From my blog...

Review: The Ceremony of Innocence, a play written in 1968 by Ronald Ribman

Ethelred in the Monastery

Ethelred in the Monastery

It is Christmas Eve in the year 1013. The king of England, Ethelred, has retired to a cell in a monastery on the Isle of Wight. He is mournful, despairing, and self-exiled from his court and kingdom due to remorse and paralyzing indecision. Two nobles arrive at the monastery to urge the king to action. They bring word that a Danish army has landed in the north of England, and if the king does not bestir himself to lead the English against them, the Danish king, Swein, will be in London by spring.

My lord of Kent

My lord of Kent

One of the nobles, Kent, is sympathetic to the king’s desire to appease the Danes rather than fight them; the other noble, Sussex, calls Ethelred a marshmallow.

In the course of the play we revisit – through flashback – the events that have led to the king’s self-imposed exile.

I first saw this play many years ago when I was in the midst of my early research into the reign of Æthelred. I responded to the performance with outrage because of the way the playwright so brutally twisted timelines, historical figures and historical events. What irritated me the most was that his King Ethelred was portrayed sympathetically as a man striving for peace in his kingdom; a man who dreamed of building ships, not for battle but for exploration; a man who insisted that civilizations found greatness only when their rulers found peace.


Queen Emma

Meantime, his harridan of a wife (Queen Emma), his murderous harpy of a mother (Ælfthryth), and his vicious son (Edmund) continually berated him for paying tribute money to the Danes, insisting that the Danes were animals, not men, that they didn’t belong in England, and that his tribute payments would make them paupers.

The aetheling Edmund

The aetheling Edmund

Anyone who has read my books knows that my interpretation of Emma is vastly different, as is my interpretation of Aethelred who I portray as ruthless, cold, cunning, and paranoid. The playwright and I do agree on one thing though: the king is guilt-ridden.

I could make a very long list of the historical infidelities of this play, but let me give just a single example: Æthelred’s mother was dead by the time he married Emma, so the two women would never have been in the same chamber together. I won’t bore you with any more, and besides, having watched the play again recently (twice), I’ve come to an appreciation of it that I didn’t have on my first viewing.

Emma nags Ethelred

Emma nags Ethelred

This time I set aside my outrage, and I watched it as if I didn’t know who these people were – as if it was set in a mythical kingdom. The result: although it is at times a bit heavy-handed, it is a melancholy, intense play about a ruler striving for peace when war is inevitable. Ethelred, indeed, is given some wonderful lines, and actor Richard Kiley delivers them beautifully:

“Only the shadow of Him who made me moves through this mortar – and all the faces of the living and the dead.”
“I’ve come to the end of my reason, and I see before me an abyss.”
“I sought to find a dozen men to plant an orchard while all around me nature bloomed a thousand lunatics to chop it down.” That’s my favorite line in the whole play.

A somber king and queen

A somber king and queen

There is one thing about this play that truly reflects the history of the year 1013, and that is the tone. It is somber and mournful. Kent complains that he looks at England and sees decay, despair, futility and distortion, and in this he seems to be echoing the grim attitude toward Aethelred’s reign that we find in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. It is the same sense of loss that infuses so much of Anglo-Saxon poetry.

In the final scene of the play Ethelred recognizes that although he is a king and the leader of men, he cannot prevent the war that is racing toward him like a juggernaut. His one supporter, Kent, sides at last with the warmongers and deals the final blow that leaves the king stunned and speechless. Kent tells Ethelred that although both the Danes and the English are at fault, his allegiance is to England, and so the Danes must be resisted: “We are set to our duty,” he says, “though the cause be rotten.” It is quite moving and very sad.

I confess that I puzzled over the title of the play, The Ceremony of Innocence. I had to do some research (it always comes down to research), and I discovered that it is from one of my favorite poems. How did I not recognize it immediately? It’s from “The Second Coming”, by W.B. Yeats.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

In Yeats’ poem, the ceremony of innocence refers to the rituals that define civilization. These are drowned in the uncivilized, blood-dimmed tide of war, and that is what Ethelred is trying to resist in this play: the loss of peace, of scholarship and learning, of art and beauty. Did the real Æthelred concern himself with such things? I would hazard that, judging from the historical documents of the time, the king was more concerned with holding on to power and punishing his enemies than preserving scholarship and art. And as I write that I realize I’m still a little irritated at Ribman for making his Ethelred such a sympathetic figure.

“The Ceremony of Innocence” is available through Netflix. Watch it for the story and for Richard Kiley’s wonderful performance, but please don’t look to it for historical accuracy.

Posted in Anglo-Saxons, Art, History, Research, Review, Theatre, UK, Vikings | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Riddle of the Stones

They had arrived at last at a long, low ridge where the standing stone, its edges scored in primitive runes, pointed skyward. Athelstan checked his horse beside the ancient, lichen-covered stone. Gazing into the shallow vale beyond, he caught his breath at what he saw: a circle of what he guessed must be a hundred standing stones, each one the height of a man or a little more, mushroomed from the valley floor. Like monstrous, deformed fingers, black against the blanket of snow, the stones cast long shadows that speared, ominously, straight at him…He realized with a shock that what he had taken for another stone, standing in the gloom near the hut, was a living figure staring back at him.

She had been waiting for them, then.

from Shadow on the Crown

When I first began thinking about the story that would become Shadow on the Crown, I had in mind a scene in which the king’s eldest son would consult a seeress who would predict that he would never be king. Once I started gnawing on this idea, I began toying with a dramatic setting for their meeting, and that started me thinking about Britain’s stone circles.

Many years before, I had visited a stone circle, Castlerigg in the Lake District, in Keswick. My companion and I had been following a footpath, the signs leading us through a forest and then a field until the stones appeared in front of us, looking eerily out of place there – as if they’d been dropped from outer space. It’s difficult to put into words how moving and strange that experience was.

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Castlerigg Stone Circle

But I couldn’t use Castlerigg in my novel because it was too distant from Wessex where I knew that most of my story would take place. The stones had to be further south. I turned to the internet for help, and that’s when I found the Rollright Stones and the setting for what turned out to be several scenes in both Shadow on the Crown and The Price of Blood.


The King’s Men

The circle, called The King’s Men for centuries, dates back to at least 2000 B.C., and it probably looked somewhat different in the 11th century than it does today. Whether it looked the same then as when it was first erected – archaeologists speculate there were 105 stones standing shoulder to shoulder, with a narrow entrance way flanked by two stones on either side of it – well, that’s anybody’s guess.

A 17th century painting by Joan Blaeu. The artist has taken liberties with distances. (Image: Joop Rotte)

A 17th century painting by Joan Blaeu. The artist has taken liberties with distances. (Image: Joop Rotte)

A short distance from The King’s Men is a single standing stone called The King Stone, probably placed there a thousand years after the circle was erected.

The King Stone

The King Stone

Today, if you stand at The King Stone, as Athelstan does in the quote above, you cannot see the stone circle. There are trees in the way. I’ve imagined the scene without the trees. That’s poetic license, I confess, although, again, who can say what the flora was like there in the 11th century? The runes that I describe carved on the stone are poetic license as well, although because the stones are now so worn and bits of them chipped away by souvenir hunters, once again we cannot know what it looked like a thousand years ago.

