Friday, December 23

Isabella of Angoulême: Families, Fairies & Fish- Guest post by Erica Lainé

I would like to bet that not many readers of this blog have had the experience of being brought together by King John-- on Twitter. But that is how I came across historical novelist Erica Lainé. Both Erica and I have written about John in our novels: in mine, he is the eighteen year old sent by his father Henry to sort out medieval Ireland. (Spoiler: he doesn't. Or may be not a spoiler. He is John, after all.) In the first in Erica's The Tangled Queen series, we meet the very young Isabella of Angoulême who was abducted by John in 1200. Isabella became his second wife and queen consort, aged 12.

Yes- it's King John on Twitter. #unexpected
Both Erica and I are followers of (and are followed by) the man himself @JohanSanzTerre. John aside, Erica and I developed a mutually supportive relationship on Twitter. As with many online relationships, they remain just that. But at the Historical Novel Society's Oxford conference in September, fate intervened. The main dinner on the Saturday evening saw rain that was bouncing off the pavement and a mad scramble for seats and dryness. It may also have been the sniff of drink: historical novelists tend to drop all decorum when that's mentioned. In the random assembling, a woman dropped into the seat next to mine. Of course we introduced ourselves: historical novelists like to find out just who we're fighting for that bottle. And of course it was Erica. And of course we tweeted King John.

Erica & I at our serendipitous meeting!
Our dinner companions were at that point wondering just what was in that bottle but we explained- I think. Better than that, we talked all things John and writing and as happens at many HNS conferences, a lovely new friendship was formed. As her research provides another fascinating view of John's life through his relationship with Isabella, Erica very kindly agreed to write a guest post on Isabella's life and the mythology surrounding her family. So without further ado, I hand over to Erica's capable hands from hereon in.

Isabella of Angoulême
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
No one knows for sure when Isabella of Angouleme was born but it was probably about 1188 as her parents were not married until 1186. She had good connections across Europe; her mother was the daughter of Peter of France who was the son of King Louis V1. Her maternal uncle was Peter de Courtney the Latin emperor of Constantinople. Her great uncle was Louis V11 who had been married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Eleanor later became Isabella’s mother in law. Isabella, a tangled Queen indeed! Isabella was an heiress in her own right, Countess of Angoulême suo jure and therefore a good marriage could be expected for her.

Battle scene at sea from Roman de Mélusine by Jean d'Arras c. 1450
Public Domain via British Library
Her father was Ademar, Count of Angouleme, and a Taillefer. His ancestors had been put into Angouleme in the mid-9th century by Charles the Fat, a great grandson of Charlemagne, to repulse the Vikings as they raided all the rivers of France. They came up the Charente to Angoulême three times and three times were driven back. What was once a wooden fort on a rocky promontory became a stone castle with commanding views.

Knights in Combat from Roman de Mélusine
Public Domain via British Library
The counts, lords and dukes of early medieval south west France were independent, fierce and not very loyal. Any king who lived north of the Loire had a difficult time keeping their fidelity. Oaths of fealty were easily broken. Near Angoulême, close to Poiters, was Lusignan and over the centuries the Lords of Lusignan and the Counts of Angoulême had quarrelled, fought, become allies, intermarried and quarrelled again.

Detail of miniature from Roman de Mélusine depicting Raymond
accidentally killing his uncle while hunting in the forest.
Public Domain via British Library
Lusignan and the Lusignans had a wonderful history of how their castle came to be built. Raymond the count of Lusignan had been hunting and after a hunting accident that killed his uncle, he was wandering through the forest at night, feeling desolate and guilty. He came to the Fountain of the Fays where he met Melusine a fairy spirit who entranced him. By dawn they were planning marriage but she, as all fairy spirits do, had conditions, he was never to seek for her on Saturday nights. He promised. They were married and she offered him much help.

The marriage of Melusine and Raymond.from Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
Everyone marvelled at the speed in which she built a strong beautiful château. Melusine definitely used magic. ‘A mouthful of water and two handfuls of stones’ were all she needed.

Melusine supervises the building of a fortified chateau in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library
The couple had several children and lived together happily but Raymond broke his promise and spied on Melusine to discover her in her bath with a serpent’s tail or dragon tail. He blurted out the truth in the Great Hall and betrayed her. She flew away lamenting and weeping, returning only to fly above the turrets and towers for the death or birth of a Lusignan.

