Category Archives: Civil War

Beautiful Star and Other Stories by Andrew Swanston

The Dome Press | 2018 (11 January) | 253p | Review copy | Buy the book

Beautiful Star by Andrew SwanstonEach of these seven stories has at its heart a real historical character, bringing to life a historical event that affected the lives of everyone who remembered it. Real people, as well as fictional characters, inhabit these tales of extraordinary circumstances and the result is moving and powerful. The collection is also most elegantly written, as you’d expect from Andrew Swanston, and at times the emotion is almost understated as people have to deal with what has happened. No drama is made of it. Life must continue.

The seven stories are mostly drawn from the 17th-19th centuries with the notable exception of ‘The Flying Monk’, which competes for the title of my favourite of the collection. Set in the early years of the 11th century we meet the young monk Eilmer who is determined to prove that a human can fly, once he is able to build his wings. Everyone who meets Eilmer and watches his experiments is inspired by him.

Two other stories take us to sea. In ‘Beautiful Star’, the longest story in the anthology, we find ourselves on the coast of Scotland in 1875. A community is stricken by a devastating storm that catches its fishing fleet at sea. But, as with the other stories, Andrew Swanston doesn’t just show us the impact of the main event, he leads up to it by building up the layers of ordinary but remarkable lives. As a result, their destiny is felt to be even more real and devastating. I carry in my head the image of the wives and daughters carrying their husbands and brothers on their backs to the boats. Superstition forbade men from getting their feet wet ahead of their voyage.

In ‘HMS Association’ we meet Daniel Jones, a man pressed into the navy in 1708 and who must endure war against France as they besiege the town of Toulon. This story might be short but it’s certainly sweet. I would have liked much, much more of this.

Other stories also carry us to war, including ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ which goes back to the battle of Waterloo and tells the tale from the perspective of both English and French sides. ‘The Castle’ goes back to an earlier war, the English Civil War, and presents the astonishing story of Lady Mary Bankes, a mother of twelve children, who led the Royalist defence of Corfe Castle in 1645 after the death of her husband. This is incredible and makes me want to revisit Corfe as soon as possible.

In ‘The Tree’ we have another story from the period of the English Civil War, or just after it, as the victorious Parliamentarian forces hunt for the vanquished King Charles II across the land in 1651 following his defeat in Wales. Charles famously hid in an oak tree and that’s the story we’re presented with here and I loved it. This is another of those short but sweet tales.

In ‘A Witch and A Bitch’ we have something a little different. It presents the story of Jane Wenham who was famously tried for witchcraft in 1712. Known as the Witch of Walkern, the troubles of her life are here laid bare, as well as the maliciousness of her accusers, and the kindness of her granddaughter. It’s a moving story and tells us much about attitudes to witchcraft among ordinary men and women, as well as courts and officials, at a time that recoiled from the witch trials of the 17th century.

I loved this collection. It is elegant and full of heart. If I had to have a least favourite it would be ‘The Button Seller and the Drummer Boy’ but that is simply because it draws on a historical period that does little for me, so the fault is mine entirely. But I adored the other six stories and took something from each of them. They also inspired me to find out more about the events that they portray. I haven’t been a big reader of short stories in the past but I do read and appreciate them much more now. And it’s all because of collections like these.

Other reviews and features

The King’s Return

Guest post by Andrew Swanton: Spies and spying in the Civil War

Incendium

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‘Writing Cromwell’s London’ – Guest post by Antonia Senior, author of The Tyrant’s Shadow

The Tyrant's Shadow by Antonia SeniorThis week, Corvus published The Tyrant’s Shadow, Antonia Senior’s third novel and the second to be set in the troubled middle years of the 17th century. The Civil War, and Cromwell’s Commonwealth, is one of the most compelling periods in English history (Oxford, where I live, is steeped in Civil War history) and I can’t get enough of it. I am so pleased to be able to host a guest post in which Antonia Senior looks at the challenges an author faces in bringing this period, and its remarkable personalities, back to life – especially Oliver Cromwell. Many thanks to Antonia for taking the time to write such a fascinating piece.

