Remember, Remember…


Last November I wrote a post about how Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, is celebrated in the U.K. today – and how different it is now to when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s. In that post, I didn’t focus on why Bonfire Night is celebrated in the first place: in other words, I wrote little about the history behind the event.  But in this post, that’s what I do intend to do…

In earlier centuries, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was often called the Gunpowder Treason or the Jesuit Treason (treason being a crime involving disloyalty to the Crown in any way, including plotting against the sovereign’s life). It was a failed plot by thirteen Catholics to assassinate James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament.

Portrait of James VI and 1, c. 1606, by John de Critz. Now located in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Public Domain

So what was the reason for the plot?

When Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that their future would be greatly improved, and her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James  had had a Catholic mother (Mary Queen of Scots) and had a Catholic wife. At first, the signs were promising and reforms were made. But by 1605, under pressure from his spymaster, Sir Robert Cecil, and in an effort to appease the more extreme Protestants such as the Puritans, James once again incresed the penalties on anyone practising the Catholic faith.  He ordered all Catholic priests to leave England.

Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain
Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury by John de Critz the Elder. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

This so angered some Catholics that they were willing to take extreme measures, supported by the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Two plots against James had already failed when a third group of plotters began to take shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby, a well-to-do gentleman of Warwickshire. The thirteen young men hatched a plan to strike at the opening of Parliament on November 5th, 1605. Eight of them are shown on this picture:

Detail from a contemporary engraving of the Gunpowder Plotters. The Dutch artist probably never actually saw or met any of the conspirators, Source: National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons
Detail from a contemporary engraving of the Gunpowder Plotters. The Dutch artist probably never actually saw or met any of the conspirators, Source: National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia Commons

Once James was dead, they intended to put his daughter, Elizabeth, on the throne, thus returning England to the Catholic faith.

Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James 1. Artist: Robert Peake the Elder 1551-1619. Photographer@ Weiss Gallery. National Portrait Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.
Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia, daughter of James 1. Artist: Robert Peake the Elder (1551-1619). Photographer: Weiss Gallery. National Portrait Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

It was Guy Fawkes (who had adopted the name of Guido while fighting for the Spanish) who posed as a servant called John Johnson and began locating sources of gunpowder.

Guy Fawkes by Cruikshank
Guy Fawkes in Ordsall Cave by George Cruikshank in 1840. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons

The plotters rented a cellar/undercroft beneath the House of Lords (a chamber inside the Houses of Parlaiment shown on the first image above) and began stocking it with enough explosives to kill the king and the most powerful men in the land when they met on November 5th. Eventually they managed to store 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to reduce the House of Lords to rubble.

The cellar underneath the House of Lords, as drawn by William Capon, 1799. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.
The cellar underneath the House of Lords, as drawn by William Capon, 1799. Public Domain. Wikimedia Commons.

As the day planned for the strike neared, it became clear to some of the plotters that innocent people would be killed in the attack, including people who had fought for the rights of Catholics.   Lord Monteagle, the brother of  Francis Tresham, one of the plotters, received an annonymous letter (almost certainly from Tresham)  warning him to avoid attending the opening of Parliament on November 5th. Monteagle passed the letter to Robert Cecil.

Cecil decided not to act immediately: he wanted to catch the plotters in action. On November 4th he ordered searches of the whole of the Houses of Parliament and Fawkes was arrested. He was dressed ready for a swift get-away, with spurs on his boots.

Painting of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the taking of Guy Fawkes by Sir Thomas Knevet. 1823. Source: Henry Perronet Briggs - Commons
Painting of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot and the taking of Guy Fawkes by Sir Thomas Knevet. 1823.
Source: Henry Perronet Briggs –    Wikimedia Commons

Most of the conspirators fled as they learned of the plot’s discovery. Several made a stand against the pursuing Sheriff of Worcester and his men at Holbeche House, Catesby’s home.

 Holbeche House near Dudley was home of Robert Catesby leader of the Gunpowder plot. It is now a nursing home. Author: Gordon Griffith. Creative Commons
Holbeche House near Dudley was the home of Robert Catesby, leader of the Gunpowder Plot. It is now a nursing home. Author: Gordon Griffiths. Creative Commons

Catesby was one of the plotters shot and killed, leaving eight of the survivors, including Guido Fawkes, to stand trial.

Fawkes suffered two days of severe torture on the rack in the Tower of London before confessing everything.

A torture rack (as the one used on Guido Fawkes) photographed in the Tower of London by David Bjorgen. Creative Commons
A torture rack (as the one used on Guido Fawkes) photographed in the Tower of London by David Bjorgen. Creative Commons

His chief interrogator  was Edward Coke:

Sir Edward Coke Author: attributed to Thomas Athow, after Unknown artist, after Cornelius Johnson. Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons
Sir Edward Coke, chirf interrogator of Guido Fawkes.  Author:
attributed to Thomas Athow, after unknown artist, after Cornelius Johnson. Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons

The confession Fawkes signed shows how much his joints, including those in his hands, had been so severely damaged.

