Just before dawn on 25 January 1533, a small group of people gathered in the King’s private chapel in Whitehall Palace for Henry VIII’s secret wedding to Anne. ‘It has been reported throughout a great part of the realm that I married her, which was plainly false,’ Cranmer protested, ‘for I myself knew not thereof a fortnight after it was done.’ The officiating priest was either Dr Rowland Lee, one of the royal chaplains, or George Brown, Prior of the Austin Friars in London. It is more likely to have been Lee, who was preferred to the bishopric of Coventry and Lichfield in 1534. Possibly the priest was informed that the Pope had sanctioned the marriage; a royal envoy had just returned from Rome, leading some to suspect that the Pope had given his tacit consent. As far as Henry was concerned, he had never been lawfully married at all, and was free to enter into wedlock at will.

The few witnesses were all sworn to silence. The marriage, and Anne’s pregnancy, remained strictly guarded secrets until Easter Sunday 1533, when, ‘loaded with diamonds and other precious stones’, she went ‘in royal state, openly as queen’ to her closet to hear Mass, with sixty maids of honour following her.  Having at long last won her King, she had adopted for her motto the legend ‘The Most Happy’.

Henry VIII was at Whitehall Palace when the Tower guns signalled that he was a free man. Immediately, he had himself rowed to Chelsea, where Jane Seymour was waiting. Their affair had been gathering momentum since the autumn. The Privy Council had already petitioned Henry to venture once more into holy wedlock, pleading the uncertainty surrounding the succession, for both the King’s daughters had been declared bastards. A speedy marriage was both desirable and necessary, and on the day Anne’s head fell, Henry’s imminent betrothal to Jane Seymour was announced to the Council. At nine o’clock the next morning, they were formally betrothed at Hampton Court in a ceremony lasting a few minutes.

Henry and Jane were married on 30 May at Whitehall Palace. The ceremony took place in the Queen’s closet, with Archbishop Cranmer officiating again. Afterwards, Jane sat enthroned under the canopy of estate in the presence chamber. Some thought it strange that, ‘within one and the same month that saw Queen Anne flourishing, accused, condemned and executed, another was assumed into her place, both of bed and honour’.

Jane died in October 1537, after presenting Henry with his longed-for son, Edward. He mourned her deeply, but ‘framed his mind’ to marry again for the good of his realm.


This is extracted, with thanks, from a longer piece, written by Alison, which appeared in BBC History.

Alison Weir’s JANE SEYMOUR: THE HAUNTED QUEEN is available now

Smoky the Brave

Smoky the Brave is the extraordinary, touching and true story of a heroic dog and her adoptive masters in the jungles of the Pacific War. It’s out in hardback on 31st May and available to pre-order now: https://amzn.to/2w6yD0r

Smoky the Brave


Here’s  a piece from Damien about what drew him to telling Smoky’s story…


Smoky’s story is a fascinating and gripping one, as much because the tiny little hero of a dog was such an enigma right until after the war had ended.

As Churchill famously once said, she was a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Churchill used that phrase about the Soviet Union and the role it might play after the end of the war. Smoky was such a mystery because she was discovered by Allied troops on the remote Island of New Guinea, abandoned in a foxhole in the midst of the steaming jungle.

Those who founded her were at a loss to comprehend how such a tiny little dog could have ended up – and survived – in such a war-torn and hostile part of the world. They could only conclude she must have been some kind of a Japanese military mascot, as the territory had only recently been seized of the Japanese. But when they tried to see if Smoky would respond to commands issues in Japanese, their interpreter could get no response. Even more enigmatically, no one could identify what her breed might be. She was of a type of dog never seen by any of them before.

Of course, Smoky was a Yorkshire Terrier, a breed then little-known outside of the UK. It took many months for the soldiers – who adopted her as their squadron mascot – to discover this, but that did little to solve the wider mystery.

How had a dog originally bred in England to hunt vermin – a ratter – end up lost in the deep New Guinea jungle in WWII? In part it was the unravelling of that mystery – coupled with the tiny dog’s immense heroism – that compelled me to write her story. That, plus the peerless work carried out by the 26th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron, the unit that adopted her. The photo recce pilots – who flew unarmed and unescorted deep behind enemy lines – remain in many ways the unsung heroes of WWII. It has been a privilege to tell their story, as well as that of their hero dog.



The wives of Henry VIII were served by a hierarchy of female attendants, mostly of noble and gentle birth. These were the women who resided with her in her private apartments – a chaste female enclave within the King’s ‘house of magnificence’. The Queen’s lodgings normally consisted of a presence chamber (throne room) for audiences and entertaining; and a privy chamber, which, like the King’s, might comprise bedchambers, closets, a privy, a privy wardrobe and sometimes a privy kitchen, where the Queen’s meals were prepared. Guards were stationed at the entrance to each room, and only the King, the Queen’s servants and the most privileged guests would be admitted to her privy chamber.

Most members of the Queen’s household were men; the women who served her kept her company or attended to her personal needs.  Her life was governed by ceremonial and ritual, even in private. She was rarely alone; there was always some woman in attendance or within earshot. These were the women whom the Queen saw daily, in whose company she spent much of her life, and who might, with luck, become her friends. They had to be congenial to her, and virtuous, for their conduct would reflect upon her.

It was Katherine of Aragon’s custom to read aloud from pious works to her ladies after dinner. She expected her ladies to behave as decorously as she did, and forbade any vain amusements in her household. Anne Boleyn gave each of hers a little book of prayers and psalms that could be hung from a girdle. In order to prevent them from getting into mischief through idleness, she made her women devote hours of their time to sewing garments for the poor, for her to distribute while on progress.

Jane Seymour too was determined to enforce high moral standards in her household. She laid down strict rules governing, not only the behaviour, but also the dress of her attendants: her ladies were to be sumptuously, but modestly attired and had to wear trains three yards long and girdles set with a regulation number of pearls. One girl was told that a girdle embroidered with 120 pearls was not sufficiently grand to wear before the Queen.

Places in the Queen’s household were much sought after, for they provided women with status, an independent income as well as perquisites, pensions for good service on retirement, and privileged access to their mistress – and sometimes to the King himself – from which could flow the lucrative benefits of patronage. Effectively, they were career women, and if they were as efficient as they were well connected, then they could look forward to years in royal service.

Foremost among these female attendants were the ladies-in-waiting, or ‘ladies-of-honour’, married women who waited upon the Queen. Some were there because their husbands served the King in his Privy Chamber. Katherine of Aragon had eight ladies-in-waiting – their names are a roll call of the Tudor peerage. By Anne of Cleves’s time, the number had been reduced to six, who were now to be called ‘the great ladies of the household’. Impeccable courtesy, discretion and social skills would have been expected of them and, indeed, of all the women and girls who served the Queen. They had to have ‘a vigilant and reverent respect and eye’, so that they might notice by their mistress’s ‘look or countenance what lacketh, or is her pleasure to be had or done’.  The ladies-in-waiting were her constant daily companions in her privy chamber; they attended her at court functions, on ceremonial occasions and in private, and their function was to provide pleasant and decorous companionship at all times. Often they were feted along with her, by the King and his gentlemen.

Ladies-in-waiting were required to be accomplished in dancing, singing, playing musical instruments and the other pastimes usually enjoyed by noble ladies. They might be called upon to play games of chance, dice or cards. They were allowed to keep singing birds. Dancing was often practised in the Queen’s chamber in preparation for court entertainments, or just for its own sake. The ladies would also have been diverted by the antics of the Queen’s fool, who might be female. The young Henry VIII and his gentlemen liked to dress up and disguise themselves – sometimes in the strange costumes of other lands – and then come upon the Queen and her ladies unawares, dance for her, or perform other scintillating feats, and then disclose their identity, ‘whereat the Queen and her ladies were’ – invariably – ‘greatly amazed’. When the King was not present, the Queen would usually dine with her ladies in her presence chamber.

Every married woman in the Queen’s train was expected to put their mistress’s needs before those of their family, for royal service meant spending long periods at court. Time off was allowed for confinements, but once the baby was established with a nurse, the mother would return to court.

Next in rank after the ladies-in-waiting came the maids-of-honour, unmarried, well-born girls who were often appointed on the recommendation of ladies-in-waiting, or through the influence of their relations or friends at court. Katherine of Aragon had thirty maids-of-honour. The usual age for appointment was around sixteen. Since the late fifteenth century, beauty had been a prerequisite, since it would enhance the appearance of the Queen’s entourage, and attract suitable husbands for the girls in question. A Venetian observed that Katherine of Aragon’s ladies were ‘handsome, and make a sumptuous appearance’. In 1520, however, a Mantuan envoy wrote disparagingly of the looks and attire of the ladies of Henry’s court, and asserted that they drank too much.

Ambitious parents would compete to place their daughters in the Queen’s household, for she and the King were better placed than anyone to arrange advantageous marriages for them, upon which they might be promoted to the rank of lady-in-waiting. Maids-of-honour were therefore expected to be uncompromisingly virtuous, for their mistress was in loco parentis, and no scandal could reflect upon her name. Yet some considered the ladies of the English court to be of easy virtue. In 1536, the Spanish ambassador was sceptical about Jane’s Seymour’s much vaunted chastity: ‘You may imagine whether, being an Englishwoman and having been long at court, she would not hold it a sin to be still a maid.’

In his later years, Henry VIII was often to be found ‘feasting ladies’ and enjoying their company. He even raised three maids-of-honour to the rank of queen, demonstrating to ambitious families that service at court offered unique opportunities for young women.

Next down the scale, after the maids-of-honour, were the Queen’s chamberers, who performed the more menial tasks. They made her bed to a prescribed ritual.

Also residing in the Queen’s household, but not in her service, were the daughters and gentlewomen of her ladies, many of whom made good marriages through living at court. All the women attendant upon the Queen and her ladies received accommodation and board at court, as well as stabling for their horses. As well as their salaries, they were given new liveries and clothing at Christmas and Whitsun, and for coronations, royal weddings and funerals. They also received gifts from the King and Queen at New Year and at other times, often in recognition of good service, and if they were lucky they were granted annuities and pensions, which could be quite substantial.

