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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 11: THE OUTSIDER


Vikings4mThe second half of VIKINGS Season 4 begins right where we left off last spring, with Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) returning to Kattegat after an 8-year absence, and challenging each of his sons:

“Who wants to be king?”

As it turns out, nobody does. Well, maybe Ivar. But none of them really wants to challenge Ragnar. Ubbe steps forward, sword in hand, but he’s all but dragging it on the ground, and even when Ragnar cuffs him (twice!) he just stares at his father – and staring eyeball to eyeball at Ragnar would be terrifying – until dad grabs him and hugs him.

Later in this episode Bjorn, will ask Ragnar, “Why did you come back?”
And Lagertha, will ask, “Why did you leave?”
Nobody poses the questions I’m asking, “Where the heck have you been and what have you been doing to yourself?” Because Ragnar looks terrible: old, sick, maybe a little mad (okay, he’s always been a little mad). And as the Outsider of the title of this episode, he is uncomfortable among his family – and we are uncomfortable with him.

randuSo, about that family, the sons of Ragnar and Aslaug (Alyssa Sutherland).  If anyone is having trouble putting names to the faces of this Viking quartet, here is a family photo taken with dad and half-brother, Bjorn.


Left to Right: Hvitserk, Bjorn, Ivar, Ragnar, Ubbe, Sigurd. Got that?

This episode allows us to become familiar with the younger Lothbrok boys and to see their relationships with each other. They are all capable fighters, they are all ambitious, and apparently they all like to sleep with the same blonde servant girl. But there are differences.

HVITSERK (Marco Ilsø) is fired up by Bjorn’s ambition to find Rome and plans to tag along…..IVAR THE BONELESS (Alex Høgh Andersen) is your worst viking nightmare. Writer Michael Hirst describes him as pathologically cruel, and he should know because he wrote him that way. Ivar was born deformed, and although Ragnar intended the infant to die of exposure, Aslaug saved him. (If Ivar knows about this, Ragnar had better watch his back.) Ivar’s bond with his mum has always been creepy and she’s never disciplined him. Because of his deformity he is driven to prove he’s as good as or better than his brothers at everything. Hirst seems excited by Ivar, but I’m not sure how much of him I can stomach….. UBBE (Jordan Patrick Smith) is the eldest and has, in Ragnar’s absence, assumed a protective, father-figure role. He even arranges an assignation for girl-shy Ivar with that blonde servant girl…..SIGURD SNAKE IN THE EYE (David Lindström), the youngest, looks to big brother Ubbe as a father-figure – not surprising, as he never really knew Ragnar, and the half-mad, bedraggled man who returns from exile doesn’t measure up to the myth.

There. Enough with the sons. Back to Ragnar, who wants to go to Britain and wreak vengeance on King Ecbert for wiping out the Norse settlers eight years before. He asks each of his sons except Ivar to join him, and they each refuse because they have other plans.

His next step is to approach Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård), but Floki has given his oath to Bjorn. There is an intriguing exchange, though, between Ragnar and Floki. “If you don’t come with me I’ll never see you again,” Ragnar says. When Floki insists they will meet in Valhalla, Ragnar replies that he doesn’t know if he will go to Valhalla. We’re reminded of the very first scene of this season, when Ragnar dreamed of Valhalla and of the golden door that shut him out. Ragnar is clearly coming to terms with his own mortality and beliefs, and in this scene he seems to be bidding Floki what he believes is a final farewell – the final chapter of a turbulent friendship.

Next stop, Hedeby, where Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) is living the good life with her girlfriend Astrid (Josefin Asplund). Lagertha, badly wounded 8 years before, has survived beautifully. She looks about 20 years younger than Ragnar. Maybe it’s the food. I’ll have what she’s having!

Lagertha is so done with men now. They have beaten her and betrayed her, and there is no way she’s joining Ragnar for a cruise to Wessex. We don’t even see any men in her lovely hall with its delicately carved accents. Maybe she picked up some decorating tips while she was in Frankia.

Later we find her sitting on a bed with Astrid and the two of them are gazing at their lovely reflections in – is that a mirror image? WAIT! STOP!

Sorry guys. They didn’t have mirrors like this in the 10th century, and although I might let you get away with Lagertha’s charming hall, the set designer got a little carried away with the bed chamber. Just sayin’. (The owl’s a nice touch, though.)


