Back in the thirties, Cecil B. de Mille offered the role of Cleopatra to Claudette Colbert with the words: ‘How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?’

Was she really history’s wickedest woman, reclining on an antique sunbed, being fed grapes by Nubian slaves and giving eyes to every man who strolled in from the desert?

Even today many people believe she bathed in asses’ milk and slept with hundreds of men.

Did she?

Let’s start with the asses’ milk. Yes, she did spend a fortune on cosmetics because she was very conscious of her image. But for political reasons, not because she was vain.

In fact, evidence suggests she was a political and marketing genius of the first rank.

Even though she had Greek and Syrian blood, she presented herself to the Egyptian people as Isis, goddess of all Egypt.

By doing so, she secured the ‘chora’, the working people, and the priesthood, as her power base.

When she went to meet Marc Antony at Tarsus, she used this public persona in another way. Antony had been hailed as the new Dionysios, a god in his own right. After Caesar’s death, she needed his support and his influence. She did not seduce him with anything as unreliable as pillow talk.

Instead, she sailed into Tarsus in a galley with gold-tipped oars and purple sails, servants dressed as nymphs draped in the rigging. The sails had been impregnated with rich perfumes so that the wind announced her arrival long before she docked at the quay.

Cleopatra herself sat on the deck under an elaborate canopy, dressed as Isis, Queen of the Ocean, using this astonishing spectacle to announce to the whole world that she had come to meet Antony not as a supplicant, but as a fellow divinity.

It worked. He returned with her to Alexandria and a deal was struck. Together they would become king and queen of the entire Mediterranean.

So was she the siren Hollywood has made her out to be?

That slur came from their main rival, the man now known to us as the Emperor Augustus. He was every bit as astute as Cleopatra at manipulating public opinion and he was the one who denounced her as a sultry temptress to the Roman senate, in order to turn the tables on her. He ‘leaked’ rumours about her having sex with her slaves and even crocodiles in order to make Antony look ridiculous.

This smear campaign was probably one of the most effective in history. It worked so well that it still informs popular opinion about her, even two thousand years later, (with a little help from Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw).

The real Cleopatra was a consummate political animal, a woman far ahead of her time.

She spoke at least a dozen languages, was well-versed in mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. She was also an excellent administrator. Women in Egypt had civil rights that Roman women of the age could only dream of.

She wasn’t even very promiscuous. In fact, it seems she only slept with two men all her life, and both of them were husbands.

Well, not her husbands, admittedly – though in fairness, she did marry them later.

Both of these affairs were politically expedient, for her and for the two Romans she married – Caesar and Marc Antony.

Despite overwhelming odds, she almost became ruler of the entire western world using her intelligence and her daring. In the end she scandalized the Romans not because of her sexual conquests, but because a woman almost beat them at their own game.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is THAT hairstyle: the one worn by Elizabeth Taylor and the many actresses who have portrayed her through the years.

Even that is probably untrue. Because of her Macedonian heritage – she was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals – historians now think there’s a fair chance that Cleopatra may have been…  blonde.


If you’re interested in Cleopatra, here’s my novel about her: ‘Cleopatra: When We Were Gods’.

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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.

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.


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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 my novel 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 watching on, but helpless to intervene.

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

That is 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.


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His name has become a byword for epic adventure. Marco Polo – the man who, way back in the 13th century, explored the Silk Road all the way to China.

Or did he?

Some historians claim he simply wrote down gossip he heard from other merchants. There are those who doubt that he even left Venice.

They have accused him of being an armchair traveller, that at best he never went further east than Persia (modern Iran), and that he garnered all his information there.

His fellow Venetians certainly didn’t believe him. They called him ‘Messer Marco Milioni’ (Mister Marco Millions), a snide reference to his claims that Kublai Khan was the richest man in the world.

Their scepticism is understandable. After all, in the Middle Ages, his claims must have appeared outlandish at best. He had suddenly reappeared after twenty-four years away from home, said he’d been all the way to Xanadu and back, and had served as an ambassador and tax collector for the Mongol emperor.