Melusine discovered, circa 1450 and circa 1500
Anonymous (, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Isabella aged about 12 was betrothed to Hugh le Brun of Lusignan and living there when King John saw her, and with her father’s connivance, kidnapped her and married her in Angoulême on 24 August 1200. It was a mixture of politics and passion. He did not want the two domains linked by marriage; he did want the beautiful Isabella, considered a medieval Helen of Troy.

The Angevins also had a story of being descended from Melusine. Indeed many families claimed water spirits as their beginning including the French royal family, hence the Dauphin or dolphin.

Miniatures of dolphins and a scorpion in Roman de Mélusine.
Public Domain via British Library.
Isabella was destined to be part of that watery story, for after John’s death she returned to France in 1217 and married the son of Hugh le Brun. He was Hugh or Hugues the X, altogether there were 13 Lusignans called Hugh, which makes life tricky for the writer.

The castle in Lusignan burnt down in 1250; a violent fire destroyed it all. But it was rebuilt and is shown in the 1416 Book of Hours belonging to the Duc de Berry with Melusine flying overhead.

Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry Folio 3, verso: March.
Limbourg brothers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Some say that the logo for Starbucks is based on Melusine so in our very modern life we are reminded of water fairies dating back thousands of years. 
Many thanks Erica for a delightful post- I'm sure King John enjoyed it, too!
Images: Isabella, Melusine discoveredTrès Riches Heures du duc de Berry are in the Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Roman de Mélusine Images are in the Public Domain via the British Library.

Erica Lainé was born in Southampton in 1943 and originally studied for the theatre at the Arts Educational School in Tring. She worked as a library assistant in London and trained as a speech and drama teacher before moving with her family to Hong Kong in 1977. Here she worked for the British Council for 20 years as a teacher and educational project manager. Since 1997 she has lived in South West France where she became interested in all sorts of historical research and writing, as President of the Aquitaine Historical Society.

This led to a focus on Isabella of Angouleme and her life and times. The Aquitaine region is rich in English and French history and Isabella is a person who was woven into both. Erica has begun writing Part 2 of The Tangled Queen which will show how Isabella played all sides against each other and how her intrigues became part of the beginning of the 100 Years War.

Find her on Facebook as An Aquitaine Historical Society and Isabella of Angouleme the story. She's on Twitter @LaineEleslaine. Isabella of Angouleme (The Tangled Queen Part 1) is available on and

Tuesday, November 1

Spreading the Word: Having a Novel Translated by Amazon Crossing

Every writer knows the amount of work that goes into a 100,000 word novel. The research, the plotting, the writing, the rewriting, the editing, the proofing, the cover design and more. All add up to many hundreds of hours before your story, that tale that started life in your head, becomes a reality and hits the electronic/physical book shops. Then comes the miracle of readers discovering what was in your head and even more miraculously, loving it. It’s all good. Your story is out there, and readers are reading it. Job done. On to the next.

But there are of course those readers who can’t discover your story. Those who speak a different language to yours, who read in it. They remain out of your reach as a writer.

Age-old problem: this fox doesn't speak Goose. Or Hen. 
So as a writer, the only way to bridge that gap is to have your novels published in translation. Happily for me, I got that very opportunity in January 2016, when the first novel in my medieval thriller Fifth Knight series, was published in Germany as Der fünfte Ritter. Even better, Der fünfte Ritter was published by Amazon Crossing, who are currently a global success story in translated genre fiction. Sir Benedict Palmer's first outing in German hit the Bild bestseller list. Now book two in the series, The Blood of the Fifth Knight, sees its release today as Das Blut des fünften Ritters.

Amazon Crossing invited me to Frankfurt Book Fair last month to talk about my experience in having my books translated. It was interesting that many of the questions I received at Frankfurt from German authors were exactly the same as those I received from those here in the UK. I thought I’d share the most common.

‘You’re having a book translated? How do you trust someone with your novel?’ 

I have to admit that this one surprised me the first time I was asked it. But as I get asked it more and more, it’s clearly something that bothers authors. It’s worth mentioning that we authors are very well known for our control freakery. Manuscripts often have to be prised from our cold, dead hands before we allow them to go through the editorial process. Part of the fear with translation is that we have very little control over what happens. We have to allow a professional translator to do their amazing job- but we have no way of checking up on them. I suspect that many scribes are coming out in hives even at the thought. But that’s the deal. If you want your work to be translated (and like me, don’t speak a word of the translated language) then you’re going to have to trust the translator.