The Queen’s female attendants would have dressed her, for help was essential, given the elaborate clothing worn by high-ranking ladies of the period. Queens were not expected to perform even personal tasks for themselves, so her women also washed and bathed her, and attended her when she used the privy or close stool, wiping her with a clean cloth afterwards. It was taken for granted that body servants, who were required to be of gentle rank, would be in attendance even for the most intimate of functions.

All the Queen’s ladies were expected to be expert needlewomen, as much of their time was spent working with costly materials and threads of silk and gold, embroidering altar cloths, hangings, bedding and garments, or sewing clothing such as fine shirts. These might be given as New Year’s gifts.

Much time was devoted by the Queen and her ladies to making, mending, embellishing or trying on clothes. In an age of outward display, appearance counted for much, and it was expected of them that they enhance the splendour of the court by the resplendence of their attire. Elizabeth’s ladies were required to dress almost as lavishly – and expensively – as she did: despite strict sumptuary laws restricting the wearing of certain materials to certain ranks, their dress was to reflect their employer’s status rather than their family’s. The rich materials and long trains worn at court reflected the wealth and status of their wearers, for such fabrics were costly. Needless to say, it cost a lot to equip a girl for royal service.

Alison Weir’s JANE SEYMOUR: THE HAUNTED QUEEN is available now

It was always my idea that each Jack Lark novel would take place in new surroundings. This sets me a challenge and it is never easy to make the right choice of destination. However, I’ve been nurturing the idea that one day I would take Jack to America and to the American Civil War for a long time. It is a war that has always fascinated me, even though I initially knew only a little of the battles and the campaigns that were fought. But there was something in the bitter struggle between compatriots that made me certain it would be the perfect environment for Jack.

As ever with a Jack Lark story, the first difficulty lay in how to get him there. The idea of an American serving in the French Foreign Legion came to me when researching The Last Legionnaire, and this gave me the opportunity to use a man’s death as a way to open up a route for Jack to make the journey across the Atlantic.

Yet, as I started my research for The True Soldier, the sixth book in the series, I realised that there was much more to this war between the states than I had ever imagined. This was a war of brother against brother and countryman against countryman. Nothing I had covered in the Jack Lark series thus far came close to matching this level of intensity. I found it hard to understand how men from the same country could fight in such a long and bitter struggle. This wasn’t war like I was used to. It was a war between men who shared a language, a common heritage and many of the same ideals and beliefs. It would become a war where both sides demonised their foe, especially those who had seen the elephant and experienced combat. This made for a ferocious conflict, with the slaughter reaching an unprecedented level as advances in weaponry made combat more deadly than ever before. The war dragged on much longer than anyone would ever have imagined possible, and it killed and maimed on an unparalleled scale.

Yet, there was so much more to this war than just battle and bloodshed. There were ideas there, ones that resonate in our modern world. There were questions of identity, of what each side wanted their country to be. There were arguments of governance, the right for states to self-govern competing with the need for a single, united country. There was economics, with arguments of free trade fighting with the need for tariff barriers. There were ties of loyalty and of family, some nurtured and others severed with a shocking callousness. Underscoring it all was the concept of slavery and of people prepared to fight and die so that others may be free. At times, it felt like I was reading ideas and arguments from our own fractured and fractious world of today, rather than from a conflict that took place so long ago.

Then there were the soldiers who fought in these chaotic and deadly battles. These were not professional soldiers, like Jack’s beloved redcoats. These were men, and a few daring women, who had lives and families that they chose to put to one side so that they might fight for a cause they believed in. I read tales of such bravery and undaunted courage that I could not be anything but inspired. There was cruelty too, no war can be fought without it. Yet there was also compassion. Hatred and love, courage and fear – these are the raw emotions that challenge a society’s values and beliefs, and rock it to its very core. They are the emotions that fuel my desire to write.

The more I read, the more I wanted to know. The idea of a single novel became a much grander idea for more Jack Lark stories set against this devastating civil war. Of course, my Jack will never stand still. It is not to be his fate to march faithfully through a single campaign, and I promise that he will still cover new ground with every tale. Yet for the first time in the series, he will linger here and, no matter how hard he tries, he, like me, will find himself drawn to this bitter conflict that ripped a young nation in two.


Paul Fraser Collard

The True Soldier is out NOW

Letters From The Suitcase is an enchanting, poignant and incredibly moving account of the five year early marriage between two lovers divided by war – and the legacy they left for their only child. Written by Cal and Rosheen Finnagan, this is a hugely detailed wartime correspondance between Rosheen’s parents, David and Mary Francis. Here Rosheen Finnigan tells us what happened next to her mother Mary.

Shortly after my father’s death, my mother met a man who told her she was ‘made for the documentary film industry’ and that it ‘would welcome her with open arms’.  And it did. She flourished in what she called the ‘film biz’ in the early days: ‘The only good thing in my life. Everything else is flat and dreary.’

It was considered the golden age of British documentary with the government providing money for propaganda and instructional films and women making an important, if barely acknowledged, contribution. She worked at World Wide Films, a company based in Soho Square which made films for the Central Office of Information.

She travelled all over the country both scripting and directing films and met lots of interesting people. She also became quite skilled in clambering in and out of landing craft and flying boats.  Soho became the centre of her social life, its pubs and restaurants her patch.

Everything changed in 1950, when four years after her remarriage, my half-brother, Christie, was born.  She continued writing articles and stories, however, paying for a cleaner so she could go up to her room every morning to write even though ‘it might only be my name!’

Domesticity, however, was not really her thing and she could not resist the call of another ‘biz’ – this time the advertising business. TV advertising was just taking off and many of her documentary film friends were moving across. She followed suit, working with writers and artists who wrote novels by night and jingles by day. Knightsbridge became my ‘treat’ place and we left Patisserie Valerie and Maison Bertaux behind for the lure of Harrods!

Her social life also changed.  My stepfather, Flann, an Irish academic and writer, was very involved in Irish politics, as were his close friends. My mother too became more absorbed and the rather bohemian days of her old life slipped away. She returned to her Irish roots, reluctantly at first, then developing an abiding interest in Irish art and literature. She wrote articles, scripts and monographs, published a biography of Lady Morgan (a feisty 19th century Irish novelist) and built up a wonderful collection of books, starting a business, Irish Books, in London.

My mother always described herself as an immigrant and Flann as an exile. The immigrant makes the new country their home. The exile always wants to return to the old country.  And when Flann retired he took her back to Dublin.  It was a successful move, although my mother would never use the word happy. She missed London, her London, so. Flann had a too brief time in Dublin. He died in 1994.  My mother died peacefully in 2002, her body flagging, her intellect never.

By Rosheen Finnigan

Read more behind the beautiful love story of David and Mary Francis in Letters From The Suitcase

For publication of JANE SEYMOUR: THE HAUNTED QUEEN, Alison Weir has created this special True or False Quiz

Jane Seymour True or False Quiz


Eleven days after the death of Anne Boleyn, Jane is dressing for her wedding to the King.

She has witnessed at first hand how courtly play can quickly turn to danger and knows she must bear a son . . . or face ruin.

This new Queen must therefore step out from the shadows cast by Katherine and Anne – in doing so, can she expose a gentler side to the brutal King?


Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new research for her captivating novel, which paints a compelling portrait of Jane and casts fresh light on both traditional and modern perceptions of her. Jane was driven by the strength of her faith and a belief that she might do some good in a wicked world.

History tells us how she died.
This spellbinding novel explores the life she lived.



Operation Man Hunt

Damien Lewis gives us an insight into his new book, Operation Man Hunt, publishing today.


In 2008 the world’s foremost arms-dealer to rebel and terrorist groups was sentenced in a US court to 25 years without parole. For decades fugitive Russian Viktor Bout – better known as the Merchant of Death / Lord of War – had been hunted by an alphabet soup of agencies. Why? Bout was trading arms for gems and drugs, fuelling the global nexus of narco-terrorism. But more worryingly, Bout – former Soviet military and KGB/GRU agent – was at the forefront of the new Cold War, peddling Moscow’s power and influence, and fearsome Russian weaponry, to nurture the West’s foremost enemies.

But shielded from on high by the Kremlin, Bout seemed immune to capture. The NSC, CIA, NSA, MI6 and SAS had all failed to nail the hugely intelligent and spy-craft-savvy Russian. Straight military-intel operations – like the ultra-secret Task Force Bloodstone (see below) – had failed. Something else entirely was needed. Something leftfield; unexpected; a radically new, groundbreaking approach. No one was about to ride forth and capture Bout. Instead, those pursuing him would need to think and act – and plan – like the criminal and narcoterrorist networks he serviced. Bout needed to be lured out of Moscow – tricked out of his lair.

By the summer of 2007 all efforts to nail the Lord of War had ground to a halt. It was then that the White House approached Mike Braun, chief of the DEA’s elite Special Operations Division (SOD). Could the DEA nail Bout where all others had failed? Braun figured the Agency – fresh out of a string of highly successful sting operations (see below) – had the experience and the team of undercovers to pull this off. They were the experts at ‘using a thief to catch a thief’. Indeed, they funded their operations from money and assets seized from the bad guys, and they were pastmasters at mounting such highly unconventional sting operations.

Braun turned to veteran DEA Agent and former US Marine, Wim Brown, plus former Hollywood actor and DEA Supervising Agent, Lou Milione. Together they put together the script, the plot and the cast for the Agency’s most notorious, costly and risk-laden operation. Codenamed RELENTLESS, its success would rely upon former drugs-trafficker turned undercover supremo, Carlos Sagastume, better known as the ‘King of Sting’. Carlos would be joined by former arms-dealer to terrorists, Ricardo Jardeno, AKA ‘El Comandante’; and former SAS man and sanctions-busting bush pilot, Mike Snow, known to all as ‘The Bear’. In the fall of 2007, the RELENTLESS team set their daring sting operation into action.

Karen Maitland

First Catch your crocodile

Products from the Egyptian cocodryllus or crocodile were highly prized in the medieval markets of the Middle East and Europe. Its dung was made into an unguent which was said to make aged and wrinkled prostitutes appear firm-bodied and youthful, until it ran off as they sweated from their labours. It was also said to fade freckles. And the teeth were believed to be an aphrodisiac, but only if extracted from the living beast.


