Thursday, January 28

Cover Reveal & Giveaway: The Lord of Ireland

As writers, we of course do a lot of this:

But in the world of scribble-scribble-scribble (well, tap-tap-tap) there are certain occasions of huge excitement. One of those is when you finally get to release the cover of your latest novel to the world. I'm so thrilled with what my wonderful publishers, Thomas & Mercer, have produced.

So here it is, The Lord of Ireland, Book #3 in the Fifth Knight series!

And here's what it's all about:
England, 1185. John is a prince without prospect of a crown. As the youngest son of Henry II, he has long borne the hated nickname ‘Lackland’. When warring tribes and an ambitious Anglo-Norman lord threaten Henry’s reign in Ireland, John believes his time has finally come. Henry is dispatching him there with a mighty force to impose order.
Yet it is a thwarted young man who arrives on the troubled isle. John has not been granted its kingship—he is merely the Lord of Ireland, destined never to escape his father’s shadow. Unknown to John, Henry has also sent his right-hand man, Sir Benedict Palmer, to root out the traitors he fears are working to steal the land from him.
But Palmer is horrified when John disregards Henry’s orders and embarks on a campaign of bloodshed that could destroy the kingdom. Now Palmer has to battle the increasingly powerful Lord of Ireland. Power, in John’s hands, is a murderous force—and he is only just beginning to wield it.
You'll have to wait until April 05 2016 to read it, but you can pre-order it, which would of course make me:

It's available through all these links:
Book Depository
Barnes & Noble

But to start the celebrations early, I'm offering a signed paperback to one lucky commenter on this post. Entries remain open until midnight BST on March 31st 2016. All you have to do is leave one comment, along with your e-mail. To stop horrible spambots, it's best to put it in the format of dancing monk [at] dancingmonk [dot] com. The winner will be chosen at random. Oh, and the monk stops dancing at any abusive/automated/spam entries and just deletes those.

Thank you- and good luck!

My wonderful book cover image is copyright of Thomas & Mercer. The other images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Friday, January 22

Medieval Mythical Creatures

No matter how ardent a fan of natural history documentaries you might be, you may struggle to identify the creature on the right portrayed in this medieval manuscript.

Yes, it's the serra, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a fabulous marine monster.' The entry in the 1527 Noble Lyfe Bestes describes it thus: 'Serra is a fysshe with great tethe and on his backe he hathe sharpe fynnes lyke the combe of a cocke and iagged lyke a sawe.' While I think the serra is indeed quite marvellous, the OED means 'fabulous' in the sense of 'celebrated in fictitious tales.' But the medievals loved a fabulous creature and we find many examples of them in manuscripts and texts. I'd like to share a few personal favourites.


I doubt if anyone would struggle to describe a dragon: a mythical monster like a giant reptile, winged and breathing fire. Even today the national emblem of Wales is Y Ddraig Goch, The Red Dragon. This of course is a different type of dragon to the gwiber (viper). Celtic dragons were said to live at the bottom of deep lakes or guard trees and represent elemental power, often that of the earth. But with the spread of Christianity, the dragon came to represent paganism. For the medievals, the dragon was a symbol of demonic power or the sin of pride.

It features again and again as the vanquished opponent of the hero knight: Lancelot, Tristan and Gawain all fought and defeated dragons. Yvain rescued a lion from one. Dragons, sea serpents and giant worms appear on medieval maps, with the creatures representing wilderness and the unknown. Twelfth century chronicler Gerald of Wales viewed Ireland as a wild and inhospitable place but he reported in his Topography of that country, 'There are no dragons,' presumably good news to all.

It wasn't only knights who battled dragons during the medieval period. We can find over one hundred saints who had skirmishes with dragons or monstrous serpents. These include Saints Margaret of Antioch, Martha, Sylvester, Gregory and Armel. Most famously is England's Saint George. George may have been a soldier who achieved martyrdom in fourth century Palestine and had a modest reputation in the centuries that followed.

But it was a medieval bestseller that brought him huge popularity. The Legenda Aurea (The Golden Legend) was a collection of saints' lives compiled by James of Voragine and completed by 1265. In it, George excitingly saves a king's daughter who is about to be eaten by a dragon. George spears the beast, secures it with the princess's girdle and leads it before a huge city crowd where he beheads it. Everyone who sees it promptly becomes a Christian. Many miracles were attributed to him throughout the medieval period (usually the victory in battle kind) and by the end of the Middle Ages he was regarded as the patron saint of England.


