1066 from Commando

“So you want to hear the story of Hastings, eh? The saga of the Fighting Man and the fall of a nation. Well, all stories start far from their endings…”

1066 is an iconic year in English history. It was the year that William the Conqueror seized the throne, changing the royal line. The year that brought in French customs and language, transforming English culture. A year that every English school kid learns about.

And it’s the year I’ve brought to life in my latest Commando comic.

I wanted to show a different perspective on the Norman invasion. Thanks to the Bayeux Tapestry, we’re used to hearing the Norman side. It’s the story of the victors and the story of powerful people.

Instead of focusing on William, I decided to tell the story from the English point of view, through the fictional character of Durwin. He’s not one of the great lords vying for control of the country, but a warrior in the household of Harold Godwinson, claimant to the English throne. This let me do a few things that I think make for a more interesting story.

First, it adds a personal conflict. Sure, Duke William and Earl Harold had met each other, and Tostig Godwinson’s alliance with the Norwegians hints at acrimony between him and his brother. But for these men, the conflict was principally about power.

Durwin’s motivations, on the other hand, are purely personal. He’s looked up to Harold as a hero his whole life, so the chance to fight for him is a great honour. When Harold breaks his oath, that’s also personal, a moment of terrible disappointment as Durwin sees the flaws in his hero, a moment that propels him into danger.

Focusing on Durwin also let me show all three battles of the 1066 campaign – Fulford, Stamford Bridge, and Hastings. None of the leading figures in this political struggle were at all three battles, but it’s likely that some English warriors were, and so Durwin became a vehicle for me to show the full action.

There’s a hierarchy to the way these battles are remembered. If you know anything about English history, you know about Hastings, where the Normans beat the English and conquered the country. If you’ve taken an interest in English history, then you probably know that the English defeated another invasion first, this one by the Norwegians, at Stamford Bridge. But few people know that, before that, the Norwegians beat the English at Fulford. For several days, it looked like the Vikings might be the ones to take over.

Together, these three battles tell a fuller and more satisfying story than they do on their own. We see the English struggle, recover, and taste the sweet relief of victory, only to have it snatched away on the south coast. The forgotten Battle of Fulford makes the story stronger.

This comic has one other unusual touch for an issue of Commando – it’s told in the first person. Commando’s text boxes are normally in the third person, telling the story from the outside. But I wanted to make these events both more personal and more epic. To do this, I switched to having Durwin tell the story, bringing us closer to his perspective while reminding us that the story of that year is one that’s been told and retold, becoming the stuff of legend and of national pride. It’s history that’s grown in status through the retelling, from the Bayeux Tapestry to childhood recountings in a thousand schoolrooms up and down the land.

So after all of that you want to hear the story of Hastings, eh? The saga of the Fighting Man and the fall of a nation. Then you can get Commando 5301 through newsagents or Comixology now.

Out Now – Roman Archers and Medieval Prisoners

I have articles in the new issues of Ancient Warfare and Medieval Warfare magazines! I’m very excited, as it’s the first time I’ve had articles in glossy magazines on the shelves of newsagents. I’ll probably geek out and get a photo of myself standing next to them in Smiths.

The Medieval Warfare article is on the treatment of prisoners of war during King John’s reign. The one in Ancient Warfare is on Roman archery. These are both relatively obscure subjects that shed light on the society around them and how people viewed and treated each other. I’m particularly proud of the medieval piece, which draws on research I did as a postgrad and covers a subject I find endlessly fascinating.

If you enjoy history then you can order the magazines here and here.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis – Time Travel as Our Voice in Historical Fiction

The hardest thing about writing historical fiction is presenting the past in an understandable way.

It’s easy to describe and explain the past in historical non-fiction. You can say whatever you want, as long as you believe it’s true. The results may be dry, and they certainly won’t be as evocative as great fiction, but there’s no need to explain why you’re explaining.

In fiction it’s different. Especially in modern fiction, where the most common points of view are third person limited and first person, there are limits on what you can explain. A viewpoint character will take their period in time for granted. They won’t wonder why things are how they are, comment on it, or explain it to themselves.