There is a third megalithic monument in the immediate area and it is within sight of the stone circle, although distant enough that today it looks like a pile of boulders. When I visited the site there was a field of grain separating The Soldiers Men and this group, called The Whispering Knights. The Whispering Knights group is probably the most ancient of the monuments, dating back to perhaps 4000 B.C. It consists of five massive stones that once were part of a burial chamber, or dolmen.

The Whispering Knights

The Whispering Knights

Originally there were more stones, and it would probably have looked something like this one in Wales. (Pentre Ifan)

Pentre Ifan dolmen, Wales. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Pentre Ifan dolmen, Wales. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

No one can say when the capstone fell or when the missing stones were hauled away and put to some other use. In my story, Athelstan is too focused on the woman standing near the stone circle to even notice the dolmen, even if it was there intact.

The Whispering Knights. (Image: Dennis Turner)

The Whispering Knights. (Image: Dennis Turner)

Would there have been a seeress at the site of the Rollright Stones in the 11th century? I don’t know. The wise-woman who speaks to Athelstan in my book was my own creation, but such women did exist then. Pagan beliefs still lingered in England, although they were frowned upon by the church. In Archbishop Wulfstan’s most famous sermon he claims “here there are witches and sorceresses”, and during Æthelred’s reign at least one woman was drowned in the Thames for witchcraft.

A recent discovery, though, suggests that the stones were a sacred site well into the Anglo-Saxon period. Recently an ancient grave was discovered near the King Stone. It contained the remains of a 7th century Saxon woman. The grave goods buried with her included silver coins, a large amber bead, and a rock crystal amulet on a chain. The Anglo-Saxons believed that amber was a talisman against evil. Rock crystal, too, had special properties and was a symbol of clarity and light. It’s early days yet, but the experts studying the site believe she was someone of substance, and the position of the grave near the King Stone and the amulet-like nature of the grave goods suggest that she may have been a wise woman. So, quite possibly, there was a seeress at the stones, at least in the 7th century.

In writing historical fiction an author sometimes walks a very fine line between truth and fiction. Research into the period and events causes us to speculate about what might have been, and to turn possibilities into story. It seemed to me that if today we are awed by the sight of an ancient circle of stones, people who lived a thousand years ago must have experienced that same awe, probably to a far greater degree. So, settling a wise woman beside the stones in this place that we still regard with wonder, struck me as logical and perhaps even accurate. As it happens, such a woman did dwell near there, at least in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Perhaps, during a time of turmoil and trouble, a warrior sought her out, gave her silver, and bid her look into her crystal stone and speak to him of destiny.

The Rollright Stones. (Image: The Locster)

The Rollright Stones. (Image: The Locster)

Read a news item about the grave of the Saxon woman HERE.
Read an earlier post about the Rollright Stones, Standing Stones & a Witch.


Posted in Anglo-Saxons, History, Inspiration, Research, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Guest Interview with Historical Mystery Novelist Candace Robb

Historical novelist and mystery writer Candace Robb is in the spotlight today as she celebrates the re-issue of her Owen Archer mysteries in brand new editions from Diversion Books, on sale today as e-books and next month as trade paperbacks. Her Margaret Kerr series will follow next month as well, and in 2016 Pegasus Books will be publishing The Service of the Dead, the first book in her new Kate Clifford series. Candace also writes as Emma Campion, author of The King’s Mistress about Alice Perrers, and A Triple Knot about Joan of Kent.  I’m delighted to welcome her here today.

The Apothecary Rose (Small)PB: For those who are as yet unfamiliar with the Owen Archer Mysteries, tell us how many years the novels cover, and give us a thumbnail picture of England at that time.

CANDACE: Book 1, The Apothecary Rose, is set in 1363; A Vigil of Spies in 1373. So I’ve made it through 10 years in 10 books. To put that in perspective with my other books, the series begins just about the time that A Triple Knot ends.

When the series opens King Edward III is on the throne, warring with France over Gascony, and has sent his son and heir, Prince Edward (now known as the Black Prince), to secure and govern the Aquitaine. The English hold Calais. John Thoresby is Archbishop of York, the second most powerful churchman in the realm (and in these novels his tenure as Lord Chancellor is extended so that he holds these titles simultaneously). England’s star export is wool, and the king is manipulating the customs taxes to pay for the war and to secure the financial and military support of the Low Countries against France. York is a center for the wool trade in the North of England, the wool brought down from the great Cistercian abbeys on the moors and shipped from York through Hull and across to the Low Countries. The Mercers Guild is strong, the merchants wealthy and powerful in York.

PB: In the Owen Archer Mysteries we are, for the most part, down and dirty in the alleyways and taverns of medieval York with characters that you’ve invented. At the same time, the story is steeped in the history of the period. Does the plot spring from history, or do you decide to kill someone, and then place the murder into historical context? The Lady Chapel, the second book in your series, is an excellent example of this blending of larger historical Nuns Tale (Small)events and story.

CANDACE: For the most part, the plots spring from actual incidents or tensions in the year of the novel—I make a game of it, pondering how an incident or ongoing quarrel might lead to a murder in York, and how one of my ensemble cast might become involved. The Nun’s Tale deviates from that in the primary mystery—I’d read about Joanna in a small history of Clementhorpe Nunnery and could not resist moving that incident in time so that she could become Archbishop Thoresby’s headache, and, so, Owen’s responsibility to solve. The same happened with The Guilt of Innocents, using the incident with the boys of St. Peter’s school and the bargemen, but placing it in the historical background of that year with Hubert’s father.

PB: Central characters in a novel change and grow as they make discoveries about themselves and the world that they inhabit. Does that character development continue over ten novels?

Kings Bishop (Small)CANDACE: Oh, yes, and for me that is the enormous appeal of writing a series, the luxury of developing characters over a long period of time. John Thoresby mellows in the decade of these books, Brother Michaelo reforms, Lucie Wilton and her father reconcile and her strong aunt, Philippa, declines. Owen grows to feel that York is his home, but not before being sorely tempted by the building rebellion is his native Wales. Lucie matures into a woman who knows her worth. The young characters Jasper and Alisoun are particularly dear to my heart as they mature.

PB: You have written straight historical fiction in addition to your historical mysteries. Is one type of book more challenging than the other? If so, in what way?

CANDACE: I found the historical novels about Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent  more difficult to write than I do the mysteries. In the mysteries I’m in control of the plot, but in the fictional biographies I wasn’t; my job was to flesh out the facts, show how they all connected, reveal motivations. I found it—perhaps not harder, but more frustrating than creating delicious characters, devising a crime, and then watching what happens—who solves it, how, who tries to prevent them from doing so. And I disliked not being able to provide Alice and Joan with the lives I came to feel they deserved.

Vigil of Spies (Small)PB: Did you anticipate, when you wrote The Apothecary Rose, that it would be just the first book in a series?