Me at Frankfurt-where (thankfully!) 
my lovely audience were fine with me speaking in English.
My Amazon Crossing translator for both books has been the very wonderful Oliver Hoffmann. The perceptive amongst you will wonder how I know he’s wonderful. Aside from his consulting with me on my exact meaning from time to time, the answer lies in the reviews. I have had many great ones but also a few negative ones (yes, astonishingly: they do exist), which I’ve accessed via the wobbly Google Translate. I’m very pleased to report that those negative reviews were from readers who didn’t like my book. And here’s the thing: none of them cited poor translation.

With translated books, clunky translation almost always gets a mention and it puts other readers off. It also leads to lower ratings. So for those who may be going down the Indie route and are considering hiring a translator, consider it as just as an important investment as you did when you hired an editor, cover designer etc. A good translator is another professional who is going to help you put the best book out there.

‘Do you have the same covers as the English version?’

Short answer, no. Amazon Crossing produced their own covers for the German Editions. They know their market and what is likely to appeal. Asking which I prefer is too much of a Favourite Child question. But there is no doubt that the guy who has found his way onto Der fünfte Ritter is a big hit. Funnily enough, no one mentions language when they comment on him. Even my sister (otherwise known as The World’s Toughest Sell) refers to him as Mr. Broody.

Book Covers as seats at the Amazon stand- cool!
My book as a seat- even cooler!
One thing about cover design that is common to both Amazon Crossing in Germany and Amazon Publishing’s Thomas & Mercer in the UK is how much they consult on cover design. I do feel ever so slightly sorry for them when they send me a very eye-catching draft and I tell them that the sword has a flat pommel (the bobble on the end of the sword) where it should be round, or a shield that would be better used for jousting and could I please have a Norman kite shield instead. I always send them pictures of what I mean. To their credit, they pull out all the stops and said shields and swords are found. I’m only guessing, but I’ll bet at times they’re really dreading my emails. Pommelgate, anyone?

‘Do you feel frustrated that you can’t read your own book now that it’s in another language? I know I would!’

To a very minor extent. But, for me, a translated book of mine is no longer mine alone. The translator now tells my story, too, so it can’t be 100% me anymore. Oliver Hoffmann's name is on the cover along with mine, which is exactly how it should be. Translation is not just the swapping of language for another. It's a creative process in its own right.  Done well, it captures the nuances and colour and tone of the original. Translation is a collaboration that means my words are brought to a whole new audience.

We historical fiction authors pride ourselves on being able to bridge time. Thanks to translation, we can cross borders, too. And that’s a rather wonderful thing.

Sunday, October 23

Medieval Medley: Guest Interview with Anna Belfrage

I'm sure it's glaringly obvious to those who read this blog that I'm just a bit interested in* (*trans: obsessed with)  all things medieval, so to host somebody who has also been bitten by the medieval bug is marvellous. 

I'm delighted to host fellow historical fiction author, Anna Belfrage. Anna has had great success with her acclaimed time-slip series The Graham Saga. That series has won multiple awards, including the HNS Indie Award 2015. But Anna has turned medieval for her new The King’s Greatest Enemy series. Set in the 1320s, it features Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures during Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. Book #2, Days of Sun & Glory, has been longlisted for the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2017.

So I'm intrigued to hear Anna's medley of what's best in medieval for her. Here we go!

Medieval Mate- who’s your ideal medieval hero/heroine?

One mate only? This is when I realise I have a tendency towards promiscuity – at least when it comes to favourite medieval characters.

Medieval Lovers
(note: this is not the same as Medieval Lovers)
I’m not so sure my medieval heroes or heroines are all that ideal – I gravitate towards those who have flaws, who have a huge appetite for life. If I have to choose a lady, I’d go for Urraca of Castile and León, most reluctantly named his heir by her father who wanted a son but had to make do with three daughters. Her first marriage resulted in two surviving children, her second marriage was a sequence of brutal abuse, and once free of her bastard of a husband she went on to become queen in her own right, proclaiming herself Empress of Spain.