First, here is a little about The Tyrant’s Shadow. A review will follow shortly.

A court without a kingdom, a kingdom without a king…England, 1652: since Charles I’s execution the land has remained untethered, the people longing for change. When Patience Johnson meets preacher Sidrach Simmonds, she believes her destiny is to become his wife and help him spread the Lord’s word. Simmonds sees things quite differently. Patience’s brother Will has been bestowed the job of lawyer to Oliver Cromwell. Tasked with aiding England’s most powerful man, he must try to overcome his grief after the loss of his wife. Then Sam Challoner, Will’s brother-in-law, returns unannounced after years in exile, forcing Will and Patience to question their loyalties: one to a ruler, the other, a spouse. Who do they choose to save? Themselves, their loved ones or their country…

Writing Cromwell’s London

I was raised to hate Oliver Cromwell. Hatred of Cromwell, dark mutterings about Drogheda and a bone-deep affection for the Mountains of Mourne – these the are legacies of an Irish mother. It was a dark day when, steeled with red wine and misplaced bravado, I said to my Mum: “Actually, I don’t think Oliver Cromwell was so bad. In fact, I quite like him.”

Readers, she was not tickled.

Treason's Daughter by Antonia SeniorI went looking for Cromwell the Monster in the sources when I set out to write The Tyrant’s Shadow. My first book on the period, Treason’s Daughter, followed events from 1640 until the death of Charles 1 in 1649. My second Stuart novel, The Tyrant’s Shadow, is set in London in the mid 1650s – when England’s politicians and soldiers are desperately attempting to find a solution to the King-shaped hole in the constitution.

For me, this is one of the most fascinating moments in all of English history. We were without a King; without a settled constitution. A vacuum of power, and a violently unsettled body-politic. In all my work, I have grappled with the nature of power; how is it earned, exercised and lost. And more pertinently as a novelist, perhaps, why do people want it?

This is no new pre-occupation for a writer. In my novel, my character Will quotes Lucan’s Civil War – a masterpiece study on the men who fought for Rome, written by a poet compromised by his proximity to Nero’s toxic court. “As long as earth supports the sea and air the earth, there will be no loyalty between associates in tyranny and no power will tolerate a partner.’

This is the position in 1653: power is uneasily shared between Cromwell as head of the army, the army itself, and parliament. But the triumvirate is fatally flawed – all three partners want different things; and there is further dissent between army factions and within Parliament. There are two versions of what happened next. Version 1 has King Oliver violently seizing power as the fruition of years of scheming. Version 2 has Saint Oliver reluctantly taking charge to prevent a descent into anarchy and madness.

The answer, I think, is a tangle of the two. And it is these historical tangles that are irresistible to a novelist. In I wriggled, looking for the hints and clues, extrapolating wildly. I found not a monster, but a man who believed himself sincere, who was continually compromised by the exigencies of wielding power. A man who could be both sincere and duplicitous, violent and gentle.

I also found God. Not personally, you understand. There is nothing like a good rummage in the barmy theistic arguments of the seventeenth century to bolster your atheism. But Cromwell cannot be weighed without reference to his great and bombastic belief in God’s providence working through him.

God presents problems to the secular novelist. He is central to understanding the torments of Stuart Britain. It is too easy to be a little sneering of these ardent beliefs – which seem to us to be dancing on the head of a pin. Fighting over the unknowable. I was reminded of 6th century Constantinople – the setting for an earlier, unpublished novel. There were riots on the streets, vicious, bloody affairs whose entire catalyst was over the nature of Christ: was He both God and Human separately and simultaneously, or was He His own divine mesh of the two?

It is easy to mock the sincerity of these beliefs. Hard to understand that for our forefathers who interpreted the bible literally, these were not arcane arguments of the cloister, but questions of faith which could lead to eternal damnation in a flaming hell.

God, I think, is one of the reasons why the English Civil Wars are not a popular era for readers. Publishers find it hard to shift books on the Civil Wars, which is odd given the attractions: a murdered King, families split apart, a high blood count, stories of great courage and great betrayals.