Getting Around the Voice Problem

Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book neatly gets around this.

In its marketing and the framing of the story, this is science fiction. An academic travels back in time to the 14th century. After the transport goes wrong, her colleagues are left trying to retrieve her while facing a modern epidemic. The novel alternates between distant past and near future.

But while this hefty book spends a lot of time in its near future, that never feels like the most important part. What makes it distinctive is the experienced of medieval England. The period is brilliantly evoked, not through great historical events but through everyday life. How people work, live, laugh, love, and sometimes suffer is all shown. Because the viewpoint character comes from the future, she observes details that are important to readers, not those important to the people of the time. She becomes our intermediary, explaining the past and bringing it to life.


The sci-fi construct also helps bring the issues of the 14th century alive through parallels. The challenges and heartbreaks of the epidemic in the 21st century happen in a setting closer to readers’ own lives. That makes them more immediately comprehensible, driving home the point of how people experience such crises. They hit you in the feels.

Those thoughts and feelings are then carried over to the medieval parts, as disease strikes in a very different setting. Differences and similarities are shown by the parallel lives.

Great Historical Fiction

Only half of this book is historical fiction, and even that half is compromised in its accuracy by the presence of the time traveller. Yet once you accept her presence as necessary to enhance our experience, the rest comes vividly to life. This is some of the best historical fiction I’ve ever read – engaging and evocative without needing to use big names or big action to keep readers interested.

As a student of 14th century history, I can get very picky about how the period’s depicted. At first glance, it seems strange that a sci-fi story has become my favourite depiction of the era. But that story does a breathtaking job of bringing a period I’m passionate about to life, without ever breaking the believability of a viewpoint. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all.

If you’re passionate about the medieval past, you like time travel stories, or you enjoy slow, rich work like that of Guy Gavriel Kay, then I totally recommend Doomsday Book.


Oh, but try not to read the back cover blurb. My copy contained a massive spoiler there. It didn’t stop me enjoying the book, but it robbed me of a great reveal.

A Sword – a historical flash story

Picture by Francois Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by Francois Schnell via Flickr Creative Commons

Manon dashed through the woods, slashing at monsters with her sword. She could see them all around, dragons in the treetops, Englishmen in the undergrowth, ogres behind the trees. None would stand before the trusty blade she had broken off an oak on the way out of the village. The world smelled of autumn – leaf mould, the fresh air after rain, and more smoke than usual.

Bold as any knight she darted between the bushes and ran into a man squatting against a tree. His hose were down round his ankles and his expression on seeing her was a mixture of surprise and pain.

‘You stink!’ Manon said, holding her nose against what he’d been doing.

The man also shouted something, though she couldn’t understand it. The words sounded hard and clumsy, like his tongue was wrapped around itself.

Other men burst from the bushes, huge bows pointed at Manon. She held her sword out in trembling terror, but they laughed and lowered their bows.

One of them crouched in front of her. He wore a leather jack and a chainmail hood drooped around his shoulders. He had a nice smile.

‘That is a fine sword you have, little boy.’ The man spoke slowly, and he had a strange accent, like the tinker who came down from Calais mending pots and selling needles.

‘I’m a girl,’ Manon replied.

‘That’s a fine sword you have, my lady. Are you defending your village?’


‘Could you show us where it is?’

Manon hesitated. Something didn’t seem right. These men weren’t local and there bows were longer than any she’d seen used for hunting. But they wore red crosses stitched to their clothes so they must be godly men, and their smiling leader recognised a good sword.

‘Yes,’ she said firmly.


They tramped through the fields and orchards, following hedgerows between narrow fields full of grain and vegetables. Soon the harvest would be in and they’d all go into town to pay their tithes to the Lord of Agincourt. Papa said she could come with him this year, to see all the people and the castle. She hoped there would be knights.

There was a commotion as they approached the village, the small cluster of windowless, sloping huts that she called home. Everyone must be as excited as her to see these strangers. They all came rushing out, pitchforks and carving knives in their hands as if straight from their work, some barefoot in the mud.

Her father pushed through the crowd, sparks still smouldering on his leather apron, almost kicking a chicken in his hurry to get past. He stopped twenty paces from them and his face made Manon worry that she was in trouble.