However, we now know that he wasn’t the first European to go to all the way to Cathay, now modern China. A Franciscan monk – Giovanni da Pian del Carpini – went there twenty years before Marco Polo and other Catholic emissaries soon followed, including William of Rubruck, who tried to convert the Mongols to Christianity – a journey that inspired me to write Silk Road.

Marco Polo set off with his father and uncle in 1271, while still in his teens. Their aims were far more prosaic. His family were all merchants and they hoped to turn a profit.

On his return in 1295, he started raving about unicorns, and how the Chinese used money made out of paper – unheard of in the west at that time – and said that they even had Christian churches. He described the Khan’s postal service and handed around hand-drawn maps of Alaska. It sounded bizarre to thirteenth century Venetians.

Some modern historians have been equally incredulous. They have pointed out that he failed to mention the Great Wall of China, tea, Chinese characters or foot-binding.

They forget that the Great Wall, as we know it, wasn’t built until two hundred yards later. Also, his Mongol hosts were not Chinese. They didn’t drink tea, use chopsticks or Chinese script. They certainly didn’t bind women’s feet – Mongol women were supposed to do much the same work as men.

One version of Marco Polo’s book does mention the dainty walk of Chinese women, though he didn’t realise the reason for it.

Modern studies have further shown that Marco Polo’s descriptions of the commercial details that would have really interested him – such as profit margins on salt mining – are accurate and unique. He also described the use of watertight compartments, a Chinese invention, in the khan’s ships, which would have been especially fascinating to a Venetian.

And there were indeed six Nestorian churches in Zhengiang and one in Hangzhou, founded by a Sogdian priest from Samarkand.

He was also able to accurately describe nighttime constellations he had seen to the Italian astrologer, Pietro d’Abano. We now know these stars can only be seen from Sumatra and the South China Sea.

But did he exaggerate? Undoubtedly.

The fault lies, as it so often does, with a fiction author.

In 1298, three years after he returned from his journey, Marco Polo was captured after leading a Venetian galley into battle against the rival Italian city-state of Genoa. His cell mate in prison was Rustichello of Pisa, a talented writer of romances, who took on the job as his ghostwriter. They finished an account of his travels during the year they were locked up.

‘Profit Margins on Salt Production in Cathay’ wasn’t a catchy title. Rustichello wanted another bestseller. So he called it The Book of Marvels and added a few fantastic and romantic elements to turn it into a bestseller.

Which is why the account of Marco Polo’s meeting with Kublai Khan at the court in Shang’tu is almost identical to the arrival of Rustichello’s Tristan at the court of King Arthur in Camelot.

It’s also why the Polos were said to have provided the Mongols with military equipment for their successful siege of Xiangyang – which took place two years before they left Venice. Just Rustichello bending the truth a little, like Peter Morgan writing The Crown for Netflix.

But does that mean Marco Polo didn’t go to China? The balance of probabilities says he most certainly did. And Mister Millions certainly never backed down from his tale. Even on his deathbed, he stuck to his guns.

His last words: “I did not tell half of what I saw.”

Read more epic historical fiction about the SILK ROAD.

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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.

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The earth orbits the sun at roughly 365¼ days a year.

But before 45 BC, the Roman calendar consisted of just 355 days. A 27-day intercalary month, the Mensis Intercalaris, was sometimes inserted between February and March, adding an extra twenty-two or twenty-three days to the year, as a catch up.

As far as historians can determine, these extra months were added every second or third year. If managed correctly this system allowed the Roman year to stay roughly aligned to the seasons.

However, the extra month had to be approved by a Roman magistrate, a Pontifix, and because terms of office corresponded with a calendar year, this power was prone to abuse. A Pontifex could lengthen a year in which he or one of his allies was in power, or refuse to lengthen one in which his opponents held sway.