But God muddies the waters. It is not east to know which side you are on. The old adage that the Parliamentarians were Right but Repulsive and the Royalists were Wrong but Romantic is actually pretty fair. Our 21st century souls rejoice in the Parliamentarians’ distrust of tyranny and impulse to freedom, but recoils at the peculiar joylessness of their puritanism.

And of course, the rebels ended up, anyway, with King Noll – a tyrant of sorts. But as tyrants go he was no Robespierre, no Lenin, no Mao. His Shadow was relatively benign. Unless you were an Irish catholic, I can hear my Mother muttering darkly.

Why did Cromwell want power? I did not quite find him – he is too obscured by other people’s views of his motives. I found a man who inspired great loyalty, and devotion. A man who roused fierce hatred. A man who tried – but often failed – to hold the moderate line in a world turned upside down.

Cromwell’s London is a place of subtlety and shadow – and I loved writing it for all the reasons that make the era difficult to sell. It is full of ambiguities. In The Tyrant’s Shadow, there is another Tyrant – a domestic one, rather than a political one. The obverse of tyranny is complicity with it; and I wanted to explore this idea as well. My heroine, Patience, is married to man of certainties who treats her badly. At one point, as he hits her, she thinks: “He will do as he will do. Such is the nature of tyranny. All she can do is find her pride, hiding in peculiar corners.”

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

Viking | 2017 (2 March) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth UnderdownIt is 1645 and England is torn apart by Civil War. But young woman Alice Hopkins has her own private suffering to endure. Alice’s husband Joseph has died unexpectedly and violently, leaving her alone in London, struggling with grief and poverty. When she discovers that she is pregnant, Alice realises she has little choice. She must return home to the small town of Manningtree in Essex and seek refuge in the house of her young brother, Matthew. They haven’t spoken for years but Alice hopes that she might find a welcome there, especially since their mother, just like her husband, is also so recently in her grave.

Mannigtree is not as Alice left it. The town is divided by superstition and fear, ruled over by a few rich and powerful men, led – Alice is surprised to discover – by none other than Matthew. Their mission is to seek out witches and, wherever they look they are bound to find guilt, for how could an elderly widow not confess to devil worship when tormented by the cruel methods of the witchfinder, Matthew Hopkins?

Alice finds herself caught in the middle of a situation almost impossible to escape. She loves her brother, she wants to heal him from whatever pain has changed him, but above all else she wants to help these women, particularly as Matthew searches closer and closer to home for his victims. And it is Alice’s story, told in her own words, that we hear in The Witchfinder’s Sister and it is an engrossing one. It is as if Alice has been thrown back into a distorted version of her past – she is reunited with friends and enemies that she knew as a girl, she relives memories of her time with her mother, father and brother, of her early days with her now dead husband, she wanders through familiar houses, rooms and streets. She must deal with grief, as well as the worry of carrying a fatherless child, but above all else she cannot escape the fear of Matthew. And there are moments in this novel when I felt afraid, too.

Matthew is a fascinating, dark character. Beth Underdown constructs his character perfectly from his weaknesses, failings and superstitions. He appears truly menacing and evil. But the author widens her picture to take a broader look at society during these troubled, lawless times in the mid 16th century and shows how dangerous a weapon power can be when placed in the hands of a weak man. Because it isn’t just Matthew Hopkins at fault here. And too many of the women we meet here have difficult lives, while some face tragic ends.

I thoroughly enjoyed the portrait of rural life in England’s eastern counties during the 1640s. There are plenty of the incidental details that I love in historical fiction, particularly here in regards to housekeeping, including clothing, furniture and possessions. But there is also an appealing timelessness and strangeness about The Witchfinder’s Sister‘s setting, which seems so cut off from the rest of England, including from the Civil War. Events here are not normal, even for the period, and we should be shocked by what happened. And this is, of course, based on a true story. Matthew Hopkins was a monster and through Alice’s eyes we see the devil revealed.

It’s not often that I read a book in one day, barely moving an inch, but that’s what happened with The Witchfinder’s Sister. This is a beautifully written, stunning debut novel from Beth Underdown, combining historical fiction with psychological thriller – the result is compelling and thrilling. Don’t miss it!