According to medieval bestiaries, the unicorn was the wildest of all beasts and it was swift and fierce. The only way to capture it was for a virgin to stay close, whereupon the unicorn would lay its head in her lap, and so be able to be caught. The animal came to represent power and purity and the links to Christ and the Virgin resonated with the medievals. Wealthy collectors coveted unicorn horn as it was believed to have magical and medicinal powers, specifically against poison and convulsions.

Whatever these collectors believed they had paid for it certainly wasn't unicorn horn. No-one of course had actually seen one, although received wisdom was that the unicorn inhabited the Far East and India. One can only imagine the excitement when Marco Polo finally encountered one (several, in fact) in Java in the thirteenth century. Trouble was, the unicorn was actually a rhinoceros. We can hear Marco's disappointment at his discovery in his account of his travels: 'They delight in living in mire and in the mud. It is a hideous beast to look at. ' Most disappointingly of all: 'In no way like what we think and say in our counties, namely a beast that lets itself be taken into the lap of a virgin.' One can only concur: no-one, virgin or not, would want to give thigh room to a rhino.


The 1440 manuscript Sir Eglam has the appealing line: 'Ther dwellyth a yeaunt in a foreste.' A 'yeaunt' is of course a giant and many appear in medieval romances. We have another medieval bestseller to thank for their popularity. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bishop of St Asaph in Wales,  produced his Historia Regum Britanniae (‘The History of the Kings of Britain’) in around 1136.

In this work, King Arthur fights and slays giants. One of Arthur's quests is to seek the beard of one to make a leash for his dog. Geoffrey also says that Corineus, first human ruler of Cornwall, chose it because wrestling against giants was his favourite sport and Cornwall had lots of them. Gerald of Wales mentions giants bringing enormous stones to Ireland 'in ancient times.'

Representations of giants were also a popular feature of medieval pageants and processions. several major cities have records of their use. The figures were made from wood, wicker-work, and a coarse linen stiffened with paste. Many were brightly painted and were dressed in elaborate clothing. 1495 Chester had a family of them: giant, giantess, and two daughters.

Astonishingly, one processional giant still survives in England. The twelve foot high Salisbury Giant is around five hundred years old. He is sometimes called Saint Christopher, as were other processional giants. Christopher was a fourth century martyr that had become the patron saint of travellers by the Middle Ages. Many English churches had wall paintings and windows depicting Christopher, usually facing the main entrance, as it was said that anyone who saw an image of him would not die that day. Saint Christopher medals were already known to the medievals- one of Chaucer's pilgrims, the Yeoman, has one made of silver.


In early use, the mermaid is often identified with the siren of classical mythology. Recorded from Middle English, the word comes from mere with the obsolete sense ‘sea’  and 'maid'. The 1366 Romaunt Rose observes: 'Though we mermaydens clepe hem here,..Men clepen hem sereyns in Fraunce.' (Note: that sentence is in Middle English. But you don't need a translation. Read it aloud just as it is written and it makes sense. It is also great fun to do.)

Medieval mermaids are, unsurprisingly, a sinful creature. They are specifically accused of inspiring lust and sinful desire. Heresy is another of their fishy evils. 'Syrens' pop up in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia and we are assured that many swim around the seas surrounding the British Isles.


This very last mythical creature is my absolute favourite: The Shrieking Vegetable. Yes, it's the mandrake. The mandrake is a plant, the roots of which look (vaguely) like a human being planted upside-down. The medievals credited it with magical and medicinal properties and popular wisdom was that it would shriek when pulled from the ground. Those who dared to pick it would die as a result of their harvest.

Quick medieval thinking passed this fate onto a dog. Dog would be tied to mandrake, dog would be urged away from mandrake. Dog would pull it from the ground, so dog would die. Relief all round. In case you're wondering, that pale little chap in the picture above is a mandrake. People: if you see him amongst the carrots in your local supermarket, leave him alone. You have been warned.
All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Dear, I. C. B. & Kemp, Peter, eds: The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (2 ed.) (Oxford University Press 2006 Current Online Version: 2007)
Kieckhefer, Richard: Magic in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press (2000)
Knowles, Elizabeth, ed.: The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (2 ed.) Publisher: Oxford University Press (2005, Current Online Version: 2014)
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J & Lindow, J. (eds.): Medieval Folklore, Oxford University Press (2002)
Livingston, E.A.,ed.:The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2 rev.ed.), Oxford University Press (2006, Current Online Version: 2013)
MacKillop, James: A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology , Oxford University Press (2004, Current Online Version: 2004)
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Oxford: Berg (2007)
Simpson, Jacqueline & Roud, Steve: A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford University Press (2003, Current Online Version: 2003)

Note: I first wrote this post (or an edited version of it) for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It first appeared there on December 15 2015. 

