Review/Interview: Elizabeth St John, author of the Lydiard Chronicles

For those who don't know, the Lydiard Chronicles are set in the seventeenth century and concern the real life St John family, who were r...

Friday, 30 November 2018

Review/Interview: Elizabeth St John, author of the Lydiard Chronicles

For those who don't know, the Lydiard Chronicles are set in the seventeenth century and concern the real life St John family, who were related to the powerful Villiers family, pivotal players at court. These are stories about real people, some of whom just happen to be the ancestors of the author. I write about much earlier times but, having studied it almost as much as the Anglo-Saxons right through to degree level, I have a deep and abiding love for the seventeenth century and enjoy reading books set in this period.

I read Books 1 and 2 - The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided - in quick succession and decided to wait until I'd finished Book 2 before reviewing. Why? Because I read in Kindle format, and after I'd finished Book 1 I was able to read the first few pages of Book 2 and got stuck straight in!

First impressions: I'll start with the one very tiny negative. It's a personal choice, but I'm not a huge fan of books written in the first person. That's just me. I wasn't sure whether the personality of the main character would shine through but I stuck with it and I'm so glad that I did. Lucy finds her voice, her strength of character, developing all the time as she grows from girl to adult. I won't give any of the plot away, but by the time she became the Lady of the Tower, I was fully invested in her life, willing some happiness for her. (Does it come for her? You'll have to read to find out!) This is why, by the end of Book 1, I wanted to move immediately on to Book 2. By Love Divided is written in the third person, and while Lucy is still very much in the centre of things, the younger generation now also comes to the forefront. The family relationships, in all their complexity, continue to drive the plot and the characters are very well drawn indeed. Initially I wasn't sure about Barbara Villiers - could anyone be so nasty to her sister and still become a fully-drawn character? Yes, they can. And she does.

As I said, no plot spoilers. But here's a list of what's fabulous about these books: a deft sketching of time and place; the sights, sounds, smells and ways of seventeenth-century England provide an accurate backdrop to the action which brings the scenes alive. The machinations of the court and the people who thrived on such a life are depicted in all their - sordid - brilliance. The reiteration that happiness so often depended on royal favour, that middle- to high-ranking men could lose their livelihoods assisting the king and that widows were vulnerable, and not just financially. Another aspect of life shown vividly here is how often during this period, families were divided, by religion, politics, or both.

The added interest for me, especially being a writer myself, was that these novels are based not only on real people, but the ancestors of the author. I had to know more, so I got in touch with Elizabeth and asked if she'd mind answering a few questions:

AW: I know that the Lydiard Chronicles tell the story of your ancestors, but how did you come to find out about them initially?

EStJ: I grew up as an only child on the North Sea coast; during the winters, when the east wind blew in from Siberia, the casing on our old grandfather clock would open by itself, and my mother would look up from her embroidery and exclaim “here comes Uncle Brian again”. Surrounded by old family furniture, dusty letters and diaries, and flyleaf-inscribed books, the ghosts of dead relatives were far more interesting than those who were living, and I immersed myself in our family history.

My Sundays were usually spent “St.John-hunting” which usually involved traipsing around overgrown churchyards in the pouring rain, clambering over ruined castles and ancient monuments, and drinking luke-warm tea from thermos flasks. Our family tree was well-researched, and the one remaining family seat of Lydiard Park contained portraits going back to Elizabethan times. However, no-one in our family had known the story of Lucy St.John—The Lady of the Tower—and when I discovered the Memoirs in Nottingham Castle’s file cabinet, I was overjoyed. Here was the story for the book I’d always wanted to write.

AW: How wonderful to not only discover famous ancestors, but find their antics worthy of a series of novels! How much sympathy, if any, do you have for Barbara? How did you set about writing her character without making her a caricature? [pictured below: Lucy (left) & Barbara]

EStJ: I actually thought Barbara a fascinating character, and she only emerged as the main antagonist as I constructed the final plot of the book. The Memoirs describe Aunt Joan by name as being “more wicked than the tales of a stepmother”, while Lucy’s sisters were generally described as envious at her beauty. As I researched Barbara’s life, I realized that she was a very clever woman, who managed to hang on to her wealth, property and patronage after her husband’s death and the assassination of her brother-in-law, the Duke of Buckingham. She married her children into extremely influential families, and of course, her granddaughter was Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, mistress to Charles II. She knew exactly what she was doing.

I feel a great deal of responsibility to all my characters to try to write them as the real people they were, not two-dimensional caricatures. With Barbara, I wanted enough sting in her to create tension throughout the books, but still for readers to have a grudging admiration for her ability to maneuver through the perilous world of Stuart politics. Knowing the full extent of her life through the research, enabled me to write her exploits with empathy.