The Black Friar by S.G. MacLean

The Black Friar | S.G. MacLean | 2016, Pb 2017 | Quercus | 432p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Black Friar by S.G. MacLeanIt is 1655 and Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, faces a direct threat from the Fifth Monarchists – believers who once fought alongside Cromwell against the King but, now that Cromwell has adopted almost regal status, want Cromwell removed, too. There can be no king but Christ. But the Commonwealth has more trouble on its hands than just militant Puritans. Royalists continue to plot to return the King in Exile to these shores and have become organised enough to create a new organisation of Royalist activists, the Sealed Knot. A threat can come from any direction. And when one of Cromwell’s agents is found dead, wearing a black friar’s habit, entombed while still alive within the ruins of London’s black friars monastery, Cromwell turns to his most feared agent, the inscrutable and charismatic Captain Damian Seeker.

The Black Friar follows hot on the heels of the first book in this new series by S.G. MacLean, The Seeker, and stands alone well as a complete and distinct mystery in its own right. Having said that, if you have read The Seeker then you will enjoy all the more re-meeting some of that first novel’s wonderful cast of characters (not all of them human). Damian Seeker’s character develops through these two books and that, I think, is one of the big draws of this series – I have fallen for the Seeker – and so I would suggest you read the earlier book first as I have just done (the review’s here).

S.G. MacLean has given us another excellent and complex mystery to enjoy. This one has even more strands than the last and the Seeker has a team of agents helping – and sometimes hindering – his investigations as one puzzle soon becomes two. It’s particularly enjoyable that two of these agents are well known to history – Samuel Pepys and Andrew Marvell. I loved the interaction of fiction with history during this, the most fascinating of times. The Seeker moves through it all almost like a tall, black-cloaked raven. There is something sinister and undoubtedly attractive about this man. He as good as wears a mask, all London turns away when he rides past on his great horse, he is feared by every side, but occasionally here the mask slips and I think my heart might have been stolen, just a little.

I thoroughly enjoy S.G. MacLean’s recreation of London during the Commonwealth. What a strange period this is, with its reminders of past pleasures, such as the theatres, which are now forbidden. But these novels aren’t quick to judge. Neither Royalist nor Puritan is upheld as the ideal, crimes are committed on both sides and sometimes there are other criminals who rise above politics and religion and are purely evil. Unravelling all of this isn’t easy and, despite the help of code-breakers, Damian Seeker has much to unpick.

The characterisation is as strong as the historical setting. Quite apart from Damian Seeker, who is one of the most appealing heroes I’ve come across in quite some time, there are a host of other characters on both sides of the political divide who grab our attention. There are far too many to mention and they are key to the pleasure that this novel provides. And not all are men, either, or adults. We’re presented with a community in turmoil just as the agents who investigate the mysteries are likewise complex in their relationships with one another and to the Seeker.

I have grown well and truly attached to the Seeker series. The Commonwealth is such an intriguing time, overlooked by both the Civil War and the Restoration that sandwich it, and here it is paid full service by S.G. MacLean, a fine writer with a terrific grasp of history and character. Damian Seeker is a fantastic creation. Long may he continue.

Other review
The Seeker

The Seeker by S.G. MacLean

The Seeker | S.G. MacLean | 2015, Pb 2016 | Quercus | 421p (inc. 19p of extras) | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seeker by S.G. MacLeanLittle is known about Damian Seeker but just a look from him is enough to make the innocent tremble with guilt. Above average height, a black cloak trailing behind, and a rimmed hat reinforced by a helmet, this formidable, secretive man is Seeker by name and Seeker by nature.

The year is 1654 and the Commonwealth is well established with Oliver Cromwell at its head. But, with Charles Stuart biding his time on the Continent, waiting for the right moment to reclaim his father’s crown, this is the age of spies. And they are rife, on both sides. Captain Damian Seeker, once a soldier like almost every other Englishman in this age, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s master of intelligence, who has recently been fed some information about a possible Royalist plot brewing in one of London’s popular new coffee houses. The rumour coincides with the murder of John Winter, one of Cromwell’s most favoured officers, housed with his wife in an apartment in the Palace at Whitehall. And it is there, on his doorstep, that John Winter is found dead with Elias Ellingworth, a well-known critic of Cromwell, standing over his bloody corpse, a knife in his hand.