Tuesday, January 5

A Crown of Blood & Honour Series: Guest Post T.K. Roxborogh

I'm delighted to welcome a guest to my first blog post of 2016, and one who is celebrating a special event. Fellow Thomas & Mercer author T.K. Roxborogh's  A Crown of Blood & Honour series is based on the aftermath of the story of Macbeth. The first novel, Banquo's Son, was released in 2015. The second in the series, Bloodlines, is out today, hence the celebrations. 

Welcome, T.K.! The premise of your A Crown of Blood and Honour series is intriguing. What inspired you to write it?

I had been teaching Shakespeare for twenty years. I've always wondered what happened after the play Macbeth ended. Especially the question ‘how DID Banquo’s son become king as the witches foretold?' One night, a character came so vividly in a dream, I knew I had a story - and a big story it was going to be.  Set ten years after the play’s story, the series follows the adventures of Banquo’s son, Fleance, as he navigates an unsettled Scotland, trying to find out why he is plagued by the ghost of his father (Hamlet-esk like).

Like I say: intriguing! And readers have of course loved the first book. What’s the nicest thing a reader has said about your work? 

“The series is a cross between William Shakespeare and Diana Gabaldon”. I was singing with joy for many weeks after this review from a bookseller and reader I admire hugely.

Somehow I think any author of historical fiction would be pleased with that one. So what drew you to historical fiction? Is it a genre you read? 

I don’t have a particular ‘genre’ really. I just love story. I do seem to be drawn to sweeping sagas. I can usually guarantee that I won’t be disappointed when I pick up an historical novel to read.

As with all historical fiction, there is of course the mountain called Research that we all have to climb. How do you approach it? Are there any snippets you found fascinating but couldn't find a place for in your novels?

There are ALWAYS snippets I can’t use (sigh). My current novel is set during the 1977/78 occupation of Bastion Point – a land dispute between local Māori and the crown. I’m fortunate to ‘remember’ the tv reports and the sense of the country but I have had to do an enormous amount of reading (and reading between the lines) of newspaper accounts, political propaganda, personal accounts. Recent history is no less challenging, I’ve discovered, than 11th Century.

Writing is (of course!) your passion. What about other interests? 

I’m a high school English teacher. Best professional/vocation in the world. I have an insatiable appetite for story: books, movies, poems, oral accounts.

We all have our historical heroes. If you could meet any historical figure, who would that be and why? 

Anyone who has stood up against injustice; who have pushed on and never given up the dream to make life better for others. People like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jnr, Kate Shepherd, Helen Keller.

What sums up the writing life for you?

98% procrastination (and complaining to the family about said procrastination), 2% frantic, fast, furious, driven and amazing output.

Yep: that sounds about right- and I'd bet that most other writers would agree with those numbers! What advice would you give to new and/or aspiring writers? 

Be aware of these setbacks during the journey to becoming a successful author:
Self doubt which can be paralysing. All writers get it no matter how good they are and how many awards they've won.
Not enough time so plan for and make the time.
Being in too much of a hurry to get a work out before it's had enough time to 'cook.'

Sound advice indeed and definitely worth heeding. What's next for T.K. Roxborogh? 

2016 is a year of new beginnings: job, city, home. I’ll be finishing a novel for Scholastic NZ and working on shaping the outline of the next historical novel set just after the end of the third book in the series – with an eye on the battle of Hastings as the marker.

Exciting times, indeed. Thanks, T.K. for stopping by and congratulations once again on Bloodlines

T. K. Roxborogh is an award winning writer and secondary school English teacher crazy about reading, writing, Shakespeare, Dr Who, Star Trek and sometimes just crazy. She lives in New Zealand and has been a teacher since 1989. She is the author of over twenty-five published works across a range of genres: novels, plays for the classroom, Shakespearean texts, English grammar books and adult non-fiction. She teaches English at a secondary school, writes and reads at every opportunity and, with her husband, runs around after her family - both the two- and four-legged kind. Roxborogh loves watching movies and TV shows, and staying in her pyjamas for as long as possible.

