Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

Meet my main character

I have been tagged by the talented M.J.Logue in a Meet My Main Character bloghop, giving me a golden opportunity to introduce you to Adam de Guirande, protagonist of my upcoming series set in 14th century England. As an aside, it is interesting to note that M.J.Logue’s Hollie Babbitt lives through times of uncertainty and fear (his story is set during the English Civil War) very much because of an inept king. My Adam has the same problem – a kingdom with a weak leader is a kingdom that quickly sinks into the quagmires of rebellion and unrest.

Adam de Guirande is very much a creation of my fertile mind, but the historical events he lives through are anything but, a mere decade in which England was rocked by a power struggle of gigantic proportions between Edward II and his disgruntled barons.

Adam was unfortunate in his parents, but was luckier in his lord. A young Baron Mortimer discovers a badly beaten Adam one night at Ludlow Castle, and decides to take the lad into his household, first as a rather scruffy page, then as a somewhat more useful squire, and, finally, as a belted knight – Mortimer’s man through and through.

Being Mortimer’s man in the early 1320s come with its drawbacks – like being honour-bound to participate in a rebellion against the king that eventually fails. In consequence, things very quickly spiral out of control for Adam and his wife, Kit.

Very briefly, Edward II had problems with his barons for most of his reign, to a large extent due to his tendency to fall under the sway of one male favourite after the other. In many ways a tragic figure, Edward II was a man whose many talents did not include kingship, and he made quite the mess out of things – further exacerbated by his Plantagenet temper and his disregard for promises made to his barons.

When my story opens, Edward II has a close relationship with the Despensers – father and son, plus the wife of the son, who also happens to be Edward’s niece. The Despensers and the Mortimers are implacable enemies, out to feather their nest at each other’s expense. Hugh Despenser and Roger Mortimer are both extremely capable, both intelligent and ambitious. In many ways, they’re both ideal royal servants, but instead of harnessing them to his cause, Edward II offers preferment to Despenser – now and then at the expense of Mortimer.

Mortimer doesn’t trust Hugh Despenser further than he can throw him – a sentiment returned in full. After a year of provocation, Mortimer has had enough, and at the head of an army of disgruntled barons, he mows through Despenser land, creating havoc as he goes. He rides all the way to London, where his camped army is a sufficient deterrent for Edward II to agree to Mortimer’s terms which are, simply put, to pardon Mortimer for his rebellion and exile the Despensers.

At the time, Edward has no choice to comply, but as we all know, revenge is a dish best served cold, and Edward has no intention of letting Mortimer win. Ever. And so the stage is set, dear people, for a bloody conflict that will ravage England for years.

As I think you’ve gathered by now, Adam’s story involves a number of historical figures, first and foremost among them Baron Mortimer, Prince Edward, Queen Isabella and Hugh Despenser. But centre stage is taken by Adam himself, accompanied by his wife. Not that Adam particularly wants to take centre stage. In fact, Adam has no hunger for fame, no desire for more land – all he wants is to be left alone to live out his life in peace. Not about to happen when a kingdom is collapsing around you – even less so, if you’re as capable as Adam is, a natural leader of men.

In the Shadow of the Storm is the first of a planned trilogy about Adam and Kit. It is planned for publication late autumn 2015.

Well, that was a bit about my WIP. I would now like to pass the baton to Prue Batten (nice rhyme, hey?), Irina Shapiro, Linda Root, Paula Lofting and Barbara Gaskell Denvil.

Like mother, like daughter – sinful ladies in the 17th century

So here I was, believing our historical Swedish princesses had, for the most part, acted with utmost propriety. In fact, other than the (in)famous Cecilia Vasa (and I must admit to being very fond of this hell-raising, opinionated 16th century woman, as demonstrated by this post) I lived with the impression that the rest were boring and conventional. Turns out I was wrong – Swedish sin has its roots in the distant past.

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Christina

In a previous post, I presented Queen Christina of Sweden (more here), that enigmatic woman who became queen at six, abdicated her throne at twenty-eight and went on to strike terror in the heart of her Protestant countrymen by then converting to the Catholic faith. And no, dear people, you can relax. I am not about to give you a torrid love story starring Christina. (Although one wonders at times, about her infatuation with Cardinal Decio Azzolino – but that is an entirely different story)

As a child, Christina was fortunate enough to have her paternal aunt, Katarina of Sweden, looking out for her. Christina’s mother, Maria Eleonora, was not the most caring of parents (more here), and several were the occasions when Christina sported bruises from odd falls and “accidents”. When Christina was ten, the Swedish Privy Council decided Maria Eleonora’s influence was detrimental to Christina’s future role as ruling monarch, so the Queen Mother was forcibly separated from her daughter and sent off in exile. From that day on, Christina’s care passed to her aunt, and in one fell swoop Christina’s life became substantially happier.

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Karl Gustav

Katarina of Sweden had her own brood of children – Christina’s cousins. First and foremost, the dashing Karl Gustav …erm…well, Christina definitely found him dashing, but also Eleonora and Maria Eufrosyne, both of them of an age with Kristina. From being an only child, Christina had suddenly acquired siblings, and the three girls grew close, despite their disparate temperaments.

