WHAT WAS THE REAL STORY BEHIND THE FRENCH PRINCESS IN BRAVEHEART?

Braveheart, Isabella, William Wallace

Gorgeous. Defiant. Looks great in a skirt. 

But enough about Mel Gibson – let’s talk about Sophie’s Marceau’s character in Braveheart, the beautiful French princess who is also Edward Longshank’s daughter-in-law. In the film she has an affair with Mel and then gets pregnant to him, breaking the royal English line.

BRAVEHEART, ISABELLA, EDWARD II
Sophie Marceau in Braveheart (20th Century Fox)

It is a tale of adventure, romance and terrible butchery – with English and Scottish history being mutilated beyond recognition.

But who was the REAL Isabella of France?

She was born in 1295, so she was ten years old and still living in France when Mel Gibson – William Wallace – was executed, so she certainly never met him, or have an adulterous affair with him.

The facts of her life are far more spectacular.

Isabella in fact succeeded where Wallace didn’t; she raised an army, invaded England and deposed Longshank’s son, Edward II, and ruled as regent for four years.

So why doesn’t history remember her as Braveheart? 

Isabella’s father was Philip IV of France – Phillip the Fair.

Yes, she was beautiful, but she was royal, and raised to be more than Mel Gibson’s love interest.

She was highly intelligent and had great diplomatic skill.

At 12 she was married to Longshank’s son, Edward II, as part of a political alliance.

But Edward soon became notable for his lack of aptitude for kingship – as well as his lack of interest in women.

That doesn’t make him the bad guy in the story either – but for a bright and politically astute woman, it was a terrible match.

Roll the clock forward fifteen years …

Isabella is starved of affection and has been sidelined in the political arena by her husband’s “favourites”. Were men like Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser the Younger just his advisers – or were they more than that?

Whatever the truth, by the time she was thirty, she faced a stark choice; retire to the country and spend the rest of her life with her needlework – or rebel.

She chose: Freedom!

When I went to school in England, I was told the last person to invade England was William the Conqueror in 1066. This was actually not true.

In 1326 Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, raised a mercenary army in the Low Countries – by marrying her oldest son off to a the daughter of the Count of Hainaut.

As invasions go, it wasn’t quite D-Day.

The fleet got lost and landed miles from where she and Mortimer had planned.

Not that it mattered; by then, her husband Edward was so deeply unpopular that the barons of England welcomed her and Mortimer with open arms and the invasion became more of a bloodless coup.

She named herself Queen Regent and she and Mortimer assumed the rule of England – and not once did she have to wear a kilt and paint herself blue.

But it didn’t last.

Four years later Mortimer was himself deposed by Isabella’s own son and she was retired to Castle Rising in Norfolk and lived on for many years in considerable style, until her death in 1358.

Poor Sophie Marceau. History has repeatedly painted her as a beautiful ‘femme fatale’  – cruel and manipulative, and calling her The She-Wolf of France.

The movie, “Braveheart”, was really the final insult.

And Edward II? Although he was an accomplished warrior – if not a very able tactician – he has similarly been portrayed as weak and effeminate.

Is that really how it was?

History sometimes likes to treat people from the past as modern news channels treat current affairs stories; there always has to be a villain and a victim. But when I read the history of Edward II and Isabella I saw something much more nuanced, more complex and ultimately, more poignant. Was I right or wrong? Here’s a free excerpt (a four minute read).

If you love medieval fiction, you may be interested in other books in the series, as below.


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TITANIC: WAS THERE REALLY A JACK AND ROSE?

titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson,

And did they have gorgeous sweaty sex in the backseat of a 1912 Renault?

The answers to these questions are: yes, yes and probably not.

titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson, James Cameron, the writer and director of ‘Titanic’ actually based Kate Winslet’s character, Rose du Witt Bukater, on American artist Beatrice Wood.

Like Rose, Beatrice was the daughter of wealthy socialites and defied her parents to pursue a career as an artist. She lived an extraordinary life, earning accolades as an actress as well as pioneering the Dada art movement (she was called the ‘Mama of Dada’).

She also gained a great reputation as a sculptor and potter and her private affairs – she was reputed to have had a love triangle with artist Henry Duchamp and his friend Henri-Pierre Roché – scandalised America.

Then, when she was 90, she took up writing. Her 1985 autobiography was called ‘I Shock Myself.’

She was 105 when she died – when asked the secret of her longevity she said:

‘I owe it all to chocolate and young men.’

But Beatrice was never on the Titanic.

There were two Roses who were and who survived the sinking: one was Rosa Abbott, a third class passenger, who jumped into the water with her two sons. She the only woman and the only passenger to be pulled from the water and survive – the rest were crew.

Sadly, her two sons died in the water.

The other Rose was Miss Rose Amélie Icard, who was a maid to Mrs George Nelson Stone. She and Mrs Stone were rescued by the Carpathia in lifeboat 6.

But what about Jack Dawson?

There was a J Dawson on the Titanic, but the ‘J’ stood for Joseph, not Jack and he was a member of the Titanic crew.