Visit T.K.'s website at She tweets as @banquotrilogy

You can find her books at:
Note: all images used are either copyright of T.K. Roxborogh or are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Tuesday, December 8

Medievals and Their Dogs

If I were to ask you to name a twelfth-century figure who was known to be afraid of dogs, you are unlikely to come up with Genghis Khan. Yes, he of the Mongol hordes infamy and conqueror of twelve million square miles had a fear of our four-legged friends. But before we pour too much scorn on the mighty conqueror's head, it's worth reminding ourselves of the animals which he feared. Mongol dogs were a type of large mastiff, know for their savagery. Travellers reported that the dogs could leap at a man even if he sat on the back of a horse or a camel, and described them as 'bony brutes...loud-voiced and vicious.' Perhaps, then, Genghis was more realist than coward.

Mastiff-type dogs were one just one breed of dog favoured by the medievals. Alaunts were the largest and heaviest of these, guarding the houses and flocks of their owners. Their size, weight and powerful jaws made them a popular choice as attack dogs in the brutal pastimes of bear-baiting and bull-baiting. They could also be used for hunting.

Hunting with hounds played a major role in the life of the medieval nobility. Stags and harts became the preferred quarry. Some packs of hounds stayed on a huntsman's leash; others ran free alongside their mounted masters. Dog packs could range from around twelve animals to up to fifty. In the 1360s, Edward III spent the exorbitant sum of £80 on his pack of seventy dogs and the huntsmen that looked after and worked the animals. Henry of Lancaster paid a goldsmith to make a silver chain for one of his dogs.

The fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains scenes of hunting dogs in action. The unknown poet tells us 'Such a clamour arose from the assembled hounds, that the rocks around rang with the noise.' The dogs bring down deer, but meet their match when they disturb a wild boar: 'Full oft he stands at bay, And maims the pack on all sides. He hurts the hounds and they, Full piteously howl and yell.'

The Gawain poet also shows his appreciation of one particular breed: 'And the greyhounds so great, Could pull down prey in the blink of an eye.' The greyhound had a peerless reputation among the medievals for its speed and for taking down quarry. I doubt if these qualities of the breed would surprise many people. But the greyhound who was also a saint perhaps will.

On a visit to thirteenth-century Lyon, the cleric Stephen de Bourbon discovered to his horror that the Saint Guinefort revered by so many was, in fact, a greyhound. In life, the dog was alleged to have saved the baby of its master from a snake. The master had not realised, believing the bloody-jawed dog to have killed the infant and so slew the dog. He realised his mistake, and the dog's loyalty, when he found the dead snake. He erected a shrine to Guinefort, which grew in popularity. Local women carried out rituals at the site of the dog's death, praying for their sickly children.

Numerous examples exist from medieval times of people attributing deep loyalty to dogs. Gerald of Wales praised canine faithfulness. People believed that dogs would never desert their masters, would die for them or would hunt down their master's murderer if necessary. Such attribution even found its way into heraldry. John of Guildford's  fourteenth century Tractatus de armis has the heraldic symbol for a dog representing a loyal man who would never desert his master and who would lay down his life for him.

One could say that all of the above relationships with dogs are of their time. But there are many instances of people enjoying dogs exactly as we do today. People loved to see performing dogs. There's a twelfth-century account of a dog imitating actions on command. Dancing dogs, their owners accompanying them on drums and whistles, proved a huge draw at fairs and feast days. A tenth-century Scandinavian king employed an entertainer with a dog to make him laugh.

People kept dogs as pets, too. Many people favoured smaller breeds. The members of religious houses frequently kept dogs as pets. Chaucer's fictional Prioress in The Canterbury Tales has small dogs, '...which she fed, With roasted meat, and milk, and wastel bread.' 

And, all those centuries ago, people loved their dogs too. The very real twelfth-century Bernard of Clairvaux is credited with the popular phrase: 'Qui me amat, amet et canem meum. Who loves me will love my dog also.' or, more succinctly, 'Love me, love my dog.' But my personal favourite is from John of Salisbury's 1159  Policraticus. He simply says: 'Having a dog at your heel is most comforting.' Quite.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Cawley, A.C. ed. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. (1976)
McLynn, Frank. Genghis Khan: The Man who Conquered the World. London: The Bodley Head. (2015)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Oxford: Berg (2007)
I wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. It was first published there in October 2015. 

Wednesday, November 18

Godiva the Heiress: Guest Post by Eliza Redgold.

I'm delighted to welcome a guest to my blog today: author, academic and unashamed romantic, Eliza Redgold. Her medieval, Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva, was released by St Martin’s Press in 2015.