The beggars are coming to town’

There were so many bogus beggars in the Middle Ages that each type of trickery acquired own name. Averers stuck on fake wax ‘boils’ or tumours made from offal to obtain alms. Biltraegerins were women who padded out their skirts to make people think they were pregnant. Granters pretended to foam at the mouth and gave themselves nosebleeds using sneezewort (yarrow) to feign the ‘falling sickness’. They begged for money or something of value they could offer at a shrine for healing, which they would then sell.


Vicars banned from Church

In 1364, Simon Langham, Bishop of Ely, censured his clergy for attending drinking parties, called Scot Ales, in their churches. He ordered his priests not to mix with actors, mimes or jesters, not to play dice and not attend the pagan drinking events that took place in the churchyards. Henceforth, priests in the diocese were only allowed to go their churches on a Sunday.


The Sweet Scent of Death

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmara) known as bridewort, resembles the feathers worn by brides. It was used as a flavouring for mead, so was often called meadwort. Its scent made the leaves a favourite strewing herb. However, in the Middle Ages many people would not bring the white flowers indoors, believing their perfume would cause them to drift into deadly sleep. There were often mysterious deaths in cramped cottages, probably from smoke, midden fumes or marsh gases rising from beaten earth floors. But if neighbours smelt the lingering scent of meadowsweet when they discovered the bodies, they might think the flowers was to blame.


On the 12th Day of Christmas …

in the second year of Henry VIII’s reign, the king held a banquet at Richmond, at which a ‘glistering golden mountain’ was rolled towards him, surmounted by a tree of gold and decorated with roses and pomegranates. A woman dressed in cloth of gold stepped out, accompanied by ‘children of honour’ known as henchmen who danced a morris, before retreating back into the mountain, after which the final banquet of Christmas was served. The regal version of a lady jumping out of a cake!


Fisherman’s Friend

One of the strangest saints venerated in the Middle Ages was St Rumwold or Rumbald, who died in 662 AD, aged just three days old, having precociously preached a sermon. Until the time of the Reformation, medieval fishermen returning to Folkstone sold eight whiting from each boat and gave the money to St Rumwold’s chapel. From the Reformation right up until the 1960s, fishermen still sold the fish, but used the money for a drinking party on Christmas Eve known as Rumbald Night. Legend said any fisherman who refused, would drown before the next Rumbald’s Eve.


Rock-a-bye Baby

To prevent babies being abandoned in unsafe places, some religious houses in the Middle Ages, introduced Foundling Wheels. These were swivelling barrels built into their walls that had a hole cut into one side. A mother would creep up to the outside wall, pop the baby in the barrel, ring the bell to alert the monks or nuns, then hurry away. The barrel would be turned around by those inside and the baby safely removed to be cared for in the monastery. Some Orders would only take in abandoned babies if the identity of the parents was kept secret.

Talk to the Fly

The Statistical Account of Scotland (1794) mentions the healing well of St Michael’s, Kirkmichael, then sadly overgrown. However, it notes that in the Middle Ages the well was protected by a spirit in form of an immortal fly. If a person wanted to know if their absent spouse would return, or what ailed their child, or if they should buy a particular horse, they brought their offerings to the well and by watching the fly to see if it was joyful or melancholic, how it moved and which way it turned, they deduced the answers to their questions.

Swift Justice

Medieval justice was slow as courts meet infrequently, which was a huge problem if you were a visiting merchant or pilgrim and got caught up in a civil case in the town. So, the authorities set up piepowder courts, from the French meaning ‘dusty feet’, which convened after the fairs to hear civil cases involving plaintiffs, key witnesses or defendants who were simply passing through. They speeded up justice not by changing the law and procedures, but by sitting daily and not allowing appeals to higher courts.


Rouncy (rouncey or rounsey) was an all-purpose horse, used for riding and warfare. The huge destrier, capable of carrying an armed man in full armour was the most highly prized warhorse horse of the Middle Ages, but the destrier was not a good riding horse over long distances. The agile coursers were often preferred for hard battles, but only wealthy knights could afford either of these. A poorer knight or man-at-arms used a rouncy for both fighting and distance riding. None of these horses were specific breeds, rather the size, build and training of a horse determined what it was called.


Fish, usually herring or pilchards, baked individually or arranged in a row under a pastry blanket. The head and tail of the fish contained valuable oils so were not cut off but left sticking out so that the oil would run back into the body of the fish as it cooked. The pastry was hard and not usually intended to be eaten in the medieval period, so was really a method of keeping the fish basted. Clay could be used instead, especially if the fish was to be baked in the embers of a fire.


A hunting dog bred for speed, strength and stamina, also known as a Norman Hound because it was brought to Britain with the Norman Conquest. It was about the build of the modern bloodhound and was a crossbreed. One of the breeds used was the Hubert, a black hound bred in the monastery of St Hubert in the Ardennes. Huberts had ‘red’ patches over the eyes, and if some of these dogs escaped and turned feral, they might have given rise to the legends of the black hellhounds with glowing red eyes that haunt lonely roads.

Larks claw

Delphinium consolida, also known as larkspur, larks toe and larks heel. In Medieval times this plant was used to pack wounds and treat the stings of scorpions. Oil from the seeds was extracted to kill lice. If tossed in front of any venous beast, it was widely believed the creature would not be able to move until the herb was removed.