He had grown up in the notorious Monto tenements slums of Dublin and when he was twenty he escaped by joining the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was posted to Netley, one of the largest military hospitals in England – just three miles from Southampton.

It was there that he met a man called John Priest, a coal trimmer on the White Star liner, Majestic.

Through him he met Priest’s sister, Nellie, and the two fell in love.

titanic, jack and rose, renault, jack dawson, After leaving the Army, Dawson joined Priest in the boiler room of the Majestic, before they both signed on for the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

When they hit the iceberg, Dawson had the foresight to put his National Sailors and Firemen’s Union card – his card number was 35638  – into his dungarees before going topside. The card was found on his body the next day.

His friend John Priest survived; but tragically his sister Nellie lost her sweetheart.

Did her heart go on? We will never know.

Dawson was buried in Nova Scotia where he rested in relative obscurity before finding world fame 85 years later after the release of the film.

His grave is number 227 in Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia and has since become a shrine to many of the movie’s fans, who leave photographs, cinema stubs and pictures of themselves on the grave.

Some even leave hotel keys – though I wonder what they’d do if they heard the key turning in the lock at night, as Jack has now been dead a hundred and four years?

Now the question you’ve all been dying to know

Would getting on the door have saved Jack?

the iceberg that sunk the Titanic - but its fame has since melted away
the iceberg that sunk the Titanic – but its fame has since melted away

On the night of the sinking, the sea temperature was around 28° F.

Our bodies lose heat about thirty times faster in water than in the air and when our core temperature falls under 89° F, we start to lose consciousness. Under 86° F and heart failure can occur, which is the most common cause of hypothermia-related deaths.

So Jack could have survived for up to an hour, as he was young and fit and not trying to swim – people who move around in the water lose heat much faster.

However several people died from cold that night even in the lifeboats, so even if Rose had helped him up onto the door – and I still think, after all he’d done for her, she could have had a better go – there were no guarantees.

Now, more importantly – could they have had sex in the back seat of Jackie’s car?

It is believed there were about thirty cars in the Titanic’s hold, all but five belonging to first class passengers returning from touring holidays in Europe – but only one is actually listed on the manifest.

It belonged to Titanic survivor William Earnest Carter, and it was a 1912 35 HP Renault Coupe de Ville.

Cameron looked for Carter’s original documents for the vehicle so that the car could be recreated almost exactly in the film. But what Cameron didn’t show us is that it was almost certainly packed in a wooden crate so unless Jack had a claw-hammer with him, the answer to the question above is – ‘probably not.’.

But the sinking of the Titanic continues to fascinate. I used many first-hand accounts of the disaster in my novel, The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane. Kitty is working as a chambermaid on the ship, and I wanted my readers to experience what that terrible night was really like, through her eyes.

There’s a free excerpt here, it’s about a ten minute read.

 

Colin Falconer


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SHE BLEW HER FIRING SQUAD A KISS

The life and times of the world’s most famous female spy.

Just before dawn on October 15, 1917, footsteps echoed along the grimy walls of the Saint-Lazare prison, just outside Paris. An armed guard, escorted by a pale and trembling lawyer and a nun in a white wimple entered one of the cells. After a short prayer, a woman was escorted out and driven to the Vincennes Barracks.

It was to be the end of the line for possibly one of the most famous female spies in history.

She was led into a walled courtyard where a ridiculously young squad of the Fourth Regiment of Zouaves waited for her, dressed in khaki uniforms with red fezzes.

She was offered a blindfold but refused it. She gave her lawyer a little wave and blew a kiss to one of the young men as he aimed his rifle.

A moment later she was dead.

The woman remains the great femme fatale of the twentieth century. Her life has inspired films, musicals, books, even a ballet.

Who was she?

She was born Gertrud Margarete Zelle in 1879. In a society best known for blonde, blue-eyed children, little M’greet stood apart with her thick black hair, black eyes, and dark, exotic looks.

Her father was a successful businessman and M’Greet was heartily spoiled, groomed for the high life. But when she was thirteen, her father went bankrupt and her parents divorced. When her mother died soon afterwards, her family was torn apart. Her father remarried and her three brothers were sent to live in Switzerland.

Looking for a man to rescue her from this chaos, M’Greet unfortunately settled on a Dutch colonial official, twice her age, who went by the very un-Dutch name of Rudolph John MacLeod.

He was soon posted to Java and there she bore him two children, Jeanne and Norman-John. But Rudolf turned out to be an inveterate womanizer. Their son died of syphilis when he was two, a disease he almost certainly contracted from his father. When M’Greet and Rudolph divorced in 1902, he turned her out and secured custody of their surviving daughter.

For a while M’Greet sought refuge with various relatives and became a sad charity case. She had no marketable skills, no husband, no job, and no income.

But she was a woman of some resource. She salvaged her situation by re-inventing herself as Mata Hari, (it’s Malay for Eye of the Dawn), a Javanese princess, who performed sacred temple dances from the Indies. Her act was an Oriental pastiche, basically a striptease performed in front of a spoof Javanese idol.  She created an overnight sensation. Think Marilyn Monroe meets Lady Gaga.