Urraca I de León
José María Rodríguez de Losada, 19th C
Now, if I were to choose a man…hmm…Renaud de Dammartin? Except that he was a turncoat, and I don’t like turncoats. Edward I (one of those flawed but brilliant peeps I am so entranced by) William Wallace? James Douglas? Edward III? Or why not the closest thing we have in Sweden to a truly flamboyant medieval duke, Duke Erik, who imprisoned his brother the king, reconciled with said brother (or so he thought) only to have his royal sibling throw him into a dungeon some years later, lock the door and leave him to starve? Decisions, decisions… *takes several gulps of tea & nibbles at a biscuit while pondering* Right: I’m going to tread on some toes here and choose Edward I.

King Edward I at the summit of a family tree
tracing his ancestors back to William I the Conqueror 

Medieval Manor- where would you live?

Ah. Well, I do have a thing about castles, and I’m thinking Wigmore Castle in its heyday must have been quite the impressive abode, balancing atop its narrow hill. Or Nottingham Castle, with those gorgeous views due south. On the other hand, castles were cold and draughty places, which has me leaning towards appropriating the medieval Bishop’s Palace in Lincoln. Gorgeous location, fabulous décor and a high level of comfort.

Des res: Edward I's bedchamber
as re-created in the Tower of London today.
© E.M. Powell

Medieval Métier- what would your job be?

King or queen would suit me fine. I think I have an aptitude for ruling – especially the medieval way, when decisiveness and a tendency to steamroll the opposition were considered strengths, not flaws. Somewhat more realistically, I’m guessing that had I been born back then, I’d have made a good merchant’s wife (I’m great at book keeping). Of course, my life would probably have been short – one baby or so every other year would have had me worn out by the time I was forty…

Queen Anna, anyone?

Medieval Meal- what’s on your table?

According to Swedish medieval historian Mikael Nordberg, it would mostly be porridge made with barley (which is actually quite nice). Add to this the standard staple of bread, and that would be about it, now and then enhanced by some smoked fish or some bacon. Unless, of course, I was a queen, in which case I’d be feasting on fish in various varieties on the stipulated fish days (including beaver, seeing as everyone knows beavers are fish…) and just as many varieties of game and meat the other days.

A medieval beaver fights back: no one ever had this trouble with a haddock.

No chocolate, though, seeing as it wasn’t around back then. Most unfortunate – and should I ever time travel, I’d be bringing along an adequate stash…

Medieval Madness- what behaviour could you never accept today?

Well, I do have a major problem with executions – especially the gory varieties including disembowelment and such. Or burning at the stake. I also have a major dislike of the medieval fashion of subjecting people to in-depth inquiries as to their faith, using methods involving a lot of pain. The Inquisition and its brutal approach to those it deemed heretic is best left in the past. Having said that, the Inquisition survived well into Early Modern times, and has never been officially abolished by the Catholic Church – just renamed (and, one hopes, cleansed of some of its more doubtful methods of interrogation).

The hanging of traitors? Not under Queen Anna's watch.

Medieval Military- what’s your weapon of choice?

The sword. I practise extensively with a large wooden stick, going at the various trees that stand sentinel around our house and barn.

Look out, trees: she's getting ready again!
Medieval Matters- why do you love it so much?

Why? What sort of an unnecessary question is that? *rolls her eyes* I guess it’s the fact that life was so much more in your face back then. Birth, death, the forging of various national states, war and battle – they happened all around you, and from a distance it all comes across as pretty exciting and colourful.
When you have a lion in your boat: definitely excitement & colour. 
I imagine it was anything but for the people living through it, instead life was short and uncertain – even quite frightening at times. Ultimately, of course, studying any historical period serves as a way to understand why we ended up where we are and why.

Perfectly summed up, Anna, and thank you for your wonderful medley!

Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she settled for second best and became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. Find out more by visiting her website

Anna's on Twitter @abelfrageauthor and her Facebook Page is Anna Belfrage Author.  She also blogs regularly on

All her books are available on Amazon.

Saturday, August 13

Illuminated Manuscripts: Treasures from the Medieval Scribes.

The word manuscript literally means ‘written by hand’ and medieval manuscripts refers to those books produced in Europe between about the fifth century and the late fifteenth century. Illuminated manuscripts are works which are decorated with a variety of pictures and ornamentation.