Leek sops

A popular medieval dish. The white part of leeks was sliced and boiled until tender in a meat broth, together with lard or butter. Then the leeks and hot broth were spooned over bite-sized squares of toasted bread. On fast days, when meat was forbidden, those who could afford it substituted olive oil for the lard and white wine for the meat broth, which made a delicious and warming Lenten meal. Monks were supposed to substitute water for the meat broth during Lent, but many used wine instead.


This medieval dish was made from mashed pigs’ livers mixed with bread and egg yolks and formed into balls the size of apples held together with the pigs’ caul (the thin, fatty membrane that surrounds the pig’s stomach and intestines). The balls were arranged in a dish or a baked pastry case and a custard was poured in made from cream and egg yolks, flavoured with cinnamon, ginger, pepper, cloves, mace and saffron, then baked until the custard set.


A tiny room enclosing a medieval lavatory, often built on an upper storey projecting from an outer wall, so waste would fall through the hole beneath into a moat or river. Its height made it harder for thieves or invaders to climb up through the hole. If it was built in the middle of a complex on the ground floor, a stream would be diverted from a nearby river to run beneath it and carry off the waste. Clothes were often hung in garderobes as the stench of urine and excrement was said to keep away moths.

Hag stones

These small holed stones or pebbles were thought to guard against evil. Hung on the back of a door, they prevented the entry of evil spirits or witches. Hung over a bed, they guarded against illnesses and nightmares. If a key was attached to them, the combination of the stone and iron was thought to be a powerful amulet against bad luck and protected the house from thieves. Many holed stones can still be found on doors today, and are often hung on key rings.

Hare’s beard

This was one of the many old country names for mullein (verbascum). It was so called because the plant is covered in white hairs. In the Middle Ages it was also known as hag-taper and Our Lady’s candle, because when dried it was used as kindling, candlewicks and tapers. Witches were said to use mullein in their spells, but the plant was also thought to be effective in warding off demons and night terrors. The juice was used remove warts, and the leaves and flowers infused to make a cough, cold and bronchitis remedy.

A jolly John of Gaunt!

One Lammas Day, John of Gaunt was riding through Ratby in Leicester when some locals invited him to join in their festivities for the end of the haymaking. He enjoyed himself so much that as he left he instructed them to meet him in Leicester, saying ‘I’ll give you something to marry your lamb.’ Given his fearsome reputation only fourteen men dared go but, being in an uncharacteristically generous mood, John gave each man who did a ewe, a wether (a castrated ram) and a piece of land in Enderby, which came to be called the Ewes.

Almond milk

This was widely used in both sweet and savoury medieval recipes. It was made from any kind of ground-up nuts locally available and could be stored as a powder. The powdered nuts were mixed with meat stock, vegetable water, honeyed water or wine to make the ‘milk’, and were used in dishes where today we would use dairy milk. Animal milk went sour quickly and it wasn’t available all year round, so dairy milk was mainly reserved to make butter and cheese, which could be stored.

Duru Moon

From old English meaning door. In medieval times, many believed a waxing gibbous moon was a doorway in time into other realms. It was a place between darkness and light, a time of beginnings, and the most effective night on the month on which to call up spirits or summon the dead.


The medieval form of shuttlecock or badminton, known as slapcock, was played with a freshly severed cock’s head, and the object of the game was to cover the other players in as much blood, pulp and feathers as you could, while avoiding getting filthy yourself. It was played by standing in a circle and you randomly batted the cock’s head at one of the other players in the hope catching him off guard.

Plague – a Deadly Weapon

At the Battle of Carolstein in 1422, Prince Coribut, leader of the Lithuanians ordered that plague corpses, together with 2,000 cartloads of excrement, were to be hurled at the defenders of the Bohemian city. A deadly fever broke out, though it is not known if it was the plague, but the many people were reportedly saved by a wealthy apothecary who was able to treat the patients or prevent them catching the fever. 1485, near Naples, the Spanish tried a more subtle approach to biological warfare by giving their French enemies wine adulterated with the blood taken from leprosy patients.

 Mortuary beast

Medieval families were supposed to give the best livestock animal they owned to the Church on the death of a loved one, to make God look mercifully on the soul of the deceased. Many were unable to afford this, for a family might lose many children. So, to persuade them to give the animal, people were told that the souls of the dead rode upon the mortuary beasts and those whose families had neglected to give a beast to God in their name would, in the afterlife, be forced to crawl on their hand and knees instead of ride.

Crooked Tables

Medieval gambling houses offered different forms of gaming including one known as tables, chequers or quek, where marbles or round stones were rolled across the board and players bet on them landing on white or black squares. The outcome could be rigged by having some of the black squares raised slightly higher than the white ones or vice versa. The chequer board pattern made it impossible to see this, especially in candle light. In 1382, William Soys cheated three men of a total of 76 shillings, 8d with such a board. He was sentenced to the pillory for an hour for three days.

Fashionable Ferrets

Medieval illustrations show noblemen and women hunting rabbits, called conies, with ferrets. But the lower classes started to acquire ferrets too, especially poachers. So, in 1390, Richard II made it illegal to own either ferrets or hunting hounds if you weren’t a landowner, declaring, ‘It is ordained that no manner of layman which hath not lands to the value of forty shillings a year shall from henceforth keep any greyhound or other dog to hunt, nor shall he use ferrets, nets, heys, harepipes nor cords, nor other engines for to take or destroy deer, hares, nor conies, nor other gentlemen’s game, under pain of twelve months’ imprisonment.’