Naturally, M’greet soon attracted a string of wealthy and powerful men, among them high-ranking military officers, diplomats, financiers and aristocrats who kept her in furs and jewels for over a decade. Her liaisons took her to all the major European capitals.

For ten years, she dazzled. When World War 1 broke out, her high-level contacts in Germany and France made her even more alluring – this time to the espionage community.

Some accounts say she was a double agent. She probably was, just not a very good one. What seems most likely is she took money from both sides and did very little for it. But it was a dangerous game. Finally, they all turned on her.

Her nemesis was Major Arnold Kalle, a German military attaché, who was one of her many lovers. He had paid her handsomely to provide him with sensitive information and he had nothing to show for it. He didn’t like being made a fool of, so here was the payback. Using a code that he knew the French had already cracked, he transmitted a message identifying her as a spy.

The French government took the bait. The war was going badly for them and they were in need of a scapegoat. It suited them to cast Mata Hari, the immoral foreigner, as a wicked master-spy. The public ate it up. Besides, why should she live the high life while French soldiers were dying in the mud of the Somme?

There were darker moods at play. This was a hundred years before #metoo. Back then, women were lauded as grieving mothers or self-sacrificing nurses, but here was a woman who had achieved fame and fortune on her own terms, and who felt she no longer owed any loyalty to anyone. She was anathema.

 On February 12, 1917, a warrant was issued for her arrest. When a French judge and a dozen police officers barged into Suite 113 in the Hotel Elysée Palace, M’Greet offered them all chocolates, wearing a captured German helmet and little else.

This time her charms didn’t work.

Pierre Bouchardon, the investigative magistrate, was disapproving of such “immoral” women. He placed her in isolation in the most horrific prison in Paris, the Saint-Lazare.

Her trial took place behind closed doors five months later. Though the prosecution blamed her for the deaths of 50,000 French soldiers, they supplied no evidence that she had provided militarily useful information to anyone. What she was undoubtedly guilty of was having a coterie of lovers and spending a lot of their money on jewelry and clothes. 

That was reason enough for them.

After her death, rumours circulated that the firing squad had fired blanks, enabling her to escape. The truth was less romantic: her remaining fortune was seized by the government, leaving nothing at all for her daughter. Her mummified head was then donated to the Museum of Anatomy in Paris. Even that has mysteriously disappeared from the vaults. 

But the legend lives on. Since her death, the idea of an exotic dancer using her powers of seduction to extract military secrets from her rich and powerful lovers has fired the popular imagination. 

Ironically, the woman whose name has become synonymous with espionage, was really no spy at all.

Someone asked me – will I write a book about her? It’s on the backburner – for now.  I admit I have a taste for intrigue and the exotic which was first captured by the story of a woman called Roxelana, a slave girl who became the only Ottoman concubine to become a queen. It was an astonishing story of betrayal murder and ambition that I couldn’t resist. There’s a free excerpt here, it’s about a six minute read.

Colin Falconer


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THE REAL STORY OF THE INDIAN WOMAN IN ‘DANCES WITH WOLVES’

Cynthia Parker, Wild West, Comanche

She was christened Cynthia Ann Parker, but she would have told you her name was Naduah “Keeps Warm With Us”.

Cynthia Parker, Wild West, ComancheHers is one of the great love stories of the Wild West – and ultimately the saddest.

She was born in 1824, to Silas and Lucy Parker in Illinois. When she was 9 years old the family moved to north west Texas to follow the American Dream – land and a better life. They went to Fort Parker, established by Cynthia’s grandfather, in what is now Limestone County.

But on May 9, 1836, around a hundred Comanche and Kiowa warriors attacked the fort, killing many of the men, including her grandfather. Cynthia and five other captives were led away. One teenage girl escaped; four others, including her brother John, were later released for ransom.

Cynthia was beaten and treated as a slave at first, but her life improved when she was adopted by a Comanche couple, who raised her like their own.

While still barely a teenager she married Peta Nakone, (Camps Alone), a chieftain.

It turned out to be an extraordinary love match.

It was traditional for Comanche chiefs to take more than one wife but Nakone never did. They later had three children; the future and famed Comanche chief Quanah Parker; another son Pecos (Pecan), and a daughter Topsannah (Prairie Flower).

A newspaper account from 1846 describes how a trading party led by Colonel Leonard G. Williams came across a tribe of Comanches camped on the Canadian River. Williams offered a ransom of 12 mules and two mule loads of goods to the tribal elders in exchange for Parker but he was refused, and in subsequent sightings, she would run away and hide. The Indians said she loved her husband and children and did not want to leave them. These reports were not believed.

In the winter of 1860, a small band of Texas Rangers surprised a Comanche meat camp at Mule Creek on the Pease River.

Most of the men were away and the raid turned into a massacre of women and children.

They executed a man they thought was Nakone but later turned out to be a Mexican slave. A Comanche woman attempted to flee on horseback with her daughter but was captured.

It was only then that the Rangers realized that the woman in the deerskin and moccasins had blue eyes – and that she might be the missing Cynthia Parker.

