Tuesday, 26 January 2016

PAULA'S PEOPLE: A New Home for King Harold's Daughter by Carol McGrath

After 1066 and his defeat in The Battle of Hastings, the survivors of King Harold II’s family were exiled to foreign lands, with the exception of Gunnhild, his younger daughter who took up with King William’s cousin, Alan of Richmond. Surviving supporters were also scattered to lands as far apart as Byzantium and Denmark. There were, and had been for some time, English communities in Russian Kyiv (Kiev) and Novgorod.

King Harold

 Princess Gyda (Gita/Gytha/Thea in The Betrothed Sister) was King Harold’s elder daughter. She travelled with her brothers to King Sweyn’s court in Denmark. Sweyn was King Harold’s mother’s nephew. It is likely that he arranged this brilliant marriage for his aunt’s grand-daughter to Vladimir Monomarkh, son of the third prince in line for the grand throne of Kyiv and since at this time Kyiv was possibly the richest and largest city in Europe it was a coup.

Janet Martin, Russian Medievalist, writes in her book Medieval Russia 980-1584 ‘Prince Iarslav Vladimirovitch arranged the marriage of his daughter Elizaveta to the King of Norway; when widowed, she married the King of Denmark…Vladimir Monomarkh’s marriage to Gyda, the daughter of King Harold II of England reflected the prince’s ties with the king of Denmark more than England.’ There were already established historical links between Scandinavian and Rus lands. Only the odd snippet can be discovered in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and The Russian Primary Chronicle; the latter an early twelfth century document from Kyiv, concerning Gyda’s marriage. The Russian Primary Chronicle suggests that the marriage took place in the 1070s

Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev

So what do we know about Princess Gyda’s new home? Her feelings as written in The Betrothed Sister are speculative, as is her lengthy betrothal. As a novelist we try to create a character and world for our historical protagonists. It was impossible to discover much about her character although I discovered that she cared deeply about religion and possibly through either devotion or illness or both, ended her life in a convent. It was easier to research the atmosphere and life of medieval Kiev and Novgorod and how life may have been for a dispossessed princess married into the wealthy Riurikid dynasty.

The Golden Gate of Kiev

Rus lands were inhabited by Slavs and Vikings during the ninth century. By the late eleventh century the Russian Orthodox Church, not dissimilar to the Greek Orthodox Church, influenced Rus culture. For instance, a written language had evolved and many throughout society were educated as is evidenced by the discovery of everyday messages scribed on birch bark during this period. Some scholars suggest that the seclusion of noble women in a part of the palace called a terem dates from the eleventh century rather than the later medieval period of Mongol invasions. The concept may have come from Frankish lands or from Byzantium, and is not to be confused with that of harem since Russians were strictly monogamous. The Russian Primary Chronicle documents the construction of Cathedrals and monasteries, influenced by Byzantine art, each decorated with frescos and icons, provided with liturgical books and sacerdotal robes.

Medieval Diorama of Kiev

The damp environment of the northern area around Novgorod proved conducive to preserving the layers of a medieval city. When teams of archaeologists began systematic excavations in Novgorod in the 1940s they discovered an immense trove of items from the old medieval city.Implements used in daily life were usually fashioned from wood. Ploughs and harrows used in the fields depended on wood, sometimes in a near natural state. Wooden houses from the period have partially been returned to life in Novgorod’s museums because of these excavations. Dwellings were set out in courtyards that lined streets made of logs split lengthways. Their houses were constructed of logs built on decks to protect them from the low damp ground characteristic of the region. Decaying refuse was overlaid with twigs and inhabitants built log pathways across their yards. In the south around Kyiv, wood was less important. The Prince of Kiev inhabited palatial buildings atop a central hill whilst the working population dwelled primarily in wooden homes in separate sections of the city, located on outlying hilltops at the base of bluffs in the area known as Podol. Red slate from an area north west of Kyiv was used in Cathedrals and presumably in palaces.