Signature of “Guido” on his confession under torture, very faint and shaky. Public Domain

At their trial on January 27th 1606, the eight surviving conspirators, including Fawkes, were convicted of high treason  and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

The execution of Guy Fawkes' (Guy Fawkes), by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1916. Wikimedia Commons
The execution of Guy Fawkes’ (Guy Fawkes), by Claes (Nicolaes) Jansz Visscher, given to the National Portrait Gallery, London in 1916. Wikimedia Commons

The punishment consisted of the the victim being dragged, usually by a horse, on a wooden frame to the place where he was to be publicly put to death. This involved a gruesome procedure in which the victim was first hanged until almost dead, them emasculated, disembowelled, beheaded and quartered (cut into 4 pieces).  The intestines /entrails were thrown onto a fire and the other remains were usually displayed in prominent places, such as London Bridge.

In the months after the plot, new laws were passed removing Catholics’ right to vote and restricing their role in public life.  It was 200 years before these restrictions were fully lifted.


In Britain we continue to celebrate the failure of the plot against James I and the execution of his would-be assassins on November 5th every year. The burning of a ‘guy’ – an effigy of Guido Fawkes on top of a bonfire – has ensured the plot survives in national memory.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

I see no reason why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Here are a few pictures of Bonfire Night in the U.K.

To Market To Market To Buy A Fat Pig … or whatever takes your fancy.


To market, to market, to buy a fat pig,

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

To market, to market, to buy a fat hog

Home again, home again, jiggety-jog

To market, to market, to buy a plum bun,

Home again, home again, market is done.

All children love this rhyme, and this version of it is from the late nineteenth century. The first version, earlier that century, made no mention of a pig.


And the reason I’m quoting the rhyme at all . . .?

Well, I love old towns, old buildings and anything of historical interest in general. The market town of Newark (full title, Newark-on-Trent) in Nottinghamshire, is simply brimming with history, and I’ll be doing a post about it some time soon. (We lived in Newark for eleven years, before moving out to enjoy village life seven miles away.) Today I just want to share some views of the market and market place in general and a few words about its history. Our eldest son has his butcher’s shop there which, naturally, we visit when we’re in town.

Map of Nottinghamshire, UK. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilkamion. Commons
Map of Nottinghamshire, UK. Source: Ordnance Survey OpenData. Author: Nilfanion. Commons

Newark Royal Market is one of the oldest in the UK, dating back to the 12th century when a charter was granted by Henry VI. Originally held on a Sunday, it became the first market in England to operate on a Wednesday. Its Royal Charter was granted in 1549 by Edward VI,  and since then it has continued to be a key trading centre for the region. Markets are held five days a week: general markets on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays and ‘collectors’ or antique markets on Mondays and Thursdays (which sound impressive, although few stalls are involved).

The markets are held in the impressive market place, overlooked by the Georgian town hall, with the spire of the church, St. Mary Magdalene, also in the background. Both of these can be seen in the photos below, as well as a few very old, Tudor-style buildings and the old water pump. There are also some stocks – which I forgot to photograph yesterday.

Until relatively recently, Newark was famed for having the oldest cobbled market place in the country, and possibly in Europe. But sometime around 2000, the old cobbles were removed and replaced by new, smoother and flatter ones. I completely understand that this was done for safety reasons – old people, either on foot, in wheelchairs or mobility scooters, and mothers with pushchairs, all found the bumpy cobbles difficult to walk on. For anyone unsteady on their legs, they were obviously dangerous. Yet the destruction of something of such historical value still causes a pang.

And this is my son’s butcher’s shop, also in a really old building, close to the market square:

The cellars beneath Richard’s shop have tunnels running through the shops alongside it, right up to the building facing the market place. They were all once part of that building – an old hotel/inn called The Clinton Arms. The last picture above shows the view from his shop to the market. We’re delighted that it’s such a prime site for him, and his shop is very popular. Not surprisingly, he’s a great butcher, having worked at it since leaving school (and he’s now 41).

So I suppose, if anyone wanted to buy a fat pig (though not a live one) Richard’s would be the place to go . . .


No White Feather – Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers

Flash Fiction for for Aspiring Writers is a writing challenge hosted by Priceless Joy. It asks us to write a piece of fiction from the photo prompt provided in around 100-150 words – give or take 25 words. It encourages us to comment, constructively, on other entries, so supporting each other’s writing. If you’d like to join in with this challenge, follow the above link to see what to do. The challenge runs from Tuesday to Tuesday every week.

Here is this week’s prompt, kindly provided by Etol Bagam:

wpid-photo-20151005074310397And this is my story:

No White Feather

Reg swigged back his ale and grinned at his wife, chuckling at the stand-up’s jokes. The music hall was packed, every table full.  Ale was flowing and the noise from the audience was rising rapidly.