Cynthia Parker, Wild West, Comanche
Chief Quanah Parker

When she overheard her name banded around by the Rangers she patted herself on the chest and said, “Me Cincee Ann.”

Her fate was sealed.

Cynthia Ann and Prairie Flower were taken back to an army post. While traveling through Fort Worth she was photographed with her daughter at her breast and her hair cut short – a Comanche sign of mourning. She thought that her husband was dead and her sons too.

The story of her ‘rescue’ transfixed the nation. She was treated like a returning hero. Texas granted her four and a half thousand acres of land and a pension of $100 per year. Her brother, Silas Junior, was appointed her guardian and took her to his home in Van Zandt County.

But she never warmed to her new life. She was shuttled from one family to another, and often had to be  locked in her room to prevent her escaping.

In 1863, she heard that her son Pecos had died of smallpox, and a few months later, Topsannah died of influenza. Cynthia herself died seven years later.

Cynthia-Ann’s is a sad story, and one that continues to resonate. We yet struggle to resolve the consequences of the collision of cultures that took place in the recent – and not so recent – past. It’s a subject that continues to fascinate me and one that I explored in my epic novel, Aztec.

When Hernan Cortes and his soldiers conquered Mexico, they thought they had God on their side – how many of us would think so now? His story is inseparable from that of another remarkable young woman, whose name is now synonymous with the conquest – Malinche. You can read a free excerpt here. It’s about a 6 minute read.

 Colin Falconer


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HOW A PIRATE (ALMOST) SAVED INDIA

When we think of a pirate king, many of us picture Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, a lovable rogue who looks like the love child of Keith Richard and Pepe le Pew.

But the man widely regarded as the King of the Pirates is someone you may never have heard of; one Henry Avery, who pulled off perhaps the biggest heist in history and became the subject of the world’s first global manhunt.

He almost saved India from the British. Almost.

I came across him when I was researching East India, a novel about a mutiny and shipwreck of the Batavia, in the Indian Ocean in the 17th century.

Avery may have been a rogue, but he wasn’t a lovable one. Discharged from the Royal Navy in 1690, he was involved in the Atlantic slave trade for some years. He later joined a Spanish privateer, the Charles II. Unhappy with the poor pickings, he led the crew in mutiny. He gave the ship a fancy name – he called her The Fancy – and he and his crew plundered their way along the coast of Africa towards the Red Sea.

That wasn’t enough. Avery had his eyes set on the biggest prize of all; the Indian Mughal’s flagship, the Ganj-i-Sawai. Joining forces with several other pirate ships, captained by the American buccaneer, Thomas Tew, they tracked her down off the port of Surat on September 7, 1695.

The Ganj-i-Sawai was the biggest ship in all India, boasting several dozen cannons and 400 riflemen – more than the entire pirate fleet combined. But by sheer luck, one of Avery’s first volleys cut down the Ganj-i-Sawai’s mainmast. Minutes later, the Indian crew panicked when one of their own cannons exploded.

Avery’s men were able to board her, and the Indian crew were subdued when the captain took refuge below deck and ordered a group of slave girls to fight in his place.

When the pirates took control of the ship, they found a treasure hoard beyond their wildest imagination. The gold, silver and jewels they found in the hold was worth tens of millions of dollars today and was the richest haul in the history of piracy.

But then it gets ugly.

Muhammed Khafi Khan, a contemporary historian in Surat, wrote in The History of India, that the pirates spent the next few days torturing and killing the surviving crew, and the female passengers – including an elderly relative of the Grand Mughal – were repeatedly raped. Several Muslim women threw themselves into the sea to avoid further degradation. Khan’s accounts were later corroborated by the confessions of Avery’s crew.

There was not much honour among the thieves themselves either. Avery and the men of the Fancy didn’t fancy sharing this haul with Tew’s men, so they loaded their hold with the loot, and arranged to meet and divide it later. Instead they headed for the lawless Caribbean. The other privateers could not catch Avery’s ship when she was under full sail.

Upon arriving at New Providence, Avery bribed the governor, Nicholas Trott, buying protection for him and his men, handing over their ship and a fortune in ivory tusks.

Back in India, there was a storm brewing.

The Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb was apoplectic with rage. He was not inclined to differentiate between British pirates and the British East India Company, and held them to account. He closed down the Company’s factories in India and threatened to attack Bombay and expel the English from the subcontinent. The Company fortunes were entirely dependent on trade with the Mughals. Something had to be done.

The Company promised to compensate for the loss of Aurangzeb’s treasure fleet and bring Avery to account. His capture became a matter of critical national importance.

Soon East India Company and Royal Navy vessels were scouring the seas in search of the Fancy, and a huge bounty was placed on Avery’s head. Trott warned the pirates in time, and Avery and almost his entire 113-man crew got away safely. Only 12 were captured.

The rest went to Charleston, some to Ireland and England, and some remained in the Caribbean. Avery himself vanished from history at this point, which only added to his mystique.

His legend grew as the manhunt continued: there were rumours he had established a pirate kingdom in Madagascar with the Moghuls’ granddaughter as his queen. Another story said that he had returned home to a happy retirement in Bristol, only to be bilked out of his money by local scammers. This happened, believe it or not, even in the days before the internet. Some said that he died penniless in a gutter.

