Book review: Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonald Fraser

Flashman at the Charge by George MacDonal Fraser

One of the best Flashman novels, where our hero, to his horror, finds himself riding in the Charge of the Light Brigade (while simultaneously coping with explosive wind), dumps a naked nubile woman from a sled to slow down pursuers and foils fiendish Russian plots to take British India. Given the events in Ukraine, Fraser’s depiction of the Imperial Russian mindset appears all too accurate.

Book review: Tarchon by Nick Brown

Tarchon by Nick Brown

Nick Brown’s Agent of Rome series is one of my favourite historical fiction series, but it has never really received the recognition, or sales, that it deserves. I had thought that the series was finished, so it was a real delight to see a new novel from Nick. However, while it inhabits the same world as the previous novels in the series – the world of the grain men, the secret agents of Imperial Rome – the protagonist this time is different: Tarchon, a street youth from the western capital of Empire, Byzantium.

The book exhibits all Brown’s strengths as an author: the characters are well drawn, the setting inked in with just the right amount of detail, the plot motors along at a great pace. But it also shows perhaps why the books have not been more widely popular – and this is to the credit of the author. The truth is that most historical fiction that features anyone wielding a sword is basically the male equivalent of chick lit, allowing the 21st century reader to imagine himself playing the role of a dashing hero while getting the girl and a few fetching but not disfiguring scars along the way. There’s no real engagement with the alieness of the past, which truly is a different country: this is history used as set dressing.

Brown’s work, on the other hand, features heroes that are not just flawed, they are in many ways positively ordinary. Cassius Corbulo, in the previous novels, and Tarchon in this one, are young men who lose as many fights as they win, who rely on wits more than weapons but even so still have plans come awry, and who are plausibly figures of their time rather than ours. As such, it makes for novels that are, objectively, much better than the run-of-the-mill historical fiction, but because they don’t tick the boxes for many readers they haven’t received the readership they deserve.

Hopefully, his small but devoted band of readers will be sufficient to persuade Nick to continue writing Agent of Rome novels. And if you know anyone who wants a more intelligent and authentic take on historical fiction, direct him or her to this series.

The Two Saint Eulalias

Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse

The Romans were not an imaginative people save in one important area: pain. A culture that had turned sadism into both public spectacle and, for some of the imperial families, private sport, really let themselves go when it came to devising new and interesting ways of putting people to death. Crucifixion was, of course, the old standby, easily carried out by any Tom, Dick or Horace, but for a properly painful end the Romans really let their fancies fly.

So the gruesome tortures meted on 13-year-old St Eulàlia of Barcelona are, to some degree, support for the historicity of her end. What is somewhat more unusual was that there were, according to legend, two martyred Eulalias: Eulalia of Barcelona and Eulalia of Mérida. Both were young girls, both were martyred in Spain, and both suffered extreme tortures during their martyrdom.

Of course, there are some historians who insist that St Eulàlia of Barcelona and St Eulàlia of Méribel are the same person on the spurious grounds that there can’t really have been two 13-year-old virgins with the same name martyred for the Faith.

Nonsense, say the Catalans, hanging on to Laia, as she is known, for all they are worth. Besides, our little saint suffered much more than yours. Eulàlia of Mérida was merely tortured with hooks and burnt alive; Eulàlia of Barcelona really suffered. In 303 the brave girl went to Barcelona’s governor, Dacian, to tell him off for his cruelty to the city’s Christians. Since Dacian’s orders came straight from the Emperor Diocletian he rapidly sized up the relative advantages of clemency for the Christians or doing what the emperor said, and sentenced Eulàlia to as many tortures as she had years.

These included being whipped; torn with hooks; rolled down what is today the Baixada de Santa Eulàlia in a barrel filled with nails and glass; having hot oil poured on her wounds; being put in a flea-filled box; having her breasts cut off; and, the appropriate final punishment, crucifixion. Legend has it that Eulàlia suffered all these torments in silence.

