From my blog...

VIKINGS Episode 7: Blood Eagle (Two Weddings & an Execution)

Photo: The History Channel

Photo: The History Channel

This week’s episode swings back and forth between Kattegat and Wessex, and seems yet again to offer similarities and differences between the world of the northmen and the world of Wessex. When we first glimpse Ragnar he is skinning a rat. In an earlier episode he had torched the grain supply to lure his enemy, Jarl Borg, into the open, so now he is reduced to consuming roast vermin. Meanwhile, over in Wessex King Ecbert is welcoming our old friend King Ælle of the snake pit (from last season) to a settlement lavishly bedecked with banners, royal canopies and a groaning table. The contrast is pretty stark. The beefy King Ælle, by the way, appears none the worse for wear after having traveled by wheeled box for over 200 miles – a journey of at least eleven days and possibly more.


King in a Box. Photo: The History Channel

King in a Box. Photo: The History Channel

We are still vaguely in the early 9th century, but the writers are playing fast and loose with Anglo-Saxon history in this segment. King Ecbert raises the cry, “God save England!” All very nice except there was no England. Not then. There was the island of Britain, and on it were seven different kingdoms. Ecbert was king of the West Saxons, and although he no doubt wanted to raise his banner over the kingdom of Mercia just to the north, (and eventually he would, in 829), to have everyone in the settlement crying “God save England” is anachronistic. The first man to be able to call himself king over something that might be considered England would be Ecbert’s grandson, Æthelstan.


As for Ælle, I have mentioned before that any Northumbrian king by that name belongs 50 years in the future. On the other hand, Ragnar’s Saga pits him against Ragnar, so I understand why he is part of this story. The legends about Ragnar and his sons sprawl over most of the 9th century, and the one figure we can really latch on to as historical in this series is Ecbert. He reigned in Wessex from 802 to 839.


King Ecbert the Ambitious (and I really do love this guy), suggests to Ælle of Northumbria that they forge an alliance between them to defeat both the pesky Vikings and the misbehaving Mercians. To seal the pact, Ecbert’s son Æthelwulf will marry Ælle’s daughter Judith.

Aethelwulf, the monk Athelstan, & King Ecbert. Photo: The History Channel

Aethelwulf, the monk Athelstan, & King Ecbert. Photo: The History Channel


I beg to differ here. Æthelwulf’s first wife was named Osburh. She hailed from the Isle of Wight and Æthelwulf probably married her when he succeeded his father in 839. He DID marry a woman named Judith, eventually, but she was the trophy wife that he married late in life. Judith was the daughter, not of Ælle, but of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. She was about 12 years old when the aging Æthelwulf met her in Frankia, married her and brought her home to Wessex. He only lived for another two years, so perhaps his young wife wore him out.


Poor Osburh. The series writers have combined Æthelwulf’s two wives and given her the name Judith. I hate when that happens. It was Osburh, not Judith, who gave Æthelwulf many sons, including the above-mentioned Æthelstan and the awesome Alfred the Great.


Queen Osburh and her youngest son, Alfred.

Queen Osburh and her youngest son, Alfred.

I have another problem with this marriage. Ecbert would probably not have arranged to marry off his son as part of an alliance. He would have married the girl himself. Æthelings didn’t marry until daddy died. They messed around a lot, but they didn’t marry. And if a king needed to make a new alliance, and the wife was in the way, he sent the wife packing and started over with a new one. This happened all over the early medieval world. Charlemagne, for example, went through five wives in this fashion. King Edgar of England went through 3. It’s an old story.


As for the wedding itself, the vows would have been made and the couple blessed at the church door, not at the altar. And I doubt very much that they would have been using those marriage vows that sounded so familiar. They really grated on my ear, and they weren’t written until the 15th century. It’s a quibble, I know. The writers were trying, I think, to compare the Christian wedding with the pagan wedding that was taking place over in Kattegat. That marriage scene between Floki and Helga was set out of doors and showed them making vows to each other as well. In fact, it looked remarkably similar to a number of weddings I attended back in the 1970’s.

Viking Wedding. Photo: The History Channel

Viking Wedding. Photo: The History Channel


I liked the exchange of swords that we saw there, although, as Sandi Layne writes over at, the rings would have been placed on the sword hilt, not its point. (Setting them on the points was much more dramatic, I admit). Sandi also refers to a marvelous description of Viking wedding practices at the Viking Answer Lady. Scroll down to The Groom for more information about the sword, but in fact there is a great deal of fascinating information about the Vikings on her site.


And now I come to the part that I’ve been dreading having to recount: the Blood Eagle that Ragnar carved on Jarl Borg’s back. This has been presented for centuries as a pagan ritual associated with Odin. According to my research, the blood eagle was never practiced. It was first recounted in the 12th century and was probably the result of a misinterpretation of a skaldic verse, but it was so fascinating and gruesome, and seemed to capture Viking cruelty so well, that it kept getting repeated and even embellished. And now the History Channel has filmed it. I can’t really blame them. This is television drama, and yes it is Very Dramatic. But it is definitely not historical fact. We’re watching fiction here, folks.


I am still amazed, though, by how this sequence was filmed. It seemed to me that it was meant to be a counterpoint to the crucifixion scene from Episode 4. That King Ecbert was able to stop that event with a single command while King Horik cannot prevent Ragnar from taking his revenge against Jarl Borg is a good illustration of royal power in Wessex vs royal power in Scandinavia at that time.

