If I was going to write a series of novels set in Dark Ages Britain, then I badly needed a story, and I happened to find a compelling one almost as soon as I began my research. It all began in the year 655, when the King of Mercia, Penda – at the time, the most powerful lord in the country – rallied his allies to launch a war against the Northumbrians. The latter had hoped to regain their former dominance, but had also sought to avoid war, offering great wealth to King Penda to try and convince him to withdraw his forces. This did not succeed, and he pressed home his attack, culminating in the Battle of Winwaed. A battle that Penda – who had up to that point never lost a war – lost. He was killed, as were almost all of his followers. Many kingdoms died that day, their royal families destroyed forever, and the Northumbrians regained their dominance over the land.
Not for long, though. Three years later, Penda's young son, Wulfhere, led a revolt with the assistance of three great ealdormen which drove the Northumbrians out of Mercia, and ultimately he would even eclipse the greatness of his father. And there we have the extent of the historical record of this period, essentially – very little is known about this time, a brief blip in Mercian overlordship. Nevertheless, there are several elements that immediately attracted my attention.
The first is the time period itself; we're in the middle of the 7th century AD, right at the time where the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms were establishing themselves. This particular moment is the time when many of the smaller kingdoms died out, and the great Heptarchy began to form, a series of larger kingdoms that would last well into the time of the Vikings as independent states. This period hasn't really been well covered by novels – off-hand, I can't think of any. So it seems like nice fertile ground to cover.
The second is the story. There is a great battle, where the King is killed, and the son is forced into exile. There are lots of other bits and pieces as well – an older son who is a puppet king, married to the daughter of the Northumbrian King, who reigns for a short time. The Welsh King who retreats on the eve of the great battle, blamed for the defeat. The heir going into hiding, vanishing for three years until reappearing to lead his people – right down to the three ealdorman, figures who appear in history for this brief moment before vanishing again. That's an epic story if I ever heard it!
The third is the rest of the land. There are a lot of other bits and pieces going on at this time – important rulers dying during this period, lots of unrest, and I can't help but consider that all of these elements are likely related in some way. It was a time of turmoil, and those are always of interest to a writer. It also gives opportunities to roam around the landscape to a lot of interesting places, a lot of interesting peoples – a whole wide-ranging world to explore. Definitely a plus!
So, now the focused research begins, and I essentially go back to university for a month or so! I've got all the books I need – either here, or a couple still on the way – so I'm going to be hunting down for the specific elements to prepare the full outline of what I am currently plotting out at a four book series. This means looking over some maps – and here I expect Google Earth to be a tremendous asset to me, because in many cases I'm going to be able to look at the landscape myself without having to go there, and most importantly, look at the topography. It means going back over sources such as Bede and the Welsh Annuals, to come up with a timeline of the period. (Something like 650-660 should be more than sufficient – I want to know what was happening in Britain, and where.)
Names are obviously most important, coming up with a list of dramatis personae. The big and the not so big, but if they are recorded, I want to have then down in case I need them. Obviously, I'm also going to have to make an awful lot of names up, but there are plenty of sites with nice lists that I can scavenge without too much trouble. The primary consideration here is refreshing my memory of the situation. I've been reading over the subject for the last few months; I have the luxury now of being able to take a month of concentrated study – while I'm doing the Conan reviews, which will resume tomorrow. As soon as I feel I am ready, I will begin my work!
They'll be a couple of research trips as well, naturally. The British Museum is on my list for, well, tomorrow. A fantastic place to get a sense of history, and while their main Anglo-Saxon hall is currently being refurbished, the Sutton Hoo objects are still on display, and I'll be taking a good long look at them and taking some photographs – which naturally I shall share on the blog! The Ashmolean in Oxford has an even more extensive collection of artefacts, and I'll be going there early next month to take a peek.
As a little sneak preview, the current working titles and blurbs of the four books....
Book 1: The Battle of Winwaed
Eadbert, scion of a royal house, is serving in the retinue of Peada, heir to the throne of Mercia, on campaign with his father, the feared King Penda. With treachery and deceit at every turn, he must survive the greatest catastrophe to face Mercia since the departure of the Romans, and navigate the tides of intrigue in a desperate fight to survive.
Book 2: The Dragon's Lament
King Cadafael, once a renowned warrior, now known as Battle-Shirker, sits uneasily on his throne, knowing that the architect of his doom, Eadbert, now seeks revenge for his betrayal at Winwaed. With armies massing on the border and raiders harrying him from the shores of Ulster, and his own people rising against him, what will become of his Kingdom of Gwynedd?
Book 3: The Lost Heir
News has reached Eadbert that hope for Mercia let lives; a son of Penda is alive, and is free. To find him, he must gather together a crew and sail for the ends of the earth, his enemies in pursuit, hoping that he can find the young boy, Wulfhere, in time to save his life from those who wish him to disappear forever.
Book 4: Shadows in the Dark
A dark figure haunts the meadhalls of the great men of Mercia, a figure that speaks of a time when they bowed to no foreign master and won their own destiny on the field of battle. Eadbert attempts to rally the allies he has won and the last of the Mercian war-bands for a final glorious struggle that will see Mercia free – or vanquished forever.