‘I knew you’d enjoy it,’ he said, taking her hand.  Some good turns on – though I didn’t know Vesta Tilley’d be singing tonight.’

Agnes nodded. ‘I’ve heard of her. She dresses like a man to make people laugh – and to persuade men to recruit into Lord Kitchener’s Army.  Not married ones, I hope . . .’

Cheers erupted as Vesta Tilley appeared on stage, dressed in a soldier’s uniform. Her first few songs had everyone singing along. Then all fell silent as she stepped down from the stage, wandering amongst the tables singing, ‘Oh, we don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go,’ touching men’s shoulders as she passed.

As most of the men, Reg rose and followed Vesta back to the stage. He’d fight the Hun for king and country. No white feather for him.

A single white feather close up. Author: Joao Andrade de Frietas. Uploaded by Rex Public Domain.
A single white feather close up. Author: Joao Andrade de Frietas. Uploaded by Rex Public Domain.

’Word Count: 175

If you’d like to view other entries, click the little blue frog below:

For anyone interested, here is a some information about music halls and a few things mentioned in my story that might be unfamiliar to people:

British Music Halls were originally tavern rooms which provided entertainment in the form of music and speciality acts such as short plays, comedy sketches, acrobats, minstrels, dancers, magicians, jugglers and even trick dogs. By the middle years of the nineteenth century the first purpose-built music halls were being constructed in London. Soon there were many around the country:

The Hackney Empire, a typical Music Hall. Author: Ewan Munro from London, UK. Commons
The Hackney Empire, a typical Music Hall. Author: Ewan Munro from London, UK. Commons

In effect, they were half pub, half theatre. The large halls had a stage but in the seating areas, tables were provided so that patrons could continue their drinking and socialising (generally noisily) while the ‘acts’ were on:

The Oxford Music Hall 1875. Public Domain. Uploaded by File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske) Wikimedia Commons
The Oxford Music Hall 1875. Public Domain. Uploaded by File Upload Bot (Magnus Manske) Wikimedia Commons

The halls created a demand for new and catchy popular songs, many composed by professional song writers with their working class audiences in mind. Songs like ‘My Old man Said Follow the Van’ and ‘Waiting at the Church’ described situations which the urban poor would be familiar with.

‘Well oiled’ on cheap beer, the audience chorused songs they loved and abused acts they loathed. In some places audiences would throw things at dud acts, and the bottles carried by the waiters were chained to the trays to prevent them being used as missiles.

Music Hall’s support for the war effort is well documented – although no one can deny that owners, landlords and song writers made a lot of money out of it. By the end of 1914, 30 or more specially composed songs promoting recruitment had been written. Many music hall  performers threw themselves into the effort, including, the most popular of all the singers, Marie Lloyd . . .

Postcard print of Marie Lloyd. Author Louis Saul Langfier (1859-1916). Public Domain
Postcard print of Marie Lloyd. Author Louis Saul Langfier (1859-1916). Public Domain

. . . and the singer most famous for her army recruitment success, Vesta Tilley:

Vesta Tilley had sung in music halls since she was 5 and generally dressed in men’s clothes (although during the day she took care to dress in her usual women’s wear to emphasise her femininity). One of her most popular songs was about a young swell,  ‘Burlington Bertie‘. During the early years of WW1, along with many other music hall performers, she helped in the recruitment of thousands of men.. She dressed as a soldier and sang patriotic songs, including Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Soldier and The Army of Today’s All Right. She was given the nickname of ‘Britain’s best recruiting sergeant’.

Vesta Tilley in her role as Burlington Bertie. Public Domain
Vesta Tilley in her role as Burlington Bertie. Public Domain

In 1914 Lord Kitchener introduced voluntary enlistment to increase British forces. It helped to create Britain’s first mass citizen army. Kitchener was one of the few British leaders to believe that this war would be long and difficult, and not ‘over by Christmas’. Within a year it became obvious that it was not possible to continue fighting by relying on voluntary recruits. Conscription was introduced in March 1916.

Kitchener's First World War Recruitment Poster. Public Domain. Author Alfred Leete, 1882-1993
Kitchener’s First World War Recruitment Poster. Public Domain. Author Alfred Leete, 1882-1993 Wikimedia Commons

The name ‘Hun’ was a derogatory term for German soldiers. It resulted from a remark made by Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1900, when he sent his armies to deal with the Boxer Rebellion in China. He told his troops to show no mercy – just as the Huns, 1000 years earlier, had exhibited wanton destruction as they swept through Europe.

The White Feather has been a traditional symbol of cowardice, used within the British Army and countries associated with the British Empire  since the 18th century. It aimed to humiliate men who were not soldiers.