The segment began when Ragnar described to his son (and to us) what was going to happen. That was pretty ghoulish. But here’s the thing: the execution was portrayed like a solemn, ceremonial sacrifice that even the victim understood and accepted. Jarl Borg acquiesced to his fate, and it was carried out on a stage by a white-garbed Ragnar. Yet except for an initial incision (like a surgical drama) and spatters of blood, the camera never showed what Ragnar was doing with knife and axe. Instead it fixed upon the victim’s face and upon the faces of those watching. It didn’t matter. What was happening had already been planted in my mind by Ragnar’s description. I never saw what Ragnar did to Jarl Borg except in my imagination, and it still it made my stomach turn.

Jarl Borg meets his doom. Photo: The History Channel

Jarl Borg meets his doom. Photo: The History Channel


As I write this I’ve been wondering if the creepy spamaðr was part of that scene. I can’t remember but you know what? I’m not going to watch it again to find out.



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My Writing Process – A Writers’ Blog Hop

My colleague, naval historical fiction writer Antoine Vanner, has asked me to join a blog hop titled My Writing Process. Antoine’s Writing Process post appears at his Dawlish Chronicles website, and I urge you to hop over there and read about his series of novels that follow the exploits of a British naval officer of the Victorian age.


Participants in this Blog Hop have been asked to respond to four specific questions about our work, which seems easy and undemanding – until one sits down to do it! Here are my answers. 



1. What am I working on?

My current project is titled The Price of Blood. It is the sequel to my debut novel, Shadow on the Crown, and it’s the middle book of my Emma of Normandy Trilogy. The title is taken from William of Malmesbury’s 12th century History of the Kings of England, and it is a reference to the relentless waves of Viking armies that attacked England in the early 11th century. The Price of Blood will be published by Viking (yes, Viking) in February, 2015. Viking-press-logo


2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

First HarperCollinsUK edition of Shadow on the Crown

First HarperCollinsUK edition of Shadow on the Crown

My trilogy is set in pre-Conquest England, so the characters are not pulled from the more familiar historical fiction crowd like the Tudors and those devilish Angevins. The 11th century setting, though, made my first manuscript difficult to sell until the editorial board at Viking took a look at it and wasn’t put off by the tongue-twisting names of the characters or the early medieval time period. As it turned out, Shadow on the Crown seems to have tapped into a growing interest in early English history and in the Vikings. Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales (9th c.), of course, have been popular for years. Now Nicola Griffith’s Hild, about a 7th century Anglo-Saxon saint has captured a great deal of attention, and the History Channel series VIKINGS (8th-9th c.) has brought men with names like Ragnar Lothbrok and King Ecbert of Wessex into our living rooms. This is the kind of synchronicity that I couldn’t have imagined when I first began to write my books. 


Emma of Normandy

Emma of Normandy

3) Why do I write what I do?

I’m writing a trilogy about Emma of Normandy because I was seduced by my central character – a queen of England who was unfamiliar to me and whose story intrigued me. One of the first popular history books I found that mentioned Emma described her as strong and resourceful, but also implied that she was ambitious and self-serving because of her marriage alliance first with an Anglo-Saxon king, and then with England’s Danish conqueror. It struck me that this was a simplistic view of what Emma must have experienced, and that her story must have been far more complicated and fraught with tension and conflict. What more could a writer ask for in looking for a subject?

A real life model for one of my characters.

A real life model for one of my characters.


4) How does my writing process work?

I begin with my characters because I need to know each one of them, however minor, inside and out. I write down their physical attributes, their histories, their families, what they believe, desire, need, hate, love – until I have a long list that helps me determine how each character will react in any given situation. Then I turn to the history and plot out the events that have been recorded. Those events usually suggest incidents and conflicts that have not been recorded but might have occurred, so I begin to fill in big historical blanks with possibilities. When it comes to actual writing, I think in terms of scenes, and each scene is blocked out before I begin to write. What is the setting? Who is there? Whose viewpoint will I be writing from and why?


I have numerous drawings that I’ve made of towns, royal estates, and chambers so that I’m clear about what my setting looks like when I start to write.

My first draft of a scene may be only one page long, but I go back over it and re-work it so that it grows from the inside out. By the time I’ve completed the novel’s first draft, it is filled with scenes that have already been revised as much as 15-20 times. (If only I could get it right the first time!) On my second and third drafts I revise all the scenes again because the real writing – the juicy stuff – happens in the re-writing. It’s a long, grueling process, and the research, of course, continues all the way through.


And now let me introduce the three fine writers who will be joining this blog hop on April 14:


Jenny Barden is an artist-turned-lawyer-turned-writer with a love of history and adventure. She has written two epic Elizabethan historical novels based on famous voyages to the New World; they are Mistress of the Sea and The Lost Duchess published by Ebury Press (Random House UK). Read her post at

Gillian Bagwell
is the author of three acclaimed historical novels: The Darling Strumpet, based on the life of Nell Gwynn, 17th century actress and mistress of Charles II; The September Queen, the story of Jane Lane, who risked her life to help the young Charles II escape after the Battle of Worcester; and Venus in Winter, which covers the first forty years of the life of the formidable four-times widowed Tudor dynast. Gillian, now working on her fourth novel, will post on her Nell Gwynn blog site:


Anne Leonard is the author of the fantasy novel Moth and Spark (Viking 2014) and is at work on a subsequent novel. She has served time as a lawyer and as an academic. She lives in Northern California. Look for her post at AnneLeonardBooks.




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VIKINGS Episode 6: Unforgiven

VikingsSeason2BloodfeudSeries writer Michael Hirst reminds us in one of his all-too-brief background videos on the VIKINGS web page that vengeance was the primary motivation of Viking society. This was true of Anglo-Saxon society as well. Hostility that had been sparked by some affront to honor – the abduction or rape of women, theft, arson, murder, even verbal insult – had to be avenged. It was ingrained in the culture, and as anyone who has been watching this show knows, the culture of these two societies was violent. We’ve already had an episode titled EYE FOR AN EYE. Now here’s UNFORGIVEN. Uh-oh.


