When God turned his face away – by Anna Belfrage

Anna Belfrage and I have been ‘hanging out’ both in person and virtually for a number of years. Anna is the author of a time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as a medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. Anna tells me that if she had been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. Instead, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing.

Anna’s latest novel is The Castilian Pomegranate, the second in her “Castilian” series, a stand-alone sequel to her September 2020 release, His Castilian Hawk. Welcome, Anna!

When God turned his face away – of an ill-fated crusade by Anna Belfrage

Late in 1284, Philippe III of France mustered a huge army and set off south on a crusade. Not, as one would think, against the Muslim infidel crusades were generally directed at, no this venture was aimed at the king of Aragon, whom the pope had excommunicated. 

Before we move further into the story, best we explain why King Pedro had been excommunicated. Some years earlier Pedro had launched a campaign to conquer Sicily. 
“Perfidy!” exclaimed the pope, while Pedro calmy stated he was merely reclaiming what should be his—or rather his wife’s. Pedro was married to Constanza of Sicily, the sole surviving whole child of Manfred of Hohenstaufen who had been killed in battle by a pope-backed campaign led by Charles d’Anjou, uncle of Philippe III. (Her brothers had all been blinded by d’Anjou before being locked up for life)

Obviously, Philippe III felt entitled to defend his family interests, which was why he “took the cross”. Plus, other than his eldest son and heir, he had a strapping second son, Charles de Valois, who would make an excellent king of Aragon, especially since he had blood ties to the royal House of Aragon. You see, from a family perspective this was quite the tangled mess, seeing as Philippe III had once been wed to Pedro’s sister, Isabel. But by now Isabel was long dead and Philippe clearly felt little affection or respect for his erstwhile brother-in-law. No, he was incensed at having his dear uncle chased off to cower in Naples when he should be lording it in Palermo.

The French host marched south and were warmly welcomed by Pedro’s younger brother, Jaume, who was king of Mallorca and the previous Aragonese lands in southern France. His capital was in Perpignan, and supposedly he was delighted at welcoming Philippe III and most eager to support this crusade against his excommunicated brother. 

Jaume’s subjects were not necessarily of the same opinion, and some of them offered the French quite some resistance as they made for the mountain passes over the Pyrenees. One of these resistance fighters was the “anonymous bastard of Roussillon” who managed to hold the French off for quite some time but who was ultimately overcome by the sheer size of the French army. The French exacted a horrible price from these resistance fighters. They herded men, women and children into the cathedral of Elne and set it on fire, obliging the devastated anonymous bastard to watch as his people died. The papal legates who accompanied the crusade voiced no objection – but I do believe God was not pleased. At all. Which may explain what happened next…

The victorious French army entered Aragon, and settled down to besiege Girona. After two months or so, Girona fell in early September of 1285. The young Charles de Valois was crowned at Girona – and in lieu of a crown, a hat was set atop his head. Yay, Aragon had a new king—except the people of Aragon weren’t having it, and King Pedro had by now assembled his forces and was marching towards the French. Not that Philippe seemed unduly concerned, plus he had just requested additional reinforcements that were to arrive by ship. 

Having anyone attempt to land anything along the Aragonese coast without Aragonese approval was very, very foolish. Aragon was a nation with oversea interests and was therefore in possession of a good navy—and a remarkably capable admiral to command it. Enter Roger de Lauria, who not only was Pedro’s admiral, he was also a foster-brother to Queen Constanza, as his mother had nursed them both. 

The French galleys were attacked at night, which was totally unexpected as no one fought naval battles at night—well, except for de Lauria. The galleys were destroyed and legend has it that the French survivors were  stripped, put in chains and blinded before they were sent off to walk back to France, led by the few lucky bastards who’d been allowed to keep one eye. Personally, I don’t think things happened that way—mainly because maiming three hundred odd men takes time, and Pedro was rearing to go after the French ASAP.

Meanwhile, the French were fighting a new enemy: dysentery. Plus, with close to 30 000 men to feed, foraging was becoming a problem. Philippe decided on a strategic retreat, hoping to rendezvous with his ships at Rosas, a small town along the coast. Except, of course, that there were no French ships anymore.  For the more devout among the French it was becoming evident this venture was not blessed by God, and I dare say some worried that it all came back to burning the cathedral in Elne.

The king fell ill, as did his younger son. The French moved slowly towards Col de Panissars, a pass over the mountains. They hoped to reach it before the pursuing troops of King Pedro, but with so many men sick it was a slow process, and sure enough, by the time they camped in sight of the pass, the armies of Aragon were at their heels.

