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.

Inside Historical Fiction with Anna Belfrage

Release date November 1, 2015
Release date November 1, 2015

Anna Belfrage and I met in Denver at the Historical Novel Society conference. According to Anna, had she been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exists, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. Today she’s answering questions on historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

The one word answer is immersion. As a reader, I open the book, and within pages, I am no longer in my armchair or my bed or wherever I may be reading. I am elsewhere, in another time, another place.

To achieve this requires that the author paints the scene for us – not in too much detail, as us humans are gifted with vivid imagination and rather enjoy filling in the blanks. But there must be pointers – the sooty light of a torch, the rustling of starched linens, the complex buttoning of a lady’s half-boot – little things that add up to an image.

The same lightness of touch should be applied when depicting the political scene – add one bit here, another there, discreetly placed building blocks that allow the reader to participate in the world building. Great historical fiction writers know their period and the political complexity, but they don’t shove it in the reader’s face.

However, no matter how elegantly imparted the setting, it all falls flat on its face if the characters lack appeal and credibility. In this case, appeal does not necessarily mean a likeable character – but he/she must somehow sink hooks into the reader, wrest an emotional response from them.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

No, I don’t think so. In essence all novels are about story and character, historical novels just happen to take place in a setting somewhat distant from our contemporary lives – which, for some readers, adds to the allure.

Ultimately, any good novel is about relationships and the consequences actions may have on these relationships. People haven’t changed all that much over the last few thousand years or so, which is why the seven cardinal sins play as much a part in our world as they did in the medieval cosmos. Lust, Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Envy, Sloth and Wrath – all of us are afflicted by them, for the simple reason that they are the common human flaws. The novels that resonate with most readers, no matter in what period they’re set, are essentially about people combatting these flaws – or embracing them, which is a just as interesting, if somewhat darker, scenario.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

The Graham Saga is very much about depicting the religious divisions of the 17th century, and how difficult it was to bridge the distrust between Protestants and Catholics. I find the issue of beliefs fascinating – and somewhat depressing. The number of people who died due to the religious wars in Europe in the 17th century is staggering – but then religion is very much a hot potato in our world as well, isn’t it? Which, I guess, just goes to show that the contemporary world and that of the past bleed into each other.

Seeing as I am somewhat of a romantic (an understatement as per those who know me) I rarely write anything without there being a liberal dose of love in the mixture. Love, however, is not always pink and fluffy. At times, it is a harsh taskmaster, requiring substantial sacrifices along the way – a timeless aspect of this rather draining emotion.

Other than that, I enjoy writing about major political events at once removed. In my upcoming series, my protagonists become embroiled in the rebellion against Edward II – they’re swept along, so to say. Yes, the major players of the time are very much present, but it is through the eyes of the less powerful that the events are presented.

In general, I prefer writing about “ordinary” people as opposed to the rich and famous. I admire these our forebears for their tenacity, their quiet courage – the prime example being all those thousands upon thousands who tore themselves up by the roots and immigrated to the New World in search of a better future, if not for them, at least for their children.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

Any writer who decides to set their book in the past must of course research their period, just as an author who sets his/her work in a specific geographic location has to be familiar with the setting. I spend a lot of time reading broadly about the period I am presently writing in, but I also look at art, at surviving artefacts, listen to music (if possible). When I can, I visit locations. I read up on fauna and flora. If my plot has real-life events and people, I read up on them.

The plot generally revolves round the human condition as such, so whatever world-shattering events may be happening in the background, they are often just that: background. However, in my new series, real-life events play a crucial part, and I’ve spent a lot of effort getting the time-line right, which causes the original plot to be tweaked repeatedly.

My characters are first and foremost people. No, I do not have my 14th century leading lady saying “Bloody hell”, nor do I have her initiating an agitated discussion with her husband about who should do what in the household. Kit knows her place, works within the restrictions imposed by her gender and time-period – but when so required, she may step outside the norms, no matter how uncomfortable that makes her.
As to dialogue, I am not a fan of period dialogue. Leaving aside the fact that I couldn’t recreate the language of the 1300s, I seriously doubt any of my readers would understand it. Dialogue to me must be immediate, it must carry the reader with it, bring pace and nerve to the narrative. I therefore tend to write a relatively “modern” dialogue, while avoiding expressions that would jolt the reader out of the story. (Ergo, Kit doesn’t say “No way!” even when that is exactly what she means)

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

I try to activate all senses. What do things feel like, how do they smell, is there light or shadow? What are the sources of light? Glowing embers, reeking tallow candles, lanterns or moonlight? Do the fabrics rustle, is there a squeak as the rope frame gives under the combined weight of two? A whiff of cabbage, the sour smell of spilled, dried milk, the freshness of an autumn morning. Spurs jangling, hooves clattering over stone cobbles, the soft voice of a woman singing her child to sleep. A shutter slams in the wind. An overturned goblet spills wine over the lady’s new damask silk. A stifled sob. The smell of putrefaction emanating from a gibbet.

All these impressions combine – I hope – to build a whole.

Do you see any particular trends in HF?

We seem to be moving into a broader approach when it comes to periods and geographies. Lisa J. Yarde has written excellent books set in Moorish Spain, as has David Penny, the 19th century is expanding beyond Regency, the Ottoman Empire is receiving due attention as are Vikings and the truly ancient people of the Middle East – Richard Abbott has written a wonderful novel set here, just as the Hebrew tribes invade Canaan. Plus I note an upsurge in books set in the 17th century – about time, if you ask me!

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

On November 1, the first book in my next series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, will be published. In the Shadow of the Storm is the story of Adam de Guirande and his wife Kit. As per the blurb: “Adam de Guirande owes his lord, Sir Roger Mortimer, much more than loyalty. He owes Sir Roger for his life and all his worldly goods, he owes him for his beautiful wife – even if Kit is not quite the woman Sir Roger thinks she is. So when Sir Roger rises in rebellion against the king, Adam has no choice but to ride with him – no matter what the ultimate cost may be.”

When I’m not stuck in the 14th century, chances are I’ll be visiting in the 17th century, more specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This series is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

Many thanks for talking about inside historical fiction, Anna.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.