Most of the episode takes place in Scandinavia, and it begins with the creepy spamaðr (seer) sharing his pearls of wisdom with a bitter and angry Siggi. She was once a jarl’s wife but was reduced to a nobody in Season 1 when Ragnar killed her husband. That affront certainly remains unforgiven, and when the spamaðr tells her that the gods will always smile on brave women – women who are like the Valkyries, those furies that men fear and desire – we know from Siggi’s smile that she’s going to cause trouble for Ragnar, even if it doesn’t happen right away.


In the next scene King Horik returns from Wessex complaining about the treacherous King Ecbert who had the nerve to attack and slaughter Horik’s shipmen, and this is surely a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Horik is eager to return to Wessex and wreak vengeance on Ecbert but Ragnar wants to take his own vengeance first, on Jarl Borg. Horik argues that if they are to have any kind of success against the English they need Jarl Borg and his crews, so Rollo (Ragnar’s brother) is sent off to see if he can convince Jarl Borg that all is forgiven.

Rollo gazing at Jarl Borg's settlement. Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Rollo gazing at Jarl Borg’s settlement. Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Jarl Borg’s settlement in Gotland, which we see only briefly, looks marvelous. A walled town of peaked houses on the crest of a hill, easy to defend. He’d be a fool to leave it. Jarl Borg is unaware, though, that the title of this episode is UNFORGIVEN and so he agrees to go back to Kattegat with Rollo. Unwise, but the spamaðr told him in an earlier episode that he was an eagle – a raptor, so what has he to fear?


Meantime in Hedeby Lagertha has to listen to her drunken husband make snide and hostile remarks about how she left him without permission and came back without his stepson. It’s an insult. He tells her, in front of the entire hall, that she can sleep alone because he’s made other arrangements. He has indeed. He sends a trio of thugs in the middle of the night to teach his wife a lesson. Lagertha puts up a fight, but because this is VIKINGS and not Wonder Woman, she is no match for them. And now we know that the snake she married is even worse than we thought. He’s pond scum.


There are only a couple of scenes set in Wessex, and I’ll cover them both here. Athelstan has returned to monk-life, working on an illumination for a manuscript. He is standing at his desk, a reed pen in his right hand and an implement in his left that I don’t recognize. He’s using it, though, the way the scribes would have used a pen-knife – to steady the page while he wrote because parchment was naturally springy.

I couldn't find a shot of Athelstan, so here's St. Bede. Note the pen knife in his left hand.

I couldn’t find a shot of Athelstan, so here’s St. Bede. Note the pen knife in his left hand.


In the next Wessex scene – after Athelstan has some phantom bleeding from his earlier, now healed, wounds just to remind us that he does not yet have the answer to his crisis of faith – Ecbert summons him to a storehouse of Roman treasures. These include busts, amphora, weapons, urns and most precious of all, scrolls. The scrolls are in Latin and tell tales of emperors and empires. And now we learn of Ecbert’s plan for Athelstan: he is to preserve and copy the Roman scrolls but (cue ominous music) they must be kept secret or Athelstan is toast. I can only presume that although Ecbert values these documents, he is aware that because they are secular and pagan the church hierarchy might look upon them with a gimlet eye, and he couldn’t afford to lose the good opinion of the churchmen.

King Ecbert looking royally awesome.

King Ecbert looking royally awesome. That box on the right is not a lunch pail. It’s a reliquary.


Back in Kattegat young Bjorn has fallen in love with a blonde slave (who looks rather Emma-like, I think) and asks her if she has a boyfriend. How the language police allowed that word into the script is beyond me. It set my teeth on edge.


Over in Gotland Lagertha’s face is a wreck after her beating. She’s seated at the feasting board beside her husband, and when he stands up, about to humiliate her some more, Lagertha doesn’t take it sitting down. She reacts swiftly and the jarl learns the hard way that he made a mistake in messing with a shield maiden. We all cheer.


In Kattegat Jarl Borg and Ragnar are making nice, but the last segments of the episode are quick, sinister scenes that do not bode well for Jarl Borg:

·       Ragnar standing in the dark with a huge raptor (an eagle?) on his wrist

·       Rollo snatching up an axe

·       Jarl Borg haunted by a memory of the spamaðr’s prophecy and a vision of an eagle while elsewhere his retainers are locked into their quarters and the structure torched

Interspersed with the violence are glimpses of Aslaug telling her children a sweet bedtime story featuring Loki.


Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

And who is Loki? He is the trickster god, a treacherous shape shifter who, in one tale, goes to a feast and mixes mead with malice. That’s what we’re seeing here: Ragnar has mixed mead with malice and handed to Jarl Borg with a smile. Remember, I never said these guys were nice.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession




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VIKINGS Episode 5: Answers in Blood


The title of this episode is a little puzzling: ANSWERS IN BLOOD.


Answers to what? There is a battle scene between Jarl Borg’s men and Ragnar’s, and it is a bloody answer, I suppose, to Jarl Borg’s earlier attack on Kattegat. Also, over in England, former monk Athelstan appears to be searching for an answer to his confusion about whether he is Christian or pagan, although the blood-filled visions he sees don’t seem to provide him, really, with an answer. The poor man is conflicted!

But wait. Let me start at the beginning…This episode, in its movement back and forth between Denmark and Wessex, once more seems to offer comparisons between the two cultures. First, Ragnar calls a council session that takes place in the rustic holding where the refugees from Kattegat have settled. He determines to destroy Jarl Borg’s winter food stores in order to lure him from his stronghold and face him in pitched battle. It works, although not without, as mentioned above, a great deal of bloodshed. The battle scene, though, was probably the most realistic of any that we’ve seen so far.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Meantime, over in Wessex, King Ecbert holds court in much grander surroundings, although I question the historical accuracy of the naked angel on the wall.