The White Feather Movement was a propaganda campaign in England during WWI to encourage men to enlist in the army. White feathers were distributed by women of the Order of the White Feather to any man they deemed capable of joining the army who was out of uniform. They aimed to make men realise that women viewed them as cowards. Other men would therefore be so afraid of receiving a feather they would join the army. Conscientious objectors were seen as cowards and received white feathers if their stance became known.

This poster was not one printed for this movement, but a part of the Parliamentary campaign:

May 1915 poster by E.V. Kealey from Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Public Domain
May 1915 poster by E.V. Kealey from Parliamentary Recruiting Committee. Public Domain. Wikipedia Commons


Magna Carta Sand Sculpture at Lincoln Castle

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This is my fourth and last post about King John and the Magna Carta – a short one this time, following another trip to Lincoln this afternoon. We went specifically to take a few photos of the newly created sand sculpture in the grounds of Lincoln Castle:

008 Sand Sculptures (4)

This impressive, 3D sculpture is 13ft. (4m) tall and 30ft. (9m.) wide. Work started on August 17th and continued for two weeks. It was created as part of the celebrations marking the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta (Festival800) and depicts King John meeting with the barons at Runnymede in 1215:

007 Sand Sculptures (1)

Its creators were the world renowned Dutch artist, Remy Hoggard and her husband, Paul, originally from Beverley in East Yorkshire. Between them, the couple have more than 30 years experience of sand sculpting. Of their sculpture at Lincoln, Paul Hoggard said, ‘This is probably one of our most adventurous projects in terms of size and scale…after fourteen days of shovelling, pounding, shaping and sculpting we were physically aching and are ready for a few days’ rest.’

The end product is quite awesome and well worth seeing.

The couple now live on a farm in Bulgaria, but spend most of their time travelling around the world, creating amazing sand sculptures. Remy said about their work: ‘With sand and water we make very detailed two or three-dimensional works, as well as large sculptures, in a relatively short amount of time.’

The brief video I found to finish with shows the delivery of the sand and the artists discussing the work about to be undertaken:

Come to the Fair!

Goose_Fair_Roundabout 2

I’ve written this post as my piece of ‘extra information’ to accompany a flash fiction story inspired by this prompt, which is courtesy of Pixabay:


The story can be read here.

A Look at the History of  Fairs

A fair, or the older version of the word, faire or fayre, is a gathering of people for various entertainments and activities. Many fairs are temporary, some lasting for a mere afternoon, others for lasting for several weeks. Types of fairs include trade fairs, street fairs, agricultural shows, fêtes, festival and travelling carnivals or funfairs.

1024px-2008Overview1 Fair 2
A trade fair for the travel industry. Author: JATAWTF. Commons

It was once believed that the Romans introduced fairs into Britain, and the word fair is derived from the Lain word, feria. But the tradition is more deeply rooted, having its origin in pagan customs. Their seasonal gatherings, thought to be for festivity and trade, contained the elements of the fair.

Following the Norman Conquest, trade became the more important part of holding a fair, when they were restructured along French lines. Charters were granted by the king, giving fairs legal status, and they became increasingly important to the economic life of the country. Fairs were often tied to Christian occasions, such as Saints’ Days at the local church, and became important landmarks in the calendar, socially and culturally. As well as drawing in traders and farmers, they were venues for a variety of entertainments, including jugglers, tumblers and musicians. Dancing bears were sometimes a crowd-drawing feature.

800px-sommic3a8res-mc3a9nestrels_1-20130526 2
Medieval Jugglers and Minstrels. Author: Daniel Villafruele. Commons

Close to 5,000 fairs were granted royal charters during the Middle Ages. An example of one such fair is the Nottingham Goose Fair, granted a charter by King Edward I in 1284, (Edward was the king responsible for the building of the Welsh castles I did posts about a few weeks ago.)

1024px-1590_Mostaert_Dorfkirmes_anagoria 2
‘Village Fair’, a painting by Flemish artist, Gillis Mostaert in 1590. Photographer: anagoria. Painting now in Gemäldegalerie art museum in Berlin.

By the 18th century the trading side of fairs had waned, and some fairs, like the famous Bartholomew Fair in London, were devoted entirely to pleasure and amusement. It was around this time that the first fairground rides appeared – simple, hand-turned roundabouts and swingboats. Shows were still the main attraction and were until the 1860s when engineer, Frederick Savage devised a method of driving roundabouts by steam power. Since they didn’t depend upon muscle power, roundabouts were soon made larger, more heavily ornamented and more spacious:

sea-on-land 2

Picture of ‘Sea-and-Land’ a fairground amusement ride from the 1880s. Author unknown. Public Domain

Fairs of all types are still very popular today. In Nottingham, Goose Fair is an annual attraction and people return to it year after year. It is held on 1st October. Here are some pictures of it:

1024px-Nottingham_Goose_Fair Fair 3
View of Nottingham Goose Fair from the ferris wheel in 2007. Author: Klickingart. Commons.
1024px-Nottingham_goose_fair_2012_207a (1) Fair 4
Evening ride at Goose Fair in 2012. Author: Will Robson. Commons

In India, the Kumbh Mela, held every 12 years at Allahabad, Haridivas, Nashik and Ujjain, is one of the largest fairs in the country. Sixty million people gathered in 2001, making it the largest gathering in the world.  In the U.S. fairs draw 150 million people each summer. Children’s camps range from breeding small animals to robotics, whilst the organization 4-H (a youth development programme) has become a traditional association.