Ragnar bids farewell to Lagertha – a bittersweet moment that leaves him mildly shattered. He attempts to hurry his own death, but Odin’s raven intervenes. Sorry Ragnar, you’re not done yet. He makes his way back to Kattegat – and to Ivar. At episode’s end we still don’t know anything about what’s been going on in Wessex (Alfred the Great!!!) or Frankia (Rollo!!!), and we don’t know what Ragnar was doing for those 8 missing years. But we know he’s headed for Wessex, and we know that Ivar is going with him, and I’m thinking that Ecbert the Awesome had better watch out.



All photos © The History Channel

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The Modern Medieval: Day 5

A street called Distaflane appears on my City of London map from the year 1270. Today the street sign looks like this:

DistaffDistaff is an Anglo-Saxon word for a very ancient tool. It was a staff on which wool or flax was wound in the process of spinning. It was held under the left arm, and the fibres of the material were drawn from it through the fingers of the left hand, and twisted spirally by the forefinger and thumb of the right, with the aid of the drop spindle, round which the thread, as it was twisted or spun, was wound. I’ve tried this. It is not easy!!!

And apparently, as we see in this manuscript drawing, medieval women found other uses for the distaff as well.

DistaffMs1At any rate, in medieval London, if you were looking for someone to spin wool, Distaff Lane was the place to go.

Probably one of the most recognized street names from the Anglo-Saxon period is this one:

It was a road built by the Romans that ran from Dover to Wroxeter, and in the late 9th century it appears as Wæclingastræt. It was significant for the Anglo-Saxons because, from the time of King Alfred its diagonal path from London northward separated the Anglo-Saxons from the Danes who settled in England. Interestingly, as far as I can tell, it ran from Dover only as far as the Thames, then picked up again on the other side of London. There was no Watling Street that ran through the city. The Watling Street that is there now was originally called Æthelingstrete. An ætheling was a royal son, and this Old English term meant throne-worthy. The late Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II had several grown sons, all æthelings. And I would bet money that one or more of them had a residence on Æthelingstrete – now Watling Street – at some time in the 11th century. Today the street looks like this, and there’s a nice pub on the corner to commemorate the Legions.

WatlingView1 OldWatling1










I hope you have enjoyed the posts this week, and that perhaps they will inspire you to think about the history behind the street names where you live because, as William Faulkner reminds us:

The past is never dead. It’s not even past.


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The Modern Medieval: Day 4

ModernMedievalWhile walking from London’s Tower to St. Paul’s one evening, I started to pay close attention to the street signs that evoked London’s Anglo-Saxon past, and right away I spotted this:

CheapsideAnyone who walks through Cheapside today is passing through the heart of Anglo-Saxon London. The name comes from the Old English word ceap, pronounced cheap. It means market. Today you’ll still find street names that evoke the goods sold in the old Anglo-Saxon ceap: Wood St., Milk St., Honey Lane and of course:

Then we come to more ecclesiastical street names, like this one:

RoodLane1The word rood is Old English for the cross on which Christ died. The Dream of the Rood, for example, is an Old English religious poem, and some passages from it are carved in runes into the 8th century Ruthwell Cross in Scotland. The town of Ruthwell itself gets its name from the Old English words rood and wella (cross by a spring). Rudston in Yorkshire takes its name from its own stone cross. In London, on Rood Lane, there was once – surprise! – a cross. It stood in the churchyard of St. Margaret Pattens until 1538.

Walking further west we run into our old friend from Winchester:

St. Swithin was a 9th century Anglo-Saxon bishop  of Winchester whose tomb at the old minster in that city was a site of pilgrimage. A kind of popular cult formed around this saint, although we really know very little about him. There are still many churches in England dedicated to St. Swithin, and London’s church dedicated to him stood at the corner of Vicus Sancti Swithin and Candelwryhttstrate as far back as the 13th century. It was destroyed in the fire of 1666, but a new St. Swithin’s designed by Christopher Wren took its place. The church, alas, did not survive the bombs of WWII. At war’s end only the pulpit was salvageable, and the church’s ruins were finally demolished in 1962. But the name of the beloved Anglo-Saxon saint, Swithin, is still remembered in St. Swithin’s Lane.