What is not disputable is that Dacian may have miscalculated the percentages. Today, Eulàlia is the co-patron saint of Barcelona, with her feast day on 12 February, and she is particularly revered as an intercessor for children, while Dacian is a forgotten functionary of a failed imperial persecution.

St George, Cervantes and Shakespeare

The Wedding of St George and Princess Sabra 1857 Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882 Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the Art Fund 1916

What do William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and St George have in common? They all died on 23 April, with the master dramaturge and literary don arranging well-nigh simultaneous exits in 1616. Of course, we’re slightly less certain about the exact date of St George’s death – the more sceptical among historians doubting the fact of his birth let alone the time of his passing – but that has not stopped Catalans from amalgamating the feast of their patron saint with the celebrations of the two literary lions.

La Diada de Sant Jordi (St George’s day) had been associated since medieval times with lovers, the paramours giving gifts of roses, but in the 1920s the writer Vicent Clavel Andrés proposed marking the birth of Cervantes as a book day. A little tweaking saw the date changed to the more universal 23 April in 1930 and since then the Dia del Libre has gone from strength to strength, with Unesco declaring, in 1995, that 23 April should be World Book and Copyright Day.

Thus this most adaptable and travelled of saints makes his way into the 21st century world of supra-national organisations and officially endorsed culture. George has come a long way from the little town in Cappadocia where he was, possibly, born. Of course, there is no historical source for where he came from, nor for the idea that he was a Roman soldier, and not even that he was martyred. But then, there aren’t that many historical sources at all for obscure 3rd century soldiers. What we do have, however, are traces of a man whose mark in history has been all but obscured by the accumulation of later legends. His cult spread rapidly through the eastern Roman empire and by 494 he was cautiously canonised by Pope Gelasius I as one of those ‘whose names are justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God’.

Nature abhors a vacuum and the religious mind dislikes a blank canvas, so the story of St George soon began to be filled in. The oldest traditions state that he was a soldier who refused to abjure his religion despite the orders of the Emperor Diocletian, who launched the last great persecution of Christians in 303, and was beheaded on 23 April. George’s sufferings soon underwent inflation, taking in poison drinks, being cut into pieces, molten lead and being sawn into two. If some of these sufferings sound a trifle terminal, don’t worry since George was restored to life three times before finally expiring. Pope Gelasius, while accepting George’s sanctity, was somewhat more skeptical about his invulnerability and forbade the promulgation of these lurid legends.

The cult of St George really took off with the Crusades. The knights that survived brought the Cappadocian home with them, and in the 13th century the best seller of the age, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, featured a new twist to the tale: dragon killing.

George became the emblem of the courtly, chivalric culture of medieval Europe, the ideal to be attempted by the rowdy, licentious but essentially pious nobility and a hero to the peasantry who took every advantage of clerically sanctioned days off. Since St George offered protection to those travelling by sea (as well as soldiers, farmers, horsemen, lepers and shepherds among others – he was a busy saint) port cities like Barcelona, Venice and Genoa adopted him as patron.

The saint, who didn’t get where he got without results, reciprocated. According to Jaume I George helped the Catalans conquer the city of Mallorca, and the soldier saint played his part in a number of the battles of the long Reconquista, including the 1237 victory at Puig that opened the way for the recapture of the province of Valencia.

Despite a dip in popularity during the Enlightenment and the determined assaults of some recent scholars, St George’s recent move into the literary realm suggests that the old warhorse still has some legs in him. This is one old soldier who positively relishes new tricks.

The Man Who Wrote Everything

Ramon Lull (c.1232 – 1315/1316).

He’s not, strictly speaking, a saint, only a blessed, but Ramon Llull (1232-1316) deserves a place in any list of holy men. However, the Fool of Love was for the first 30 years of his life fool to an altogether more earthly sort of love. Llull was attached to the household of the future James II of Majorca and he eventually became its seneschal. Marriage and two children did nothing to cool his ardent pursuit of the court’s women, to whom he composed many songs in the romantic troubadour style of the period.

‘The more apt I found myself to sin the more I allowed my nature to obey the dictates of my body,’ he wrote later. Not even the shock of one of his amours yielding to his advances, only to reveal breasts ravaged by cancer, could stop his philandering.

But then, in the summer of 1263, while Ramon was busy writing another song in honour of a new love, he looked up from his work to see ‘our Lord Jesus Christ hanging upon the Cross’. Llull, his poetic flow seriously interrupted, escaped to his bed, no doubt assuming that a good night’s sleep would clear his mind of such troublesome visions. But when he next returned to songwriting, the figure returned and a terrified Llull again retired to bed. Ramon was no dilettante libertine and three more times he returned to his love song, only to be faced with the same figure.

Llull decided that these must be authentic visions rather than mental phantoms and he set himself to working out what they meant. In the end he decided that ‘our Lord God Jesus Christ desired none other thing than that he should wholly abandon the world and devote himself to His service’. This he decided to do by trying to convert the unbelievers (in Ramon’s world, this meant chiefly Muslims), by writing a book, ‘the best in the world, against the errors of unbelievers’, and setting up colleges to teach Arabic to missionaries.

Ramon then sold his possessions, though keeping some back to support his wife and children, distributed the proceeds to the poor and spent the next nine years in study. It was only then, approaching his 40th year, that Llull began the literary and missionary work for which he would become famous, known in later centuries as the Doctor Illuminatus, the Illuminated Doctor, from the series of mystical visions he had on Mount Randa in Majorca.

The sheer scale of his labours almost defy belief. Llull was the author of 265 works in Catalan, Arabic and Latin; the writer of the seminal Catalan novel, Blanquerna; a missionary in almost constant travel between Europe and north Africa; a teacher at the University of Paris when it was the foremost institution of learning in Christendom; a suitor at papal and imperial courts; and the originator of the Art, a systematisation of, well, everything with respect to God’s attributes. This was the book, ‘the best in the world’, that Llull believed showed the truth and which he illustrated through diagrams, tables and, literally, millions of words.

This indefatigable man continued working throughout his long life. At 75 we find him, on a mission to north Africa, ‘beaten with sticks and with fists, and forcibly dragged along by his beard, which was very long, until he was locked in the latrine of the thieves’ jail’. Ramon continued in this vein until the end and whether his death occurred in Tunis, or on a ship sailing back, we can say that few men have ever packed so much life and adventure into the second half of a life.

The Men Who Sold Themselves

St Peter Nolasco (1189 – 1256), founder of the Mercedarians

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. 

During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption.

It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?

Our Lady of Montserrat

The statue of Our Lady venerated at the Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery in mountains near Barcelona, Spain.

On 25 March 1522 a young soldier hung up his sword in front of a small statue. He crossed himself and looked at the dark features of a crowned woman and the child seated upon her knee, hand raised in benediction. Then he turned and limped away, his leg still weak from the cannonball that had wrecked it. He would wage war no more. The man was Ignatius of Loyola and he would go on to found the Jesuits. The statue was the Black Virgin of Montserrat, and she would go on to greet pilgrims by the million.

Black Madonnas – that is pictures or statues of Mary that depict her with dark skin – are widespread through the Catholic world and often come with a reputation for working miracles. Theories as to why Mary should be represented thus vary from the spurious (they’re really depictions of Isis and Horus) to the practical (centuries of candle smoke have stained them) but whatever the reason they always seem to evoke popular devotion.

La Moreneta, or ‘Little Dark One’ as the Virgin of Montserrat is usually called, is no exception. Pious enthusiasm dates the statue to St Luke in the first century, po-faced scepticism to the 12th. Whichever is true – and there is also evidence for the statue having been hidden from the Moors and then rediscovered in the ninth century – what is certain is how quickly the statue became a major centre of pilgrimage from the 12th century onwards. This was no doubt helped by the identification of the mountain as the site of the Holy Grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s medieval romance Parsifal. But what really swung it was the miracles. And it certainly didn’t hurt that King Alfonse X ascribed miracles to Our Lady of Montserrat in his canticles, songs composed in honour of the Blessed Virgin that are still sung. For when all is said and done, one can gauge the popularity of shrines by their results: those that produce get the pilgrims, those that don’t fade into obscurity. By these standards the Little Dark One must still be doing the business: even today more than two million people visit each year.

The Three-Time Queen

Emma of Normandy (c.985 – 6 March 1052). Queen of England, Norway and Denmark.

In 1002, Emma, the daughter of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, married Æthelred, soon to be known as the Unready. As queen of England, Emma produced two sons, Edward and Alfred. But when Æthelred fled the country in the face of Swein Forkbeard’s Viking invasion, Emma left too, taking her sons with her. But, in a telling commentary on her marriage, the queen made her own way to Normandy.

When Æthelred died, Edmund Ironside, his son from his first marriage, led the fight against a new Viking invasion led by Cnut, the son of Swein Forkbeard. But when Edmund died, leaving the crown to Cnut by default, the Dane nevertheless needed to shore up the legitimacy of his claim to the throne. What better way to do that than by marrying the queen?

So Emma married the son of the man who had deposed her own first husband. Even then, it was a tale that required a little spinning, and Emma made sure it would be spun in her favour.

Emma commissioned a monk to write her version of these events; by her telling, Cnut wooed her back to England and into marriage with gifts and promises. Given the political nature of such a match, Emma may not have had much of a choice in the matter. But power mattered to the queen and she was willing to make sacrifices to get and keep power: in this case, the children of her first marriage, Edward and Alfred.

Emma left the two boys behind in Normandy while she set about producing a new heir to the throne with Cnut. According to her book, the political marriage became a true partnership and contemporary records bear this out: Emma had far higher status as Cnut’s queen than she had ever enjoyed as Æthelred’s wife.

When Cnut died in 1035, the succession seemed clear: surely it would go to Harthacnut, his son with Emma. But Cnut had produced another son, Harold Harefoot, with his first wife and Harold Harefoot was on hand to claim the throne of England.

Harthacnut on the other hand, was abroad, trying to defend his claims to Norway and Denmark. Emma’s struggle on her son’s behalf was helped by Earl Godwin, an Englishman whom Cnut had raised to one of the highest ranks in the land. However, Harthacnut did not return to claim the throne and, fed up with trying to keep the throne warm for a disinterested prince, Earl Godwin defected to Harold Harefoot’s side.

At this point, Emma remembered that she had another two sons, just over the Channel, who also had claims on the throne. Edward tried, but his tentative invasion failed. Then it was Alfred’s turn. Earl Godwin met him, feasted the young prince and his followers, put them up for the night and then set upon them: Alfred’s men were variously sold into slavery, murdered, mutilated, blinded and scalped. Alfred himself was not killed but his eyes were put out, wounds from which he failed to recover.

With Earl Godwin on his side, Harold Harefoot became undisputed king and Emma went into exile again, seeking refuge not in Normandy – where presumably Edward might have had some pointed questions about his mother’s recent conduct – but in Flanders. Ever the survivor, Emma swiftly returned to favour when Harold Harefoot died and Harthacnut took belated control of England in 1040. Having reacquainted herself with Edward, Emma worked for his return to England in 1041. And return he did but, remarkably, he returned to act as co-king alongside his half brother, with Emma the third person of a ruling trinity. This arrangement was likely made to shore up Harthacnut’s increasingly unpopular reign.

Harthacnut died in 1042 and shortly afterwards Edward moved against his mother, appearing unexpectedly at her power base in Winchester and depriving Emma of her treasures. Edward, for one, had not forgotten what had happened to his younger brother, nor the way Emma had abandoned him in Normandy. Although Emma was allowed to retain her base in Winchester and Edward accepted her back into his court, her power had been broken.

Besides, there was another power behind Edward’s throne: Earl Godwin and his family. Despite Godwin’s role in his brother’s death, Edward married the earl’s daughter. From Winchester, Emma, that consummate player of the political game, must have thought the future set: a grandson of Earl Godwin would, in time, take the throne. But it did not work out like that.

Emma did not live to see the final tragic playing out of the events set in motion by her marriages to Æthelred and Cnut. She died in 1052, the wife and mother of kings, and one of the most fascinating women of her age.

England’s Worst King? Probably

King Æthelred the Unready (c.968 – 23 April 1016). Reigned 978-1013/1014 – 1016

‘The Unready’ nickname comes from the Old English, Unræd, and means not that he was unprepared but that he was ill-advised. It is a play on his Christian name, which means ‘noble counsel’. The people of England always preferred to place the blame for the calamities that befell them through Æthelred’s long reign on the men around the king rather than the king himself. Æthelred, ever one to pass the buck, was likely all too happy to allow his councillors to take the blame. He even managed to escape the blame for how he came to the throne in the first place.

On the death of his father, Edgar the Peaceful, in 975, Æthelred’s elder half brother, Edward, took the throne. Edward reigned for three years until he made the mistake of going to visit Æthelred, his half brother, and his step mother, Queen Ælfthryth, at Corfe Castle, their stronghold in Dorset. When Edward arrived, he was greeted respectfully by Æthelred’s men but then, before the king could dismount, they grabbed his arms, immobilising him, and stabbed Edward to death.

Æthelred was only ten, so he was not held responsible for Edward’s murder. With no other princes available, Æthelred became king, ruling first with the support of a council of leading men and his formidable mother.

The early years of Æthelred’s reign saw considerable reform and, indeed, if left in peace he might have gone down in history as a good king save for the circumstances of his taking the throne. But Æthelred was not to be left in peace.

After a hundred years of peace, the Vikings were back.

A major Viking fleet appeared in 991 and defeated an English army near Maldon. Showing that the English, even then, liked nothing better than glorifying a valiant defeat, the battle was commemorated in the Old English poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, which tells how the liege men of Byrhtnoth decided to fight to the death alongside their fallen lord rather than flee the fight.

One defeat was enough. Æthelred paid off the Vikings. This first time, the cost of peace was 10,000 pounds. The Danes took the money and then returned for more next year and the year after. Second time round, the cost had risen to 22,000 pounds of gold and silver. The third time, it was 24,000 pounds. The fourth, 36,000 pounds. The fifth, 48,000 poounds.

Æthelred had inherited the most efficient tax-gathering government in Europe, and he set about milking the realm to pay off the Danes. But where others before him had paid Viking fleets to buy time, Æthelred and his advisers appeared to have no other strategy: Æthelred never once faced the Vikings in battle.

What he did do was enter an alliance with Duke Richard of Normandy to try to deny Viking fleets safe harbour across the Channel: to cement the alliance, the recently widowed Æthelred married the duke’s sister, Emma, starting the relationship with Normandy that would play out, two generations later, in the second conquest of England.

It was the second conquest, because by 1013, the English were a thoroughly demoralized people, ripe for invasion, and King Swein Forkbeard of Denmark duly obliged. Æthelred fled into exile. But then, on 3 February 1014, Swein Forkbeard, with the country beneath his whiskers, died of natural causes.

Æthelred returned, promising to rule better, but the murder of two earls by his favoured councilor, Eadric Streona, showed that nothing had changed. Swein’s son, Cnut, returned at the head of a new invasion fleet and Æthelred finally did something for his country: he died, leaving his son, Edmund Ironside to lead the fight against Cnut.

The Greatest Book Review Ever

My own review for The Book of Magic, I now realise, was mere enthusiasm when compared to another review of the book I saw on Amazon.

I await the day when someone reviews one of my books by saying it smells slightly of salt and vinegar crisps.