Photo: The History Channel

Photo: The History Channel

Ecbert is addressed by a woman who claims she is an ex-bride of Christ – a nun. Apparently she left the convent and married, because she explains that her husband has marred her face because he thought she had been unfaithful to him. Moments later we learn that the husband has, apparently, requested that she be branded as well. He must be a charming fellow. The king asks Athelstan (former monk turned Viking and now monk again) what the pagans would do. “they would believe her word,” Athelstan replies, “and make judgment on her behalf. “Ecbert protests, “Surely her husband has every right over her; surely she belongs to him, to do with as he sees fit.”

And so we are given a comparison between – let’s call it Viking law and Christian law regarding the status of women. According to the series head writer, Michael Hirst, Anglo-Saxon wives were considered chattel, and by contrast the Viking attitude toward women was much more enlightened.  Well, hmmm. The Anglo-Saxon period in England lasted for 600 years. Certainly attitudes toward women would not have stayed completely the same in all that time, and there has been some debate over what it really was. The scholars look at laws, mostly, and they’ve been interpreted in completely opposite ways: a)women were under men’s direct control; or b)women had the same standing, legally, as men. Choose one. Ecbert, I’m happy to say, decides in favor of the woman.



The scenes in this episode that I found most intriguing had to do with Athelstan. Having been saved from ecclesiastical execution, he is at Ecbert’s court, once more in monk’s habit.

Photo: The History Channel

Photo: The History Channel

He is subject to visions though, mash-ups of Christian and pagan rituals that torment him. He attends Mass, but when he takes the sacrament of communion, he surreptitiously removes the blessed bread from his mouth. I’m interpreting this to mean that he believes himself unworthy to take the sacrament. That the ætheling, Æthelwulf sees this and scowls at him raises the possibility of future conflict between them. Athelstan also has a vision of the Virgin and, later, he sees a devil in his chamber while he is praying for the return of his faith. Poor Athelstan is a mess – torn between two cultures in much the way that Ragnar is torn between his two women.


That’s right. Back in Denmark first wife Lagertha has shown how valuable she is by fighting in the shield wall, while second wife Aslaug one-ups her by announcing that she is once again pregnant. Ragnar wants both his women in his hall.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

But while it’s true that a Viking man could certainly have a wife and a concubine, neither of these women is going to accept the other under her roof. So Lagertha returns to her second husband, leaving her son Bjorn – he of the Norman haircut – with Ragnar.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

Photo Credit: Jonathan Hession

How do things stand, then, at the end of the episode? Ragnar has learned that his ally King Horick has managed to escape the English attack that occurred in the previous episode over in Wessex. King Ecbert appears to have plans of some kind for former monk Athelstan, but the ætheling Æthelwulf and the bishop clearly don’t trust him. Lagertha has gone back to her husband, with her son’s advice to not take any guff from the brute ringing in her ears. Jarl Borg has escaped with his life, but he has lost Kattegat to Ragnar and company. And Athelstan – well, Athelstan is just plain lost. Oh! Wait. Horick is lost too somewhere in Wessex; and Jarl Borg lost to Ragnar; and Lagertha lost Ragnar again to Aslaug. Maybe that should have been the title of this episode:


For other reviews of this episode, see and Lissa Bryan.

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VIKINGS Episode 4: Eye for an Eye

ep4.4A brief summary of our story so far: Ragnar and his shipmen are raiding in Wessex, much to the dismay of King Ecbert and his counselors. Unknown to Ragnar, back in Denmark his former enemy Jarl Borg has once more turned against him and has raided his lands at Kattegat. Ragnar’s second wife, Aslaug, has fled from Jarl Borg along with Ragnar’s brother, Rollo, and a handful of their folk. Ragnar’s first wife, Lagertha, has remarried, and the son she had with Ragnar, Bjorn, is now about 17 and very protective of his mother. As I mentioned in my last post, Bjorn has an awesome late 11th century Norman hair style, even though we are, as far as I can tell, somewhere in the early 9th century.


This episode’s biblical title – AN EYE FOR AN EYE – is somewhat apropos, given the gruesome event that occurs near the end. More on that later. A far better title, though, would have been OMENS because a number of them make an appearance here.


The first is delivered to Jarl Borg by the creepy, blind Viking spamaðr (prophet): “I see an eagle in your future. It is above you, and you are the eagle.” Anyone familiar with Viking lore drawn from the sagas would understand that there may be two ways to interpret this, and one of them is very bad.


Photo credit:

The prophet. Photo credit:

Somewhat later, the former Saxon monk Athelstan, hanging out in England with a crew of Vikings Behaving Badly, ponders an image of the crucified Christ in a gospel book, and as he gazes at it, Christ’s wounds begin to bleed. Athelstan’s guilt tormenting him? An omen? Both, I think.


Aslaug, too, is given an omen when she looks into the distance and sees Ragnar running towards her across the barren wasteland. When she blinks and looks again, though, Ragnar is not there.


So, lots of omens in 45 minutes!


I continue to be impressed with the set design in this show because it conveys time and place so vividly. Early in the episode King Ecbert is at table consulting with his counselors, and the set designers have gone to great lengths to contrast the great hall of the Wessex king with the filthy barn where Ragnar’s wife and family have been forced to take shelter. I would love to be able to explore both sets at my leisure!