Tomorrow: Another look at London

The Modern Medieval Day 3
The Modern Medieval Day 2
The Modern Medieval Day 1


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The Modern Medieval: Day 3

ModernMedievalStreet names in London are endlessly fascinating and many of them date from Medieval times, from St. Mary Axe* to Houndsditch** to The Barbican.***

But of more interest just now is this one:


You could be forgiven if that name conjures up something that looks like this:

Spotted DickYou would be wrong, of course. I’ve read two different explanations for the name Pudding Lane, both of them unsavory. The first one has to do with fertilizer: Way back before flushing toilets, Londoners had to somehow periodically dispose of their – well, waste. Hauling it out of the city was a big business apparently, because it could be sold and used as fertilizer. The waste that was collected resembled a kind of pudding, and it was hauled down Pudding Lane to the Thames for transport.

In case you’re still reading, here is the second explanation: The term pudding originally meant offal. You know, animal innards. There were butcher shops along Pudding Lane, and the offal was tossed into this steeply pitched street where, after a time, it too would end up at the Thames.

I don’t know which is correct – possibly both? In any case, Pudding Lane would have been a good place to avoid. The street’s other claim to fame is that it was where the Great Fire of 1666 started – in a baker’s shop. If he was steaming a pudding at the time, there is no record of it.

*St. Mary Axe took the name of the church of St. Mary Axe which reputedly contained an axe used by the Huns to martyr virgins, which seems an odd kind of relic, but okay. Or maybe the church was called that because it was next to a tavern called The Axe – although it’s more likely the tavern was named after the church. Or maybe the church was given the Axe appendage because the Worshipful Company of Skinners patronized St. Mary’s and supposedly skinners used axes, but I think this one’s a stretch. It seems to me that a skinner would use a tool more like a knife or scalpel than an axe. Anyway, the street was named after the church.

**Houndsditch was originally a ditch where dead dogs were tossed.

***A Barbican is an extra defensive fort, tower or gate for a city, and London’s Barbican was just outside the Crepelgate, which is where The Barbican still is today.

Tomorrow: London’s Anglo-Saxon past.

The Modern Medieval Day 2
The Modern Medieval Day 1


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The Modern Medieval: Day 2

ModernMedievalI have met residents of Shrewsbury who pronounce the city’s name like this: shrowsbry. I have met residents of Shrewsbury who pronounce the city’s name like this: shroosbry. I think this is a conspiracy to confuse and frustrate Yanks, and I cannot tell you which is the correct pronunciation. Both? The city’s Old English name isn’t much help: Scrobbesbyrig, which means “Fortified place of the scrubland region” from the Old English word scrobb, which is pronounced either shrob or  – oh, never mind.

The ‘byrig’ part of Shrewsbury’s name would be the fort that occupied the north end of the medieval town.

Shrewsbury fortifications, post 1066.

Shrewsbury fortifications, post 1066

Fans of the Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books and t.v. series will recall that our favorite monkish sleuth lived in Shrewsbury at St. Peter’s Abbey, which looks like this today.

Cadfael's abbey, St. Peter's, Shrewsbury.

Cadfael’s abbey, St. Peter’s, Shrewsbury.

Like Winchester, medieval Shrewsbury had street names that were related to the activities that went on there, and so we have names like Corn Chopynge Street, Glover Row, Old Fish Street and Hound Street (where one could, presumably, purchase a hound.) But there was one narrow street where certain undercover activities were conducted, and the street name is still there. I feel certain that it once had a second syllable because there was a street of that name in London. I’ll let you figure out for yourself what it was.

No caption necessary.

No caption necessary.

Tomorrow: London!

The Modern Medieval Day 1

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The Modern Medieval: Day 1

ModernMedievalWelcome to a week of The Modern Medieval: a series of brief posts about modern day street names in England that evoke the medieval past. (Note: there are LOTS of them, but I’ll focus on just a few because otherwise this would go on forever.)

I recently made a quick visit to one of my favorite cities in England, Winchester, so let’s start there.