CANDACE: By the time I was reshaping Lucie’s story as a crime novel, I certainly hoped it might be the first in a series, but I was having a devil of a time figuring out who the detective would be. I wanted a character who would engage me for a long, long while. Bess Merchet was a possibility, Lucie’s good friend who runs the York Tavern, but her range would be limited. And then one day I was reading about the Welsh archers, the strength required to handle the longbows used in battle, the stance, how important the left eye would be for a right-handed archer, and Owen Archer stepped out of my daydream and onto the page. Once Bess Merchet got a look at him she gladly moved aside. And I very much hoped it was the start of a long relationship.

PB: The central character of your first series was the retired-archer-now-spy Owen. The three books that immediately followed and now your new mystery series feature women in the central role? Why the change?

CANDACE: Well, let’s face it, there can be only one Owen Archer. Hah! Well, actually, I had a practical reason for a female lead in my second series. I intended to alternate the Margaret Kerr and the Owen Archer novels, so I wanted the books to be sufficiently different that I wouldn’t become confused about which world I was in. Scotland, in the midst of war, with a female protagonist—that did the trick for me.

The genesis of the Kate Clifford series has been quite different. Kate’s kickass style and rogue attitude are a reaction to my frustration with the fates of the two remarkable women I’ve spent the past six years writing about, Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent. I loved spending the time with them, but I hated that I couldn’t change their fates. There are several intriguing men in Kate’s life, and I am half in love with two of them, but Kate’s the boss. I’m reveling in it.

PB: How does your heroine Margaret Kerr differ from your new heroine, Kate Clifford? Do they have anything in common?

CANDACE: Hm… let’s see. They’re about the same age, married (in Kate’s case widowed), childless (well, that’s sort of true about Kate, you’ll see….). Stubborn. Determined to do things their own way. They have both discovered that their husbands were not exactly who they thought they were. And that’s about it. Margaret’s far more romantic than Kate, and far less organized about her life; but then her home has been invaded by the English, the enemy. Margaret’s skill turns out to be powerful, but quite different from Kate’s pragmatism and fearlessness.

Spy for the Redeemer (Small)PB: In your very detailed research have you discovered any misconceptions about this period of history, the fifty-year reign of Edward III, that you’ve tried to rectify?

CANDACE: I’ve grown to appreciate the rising merchant class as remarkably cosmopolitan, as well as economically and politically savvy. And with the help of scholars such as Carole Rawcliffe (esp. her book Urban Bodies), I’ve realized how inaccurate the image of the filthy middle ages, at least in cities such a York, is, how both a sense of ethics and civic pride drove the citizens to create ordinances to promote communal health. Much of the image of filthy towns is a figment of the Victorian imagination. So I quite enjoy popping that bubble.

PB: You have said “I do like to weave a little magic into my stories.” In medieval times of course, magic, religion and the physical world were inseparable. Can you give an example of how you used magic in your books?

Riddle of St (Small)CANDACE: I use the term magic quite loosely, meaning mysterious, inexplicable. Women with some unexplained powers. The midwife/healer in the Owen Archer books, Magda Digby, rejects anything having to do with spells and magic, and yet she herself is a mystery. I enjoy teasing the reader with mysteries about her. How old is she? Where did she find the Viking ship that she uses as a roof? How does her house survive on a rock in a tidal river? How prescient is she? In the Margaret Kerr mysteries, Maggie’s mother, Christiana, has the Sight, and both William Wallace and Robert Bruce are keen to use her visions to their advantage. As for the Kate Clifford series, well, I don’t want to give away Kate’s mystery, but it’s there, and quite strong.

PB: Most of your historical mysteries are set in and around York, so much so that the city itself is practically a character in the books. Your love for the city comes through loud and clear. Can you put your finger on one place in York that is a favorite spot or is particularly inspirational?

Guilt of Innocents (Small)CANDACE: York Minster is the heart of York in my mind, and I use some of my favorite aspects of it in The Service of the Dead, the first Kate Clifford. In the Owen Archer mysteries I’d say the River Ouse is a particularly strong character, the rhythms of a tidal river—the city has lost that, with dams downriver. But I have been in York during a “400-year” flood, and I can imagine very well what it was like. It’s also the setting, in the vale of York, surrounded by moors and dales. Wuthering Heights country.

PB: I understand that you worked with your editor on the covers for the new editions of your books. Can you share a little bit about that process?

Lady Chapel (Small) (2)CANDACE: They wanted a series look for the covers and had little time to read through all nine books and get a sense of them. (We signed the contract in late May!) So I suggested they use a backdrop of the main location of each novel with a symbol in the foreground that has meaning for the particular book. For the Owen Archers they did just that, as you can see—the first was obvious, a rose, for the second I loved the idea of Jasper, the boy on the run, and so on. I have yet to see the Margaret Kerr covers—I’m counting on their having done likewise, using Edinburgh, Perth, and Stirling for the backgrounds, and the symbols I suggested in the foreground. It’s been great fun to see they develop these! The team at Diversion Books is exceptional and incredibly, wonderfully responsive.

PB: I’m really going to put you on the spot now. Of the novels that are about to appear anew as trade paperbacks and e-books, can you narrow down a favorite?

Gift of Sanctuary (Small)CANDACE: Nope. I’ve just skimmed all 12 of the books being reissued, and in each one at some point I was drawn in and forgot my hurry. The wonder of it is how much I still love these books! I’ll give you this—I love the beginnings of The Lady Chapel, A Gift of Sanctuary, and A Trust Betrayed. I think they’re my most evocative openings.

Great questions! Thanks so much, Pat!


Thank you for joining me, Candace. And congratulations on the new editions and on the publication next year of your new Kate Clifford series.


Emma-Campion-204x300Candace Robb did her graduate work in medieval literature and history, and has continued to study the period while working first as an editor of scientific publications and now for some years as a freelance writer. She was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, grew up in Cincinnati, and has lived most of her adult life in Seattle, which she and her husband love for its combination of natural beauty and culture. Candace enjoys walking, hiking, and gardening, and practices yoga and vipassana meditation. She travels frequently to Great Britain.

Candace’s current passion is exploring fuller and more plausible interpretations of the lives of women in the 14th century than are generally presented.  She also writes historical fiction as Emma Campion.

Learn more about Candace and her novels at her website,, on her Facebook page, and on Twitter: @CandaceMRobb.

You’ll find all of her books available for purchase at your favorite bookstore or on-line retailer. And look for her new crime series featuring Kate Clifford of York in 2016.


Posted in Books, Guest Interview, Guest Interview, Inspiration, UK | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

HNS Conference 2015

The 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference took place in Denver this past weekend, and I want to record a few memories before I surge back into the 11th century.

Writers’ conferences are all about connecting and engaging with other writers, about handshakes and hugs, so of course I began the conference by arming myself with a sword.


A small number of David Blixt’s arms.

Actor, author, fight choreographer David Blixt conducted 2 sword fighting workshops on Friday. I attended the broadsword session, which began with a vigorous performance of the final scene in Macbeth.


Author, actor, fight choreographer David Blixt as Macbeth.

Before my body I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff,
And damned be him that first cries “Hold, enough!”

David and his fight partner Brandon were sweating when the scene was finished, and they had their audience in the palms of their hands.