Psalm 27 from the Vespasian Psalter- 8th Century Kent.
It is the earliest surviving English biblical example of an initial with a narrative scene.

The word ‘illuminated’ comes from a usage of the Latin word illuminare in the sense of its meaning ‘to adorn’. Burnished gold was often used in the decorating of books from the 13th century onwards but the term ‘illuminated’ does not only apply to manuscripts where gold or silver is used. It applies more broadly to any manuscript that is more elaborately decorated than with simple coloured initials.

From the early writings of Saint Jerome (who died c.420) to around 1100, the vast majority of manuscripts were produced in the scriptoria or cloisters of abbeys and monasteries. They were primarily theological, liturgical and academic works.

The Lindisfarne Gospels- 8th Century
Written & illustrated probably by Eadfrith, bishop of Lindisfarne.

Prior to the time of Saint Jerome, manuscripts (such as those produced in Rome) were in scroll format and made of papyrus. The use of papyrus is problematic in that, as a material, it is more likely to break, especially if it is handled frequently. Early medieval scribes moved to the use of prepared animal skin, the material that we refer to as parchment or vellum. The format also underwent a significant change to that of the book or codex, with separate pages that can be turned, read in sequence and much more easily navigated by a reader.

Initial from the Howard Psalter & Hours- England,1310 -1320.
Clerics sing from a scroll, which contains musical notation. 

The codex didn’t only make life easier for readers. It also improved the lot of those who wrote and illustrated the manuscripts—our medieval scribes. It is much easier to write on the flat, stable surface of a page than on a lengthy, unrolled scroll. But it’s probably fair to say the ‘easier’ is a relative term. Even the preparation was laborious and demanded perfection. Producing fine vellum involved the soaking in lime and skilled, meticulous scraping and stretching of expensive calfskin. Inks such as oak gall and lampblack had to be produced. Guide lines had to be ruled with absolute precision.

Book of Hours- Oxford, 1240, written in & illuminated by William de Brailes.
It is the earliest surviving English Book of Hours.

Note that such precision also had to be achieved using a feather quill pen. Quill pens were introduced around the sixth century and replaced the reed pen. They were most commonly made from the flight feathers of geese but could also be made from swan, duck, crow, or even pelicans and peacocks. Most of the feather was removed and the end sharpened and slit so it could be filled with ink.  The sharpening of the nib was done at different angles, which would make pen strokes of differing thickness. Such careful nib-work didn’t last long. A scribe would have to trim it frequently with a quill-cutter to keep its sharpness.

A seated scribe from the Life of St Dunstan.
Canterbury- late 11th/early 12th Century

All that before the most challenging and skilled task of all: the writing and illustrating of the text. One can only deeply admire the concentration, dedication and sheer physical toll it must have taken, with scribes having no reading glasses, no electric light and no modern heating through freezing and damp winters.

The fruits of their labours, that are the decorations on medieval illuminated manuscripts, are of three main types. First, larger illustrations that can take up a whole page and /or miniatures or small pictures incorporated into the text. These usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

A map of the whole known world from Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon.
England, last quarter of the 14th century.

The second type are initial letters that contain scenes (known as historiated initials) or that have elaborate decoration. Again, these usually illustrate or complement the content of the text.

Historiated initial 'D'(omine) with a crowned Virgin and Child.
English Book of Hours, 1st quarter of the 15th century.

Third, we have borders and line-endings, which may have many detailed images/miniatures in them. These often do not relate directly to the text and can contain unusual figures.

Marginal illustration from the Gorleston Psalter- Norfolk, early 14th century.
How much do we love the medieval duck? 

And while the illuminations could serve to illustrate or to decorate, they also provided aids for contemplation and meditation for those reading them as part of their daily prayer and devotion. On another (very practical) level, the illustrations were useful markers for less literate readers to be able to navigate a lengthy manuscript. One does not have to be able to read to identify a picture of the Virgin Mary or one of the story of Adam and Eve.

Four scenes from the Book of Genesis, with three of Adam & Eve.
The Huth Psalter, England, late 13th century.