IMG_2373Founded by the Romans as Venta Belgarum, the city was completely restructured in the late 9th century under the direction of Alfred the Great and became the royal city of Anglo-Saxon England. The defensive walls were fortified, a royal residence was established, new central churches built, and a new street grid replaced what the Romans had laid out. The streets had names like Tannerestret, Goldestret, Sildwortenestret (silverworkers), and Scowrtenestret (shoemakers) that indicated where these industries took place within the town. Tanner Street is still there today, although you won’t find any tanners at work there. Kingsgate Street will lead you to Kingsgate, which marked the entrance to the Anglo-Saxon palace grounds. St. Peter’s Street, St. Thomas Street, St. Michael’s Road and Saint Swithun Street evoke memories of the churches that once stood there. (More about Saint Swithun on Thursday.) Not far from the Medieval Great Hall, you will find this:

is an Old English word meaning ‘spear’, and Gar Street is a short block that, appropriately, turns into Archery Lane. The name is a nod to Winchester’s Anglo-Saxon past. Coincidentally, while we were wandering about the city we ran into this group.

NormansThey are armed with gars, but these are Normans so they would probably refer to their  weapons as lances. Pesky Normans.

Check in tomorrow to read about a street with a lascivious history in Shrewsbury.


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The Quest: VIKINGS

Photo courtesy M. Kinlan

Photo courtesy M. Kinlan

On a recent visit to County Wicklow, Ireland, I checked into a B&B just a few miles from where the History Channel’s VIKING series is filming at Lough Tay. I was hoping that I might catch a glimpse of Ragnar and Co. Or better yet, I might have a jolly sit-down with series creator/writer Michael Hirst so I could tell him how much I like and admire the show despite his fanciful portrayal of the parentage of King Alfred the Great. (Grrrrr)


Bracewell at Lough Tay

So on the very day that I landed in Ireland, on an overcast, windy afternoon I went up to the high ridge above Lough Tay to see if I could spot any Vikings. It was already past 4:00 p.m., but far below me I could see three Viking ships on the lake, their oarsmen pulling for the shore.


VIKING ships, Lough Tay. Photo: Bracewell

Apparently, the day’s filming of a segment of VIKINGS Season Five was nearly finished. Lough Tay, for all I could tell from my vantage point, might have been a stand-in for the North Sea, the English Channel or the Mediterranean. Those pesky Vikings went everywhere, and with the help of CGI, Lough Tay could look like any of those places.

To my disappointment, the Viking village that had once graced the lakeshore had been dismantled some time ago and re-built at Ashford Studios, about twelve miles away. Another quite different Viking village had been built on the River Boyne, but that was miles away and, I would discover, off limits to anyone but the cast and crew. Now, as I gazed down upon the scene below, there was little to see except an empty, pristine beach and those ships making for the shore. The next morning I explored that lakeshore, after a somewhat hair-raising drive down the long, steep, narrow lane leading to it.


The beach at Lough Tay. Photo: Bracewell

The ships, the cast and most of the crew were already on their way to their next filming location on the leafy banks of the River Boyne at Slane. But a few members of the crew – the team responsible for those Viking ships that I’d seen on the lake the previous afternoon – were preparing the last pieces of equipment for transport to the new location, and they very generously took time out of their busy day to speak with me.

Lough Tay, they told me, is an ideal spot for filming VIKINGS. The lake is on the private Guinness Estate, and what meets the eye as one gazes around is exactly what would have been seen here a thousand years ago.


Lough Tay. Photo: Bracewell

There are no buildings, no telephone poles, nothing to intrude on the stark beauty of nature, yet it is easily accessible (despite that steep, narrow lane) for the cast and crew. A lot of credit goes to the Production, Art and Set Design teams for transforming the cliffs, forest and meadows around Lough Tay into Norway, England, France or Iceland, as needed.

Lough Tay glen. Photo: Bracewell

Lough Tay glen. Photo: Bracewell

Lough Tay glen with Vikings. Photo: History Channel

Lough Tay glen as Scandinavia. Photo: History Channel

This is not the only location in Ireland that the series has used, of course. There are other lakes, including nearby Lough Dan.


Lough Dan. Photo: Bracewell

There are rivers too and, in particular, there is a quarry that played a very important role in an episode that aired earlier this year. In Episode 8, Portage, a quarry was the stand-in for the River Seine outside of Paris; the ships were actually hauled up the quarry’s sides; and it was, in fact, the cast that we saw hauling on ropes attached to pulleys from which hung those very heavy Viking ships.

Photo: History Channel

PORTAGE. Photo: History Channel

PORTAGE. Photo: History Channel

Acting is hard work.