AW: She certainly comes across as a 'player' but also one who is at one with her choices. How familiar were you with this time period before you began researching the characters?

EStJ: I knew almost nothing about this time period, having had much more interest in Medieval and Tudor England. It was actually with a heavy heart that I started researching and writing, for as a result of our typical English education, I thought this period and the Civil War was about the most boring period of history imaginable. But, as I started to read more deeply the letters, court documents and memoirs themselves, I began to be fascinated by the incredible shift in society and politics that occurred during this time.

Along with primary sources such as Pepys and Evelyn, there were many modern biographies and non-fiction books I read that absolutely brought this home and once I was able to get a feel for the people, I realized that contextually they were all trying to survive a very uncertain world. Interestingly, I wrote The Lady of the Tower during the great recession of 2011-12, and By Love Divided during the run up to Brexit and the US Elections. Both drove home to me that the central themes of corruption and abuse of power haven’t changed much in four hundred years.

A few books I really enjoyed that made this time period really accessible:
The Weaker Vessel – Antonia Fraser
Buckingham: The Life and Political Career of George Villiers – Roger Lockyer
Shakespeare’s Restless World – Neal McGregor
The White King – Leanda de Lisle
The Killers of the King – Charles Spencer
Lucy Apsley Hutchinson's signature

And the original source for my novels:
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson – Lucy Hutchinson

AW: The research has certainly paid off - I felt that the seventeenth-century world was beautifully portrayed. I believe you are currently hard at work with Book 3. How far do you envisage taking the series?

EStJ: Book 3 is well underway, and as a first draft, I have a beginning, middle and end. Hoorah! You have to write that way with biographical historical fiction. This book is intended to complete the stories on this generation of the family – Lucy, Allen and Luce. However, a few new family members have decided to join the party (such as Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, and John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester), and they may decide to be the basis for another book. I took my inspiration on “Chronicles” as a title from Narnia – the stories don’t all have to be sequential, and people can come and go. I’ll just keep writing for the love of it. Who knows – maybe the medieval St.Johns will come clamoring next!

I asked Elizabeth if she could send me a picture of the magnificent Lydiard House, and here it is, in all its glory: 

Connect with Elizabeth on her website:
and on Facebook:

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Review & Giveaway: Silk and the Sword by Sharon Bennett Connolly

What an ingenious concept: to examine the lives of and the roles played by the women related to the more familiar, male, characters involved in the events immediately before and after the Norman Conquest.

Silk and the Sword sensibly begins with events which far preceded those of 1066, giving the reader an introduction to the main families involved, and some background information which shows that we cannot take the events of 1066 in isolation.

This earlier history - of the powerful families of Mercia, Lady Godiva, the Godwines, and Queen Emma and both her husbands - is very familiar to me and if I'm honest there were times when I knew that there was more behind certain parts of the story, but that's me, that's not most folk. I have just had a history of Mercia published, so all my research is still very fresh in my mind. For those who are new to this period, or even those who aren't, there is plenty of meat on the bones of the story. 

Harald's wife Elisiv of Kiev,
daughter of Yaroslav the Wise
Does this mean though that there were no surprises in the book for me and nothing new to learn? Far from it. All the well-known women are here, as one would expect - Emma, Edith of Wessex, Edith 'Swanneck' - but so too are the wives of Harald Hardrada. I knew nothing about these women and I thoroughly enjoyed being whisked across the sea to learn about those close to the man described here as 'the wild card in the events of 1066'. It's easy to forget, because of his ultimate defeat, that he was a powerful ruler whose success in England, had it come, would have seen England absorbed into a Scandinavian empire. I had little idea about his royal pedigree (stretching back through his mother's line to the first king of Norway) nor, indeed, that Harald was married to two women at the same time! 

With the inclusion of Matilda of Flanders even the most ardently pro-Saxon reader will be forced to look at things from a different perspective and Gundrada de Warenne, someone I've not read about more than in passing, is given a chapter of her own and the stories behind her alleged parentage fully explored.

What I do know, because of the book that I'm currently writing, is that it is very difficult to format a book like this. Great care has been taken to skilfully extract these women from the general narrative and talk about them in isolation, whilst keeping the facts of their lives in context. 

Inevitably there is crossover, but rather than repeating herself, the author simply signposts where we are, and that we've been here before, but now we're with a different woman and we're looking at things from a different woman's perspective.