We all know the legend of the eleventh-century Lady Godiva, who famously rode naked through the streets of Coventry, covered only by her long, flowing hair. As the story goes, she begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. Lord Leofric demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town. There are various endings to Godiva's ride, that all the people of Coventry closed their doors and refused to look upon their liege lady (except for 'peeping Tom') and that her husband, in remorse, lifted the tax. Naked is an original version of Godiva's tale with a twist that may be closer to the truth: by the end of his life Leofric had fallen deeply in love with Lady Godiva. 

It's an intriguing premise for a novel but the history is equally fascinating. So over to Eliza...

Lady Godiva or Countess Godgyfu (meaning God's Gift) in the Anglo-Saxon version of her name spent some of her life in what is now called the British Midlands. The area now surrounding Coventry is heavily industrialized and bears little resemblance to the largely rural land of her time when it would have been interspersed with villages huddled around common pasture land. Close by, the Forest of Arden would have stretched for many more wooded miles than it does today. As it was to Shakespeare, Arden would have been well known to Godiva.

Anglo-Saxon England was a challenging time and place for a woman. Constant Danish invasion by those later called Vikings, though the Saxons called them Danes, occurred many times in the tenth and eleventh century. Records suggest that Godiva was more than equal to the challenges of her day. Her name appears in records as the only female landowner who retained her lands not only against the Danes but also later against the Norman invasion of 1066. Her status as a landowner indicates that she inherited her own estate.

In Naked, I placed Godiva firmly as the heiress and defender of “the Middle Lands.”  Saxon noblewomen could inherit and govern property and some were certainly warriors.  Some were also peace weavers or in old Anglo-Saxon fripwebba (commonly spelled 'friþuwebbe') .  These women were known to marry a man from an opposing tribe to establish peace or end war. Queen Wealtheow in Beowulf, was such a woman. To be a peace weaver was a mantle of honour. This became part of the plot in Naked.

Ancient records suggest Godiva was a genuine philanthropist. She supported monasteries, built abbeys and churches, and aided the poor.  The original cathedral in Coventry was founded by Godiva and she donated rich garments and jewelry to the city. She had one son, Elfgar, and his daughter Eadlgyth – Godiva’s granddaughter - had two marriages, the second to Harold II; the King of England who was killed in the Norman invasion of 1066 led by William the Conqueror. Godiva’s family became not merely Saxon nobility, but Saxon royalty.  Yet it’s the legend of Lady Godiva herself that has stood the test of time.

I loved the idea of Godiva being the owner of her lands and this too became a crucial part of the plot in Naked. As an Anglo-Saxon leader in her day Godiva would have been in charge of caring for her people and for meting out justice. Her responsibilities would have included governing her shire and holding a town meeting called an althing. At an althing, it was the lord (or lady’s) practice to hear any concerns and collect the taxes, so this would have been Godiva’s duty. Any appeals would have to be heard fairly and justice against wrongdoing would be swift. It could also be cruel – some crimes had the penalty of the cost of a limb, but there was also famous Anglo-Saxon fairness, including compensation for the loss of a loved one.

Godiva doubtless would have faced prejudice because of her gender, but I believe she was more than up to it. After all, it was to save her people that Lady Godiva made her famous ride. What a woman!

What a woman, indeed! Many thanks, Eliza for sharing Godiva's history with me. You can find out more about all of Eliza's novels (plus a little bit more about Eliza) below. 
Eliza Redgold writes historical fiction (St Martin’s Press) and romance (Harlequin).

Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva was released internationally by St Martin’s Press New York in 2015. Her ‘Romance your Senses’ series of contemporary romances are published by Harlequin. They include Black Diamonds, Hide and Seek and Wild Flower.

Eliza is also contracted to Harlequin Historical for two upcoming Victorian historical romances. Look out for Enticing Benedict Cole in November 2015.

Eliza Redgold is based upon the old, Gaelic meaning of her name, Dr Elizabeth Reid Boyd. English folklore has it that if you help a fairy, you will be rewarded with red gold. She has presented academic papers on women and romance and is a contributor to the forthcoming Encyclopaedia of Romance Fiction. She was born in Irvine, Scotland on Marymass Day and currently lives in Australia.

Follow Eliza Redgold  on
Twitter: @ElizaRedgold

or subscribe to her newsletter at
All images are either copyright of Eliza Redgold or are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

Sunday, October 25

Medieval Royal Beasts

Collections of exotic and curious animals have a long history, with Menageries known from ancient times. Yet most medieval people had never seen such animals in real life. They knew they existed, having heard of them from the Bible, or seeing them represented in carvings or pictures. The other source of knowledge about animals came from bestiaries. A Bestiary is a collection of descriptions of a wide variety of animals, birds and fish- real and imaginary. And because this was the medieval period, each description contained a hefty dollop of moralising explanation (of which more later).