‘Please don’t hurt her,’ Papa said.

‘Why would I hurt her?’ the smiling man replied, stroking Manon’s hair. ‘We are all going to be friends.’

Manon would have stopped him stroking her but she was suddenly afraid. Why was Papa talking about her being hurt?

There was a creak. She looked round to see the other men raising their longbows, arrows pointed at the villagers. Even Hob, the one she’d caught by the tree, looked scary as he squirmed in his filthy hose.

‘Bring us your grain and your animals,’ the smiling man said.

‘We have little grain,’ Papa replied, ‘but you can have it.’

‘The animals?’ the man asked. ‘You have pigs and goats.’

‘Odo and Henri took them away,’ Papa said, ‘when we heard that the armies were coming.’

Something cold pressed against Manon’s throat.

‘Where are they?’ The man didn’t sound friendly now.

‘Please no! I swear I don’t know! None of us do.’

‘Where are the animals little girl?’ The man leaned close to her now, the dagger hurting her neck. He stank of sweat and blood and too many cabbages for dinner.

‘I don’t know,’ she whimpered, tears running down her face. This was the most terrible thing since Mama died. Even Papa looked scared.

How could Papa be scared?

‘Tell me.’

The blade pressed harder against her throat. She was suddenly very aware of the mud between her toes, of the woollen tickling of her tunic, of the horrified faces of her neighbours.

‘I can’t,’ Papa repeated, sinking to his knees. ‘Please, me instead. Anything.’

The man yanked Manon’s head to one side.

‘I’m sorry your friend is sick,’ she said, ‘and I know he needs better food, but please don’t hurt me.’

The man shook and she closed her eyes, prayed to God to accept her into his arms.

Then she realised he was laughing. He said something in their ugly words and shoved her away from him, into Papa’s rough embrace.

‘Bring the corn,’ the man said. ‘Try nothing with those knives – we have bows.’


Once the soldiers were gone everyone rushed to the stream, filling buckets and cauldrons to put out the burning buildings. Everyone except Manon.

She stood in front of the bonfire that had been Henri’s house, where the man had ruffled her hair one last time before throwing a torch through the door.

‘Maybe next time you will have a real sword,’ he had said with that wicked grin.

Then he was gone.

Manon held up her sword. Though clearly a stick it still looked reminded her of the ones the men had worn at their belts, with its curving blade and its space for her hand.

She flung it into the flames and went to fetch water.

* * *


This story was originally published in Alt Hist in November last year. Alt Hist is the only magazine I know of that specialises in historical and alternate history fiction, so if you like that sort of thing I recommend checking it out.

If you’d like to receive more short fiction from me straight to your inbox, including a free copy of one of my e-books, then please sign up to my mailing list. You’ll receive regular short stories and updates on my releases, and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.

Sailing Season – a historical flash story

Kogge_stralsundI hated every year my father made me accompany our stock from the Bordeaux vineyards to the London markets. But 1321, when we sailed late and so missed the protection of the wine fleet, that was the worst.

My stomach lurched and I prayed to all the saints for salvation as I watched the land passing far to starboard. Even sailors do not like to lose sight of land, for to do so makes navigation near impossible. To me it was even more precious – a reminder that this sickness would end. And so, as I heaved my guts over the side and watched the distant cliffs with a fond eye, I was the last to see the menace bearing down on us.

“Master Robert,” Captain William said. “There is a problem.”

I had made this voyage with him ten times and never heard him so tense. Following the line of his pointing finger, I saw a ship ahead of us, a red flag flying from its mast.

“Tis John Crabb,” the captain said. “The Flemish pirate. If he catches us…”

He shuddered and made the sign of the cross.

“Then turn.” I wiped the bile from my chin, even as fear threatened to unleash a new load. “In God’s name, turn and flee for safe harbour.”

“I hoped you’d say that, Master Robert.” The captain waved, his men hauled on a dozen mysterious ropes, and we came about.

The wind was against us now, but against the pirates too. We slowed, yet for some time I thought we were gaining distance on them.