Because I’ve done some research on Viking drekars myself, I was interested in the ships used for this series. The show’s fleet, they told me, was built by a company in the Czech Republic near Prague, and as I listened it seemed to me that the ships themselves are as much characters in the show as the actors who sail in them. Just as actors have costume changes, the ships’ hulls are re-painted, and their sails and figureheads changed to give them a different appearance from episode to episode and season to season. Later on, at the River Boyne, I would see crew members carrying figureheads along the temporary wharf that had been installed for the fleet. I would reflect that a millennium ago the Vikings would have done the same thing, because the beast heads that struck terror into the hearts of the Franks and the Anglo-Saxons would have been removed when dragonships sailed into friendly harbors.

Photo courtesy M. Kinlan

Photo courtesy M. Kinlan

The VIKINGS team put a great deal of research into the design of their ships to make them as historically accurate as possible although, as you might imagine, there had to be some changes. The three smaller ships, referred to as ‘the workhorses’ are fibreglass designed and painted to look like the clinker-built ships of the vikings. The two larger ships are made of plywood rather than oak because otherwise they would be too costly and way too heavy. These larger ships – one of them new and never yet seen on the show (watch for it in Season Five) – were given an extra strake and so a higher freeboard, for reasons of safety. We wouldn’t want Floki or Ragnar toppling into the water by mistake, right?

Later that day at Slane I caught a glimpse of the new ship and some new figureheads and sails that have been designed for the rest of the fleet. I noticed that there were coffers rather than rowing benches at each oarlock – a testament to the production’s emphasis on historical accuracy: Ninth century vikings sat on similar wooden boxes that held their belongings, with maybe enough empty space left inside so they could top them up with a little Anglo-Saxon loot.

I am enchanted by good story telling, and this series has plenty of it. A sneak peak behind the scenes to get a better understanding of how the magic is done has only added to my admiration.  Although I never managed to run into Ragnar, Lagertha, Floki or Rollo, I spent a beautiful day at Lough Tay and later at Slane. My thanks to Alistair, Stephen and Tom for sharing their time and their knowledge. Special thanks to Marilyn & Seamus Kinlan for their warm Irish hospitality at Wicklow Way Lodge.

Viking ships on the River Boyne. Photo: Bracewell

Viking ships on the River Boyne. Photo: Bracewell


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What Happened at Bosham Church

BoshamForCoverWhat we think of as history is sometimes little more than legend or hearsay or speculation – especially when we look back one thousand years or more. A writer of historical fiction must look at legends as well as facts, and must then determine if a given legend can be used in plotting a historical novel. Inventing a scene that incorporates a well-known legend – even if it is suspected to be apocryphal – can add depth to the personality of a historical figure or add perspective to an event. A good example is the story of King Alfred and the Burned Cakes. Bernard Cornwell incorporated this tale into his novel THE PALE HORSEMAN, presenting his readers with the moving portrayal of a young king who has lost all but his name, and who ignores the oatcakes burning on the hearth beside him because he is so intent upon formulating a plan for taking back his kingdom.

Which brings me to a legend about King Cnut. No, not the well known story about Cnut and the waves. This is a legend about Cnut’s daughter, and the setting for it is Holy Trinity Church in Bosham, Sussex.

Like many churches in England, Holy Trinity has a long history. In 1064 Harold Godwinson boarded a ship at Bosham and sailed from there to Normandy where he was coerced into swearing fealty to Duke William, setting in motion the events of 1066. We know this, not because it was written in some chronicle, but because the church appears on the Bayeux Tapestry beneath the words: UBI HAROLD DUX ANGLORUM ET SUI MILITES EQUITANT AD BOSHAM ECCLESIA (where Harold, duke of the English, and his knights ride to Bosham church). Historical record comes in many forms!

Bosham Church & Manor. Bayeux Tapestry. WikimediaCommons

Bosham Church & Manor. Bayeux Tapestry. WikimediaCommons

But the legend that interests me dates back even farther. According to a story passed down for a millennium, one of the graves inside Bosham church is that of King Cnut’s 8-year-old daughter who, in the year 1020, drowned nearby.  Is there any truth to this story? Well, a coffin has been found beneath the church floor, and it does contain the remains of a child; and because only the elite were buried inside churches, it could very possibly be Cnut’s daughter who rests here.

Stream near Holy Trinity Church, Bosham. WikimediaCommons

Stream near Holy Trinity Church, Bosham. WikimediaCommons

The legend, though, makes no mention of the girl’s mother, and this is where the novelist in me begins to ask questions and formulate theories:

If this daughter of Cnut was conceived in 1011-12, as she must have been if the dates are correct, where did that happen, and who was her mother?