Yet from the 12th century, people were looking increasingly to other lands. The Crusades, long-distance pilgrimages and international diplomacy, along with ever-expanding trade routes made for experiences that were out of the ordinary. And this applied to animals, too.

Elephant & Hare

Now those creatures that had previously been out of reach could be brought back to Europe from far-flung countries. Their rarity made them a luxury and a means to display huge amounts of wealth and the highest status. These displays of exotic animals were not something to be shared with the public in many cases, but to impress other rulers or aristocracy who came to visit.

Medieval royal menageries existed in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland- and England. William the Conqueror had a collection of exotic beasts. But it was his son, Henry I, who would house the collections at Woodstock Palace in Oxfordshire. What he held there may surprise you. In around 1110, Henry enclosed a park to keep lions, leopards, lynxes, camels and a porcupine.

Norman Lion on Cloak
(C) E.M. Powell

I did mention earlier that, for the medievals, each animal had to be put in a moral context as well as a physical one. Lions were on the A-list. They were used as symbol for God and of course a winged Lion is used to represent St. Mark, one of the four Evangelists. They were often shown in pictures as sleeping with open eyes, an image which implied vigilance and to symbolise Christ’s continued life after the crucifixion.

Norman Lion on Cloak
(C) E.M. Powell

Lions of course were also the ultimate status symbol. The lion was believed to rule the animal kingdom. The Aberdeen Bestiary (written and illuminated in England around 1200) states with great authority:
“The lion is the mightiest of the beasts; he will quail at the approach of none.”

So if you were a man who could keep a lion, captured and within your power, then it must surely have added to your powerful image. (Perhaps a bit like the modern equivalent of driving a very expensive, fast car.) To be said to have lion-like features was to signify bravery. In Arthurian romances, the lion is presented as being a suitable companion for a chivalric knight.

Leopards and female lions were often confused with each other in their pictorial representation. But as regards their moral context: lions, they are not. The Aberdeen Bestiary has this:
“The leopard is a spotted wild animal who is very swift.”


So far, so good.  Then:
It is produced by the adultery between a lioness and a pard. Of the pard: the pard is a species which has a mottled skin, is extremely swift and thirsts for blood; for it kills at a single bound… Their mating produces a third species. As Pliny says in his Natural History: the lion mates with the pard, or the pard with the lioness, and from both degenerate.
Many of you will be asking, what’s a pard? My only answer can be Leo + pard. See? And it was all going on in those pens at Woodstock. Woodstock, where we also had lynxes in the pens.

Today, we know lynxes as members of the cat family. They are traditionally linked with keenness of sight. The expression lynx-eyed is recorded from the late 16th century. For a medieval knight with excellent eyesight, the lynx was an ideal animal to put on his coat of arms.


But the lynx was known to the medievals for something else, too: the lynx stone. A lynx stone (or Ligurium/ Lyngurium) was used in an obscure type of medieval and early modern medicine: the therapeutic application of gemstones. Now, curing yourself by deft application of a diamond or two sounds like it might be quite nice.  Unfortunately, the lynx stone was a gem stone made of frozen lynx urine.

The Aberdeen Bestiary knows all about it:
Ligurium comes from the urine of the lynx. You can see through the middle of the stone as through glass. The beast hides its urine in the sand lest it should be found. The virtue of ligurium is that it takes away stomach-ache and staunches.
In case anyone has tummy trouble and are thinking of heading for the nearest lynx: please don’t. Although the lynx is represented over and over with its little gem of wee beneath its hairy self, the lynx stone *whispers* isn’t real.


Woodstock had camels, too. Because of the Crusades, these animals were becoming increasingly well-known. Many Crusaders appreciated them as a working animal.  This writer of a bestiary was still a bit sniffy about them however: “Camels can become unrestrained with lust.”


Even our last named resident at Woodstock, the porcupine, wasn’t let off the hook. Most of the accounts in bestiaries claim that porcupines simply spear fruit to bring home to their families. Others prefer a more robust use of porcupine quills. One is that the quills can be symbolically pointing towards one’s enemies. The other is that the porcupine is a symbol for sin, and just as when a sinner is challenged and presents denial, the porcupine rolls into a ball and presents even more sharp points.  It says a lot about the medieval mindset that even a poor old porcupine can be drafted in as a representation for sin. (I do hope hedgehogs were let off.)

