James Aitcheson was born in Wiltshire in 1985 and studied History at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he developed a special interest in the Middle Ages. Particularly interested in the Anglo-Saxon period and the Norman Conquest, a time of tremendous change that proved to be one of the biggest turning points in English history, Sworn Sword was his first novel, and the first in his Conquest series. Ben Kane, bestselling author of the Spartacus novels, describes Aitcheson as “A terrific writer … Aitcheson’s portrayal of eleventh century England is vibrant and authentic. Rarely have I been so transported into the world of the medieval knight and his environs. Full of intrigue and vivid, realistic battles, this accomplished debut novel sets a high standard indeed.”
Aitcheson told Writing.ie more about his latest novel Knights of the Hawk: “1066, the year of the Battle of Hastings, is undoubtedly one of the most famous dates in British, and arguably world history. The story of the Norman Conquest of England is one of kings and pretenders, invasion and resistance: fertile ground for historical fiction. It’s a fascinating period that has held my interest for over a decade, first as an undergraduate studying History at Cambridge and more recently as a novelist.
The aftermath of that fateful year, as the Normans struggled to assert their mastery and hold down a country rife with rebellion, forms the backdrop for my Conquest Series. Beginning with Sworn Sword in early 1069, when the Normans suffered their first major defeats on English soil, the novels chart the adventures of Tancred, a maverick Norman knight seeking vengeance after his lord is murdered by English rebels.
Knights of the Hawk, newly published in paperback (Arrow), is the latest installment in the saga. Set in 1071 and beginning in the East Anglian fens where the Normans are besieging the last rebel stronghold, it sees Tancred casting off some of the shackles that have hitherto bound him, and striking out on his own for the first time in the series. His travels take him overseas, firstly to Dublin and then to the Hebrides, as he hunts down the Viking warlord who kidnapped his love. Just as in the previous two novels, battles and betrayals abound, but this time it’s personal.
Taking Tancred beyond England, however, presented me with fresh challenges. Before I begin writing each novel, I spend several weeks immersing myself in the history.. This time, however, I had to open myself up to entirely new areas of study. Although early medieval Ireland and Scotland were broadly familiar from my undergraduate studies, I hadn’t explored them in detail.
When it comes to research, my approach as a novelist is as rigorous as it would be if I were writing a non-fiction history. Before I allow myself to write about a subject, I need to have a thorough grasp of all its ins and outs, the debates surrounding it and the latest scholarship. To capture an authentic sense of what it would have been like to walk the streets of eleventh-century Dublin, I therefore needed to understand not just how the city developed from its Norse origins, but also to put it in context by getting to grips with the history of Viking Age Ireland as a whole.
To research all of that more or less from scratch was a major undertaking. Naturally only a small fraction of what I learnt actually made it into the finished novel. From my point of view, though, it was all absolutely necessary, since without that comprehensive survey of the period I wouldn’t have felt comfortable setting pen to paper. Readers of historical fiction are always looking to learn something about the subject in question, and since I consider myself as much a historian as a novelist, I feel I have a responsibility to do my homework as thoroughly as possible.
So, what was Dublin like in the mid-eleventh century? Then as now the largest town in Ireland, it was a rich and thriving port on the sea route to Iceland and Norway, inhabited by Irish and Norsemen alike and representing a combination of both cultures. But it also had its less savoury side, being one of the principal slave-markets in north-western Europe as well as a haven for mercenaries, pirates and outlaws of various provenances. In the aftermath of 1066, it was also the refuge of choice for some of the many Englishmen deprived of their landholdings by the Normans.
At that time the city’s ruler was Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, king of Leinster and claimant to the high-kingship, who had a history of aiding English outlaws. In 1051 he received at his court no less than the future king of England, Harold Godwineson, and his brother after they were ousted from their earldoms and forced into exile. Following the Battle of Hastings he afforded similar treatment to Harold’s sons too, even supporting their abortive attempts to invade England and reclaim the throne.
The threat of continued Irish-sponsored attacks upon English shores was taken seriously by William the Conqueror. So seriously, in fact, that after Diarmait’s death in 1072 he appears to have actively sought an alliance with Toirrdelbach ua Briain, Diarmait’s protégé and de facto successor, in order to put an end to such raids and allow him to concentrate his attentions elsewhere. Anglo-Irish trade was encouraged and there are tantalising hints that William and Toirrdelbach worked together in military affairs too, co-ordinating their efforts in expeditions against the Welsh. The impact of the Norman Conquest was felt not just in England but throughout these isles, and that’s one of the things I’ve tried to show in Knights of the Hawk, by allowing Tancred to venture more widely afield.
And the story isn’t over yet. Although Knights of the Hawk brings to a close one particular arc of Tancred’s saga, he still has ambitions to fulfil and scores to settle. The next instalment in the series might well find him back in Ireland, fighting in the service of Toirrdelbach as he stakes his claim to the high-kingship. Or else he might choose to seek his fortune on the Continent: the Normans were active as adventurers and mercenaries all across Europe in this period, including in Italy and in the Byzantine Empire.
There are plenty of possibilities, and right now I’m not discounting any of them. All I know is that Tancred will ride again before too long. For the moment I’m working on something a little different. Again set during the Middle Ages, it will revolve around an entirely new set of characters. It’s still in its early stages, so I can’t say too much about it yet, but the ideas are flowing and needless to say I’m very excited about it.
(c) James Aitcheson
About Knights of the Hawk
The third novel in the compelling Conquest series (1066: The Bloody Aftermath) from the author of Sworn Sword. Knights of the Hawk is perfect for fans of Bernard Cornwall, Simon Scarrow and Ben Kane.