 Thousands of artisans and artists were employed in Kyiv and Novgorod the two major cities of the Rus. The wealthy, such as Thea (Gyda), who could afford more durable materials than wood would own a bone salt box, bone combs, dice and ornamental eating utensils. Byzantine craftsmen filled an increasing demand for luxury items generated by the Kyivan elite, the Riurikid princes and the Church hierarchy. Goods including nuts, spices, amphorae containing olive oil and wine were transported throughout Russia. Glass objects produced in Kyiv using Byzantine techniques were widely used. Kyiv became famous for beautiful jewellery decorated with inlaid enamel and fine pottery.The sense I have from my thorough investigation into early medieval Kyiv and Novgorod (I read Russian Studies at University) is that it was a wealthy and often an educated society. I aimed to recreate a general image of medieval Kyiv as a bustling cosmopolitan centre sustained by lively commerce and craft production. It was a stable complex society that was threatened during this period by internecine conflict between brothers and cousins who fought to control the central throne.The prince was the apex of social structure. His military retainers formed a layer under him. On a par with them were the Hierarchs of the Church. The bulk of Kyiv’s residents were merchants, tradesmen, artisans, unskilled labourers and the lowest strata of slaves and dependent labourers. Foreigners, such as Earl Conor and Padar in The Betrothed Sister, often held a special status within this society.

Prince Matislav (Harold)
Gytha's eldest son

This was the strange, exotic world into which King Harold’s daughter married. Sadly, however, she never lived long enough to see her husband become the Grand Prince of Kyiv, and, interestingly, three of their sons in turn also became Grand Princes. King Harold’s daughter was, in fact, an ancestress of the Romanovs. Therefore, it can be said that although King Harold II did not found a new dynasty in England, his elder daughter by Edith Swan-Neck was a significant and fascinating, if often forgotten historical woman, who indeed continued Harold’s lineage and dynastic ambitions through her sons, a woman who apparently embraced life in her land of exile, and what a life she must have lived. I hope that in The Betrothed Sister I allowed her a possible life.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Paula Reads: The Betrothed Sister by Carol McGrath

The author would like to invite you all to her Facebook Event on the 26th January
to help her celebrate the launch of the last installment in her Daughters of Hastings 
series where there will befun, Q&A session
 and the chance to win book prizes.

Harold Godwinson, King of England for only 10 months, died on a battlefield near Hastings, defending his crown and his kingdom from the foreign invaders from across the sea. On the 14th October 1066, the flower of England’s youth lay dead, their bloody carcasses scattered across the marshy slope for their womenfolk to walk amongst, like wraiths, themselves as if dead, too, searching for the bodies of their loved ones. One such woman was the wife of the king, Edith Swanneck, who, as legend tells us, had to seek out her husband’s parts, recognising him by the marks that she knew so well. What followed after this terrible event, was the Diaspora of her family. In one day, the daughters and sons of Harold Godwinson had lost their father, their uncles and their fellow Englishmen. In that same day Gytha, Harold Godwinson’s mother had lost her remaining sons and grandson, with another son and grandson in custody of the Duke of Normandy.

The devastation of that day has been the topic of many novels, compelling authors of fiction to make sense of it all, and one such author, Carol McGrath, has chosen to take us through a journey, not undertaken before: through the eyes of the Godwin women, Ms McGrath takes us on a trail with her trilogy, Daughters of Hastings, to Ireland, to Flanders and Brittany; to Denmark and to Russia. These are the far off places that the Godwinson Diaspora takes us and in her third book, The Betrothed Sister, we end at last in the magnificent palace of the Russian princes’ in Novgorod.
Young Gytha, or Thea as she is called in The Betrothed Sister, is the eldest daughter of Harold and Edith Swanneck. She is fifteen when the book starts and the story opens with a prologue. Gytha is speaking to us as a mature woman, an introduction to the narrative. It then goes on in the third person and in the first chapter, her brothers, Godwin and Edmund, are escorting her to a new life. Many wives and children of dead or dispossessed nobles go with her, their lives tainted by the ‘sin’ of fighting for the wrong side. Led by her namesake, Gytha, Countess of Wessex, Thea’s grandmother, the women and children are bound first for St Omer, where they will join a convent community. But Thea is intended for greater things, and after a long spell in Denmark, she travels to Russia, where she must wait for her prince, the man she is fated to marry, Prince Vladimir of the Rus nation. (As an aside, through Thea’s children with Vladimir, Harold Godwinson’s bloodline was carried back into the English Royal Family.  

Thea’s story is not as simple as it sounds. There is no smooth ride for Thea, as her determination to rise above adversity and prejudices, keeps her spirit alive, motivating her to give her life value. She is inspired to give meaning to her father’s death, that he did not die in vain.  Throughout the story, Thea has to overcome one test after another, but each one makes her stronger, moulding her into the courageous young woman she is fated to become. Thea is the spirit of her father, King Harold II, the driving force that propels her into greatness.