A Horse’s Revenge

In the fourteenth century, Sir Robert de Shurland, Barron of Sheppey, killed a priest and was banished by Edward I. He swam his horse two miles out to where the king’s ship lay to beg for pardon, but on his return, a witness said his horse had made the journey by sorcery. So, Robert cut off the beast’s head. A year later, his new horse reared at that spot. Robert was thrown onto the skull of his dead horse and killed. This tale may have originated from a horse’s head and waves depicted on his tomb, probably the sign that he’d been granted the right to any claim wreck he could ride to on horseback at low tide and touch with his lance.


The Plague Charmer

Karen Maitland’s THE PLAGUE CHARMER is out now

Visit her website

A Hero Born

The Legends of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong is one of the biggest selling historical fiction series in the world. Translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood, the series is now being launched in the UK. A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes Volume I is set in 13th century China, as the Jin and the Song empires vie for dominance, and the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan mass on their northern frontier. Its heroes and antagonists are among the best-known and best-loved characters in Chinese literature.


China – 1200 AD. The Song Empire has been invaded from the north by its warlike Jurchen neighbours. Half its territory and its historic capital lie in enemy hands: the peasants toil under the burden of the annual tribute demanded by the occupiers. Meanwhile on the Mongolian steppes, a disparate nation of great warriors is about to be united by a warlord whose name will endure for eternity: Genghis Khan.

Guo Jing, son of a murdered Song patriot, grew up with Genghis Khan’s army. He is humble, loyal, perhaps not altogether wise, and is fated from birth one day to confront an opponent who is the opposite of him in every way: privileged, cunning and perfectly trained in the martial arts.

Guided by his faithful shifus, the Seven Heroes of the South, Guo Jing must return to China to fulfil his destiny. But in a land riven by war and betrayal, his courage and his loyalties will be tested at every turn.A Hero Born

To whet your appetite, here’s an exclusive extract from the book…

It was during the third watch later that night. Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang had been waiting for more than two hours to spear a boar or a muntjac in the woods seven li west of the village, but it was looking increasingly unlikely they would catch anything and they were losing patience.

At that moment a loud smack of wood against metal echoed around the woodland from beyond the tree line. Skyfury and Ironheart looked at each other.

Then came the sound of men shouting:

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Stop, now!”

A shadow had entered the woods and was running in their direction. The moonlight caught a man’s robes and Guo and Yang were able to make him out. It was Qu San. He was jabbing his wooden crutches into the undergrowth. Knowing that he would struggle to outrun the men following him, Qu San flew straight up into the air and back down behind a nearby tree. Guo and Yang looked at each other in astonishment.

“Qu San practises martial arts?”

By now Qu San’s pursuers had reached the edge of the woods. There were three of them, and they stopped, whispered something

to each other, and began to walk towards Guo and Yang. They were dressed in military clothing and each carried a sabre, their blades flashing a cold green in the moonlight.

“Damned cripple! We can see you. Come out and surrender!”

Qu San stood utterly still behind his tree. The men were waving their weapons like machetes, swinging and chopping through the

straggly bushes, slowly edging closer. Just then: Thump! Qu San thrust his right crutch out from behind the tree, hitting one of the men squarely in the chest and sending him lurching backwards with a yelp. Startled, the other two men waved their blades in the direction of the tree.

Using his right crutch for leverage, Qu San flew up to the left, dodging the flailing blades and thrusting his other crutch in one man’s face. The man tried to block the crutch with his sabre, but Qu San pulled back and swung his right crutch at the other man’s stomach. Though he needed the crutches to support himself, he wielded them with speed and elegance.

A sabre cut into Qu San’s bundle, ripping the cloth and spilling its contents all over the forest floor. Taking advantage of the distraction, Qu San smashed his crutch down onto one man’s head, knocking him to the ground. Terrified, the last soldier turned to run. Qu San reached between the folds in his robe, and with a sharp flick of his wrist hurled something at him as he fled. It glinted an inky black as it sailed through the air, drawing a curve and landing on the back of the soldier’s head with a dull thud. The man howled and dropped his sabre, his arms waving wildly. He fell forward as if in slow motion, and landed in a crumpled heap on the ground. His body spasmed twice, and then he was still.

Guo and Yang watched, their hearts thumping, hardly able to catch their breath. “He just killed government officials. That’s punishable by death.” Guo gasped. “If he sees us he’ll kill us too, to keep us quiet.”

But they had not hidden themselves as well as they had thought. Qu San turned towards them and called out: “Master Guo, Master Yang, you can come out now!” Reluctantly they rose to their feet, grasping their pitchforks so tightly their knuckles turned white. Yang looked at his friend and then took two steps forward.

“Master Yang,” Qu San said with a smile. “Your family’s spear technique is famous throughout our land, but in the absence of a spear, a pitchfork will have to do. Your best friend Guo, however, prefers to fight with a double halberd. The pitchfork doesn’t fit his skills. Such friendship is rare!”

