to use for his cannons – with other pages designated for the ‘heads’ (latrine).  Sorry Master Cooke, I think your effort rated a 1 star from Captain Blackbeard and his crew!

Nautical writers beware – books falling into the hands of pirates might not be valued for their written content!

Blackbeard also features in Bring It Close, the third Sea Witch Voyage

Text of a paper fragment and text from Edward Cooke's 1712 adventure tale.
Credit: Courtesy of North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources