04 April, 2014

The Lion Rampant, by Robert Low. Book review

Harper Collins 2013. ISBN 978-0-00-733790-3. 454 pages

Set in southern Scotland and Spain in 1314, The Lion Rampant is the third in Robert Low’s trilogy about the Wars of Independence, and covers the build-up to the Battle of Bannockburn and the battle itself. The main characters, Sir Hal Sientcler of Herdmanston and his household, are fictional. ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick, loyal henchman of Robert Bruce, is also fictional, although the fictional character is now starting to step into the role of the historical Roger Kirkpatrick.  Isabel MacDuff of Fife, formerly the Countess of Buchan, is based on a historical figure, although many details of her life and her eventual fate are not known. Other historical figures appear as important secondary characters, including Robert Bruce and his brother Edward, various Scots lords including Sir James Douglas (‘The Black Douglas’, or ‘The Good Sir James’, depending whether he was on your side), Edward II of England and various other English lords. 

In early spring 1314, Hal of Herdmanston has been held prisoner by the English garrison of Roxburgh Castle for seven years since his capture at the end of the previous novel, The Lion At Bay. His beloved Isabel MacDuff has been imprisoned for much the same time, in even harsher conditions (in a cage hung from the walls of Berwick Castle). During Hal’s imprisonment, Robert Bruce has been steadily fighting a guerilla war against his Scottish enemies and rivals, chiefly the Comyn family, and the English garrisons in Scotland. Now, after seven hard years, the Comyns are defeated and exiled, and the English presence in Scotland is largely confined to the garrisons of three great fortresses, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Stirling. When Roxburgh falls to a daring assault led by James Douglas, Hal of Herdmanston is freed. Returning to Robert Bruce to seek help in rescuing Isabel, he finds Bruce facing the prospect of a large-scale invasion of Scotland. Edward II of England is determined to crush Robert Bruce and independent Scotland once and for all. Unless Robert Bruce can source enough weapons to arm his soldiers by midsummer, he will have no chance against the English army – and there are only a few months left. And so Hal and ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick are despatched on a desperate mission to a Templar stronghold in Spain. Secrecy and speed are of the essence, for the fate of Scotland hangs on their success – but already there is the stink of treachery in the air...

The Lion Rampant concludes Robert Low’s trilogy about the Wars of Independence, which began with The Lion Wakes (reviewed here earlier) and continued with The Lion At Bay (reviewed here earlier). As well as bringing the war to its climax at Bannockburn, it also resolves the stories of the main characters, including Hal of Herdmanston, Isabel MacDuff and Dog Boy.

Like its predecessors, The Lion Rampant is a gripping adventure novel with plenty of violent action. The fight scenes are gory, brutal and gruesomely convincing. Fittingly for a book published shortly before the 700th anniversary, the Battle of Bannockburn dominates the novel. All the famous set-piece scenes are there, from Robert Bruce’s duel with de Bohun to the decisive charge of the camp-followers.  The author has neatly contrived to place one of his main characters in each of the key components of the battle, so it is told from all sides, and stirring stuff it is. If you have ever tried to imagine what it might have been like to stand in a schiltrom of spearmen facing a charge of armoured knights; or to be one of those knights charging a forest of steel pikes; or a Welsh mercenary archer in Edward’s army, neither fully trusting in nor trusted by the English leaders; or a sensible veteran like the down-to-earth Yorkshire knight Marmaduke Thweng, watching with gloomy resignation as the squabbling nobles in high command precipitate disaster – this novel is for you.

The Templar sub-plot and the mystery of the traitor add an exotic diversion (best taken, as the author says about all things to do with the Templars in Scotland, “with a huge saline pinch”), and gives Hal and Roger something exciting to do while the rival armies are converging on Bannockburn. There is more of a nationalistic atmosphere to this novel than the previous two, partly because the Scottish civil war has largely been won by the Bruce faction (and partly, perhaps, reflecting the iconic status of Bannockburn in modern popular culture). However, the sense of the dense political background is retained. There are Scots lords from the defeated Comyn faction fighting with Edward II, the ‘English’ army contains considerable numbers of archers from Wales and mercenary soldiers from Hainault, and the simmering unrest among the English nobles – not all of which is due solely to inflated egos – is an ever-present menace.  Edward II is seen through the clear eyes of Marmaduke Thweng, who has sympathy for him and admires his courage, but who also has no illusions about Edward’s effectiveness either as king or war leader.