Medieval Siege Warfare


This post and the flash fiction post that accompanies it (which can be found here) are the first posts I’ve done for almost two weeks. I was away from home for eight days, and since being back we’ve been invaded by family and had several outings. So I must apologise to all those people whose posts I’ve missed. I hope to catch up on at least some of them.

So, this is a brief summary of some of the methods of besieging a castle.

By the 12th and 13th centuries, castles had evolved into powerful fortresses, able to withstand great assaults. Once the portcullis was down, the gates closed and drawbridge raised, they were very difficult to attack:

Bodiam Castle throughthe trees (Sussex UK) Author Pilgrimsoldier. Wikimedia Commons
Bodiam Castle throughthe trees (Sussex UK) Author Pilgrimsoldier. Wikimedia Commons

Medieval soldiers used a variety of methods to breach the castle defences and sieges were common. Siege tactics became very complex and did not just involve attackers rushing at the castle – which would risk the loss of too many men.

To begin with, leaders would search the realm in order to employ the best archers, carpenters, blacksmiths, sappers and engineers … and once they were all in place at the castle, the procedure followed a general pattern:

First, the castle would be surrounded, thus cutting off any means of escape and all supplies to the inhabitants. At the same time, besiegers would ensure that their own encampment was fortified, sometimes even constructing an earthen embankment around it and organising a constant night watch. Then they would simply wait for the lord of the castle to surrender – which could take many months. If the lord still refused to surrender, assault on the castle would commence.

By this time, attackers would have located the castles weakest points, such as the weakest doorways and lowest curtain walls – preferably with no outer river or moat, which entailed using barges to cross them.

The River Avon acts as a natural moat along the curtain wall of Warwick Castle
The River Avon acts as a natural moat along the curtain wall at the eastern side of Warwick Castle.

It stands to reason that gateways are likely to be the weakest points, and they would be attacked first. To do this, a battering ram came in useful (of which there were many sizes and designs):

Medieval battering ram at Chateau des Baux, France. Photo: ChrisO. Commons
Medieval battering ram at Chateau des Baux, France. Photo: ChrisO. Commons

Many castle gateways, particularly the main ones, were heavily fortified by a series of structures and mechanisms (like drawbridges, portcullises and thick wooden doors, as well as ‘murder holes’ above the inner passageway, should attackers get that far). A fortified outpost or gateway, like this one at Warwick, was called a barbican:


At the same time as the gateways were being attacked, ladders would be carried up to scale the walls, often to be met by defenders who simply pushed the ladders away, or greeted rising besiegers with boiling oil. For scaling the walls, lofty siege towers (or belfries) were wheeled up. At the top of these was a drawbridge which would be lowered to allow men to stream out and attack defending guards. Sometimes, belfries were used from a distance to fire arrows down into the castle.

Medieval English siege tower. Author: Grose-Francis. Public Domain
Medieval English siege tower. Author: Grose-Francis. Public Domain

Other machines (effectively different versions of catapults) were designed to breach the castle walls and towers by hurling large rocks and missiles at them. Dead animals were also hurled over the walls in the hope of spreading disease amongst the inhabitants.

Trebuchets were built in all shapes and sizes, some with wheels so they could be moved around the castle. They were massive, gravity-powered catapults, consisting of a lever and sling and capable of hurling rocks of up to 200lbs for 300 yards. They could also be disassembled in order to transport them from place to place. This is one we saw at Warwick Castle:


The mangonel also hurled boulders, and had a throwing arm like the trebuchet, but it was less accurate than the trebuchet, with a shorter throwing range, and aimed directly at the castle walls rather than over the top of them.It worked by torsion:

English mangonel. Author: Rpanjwani. Commons
English mangonel. Author: Rpanjwani. Commons
Medieval Mangonel. From "Dictionary of French Architecture fron 11th-16th Century" by Eugene Viollet in 1856. Public Domain,
Medieval Mangonel. From “Dictionary of French Architecture fron 11th-16th Century” by Eugene Viollet in 1856. Public
Mangonel shot used in the siege of Bedford Castle in 1284. Author Simon Speed. Public Domain
Mangonel shot used in the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224. Author Simon Speed. Public Domain.

A ballista was built like a huge crossbow and designed to shoot bolts (huge,metal-covered arrows) into the castle. It was manoeuvrable and played an important part in sieges for over a thousand years, originating in ancient Greece. This weapon utilized two torsion springs and two throwing arms to launch its load along a central track.