In the 17th century, women were not exactly given all that many options when it came to their adult lives. For Protestant girls of noble birth, there was only one alternative: to marry, and marry well. Up to the time of their marriage, the well-bred Protestant girl was expected to remain chaste – and this very much applied to Swedish princesses as no one wanted a repeat of the major scandal caused several decades earlier by Princess Cecilia of Sweden and her romping about with a young lordling.

Christina was never the type to do much romping, and as many of you know, she never married (she was fortunate enough to be a ruling queen, ergo she could take her own decisions). But she filled her court with musicians and poets, with extravagant masques and people from all over Europe. Elegant Frenchmen, passionate Italians, a handful of Spaniards, Germans, Swedish noblemen – they all attended on the young queen and her cousins.

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Eleonora

While Christina devoted her energies and considerable intellect to the secret study of Catholicism with her newfound Spanish friends, her cousin Eleonora was far more interested in the musicians – and in particular a talented French lute-player called Beschon. Hours were whiled away studying the gentleman’s various instruments, one thing led to the other, and our Eleonora was no longer chaste, instead she stole away to spend as much time as possible with her handsome lover.

Problem was, Eleonora was betrothed. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Already in 1643, Eleonora’s father had signed the contracts joining his seventeen-year-old daughter to Fredrik of Hessen-Eschwege, a.k.a. Fritz. Ironically enough, there had been concerns raised as to the prospective groom’s morals. The Privy Council concluded the man was flighty and possessed of a roving eye, but it was supposed he would settle down, and so the betrothal went through, albeit that the wedding was postponed until 1646.

In June of 1646, the marriage contracts were signed. Early in September, Eleonora was led to the altar by her father. Bye-bye romantic Beschon, hello and welcome Flighty Fritz. Whether the marriage started off badly is unknown, but in January of 1647 things definitely went down the drain. A weeping, penitent Eleonora kneeled before her husband and admitted she was pregnant – by another man. Oh dear, oh dear. That ancient hullabaloo concerning Princess Cecilia paled in comparison. Here we had a Swedish princess who had not only fooled about but also been stupid enough to become pregnant – with a lowly musician, no less!

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Fritz

Fritz forgave his errant wife – or so he said. But he told Karl Gustav the whole sorry tale and was ordered to shut up, because no one needed a major scandal, least of all Karl Gustav who was second in line to the Swedish throne should Christina die without issue. Whether Fritz did as he was told or not is unknown, but in a matter of weeks, “everyone” knew Eleonora had cuckolded her husband. The 17th century equivalent of Hello! and In Touch had a field day, and the Fritz-Eleonora marriage went on to become most unhappy, for all that she presented her husband with five legitimate children over as many years.

Beschon loved his Eleonora, and in February of 1647 he sent her a long letter and a composition dedicated to her. Why he did this is unclear. Was he hoping to convince her to leave her husband and steal away with him? Not about to happen – the scandal was bad enough as it was, and Eleonora had neither the means nor the opportunity to leave her humiliated husband. Beschon’s letter did not exactly make Fritz a happy man – which was why Eleonora promptly handed over the correspondence to her brother. As to the baby, it was born in late spring but died. In some ways a relief, I suspect, however grief-struck Eleonora was by the loss of her daughter.

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Karl XI as a child

In 1655, Fritz died in battle. By then Eleonora was living in present-day Germany, and she was too ashamed of her past to return to Sweden. Instead, she sent one of her daughters, Juliana, to be raised at the Swedish court. The little girl was considered a prospective bride for her cousin, the future Karl XI. Maybe Eleonora hoped to make good by becoming the mother-in-law of the king, maybe that was why she made it her mission to lead a life of virtue, devoid of any entertainment in the form of men. Eleonora never remarried, despite being not quite thirty when Fritz died…

In Sweden, pretty Juliana was a success, and her royal little cousin was clearly very fond of her. Could one hear wedding bells tolling in the future? Maybe, although a king’s marriage was a political rather than a personal event, and Juliana came with little in the way of power and wealth. Obviously, Juliana got tired of waiting – or maybe she didn’t fancy her younger, serious cousin. Whatever the case, Juliana looked elsewhere for fun and games.

One day, while out riding in a carriage with the Queen Mother, she rather abruptly gave birth to a son, the result of a liaison with an older nobleman. Major, major scandal. A lot of vicious gossip, along the lines of like mother, like daughter. Juliana and the baby were sent packing, and for several years Juliana languished on a country estate. I’m thinking Eleonora was less than pleased. In her new-found piety, I don’t think she found it in her to be supportive of her daughter, no matter that she herself had been as foolish a quarter of a century earlier.

Some years later, Juliana gave birth to yet another son, this time the result of a love affair with her house keeper’s son, a certain Jean Jacques Marchand. From bad to worse, one could say – a princess (well, almost) rolling about in the hay with the Dutch ambassador’s clerk? What to do with this wild and wayward woman, how to control her lusts? In a Protestant country the option of sending Juliana to a convent did not exist, and the king couldn’t exactly lock her up for fornication.