I was wrong. Soon that dread flag above the dark sail grew twice as large to stern. To port, cliffs and rocky coastline continued to menace us, with no sign of a friendly harbour in which we might hide.

“Must we head out to sea?” I asked.

The captain nodded grimly.

I could hear men praying as the rudder turned, the whole ship creaked and the land disappeared behind us. Others sharpened their weapons, and I joined them, grinding a whetstone along my sword, knowing that against Crabb and his men my small skill would buy me mere minutes more life.

Captain William sat down beside me.

“They still gain on us,” he said.

The men around us stiffened and stared past the aft castle with eyes full of dread.

“Then sail towards them,” I said.

The men looked at me with shock, William among them. But I had no other plan, and nor did they. Sometimes a season comes when only one kind of grape survives the harvest. Then we gamble all on the wine it makes, for what other choice is there?

“The wind will be with us and we will gain speed,” I said. “I understand that much about sailing. If we can pass them while they are still heading this way then we will be the faster vessel. Perhaps that will give us time to reach a port to the north.”

I considered saying something heroic, holding up my blade and declaring that if all else failed at least we would die well. But that thought was no comfort to me, and I doubted it meant much to these sailors either.

After a moment’s consideration, the captain nodded to his men. Reluctantly they went to the ropes while he handled the rudder. Our little round ship turned once more, and her sails filled. Foam broke against the bow as we hurtled ever faster towards our doom.

Soon Crabb’s ship was less than half a mile away, then only a few hundred yards. Arrows clattered on our deck and thudded into the sides. I ducked for safety while our brave captain stood upright at the rudder, keeping us on course.

As we drew level I could see the leering faces of the pirate crew. Perhaps it was just my fear-infused mind, but I swear they had the teeth and horns of devils and cried out with the voices of the damned. If these were Flemings, I thought, then the Low Countries must be a terrible place.

They hurled ropes, metal hooks catching in our gunwale. I raced over, sword in hand, other men beside me, and our attackers raised their arms to fight. But instead of standing ready to receive borders we hacked desperately at the ropes. Arrows rained down around us and splinters flew from misplaced blows, until the tattered cords gave way with a series of sharp snaps.

It was only then, as the pirate ship turned sluggishly behind us and we raced away on a following wind, that I noticed the pain in my thigh. I looked down to see an arrow protruding there, and blood seeping through the hem of my tunic.

Pain overwhelmed me and I blacked out. When I awoke I was lying on a pile of blankets, my bare leg wrapped in bandages. Captain William was looking down at me.

“Did we get away?” I croaked.

“Aye,” he said. “That we did.”

I smiled with relief. But I was waking up, and now I noticed the uncertainty in his expression.

“What is it?”

“There’s another ship ahead,” he replied. “Can’t tell yet if it’s friend or foe.”

Wincing, I eased myself upright and looked around for my sword.

Did I not tell you that was the worst year?

* * *


As part of writing ‘Honour Among Thieves‘, I read The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer. It’s a well-written guide to everyday life in 14th century England, which I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in that period. This story was inspired by the chapter on travelling, which described just how terrifying a sea voyage was for many people, as well as mentioning real life pirate John Crabb. I like to think that our protagonist raised a cup of wine in celebration when Crabb was finally captured in 1332.

If you’d like to receive more stories like this direct to your inbox every Friday, along with a free copy of one of my books, then please sign up for my mailing list – I promise a journey to other worlds that’s mostly safe from pirates.

New Book Cover!

The cover for my latest release arrived yesterday:

Honour Among Thieves - smaller


And while I’m about it, here’s the blurb:

Hob was a simple peasant farmer until idealism turned him into a rebel. Now he’s an outlaw living in Sherwood Forest, seeking justice at the end of an arrow.

Under the leadership of Robert Deyville, Hob enjoys the outlaw life, feasting beneath the stars and robbing the supporters of a corrupt regime. But as he grows closer to his companions, the darkness of their life starts to show. With not just friendship but his life at risk, Hob struggles to separate right from wrong. Can he do what is right and survive to see the results? Is there such a thing as honour among thieves?

More news on this to follow soon.