But, although Ellingworth seems doomed to a traitor’s death, Seeker is not convinced that all is at it seems, an opinion that is supported by events at the coffee house that evening. Seeker will stop at nothing in his determination to keep the wrong man from the gallows. Woe betide anyone who tries to deceive the Seeker.

The mid-17th century is, with no doubt at all, one of the most fascinating periods of English history and, at the moment, I can’t get enough of it. The Commonwealth, nestled between the Civil War and the Restoration, tantalises. There hasn’t been a period of history like it before or since and my interest in reading this Commonwealth mystery was sparked even further when I visited Cromwell’s house in Ely a couple of weeks ago. I loved The Seeker‘s depiction of Cromwell at the centre of his court, surrounded by royal furnishings and belongings, as powerful as any king. The historical background is wonderful – music, theatre, coffee houses, pamphlets, gatherings. All of these pleasures seem just about to be hanging on in the Commonwealth, just as some Royalists are being allowed to live on quietly. But all of this tolerance is skin deep in this world of secrets, spies, executions and murders.

The character of Damian Seeker is fantastic. He’s enigmatic and sinister but there’s something about him that is deeply appealing. He seems incorruptible. But his past is a mystery along with so many parts of his personality. And that is one of the things that I really enjoyed about this book – the surprises. Characters constantly reveal unexpected sides to them. Nothing and no-one is to be accepted on face value and, while that is exactly the problem facing Seeker, it is also a big reason for the book’s appeal. The clues are there but I did a great job of missing them, loving how the novel developed in so many unexpected ways.

S.G. MacLean’s writing is distinctive and memorable. I found parts of it quite beautiful, complementing perfectly the power of Seeker’s personality and strength of will. The plot is a corker and its historical setting unusual and richly painted. I am so glad that I now have the next novel to read, The Black Friar. This is a series with legs.

Birthright by David Hingley

Birthright | David Hingley | 2016 (21 July) | Allison & Busby | 416p | Review copy | Buy the book

Birthright by David HingleyIt is 1664 and King Charles II is on the throne but the years of Civil War and Commonwealth rule continue to leave their mark. Mercia Blakewood, already a young widow, is about to lose everything else. Her father is to be executed as a Parliamentarian traitor, exempt from the King’s amnesty for reasons she cannot fathom, while her husband’s parents are intent on stealing her son away. Her father’s treachery means that her house and lands are also forfeit, to be given to her unkind uncle, while Mercia’s poor mother, a victim of the Civil War in so many ways, is to be banished. But Mercia will not give up. She is determined to fight for her son’s inheritance and to do that she must win the King’s favour. An opportunity comes when her father leaves Mercia a cryptic message, hinting at a mystery that the King would be grateful indeed to see solved.

This secret plunges Mercia into danger as mysterious figures emerge from the shadows to threaten and harm. She’s not above fighting her own corner and Mercia uses disguise to hunt out clues through London’s roughest alleys and stinking marshes. But Mercia’s courage, honour and beauty win others over to her cause and two men in particular are willing to follow her wherever she leads, even if her hunt takes her across the Atlantic to the Americas and the birth of New York.

The Restoration is one of my favourite periods in history to read about and so I was delighted to receive David Hingley’s debut novel Birthright. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The character of Mercia Blakewood dominates while still remaining believable and grounded in her time. I grew to care for her very much, not least because she fights to retain her independence against almost insurmountable odds. In a way the mystery is almost secondary. Mercia’s determined to solve it whatever the cost (you sense that nothing would make her give it up) but what really matters is protecting her son and her own future, possibly even finding love again along the way.

The other great strength of Birthright is its depiction of the long and eventful voyage across the Atlantic as well as the scenes in the settlement of New Amsterdam on the American coast. The structure of the novel works so well, showing us the old ways of England, so rocked by war and death, and the potential and promise of this new continent. I enjoyed both equally.