What I admire most about The Betrothed Sister, is the enormous amount of research and determination the author applies to breathe life into this woman’s existence. Women are often assigned to the footnotes of history and superficially we know through the annals of history, that Gytha, (or Thea, as she is called in this story) daughter of a defeated king, marries a Russian Prince and forged a new line of nobles in her own right. That is basically the summary of her life in history. But of course, she was much more than a few lines in a chronicle; we know roughly, the start and the end of her life, but what of those bits in between? This is where Ms McGrath’s skill as a historical novelist comes into play. Through her knowledge of noble Russian medieval life, we see how they are marginalised in politics, fiercely protected by their menfolk, almost emulating the lives of many women in Islam today. They are veiled in the presence of the court, and must not show their faces or parts of their bodies to their husband’s until they are wed. Ms McGrath has used this knowledge to imagine what the changes to Thea’s, as she is called in this story, life must have been like for her, coming from a society where women were regarded, virtually, on equal par with men.

Women in England in the 11thc were able to own property, and do with it as they felt fit. They were land owners in their own right and could hold the status of a land holding thegn. They could represent themselves in court and pursue suits against men. Thea Godwinsdottir, is suddenly thrust into a very different world where men ruled the roost completely, and has to learn to adapt to this new mindset. She finds it difficult, but she has to dampen her spirit in public to survive, even though she fights against it, mostly to her own cost and of those she loves dearly.

Faced with the task of getting Thea from England to Denmark, and from Denmark to Russia, Ms McGrath had little evidence of her trail, but deciphers the facts to give them meaning, and the story she provides us with is both plausible and entertaining. Using both fictional and real historical characters of the time, she creates a world that we can believe. Looking at the facts and examining cultural differences, our author cleverly weaves a story that is not incongruous with the life and times in which they are set. There is excitement, we have at least two battles, one of them a siege, that will have you biting your nails whilst being unable to stop turning the pages.
Ms McGrath enables us to get into the mind of Thea as she experiences the many travails of her life. Her brothers, Godwin and Edmund, lost in the annals of time, are provided with an imaginative version of what men they might have become. We also see an old favourite, Padar, Thea’s father’s scop whose loyalty to her family sees him watching over his master’s daughter, an ever listening ear and shoulder for her to lean on.

The book is an imaginative account of events that little is known about, and for those who are interested to know what might have become of Thea and her family, this series, The Daughters of Hastings, is definitely worth a read. I’ve enjoyed being taken on this journey with Ealditha, the girls’ mother, and Gunnhild and Thea, and am thankful to Ms McGrath for taking me with her.
One of the most poignant themes of this book is that in a world that is forever changing, the only thing that remains the same, is change, and that one cannot fight against it and find victory; but with a strength of spirit, one can overcome the sense of loss that change brings, to rise like the Phoenix from the ashes into a new life.

                “Ah, my mother,” she whispers as she gently drops the silver lid on the letter, “how wise you are and how fortunate I am to have a husband I love and who loves me back, the father of my father’s grandchildren.” She sighs wistfully, and smiles to herself. If there is one constant in our brief lives, it is change.”

About the Author

Based in England, Carol McGrath writes Historical Fiction. She studied History at Queens University Belfast, has an MA in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queens University Belfast and an English MPhil from Royal Holloway, University of London. The Handfasted Wife is her debut novel, first in a trilogy titled The Daughters of Hastings. The second and third novels The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister have followed and are now available on amazon and in bookshops. Carol is an historian specialised in The Medieval Era. Her first love, however, is writing. She is an avid reader and reviewer.
Follow Carol on 

Paula Lofting is the author of soon to be published Sons of the Wolf series. She is the founder of The Review and has been an ardent reader and reviewer for this blog since its creation. She is currently working on the sequel, The Wolf Banner which will follow Sons of the Wolf  in the Spring. you can follow her 1066 blog at her Website:  

Friday, 22 January 2016

Sharon reviews "The Dead Gods" by Robert Bayliss

The author kindly has kindly donated 2 e-books as a giveaway. Just leave a comment at the bottom of the blog or on our Facebook page.
The winner will be drawn on Friday 29th January 2016

After encountering the dark god of Acaross, the Taleeli Commander Kaziviere finds himself transported into the heart of that shadowy realm. Perplexed by the Commander’s disappearance the Sun Shard wielder Tuan, his comrade Bronic, Klesh the Flinter and Kaziviere’s lover Tamzine, embark on a quest to find him.
As war between Acaross and Taleel draws ever nearer Kaziviere discovers the horrific nature of the Messiah of Shadows and his monstrous children, The Dead Gods.