By the time of Julius Caesar, the system had failed completely and the average Roman was often unsure of the date. The last years of the pre-Julian calendar became known as “The Years of Confusion”.

It prompted Caesar to develop a new calendar that could be aligned to the sun without any human intervention – to keep the smooth running of the country and its agriculture free from politicking, in other words.

It became effective in 45 BC, distributing an extra ten days among the months of the Roman Republican year. It also added an extra day every four years – what was called a leap year to account for that pesky quarter day rotation.

According to Cicero, in order to align the year with the seasons, Caesar had to insert two extra months called the Intercalaris Prior and the Intercalaris Posterior just before December.

So that year had three Novembers.

I learned all this while researching my novel, Cleopatra, When We Were Gods:

“Did you hear about Marcellus?” Cicero said. “He was seen coming out of a brothel near the Circus Maximus last week. His wife was furious with him but he countered her by saying he could do as he liked as the first two Novembers of the year didn’t count.”

“I heard Lepidus is thrown in a panic,” Antony said. “He is writing everything down that he does each day, so that he can do exactly the same thing on the corresponding days in the two Novembers to follow.”

Thanks to the three Novembers, Caesar’s calendar was the predominant calendar in the western world, for more than 1600 years.

But there was a flaw.

The earth’s orbit is not 365¼ days; it is 365.2425 days.

In 1582, to accommodate this slight difference, Pope Gregory effected a modification, now called the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use today.

Years that were evenly divisible by 100 were not leap years, unless they were also evenly divisible by 400. For example, 1600 and 2000 were leap years, but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not. Similarly 2100 will not be a leap year.

This has to happen, otherwise because of solar drift, today would be two weeks ago.

Caesar’s improvements to the calendar were revolutionary, and very clever, but they didn’t help poor Julius. The year after he brought in the changes he was slaughtered outside the Senate.

But in March, not November.

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It’s easy to forget that history was once someone’s everyday reality.

There are moments, when I’m writing an historical novel, that it really hits me just how terrifying it must have been to live in a certain place, at a certain time.

I had one such moment when I was writing Loving Liberty Levine, a novel about Russian immigrants coming to New York just before the First World War.

The background was very familiar to me from old black and white movies set on the Lower East Side and documentaries on the History channel. But this time, imagining it through the eyes of my characters, as they first glimpsed the Statue of Liberty through the fog after weeks and weeks at sea, I had some sense of how they must have felt.

They all held to a dream, encapsulated in those now famous lines found at the base of the Liberty statue:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Between 1892 and 1924, the torch in the famous statue’s right hand in upper New York Bay represented a beacon of real hope to millions outside the fledgling nation. Without this escape route, many would have died, few would have escaped misery and destitution. 

It’s been calculated that almost half of the United States population can trace their heritage to the ragtag ancestors standing in line at Ellis Island immigration station with their cardboard suitcases and little else.

The Ellis Island museum has oral histories from many of those people, including details of the ships they arrived on, which have all been made available online.

To understand who we are, we have to know where we came from, so Ellis Island and its archives are a priceless resource. If you live in the US, you may well find the stories of your distant relatives recorded there.

Here’s the link if you’re interested:

It meant that the hardest thing for me about researching Loving Liberty Levine was knowing when to stop, there was such a wealth of information and anecdotes.

And those famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Where did they come from?

They were taken from a sonnet – ‘The New Colossus’ – which was written to help raise money for the Liberty monument construction. It was penned by Emma Lazarus, in 1883, and then forgotten for almost 20 years. The work was finally mounted on a bronze plaque inside the pedestal in 1903.

In the end, the gamble of mass immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century paid off for the nation as well as for the desperate dreamers that arrived on its shores. Which of the following American icons do you think owe their existence to immigrants, or their descendants?

“White Christmas”

Levi jeans

“God Bless America”



“Born in the USA”


Huffington Post

Carnegie Hall

The Pultizer Prize

Yosemite National Park

The answer?

Yes, that’s right. All of them.

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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.

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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’…


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.


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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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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.  

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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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