“Write a sword scene like a sex scene,” David advised, “and a sex scene like a sword scene. It’s all about desire and denial, about character and personal stakes. Make the reader gasp.” Excellent advice, eloquently expressed.

In sparring with my assigned partner, the stage-trained Gillian Bagwell, I discovered that although I had a height advantage, she was taking larger steps as she moved forward, closing the distance (rather uncomfortably) between my body and the edge of her sword. Luckily we’re good friends. I would hate to spar with someone who held a grudge against me!

Lunch with Margaret George, Lesley Carroll and Gillian Bagwell was a gab fest about shoes, gowns, and writing historical fiction, not necessarily in that order.

Guest Speaker C. C. Humphreys

Guest Speaker C. C. Humphreys

The guest speaker at the opening night dinner was C.C. Humphreys, another actor and writer, whom I’d seen last at the San Diego conference in 2011 with, ironically, a sword in his hand. He was armed this time with words alone, words that alternately amused and inspired and captivated us. He was one of many, many writers there that I wanted to stuff in my suitcase and bring home with me.

My dinner partner that night was the remarkable Barbara Peters, owner of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore and Poisoned Pen Press in Phoenix. What Barbara doesn’t know about publishing isn’t worth knowing. She’s read about a zillion novels (and remembers them all) and has met as many novelists. She is a marvelous raconteur. There were no table-wide conversations simply because it was absolutely impossible, in a room filled with over 400 people, to hear anyone but the person beside you. Chris Cevasco had his camera, though, and snapped away. Thank you, Chris!

With Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore & Author Robert Rath

With Barbara Peters of Poisoned Pen Bookstore & Author Robert Rath

The nitty gritty business took place on Saturday, with numerous panels to choose from interspersed with quiet time for chance meetings in the lobbies or bookstore: writers, bloggers, readers – all of us a bit star struck when the chance came to talk to an author we admire. (My tongue always sticks to the roof of my mouth whenever I get within 3 feet of Diana Gabaldon.)


Withe two of the most brilliant & generous women of my acquaintance – Margaret George & Diana Gabaldon.

Hopeful newby writers waited nervously for their appointments to pitch to an agent or editor (that was me back in 2009), and were often seen walking several feet off the ground afterwards.

A panel on The Gender Divide with C.W. Gortner, C.C. Humphreys, Stephanie Dray, David Blixt and Vicky Alvear Shecter had me wanting to jump up and join their conversation.

Vickey Alvear Shecter, C. W. Gortner, C. C. Humphreys, Stephanie Dray & David Blixt on The Gender Divide

Vickey Alvear Shecter, C. W. Gortner, C. C. Humphreys, Stephanie Dray & David Blixt on The Gender Divide

C.C. Humphreys’ time trip to Elizabethan London was absolutely delightful and filled with tidbits about the Tudor world that he’s discovered in his research. Next up was a session on Midwifery with Sam Thomas, Lisa Yarde, Kim Rendfeld and Judith Starkston, moderated by Diana Gabaldon (who knows a little something about this topic as well). Bottom line: be glad you didn’t give birth any time before 1950, and especially in the 13th century b.c. There was this practice, you see, that involved swinging a ewe….

Sam Thomas, Lisa Yarde, Kim Rendfeld, Judith Starkston & Diana Gabaldon: Midwifery

Sam Thomas, Lisa Yarde, Kim Rendfeld, Judith Starkston & Diana Gabaldon: Midwifery

Our lunchtime speaker was YA novelist Karen Cushman whose Newbery Award winning novel Catherine, Called Birdy I’d read and loved a decade ago. What a thrill to discover, in a brief, post-luncheon conversation, that she is one of Emma’s fans. Our heroines, I think, have many of the same qualities.

Karen Cushman. Photo Credit: C. Cevasco

Karen Cushman. Photo Credit: C. Cevasco

My own panel, Making It Relevant & Making It Real: Writing Historical Fiction That Speaks to 21st Century Readers, went smoothly. How could it not when our moderator was Gillian Bagwell and the panelists with me were best selling authors C.W. Gortner and Margaret George?

With Margaret George & C. W. Gortner. Thanks to C.W. Gortner for the photo.

With Margaret George & C. W. Gortner. Thanks to C.W. Gortner for the photo.

I hope we were informative and helpful, as well as entertaining. We had an SRO audience of attentive listeners, and I saw a great deal of nodding as the three of us spoke to the topic at hand.

The audience for Making It Relevant & Making It Real

The audience for Making It Relevant & Making It Real

If anyone is wondering, we’d been planning this panel for months, giving it a great deal of thought as we came up with questions and answers that we felt would be enlightening to our listeners.

This was followed by a 2-hour book-signing event.

You can see what a wild crush the book signing was! Photo: Mark Wiederanders

You can see what a wild crush the book signing was! Photo: Mark Wiederanders

The book signing was followed by a banquet, an awards ceremony, the costume show and the traditional Saturday Night Sex Scene Readings. The ever-charming Diana Gabaldon regaled us, too, with a brief talk about options, tv shows, the rise of histfic, and Sam Heughen. (I had to list Diana at the end there so I could include an image of Sam as Jamie Fraser, just because.)


Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser. Photo credit:

Last, but not least, the belle of the conference was my friend, critique partner and room-mate for the weekend, Gillian Bagwell. She scripted and emceed the Costume Show and, believe me, she suffered for the sake of beauty. That wig! Here she is, front and back. She rustled when she walked.


Gillian Bagwell as Joan, Lady Rivers.


Joan, Lady Rivers posterior. Lovely both front & back.

Next year’s conference will be in Oxford, UK. Start Planning Now.

The Bodleian, University of Oxford

The Bodleian, University of Oxford

Posted in Books, Events, Inspiration | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

Surviving Despite the Odds: The Bayeux Tapestry

BayeuxShipThe Bayeux Tapestry, as you probably know, is not a tapestry. It’s an embroidery that tells the story of the Battle of Hastings and of the events leading up to it. The Tapestry is 224 feet long and roughly 18 inches high. It consists of 9 strips of bleached linen that are sewn together and embroidered with colored wools. It is damaged in places, and a final panel is missing, yet the fact that this textile from the late 11th century exists at all is something of a miracle.

Bishop Odo

Bishop Odo

The first 400 years of the Tapestry’s provenance are a bit of a mystery. Most scholars now believe that it was embroidered in England and that sometime before 1087 it was carried to Bayeux, Normandy among the possessions of its patron Bishop Odo (William the Conqueror’s half-brother). It’s very likely that it was hung in the Bayeux cathedral nave on special occasions, and kept in storage when not in use. If so, it survived Bayeux’s destruction when Henry I torched it in 1106, escaped a devastating cathedral fire in 1159, and survived Bayeux’s destruction by Edward III in 1335. Already it seems to have had a charmed existence, although how it lost that final panel is anybody’s guess.