Some ballistas also hurled rocks, like this one we saw at Warwick Castle:


While all this was going on at the top of the castle, miners/sappers would be busy tunnelling up to the castle and tower walls in order to collapse them. To do this they would remove the foundation stones and replace them with wooden props. A fire would then be lit and the miners got out quick! Once the props burnt through, there would be nothing to hold up the wall, so it simply collapsed. The corners of square castles were the weakest parts and miners would often aim for those. Inside the castle, guards would place pots of water near the towers and walls. When the water rippled, they would know that enemy miners were at work.

Needless to say, a great variety of hand weapons were used during attacks, amongst others a variety of swords, knives, axes, spears, clubs, maces, flails, halberds, crossbows and longbows. And all soldiers would be heavily weighted down with necessary armour. It’s always mind-boggling to think of the enormous weight medieval soldiers had to carry whilst fighting for their lives.

Naturally, defenders had many techniques for countering attacks on their castles, a few of which I’ve mentioned above, and not every siege was successful …


The Horrors of the Blood Eagle.


This incredible hazard sign was shared on Facebook on November 11th by The Heathen Mead Hall. It was one of my daughters who drew my attention to it. I don’t know where the sign came from, or who made it, but it’s quite hilarious – considering it refers to such a gruesome thing.

I’m sure that anyone who has been following the TV series ‘Vikings’ will already be familiar with what the blood eagle execution entailed. I haven’t watched the series, for the same reason that I haven’t read the wonderful Bernard Cornwell’s books about King Alfred and the Danes. I don’t want to be influenced in any way by what either say/show until I’ve finished my own books.

Here’s the blood eagle scene from the ‘Vikings’ Tv Series, uploaded to YouTube by Star Wolf:

Wikipedia tells us that the blood eagle was a method of execution, ‘performed by cutting the skin of the victim by the spine, breaking the ribs so they resembled blood-stained wings, and pulling the lungs out through the wounds in the victim’s back. Salt was sprinkled in the wounds. Victims of the method of execution, as mentioned in skaldic poetry and the Norse sagas, are believed to have included King Aella of Northumbria, Halfdan son of King Harald Harfagri of Norway, King Maelgualai of Munster, and possibly Archbishop Aelfeah of Canterbury’.

I’d like to add a couple of points about this barbaric ritual. I’ve referred to, and combined, a number of sources here, so if there are any mistakes, they are my own. Historians today are still in dispute over the authenticity of such accounts. The Viking Orkney website discusses whether the blood eagle was really a method of execution, or simply a literary addition, included for dramatic effect. It tells us that the blood eagle appears in several Nordic accounts, including one from the Anglo Saxon Chronicle. In that we hear how the Northumbrian king, Aella, was executed by Ivar the Boneless:

“They caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Ælla, and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine, and then they ripped out his lungs.”

It also appears in Norna-Gests páttr, where Regin executes Lyngvi:

“Regin then took his sword from me, and with it carved Lyngvi’s back until the ribs were cut from the back, and the lungs drawn out. Thus Lyngvi died with great valour.”

Some scholars firmly believe that the blood eagle took place. Others believe it could be derived from metaphors used in Skaldic verse – as in the saga attributed to Einar, in which the term ‘eagle’s claws’ represents violent death. Following Halfdan’s death, Einar recited:

“Mighty men of no mean race,
From divers mansions of the earth;
But for that they do not know,
These, until they lay me low,
Which of us the eagle’s claws
Shall bow beneath ere all be o’er.”

It’s been suggested that this could be the source of the blood eagle episode. But whether the practice was used or not is still highly debatable, although take a look at this image on the Hannars I Stone on the island of Gotland. It clearly shows a person lying on their front over a table and someone attacking his back with a weapon:

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A scene from the Stora Hammars 1 stone. Author: The Man in Question (from source: Sacrificial scene on Hammar). Creative Commons.

Viking novels and films have become popular in recent years – many of them including scenes of extreme violence and brutality. They make good reading or viewing. And as long as we don’t accept everything we read or watch as totally accurate, that’s fine. I even have a ‘blood-eagling’ scene in my own second book. But I take care not to present all the Vikings as totally evil and/or debauched. I even have some rather nice ones.

Another gruesome image – but not exactly primary evidence.

Image from Pinterest

A Viking sacrifice to Odin


Norse mythology tells us that blood sacrifices to placate the gods took place at the key times of year – spring, summer, autumn and mid winter. Some archaeological and documented evidence also supports this. Blood sacfrifices were known as ‘blots’ -the Misumarblot, for example. Though fairly scant, there is evidence to support the idea that human sacrifice took place as well as animal.