Although so many wonderful works were produced by men (and women) of the church, by 1100 this situation began to change. The production of manuscripts was no longer the preserve of the church, and secular scribes and illustrators rose in importance. This was in part due to the expansion of the content of manuscripts. Romances, chronicles, medical and other texts and aristocratic family trees all began to be produced. The rise of the universities and the increase in book ownership by the wealthy saw a thriving secular book trade in Paris and Bologna by the 13th century.

Guinevere questioning Lancelot about his love for her.
Lancelot du Lac, France, c.1316.

It was another university city, the city of Cologne, that was to trigger the start of the demise of the manuscript. By the 1470s Cologne had become the most important centre of printing in north-west Germany and where a certain William Caxton was perfecting his own particular art. Handwritten texts were being replaced by the printed version.

From the Arnstein Bible, a large two-volume MS, Germany c. 1172.
It was written by a single scribe, a monk named Lunandus.

But it was English Reformation that was to see the wanton destruction of the illuminated manuscript. Henry VIII decreed that the 'images and pictures' of Saint Thomas Becket shall 'through the whole realm be put down and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places.’ The Act against Superstitious Books and Images (1550) ordered that prayer and service books that did not comply with the reformed liturgy should be destroyed. The religious communities did their best to keep their handwritten treasures safe. Books were smuggled out of religious houses and hidden in sympathetic homes. But not all could be saved. Priceless manuscripts were torn up, burned, used to clean candlesticks, clean boots, stop up beer barrels and even deployed in the privies.

The martyrdom of Thomas Becket from the Harley collection-
a rare survival in an English context.
Netherlands, 3rd quarter of the 15th century.

Yet despite all of this appalling vandalism, medieval manuscripts have preserved for posterity the lion’s share of medieval painting. As Beal so beautifully puts it: ‘Books have a knack of surviving.’ It is our great good fortune that they do.

Detail of marginal images of apes with books.
France, 1318-1330.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. (This online resource is truly a treasure trove and I cannot recommend it highly enough.)
Beal, Peter, A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology 1450–2000: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version. (2011)
Brigstocke, Hugh, The Oxford Companion to Western Art: Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2003)
Chilvers, Ian, The Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists (4 ed.): Oxford University Press, Current Online Version (2014)
De Hamel, Christopher, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd ed.), London: Phaidon Press Ltd. (1994).
Kerr, Julie: Life in the Medieval Cloister, London, Continuum Publishing (2009)
Whittock, Martyn, A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: London, Constable & Robinson (2009)

I first wrote this post for the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog, where it was published on May 21 2016.

Tuesday, May 31

John 'Lackland', Lord of Ireland.

I doubt if King John, youngest son of Henry II, needs much introduction. The 800th anniversary of his issuing of Magna Carta was celebrated only last year. Being referred to as Bad King John also tends to stick in people’s minds.  As for Robin Hood, I will say nothing.

Royal Mail Magna Carta Stamp.
© E.M. Powell

But I’d like to share one of the lesser known episodes in John’s life: his first campaign in Ireland. For on April 25, 1185, John landed at the port of Waterford on the south east coast with three hundred knights in tow. He hadn’t arrived as King John, but as the eighteen year old Lord of Ireland. No spoilers, of course, but John being John, all did not go well.

King John as shown on Waterford's Great Charter Roll c. 1370
© E.M. Powell

We need to rewind a little to understand why John went there in the first place. Because EHFA is such a wonderful, well-informed blog, you can read a detailed account of the reasons in this post from March 2016 here. The short recap is that Henry II first visited Ireland in 1171. He had already sent troops there and he wanted to stamp his authority on it. But by 1185 it was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power.

One of those barons was Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath. De Lacy had turned into a major thorn in Henry’s side, being far too good at his job for the King’s liking. Yes, de Lacy had taken the ancient kingdom of Meath (Mide) from the Irish and constructed many castles. But he’d also married a daughter of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), the Irish High King. Some chroniclers suggest that de Lacy was lining up to take all of Ireland from Henry.

Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle in Co. Meath.
© E.M. Powell

The King looked for a solution and believed he’d found it in John. He’d made the nine year old John Lord of Ireland at the Council of Oxford in 1177. Now that John was an adult, it was time for him to assume responsibility for the troublesome isle. One would think John would have been pleased. After all, he’d borne the nickname of ‘Lackland’ (given to him by Henry) for some time. Trouble was, John possibly had his sights set on the Holy Land. Its ruler, King Baldwin IV, was stricken with leprosy and the Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in England looking for a prince to succeed him.