Nave of Bayeux Cathedral. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

Nave of Bayeux Cathedral. Photo: Dennis Jarvis

The tapestry is mentioned for the first time in a 1476 inventory of the cathedral’s treasures which describes “a very long and very narrow strip of linen embroidered with figures and inscriptions representing the Conquest of England”. It was kept with other textiles in the cathedral vestry which, in 1562, was ransacked when French Calvinists attacked the cathedral. They murdered priests, smashed windows, and stole or destroyed centuries-old treasures including precious textiles and items of gold and silver. Somehow, they overlooked the tapestry. Was it ignored because there were no gold or silver threads in it? Or had it been moved to some safe, hidden place? Another mystery. Another close escape.

During the French Revolution, when all church property was nationalized, a Monuments Commission was formed, and ecclesiastical treasures that were not taken to national or local depots were lost or destroyed. The Tapestry once again was spared, coming under the jurisdiction of Bayeux’s Municipal Council. However, in 1792, the Council in its wisdom approved a request by a local military battalion to use the Tapestry to cover their equipment wagons as they made a 350 mile trek south to Meux. Luckily a local administrator convinced the soldiers to use sacking to protect their cargo instead of one of France’s greatest treasures, and he spirited the Tapestry to his office for safekeeping.

Two years later, when a plan in Bayeux surfaced to cut up the Tapestry and decorate a carnival float with it, the new Commission for the Arts said no.

Bayeux Cathedral. Photo Credit: James Wooley

Bayeux Cathedral. Photo Credit: James Wooley

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 23 : Harold prête serment à Guillaume

Duke William of Normandy.

By this time the Tapestry was recognized as a valuable historical artifact, and throughout the 19th century efforts were made to study it, draw it, repair it, conserve it and properly display it. But dangerous times lay ahead. When France was invaded by German troops during the Franco-Prussian War the Tapestry was packed into a protective zinc cylinder and safely hidden away. By 1939 it had its own bomb shelter, but that did not protect it from Himmler’s Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage) team when the Germans occupied France. The Tapestry was displayed privately one evening for elite Wehrmacht and SS officers before it was turned over to a research team that spent a month examining and photographing it. Eventually it was transported 120 miles south to the basement of the Chateau de Sourches near LeMans where it remained for most of the war.

And now we enter the realm of films like Monuments Men and The Imitation Game. Really!

In the spring of 1944, with northern France under heavy Allied bombardment, Himmler began making plans to bring the Tapestry to Germany. The first step would be to move it to Paris, but even before he could order the transfer, the Allied invasion of Normandy had begun.

The Norman Fleet

The Norman Fleet

On June 8 Bayeux was liberated, and within a week Captain LaFarge of the Allies’ Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives division had set up his headquarters there. But the war wasn’t over yet. In early July, per Himmler’s orders, Gestapo officers removed the Tapestry from Sourches and escorted it to the Louvre.

Earl Harold

Earl Harold

By mid-August, 1944, the Allies were approaching Paris. On August 18 the team at Bletchley Park in England intercepted a radio message from Himmler to the head of the Gestapo in France ordering him to remove the Tapestry to ‘a place of safety’ – presumably closer to the German heartland. On August 22 a team of SS men tried to do just that, but the Louvre was already occupied by Allied troops and the SS men couldn’t get to it. On August 25, Paris was liberated.

The mayor of Bayeux immediately sent a request to Captain LaFarge asking that the Tapestry be returned to Bayeux from Sourches. He didn’t know that it had already been moved to Paris, and one has to wonder if there wasn’t a panic until Captain LaFarge learned that the Tapestry was in the Louvre. Despite the wishes of the mayor of Bayeux, it remained in the Louvre for a time, on exhibit for five weeks. The Tapestry was finally returned to Bayeux in March, 1945. It’s there now. You can see it, behind glass, in its own special gallery, safe and well protected.

Today's Tapestry Museum. Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

Today’s Tapestry Museum. Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis

Textiles do not age well. Rarely do they withstand the ravages of time, light, air, mold, and insects. That this work of art has survived for a thousand years, giving us a glimpse into such a significant historical event as well as into the minds of those who lived through it, is nothing short of astonishing.

Source: Lewis, Michael J. The Real World of the Bayeux Tapestry. The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK, 2008.

Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Bayeux Tapestry Feline

A Cat. The Bayeux Tapestry.

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5 May 1010: The Battle of Ringmere

Battle Abbey, preparing for war.On 5 May in the year 1010, a great battle was fought between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes at a place in East Anglia called Ringmere. In the fall of 2012, as part of the research for my novel The Price of Blood, I went with my husband to East Anglia to see for myself where that battle took place.

DSCN1256Ringmere wasn’t easy to find. Pre-Conquest battle sites may be marked on occasion, but even the people living nearby are sometimes unaware of the events that took place there a thousand years ago. (This is understandable. They live in the present. If you were to ask me about my own neighborhood – Oakland – and what it was like even 200 years ago, I could only shrug and say, “There were probably more oaks then.”)

Making fire, West StowThe staff at the marvelous Anglo-Saxon archaeological museum at West Stow, who knew all about the rye, reeds, wheat and heather that the Anglo-Saxons used for roof thatching, and who could explain that when building their houses they pounded square pegs into round holes because they were a tighter fit, looked at me blankly when I asked about Ringmere. By that time it was late afternoon, so we gave up on finding the battlefield for that day and went in search of our hotel in Attleborough. Ringmere would have to wait until I could pinpoint it on the internet.

Overnight, a thick fog settled over East Anglia, and it was still heavy as we drove the next morning along narrow lanes toward the spot I had marked on the map as Ringmere. We parked the car on the side of the road and climbed out to have a look around.

Ringmere3In 1010 the Anglo-Saxon army led by the king’s son-in-law, Ulfkytel, was still gathering at Ringmere when the Danes launched a surprise attack. Standing in the same place a thousand years later, my vision impaired by the sullen fog, it was easy to imagine an enemy army suddenly appearing out of the mist to the horrified surprise of the defenders.

Stretching around me to north, south and east, flat wasteland was studded with rabbit warrens. A stand of trees stood on the western edge of the heath, and beyond that, out of sight, lay the circular lake that gave this place its name. There was no way of knowing if it looked exactly like this in 1010, but there must have been a space not unlike this, wide and flat enough to hold thousands of warriors.

Ringmere2As I walked the heath I wondered if somewhere beneath my feet the detritus of battle still lay undiscovered – broken weapons, the bosses from long-rotted wooden shields, the bones of the dead. It made me sad and a little awestruck to be standing in a place marked by such a violent history. For all I knew, some of my own ancestors may have fought here and had managed to escape the carnage. They may even have been on both sides of the shield wall.

In The Price of Blood I did not describe Ringmere Heath or the battle that took place there, only scenes that came before it, from the Vikings’ point of view . . .

“Ulfkytel will not have his full force until late in May,” Cnut said with a slow smile, “which means that we can strike first, and with a much larger force.”
“Ulfkytel is someone to be feared, my lord. He led his East Anglians against the Danes once before and nearly won.”
“Nearly will not be good enough,” Cnut said, “and we will have the advantage of surprise as well as numbers.”

… and scenes that came afterwards, from the Anglo-Saxon point of view . . .

“The king cursed poor Ulfkytel for losing that battle up at Ringmere. Swore that our sister was wasted on an East Anglian who didn’t have the sense to die when he lost his battle; even threatened to take Ælfa back and give her to someone else.”