Here’s my version of one such ceremony. It’s from my book, Shadow of the Raven. The manner of’ killing the victim I describe was selected from a few different methods I’ve read about. Gruesome stuff! Here it is:

In the sombre, grey light before sunrise, the people of Aros filed from their longhouses and followed their jarl in his flowing white robes. Guided by the fiery luminance of torches borne by a handful of thralls, the column moved in respectful silence along a narrow path that snaked between the cultivated fields and up the gentle slope behind the village. On the crest of the hill stood the sacred grove, a short way from the woodland where Eadwulf had recently collected kindling for winter fires. The ancient oaks loomed dark and ominous against the silvery-grey of the lightening sky and Eadwulf shivered, overcome with sudden foreboding.

The silent train streamed between the outer rings of trees to a clearing within. At its centre a solitary oak towered proudly over its attendants; a truly gigantic tree, the girth of its trunk of such immense proportions. Its lower branches were thick and sturdy, reaching out and dividing into myriad, twisted routeways; its still abundant foliage evidence of the oak’s jealous retention of its leaves long after most forest trees stood denuded and exposed.

The jarl’s small group positioned themselves into the shape of an arrowhead, tapering away from the wide trunk, the single figure of the jarl comprising the arrowhead’s tip. Behind him stood his sons, Bjorn, Ivar and Halfdan, and five of his men formed the rear. Amongst them was the brutal Ulrik.

Ragnar moved three paces forward, and turned to face the oak, his robes shimmering in the torchlight as he raised his arms.

‘O . . . di . . . in,’ he intoned, sinking to his knees. ‘All-Father, lord of wisdom, war and death, mighty god of all gods . . .’ Around the grove the people knelt, lifting their arms to the tree. ‘We are humbled in the shadow of your sacred oak, knowing that you are close. I, Ragnar, priest of the gods, beseech you, Father: hear the voice of your humble servant.’

‘Odin, Odin . . .’ The chanting began, rising to fever pitch before settling to a lilting hum; outstretched arms swayed like meadow grasses in the breeze. People were surely evoking the very presence of their god.

‘The wheel of the seasons has turned and winter will soon be upon us,’ Ragnar’s baritone rang out. ‘We bring our gifts of thanks and ask that you safeguard your people from the hardships of the frozen months. Let them live to serve you.’

A strong, unheralded gust swept the grove, whistling through the oak’s branches. Torches listed wildly and the droning stopped. ‘God of gods, lord of earth and sky, giver and taker of life,’ Ragnar intoned, his hands reaching up to two black shapes, now perched on the thick branch above his head. ‘We are unworthy to look upon your holy companions and avert our eyes in their presence.’

Eadwulf stayed on his knees, not understanding what was happening. He knew that Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin – Thought and Memory – were believed to be the god’s eyes and ears; awesome, black birds sent out each dawn to fly over Midgard, gathering information to report to Odin by the evening. But he’d always dismissed such a story as pagan nonsense before.

Ragnar rose and faced the kneeling crowd. ‘To your feet, my people, and witness our offerings to the All-Father, who has given his sign of acceptance.’

The wasted body of Cendred was dragged from the wagon, his wrists bound behind him. Panic and anger surged through Eadwulf and he drew breath to cry out.

‘Do not make a sound,’ Toke hissed. ‘Great insult to Odin if you do.’ His eyes flicked up to the tree’s thick branches. ‘Could be you or me up there next.’

Cendred slumped, seeming resigned to his gruesome end after weeks of imprisonment. His filthy clothes hung limp on his half-starved body; his hair greasy and matted from his bowed head, concealing whatever expression was on his face. At his sides two of Ragnar’s men stood grim-faced, and a few paces behind, Ulrik held a huge, heavy-headed axe. Close by, Bjorn carried a large coil of thick rope.

‘Odin!’ Ragnar shouted. ‘May the lifeblood of our people’s enemy please and strengthen you.’

Cendred was yanked to his feet and the heavy, flat handle of the axe-head crashed down on his skull. Eadwulf recoiled from the sickening crunch of shattering bones as Cendred’s head caved in like a crushed eggshell under the force of Ulrik’s strength.

The lifeless body sprawled on the rotting leaves, his blood soaking into the earth. Bjorn severed the bonds holding Cendred’s arms and rolled him over, rebinding his wrists above his head with one end of rope. The two warriors dragged the corpse beneath a thick branch close to the ravens and Bjorn hurled the loose end of the rope over it. Cendred’s body was hauled up high, where Eadwulf guessed it would stay, dangling by the wrists to feed the crows.

Bright-eyed and motionless, the ravens surveyed all.

Ragnar clutched the sacrificial knife above his head. ‘Odin!’ he yelled. ‘Remember our gifts when winter comes. Let the season be kind, our huntsmen find success, and our people survive!’

The ravens lifted their wings to take flight and the strange, gusting wind raged a second time. The flapping of silken feathers hummed through the grove, then the black shapes soared into the distance to continue their daily tasks for the All-Father.