King Pedro at the Battle of Col de Panissars

Prince Philippe, the heir to the throne of France, begged for an audience with his uncle, King Pedro, and begged him to let them all leave. Pedro refused. He did, however, agree to allow the royal family and a small entourage to leave, but the main host would not be crossing the mountain, not unless they fought their way there.  

The French king was utterly humiliated—but by now he was too sick to care. His son reluctantly agreed to Pedro’s offer, promising himself that he would never allow himself to be as manipulated by the pope as his father had been. (Not that I’m entirely sure the pope had to be all that manipulating…) True to his word, Philippe IV would endeavour to gain control over the church rather than have the church control him, which is how he more or less murdered one pope, forced the conclave to elect a French pope, and then suggested to said pope that he move the See of Peter to Avignon. 

Anyway: the sick French king and his closest men departed the camp, navigating the slope up to the pass. Below, the French army prepared for battle. When King Pedro gave the command, his men charged, and by the time the sun set on the Battle of Col de Panissars, the French army had been brutally decimated. The Aragonese Crusade had failed: Pedro remained king of Aragon, and what better sign could there be that God approved of him, no matter that a bitter and vengeful pope had excommunicated him? 

Not that Pedro was to live long enough to truly enjoy his victory. A month or so later he passed, dying of some sort of pulmonary disease. He made his peace with the church on his death bed, but it would take several more years before the Kingdom of Aragon and the Holy See reached a formal accord. By then, of course, neither Pedro or Philippe III were in a position to care.

The Aragonese Crusade forms part of the historical background of The Castilian Pomegranate. Not that Robert FitzStephan wants to join the Aragonese war effort, but he really has no choice, which is how he comes to be present at the major events, all the while very worried about how his wife, Noor, may be faring when they are so far apart in a foreign land! 

Such a tangle of relationships, greed, and bloodthirsty power! Many thanks for sharing this historical perspective, Anna.

The Castilian Pomegranate by Anna Belfrage ~~ An enraged and grieving queen commands them to retrieve her exquisite jewel and abandon their foundling brat overseas–or never return.

Robert FitzStephan and his wife, Noor, have been temporarily exiled. Officially, they are to travel to the courts of Aragon and Castile as emissaries of Queen Eleanor of England. Unofficially, the queen demands two things: that they abandon Lionel, their foster son, in foreign lands and that they bring back a precious jewel – the Castilian Pomegranate.

Noor would rather chop off a foot than leave Lionel in a foreign land—especially as he’s been entrusted to her by his dead father, the last true prince of Wales. And as to the jewel, stealing it would mean immediate execution. . . 

Spain in 1285 is a complicated place. France has launched a crusade against Aragon and soon enough Robert is embroiled in the conflict, standing side by side with their Aragonese hosts. Once in Castile, it is the fearsome Moors that must be fought, with Robert facing weeks separated from his young wife, a wife who is enthralled by the Castilian court—and a particular Castilian gallant. 

Jealousy, betrayal and a thirst for revenge plunge Noor and Robert into life-threatening danger. Will they emerge unscathed or will savage but beautiful Castile leave them permanently scarred and damaged? 

The Castilian Pomegranate is the second in her “Castilian” series, a stand-alone sequel to her September 2020 release, His Castilian Hawk. Set against the complications of Edward I’s invasion of Wales, His Castilian Hawk is a story of loyalty, integrity—and love. In The Castilian Pomegranate, we travel with the protagonists to the complex political world of medieval Spain, a world of intrigue and back-stabbing.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A Ball of Golden Thread

Deborah Lincoln is the author of Agnes Canon’s War and An Irish Wife. She specializes in fictional retellings of almost-lost stories from her own family’s past, with characters both well-known and obscure. To get a sense of the stories she writes, consider this quote that I borrowed from her website.

In historical fiction, great events bring a poignancy to the lives of everyday people, to their efforts to survive and prosper. My work celebrates those brave, smart and anonymous women and men, honors their triumphs and hardships, and pays tribute to their memories.

Today, Deborah shares thoughts on creating the natural environment for a story.

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When I first read The Scarlet Letter, I was captivated by the idea that within a very few miles of the new world’s coastline stretched a dense and primeval forest (Hawthorne’s lovely descriptions) and I imagined myself an eagle flying over that forest that stretched forever, untouched. I wanted so much to see it, know it the way it was then and would never be again. I rebuilt it in my mind, smelled its scents, absorbed its sounds. Imagined the busyness of its small and large inhabitants and their absorption in the immediacy of their moments. And I wanted to build that world so others would see it, too.

Country cemeteries are wonderful places to wander to absorb atmosphere. 
This is the Bethelboro cemetery where Agnes, Harry and their family are buried.