The Dead Gods: Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow 2 is a beautiful tale of the fantasy genre, with an atmosphere straight out of the medieval world. I am very much a fan of historical fiction, or modern-day archaeological thrillers. Fantasy is a whole new genre for me, so I had no idea what to expect when I opened the cover of The Dead Gods. It was a complete surprise to me - and a very pleasant one. It took me way out of my reading comfort zone and yet had me enthralled from the first page.

The Dead Gods is the second book in the Flint & Steel, Fire & Shadow book series,but you wouldn't know it. From the beginning the book works well as a standalone, with the events of the first book revealed as memories in the thoughts of the main protagonists in a way that is subtle and not overwhelming. Ingeniously, the author makes the past all a part of the present. The back story is introduced as I go along, when it is needed to explain a person or event, rather than in huge lumps that take you away from the actual story.

Fortress of Tiers

Robert Bayliss cleverly draws on aspects of various eras to create a fantasy world of magic, myth and adventure. Every detail is intricately woven in an amalgamation of the medieval, early modern, and the supernatural. Packed full of action, suspense and mystery - and some suitably demonic bad guys; the story moves rapidly, leaving you few moments to take a breath - or even let out the breath you weren't aware you'd been holding for at least the last two pages!

The narrative is wonderfully descriptive, the language evocative:

There was a hammering at the door and a voice demanded from the other side, "Dogel! We heard a noise, is anything ill?"
"Wait," Kaziviere said. "We will need supplies and clothes."
The girl grinned. "you don't like what you see?" she said, facing the gladiator in her nakedness. "there is no time, savage!" she hissed. "If you want to live, jump!" She launched herself from the window and was gone.
Behind him he heard the door being tentatively opened. On the floor the dogel gasped, his eyes looking wildly around from his battered face.
"Tamzine!" Kaziviere said, casting his spell of hope into the world.   

The lead character are wonderful creations, with their own powers to enthrall the reader. Braebec, Kaziviere, Tuan and Tamzine are heroes of the highest caliber. Each has his, or her, own strengths and weaknesses; confronting enemies head-on, while maintaining their humanity at some considerable cost. They fight to the bitter end and prove themselves worthy of the time you've invested in getting to know them. 

The villains are superbly nasty and supernatural, to the point of making you subconsciously cringe as you read about them (although only occasionally). They attract the worst of humanity to their cause.
Princess Karla

The contrast between the human heroes and the other-worldly villains provides a brilliant contrast for the reader, making it easy to root for the heroes. We are also introduced to characters our heroes meet along the way, who act as foils and distraction to the bad guys - and the heroes. People such as the alluring Princess Karla and her father, the Khan, have their own agendas that could divert our heroes from their purpose.

To be honest, my review can't ever do this book justice. It fascinates and enthralls as it entertains. In short, you will have to read it to believe it. But beware, once it has you in its grip, you will be absorbed into this strange world until the very last page. And it will leave you desperate to read the next installment ....

Robert Bayliss lives in Somerset and has long loved reading an eclectic mix of history, fantasy and Sci-Fi. Growing up in the countryside the worlds of Tolkien came alive whilst trying to lose himself in the woods, a hobby he enjoys still. After having a vivid dream (and eager to know what happened next) he felt the need to write it down and so the world of Flint and Steel, Fire and Shadow was born…

Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history for over 30 years. She has studied history academically and just for the joy of it – even working as a tour guide at historical sites. She is now having great fun passing on that love of the past to her 10-year-old son. Having received a blog, History...The Interesting Bits as a present for Christmas 2014 she is also enjoying sharing her obsession of history with her readers.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Sharon Reviews: The Pawns of Sion by Scott R Rezer

The author kindly has kindly donated an e-book copy as a giveaway. Just leave a comment at the bottom of the blog or on our Facebook page.
The winner will be drawn on Tuesday 19th January 2016

The Leper King is dead. His sister, Countess Sibylla, longs to return to the convent and leave the crown in the hands of her young son. But when the boy suddenly dies, the Order of Sion forces Sibylla to become queen and crown her estranged husband, Guion de Lusignan as king. Meanwhile, a squire named Ernoul discovers that a woman attending his sick mother in the Hospital of Saint-John is the beloved saint, Mary Magdalen, and that he is the illegitimate son of a powerful lord. As the Order of Sion regains strength and the kingdom moves ever closer to war with Salehdin, Mary seeks out the hiding place of the lost Cup of Christ… but is it the end of a long quest or a trap set by the enemy to destroy her?