Photo credit: Jonathan Hession

Photo credit: Jonathan Hession

What about historical accuracy in this episode? Well, King Ecbert has pulled together an army to attack Ragnar’s shipmen, but he wants to talk first so he suggests an exchange of hostages; and he proposes to give his own son as hostage for Ragnar’s safety. This is grounded in Anglo-Saxon tradition. It was common for the Anglo-Saxons to exchange hostages, sometimes for years; often the hostages would be the sons of kings or high nobles. They would be accorded all courtesy unless something went wrong. Sometimes things did go wrong, and hostages might be killed or mutilated.


Thankfully, no hostages were harmed in the filming of this episode. Ragnar joins Ecbert in the bathing pool – the Viking wearing only a silver ring at his wrist and the Saxon king wearing a gold chain at his throat. “Now we are equal,” Ecbert says. And in many ways, they are. They are leaders of men; they are fathers; they are ambitious. And neither one really trusts the other.


Photo credit:

Photo credit:

We learn that Ragnar is interested in settling in England, and that Ecbert is interested in using Ragnar’s shipmen as mercenaries. There is some historical precedence for this, although from a later period. Ecbert’s grandson, Alfred, will grant land to Danish settlers in eastern England; some generations after that, Æthelred II will hire Danes to fight his enemies. Such policies could have been considered in Ecbert’s time as well.  But whatever understanding may have begun between Ecbert and Ragnar, it falls apart when Ragnar learns of Jarl Borg’s attack on Kattegat.


Photo credit:

Jarl Borg. Beware the eagle, Jarl Borg. Photo credit:

Ragnar departs abruptly for Denmark, and the crews left behind fall prey to the vengeance of the English. Now the biblical reference in the title is made clear. The bishop determines to crucify the apostate Athelstan, thus fulfilling the omen we saw earlier and exacting his eye for an eye. It’s a gruesome scene, complete with nails, a crown of thorns and a rabble crying “Crucify him!” Just when a soldier is about to pierce Athelstan’s side with a spear King Ecbert turns up, barks an order, and the execution is halted.


Well, hey. Did the Anglo-Saxons crucify criminals? Not that I can discover. They hung them. They beheaded them. They drowned them. Granted, if they had done any of these things to Athelstan, the king wouldn’t have been able to put a stop to it half way through. I can see why the writers chose to go that route. Still, it was not a highlight for me. Yes, it was dripping with biblical resonance a la the misguided bishop, but it seemed inappropriate for the time and place. It just didn’t fit.


Nevertheless, there were other things beautifully evoke the Anglo-Saxon world, particularly that bath scene I mentioned earlier. As Ragnar is making his way to the bath he passes decaying Roman frescoes, marble columns and corroding statuary. He stops to admire a life-sized statue and asks, “Who made these things?” The guard replies, “Some say that a race of giants once lived on this island.”


Am I the only one who immediately thought of the 8th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin. Here is just a bit of Chauncey B. Tinker’s translation::


Wondrously wrought and fair its wall of stone

Shattered by Fate! The castles rent asunder,

The work of giants mouldered away.


There stood the courts of stone. Hot within,

The stream flowed with its mighty surge. The wall

Surrounded all with its bright bosom; there

The baths stood, hot within its heart.


Anglo-Saxon poetry was often elegiac, filled with longing for a people and for things that have faded away. That poignant scene, with its two warriors poised to build an England upon the remnants of ancient Rome, is like an elegy come to life.


Bath, England

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Portals to the Past

On March 18 I returned to my old high school in Downey, California, to speak at Career Day.

Back in the classroom again!

Back in the classroom again!

My talk, given consecutively to three groups of bright-eyed students, was well received although, as I told my listeners, the publishing industry is changing so quickly that anything I could tell them would soon be out of date. I wasn’t there, though, to provide a template for how to be a writer as much as to offer encouragement and inspiration, and to convey the importance of passion, persistence and hard work.


St. Pius X St. Matthias students listen to Published Author

St. Pius X St. Matthias students listen to Published Author


At the same time I was walking in a waking dream – through the hallways and classrooms that I’d known in my teens. I’d been asked to talk about my high school days, and I obliged by explaining that my memories of high school were suffused with the music of the sixties. The Beach Boys; The Beatles; Peter, Paul & Mary; The Mamas & The Papas; Judy Collins; Joan Baez and so many more talented artists were an inspiration to me and to an entire generation. In my case it drew me into a band and occasionally onto a stage. I had pictures to prove it, which I displayed with the bitter-sweet reflection that although the photos had nothing to do with my life now, they captured some part of me, some passionate flame that still burns, I hope, although in a different way.


The Band

The Band


When I left Downey I returned to our Long Beach hotel, to a place called The Pike. In the sixties it was an amusement park – a great Friday night hang-out spot for teens if you knew someone with a car who could get you there. We would dare each other to ride The Cyclone – a wooden roller coaster that hung out over the water.


I don’t remember ever taking up that challenge, but perhaps I did and have mercifully forgotten! The only things that remain from those days are the name, the many black and white posters recalling its glorious past, a Ferris Wheel, and – from the seventies – the Queen Mary.



It was a pleasant stroll from our hotel to the massive luxury liner, and on our last night in Long Beach we walked over to dine at Sir Winston’s Restaurant above the Promenade Deck. The lovely, wood-paneled room with long, narrow windows looking out on the marina offered elegant dining if you ignored the man in plaid Bermudas at the next table.


View from the Queen Mary.

View from the Queen Mary.

It also offered Grand Marnier Souffle for dessert and, yes, we accepted.


I'll have the Grand Marnier Souffle, thank you.

I’ll have the Grand Marnier Souffle, thank you.


We shared the souffle. Honest.

We shared the souffle. Honest.