That is the sense of place that I find crucial to telling a story, especially a story based in the rural past, in which the characters are so much closer to the natural world than we can be today. I want to call up the childhood, even racial memories lying deep inside us all that can be triggered by the rank rich smell of a humid summer’s day or the chorus of crickets at dusk. My characters need to be shaped by the land and elements because they are so much more dependent on them for their safety and sustenance. “For once we no longer live beneath our mother’s heart,” says Louise Erdrich, “it is the earth with which we form the same dependent relationship, relying completely on its cycles and elements, helpless without its protective embrace.” If we, the human race, still felt that, we would perhaps not be in the climate crisis we’re now experiencing.

Vegetation and wildlife are important to developing a sense of place.

In my writing I’ve tried evoking the sense of place first by visiting the area I’m writing about, as most writers do. For my first book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, that was the village of Oregon in northwest Missouri, as well as Virginia City and the Gallatin River valley in Montana. I grew up in the Midwest, so the humid summers, crisp, frigid winters, the flash of lightning bugs and the whine of mosquitos in the dark were all memories that I drew on to evoke an atmosphere.

I refreshed my memory of the vegetation, the birds and the animal life—and did my research to be sure those species existed in the mid-nineteenth century, the setting for my story. It wouldn’t do to insert a family of nutria in the creek in 1855 when they weren’t introduced into the United States until 1899. 

Oregon, Missouri: The town of Lick Creek, setting for AGNES CANON’S WAR

For my second book, AN IRISH WIFE, I needed to go beyond my own stomping grounds, east to the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, a different setting from the flat farmlands I grew up in, and get a sense of the distances, what the horizon looks like, the sunsets and rainclouds over the hills and the geology, including what might lie underground. I toured a slope-entry coal mine to feel the weight of a mountain pressing in on me and to soak up the sense of dark and closeness, of menace, that working below the surface might provoke. I studied maps of mines, examined diagrams of geological strata, collected photographs of miners and their equipment taken deep underground. Odd as it sounds, annual reports of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Industrial Statistics dating from the mid-1880s were fascinating. Thank goodness for the Internet.

Experience what your characters would have experienced. Inside an abandoned coal mine. (Photo by Brian Moran)

Sense of place gives equilibrium,” Eudora Welty writes (On Writing, 1956), “extended, it is sense of direction too.” A writer can achieve an unflinching authenticity when she conveys a sense of place, and as Mary’s survey of her readers discovered, those readers want a time and place to be brought to life. As Welty says, “. . . it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.”

Thanks, Deborah, for sharing your thoughts on creating a time and place for readers. I’ve read An Irish Wife and can still feel the dirt and despair of the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the deep prejudice against Irish Catholics, and the blossoming of young love amidst the nearby forests. A highly recommended story!

An Irish Wife by Deborah Lincoln ~~ In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged as it also destroys lives and the dreams of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson, coming of age in southwestern Pennsylvania, is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream.
When he meets Niamh, an immigrant Irish woman married to a coal miner, he falls in love for the first time. Niamh’s arranged marriage brought her to America with the hope of giving her brother Patrick opportunities for a better life, and she asks Harry to continue the boy’s education. He agrees, hoping to stay close to Niamh and dreaming about ways to make her his own.
Through Niamh and Patrick, Harry begins to realize the extent of the prejudices that stalk Irish Catholics and all immigrants. When Niamh’s husband beats her and she escapes, Harry is determined to take her away, though it means overcoming her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

4 Types of Conflict

Annie Whitehead is a History graduate and an elected member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written four novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which, To Be A Queen, tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines and was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017.

Annie’s latest novel, The Sins of the Father, releases today and I’m delighted to have her on the blog – the topic is conflict, an ingredient at the heart of successful novels.

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Conflict is one of the seven elements of historical fiction outlined in Mary’s blog post. It has to be present in any novel, but of course it means many different things. I’ll start with the most obvious, and the one involving the most people, and then reduce the numbers of participants:

War

It’s likely that, if you write historical fiction, you’re going to be writing about a period in which a war or battle was fought. The period I write about has a lot of battles; not outright wars, but every so often one kingdom would turn on another and fights occurred. In the later part of the Anglo-Saxon period, there were Vikings to contend with. War is bloody, brutal, and traumatising and that’s true whether it’s a Viking incursion in the ninth century or a battle in WWI. The thing to do, I feel, when writing about battles, is to make it personal. That might mean showing why it matters so much to certain kings, or tribe leaders, that they win a particular fight and what’s at stake, or it might mean showing the story of individual soldiers at the front, or the stories of those waiting for them at home. I’ve read many books set during the ‘Great War’ and it seems to me that by focusing on one or two individuals and their stories, the tragedy can become more affecting, as they come to represent the millions who were involved.