When it came to the battle itself, I let the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speak for me:

This year came the (Viking) army, after Easter, into East Anglia…where they understood Ulfkytel was with his army. The East-Angles soon fled. There was slain Oswy and his son, and Wulfric, son of Leofwin, and Edwy, brother of Efy, and many good thanes, and a multitude of people…And the Danes remained masters of the field of slaughter.

The field of slaughter. What a visceral reminder of the harsh realities of war and of the terrible events that were played out so many centuries ago on this lonely heath that the Anglo-Saxons named Ringmere.

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Vikings 3, Episode X: THE DEAD

Vikings-BR-Review-00I cannot possibly write a review of this episode without including spoilers. So, if you do not want to know how Season 3 of The Vikings ends, please leave the room now.

Charles the Simple

Charles the Simple

Are they gone? Right. In this episode King Charles, doing an excellent imitation of Æthelred the Unready, bribes the Vikings to go away; Count Odo finally gets to toy with a nubile young woman (and we are not amused); Rollo reveals himself as Emma of Normandy’s great grandfather, and Ragnar plays Jack-In-The-Box. What a show!

To begin: Charles’ decision to pay off the Vikings has a historical foundation. Lots of rulers did this. The only king whose name went down in infamy for it, though, was poor Æthelred who certainly wasn’t the first to pay, although he probably paid the most. Charles gives them 5000 pounds in silver and gold. Æthelred’s final payment (of many) was 48,000 pounds in loot, so Charles has made a good bargain – or so it seems.

The show opens with the treasure boxes being delivered to the Viking camp along with the demand that they leave Frankia. Rollo tells Ragnar about the payment, but Ragnar is sick unto death, and he really doesn’t care.

But will the Vikings actually leave? We see Rollo gazing out at Paris and recalling the words of the spamaðr: If you knew what the gods have in store for you in Paris you would dance naked in the rain.

RolloAnd Rollo is thoughtful, while Ragnar gives Bjorn advice on how to be a leader of men, reminding us that Ragnar is sick unto death.

In Paris, Odo is again spurned by Princess Gisla, but hard on her heels comes a lissome beauty who observes to Odo that the princess seems very boring, that he would soon tire of her, and so she offers herself as far more interesting. (Is there even a word for ‘boring’ in Old French? I doubt it.) Odo takes the lady to a torture chamber and invites her to submit to a little S&M. Does the prurient whipping that follows further the story? Not as far as I can tell. The entire sequence was pointless and unnecessary. Hirst is not at the top of his game here. Do better, Mr. Hirst.

At the Viking camp Floki begins to build one last boat for Ragnar. And we are reminded of the funeral boat from many episodes ago that was launched and set aflame. Because, you know, Ragnar is sick unto death.

A month goes by and Odo is annoyed that the Vikings are still squatting beside the Seine. Informed that King Ragnar is too ill to travel, he wants to see for himself. Ragnar is too sick to speak, (he’s sick unto death), but Bjorn relays his father’s request that he be given a Christian burial, or the Vikings won’t leave. And so it is arranged that Ragnar’s coffin, once he’s in it, and dead, will be carried to the cathedral by unarmed men for a Christian Mass.

And I’m thinking: It’s taking our Ragnar an awfully long time to die.

But in the next scene Ragnar is looking pretty dead, there in his boat-like coffin. It’s quite a lovely thing, actually. High marks to the set designers for this and for so many beautiful and remarkable things in this entire series.

VikingsX.coffinBjorn places the lid over his father, then invites Lagertha, Rollo and Floki to come in one at a time and make their final farewells. Which they do, because they all believe he’s dead.

You didn’t believe he was dead, did you? I didn’t believe he was dead. I was sitting back, arms folded, waiting for Ragnar’s Resurrection.

To his credit, Hirst took his time setting it up, toying with us. We saw the entire Viking force in procession, carrying Ragnar’s coffin to the gates of Paris. We saw the 6 unarmed Vikings set the lovely coffin upon its stand in the cathedral while the Frankish elite looked on and monks chanted a dirge. I had time to write on my notepad ‘I’m still waiting for R to…’ when Ragnar made his come-back.



Women screamed. King Charles fainted. (Really? Why is he such a buffoon? Is it meant to show the fading of Charlemagne’s line, which will soon be replaced by Hugh Capet and sons? Or is it meant to make the pagan Vikings look better than the Christians? I wonder about this with King Ecbert’s tarnished image, too.)

Minutes later, as Ragnar collapses into Bjorn’s arms and the Vikings storm past them into Paris, the spamaðr reminds us in a voice-over:

Not the living, but the dead will take Paris.

Thank you, Michael Hirst, because I’d forgotten that. And yes, the Vikings used deceit and trickery whenever they could to make it into walled cities. In the 11th century they did it in Exeter and Canterbury, so why not Paris? According to one account, Ragnar returned to Denmark with silver, gold, and a bolt from Paris’s gate.

But now the Vikings really do leave, although Rollo stays behind, intending to over-winter in Frankia and strike Paris again in the spring. Charles soon makes him an offer, though, that he can’t refuse: marriage to the Princess Gisla plus land and a title in return for defending Frankia against his brother, Ragnar.



Yes, Rollo did in fact settle in northern Frankia (in 910) with the understanding that he would defend it against other Viking raiders. The Franks referred to Rollo’s people as Northmen, which soon became Normans, and their province Normandy. According to legend, Gisla (who is herself a legend), didn’t like Rollo much and fell into disgrace for insulting her husband and so…

When Rollo is presented to Gisla as her soon-to-be-husband she gets the award for this episode’s best lines:

I would rather give my virginity and my virtue to the vilest dog than to this piece of worm meat. He disgusts me. He makes me want to vomit.

That’s all in French, of course. Rollo’s clueless response is, “Hello.” In French! Because he’s learned a thing or two from Ecbert the Awesome about speaking your enemy’s language.

Rollo says, "Hello." And grins.

Rollo says, in French: “Hello” And grins.

Gisla, by the way, died childless. Rollo’s progeny came from his liaison with the lovely daughter of a count who fell into his hands when he sacked the city of Bayeux. Her name was Popa.

But back to our show’s final scene which takes place on Ragnar’s ship as he returns to Denmark. It is night time and everyone is asleep. Ragnar is still sick, huddled beneath blankets, but he calls Floki to him, gazes at him with that terrifying smile and says, “You killed Athelstan.” And it is not Ragnar’s face that looks out at us at the very end of this season as it has been in the past, but Floki’s. And Floki is speechless and very, very afraid, and we can hardly wait for 2016 and whatever comes next!