The author is keen for us to share her knowledge and interest in all the women, although I suspect she might have her favourites. Whilst she gives sympathetic and even-handed treatment to them all, I felt that there was added affection when it came to the poignancy of Edith Swanneck's tale and of Gytha, mother of the Godwine brood.

This was an ambitious project, beautifully executed and yes, as I've said, much of it very familiar to me. But the genius touch was to incorporate the stories of women from other countries because actually, it's completely logical. If you're telling the story of the women of 1066 then of course we need to know about the wives of Harald Hardrada and William of Normandy. This is where I was on less familiar ground and fascinating it was, too.

This book is a light, easy read, but it's also full of depth. Whether you are reading about these events for the first time or with a working knowledge of them, the lead-up to and the aftermath of the Conquest, with chapters entitled, for example, 'Grief and Sufferings', give an altogether different viewpoint on proceedings.

I was privileged to receive a pre-publication copy of Silk and the Sword but one lucky winner can also receive a free copy. Sharon is giving away a hardback copy of the book to readers worldwide. Simply leave a comment below - Please don't forget to leave your contact details! - and one name will be chosen at random at 7pm GMT Wednesday 21st November 2018

Friday, 21 September 2018

The Perils of Research

It should not have been a surprise, that the photo-research side of my writing would be perilous. The signs were there. Way back when my kids were small, there was an incident at Dunstanburgh Castle. It’s a windy old place at the best of times, and I do recall availing myself of the facilities, a portaloo in this case, and feeling that at any moment the entire cabinet would take off, and that I’d be sitting on a very different kind of throne in full view of all the visitors. 

But the bit we all remember, and which is seared into the memories of my emotionally-scarred offspring, was the walk back to the car park along the blustery headland. I shouted to the two elder ones to grab hold of their younger sister, and at one point she was horizontal, blowing like a flag, her hair slapping round her face as vicious as any cat o’ nine tails. 

Attribution Link

There was also the search for the old church in Wales which involved three separate attempts, a conversation in Welsh with a man who looked as if he’d been rejected from the film The Deliverance for looking too menacing, and a pas de deux with several metres of barbed wire fence.

So, imagine my hubby’s delight when I announced that I needed to go on location to take photos to accompany my new book.

We began with high hopes. I simply wanted to get to a particular town in the Cotswolds. How hard could that be? Very, as it turned out. We probably, as the old adage goes, started from the wrong place. We ended up asking directions from a local mechanic, who smiled and told us that the best way was to take the local ‘shortcut’. 

I concede that, as the crow flies, it probably was the shortest route. But it did involve a 1:3 climb on roads just wide enough for a children’s tricycle, and with the occasional hairpin bend thrown in just to make the journey more interesting when the hopeful traveller becomes too complacent. We overshot the junction and had to pull into the local golf club, at which point I caught the expression of yearning on hubby’s face, and for a moment his forlorn dream of an amble down the fairways even seemed appealing to me.

When we finally got to the town I thought the obvious thing to do, in order to locate which of the pub’s walls had been built from the stones of the medieval abbey, was to ask. Turns out, not everyone knows about Anglo-Saxon architecture and where to trace lumps of stone relocated in the last but one millennium. Astonishing! Now, if I’d wanted to know all the types of beer they served, I’d have been okay. Hubby did not share my surprise that a pub landlord might know more about the contents of his pub’s barrels than of the stones used to build the cellar he kept them in.

I did eventually find a collection of abbey stones, which are now kept as part of an exhibition at nearby Sudeley Castle, but not before a kind lady at the Tourist Information Office told me that ‘If you’d like to see the well, just carry on up the hill after you’ve visited Sudeley.’

Did I want to see the well? The well where the funeral procession stopped on its way to bury a poor little murdered boy-king (allegedly)? Yes, I did! I told Hubby the story - that this little king had purportedly been murdered on the orders of his sister, and that a dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peter’s in Rome, alerting people to the whereabouts of the little boy’s body. It was found, and taken back to the abbey for burial. When the evil sister saw the funeral procession, she chanted a psalm backwards and her eyes fell out. 

Given that the problem with writing about the Anglo-Saxon era is that there is very little left in the way of buildings, I’m keen to visit any site with even the vaguest connection to my writing. And besides, the publisher needed photos and I’m nothing if not dutiful. Just carry on up the hill, the lady had said. Well, it was certainly a hill. I saw a sign to a house and farm which had a similar name to that of the murdered king. Surely this was the spot? This may also come as no surprise, but my driver didn’t respond too well to the directive, ‘Pull over here!’ so he continued manoeuvring the car up the the bendy twisty hill until it was safe to pull in. I was sure that the drop onto the soft verge wouldn’t have damaged the car wheels but oddly he wasn’t convinced.