Characterisation is vivid and complex, with even minor characters swiftly sketched in as distinct individuals with their own fears and ambitions. Relationships can be equally complex and contradictory. Hal does not trust ‘Black Roger’ Kirkpatrick (with good reason), yet the two are bound together by obligation and revenge, in “a tangle of sin and redemption that even God would have trouble unravelling”. Dog Boy has discovered his identity, Aleysandir of Douglas, and is now a warrior in his prime, "as daring as the Black Sir James, but better looking", as he says to more than one vanquished enemy. Yet the cruelty and the waste of war are taking a toll on him, and he wants nothing more than to settle to family life with Bet’s Meggy and be done with killing and destruction. Their love is a bright thread of joy running through the darkness of war, a counterpart to the bittersweet love affair between Hal and Isabel MacDuff.

An Author’s Note and a detailed character list at the back of the book outlines the underlying history, identifies the purely fictional characters, and acknowledges some of the liberties taken with historical figures.  For example, Isabel MacDuff’s fate is unknown, but the limited information suggests that it probably was not as depicted in the novel.  A sketch map at the front gives approximate locations for some of the places mentioned. I would have liked a more detailed plan of the battlefield at Bannockburn itself as imagined in the novel.  There is no glossary of Scots words and phrases, perhaps because the Scots dialect seems less pronounced in this novel than in the first one.

Gripping, violent action-adventure bringing this trilogy of the Wars of Independence to a rousing conclusion with the Battle of Bannockburn.

27 March, 2014

St Patrick’s Church, Patterdale

St Patrick’s Church, Patterdale

Patterdale is the name of the valley running south from the head of Ullswater in the east of the Lake District in north-west England.

Map link: Patterdale

The name was recorded as Patrichesdale, meaning ‘Patrick’s Valley’, in 1184 (Gambles 1994).

There is a local legend that the 'Patrick' of the place name refers to St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. He is said to have visited north-west England in the 5th century and conducted baptisms at St Patrick’s Well, a spring located a mile or so north of the present village (you can see it on the above map link).

Sadly, as far as I know there is no evidence for this, and a simpler explanation may be that the valley takes its name from a later Irish settler, perhaps one of the inhabitants of Norse Dublin who moved to Cumbria in the 10th century. However, it isn’t impossible that St Patrick may have had connections with the valley.  St Patrick says in his Confessio that he was born and brought up in Britain at a place called Bannaven Taburniae, where his father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. He was kidnapped by raiders as a teenager and sold into slavery in Ireland.  Some years later he escaped back to Britain, but later returned to Ireland to preach Christianity to the land of his captors.

Bannaven Taburniae has not been identified. Since Patrick was taken to Ireland, a location on the west coast of Britain seems likely.  On the basis of the name, it has been suggested that it could be the Roman fort of Banna (now Birdoswald) on Hadrian’s Wall) or the Roman fort at Glannoventa (now Ravenglass).  Birdoswald was evidently occupied by someone rich enough to build a succession of two timber feasting halls at some time in the fifth or sixth century (see earlier posts on Birdoswald: Post-Roman activity and Birdoswald: Dating the post-Roman halls).

If Patrick was indeed from the region that is now Cumbria, it is not impossible that he preached and baptised in the area, either before he set off on his mission to Ireland, or a during a later visit.

The present-day church of St Patrick was built in 1853, replacing a Tudor chapel.  It is an attractive small church in a beautiful setting, especially in spring when the churchyard is full of daffodils.

Daffodils at St Patrick’s Church, Patterdale
There are some interior pictures here, and some pictures of the embroidered wall hangings on the church website.