We looked at relics from the Queen Mary’s glory days: photos of the ship’s accommodations and grand assembly rooms; portraits of those who sailed on her, from Fred Astaire, Liberace, and Loretta Young to Wallace Simpson and her prince; a silver bowl filled with roses that once sat on the Captain’s Table; a shop that today offers items of Chinoiserie just as it did in the forties. Did I photograph any of those things? No. I snapped a picture of an item so familiar from my childhood that it stopped me in my tracks the moment that I spotted it.




We had a clock just like this hanging on our kitchen wall, and by studying it I learned to tell time.


Occasionally time is fluid, and history quite personal. Thomas Wolfe tells us that you cannot go home again; sometimes, though, it’s possible to get pretty darned close – or perhaps, as close as you dare!


The Pike at night.

The Pike at night.




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Viking Treachery

VIKINGS-back-2-27-14The third episode in this season’s THE VIKINGS was a tough one to watch. It was titled Treachery, and that theme – betrayal of trust, faithlessness – was played out in several different ways. Viking raiders attacked an English town and slaughtered defenders and defenseless alike. Husband attacked wife. Ally attacked ally. Warrior attacked emissary. My t.v. screen ran with blood. Anyone harboring romantic notions about the Viking Age was given a blunt lesson on the brutal realities of 9th century life. The only way I could get through it was to focus on trying to puzzle out the historical elements that I imagined were used as background for the sets, the characters and the plots.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entries during the early part of the reign of King Ecbert of Wessex, in the years 803 to 825 which I presume were roughly the dates for the events in this series, made no mention of heathen raids. What they did say, though, was that bishops, archbishops, abbots and ealdormen passed away and were replaced; that kings in Kent and Mercia were driven out of their kingdoms or died; and that King Ecbert ravaged Cornwall and battled the Mercians. It was harsh living in those days, and although the Vikings weren’t mentioned, they undoubtedly made sporadic raids similar to what was seen in this episode: bands of armed men arriving by sea to murder, rape and pillage.  Face it, the Vikings were thugs, as were the English, the Cornish, the Mercians, the Franks and everybody else. If you’re looking for gentle men, don’t look anywhere in the 9th century.

And don’t look too closely at this episode for any accurate correlation to historically datable events. Yes, there was a Bishop Swithun at Winchester from 852-63, but he wasn’t killed by Danes and he didn’t arrive at his bishopric until the reign of King Ecbert’s son, Æthelwulf, whom we met briefly as a young man in this VIKINGS episode.

Old Minster on the left. Square tower built in 10th century

Old Minster on the left. Square tower built in 10th century

Still, I applauded the link that the show made between Swithun and Winchester because the two did have a real connection throughout the medieval period. The minster that would be built there in the 10th century would be dedicated to Bishop Swithun, and I’m betting that its square tower was the inspiration for the design of the church that we saw in this episode. That late 10th century tower, by the way, was built at the order of King Æthelred, who had even more trouble with the Vikings than Ecbert did!

Edmund the Martyr

Edmund the Martyr

But back to Swithun. If he wasn’t killed by Danes, then what was that horrific murder scene based upon? I’ll put my money on St. Edmund, King of East Anglia, who met his death at the hands of a Viking army in about 870. (Again, way past the reign of Ecbert.) Edmund was captured and executed in the same way that  the poor bishop met his end in this episode. Yes, this was the kind of thing that really happened, and probably many times. Man’s inhumanity to man. The writers didn’t flinch from showing it, but I wonder if they lost some viewers because of it. I had to grit my teeth and think about other things.

I thought about Winchester, and how I didn’t believe that it would have been quite the sleepy settlement that it appeared in this series. Like Canterbury and London, Winchester had a Roman wall. An artist’s depiction of Dark Ages Canterbury imagines the wall, and I think Winchester would have looked similar, although without the Roman arena.


Dark Ages Canterbury

Dark Ages Canterbury

The wall would have afforded the inhabitants some protection. Wealthy thegns would have had estates within the walls and their men would have put up a good fight against Ragnar’s crew. I don’t think the town would have been quite the easy mark that we saw in this episode. That’s quibbling, I know, and this is historical FICTION, not history. Still, it would have been awesome to see that wall, and this viewer does get a little weary of seeing armed men in mail so easily cut down by the shipmen.

In the midst of all the horror on the screen my attention, mercifully, was snagged by something utterly frivolous: a haircut.



Bjorn and his mum.

A glimpse of Bjorn’s shaved head.







Ragnar’s son Bjorn has grown up and he has been given a haircut that is totally Viking mod: long in the front and shaved up the back. In fact it’s so mod that it’s 200 years ahead of its time. Here is a shot from the Bayeux Tapestry of Normans sporting the same do in 1066.

NormanHaircutsFrankly, I didn’t have a problem with that. I took one look at Bjorn and squealed, “Look! They gave him a Norman haircut from the Tapestry!”

And thank goodness, it took my mind off of what the big bad Vikings were doing to poor old Swithun.


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Ragnar’s New Adversary

vIKINGS2We’re two episodes into the second season of The Vikings on the History Channel. I’m loving the show and I highly recommend it.

If you missed the first season or the first episodes of Season 2, do not despair! All of the earlier episodes are available for watching on The History Channel website. (U.S.) Plus there are character outlines, photos and special web videos on the site. Just the photos alone are worth exploring because the sets and the costumes on this show are stunning. Again, highly recommended.