Surely it was not Emma of Normandy, Cnut’s wife and queen. In 1011-12 Emma was the wife and queen of King Æthelred, not Cnut.

Could it have been Ælfgifu (Elgiva) of Northampton? She was the concubine of Cnut before he married Emma. Historians believe that Cnut’s relationship with Ælfgifu did not begin until 1013, but that assumption is based on the fact that Cnut was known to have been in England in that year. No one knows where he was in the years before 1013, or where Ælfgifu was, or when that handfast marriage (more Danico) was negotiated or consummated. Perhaps the historians are wrong. Perhaps Cnut’s relationship with Ælfgifu began earlier, and she was the mother of this little girl.

There is also a third possibility – a Danish woman named Gytha. In 1019 Gytha married Earl Godwin, and her large brood of children would include the Harold mentioned above who would one day become England’s king. It would also include an eldest son named Swegn, who would claim that he was not sired by Gytha’s husband Godwin, but by King Cnut. Frank Barlow, in his book The Godwins, writes that Gytha vehemently denied this. But he also writes,

Favourable to Swegn’s claim are his possession of a name which ran in the Danish royal family, his constant behavior among the Godwins as an outsider, and his apparent total exclusion from VITA, the family saga. Moreover, if Cnut was indeed Gytha’s lover, the favours he granted Godwin are more understandable.

If Cnut was indeed Gytha’s lover, might their relationship have begun as early as 1011-12 in Denmark? Might Cnut’s young daughter have been a member of her mother’s household when, in 1019, Gytha arrived in England to marry the English Earl Godwin who had extensive landholdings in Sussex including estates at Bosham? Could Gytha and her household have settled at Bosham where, the following year, the little girl would drown in the mill race beside the church?

In searching for answers to these questions, for links between the characters who inhabit my books, for drama, and for smoldering conflicts that will keep readers turning pages, I became a little like King Alfred. Too intent on names and dates and connections, I lost sight of something important. It wasn’t until I stumbled across the lovely poem below that I was jolted out of my feverish preoccupation with names and dates, and was reminded by just a scattering of words that this legend was about a child who had been loved, and whose parents, like all parent throughout time, must have grieved her loss no matter who they were.

By Denise Bennett

Bosham Church

Photo Credit: Tony Dyer

Photo Credit: Tony Dyer

There are the expected
candles, flowers, lace-edged altar cloth,
tiled floor, carved pulpit, marble font,
plaque to the war dead…

but buried beneath the Chancel
is the small daughter of King Canute
who slipped and fell into the mill stream
aged eight.
For nearly a thousand years
this memory, carried on our breath
has been told and retold.

Outside, a thick frond of cream roses
are dipping low to taste the flow;
a family of mallards swim in sun;
here the spirit of a girl lingers.
I listen to her laughter, watch the amethyst
light play on the waves her father
tried to tame –

think of him
lifting his dead daughter,
stroking her wet, black hair
cursing that he could not
command the sea.

Barlow, Frank. The Godwins. Pearson Education Limited, Harlow, UK, 2002

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Guest Post: Bestselling Author Candace Robb

Have you ever wondered where an author’s ideas come from? How they develop from an image or idea and grow into story? My guest today, historical mystery novelist Candace Robb, is about to enlighten you.

CRobbCandace Robb is the bestselling author of 14 crime novels set in 14th century England, Wales, and Scotland, including the acclaimed Owen Archer series and the Margaret Kerr trilogy. Writing as Emma Campion, Candace has published historical novels about Alice Perrers  and Joan of Kent. Now she has begun a new historical mystery series built around her heroine Kate Clifford, a no-nonsense sleuth who is not only smart, but fierce when those she cares about are threatened. In this post Candace reveals how she first imagined Kate, and gives us a glimpse into her own complicated mental process as she invents characters, setting, theme and, ultimately, the blueprint for a mystery.


I discarded my original title for this post because I’d veered off in a different direction. Yet in rereading it, I thought it nicely described the seed from which the Kate Clifford mysteries grew, so I offer you—Kate Clifford and the Feuding Royal Cousins: the city of York’s response to the fall of Richard II and the Rise of Henry IV.