Yang felt exposed; Qu San had all but read his mind.

“Master Guo,” Qu San continued. “Let’s imagine you had your double halberd with you. Do you think together you could beat me?”

Guo shook his head. “No, we couldn’t. We must have been blind not to have noticed you were a fellow practitioner of the martial arts. A master, even.”

“I don’t have full use of my legs. How can I be considered a master?”

Qu San shook his head and sighed. “Before my injury, I would have defeated those guards effortlessly.”

Guo and Yang glanced at each other, not sure how to respond.

“Would you help me bury them?” Qu San continued.

They looked at each other again, and nodded.

A Hero Born

A Hero Born is out now from MacLehose Press: http://amzn.to/2EKNP3a

In a poll of more than two thousand people taken in January 2016, to mark the 950th anniversary of the Norman Conquest, 1066 was named as the most memorable date in British history. England had already been a coherent kingdom for more than a century before the Battle of Hastings. Yet 1066 is the point at which we still think of the country, as we know it, being born.

But what if the English had beaten the Normans and thus not been conquered at all? The Battle of Hastings was a desperately hard-fought contest. Any number of factors might have changed the outcome. For example, suppose King Harold’s disaffected brother Tostig had not prompted Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, into invading England. Hardrada arrived in Yorkshire from the north a few weeks before William turned up in Sussex from the south. Harold had to march his army all the way to one end of his kingdom and win the Battle of Stamford Bridge, before turning round and trudging back, severely depleted, to face the Normans. If he’d only had one enemy to fight, chances are he would not have been defeated.

Even then, if Harold had just waited a few more days, bottling up William’s army close to the coast while thousands of fresh soldiers reinforced the English army, the odds would have been hugely in his favour. Then we would talk about William the Loser and Harold would be the conquering hero.

It was not as if eleventh-century England lacked good soldiers. Stamford Bridge proved that. Nor did 1066 resemble the Roman invasions of 55BC and 43AD: a far more civilised, powerful empire invading a relatively backward, disorganised territory. Anglo-Saxon England was arguably the most coherent, well-organised kingdom in Europe. It possessed a prosperous economy. English craftsmen and needlewomen were much admired. And they lived in relative peace. In 1066, Normandy was littered with castles. Its dukes and lesser nobles spent fortunes building them to fend off their rivals within Normandy or their enemies without. The nobles of England did not waste their resources on fortifications. They didn’t have to. Yes, there were conflicts on the fringes: notably the Welsh marches and the Scottish borders. But by 1066, the heartland of England had known fifty years of relative peace and prosperity, certainly when compared to eleventh-century Normandy. If William had not turned up in 1066 that would have continued … until someone else invaded, that is. After all, England was such a ripe fruit that someone was bound to want to pick it.

But let’s make another supposition. Let’s say the English withstood all-comers. Imagine they entered the Middle Ages as an even-happier breed of men and women living on their sceptred isle. What then?

Without the Normans, and the ties of blood and land to continental Europe that they brought with them, the English would have remained more insular. They might have expanded into the whole of Great Britain and Ireland. But they would not have been embroiled in a Hundred Years War, for their kings would have had no claims to France to advance or defend.

On the other hand the English language – arguably our single greatest cultural contribution to the world – would have been a far less noble thing without William’s intervention. English possesses an incredible richness of vocabulary. We often have two words covering the same idea from different linguistic angles, for example ‘chair (as in the French word chaise) and ‘stool’ (as in the German Stuhl). That’s because the Normans made French the language of England’s royal court, thereby adding a shot of Romance to the Germanic roots of Old English. Without William the Conqueror, we might not have had that other William, Shakespeare to give us phrases like ‘sceptred isle’ – both those two words have Classical/French derivations. And would English have become the lingua franca of Europe, the means by which a Swede can talk to a Greek, or a Portuguese to a Dutchman if it did not have roots in both sides of the continent’s linguistic divide?

Then again, the force that made English the most widely spoken language in the whole world was the British Empire. But would that empire have existed, or at least been as astonishingly powerful, without William’s victory at Hastings?

The Anglo-Saxons showed little desire to colonise. The Vikings were impelled to roam the world, the British Isles included by the poverty of their own soil. But the English inhabited one of the least challenging, most agreeable environments on earth. The Normans, however, were originally Vikings: the clue is in the name ‘Norse-men’. That Scandinavian aggression and longing to roam lived on in William’s veins. It informed his style of leadership, his ravenous hunger for territory and power and the ruthless governing culture he created around him.

His influence, transported through the ages in the blood and attitudes of monarchs and noblemen may have been the spark that lit the fire of English expansionism.

The English, having mastered their home islands – harnessing the Celtic spirit in the process – then set out to rule the world. No empire in history has ever been spread across more land, in more corners of the earth, ruling more peoples than the British. William would have loved that. Others would see it as a source of shame. But would the English have become such conquerors without the Conqueror himself? Personally, I doubt it. Likewise, would England have found itself bound up with European politics to the point of joining a Union if it had remained detached from the Continent? Would it now be facing Brexit? Hmm, let’s not even go there, shall we…

David Churchill is the author of the Leopards of Normandy series – the latest of which, CONQUEROR, is out now