John’s desires were thwarted.  On the 18th March 1185, the Patriarch came before Henry’s Council at Clerkenwell for a decision. The decision was a refusal. John would not be going east, but west. He would be going to Ireland. Even worse news for John was that he would not be going as king. Yes, the title of Lord of Ireland was Dominus Hiberniaedominus being the title accorded to a king before he was actually crowned. But Pope Lucius III would not sanction it. John would remain under the superior lordship of the Angevin dominions. He was not to be independent of his father. Henry knighted John at Windsor on March 31st and sent him on his way.

The port  of Waterford today.
© E.M. Powell

Happily for us, Henry also included his royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, in the entourage and Gerald wrote an account of the expedition in his Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). I did mention earlier that all did not go well and it was so from pretty much the moment John’s boots met Irish soil. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings.

Reginald's Tower, Waterford City
© E.M. Powell

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’

Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish King of Thomond, Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donal O'Brien), where they reported back to him and others on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him. Those ‘who had previously been enemies became friends for the first time.’

One of Gerald's depictions of the Irish.
British Library- Public Domain

Having alienated many of the Irish, John then began making grants of land to his own friends— land that loyal supporters of Henry already held. The result, according to Gerald, was that those who were dispossessed ‘went over to the side of the enemy.’ And John carried on. He set about establishing castles to take control of the land. We know from Gerald that there were three sites: Tibberaghny, in Co.  Kilkenny, Ardfinnan in Co. Tipperary and Lismore in Co. Waterford.

Slievenamon, Co. Tipperary, as viewed from the site at Tibberaghny.
© E.M. Powell

These speculative grants were a huge mistake, unleashing the ire of the likes of the powerful Ua Briain. Ua Briain had been one of the first to submit to Henry back in 1171, yet ‘the stripling’ John would receive nothing of the sort. Fierce fighting broke out and there were losses of life on both sides. John (or rather, his more able men) made a few gains, but his forces were well and truly routed in equal amounts by some of the native Irish kings. His less able men drank, caroused and fought with each other. When John failed to pay them, they deserted.

As with so many of his writings, Gerald can be accused of bias, for it was his Cambro-Norman kinsmen who made up the first wave of colonists in Ireland. Yet Roger of Howden is of the same view, listing selfish behaviour by John, non-payment of his armies and subsequent desertion and bad losses to the Irish.

The Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

One would have thought that John would have accepted some responsibility for his failings. But no. Instead, he accused one of Henry’s men of treacherous dealings with the Irish. And that man of course was Hugh de Lacy. There is no suggestion that de Lacy did anything to interfere with John’s campaign. He was by now immensely powerful: Constable of Dublin, and still holding his own vast lordship of Meath. De Lacy did join John for part of his travels through Ireland. What is interesting is that while de Lacy witnessed several of John’s charters, none of them are John’s grants of lands to his friends. It is possible that de Lacy, hugely successful on the battlefield as well as on the diplomatic front, wanted nothing to do with John’s cronyism.

Ninth Century High Cross, Durrow, County Offaly.
© E.M. Powell

John’s campaign ended in Dublin where he stayed until returning to Henry in December 1185, after only eight months as Lord of Ireland. He complained bitterly to the King about the Irish and Hugh de Lacy, and squarely blamed de Lacy for his failure. If de Lacy was poised to make a bid for Ireland, we will never know. De Lacy was assassinated at Durrow, Co. Offaly in July 1186 by an Irish axe-man. Henry is said to have rejoiced at the news and made preparations to send John back to Ireland to assume control. A new Pope had agreed to John’s coronation.

It was not to be. John was mid-journey when news came of his brother Geoffrey’s death. Now just two sons remained: Richard and John. John was needed elsewhere. It would be another twenty four years before John would set foot in Ireland again. And by 1210, he would no longer be Lackland: he would be King John. But he still would not be the English King of Ireland. That would take more than 300 years and another Henry- Henry VIII.
Church, S.D.: King John: New Interpretations, Boydell Press (1999).
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese: Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
McLynn, Frank: Lionheart & Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest: Vintage Books (2007)
Morris, Marc: King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta: Hutchinson (2015)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: King John/Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)
Note: I wrote this post, or an edited version of it, for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog on April 25, 2016. 

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