But it was all change in 1210. For here, we find that the Royal Menagerie is setting up shop at none other than the Tower of London and the first lions are recorded here in that year.

The Tower of London
(C) E.M. Powell

In 1235, King Henry III received three lions from the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II. These three beasts were soon depicted on the King of England’s arms, but were referred to as leopards, not lions. They were most likely lions, as Norman lions were not usually depicted with manes.

It wasn’t only lions at the Tower. King Haakon of Norway sent Henry III a ‘white bear’ in 1252, and it is believed that this was a polar bear.  The bear was taken to the Thames to swim and to catch fish.

Even if it was a polar bear, many medieval people were still familiar with bears as animals, either as animals to be hunted or used in the hideous amusement of bearbaiting. One could not say that the new arrival in Lent 1255 was in any way familiar: a male African elephant, gifted to Henry III by King Louis IX of France.

Benedictine chronicler Matthew Paris hastened to the Tower to witness this astounding beast for himself, along with those who flocked to see the novel sight.” According to Matthew the elephant was:
ten years old and ten feet high, was greyish-black, and had no fur but a very hard, rough hide. It was ponderous and robust, and indeed was a prodigious and monstrous animal. It used its trunk to obtain food and drink, and had small eyes in the upper part of its head.
He then drew it, too.

Elephant, by Matthew Paris

The Aberdeen Bestiary also has its say on elephants: “The elephant strikes fear into bulls, yet fears the mouse.” And charmingly, if strangely: “The little elephant has this characteristic, that when some of its hair and bones have been burnt, nothing evil approaches, not even a dragon.” Phew.

But whatever the fate of a little elephant, its big brother at the Tower did not survive for long. It is recorded that he died on 14 February 1257, just two short years later. One cannot imagine that his ‘grooms’ (despite being extremely well-paid) had much of an idea of how to properly care for him. His life in his cramped surroundings must have been bewildering and wretched. It can’t have been much better for the polar bear, led to swim in the crowded and noisy Thames, or for any of the other creatures who lived there.

Royal Beasts- Polar Bear
Jonathan Cardy- Public Domain

Regrettably, none of the Menagerie’s animals lived for very long, although the Menagerie itself continued to grow over the centuries. In the 1830s, it finally left the Tower for its new home at Regent’s Park. In 2011, Historic Royal Palaces commissioned artist Kendra Haste to recreate some of the animals in sculpture. The installation, Royal Beasts, will be in place until 2021. The beasts are back.


The Aberdeen Bestiary: (Note: you can view the whole Bestiary online & I highly recommend it.)
Cassidy, Richard & Clasby, Michael: 
Curl, James S, & Wilson, Susan, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture. Oxford University Press (3rd ed) online 2015
Historic Royal Palaces: Experience the Tower of London (2013)
James Stevens  and Susan Wilson
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Berg (2007)
Walton, Steven .

All images are in the Public Domain
Note: I first published this post (or an edited version of it) on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on September 17th 2015.

Tuesday, October 13

Hugh de Lacy: Anglo-Norman King of Ireland?

The 26th of July marks the anniversary of the death of one of Henry II's most successful lords, the Anglo-Norman Hugh de Lacy. De Lacy died on that day in 1186 at Durrow, now part of County Offaly, in the Republic of Ireland. His obituary in the Irish annals calls him "King of Meath, Bréifne and Airgialla".

De Lacy did not meet a peaceful end or even one in the heat of battle, where he might have been prepared. His was a brutal and sudden end, even by medieval standards: he was beheaded as he inspected his new castle at Durrow. So why was this Anglo-Norman knight referred to in such lofty terms, and what caused him to be so viciously cut down?

Hugh de Lacy- as drawn by Gerald of Wales
De Lacy was originally Lord of Weobley in Herefordshire. His father had joined the Knights Templar and had signed his lordship to Robert, his eldest son. Robert died childless, so Hugh inherited the title, which he had not expected to do, and became an important tenant of the crown. That wasn't enough to satisfy him. He married Rose of Monmouth, the widow of the powerful Baderon, increasing his prosperity. And he liked to acquire land, whether in England Wales or Normandy. he also had a rather unfortunate tendency to just take it.

The Chapel at Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle, Co. Meath
We know quite a lot about de Lacy as a person, as Gerald of Wales, the famous chronicler at Henry II's court, wrote extensively of him. He was probably not the most handsome of men. Gerald's description certainly does not flatter: "What Hugh’s complexion and features were like, he was dark, with dark, sunken eyes and flattened nostrils. His face was grossly disfigured down the right side as far as his chin by a burn, the result of an accident. His neck was short, his body hairy and sinewy. He was a short man. His build- misshapen.'"Gerald even included a picture of him in his Conquest of Ireland. 