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Æthelred II – the Haunted King

King Æthelred II, from The Life of King Edward the Confessor. 13th c. Cambridge University Library

King Æthelred II, from The Life of King Edward the Confssor. 13th c. Cambridge University Library

On 23 April 1016, King Æthelred II died in London. He was about 50 years old, and he’d ruled England for 38 years. At his death he’d not yet been given the byname, Unræd, (ill-counseled, a play on the Old English meaning of his name, æthel ræd – noble counsel). That would come some years later. Eventually Unræd would be corrupted into Unready, and he would be known as Æthelred the Unready for centuries. As the bynames suggest, his reputation has been anything but enviable:

“His life is said to have been cruel at the outset, pitiable in mid-course, and disgraceful in its ending.” William of Malmesbury, History of the English Kings, 12th century;

“He is the only ruler of the male line of Ecbert whom we can unhesitatingly set down as a bad man and a bad king.” Edward Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England, 1867;

“Good reputations rarely befall those who live for a long time… Had he died in the early years of the 11th century, then we might well remember a king of some competence…” Ryan Lavelle, Æthelred II, 2004.

Talk about damning with faint praise: If only Æthelred had died abruptly at age 34, as his father Edgar did, the 11th century might have been easier for the English. The infamous St. Brice’s Day Massacre of Danes in 1003 would never have happened; nor the debilitating taxation that oppressed the English people and enriched many a Viking; nor Æthelred’s humiliating abdication to a Danish warrior king; nor even that battle at Hastings in 1066 that opened the door to centuries of Norman rule. Æthelred, it seems, has a lot to answer for.

The Massacre of St. Brice's Day from Hutchinson's "Story of the British Nation". 1920.

The Massacre of St. Brice’s Day from Hutchinson’s “Story of the British Nation”. 1920.

But what do we really know about the man himself? Biographer Ann Williams, in Æthelred the Unready, the Ill-counselled King, cautions: “We do not and cannot know what kind of a man Æthelred was, only what he did and what happened to him.”

Williams may be right, but as a novelist writing about Æthelred’s reign I needed to decide what kind of a man Æthelred was. I had to study what he did, what happened to him, and then I had to make up my mind about him. Truth be told, I was hoping to find a villain. And indeed, this ruthless, vindictive, sometimes energetic, sometimes irresolute king (one historian refers to his reign as bi-polar) was the answer to my prayers.

Æthelred came to the throne under a cloud of suspicion and foreboding – and that’s not something I made up. His half-brother, King Edward, had been brutally murdered, and that crime paved the way for Æthelred’s coronation. That no one was punished for King Edward’s murder hints at a cover-up, if not collusion, by someone in power; if not the new young King Æthelred, aged ten, then others quite close to him. His reputation as ill-counselled had already begun.

Edward the martyr

19th c. portrayal of the murder of Edward the Martyr.

William of Malmesbury wrote that Æthelred was haunted by the shade of his brother, demanding terribly the price of blood. That single phrase inspired my creation of a ghost that torments the beleaguered king in my novels. And because contemporary accounts describe King Edward as violent even toward his own supporters, the ghost that I’ve created is no mild-mannered martyr.

The air before him thickened and turned as black and rippling as the windswept surface of a mere. Pain gnawed at his chest, and he shivered with cold and apprehension as the world around him vanished. Sounds, too, faded to nothing and he knew only the cold, the pain, and the flickering darkness before him that stretched and grew into the shape of a man. Or what had been a man once. Wounds gaped like a dozen mouths at throat and breast, gore streaked the shredded garments crimson, and the menacing face wore Death’s gruesome pallor. His murdered brother’s shade drew toward him, an exhalation from the gates of heaven or the mouth of hell – he could not say which. Not a word passed its lips, but he sensed a malevolence that flowed from the dead to the living, and he shrank back in fear and loathing.           from THE PRICE OF BLOOD

Edward’s ghost is my way of explaining the sometimes baffling decisions that Æthelred made. Truly, there were times when, as I conducted my research, I exclaimed, “But why would you do that?”

There is no question that there were political, social, and religious complexities to Æthelred’s long reign, not to mention recurring Viking attacks and an endless string of dire events that can only be characterized as rotten luck, and I’ve tried to reflect these in my books. But the shorthand for how the king responded to catastrophe is expressed by the appearance of his brother’s ghost. (Thank you, St. Edward the Martyr!)

Was the historical figure of Æthelred, though, any more ruthless or paranoid than other rulers of his time? I doubt it. His was a world that was governed by the sword despite the laws that he enacted and presumably sought to enforce. He ruled a newly united England in which allegiances to kin were far stronger than any oaths made to a distant king, so Æthelred had good reason to be suspicious of the men around him. In the final, dark years of his reign, with a Viking army ravaging the land, all loyalties were strained to the breaking point, and English unity fractured. “…there was not a chief that would collect an army, but each fled as he could: no shire, moreover, would stand by another.” (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

Nevertheless, Æthelred’s success at holding his kingdom together for over 30 years meant that art and culture could flourish despite the unrest that plagued England. Benedictine abbeys patronized by wealthy nobles produced gloriously illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, and sculptures.

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. Winchester. 10th c. British Library

The Benedictional of St. Aethelwold. Winchester. 10th c. British Library

Many of the greatest works of Old English literature were written at this time including lives of saints and the homilies of Ælfric and of scholar/statesman Archbishop Wulfstan. The only copy of Beowulf in existence was produced, it’s believed, while Æthelred was king (although recently some scholars think it was later, but that’s another blog post).

Such accomplishments as these, though, must be weighed against murders, executions, misplaced trust, bad decisions and desperation that characterized his reign. Æthelred died a king, but he was a king who was ill-equipped to cope with the enormous challenges he faced. Even if he was not literally haunted by his brother’s ghost, he must have been, in his final days, haunted by his failures as a ruler.

“He ended his days on St. George’s day; having held his kingdom in much tribulation and difficulty as long as his life continued.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 11th century

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Vikings 3, Episode IX: BREAKING POINT

vikings_usurper5seriableA king is for glory, not for long life. Old Viking saying.

The final image of the previous episode, ‘TO THE GATE’, is of a badly injured Ragnar vowing to conquer Paris. In this episode, the first image is, again, of a badly injured Ragnar, one of many wounded among his shattered followers. The final image that we will see at the end of this episode will be of Ragnar yet again, as is often the case now that I think about it. This time his face is glowing with – what? Rapture? Expectation? As always, we are left with questions.



And I am reminded – thank you Michael Hirst – that, more than anything else, this is Ragnar’s Story. This is the tale of a warrior, of an ambitious man who sought to do spectacular things so that his name would be remembered after his death. And he accomplished this goal. His sons would be referred to in the histories as ‘the Sons of Ragnar Lothbrok’ probably more often than by their own names. So although Hirst has given us many intriguing characters pulled from the pages of history and saga, Ragnar has always, for good or ill, been the central figure. And he continues to be.

The title of this episode, ‘THE BREAKING POINT’, of course refers to Paris, the city under siege. But there is an underlying theme here, and another kind of breaking point specific to Ragnar: his inner turmoil regarding the gods comes to a head in this episode. More on that later.

The Vikings’ second attack on Paris this week displays the battle strategy used by Viking armies again and again.



The strategy was based on the actions of the wily Odin, god of deceit and trickery, and involved surprise, night-time assaults, cunning and deception. Viking armies avoided frontal attacks whenever possible and instead relied on rapid, strategic strikes. (Not always, of course. The siege of Paris in 886 lasted an entire year!) They used informers, spies and captives to get useful information about the enemy, and we see that this week as well. Supposedly, Ragnar had 120 ships when he attacked Paris in 845, and certainly the Viking numbers played a role here in bringing the Franks to the bargaining table.