In this extract, Eadwulf has been a thrall/slave of the Danes for a few months, and is still striving to come to terms with their customs and way of life. This is his first experience of a human sacrifice to Odin, the highest of the gods and father of the great Thor. It takes place in late October – a few days after the horse sacrifice to Thor I described in a recent post – when people have the bleakness of  winter ahead of them.

Aros was in the region of modern-day Aahus.


Accept our offering, mighty Thor . . .

The sun hung low in the near-cloudless sky, the late afternoon dry and cold with the promise of frost when darkness fell. Winter was nudging her icy nose into people’s lives and they did not relish the prospect. They’d done all in their power to ensure the well-being of the village during the bleak months ahead and hoped their hard work would reap its dividend. All that was needful now was the blessing of the gods. In sombre mood, villagers waited for the ceremony to begin. Continue reading “Accept our offering, mighty Thor . . .”

The City of York – a gem of a place for historical fiction writers


Last Tuesday, my husband and I had a trip out to the wonderful old city of York. We’re regular visitors to the city itself, which is roughly eighty miles from where we live, but on this occasion our main purpose was to  revisit the Jorvik Viking Centre. We hadn’t been to Jorvik since the early 1990’s and the whole place has been considerably updated since then, although the basic layout of the Viking streets was much as I remembered it.

Jorvik Viking Centre is 30 years’ old!

York itself is a magnet for tourists from many parts of the world. Cameras are out wherever you go in the central areas, aiming to capture as many of the beautiful or quaint old buildings as possible. Others aim for more specific periods of history, because York is one of those places that display a veritable journey through time.

To quote from Wikipedia:

The history of York as a city dates to the beginning of the first millennium AD but archaeological evidence for the presence of people in the region of York date back much further to between 8000 and 7000 BC.’

In the first century AD, the town was called Eboracum, and was one of the major Roman cities – their ‘capital’ in the North of Britain. Prior to that, the region belonged to Celtic tribes, the most well know of which were the Brigantes. There’s abundant evidence for the Roman occupation around the city, from the town walls and gates . . .

Section of the Roman Wall
Bootham Bar – the main , northbound gateways in the Roman wall
Micklegate Bar
Micklegate Bar

. . . to columns and plaques signifying what once stood on particular sites, as well as umpteen artefacts in The Yorkshire Museum.

Roman column
Plaque at Bootham Bar

Following Roman withdrawal from Britain, the whole country was left open to raiders from across the sea – notably at this period, those we call the Anglo Saxons. The map shows areas on the Continent from which some of these peoples came:

Where the Anglo-Saxon peoples came from

It was the Angles who mainly settled in Northumbria, the Saxons being much further south. The Angles called the city, Eorforwic (in some texts Eorferwic). The favoured building material of the Anglo-Saxons was wood, which, unfortunately for archaeologists and historians, does not endure through the centuries. So, little remains of Anglo-Saxon York other than general artefacts, like this 8th century helmet found on Coppergate, which also happens to be the the main street in Viking York.


The Coppergate Helmet – Coppergate also happens to be the main street in Viking York.

The Vikings (mostly Danes) first subjugated York in 866, a year after the arrival of what we call the ‘Great Heathen Army’ in East Anglia 865. Danish settlement in the area would doubtless have taken place gradually, but by the time of the establishment of the Danelaw (following a treaty between Alfred the Great  and the Danish leader, Guthrum, in 886) the Anglo-Saxon name of Eorforwic had become the Danish name, Jorvik.

The Danelaw

Here are some illustrations  and artefacts from the Jorvik Viking Centre website. As in most museums, flash photography is forbidden (which meant that our camera was banned) so if photos are wanted, visitors need to remember to carry something with a built-in flash. The marketing manager, Mr. Paul Whiting, very kindly suggested I use the photos from their website. Here’s the link -Jorvik for anyone who’d like to have a look for themselves:

Fisherman working on his net
Viking woman in traditional dress
Jorvik building timbers

The Jorvik holds several events over the year, which cover the whole period of Viking York up to the time of the Norman Invasion in 1066. After that date the tale of Medieval York begins – for which there is boundless evidence all over the city . . . And so on through to more recent times. The ‘veritable journey through time’ to which I referred earlier can be seen through the strata meticulously displayed in the Jorvik Centre.

Ready for the shield-wall
Leather shoes

York has been like a honey-pot to settlers since ancient times. The River Ouse, which flows through the city and out to the North Sea, would have provided a natural route inland for settlers and raiders alike.

River Ouse

The river’s confluence with the smaller River Foss provided the requisite natural defences for the early city, and the surrounding fertile and flat land was ideal for crops.

Since my Sons of Kings trilogy is set in the mid-late 9th century, it’s the Anglo-Saxon and Viking evidence that presently draws me to York. But I also love all things Roman and medieval. After the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1487 my interest tends to wane, but it sparks right back up again with the onset of the Victorian period and the First World War.

But right now, I’m even dreaming of Anglo-Saxons and ‘Vikings’ – and King Alfred’s almighty struggle to keep his kingdom . . .