Conflict within the setting

Not all historical fiction will focus on, or even feature, any kind of pitched battle. Yet conflict will still be present as a major element of the story. Perhaps mill workers are badly treated by the mill owners. Tenants might be evicted, on a small scale – perhaps the family who are the main focus of the story – or on a larger scale, such as the highland clearances. Warring families, such as the Poldarks and the Warleggans in Winston Graham’s novels, who are on a more equal social footing, are still locked in conflict which drives the drama long after Ross Poldark returns from war. The Industrial Revolution era will provide rich seams for such conflicts: businessmen seeking opportunities and coming up against opposition from others like them; the struggles of movements which would eventually become the trades unions. In nineteenth-century America, the conflict does not just come in the form of the civil war which fractured the country, but the tension surrounding slave ownership and the abolitionists where again, focusing on one small group, family, or individual, makes for a powerful drama. 

It’s always worth remembering, too, that conflict among people on the same social stratum can arise from misunderstanding, by one or both parties. In my novel Cometh the Hour, the first in my two book series of which the new novel is Book 2, two kings went to war because they both believed the other was harbouring an enemy. Conflict born of misapprehension can add a level of pathos to the story.

Conflict within the setting would also include those who rail in some way against the status quo, against the accepted thinking of the age, or against their perceived place in society. The pitfall here is that the character might step too completely out of their time period. The historical novelist must think about the mindset of the period, but within that there is scope to have a character trying to step beyond the confines of their prescribed life. In the time in which my latest novel is set, women ran the abbeys, which were sociable places, and were ‘double houses’ where both monks and nuns lived. The religious life was a good one, often readily chosen, but in later periods, this wasn’t necessarily the case. Young women with no protectors, no dowries and/or no great social standing, might find that was the only option for them but it doesn’t mean they welcomed it. A woman seeking to escape this life would be in conflict with the norm, but would not be stepping out of her period and nor would she be introducing modern attitudes to the story.

Conflict Within the Family

A truly universal theme! Inter-generational conflict can be found in any period, and will be recognisable to modern readers: the son who does not wish to follow his father into the family business, or who wants a better life, the daughter who wants to work for her own living where her mother was not able to. There is also conflict between siblings, another familiar aspect to life. In my latest novel, two brothers are extremely close and love each other immensely. They are bound together by the tragedies which befall their family, yet each has a different idea about the path he should follow. One wishes to emulate their father and he is driven by a need to prove himself just as capable and, though he does not admit it, by a fear of failure. The other is more circumspect, feeling that the past should be left alone, and that old mistakes should not be repeated. He is also in awe of his elder brother and feels inadequate, living life in the shadows as it were. Their different approaches to life lead to conflict, made more bitter by the fact that they love each other so dearly. This, I think, hurts so much more than conflict between natural enemies.

Conflict Within

This is a special sub-branch of conflict, which leads to self-doubt, anxiety, and moments in the story where the main character reaches a point of despair, feeling thwarted or hide-bound by an inability to make a decision. My main character in the latest novel, the younger brother mentioned above, has moments where he is frozen by doubt. The youngest of nine children, he feels that his elder siblings have it all figured out, and he constantly questions why he feels differently about the things that matter most to his family. Then, around three-quarters of the way through the novel, there is a nasty twist and he finds himself having to act against his own principles, and in the process alienates himself from several family members. He’s placed on the horns of a particularly troublesome dilemma, where taking one path will hurt those he loves, while the other will also hurt people whom he cares for. Battling with one’s emotions, with a heart versus head scenario, or where duty must come before love, adds deep layers to a character’s story and offers the reader a chance to sympathise and empathise.

Thank you for your take on conflict, Annie. The examples you’ve given are truly universal, and, as Alma Katsu discussed in her recent master class on conflict, ‘upping the ante’ in terms of multiple levels of conflict really adds to a story’s success.

The Sins of the Father by Annie Whitehead ~~ A father’s legacy can be a blessing or a curse…

AD658: The sons of Penda of Mercia have come of age. Ethelred, the youngest, recalls little of past wars while Wulf is determined to emulate their father, whose quest to avenge his betrayed kinswomen drew him to battle three successive Northumbrian kings.
Ecgfrith of Northumbria is more hostile towards the Mercians than his father was. His sister Ositha, thwarted in her marriage plans, seeks to make her mark in other ways, but can she, when called upon, do her brother’s murderous bidding?


Ethelred finds love with a woman who is not involved in the feud, but fate intervenes. Wulf’s actions against Northumbria mean Ethelred must choose duty over love, until he, like his father before him, has cause to avenge the women closest to him. Battle must once more be joined, but the price of victory will be high. This stand-alone novel is the second of the two-book series, Tale of the Iclingas, which began with Cometh the Hour.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.