This will be a continual thread through the books, though of course the series will explore much, much more. Which is why my fascination with the fall of Joan of Kent’s son and the ensuing reign of King Henry IV shaped itself into a crime series rather than a historical novel, or a trilogy: I wanted the freedom to send out shoots in many directions. York stands in for the realm at a time of monumental change—King Richard II was the holy anointed king, so to those who believed in the divine right of kings, Henry Bolingbroke’s usurpation of the throne, however enthusiastically received by the barons of England, would have felt apocalyptic. Henry IV’s reign, in turn, would be fraught with bloody uprisings as many came to regret their support.

ServiceOfTheDeadBut whence Kate Clifford? After working with Alice Perrers and Joan of Kent, two strong women, although constrained by the gilded cage of the royal court, I wanted to return to my earlier work with women of the rising merchant class. Women of this class could enjoy far more independence than women of the royal court. Using situations I had come across in my research, I thought to create a 15th century woman of the merchant class intent on forging her own path, and show how that might be accomplished, albeit with some difficulty.

Implicit in this idea is a woman at a crossroads, someone who already has a modicum of freedom. In 1399, she might be a widow. A young widow in York. That married my two ideas: both Kate and the realm at a crossroads.

In late August a few years past, a young woman with dark, curly hair strode into my daydream—rather, she was striding down Stonegate (York) with a devilish glint in her eyes, flanked by two magnificent Irish wolfhounds.


Inspirational wolfhounds in Candace’s neighborhood.

I liked her, but the wolfhounds—the tallest of dogs, at this time often used as war dogs—why did she keep them in a city? Was she visiting from the countryside? She patted something hidden in her skirts. An axe. A small battle axe. She turned left onto High Petergate, she and the hounds moving as a unit, then entered an elegant house, where she was greeted with respect as “Mistress” by an elderly couple though they, too, seemed of the merchant class. This was not her home, though she owned this property. A guesthouse?

About this time I was reading the biographies of members of parliament for York 1383-1421 ( This intriguing woman might be a member of any one of the many wealthy, influential, powerful families in York who served as MPs. Was she a Holme? A Graa? A Frost? William Frost was a figure I found particularly appealing—many times mayor of York, an opportunist easily adapting to the new royal regime though he had worked closely with King Richard II for the sake of the city’s charter. Reading between the lines, he was a man with many enemies, perfect for a recurring character in a crime series. William was too young to be my sleuth’s father, but he’d work well as a cousin. However, the Frost family did not seem likely to be the source of a young woman who moved about with Irish wolfhounds and hid battle axes, no matter how small, in her skirts. Her mother might be a Frost, married into a family in a wilder area, where she had raised her children.

York Minster

York Minster

The Cliffords were a family of the northern border with Scotland, and Richard Clifford happened to be Dean of York Minster in 1399 (and Lord Privy Seal). Father a Clifford, mother a Frost—an excellent pedigree. Now what could I add to make my character even more likely to get caught up in politics in York? Ah—her late husband might be a Neville. The Nevilles had a presence at Sheriff Hutton Castle in the Forest of Galtres just north of York, and Ralph Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, was one of the greatest opportunists of the time. Perfect.

But why is she still walking around armed in the city of York, and why is she so determined to remain single even though she so wants children? Look to her late husband’s will. Wills are invaluable testaments to relationships and values. The ones that most intrigue me are those in which the dead seek to control their families from the grave with conditional gifts—I bequeath this to you on the condition that you do not remarry, or that you marry X, or until such time as our son attains his majority, or until such time as you remarry. By now my sleuth had a name, Kate Clifford—she preferred her family name to that of her late husband. And now she was the victim of just such a conditional will—that she would control her late husband’s business so long as she did not remarry, at which time the business would go to her brother-in-law. Of course I made said brother-in-law, Lionel Neville, a greedy, unlikable creature.

Mix into the mortar a violent past, a few surprise wards, and voila—the Kate Clifford series had a firm foundation. And now for the murder and mayhem!

Candace 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 newest novel, THE SERVICE OF THE DEAD, featuring Kate Clifford of York, out now in hardcover, e-book and audio book formats.


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Vikings 4 Recap, Episode 10: THE LAST SHIP

Vikings4mIn this half-season finale, the brother-against-brother conflict that series creator Hirst has been driving toward since the beginning takes place. But first, how about those fighting platforms?