We walked back down the bendy twisty hill which did not have pavements yet did play host to a high number of vehicles, and went up the farm track. A woman with many dogs came to greet us. Hubby thought she said, ‘Can I help you?’, I thought she said, ‘What are you up to?’ and we both reckoned the dogs were saying ‘One step nearer and we will rip your faces off.’

She gave us the good news first. Yes, she knew where the well was. Then she gave us the bad news: it was five miles across the fields in the other direction. But instinct told me that the farm and adjoining cottage wouldn’t have been named after the murdered little king without good reason. We chose to press on. And sure enough, less than 50 metres from the house, we found it. Just one, tiny, weeny problem. The ground was covered with sheep poo, and the path was overgrown with waist-high nettles. And when I say waist-high, I’m measuring them against my 6 ft tall husband. Frankly, I’m amazed he didn’t divorce me on the spot. But I got my photo!

I thought our trip to the northeast would be much easier. For one thing, it’s slightly closer to home, and for another, I knew that the site I wished to visit had been extensively excavated. I remembered seeing the sign at the entrance, and I was sure that there would be something to see. In the seventh century the Northumbrians kings had a magnificent palace on this site. Goodness knows how they got there in the first place because we had to drive round the side of a huge hill/mountain (600-ish metres, if memory serves). There was little in the way of signage but I knew the site would be obvious. This time, given that the road was straight and traffic-free, Hubby responded a little more speedily to my ‘Pull over now!’. And yes, there was the site entrance sign:

And this is what we saw.

But I got my photo!

My book came out on Sep 15 and I’m rather pleased with the colour plate section. The photos speak of calm, of quiet, of historic landscapes and ancient waterways. Hubby knows the truth though. He mutters darkly about writers staying at their desks where they belong. 

[all photos by and copyright of the author unless otherwise attributed]

Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom is available from 


Amberley Publishing

Book Depository (Free worldwide shipping)

Thursday, 13 September 2018

4 Questions, 3 Pics, 2 Links: Nicky Moxey

Continuing our monthly series, where I ask authors four questions and ask them to supply three pics and two links, this month it's the turn of Nicky Moxey:

Hi! Who are you? 
Hi! My name is Nicky Moxey; I'm a British author-cum-amateur archaeologist living in Suffolk, UK.

What do you write about? 
I mostly write about things that I come across via the archaeology or in the historical record. My first historical novel, Sheriff and Priest, came about because I found a large lead sheet whilst metal detecting; figuring out what it was led me down some fascinating research alleys. Eventually I knew it was a roof tile from a priory, not marked on the map; and that the founder was a local boy-come-good who had been given 1,000 acres to set it up by none other than the King's mistress. What?!! Why? That sealed my fate for the next few years - how could I not write the novel?

I'm currently editing the sequel, which I hadn't planned on writing at all - but the story of why the priory had been moved lock, stock and barrel from its original location to where it is on the map today turned out to be just as interesting!

I have published a series of children's short stories about other things that inspire me - a Viking ship prow, for instance, or a chicken-sized feathered dinosaur, or a poorly-executed karate kick. They're great fun to write, and I want to do three more and wrap the set up at nine.

There's also a Bronze Age lady called Anya scowling at me with her arms crossed, toe tapping, waiting for me to give her some attention. She's part of the Historical Novel Society's current anthology, Distant Echoes, but apparently that's not good enough, she wants to be in a novel too. Real soon now, Anya - I promise!

Which character will we love to love and why? Which character will we love to hate and why?
I love Wimer the Chaplain, the Sheriff and Priest above, and I hope you will too! I'll tell you a secret - there's an old oak stump on the priory's foundation site which, if you squint, looks like a monk - and that's where I go to chew over all my troubles. It somehow helps enormously that I know him very well - I've seen his handwriting in the Pipe Rolls, for instance, when he wrote his resignation letter; and I love that he chose a tiny cormorant drying its wings as his personal seal, just as he would have seen them doing on the local river when he was a boy. I can talk to him without anyone hearing and without him answering back!

As to characters to hate - injustice, arrogance and assumption of automatic privilege are things that make me seethe. Thomas a'Becket's actions in the first book are despicable (and true); King John's my baddie in the sequel. I did allow myself one scene that's a pure flight of fancy there; but I'm sure he would have been just as nasty if it had occurred to him!

Nicky's Amazon Page
Wimer's Facebook Page

Monday, 3 September 2018

IndieBRAG Novel Conversations: A New Series

So, you've written a novel. For whatever reason - and there could be many - you have decided to self-publish. 