Whatever the truth was, tales about him inspired the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, as thousands of impoverished and downtrodden European seamen tried to follow his example and sail the Atlantic in search of loot.

As for Aurangzeb, he did not follow through on his threat to expel the British, or else history might have been rather different. India might perhaps have been spared colonial rule.

Facing exclusion from the Indian subcontinent, the East India Company proposed to the Mughals that they provide protection for the Emperor’s ships. This clever move eventually gave the Company control of the Empire’s seaboard.

Perhaps the greatest irony in the story lies with the British government hanging a handful of pirates for stealing the Mughal’s gold while giving the East India Company leave to steal an entire country.

I found this story while researching the background for East India. It was based on another infamous act of mutiny and piracy, this one from the annals of the Dutch East India company, and also involved a fortune in Mughal treasure. It ended in one of the greatest – and most notorious –  survival stories in history


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SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH A GOD

It was the closest I ever came to being forcibly struck with a fashion accessory.

The scene was a publisher’s office in Mexico City. My novel, ‘Aztec’, had just been published there in translation, and had attracted a lot of attention, more than the publisher had anticipated. So, because of time constraints, I was being interviewed by three journalist at once.

Two of them liked my take on their history. The third, a young man with a designer ponytail, was so upset with me, he rose to his feet and brandished his manbag.

What had made him so upset? It was the things I had written about a woman called ‘La Malinche’. I don’t think she particularly cared – by that stage, she had been dead for five hundred years.

So why did he and so many other Mexicans still feel so strongly about her? 

You have to understand her unique place in their history and her role in the entrada – some would rather call it ‘invasion’ – by the Spanish conquistadores.

When Hernan Cortes landed in the Yucatan in 1519, local villagers tried to appease him with gifts – gold and girls. Cortes was happy to accept these tokens and chose a young woman called Malinali – later known to history as ‘La Malinche’ – as his personal concubine, and gave the others to his officers.

Malinali’s exact origins are unclear – some believe she was a Mayan princess who was captured and sold as a slave – but her place in Mexican history is unparalleled. She was an extraordinary young woman with an acute intelligence and learned the Spanish of the conquistadores astonishingly quickly. She could already speak several local languages as well as her own, and most importantly of all she was fluent in nahuatl, the language of the Mexican overlords – the Aztecs.

Through her, it seems Cortes discovered that Mexico was by no means united – that there was infighting among the local tribes and that all of them hated the Aztecs. He decided to use this information for his own ends. It was the oldest trick in the book – divide and conquer.

Against the explicit orders of his superiors in Cuba, he and his men set off inland. He was bombarded with a mountain of treasure by the native population along the way and his tiny army grew with the addition of thousands of native warriors. How did he achieve this? Did Malinali help him persuade local chiefs that he was a returning god, the legendary ‘Feathered Serpent’? Did she in fact believe that he was a god. 

And did he, in turn, play along with it – pretend to be a deity returned to free the local people from the tyranny of the Aztecs? What is certain is that in almost every contemporary drawing and painting of Cortes’ entrada, she is at his side, whispering in his ear. 

Was she in love with Cortes? We can’t be sure. Her motives, what she said, how she said it; these things will always forever be a mystery. It is what makes hers such a gripping and intriguing story.

The more the local people tried to appease Cortes, the bolder he became. Within a few weeks he was at the gates of the Aztec capital – Tenochtitlan, the site of modern day Mexico City. Suddenly he had the country and all its riches within his grasp.

He could not have got this far purely by force of arms, despite his horses and cannon. He had set off from Cuba with just five hundred Spanish troops and the Aztecs numbered millions.

In fact, it was only when he and his men were lodged inside their capital that the Aztecs realised they had been duped and that perhaps Cortes was not a god after all.

He only narrowly escaped from the city with his life but then had the temerity to return with enough men to lay siege to the Aztec capital. He won in the end, not because of military might but because of another weapon, one that is eerily resonant today. The Spanish had brought with them a disease that was common in Europe but to which the Aztecs had no antibodies.

When an epidemic broke out among the besieged Aztecs, it decimated them. It was smallpox, not force of arms, that brought them down.

And Malinali? 

No one knows what became of her. It is believed she died an old woman in Spain. Cortes showed his gratitude to her for all she had done for him by marrying her off to someone else.

Her name was corrupted by history to Malinche; and 500 years later her name is reviled in the land of her birth. Even today the word malinchista is shouted across the floor of the Mexican parliament as a deadly insult – it means a traitor to the Mexican people.

But her story, and that of the conquistadores, remains one of the most intriguing and tragic sagas in history.

I tell the story of Cortes and La Malinche in my novel Aztec. You can read an excerpt here – as long as you promise not to throw any fashion accessories at me.  


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WHY THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS HISTORY

When I was at school, history was taught alongside Maths as an absolute: ‘Two and two make four, and Merry England won the war.’

(Sorry America. Sorry Russia.)

For much of my life since my schooldays, I’ve made my living writing epic adventure stories based in the past. What it has taught me is that there is absolutely no such thing as history.

In fact, read ten different authors writing about the same event and you’ll find ten different versions of history and none of them will be right. None of them will be wrong either.

When I wrote a book called Aztec, it caused something of a furore in Mexico because it challenged the conventional history of the conquest. My critics didn’t dispute the facts, they just didn’t like how I interpreted them.

Was I wrong? Was I right? No one can ever know.

Because history is like smoke. It’s there, but you can’t hold it and anyway it keeps changing its shape. History is just a point of view. We all have differing views on current events so how can we all possibly agree on what happened in the past?

The events of these last few weeks have certainly demonstrated this.

It’s not just statues coming down. Gone with the Wind has disappeared from HBO Max. HBO said the movie was a product of its time and depicted ‘racial prejudices that were wrong then and wrong today.’ People didn’t see anything wrong with it back in the day; in 1939, it won 10 Oscars and people queued round the block to watch it.

History hasn’t changed. The present has.

In my own country some pubs have now banned a very fine beer called Colonial Ale, because of its name. In the UK, an episode of Fawlty Towers, ‘The Germans’, was taken down by UKTV because of its racist undertones (even though the show was actually poking fun at racism).

Human instinct is to erase a painful past. But does that also mean we actually learn from past mistakes?

There’s lots of things I wish I could erase from my own past, like the time I helped a mate of mine shin up the school flagpole, take down the Union Jack and replace it with a bra. We thought it was hysterical at the time.

Now it’s just mortifying.

Later on, in my twenties, I used to tell jokes that I thought were absolutely hilarious: now I’m horrified I even found them funny in the first place.

I cannot deny I did certain things that I’m not proud of, but hopefully, I learned from them. I guess it’s called growing up.

The human race is just a whole bunch of people, like you and me, growing up.

That process never ends. I bet you sometimes make the mistake, as I do, of thinking of yourself as the finished product. You are just you -aren’t you?

Not really. The truth is, you probably won’t even recognize yourself ten years from now.

When I was a teenager, I thought I knew everything. It comes with the territory. Now, I cannot believe how naïve I was. Because it’s hard to understand the past – even our own, never mind someone else’s.

I once wrote a book – The Unkillable Kitty O’Kane – that incorporated the experiences of my mother and grandmother when they were young. I literally heard the stories in that novel at my mother’s knee. An Amazon reader lambasted one of the female characters – essentially my grandmother – for being ‘weak’. She was unable to see the character in context, could only judge her by her own contemporary values.

She forgot there once was an entire generation of women who were not fortunate enough to have the choices she now has.

Full disclosure: I am myself not a historian, I am a storyteller. Primarily, I write to entertain. My epics of the Ottoman empire and the Silk Road and the ancient Aztecs aim to sweep people up in the tide of romance and great adventure.

But whenever I sit down to write a novel, I always remind myself that the people in the past didn’t go around thinking: isn’t this rubbish, living in the thirteenth century? Wow! I wish I lived in 2020, when things get a lot better!

They thought of their society as the finished product, that their values were solid and timeless and irrefutable.

Which is how it is, isn’t it? How else could decent Bible-reading people in nineteenth century America have thought owning slaves was okay? What were they thinking?

There’s an equally good chance that future generations will look back at us and think: How could they have burned down the Amazon? Why did they destroy their own climate? What were they  thinking?

The past is the past. History is just the lens through which we see it. It is not a constant. As societies change, so history changes.

These shifting sands throw up endless stories that reflect our past and our present. And those are the stories I love.

 


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GENGHIS KHAN BUT YOU CAN’T

There’s no easy way to tell you this; if you’re a man, there is a one in two hundred chance you are related to Genghis Khan, one of the greatest mass murderers in history.

It’s probably best you heard it first here than on an episode of ‘Who do you think you are?’

It doesn’t matter that your surname is not Khan. The odds are 200-1 you have his DNA.

Who knew?

I certainly didn’t, until I started researching Silk Road.

It’s one of the fascinating things about writing or reading fiction that involves exotic locations – those unexpected little snippets you just don’t expect to stumble on.

I couldn’t use it in the novel, of course. Genghis doesn’t feature in the story, which is about an embassy the Pope sent to Genghis’ grandson, Khubilai in 1260 and the extraordinary story that evolved from it.

Khubilai inherited from his grandfather an empire twice the size of Rome’s and included large parts of modern day China, Mongolia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Moldova, South Korea, North Korea and Kuwait. In fact, Genghis made Alexander the Great look like an underachiever.

Genghis’ real name was Temujin; Genghis Khan is an honorific meaning ‘Universal Ruler’ and he took that on when he united the fractious Mongolian tribes at his coronation in 1206.

Other titles included ‘Lord of the Four Colors and Five Tongues, Lord of Life and Emperor of all Men’.

He was also known as ‘Mighty Manslayer’ and ‘Scourge of God’.

And that was on a good day.

“The greatest pleasure in life is to vanquish your enemies and chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.”

For twenty years he led his pony-mounted armies on a whirlwind of rape and slaughter unmatched before or since.

By some estimates he killed 35 million people. Over two decades, that’s one person killed every twenty seconds. He hardly had time for lunch.

Northern China is thought to have lost about three-quarters of its population. Some historians estimate he massacred so many Persians that Iran’s population did not reach its pre-Mongol levels again until the mid-20th century.

His army was the most efficient war machine ever assembled at that time, a juggernaut that swept all before it. Genghis was a master innovator; the Tatars were not just bad tempered bikers on ponies.

They had four-wheeled mobile shields and bomb hurlers and Genghis himself was utterly ruthless. Another of his innovations was to use captured soldiers as slave-labor or cannon fodder. He would push local prisoners ahead of his army, knowing that their friends on the other side would be hesitant to murder their own.

He once even diverted a river to erase a rival emperor’s birthplace from the map. No act of spite or sadism was too much trouble.

But Genghis wasn’t all bad; he is also credited with bringing the Silk Road under one political administration which allowed trade as well as cultural exchange between the East and West. He was tolerant of all religions. He instituted a system of meritocracy in his government at a time when the West was still largely feudal.

He was also lover as much as he was a fighter. And this is where we get to your DNA.

In 2007 researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences analyzed tissue samples from those areas approximating Genghis’ ancient empire. They found an identical Y-chromosomal lineage is present in about 8% of the men. 

Apparently this spread is inconsistent with the theory of genetic drift, and the most likely scenario is that all these people are male line descendants of the Manslayer. In Mongolia alone as many as 200,000 of the country’s 2 million people could be mini-Manslayers. 

It is calculated that Genghis Khan now has around 16 million male descendants across Asia and the Middle East. In fact it could be argued that he almost made genocide a sustainable industry. For every two people he killed, he created one.

His seduction technique was, however, suspect. At the victory feasts he and his commanders would sit in their tent and tear at lumps of raw and bloody horse meat with their teeth while captive beauties were paraded in front of them. Genghis chose the most beautiful for himself and gifted the rest of his officers.

This resulted in a personal harem of two to three thousand women – plus girlfriends – and his sons had comparably sized harems; so 16 million descendants is entirely within the range of possibility. Though with the pressure of having to kill someone every twenty seconds as well, his time management skills must have been excellent.

Genghis died in 1227, while campaigning in north-western China. It is reported that he fell from his horse, exhausted.

However, another legend persists that he was actually killed by a captured Chinese princess, who castrated him with a concealed knife before running off into the dark, never to be seen again.

The anecdote has never been proven. But if I was writing the story… well, that would definitely be the way I’d end it.

But Genghis’ 16 million descendants lived on.

I wrote about one of those descendants, his grandson, Khubilai, in my novel Silk Road. He built the fabled city of Xanadu as his capital. His brief dominion over almost all of Asia allowed Josseran Sarrazini and a Dominican friar, William, to travel along the Silk Road at the Pope’s request, to meet him. Their orders: to try to form an alliance against the Muslims in the Holy Land. There’s a free excerpt here. 


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ONE PRINCESS, TWO HUSBANDS – BY ORDER OF THE KING

Do you ever wonder why authors write historical fiction – after all, it’s about people they’ve never met and a time they’ve never lived in.

Well, how about this.

Imagine the scene:

A young woman stands by a log fire in a wealthy merchant’s house just outside Ghent in Flanders, what is now Belgium. The year is 1340.

The woman is shivering, warming herself by a log fire. The door opens and a young man walks in, shaking the snow from his cloak. The merchant and his wife lead the couple into another room.

The man takes the hand of the younger woman and says: ‘I, Thomas Holand, solemnly vow that I will take you, Joan Plantagenet, as my wife and I will do it before a priest, as soon as I may, and I therefore pledge thee my troth.’

The young woman repeats the vow.

That’s it, it’s done. They have said the words in front of two witnesses. No church, no photographer, no DJ, no collage on Facebook.

In the fourteenth century it is all they need to do to become legally married.

The problem?

The problem is that the young woman is a princess, and a valuable asset to the English crown. In her day and age she is not free to do as she wishes. She must do what her cousin the king wants her to.

That does not include marrying Thomas Holand, a landless knight with no money and no prospects, with no political value at all.

Why did this story get my attention?

Well, we’ll get to that.

Of course, there were many things that were different about living in the 14th century. There was no internet, no coronavirus, no dating apps. 

There was also no #metoo movement. In those days, royal women were considered chattels to be traded for political advantage. And romantic love didn’t really exist as a concept at all. Hallmark is a very recent invention.

Joan was considered a very valuable commodity indeed. Not only was she pretty, but her grandfather was King Edward I, Longshanks, scourge of the Scots. Perhaps she inherited her iron will from him.  

In 1340, her cousin, King Edward III was trying to force his claim to the French throne, which precipitated the lengthy conflict that later became known as the Hundred Years’ War. (Actually 116 years, but that doesn’t have such a ring to it.)

Somehow, perhaps when she was traveling by ship with the king to Flanders on one of his many military campaigns, she met and fell in love with a bit of a rogue called Sir Thomas Holand, a knight in the king’s army. It was the perfect shipboard romance.

They married in secret shortly afterwards and Holand went off to the wars and left his young bride to face the music. What happened next is extraordinary.

When she told the king and her family what she’d done, they closed ranks against her. Even though she had witnesses who could attest her marriage was legal, the king – with her mother’s backing – forced her into a bigamous marriage with someone they thought more fit for purpose. She still refused to give in.

For ten years – yes, ten – the king, Joan’s family, and some of England’s most powerful families tried to persuade to give up her penniless husband. They exiled her and shut her up in a tower. Holand was not allowed to see her.

They did all they could to break her spirit. Though painfully young and alone, Joan refused to bend, and eventually got her way.

The story of how she did it, and what happened to these two lovers is one of the most extraordinary stories in English history and is the subject of ‘A Vain and Indecent Woman.’

Joan’s remarkable history is not the only thing that drew me to the story.

As the father of daughters, I imagined what it would be to be Joan’s father. He was the one person who might have stood up for her – but he was dead. I wondered what it must have been like to be him, watching on, but helpless to intervene.

So the novel is more than Joan of Kent’s story. At a deeper level, it is about fathers and daughters.

That is why I wrote it – and why it has a unique perspective.

Joan went on to become mother to the next king of England. Her intelligence and political ability guided her young son through many crises. She is now regarded as one of England’s most respected royal women.

How proud her father must have been, if he were watching from the wings.

There’s an excerpt from ‘A Vain and Indecent Woman’ here.


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THE LAST KINGDOM: WAS UHTRED AT THE BATTLE OF BEAMFLEOT?

If, like me, you love sweeping, epic adventure, then you’ve probably been glued to The Last Kingdom on Netflix.

Last night, a crucial scene took place in the little town where I grew up.  There I was, jumping up and down on the sofa, pointing to the TV and shouting: ‘Look, you can see my house from here!’

The occasion was Uhtred of Bebbanburg attacking the Viking fort at Beamfleot– or Benfleet, as I always knew it. For me, growing up, it was just this dull little stop on the commuter line to London. I couldn’t wait to get away from there. But back in Uhtred’s day, it was the scene of a decisive battle between the Saxons and the Danes.

In fact, Benfleet is the reason the English don’t speak Danish.

source: Helgi Halldórsson

I really should have known more about this; after all, the street where I grew up was called, simply, Danesfield. There was a stone set in the wall of our local church commemorating the battle, even though hardly anyone locally knew much about it.

There is still much debate about what actually happened and where, although most agree the clash took place close to the site of a great little pub called the Hoy and Helmet. The only undisputed fact is that I was carried out of the back bar after ten Guinesses when I was 18.

But in 893, long before me or Guinness were invented, Alfred the Great was still trying to unify the kingdoms of England into one country. To do that, he had to get rid of the Danes.

The fort at Beamfleot – it’s a Nordic word meaning ‘wood’ and ‘water’ – had been built ten years before by a Danish earl called Haesten ‘the Black’. It had been used as a staging post for many raids into Saxon territory. So Alfred wanted it destroyed.

The attack on the fort was led by Alfred’s son, Edward, as Alfred was still in Wessex dealing with yet another Danish invasion near Exeter in Devonshire. The assault caught Haesten by surprise. He and his army had left the fort to go raiding leaving his wife and children behind with just a handful of guards.

How the Saxon attackers got inside the fort, history doesn’t say. Did they storm the walls by weight of numbers or creep in during the night? All we know is the battle itself was not a large one, there were few casualties and not much in the way of heroics.

But although the battle remains obscure, its importance to British history is crucial. Strategically, it ensured the end of the Norse threat in England; if the Saxons had failed to take Benfleet that day, the Danes could have received reinforcements along the English Channel and defeated the dynasty that gave rise to a place called England.

Not only did they take the fort, the Saxons took Haesten’s wife and children hostage. They also burned most of the Danes’ longships; some charred timbers were found in Benfleet creek a few years ago which are thought to be part of that fleet.

What happened to Haesten’s family? This is where it gets strange. Alfred returned Haesten’s wife and children to him unharmed – it seems they were his godchildren, baptised as part of an earlier treaty.

It is said that Hæstan was so overwhelmed with Alfred’s generosity and good will that he swore an oath never to attack England again.

The Battle of Benfleet heralded a period of relative stability for almost a century. Without the constant fears of Danish invasions, Alfred’s grandson eventually saw Alfred’s dream fulfilled. England became England and not Daneland.

A church was consecrated near the site of the battle in thanksgiving for the victory. It was good of Alfred to think of this, it meant my brother had a handy place down the road to get married.

But what about Uhtred – son of Uhtred – was he really there at the battle?

Well, there really was an Uhtred, called ‘The Bold’, who was ealdorman of Bamburgh on the Northumbrian coast, but he wasn’t born until a hundred years after Beamfleot.

So, is the televised version the real history? Not quite. But like all great historical fiction, it brings the past to vivid life, and makes our hearts race for these long ago people, turning their stories into epic adventure.

And even Benfleet becomes thrilling, if only for an hour.

Destiny, as they say, is all.


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