Photo Credit: Bernard Walsh/

Viking princess Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland). Photo Credit: Bernard Walsh/

At the beginning of the series I was especially drawn to the bright blue eyes of Ragnar Lothbrok (actor Travis Fimmel). You can read my 2013 post about Ragnar and Season One here. This season, though, Ragnar has a rival in a new character, King Ecbert (Linus Roache).  We first see this king of Wessex when a soldier invades Ecbert’s privacy to tell him that Vikings have invaded his kingdom. Ecbert is in his bath, which looks something like the picture below, only without all the people standing about:

Bath, UK. Photo: WikimediaCommons

Bath, UK. Photo: WikimediaCommons

King Ecbert – handsome, gleaming wet, a golden chain around his neck even in the bath – gazes up at the messenger who is no doubt tongue-tied at seeing his king in the all together, and before the soldier can say a word Ecbert gives what is hand’s down, the best line in this episode: “What on earth has caused you to bring your muddy boots into my bath house?”

King Edbert.

Actor Linus Roache as King Ecbert.

Yes, I’m going to love Ecbert. No question about it! So, who was this Anglo-Saxon king of Wessex? Well, for starters, he was the grandfather of Alfred the Great, and he ruled in Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. He was a mighty king, and is credited with establishing Wessex as the dominant power in southern England. (In my novel SHADOW ON THE CROWN, the character of Ecbert, Æthelred’s second son, is named after this king.) As a very young man Ecbert tried to stake his claim as king of the West Saxons, but he failed and was driven out of England. He went across the sea to the court of Charlemagne and stayed there for three years. Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen had thermal baths, and this may explain Ecbert’s fondness for bathing. (Nice touch, History Channel!) You can still bathe at Aachen today, if you wish.

Carolus Therman at Aachen. WikimediaCommons

Carolus Therman at Aachen. WikimediaCommons

Presumably Ecbert learned a great many things at Charlemagne’s court. You remember Charlemagne. He built an empire that covered much of western Europe. So, when the king of Wessex was accidentally poisoned by his wife (Accidentally? Right, like we believe that!) Ecbert, probably with Charlemagne’s blessing, scurried back to Wessex and claimed the throne. He was ambitious. Eventually he would extend his rule over all of southern England and Mercia, and in 829 he received the submission of the Northumbrians as well.

Area eventually ruled by King Ecbert, 839.

Area eventually ruled by King Ecbert, 839. WikimediaCommons.

I don’t know what’s in store for Ecbert in the coming episodes of The Vikings, but the previews look intriguing. I saw a shot of Ragnar and Ecbert in the bath together, presumably taking each others measure, so to speak. (!!!)

Hopefully the English will make a better show of force than they did in this second episode. They had the advantage of surprise, of scale armor and helmets, yet they were handily beaten by Ragnar’s Vikings, due, no doubt to the fact that this story is told from the Viking point of view. We know how THAT works. Still, I think it’s safe to say that with this new adversary, Ragnar has his work cut out for him!



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Two Authors, One Queen






Today we commemorate the 962nd anniversary of the passing of Emma of Normandy, Queen of England, an event that occurred on March 6, 1052. It is a joint effort by two novelists who have made Emma the central character in their books.

The Book: In Helen Hollick’s novel The Hollow Crown (UK title)/The Forever Queen (US title), Queen Emma is smarter than history remembers and stronger than the foreign invaders who threaten England’s shores. She risks everything on a gamble that could either fulfill her ambitions and dreams or destroy her completely.

The Author: Helen has also written a trilogy of novels about Arthurian Britain: The Kingmaking, Pendragon’s Banner and Shadow of the King, as well as Harold the King (UK title)/I am the Chosen King (US title), the story of events that led to the Battle of Hastings in 1066. She also writes a pirate-based nautical adventure series, the Sea Witch Voyages. She lives in Devon, England.

The Book: Patricia Bracewell’s novel Shadow on the Crown, the first book of a trilogy about a young Emma of Normandy, covers the early years of her marriage to a haunted English king. It is a tale of murder, intrigue, treachery and passion set against the constant threat of Viking invasion. In the midst of it all, Emma must make choices that will determine not only her own fate, but that of England as well.

The Author: Patricia’s second novel, the sequel to Shadow on the Crown, will be published in 2015. She lives in Oakland, California.

During two different hour-long time slots today we will be online to answer YOUR questions and respond to YOUR comments.

Live Schedule for Helen’s Blog: Helen Hollick Helen_garden_2012v2
GMT: 2-3 p.m.

US Eastern time: 9-10 a.m.
US Central time: 8-9 a.m.
US Mountain time: 7-8 a.m.
US Pacific time: 6-7 a.m.

Live Schedule for Pat’s Blog:PB_Blog1
GMT: 10-11 p.m.
US Eastern Time: 5-6 p.m.
US Central Time: 4-5 p.m.
US Mountain Time: 3-4 p.m.
US Pacific Time: 2-3 p.m.

Below are our answers to six questions about Queen Emma and our books. After you read them, we hope you’ll join us per the schedule above to chat. See below for GIVEAWAY and commenting info.

1. Why do you think that Emma of Normandy has been ignored by writers of historical fiction until now, and why has this changed?
I think writers just weren’t aware of her. I certainly wasn’t. Until fairly recently, even popular histories that dealt with English royalty started with William the Conqueror. It was as if England didn’t exist before 1066. Writers like Bernard Cornwell and Rob Low, though, have set some pretty remarkable novels in pre-Conquest England. I think that through them, writers – who are all avid readers – are discovering a whole new cast of characters with fascinating stories.

HELEN: Until recently, the majority of pre-conquest English history has been ignored, not just Emma. That is why I wrote my novel Harold the King (title I am the Chosen King in the US). I was so fed up with English history books starting at 1066. We have a rich, varied and interesting line of history that goes back many centuries before Duke William of Normandy stole the English throne for himself. I wanted to redress the balance – and discovered Emma while doing so. It is wonderful that more and more readers and writers have finally discovered that there was life before 1066!