David Hingley writes very well, moving both story and character along very effectively, interspersed with some wonderful cameos, not least King Charles and his brother the Duke of York. The adventure itself is such a good one, full of baddies and goodies and others who could be either but it’s so hard to guess. The only certainty in this fine debut novel is Mercia and her love for her son. I can only hope that this is not the last we see of this intriguing young woman.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor

The Ashes of London | Andrew Taylor | 2016, Pb 2017 | HarperCollins | 482p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Ashes of London by Andrew TaylorOn 4 September 1666 London had been burning for two days, the progress of the flames unstoppable, the rainless hot days unrelenting. And now the unimaginable is happening. The great cathedral of St Paul’s, which has dominated London for centuries, is on fire and all that the shocked inhabitants can do is stand and watch. But there is even more to the loss. As the roof falls and the floor collapses the treasures in the vault, books and papers hidden away for safe keeping from the fire, go up in flames. James Marwood, son of a disgraced printer and now a government agent with a great deal to prove, is among the witnesses. When a boy runs towards the cathedral, it’s only Marwood’s quick thinking that saves his life. As he wraps his cloak around the boy, Marwood is given a shock. The boy is no boy but a young woman and she tears away into the crowd, taking Marwood’s cloak with her.

A body is found in the smouldering remains of the cathedral, killed not by fire but a knife, his thumbs tied behind his back. Marwood has to wonder if there’s a connection between the corpse and the mysterious young woman. Fortunately, or other wise, Marwood’s master at the Palace of Whitehall, Williamson, tasks Marwood with discovering the body’s identity.

The Ashes of London gives us the story of Marwood’s investigation, in Marwood’s own words, but it isn’t the only tale. Half of the novel focuses on Cat, a young woman with dreams of designing a new London with grand buildings and regal avenues, but who, in reality, must deal with being the poor ward of her rich uncle Master Alderley and all that this entails. It isn’t long before Cat is on the run for her life, taking us with her across a London devastated by fire.

This is a novel that builds slowly following its hugely striking and evocative opening chapter set outside the burning St Paul’s. For a short while I found it a little hard to follow all the threads and keep track of the names. But this is because London has become a place in which almost everyone has something to hide. The legacy of the Civil War, Cromwell’s rule and, most particularly, the execution of Charles I and his son’s determined pursuit of his killers, divides families. Both Marwood and Cat must pay the consequences for the actions of their fathers. Once this becomes clearer, The Ashes of London becomes a thoroughly immersive read. There are so many layers of feeling here. The similarities between Cat and Marwood are striking, although the fact that Cat is a woman makes all the difference to her story. Marwood is able to work for a living. There are few options open to Cat. But she is no passive victim. There are moments when she made my jaw drop with her ferocity and determination. I really liked Cat.

Andrew Taylor’s portrait of this poor, suffering London is brilliantly done and we move around the city freely. Equally well done is the dark mood that overhangs the novel. This is not just the result of the murder hunt but also because of the weight of the past. This is not a city at peace, despite the glory of the Restoration, and the fire is almost a physical reflection of the city’s inner torment, endured by people such as Marwood and Cat. And at times there is something of the melodramatic and gothic about the novel’s events, notably in its fantastic final section. My one complaint is that occasionally I was thrown out of the book by phrases being repeated on the same page. But this is a very minor point.

The Ashes of London is such an enjoyable, elegant novel, richly evocative of the time and place. There is hope to confront the despair of the past, represented by London’s rebuild. It’s so good to see characters such as Christopher Wren come and go. The mystery is a really good one but I also liked the way in which Andrew Taylor slowly delves into the lives of his characters, revealing more and more as the novel goes on. It’s a fascinating investigation into an extraordinary time in English history. The Civil War and the Restoration are among my favourite periods of history and this book made me think about them in a whole way. It also made me wonder about what the fire itself would have been like for such a large proportion of London’s population. I love it when historical fiction makes me want to explore further, on foot as well as through books, and The Ashes of London did just that.