As for personality, Gerald tends to bounce from one opinion to another (and Gerald was always good for an opinion). He describes de Lacy as "resolute and reliable...restrained from excess by French sobriety. A man of great honesty and good sense." But less favourably when "after the death of his wife [Rose of Monmouth], he was a womanizer and enslaved by lust, not for just one woman, but for many."

The view from the top of Trim Castle
In 1171, de Lacy went with Henry II to Ireland. The Norman grip on the country was in the very earliest stages and there was a lot of what de Lacy liked up for grabs: land. The kingdom of Mide (Meath) was a particularly attractive prize and de Lacy made sure he won it. In a fight with the native Irish ruler, Tigernan Ua Ruairc, de Lacy was the victor. He achieved that victory through the beheading of Ua Ruairc, in an ominous foreshadowing of his own terrible end. Henry granted him Meath and gave him Dublin as well.

Trim Castle
De Lacy proved to be an invaluable asset in Ireland. Even Gerald is pleased: he says de Lacy 'made an excellent job of fortifying Leinster and Meath with castles."  Trim Castle, his seat in Meath, still stands today and is remarkable in its size and scale.

Staircase, Trim Castle
The trouble was, de Lacy was a bit too good at what he did- certainly as far as Henry was concerned. The King tried to clip de Lacy's wings, recalling him to England several times and granting the lordship of Ireland to Henry's own son, John, who was just nine years old at the time. But de Lacy was one step ahead. His first wife, Rose, had died around 1180. He married again, but this time he took an Irish wife, a daughter of the High-King Rory O'Connor (Ruaidri Ua Conchobair) of Connacht. Some records name this woman as Rose also, but this is likely to be a confusion.

The marriage of Strongbow & Aoife
Daniel Maclise, mid 19th century
This marriage was not well received by Henry. He had suspicions that de Lacy was attempting a strategic marriage in the same way that another of his men, Richard fitzGilbert de Clare (Strongbow) had done a decade earlier. Gerald certainly had a dim view of de Lacy's ambitions: "He was avaricious and greedy for gold and more ambitious for his own advancement and pre-eminence than was proper."

John, Lord of Ireland
Henry's solution was to send his son, John, now nineteen, to Ireland in 1185 to assert his authority as Lord of Ireland. John's mission, which started with him pulling the beards of the Irish dignitaries who came to greet him at Waterford, was not a success. He came back after nine months, complaining to his father that de Lacy had been conspiring against him. This is highly unlikely. John was more than capable of failures of his own making.

Whether de Lacy had designs on taking Ireland from Henry, we will never know, for his life was brutally cut short. On July 26th, 1186, de Lacy was inspecting his new castle at Durrow when he was murdered by a single assassin. Contemporary accounts tell us that the murderer had concealed an axe beneath his cloak, and he took de Lacy’s head off with one savage blow, and his head and body fell into the ditch of the castle.

Durrow today- the motte where de Lacy died is in the trees beyond.

The murderer was sent by a chieftain of Meath, Sinnach Ua Catharnaig, a man known as The Fox. Sinnach claimed that he ordered the murder to atone for the wanton destruction of land sacred to the great saint, Columcille, on which de Lacy had built his castle at Durrow. It's more likely that is was simple revenge. One of Sinnach’s sons was slain by Henry’s men some eight years ago, when Hugh de Lacy was the King’s representative in Ireland. Sinnach had always vowed to avenge that death.

Whatever the real motive, it solved a problem for Henry. The powerful threat that was Hugh de Lacy was no more. Chronicler William of Newburgh recorded that 'the news was gladly received by Henry.'

Saint Columcille's Well, Durrow
I visited various sites that relate to Hugh de Lacy when researching my novel of medieval Ireland, The Lord of Ireland. Durrow is a very quiet, beautiful place. I can see why anyone would chose to live there, as de Lacy did. And the well and the ancient high cross are still standing, just as they were the day he died, 829 years ago.

Durrow High Cross- ninth century
All photos are copyright E.M. Powell 2015.

Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Durrow Abbey Conservation Plan, Office of Public Works, (2005)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese, Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, A Question of Timing: Walter de Lacy's seisin of Meath 1189-94, proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Vol. 109C, pp. 165-194 (2009)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
This post first appeared on the English Historical Authors Blog on 25th July 2015. I wrote it to coincide with the anniversary of Hugh de Lacy's death.