When I was there, a pair of great tits were nesting in a crevice in the stonework in the front wall, although, alas, they didn’t pose by the entrance for me to take a photograph.  This song thrush prospecting for grubs in the churchyard was more obliging:
Song thrush in St Patrick’s Churchyard, Patterdale

And it wouldn’t be spring in the Lake District without some adorably cute lambs.

Cute twin lambs

Gambles R. Lake District place names. Dalesman, 1994. ISBN: 0-85206-814-X.

Map links

25 March, 2014

March recipe: Leek and bacon pie

Leek and bacon pie
Leeks, being a hardy vegetable crop, will stand in the ground all winter despite rain, wind, frost and snow.  This makes the leek one of the most useful crops for the kitchen garden, since leeks can be harvested fresh in March when not much else is growing. Leeks are versatile in the kitchen, too.  They can be sliced and fried in butter as a hot vegetable, and I’ve previously posted recipes for Leek and turkey pie, Stir-fried sweet and sour pork with leeks, and Bean and vegetable pie.

This leek and bacon pie pairs the mild onion flavour of leeks with smoked streaky bacon (or smoked ham works equally well).  It’s a sort of more substantial form of quiche, ideal for the cool days of early spring.  Here’s the recipe.

Leek and bacon pie (serves 2)

Shortcrust pastry
4 oz (approx 125 g) plain flour
1 oz (approx 25 g) lard
1 oz (approx 25 g) butter
Water to mix

8 oz (approx 250 g) leeks
2 oz (approx 50 g) smoked streaky bacon
1 egg
2.5 fl. oz. (approx 70 ml) milk

Grease a shallow heatproof pie dish.

Rub the butter and lard into the flour until it resembles fine breadcrumbs.

Gradually add cold water to mix to a soft dough. If the mix is floury, you need to add a little more water; if it is sticky, you have added too much water and need to add some more flour.
(Or you can use ready-made shortcrust pastry if you prefer).

Roll out about two-thirds of the pastry and line the bottom and sides of the pie dish.

Put the other one-third of the pastry aside while you make the filling.

Trim the leeks and wash them thoroughly.  If they are very gritty (which is likely by March if they are home-grown), cut a vertical slash down the length of the green part and put them in cold water for a few minutes so that the leaves can separate and any grit trapped between them can fall out into the water.  Cut the leeks into thin slices.

Chop the bacon into small pieces.

Fry the bacon over a moderate heat in cooking oil for a few minutes until starting to colour. Add the sliced leeks and continue frying for a few more minutes until the leeks are starting to soften.

Remove from the heat and season with salt and black pepper.

Put the leeks and bacon into the pie dish and spread out evenly.

Beat the egg and milk together and pour over the leeks and bacon.

Roll out the remaining one-third of the pastry to make a lid.  Put it on top of the pie filling, trim off any surplus, and seal the edges.

Use any surplus pastry to make decorations for the top of the pie, if wished.

Brush the top of the pie with milk.

Bake in a hot oven at about 200 C for about 30 minutes until the pie is golden brown.

Serve hot, with potatoes and vegetables of your choice.  This pie goes very well with roast potatoes, which need the same cooking temperature and about the same length of time and so can share the oven with the pie.

05 March, 2014

A Place Beyond Courage, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Book review

Sphere, 2008. ISBN 978-0-7515-3901-1. 518 pages.

Set in England and Normandy between 1130 and 1153, A Place Beyond Courage tells the story of John FitzGilbert or John Marshal, his first wife Aline Pipard and his second wife Sybilla of Salisbury. Empress Matilda, King Stephen, Henry FitzEmpress (the future Henry II) and various members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy appear as important secondary characters. And John and Sybilla’s son William Marshal, whose story was told in the author’s previous novels The Greatest Knight (reviewed here earlier) and The Scarlet Lion, makes a memorable appearance as a young child.

John FitzGilbert holds the important official post of Marshal at the court of King Henry I, responsible for the complex logistics of supply and transport required to keep the court functioning and to move it from place to place on its frequent travels. John obtained the post partly through inheritance from his father, partly through martial prowess (he and his father once fought a duel to retain it against a challenger), and partly through his own formidable competence. A minor lord, he has no great lands of his own, and his power and wealth depend largely on his role as the royal Marshal. When Henry I dies suddenly, leaving a daughter and a nephew as rivals for the throne of England, the aristocracy divides into factions and England descends into a brutal civil war. This was a cruel period of English history, ‘when Christ and his saints slept’ according to a contemporary chronicler, when arbitrary violence ruled and there was little to check the excesses of local tyrants. For the ambitious and able John Marshal, the chaos presents both opportunity and danger.  If he judges every situation accurately, he stands not only to survive but to gain lands and influence.  But a single wrong step could cost him – and his family – everything.

In common with the other novels by Elizabeth Chadwick that I’ve read, such as The Time of Singing, The Greatest Knight and To Defy a King, A Place Beyond Courage concentrates on the characters and the relationships between them. The political and military events of the day form a context that shapes the relationships and a background against which they develop. So the conflict between Stephen and Matilda provides an opportunity for John Marshal’s ambition, military skill, ruthlessness and calculating brinkmanship to come to the fore. It also puts an intolerable strain on the meek and timid Aline Pipard, who is utterly unsuited to life in high politics and on the front line of a war. John’s opportunism brings him into conflict with his powerful neighbour Patrick of Salisbury, and this conflict in turn provides the context for his second marriage to Patrick’s sister Sybilla. And the ongoing war, combined with John’s ambition and refusal to back down, puts not only John and Sybilla at risk but also their young son William.

The novel focuses mainly on John Marshal, Aline and Sybilla – although five-year-old William Marshal comes close to stealing the show when he makes his appearance.  John Marshal is the central figure, shaping events in war and politics as well as in his personal and domestic life. Able, charismatic, resourceful and pragmatic to the point of ruthlessness, he is a hard man living in hard times. To survive, he has to be able to assess any situation and face it without flinching, from his desperate last stand at Wherwell Abbey and subsequent escape by walking miles across hostile country with a terrible face wound, to calling King Stephen’s bluff at the siege of Newbury.

Sybilla is the more obviously appealing of the two lead female characters. Forthright and confident, she is described as having a natural warmth that charms many of the other characters – even including the stern Empress Matilda – and will probably charm most readers as well. She makes good company for her share of the novel. Aline is less obviously attractive, although I have a good deal of sympathy for her. Having lived a sheltered life with her widowed mother in a quiet backwater, it should be no surprise to find that she is completely unprepared when marriage to John pitches her into politics and war.  I can see why the decisive and fearless John Marshal is irritated by Aline’s timidity and passivity – she is the kind of woman who would have been called a ‘drip’ when I was at school – but his disappointment is largely his own fault, since he married Aline for her lands on the grounds that she was the best bargain available to him at the time (I told you he was pragmatic). Poor Aline had no choice in the matter.

The secondary characters are also boldly drawn, even if they make only a brief appearance, from King Stephen as a tired man finding that the crown he grabbed so eagerly is rather more than he can handle, to the thuggish mercenary with a vulgar predilection for purple silk underpants (!), to the kindly Flemish washerwoman and her soldier husband. Pride of place among the secondary characters goes to young William Marshal, who runs away with the novel towards the end. The famous ‘hammers and anvils’ scene at King Stephen’s siege camp at Newbury* is recounted mainly from William’s point of view, and is beautifully done.

An Author’s Note at the end of the book outlines the historical background and there is a list of further reading for those who want to explore further. Maps at the front are useful for following the campaigns for readers who may be unfamiliar with the geography of Wiltshire and Berkshire, where much of the action occurs.

Colourful portrayal of the ambitious and resourceful John Marshal, and his rise to power during the wars between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in turbulent twelfth-century England.

*If you found your way here, you probably know all about that, but if not I won’t spoil the suspense of the novel by describing what happens.