Paddy Griffith, in his book The Viking Art of War, writes that Viking armies were made up of men who were strong, tough, well-armed and mean. That pretty much describes any 9th century warrior. And in this series the Frankish princess Gisela portrays a noble woman who, while she may not be armed, is just as strong, tough and mean as any of the men around her. Lest we forget, the 9th century was not a gentle time.



Meanwhile, over in Kattegat the theme of conflict between the gods is played out somewhat bizarrely between Queen Aslaug and a Christian missionary. An ordeal involving clutching an iron rod that’s been heated in a forge reflects similar trials carried out throughout the Middle Ages, and reminds us that Aslaug, too, is strong, tough and mean.



In Wessex King Ecbert is spouting gibberish to Judith who remains singularly unimpressed. She has his number now, and she is no longer a deer in the headlights. She accepts his quid pro quo, but only after she forces him to spell it out: I want you for my mistress. In return, she and Alfred will receive Ecbert’s protection from the self-righteous Aethelwulf.

I am not happy with how the character of Ecbert has evolved into a sexual predator, but thinking back over the earlier seasons I can see that Hirst has been hinting at this. It certainly adds some sexual titillation to the drama, and perhaps he is attempting to show the propensity of Anglo-Saxon kings (and their sons) to form sexual liaisons with any number of women. He may also be reinforcing the idea that marriage in this era was a political act. Romance, affection, passion had nothing to do with it, and a bed partner or wife could be cast aside with impunity.

Ecbert, though, has my vote for the best line in this episode. Addressing his son he says, What I intend to pass on to you is not only the kingship of Wessex, but the kingship of England.

Ecbert's response to whether he would sacrifice his son to achieve his ambitions.

Ecbert’s response to whether he would sacrifice his son to achieve his ambitions.

Don’t forget that in his youth, Ecbert was forced to flee England, and he spent several years at Charlemagne’s court. No doubt that was where Hirst’s Ecbert formed his penchant for bathing and for multiple sexual partners (Charlemagne had a lavish bathing complex at Aachen and went through 5 wives). But Ecbert would also have witnessed the glamour of empire, and certainly, when he returned to England to claim the throne of Wessex, he set about establishing Wessex as the dominant power in southern Britain and himself as overlord of Mercia and East Anglia. Ecbert was, indeed, ambitious. I just wish Hirst hadn’t made him quite so smarmy in recent episodes.

And now, back to Ragnar. Ragnar is ailing all through this episode. In fevered dreams he sees Odin, Athelstan, and Christ. He begs, Don’t abandon me, and we do not know to whom he is speaking. He dreams that he is face down in a pool of blood not his own (no surprise there). But when a request for parley arrives from the Franks he asserts himself as war leader and king and, tricksy as Odin, he slips away to meet them with only an interpreter as companion. That leads us to the final scene, when Floki, Lagertha, and Rollo arrive in time to witness with distress and consternation a newly baptized Ragnar, his face glowing with we-are-not sure-what.



Note: If you have not yet done so, do take a look at some of the videos on the History Channel website. I highly recommend all of them, but in particular the 3 minute ‘Filming the Battle Scenes’ and the 7 minute ‘Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok’.

Until next week, and the final episode….

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Vikings 3, Episode VIII: TO THE GATE



“Paris,” Ragnar confides in a soliloquy to Athelstan near the end of this episode, “is everything you told me it would be.”

As he promised, Ragnar has taken his fleet — and us — to Paris. More precisely, as this title suggests, to the gates of Paris. There is an ominous, thundering sound track that accompanies the opening scenes of this episode as Ragnar and company prepare to throw themselves against the city’s high stone walls. We know that this battle is going to be big. It’s the most difficult challenge that the Vikings have met so far, but expressions on the faces of the leaders are set and determined — even enthusiastic.



This is in stark contrast to the face of the French king, who literally wears a mask so that no one can see his terror. My research indicates that Ragnar’s fleet (historically) was composed of 120 ships, and that being the case one can almost excuse the French king for being terrified at such a sight. I certainly would be! But the king’s right hand man Odo and the princess Gisela are made of sterner stuff. While Odo doesn’t look at all happy about the Vikings, he nevertheless rolls up his sleeves and responds to the threat like the commander that he is (and that he indeed was). It is the king’s daughter, Gisela, though, who shoulders the royal responsibility from which her father shrinks. Like a 9th century Jean d’Arc, she carries the Oriflamme to the battlements and uses it to rally her people.

The Oriflamme, by the way, was one of those medieval banners that armies carried into battle to inspire their comrades with courage and their enemies with dread. In this case, it was a red banner that had been dipped in the blood of the 3rd century martyr St. Denis. According to legend, Charlemagne had carried it to the Holy Land to drive out the Saracens. Gisela puts it to good use, and then remains on the battlements without armor or shield, as unafraid and confident as her father is frightened and cowering.



(The Vikings would eventually have a banner, too, made by the daughters of Ragnar Lothbrok and carried into battle by his sons and, much later, by Swein and his son Cnut. It was called The Raven, and like the Oriflamme, it had mystical qualities. The Encomium Emmae Reginae describes it this way: “For while it was woven of the plainest and whitest silk, and the representation of no figure was inserted into it, in time of war a raven was always seen as if embroidered on it, in the hour of its owners’ victory opening its beak, flapping its wings, and restive on its feet, but very subdued and drooping with its whole body when they were defeated.”)

But I digress. Back to the Battle of Paris. Can I just state right here that, comparing this set piece battle to the Battle of the Blackwater at the conclusion of Season 2 Game of Thrones, I’d have to give the prize to the Vikings? Quick camera cuts from one part of the battle to the other, and from a wide angle view of the river and walls to close-ups of the hand-to-hand fighting kept the tension high. Floki’s siege towers were stunning and, like the covered battering ram, authentic.



The hot oil, (wax, actually), fire, rocks and crossbows used by the defenders were authentic as well. Most impressive of all, though, were the actors’ faces: Ragnar as he follows the progress of the battle, Rollo when he sees Gisela on the wall, Floki as he watches siege towers go up in flames, Lagertha when her crew finally breaks through the bridge gate and they see – well, I’m not sayin’ what they see.


Floki’s response to siege towers in flames. Photo:

There were moments of portent, raising questions in the viewer’s mind: Ragnar clutching Athelstan’s golden cross like a talisman. What does he really believe? Floki undergoing baptisms of fire and water. How will he be changed as a result? Rollo’s face sinking beneath the Seine. Will he endure the same fate as Siggi?

And here’s the thing: we had no idea how it would end!!!

For a time, I was thinking that I’d have to award Michael Hirst the GRRM International Prize For Offing The Most Lead Actors In A Single Episode.

Instead I will give Bjorn the award for the best line:

Today went badly.

And it wasn’t even the season finale. Oh my. What in the world does Michael Hirst have up his sleeve for that?

I have a pretty good idea, but I’m not telling.


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