2. What line do you draw between fiction and fact in your novel?
PAT: Do Not Change History has been my rule of thumb. But there are so many gaps in the 11th century historical record that I had plenty of leeway to imagine motives, passions, relationships, and intriguing plot developments.
HELEN: I think it depends on what type of novel you are writing. If based on fact, then the facts that form the basic plot of the story should be as accurate as possible. If the story is pure fiction – especially if it contains an element of fantasy or alternate history, then it is not so essential to get the facts right. Having said that, it is the accuracy of a period that makes the book believable. Someone writing about the Battle of Hastings and placing it in 1067, not 1066, for instance, would not have their novel taken seriously.

3. What is it about the historical Emma that you find most intriguing or inspiring?
PAT: That in her maturity she commissioned the production of a book that essentially told her side of some of the events that occurred during her lifetime. Scholars call it the Encomium Emmae Reginae, and a copy exists today that dates back to Emma’s lifetime. That it would occur to a woman in the 11th century, even a queen, to do something like that is pretty impressive.
HELEN: She was a remarkable woman. Her strength of character, despite many knock-backs is something to be applauded. However, she abandoned her sons by her first husband in order to re-marry, resulting in conflict and almost hatred between herself and her eldest son, Edward. I wanted to explore why this was – what happened to make these two people loathe each other?

4. Were there any events in your novel that you reinterpreted to suit the story? Can you give an example?
PAT: The destruction of Exeter is a good example of this. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle blames Emma’s reeve, Hugh, for betraying the city to the Vikings. In my story Hugh is forced into doing this because the Danes have threatened harm to the queen if he doesn’t. He’s not a traitor, but everyone in Exeter thinks he is.
HELEN: Yes, one major event in particular. My grandmother’s name was Emma and she also was a remarkable woman. When my father was a small baby, Grandma became cut off by the tide on a beach in Yorkshire. To save herself and her son from drowning she climbed the cliffs, holding him in her teeth. Keeping in mind that this would have been done in corsets and stiff Edwardian dress – not to mention the actual event, this was an incredible thing to do. I wanted to include my Grandma’s heroism in my story, so I placed the event as Queen Emma’s ordeal.

5. What scene in the novel was the most difficult to write?
PAT: A violent scene between the king and Emma. Anyone who’s read the book will know the one I mean. It was difficult having to imagine that scene. At the same time, given the characters that I’d created, I felt it was inevitable. It had to happen, so I had to write it.
HELEN: Several of the scenes with Æthelred were difficult as I discovered that I loathed the man (probably as much as Emma did!) As a writer it is really difficult writing a character you dislike sympathetically. I had the same problem with Duke William in the follow-on novel Harold the King (titled I Am the Chosen King in the US). How I dislike that man! I remember Sharon Kay Penman giving me some sound advice for this sort of situation: ‘Think of something good about the character.’ Hmm, I couldn’t think of much that was good about Æthelred!

6. Your titles are very different, given that your books have the same central character. Can you each talk about your titles?
PAT: There are three viewpoint characters in my novel besides Emma, and I came up with Shadow on the Crown because for each of these characters there is a shadow that hovers over the crown and over the very concept of queenship or kingship. It is different for each of them.
HELEN: My UK title is fairly similar, A Hollow Crown. I found it a very fitting title because even though Emma held power and status during her second marriage, it was all taken from her by her son. My US title The Forever Queen, was mutually decided by myself and my US publishers, Sourcebooks Inc. I do prefer Forever Queen as a title – the US edition had an extensive re-edit which polished the novel quite considerably.


Both Pat and Helen are giving away two copies of their books, one book each for the UK and one book each for the US so there will be 4 prize winners!

All you have to do to enter the draw is…LEAVE A COMMENT BELOW & state if you are a US or UK resident. NOTE: Only comments left on this blog or on Helen’s blog will count – not Facebook or Goodreads, etc. Giveaway entries accepted all day until midnight, Pacific Time.

NOTE: To reveal new comments, you must refresh the page.
We will be responding to comments all day long, but we will only be LIVE during the scheduled hours. If you cannot comment for some reason, send an email to or to and we will post it for you.


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Live Internet Event!

Two-Authors-One-Queen March 6 will be the 962nd anniversary of the passing of Emma of Normandy, dowager queen of England.

Emma's Mortuary Chest, Winchester Cathedral

Emma’s Mortuary Chest, Winchester Cathedral

She had kings as sons and kings as husbands
She shone forth in the glory of her progeny of kings
She excelled in virtue even the ranks of her glorious ancestors.

So wrote Godfrey, Prior of the Old Minster at Winchester, where Emma was laid to rest.

In this 21st century, Queen Emma has been the central figure in two historical novels. The first is by author Helen Hollick. Titled A HOLLLOW CROWN in the UK and THE FOREVER QUEEN in the U.S. it covers a great swathe of Emma’s life.










My own novel, SHADOW ON THE CROWN, covers only a few years of Emma’s life, and is the first part of a trilogy in which Emma will play the central role.

At Helen’s brilliant suggestion, she and I will be commemorating Queen Emma on March 6 with a special On Line Interactive Interview on our respective blogs, and you are invited to attend.Helen_garden_2012v2

We will be live on-line at Helen’s UK blog
from 2-3p.m. GMT (6 a.m. US Pacific Time – I’ll be getting up very early)

PB_Blog1We will be live on-line here at my US blog from 2-3 p.m. US Pacific Time (10 p.m. GMT – Helen will be staying up very late)


(We will try not to give away any spoilers, but beware: History has been written, and past events have a way of sneaking into present conversations.)

Lest I forget: Giveaways! We’ll each be giving away 1 copy our US and UK books. Mark your calendars.



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