I have reviewed my research about Vikings, and nowhere can I find any mention of fighting platforms that were attached to the prows of Viking ships. Grappling hooks to bind ships together and form a fighting platform? Yes. Ramming one ship into another? Yes. But the platforms we see here, I’m pretty sure, have been invented by the creative minds of the production team.

Give them credit, they are trying to one-up themselves. That attack on Paris last season in Episode 8 was always going to be hard to top.


Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

For my money, having Rollo and Ragnar duke it out in hand-to-hand combat was not nearly as cinematic as last year’s battle for Paris, but there were some nice moments this time around:

Gisla, weeping, prays before a statue of the Virgin – and when the statue begins to weep we wonder what it means. Will the Franks win or lose?
The emperor dines (he’s always dining!) with Roland and Therese while the battle rages. When he has the slimy duo dispatched – clearly a well-planned execution – we discover just how devious, manipulative and cunning he truly is.

Emperor's To Do List: Utilize traitors, then dispatch accordingly.

Emperor’s To Do List: Utilize traitors, then dispatch accordingly.

Gisla prays before the virgin again, and now she places Rollo’s arm ring at the virgin’s feet. And the tide of battle turns against the Norsemen. In Kattegat the spamaðr is wailing. Is it just this battle that he perceives he is losing, or is it a larger battle – one between the gods for the devotion of men? I have always liked the conflict over religious belief that is woven through this series because it was so important to the people of that time.


Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

When the dust settles, some major characters have been badly wounded and we don’t know if they’ll survive. Ragnar is dragged aboard a ship and spirited away. Rollo lets him go. The battle is over. After his fisticuffs with Ragnar, Rollo is almost unrecognizable. The make-up crew must have had a field day with this. Throughout this series, I don’t think any of the characters has suffered more physical torment – and still lived – than Rollo.

Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

Photo: Jonathan Hession/HISTORY

In Paris, Emperor Charles is grateful, Gisla is grateful, the people of Paris are grateful, and Rollo weeps. Because he is alive? Because he has finally been accepted by the Franks? Because he has at last beaten his brother? Because every inch of his body hurts? All of the above, I suppose.

Now, the timeline jumps forward 8 years. I knew this was coming, but did not expect it to happen mid-episode. I think, though, that it was a wise decision to place the jump here rather than in the fall. It’s the perfect hook to keep us thinking about the show for the next few months. And we are given a glimpse only of what’s going on in the Viking world, not what’s taking place in Wessex or Frankia. So, what do we see?

After losing the battle in Frankia, Ragnar promptly disappeared. Not into thin air, of course. He just up and left. This seems unsurprising to me. He’s done it before. Remember how he climbed a mountain at the end of Season 2?

Final shot from Season 2.

Final shot from Season 2.

Ragnar likes to go away to think. Eight years, though, is a long time to think.

In his absence a smarmy Aslaug is queening it in Kattegat and someone named Thorhall has arrived from Wessex to report that Ragnar’s son by Kwenthrith (Magnus) is being raised at Ecbert’s court, and that the people who settled in England all those years ago are now long dead, butchered by the English way back when.

The sons of Ragnar are hanging out together, fishing, and we are introduced to the now-grown Ubbe, Ivar, Hvitserk, and Sigurd. They seem resentful that dad left, and now multiply father/son conflict by 4.



We learn that Floki and Helga survived the battle on the Seine, and we hear again about that map that Bjorn had in Episode 5. He wants to find the Mediterranean, and Floki, who is building boats for him, agrees to go along. So, more adventures ahead for them – and us.

And then, Ragnar returns to Kattegat, challenging his sons, asking which of them wants to be king.

“You know how this works. If you want to be king, you must kill me.”

Cut to credits. But there is still so much that we don’t know!

Where is Lagertha? Lording it in Hedeby?

When Æthelwulf returned from Rome to find his sweetie, Kwenthrith, dead, what was his reaction? Does he learn that she died by Judith’s hand? Is he still Ecbert’s willing slave?

Presumably Gisla has given birth to William Longsword. Are she and Rollo still getting along? Is Emperor Charles still alive? Who’s ruling Frankia?

What’s Rollo been up to? Who else has he had to fight in order to hold on to his lands in the intervening years?

There will be answers, and just to get us all excited, here’s a Preview of what’s to come.

Ragnar & his sons. Photo credit:

Ragnar & his sons. Photo credit:







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