At first glance The Pawns of Sion looks like a straightforward story about the politics and rivalries of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. But once you start reading, you discover the novel delves deeper than you'd ever thought possible. Scott R. Rezer has created a story which merges two realms, that of man and that of the angels. The war between Salehdin and the Christians runs parallel with the greater, age-old battle of good versus evil. The author has cleverly interwoven the two realms in a deep, intense book. The plot is detailed and unveiled in layers the deeper into the book you get.

Set in the years immediately before the Third Crusade, the action moves fast and furious from the death of King Baldwin V, through the behind-the-scenes manipulations of the the Order of Sion and the Magdalen's attempts to stop them, while Salehdin takes advantage of the deep divisions revealed among the Christian lords. And underlying it all is the centuries-long search for the Holy Grail....

I found The Pawns of Sion both fascinating and intriguing. It looks deeper into the origins of Christianity than other Crusader novels and the age-old battle of good against evil mirrors the irreconcilable differences of the Christian and Muslim combatants. There is the occasional missing word in the text, but this does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the book. The author knows how to evoke the reader's sympathy - or distaste - for particular characters. You find yourself rooting for the good guys.

The full depth of the story is slowly  revealed - each revelation releasing a new feature of the plot. And as each new secret is disclosed, it adds a little explanation to the motives and desires of the protagonists.

The language is, at times, haunting, drawing aside the veils between the realm of the natural world and that of the spiritual, giving the reader a sense of the surreal:

....Her magic shrank from the shadow of his evil rather than endure its touch.
"Did you think you could defeat me with so little a thing as the death of your beloved daughter?"
"You have no place here, Simon," she hissed, ignoring his taunt. She drew a thin silver blade from the belt beneath her cloak. The rasping sound of metal upon metal overwhelmed the silence of the wood. "You never have."
"Your words wound me, Mariamne," said Amalric de Lusignan. "Why must we continually bicker when we might become friends?"
She walked towards him, sword on shoulder, shedding her immortal glamour and taking on a semblance men knew....


As with many people, the Knights Templar have always held me in awe and although they are not the heroes of the story, their Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort is one of the leading characters. The author makes good use of the known protagonists of the time, weaving his story around their lives and the events that shaped the Holy Land and its politics at the time. Each character is imbued with the qualities passed down by history.

Balian d'Ibelin is the good, noble knight, whose integrity is beyond question. Guion (Guy) de Lusignan is the weak, easily manipulated, indecisive king, while his wife, Sybilla, is the pawn he uses to gain power. Then there's the young Ernoul, a fictional character who struggles to come to terms with his destiny. The historical characters are intermingled with the fictional ones, allowing the writer to create his own story within the historical record.

The characters are brought to life in the hot, arid backdrop of the Holy Land in the second half of 12th century. The author has recreated the Medieval Near East vividly, cleverly evincing the heat, the dust and the thirst, in the reader's mind.

Although I found the duality of the story confusing at first, it didn't take me long to find myself totally immersed in the concept, and in the general story itself. I like the depth of the story; the first few chapters reveal a complexity to the politics and religion of the Holy Land of the time. Individual stories are expertly woven together to make one great tapestry; a tapestry depicting the disasters befalling Outremer which would eventually lead to the launch of the Third Crusade. And behind it all are the origins of Christianity itself, the fight for good against evil and the search for the greatest relic, the Holy Grail.

It's going to be very interesting, to see how this story continues in Book 3.

Scott R. Rezer was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1963. He met his wife and best friend while serving in the U.S. Air Force. They have two grown children and live in the Southwest. He is an indie published author of four historical fiction novels ranging from the Civil War to the Crusades to ancient history. Two of his books have garnered Editor's Choice selections by the Historical Novel Society (The Leper King and Shadow of the Mountain).

As a maintenance technician in the U.S. Air Force, he worked on an aging, outdated nuclear missile system of questionable safety. He believes he may have unwittingly been exposed to radioactive material that altered his DNA and gave him his writing ability -- well, maybe not. It could be he simply acquired his ability from his grandmother who was a local historian and writer. He could never ask her a simple question without hearing her say with a wink, "Go look it up." In so doing, she managed to instill in him a love of history and a wonderful sense of discovery that have stuck with him ever since.

Visit the author at:


Sharon Bennett Connolly has been fascinated by history for over 30 years. She has studied history academically and just for the joy of it – even working as a tour guide at historical sites. She is now having great fun passing on that love of the past to her 10-year-old son. Having received a blog, History...The Interesting Bits as a present for Christmas 2014 she is also enjoying sharing her obsession of history with her readers.