That doesn't make you less of a writer; that makes you an Indie writer. Which means you can submit your book to IndieBRAG.

What does this mean? Well, as their mission statement says, they aim to discover 'talented self-published authors and help them give their work the attention and recognition it deserves.'

When your book is submitted, it will go through a rigorous process during which the IndieBRAG readers will read and assess your book, checking it against a list of criteria.

Given that not all books are accepted, those authors who then go on to receive the BRAG Medallion can say that their book has been held up to scrutiny and can wear the badge with pride. The BRAG Medallion is a mark of quality.

And it doesn't stop there. Authors are invited to write articles for the IndieBRAG blog, there are opportunities for interviews and now there is a new initiative.

Every two weeks, Indie author and champion Helen Hollick will be presenting interviews with characters from Medallion-winning books.

The first of these Novel Conversations will be published on Tuesday 4 September 2018 and will feature a character from one of the books of multi BRAG winner Anna Belfrage, Matthew Graham, from her award-winning time-slip series, The Graham Saga.

And look out for a conversation with a certain Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians on October 12 😉

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Review: Pirates - Truth and Tales - by Helen Hollick

Let me start this review with a confession. I've not ever been a huge fan of pirates. I watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean film and couldn't even follow the plot. So I wasn't sure how I'd react to this book. 

I needn't have worried. For a start, the book sets the reader very straight about the difference between what we think we know about pirates, and the historical truth.

Ms Hollick has written a series of novels about pirates, or, more correctly, about a particular pirate: Jesemiah Acorne. No one could, or should, write historical novels without doing thorough research, and it's clear that the author has done her homework.

This book gives a detailed, informative and interesting history of piracy. Sometimes of piracy in general, and sometimes giving short biographies of some of the more famous names - Calico Jack, Mary Read, Anne Bonny - and some less well-knowns - Jan Baert, William Fly.

But this book is not just a good, solid, well-researched book about the history of pirates. It is also a book which you can dip in and out of, including as it does excerpts from novels, recipes - for Damson Rum, yum! - sea shanties, a glossary of pirate 'speak', of terminology, and lists of pirates' ships and their colours.

Packed full of interesting information, the book gives the reader plenty of  'Well, I didn't know that!' moments. I rather regret that I was on my own when I was reading it, because there were many times when I wanted to say to someone, 'Did you know the origin of the phrase...' 

There were many times when I also chuckled aloud. Not just at the information, but at the light delivery. Ms Hollick is such an enthusiastic writer, and the book's tone is warm, friendly, but never less than informative.

Every aspect of this life is explored - the depiction of pirates in film, television and novels, what 'gaol' meant, the difference between sailors and tars, how they navigated across the seas. We even learn why pirates all seem to be portrayed as speaking in the traditional 'arrr' way. It's all fascinating stuff.

Ms Hollick has pulled off a difficult feat, giving us solid history and an accessible and highly entertaining read. So, although I began thinking I wasn't a fan of pirates, I can't recommend this book highly enough. It even gives a history of rum. Cheers!

Helen recently took off on a voyage of her own, not across the high seas, but across the blogosphere. She weighed anchor on this blog on August 3rd, where she talked about the Vikings. You can read that post HERE where you'll also find links to all the other ports of call on her voyage.

And you can buy Pirates, and all of Helen's novels at

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

4 Questions, 3 Pictures, 2 Links: Loretta Livingstone

Continuing our monthly series, where I ask authors four questions and ask them to supply three pics and two links, this month it's the turn of Loretta Livingstone:

Hi, who are you?
My name is Loretta Livingstone. I'm a British author living in the beautiful Chiltern Hills with my husband and cat.

What do you write about?
I now write fiction set in the twelfth century with a dash of time travel. I used to write more contemporary stuff - but that's another story.

Which character will we love to love, and why?
I hope you'll love my medieval abbess, Hildegarde of Sparnstow. A time traveller herself, she has appeared in my first two books (Out of Time and A Promise to Keep) and will be in several more. She's been living in the twelfth century for over thirty years now and missed drinking tea dreadfully until she found a secret supplier, although you won't hear about that in my next book. She's in her fifties with a great understanding of the human heart, an unusual sense of humour (for a medieval nun) and nothing much phases her - except when the occasional relative from her own time manages to show up (A Promise to Keep).

Which character will we love to hate, and why?
Oh, I'm sure you'll love to hate Prince John. He just can't help himself - although he does like to help himself - to lands and ladies given half a chance. 

Thanks so much for talking us today Loretta!

Here are Loretta's two links: