Last week, Simon and Schuster published Blood of the Innocents, the final part of Michael Jecks’ Vintener Trilogy, a series of books that takes us back in time to that most troublesome of centuries – the 14th – and the Hundred Years War. To celebrate the publication, I’m delighted to host a fascinating in-depth guest post from the author. In it, Michael looks at the origins of the trilogy, its historical inspiration and its growth into a series that is now complete.
France, 1356: Ten years have passed since the battle of Crecy, and the English fighters are still abroad, laying siege to cities, towns and even small villages. Meanwhile the Prince of Wales raids across France to draw King John into a battle for sovereignty.
Berenger Fripper, having lost everything to the plague, is now captain of a company of mercenaries, but treachery and deceit dog him when his travels with the company lead him to Uzerche. And then his path crosses that of Prince Edward and his men as they embark on their latest chevauchée to bring death and disaster to the King of France’s subjects.
Enlisted as Vintener under Sir John de Sully, Berenger finds himself drawn into a new struggle. Can the English defeat the much larger French army, or will they find themselves finally overcome when their weary feet bring them at last to the field of battle near Poitiers…
The origins of The Vintener Trilogy
It was a surprise four years ago when my new editor at Simon and Schuster suggested I should consider a change of direction.
Until then I had been a cheerful writer of crime thrillers which happened to be set in the far-distant past – during the reign of King Edward II and his deplorable friend Sir Hugh le Despenser (and if all you know about those two was that Edward died in a particularly nasty manner in Berkley Castle, and that they were gay, then you need to read my books and prepare for a minor revisionist shock).
But no, my new editor wanted me to stop writing my Templar series, which had reached thirty-two titles at that stage, and consider a violent war series.
‘I thought you might have some ideas,’ she said, looking at me hopefully.
‘Medieval?’ I guessed. I knew she liked blood and stabbing weapons.
She smiled and nodded.
‘Um,’ I said.
Because starting out with a new concept is always tough. There are no rules, no existing plot-lines and characters – not even the outline of a landscape. Everything is open. Some people say that sitting down with a blank sheet of paper is terrifying when they are about to embark on a new novel; well, after thirty-two titles in a series in which I knew the landscape, history, people, legal issues, and already had a bank of seven or more different potential murders, I was happy to write more in that line. It was much harder to start from scratch.
And yet …
There was a period I had always wanted to cover: the Hundred Years War.
Many years ago – I’m guessing 1978 – I was a member of a mail order bookseller which specialised in history and warfare. One month there was a book with a wonderful write-up. It was The Hundred Years War, written by Desmond Seward. It gave only a brief introduction to the war, which is hardly surprising bearing in mind it covered so many events, but I was engaged by the colourful characters, from Sir Walter Manny, Lord John Talbot, Sir John Fastolf, the Duke of Bedford, to the Kings of both countries. Later I read Jonathan Sumption’s books for more detail, yet Seward’s book was so vividly written, the author so obviously enthusiastic about his subject, that I was gripped.
I would write about the Hundred Years War, then, but that was little help. When you are confronted with a new project, you have a series of difficult questions to answer: how should it be written, and from whose perspectives? Should it be a story about the rich and famous, about Kings and their avarice, or a tale about the scruffy fellows at the bottom of society? And which period of the war should I cover?
I wasn’t overly keen on Agincourt, since so many others have marched behind that banner – in fact I rather liked the idea of starting with Sluys, or one of the chevauchees launched by King Edward III, but then I had a stroke of luck.
If you love books, you tend to recommend them to others, and lend your copies. Often they don’t come back. One book I was very annoyed to lose was “Quartered Safe Out Here”, by George MacDonald Fraser. It was the story of his experiences during the Burma campaign. He fought under General Slim, stopping the Japanese and crushing them. A great warrior, Slim was an inspirational leader who had joined as an ordinary soldier in 1914, fought through the hell of Gallipoli, and rose through the ranks purely on the basis of his own merit and courage. The ordinary troops adored him: GM Fraser said, “he had the head of a general with the heart of a private soldier.”
“Quartered Safe Out Here” is the best war memoir I have read. MacDonald Fraser wrote about his platoon, Nine Section. Suddenly I had a vision of a vintaine of men, archers marching across France, rarely knowing what each day would bring, trudging ever onwards, cold, wet and bored – their hunger and thirst interspersed with flashes of pillage and drunkenness – and occasional bouts of terror. I could look at the motivations of each soldier, his background, his reasons for exchanging hearth and home and comfort for the dangerous life of a medieval soldier.
I loved it!
So I selected a group of men. I had a rich palette to choose from: Falstaffian characters, ruffians, the semi-sorcerers of the gunpowder-makers and gunners, and then, of course, the deplorable mercenary types. And as soon as I started I realised that my main issue would be writing this rag-tag group of men so that modern readers could identify with them.
Don’t get me wrong: I am a firm believer that the society that gave us Boccaccio and Chaucer was not so dissimilar to our modern version. People have not changed radically in outlook or behaviour, but murder is more frowned upon in the present age. The idea of depicting an army on the rampage, slaughtering all within reach, raping women and behaving with abhorrent disregard for others – and depicting them as sympathetic characters or heroes? That would be tough.
If I have a rule as a historical writer, it is that I will not lie. I could not ignore the baser acts of the English in France. I wanted to show them. For that I hit on the idea of writing from the perspective of a French woman dragged into the fighting, who wanted only to escape. Bringing her into the story balanced it, allowing me to look at the war from the point of view of those affected by it. We are used to pictures of refugees trudging their way across the countryside trying to find safety. The Second World War had many images of peasants with overfilled carts; the Vietnam War, the Bosnian War, the Russian attacks on Chechnya, Georgia and Ukraine, the wars in Iraq and Syria all have their victims. I wanted to show that none of this is new. History repeats itself.
There was one thing I was determined to do with this first novel, and that was to exclude the King and his top advisers. I wanted this to be a story of ordinary soldiers. However, there was one aspect I had to look at.
Historians tend to fall into one of two categories: those who believe Edward had no intention of fighting a major battle – he was a terrorist bringing a wave of brutality to the French countryside, and did all he could to evade the French when he realised they were hurrying to catch him; or those who say that he had a deliberate war plan – that he force-marched his men to Paris to torment the French into joining battle, and led the French to the field he had chosen many years before: Crécy.
I had to try to show how Edward III was thinking.
My immediate thought was to pick a servant who could listen with brazen impudence to what his superiors were planning, but that didn’t quite hack it for me. A cheeky servant is rather a cliché nowadays, and I didn’t think that a man who spent his time obviously listening in to the King’s war-planning meetings would have a good life-expectancy. I had to think up a new character.
I didn’t get my man until I recalled a grave in Crediton’s Church of the Holy Cross and The Mother of Him Who Hung Thereon. Up at the far right-hand side behind the altar there is a tomb dedicated to a Sir John de Sully. He was a knight of that period. He fought in his first battle, possibly, at Bannockburn in 1316. After that he had a starring role in almost every major battle of the 1300s, rising to become one of the Black Prince’s most trusted men, still fighting with his Prince in 1367, when he would have been in his 80s (I assume more in an advisory capacity than as a warrior). He was so famous and respected that he became one of the early knights of the Order of the Garter, and died greatly honoured at the age of about 106. Yes, that isn’t a typo.
With Sir John I had a character whom I could use to great effect as a link between my vintaine force of archers and the main plans and issues of the English King on the march. My archers would be a vintaine serving under him in this book, and he would give the perspective of the commanders without actually being a part of them. Through him my archers would get their view of the campaign and planning.
I had my men, I had their commander, and now I was leaning towards the march to Crécy for my book. That would make a good climax. Job done, I thought.
But as I planned and outlined my story, it became clear that there was more for me to look at. For example, when the battle of Crécy was done, the English marched on. Edward was determined to take a port to facilitate further incursions into France and chose Calais to be his bridgehead. He would take it and hold it for England. Clearly the capture of Calais would have to become a sequel to the first book about Crécy. And again, after Calais, there was the horror of the Black Death, and the subsequent return to battle that ended in the battle of Poitiers.
So my book would have to become a trilogy, and a trilogy more about a small group of men and how they coped with life in the army, but later on, how they coped with the most appalling tragedy Europe has coped with – the plague.
There are always a lot of problems when writing, such as the difficulty of knowing when to stop researching and start writing. I have always firmly believed that it’s essential to visit a place before trying to write about it. One thing I always try to do is paint a specific area, because by analysing a scene as a painter, I find myself looking more carefully at individual features of the landscape.
I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Poitiers on holiday in 1315 while planning Blood of the Innocents, and there I found the main battlefield and memorial, which was very touching – it’s dedicated to the fallen of the French, Gascon and English armies. I took a lot of photos all about the area, and planted it firmly in my mind by making a few sketches.
The trilogy is a strong story of how war affects victors and victims, the soldiers, but also the refugees. I don’t gloss over the way that the English treated their enemies or the local populace. It wouldn’t be fair to do so. But I try to give a feel for how the English thought, felt, and reacted which is, I hope, fair. At the end of the day, it’s up to the readers to give their opinion – so, I hope you enjoy the books, and hopefully that they inspire you to find out more about this astonishing period of English and French history.