Juliana herself knew exactly what she wanted: she wanted her clerk and nothing else. So she wheedled and begged, she prostrated herself before her dour cousin, and finally Karl XI agreed to the marriage. He even gave Mr Marchand a courtesy title (but no lands to go with it. Karl XI was a stingy fellow) before rushing the newlyweds off to their new homeland, the Netherlands.

By all accounts, Juliana and her husband were well received by William, Prince of Orange. He even gave them a nice little estate on which to live and raise their children. A much happier ending, therefore, to Juliana’s transgressions than to Eleonora’s. Or was it? As I hear it, Juliana died in penury, and while I am romantic enough to believe being poor and in love is much better than being rich and unhappy, the realist in me laughs herself silly at this ridiculous statement. Love does not go far when it comes to feeding hungry children…

And so dear people, this little post comes to an end. Is there a moral somewhere? No, I don’t think so – well, beyond concluding that love can be a bummer, no matter in what time and age. On the other hand, who wants a world without love? It makes us soar, it makes us high, and sometimes it makes us crash and burn, but no matter what, it makes us feel, it makes us live. As Tennyson so eloquently put it, “it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Smart guy, Mr Tennyson.

Of old roads and dead men

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An old medieval road, no less

Whenever dear hubby wants to go off on some sort of excursion, he always dangles the carrot of history before my nose. Being a predictable sort, I always bite. (This, of course, leads me to consider just how much he has manipulated me throughout the years. Quite a lot, I suspect…)

Anyway, this time round he suggested we set off on a hike that would take us along an ancient medieval road. It would also, he said, lead us to something called Kastagropen (a deep crevice which, tradition has it, was used to dispose of old people in. One simply shoved them over the edge). Now, I know for a fact that my forebears did not throw the old and infirm off a cliff (phew!) but I was curious as to Kastagropen for an entirely other reason: this was where Swedish authorities purportedly hanged Danish rebels in the 17th century, leaving their rotting bodies to dangle like huge over-ripe fruit until they fell to the ground in pieces. This, unfortunately, does seem to be a true story.

So, off we went, with hubby throwing in yet another teaser. Once we’d done the medieval road and the Crevice of Death, we were going to hike to the Dead Village. Yet another cheerful little destination…

A short drive, a kilometer or so walking through the forest, and it was becoming quite apparent the road we were walking on was old – really old. I sort of shivered at the thought of all those ancient feet, shod in heavy wooden clogs for the most part, that had walked here before me, steadying the creaking wheel of their overloaded cart, pulling recalcitrant oxen along, or just dancing at the side of their loved one.

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The Preacher’s Pulpit

The road followed the bottom of the crevice, with ancient stone-bordered channels on both sides to lead off the water. The further we walked, the steeper the sides of the gorge became, until we were standing beneath something called The Preacher’s Pulpit. Anyone standing up there to address the people would be heard for miles. A perfect place for a rebellious Dane to call his people together and urge them to fight the Swedish invaders unto death. Just as perfect a place to display that same Dane, now hanging at the end of a noose…

Those 17th century Danish rebels went by the name of Snapphanar – this due to their preference for snaphance lock muskets (for more, see here). They were fighting for their right to the land, for their customs and language. The Swedish aggressors were less than impressed, and the captured rebels were tortured and killed in the most horrible ways to instill fear and obedience in the rest of the people. Seeing your man nailed to a church door and there left to die must be a terrifying experience. Watching your relatives have their limbs torn apart before they were hanged was quite the deterrent. And yet, people still hid the rebels, still held on to their Danish roots, which was why the Swedish authorities decided to do some deportation, bringing in good Swedish people to replace the Danish families sent off to Swedish Livland (present day Baltic States).

I slipped my hand into hubby’s as we stood craning or necks back under The Preacher’s Pulpit. For an instant, I could see the surrounding trees adorned by hanged corpses, I could hear the raucous sound of crows and rooks as they pecked at unseeing eyes, unfeeling faces. Ugh.

After this unsettling experience, we continued along the old road. The water in the ancient ditches leapt and burbled cheerfully, wrens and robins darted back and forth, and the spectres of those unfortunate 17th century rebels faded from my mind. Instead, we set off in search of the Dead Village.

This part of Sweden is a harsh land. The ground is littered with stone, the terrain is a collection of hills and crevices, of sudden jutting cliffs and boulders. To clear a field would have been back-breaking work, and the people who lived here were probably always staving of starvation, never being able to grow quite enough to see them comfortably through the winter. Twenty kilometres to the south, things change. The earth is rich and fertile, the ground undulates towards the sea. Whoever owned those lands, could count on plentiful harvests, in difference to the poor folk who inhabited the forests and complemented their sad little fields with lumber and pigs.

In the mid 19th century, many of these poor Swedish people took the decision to leave. America beckoned, promising virgin land ready for the plough, endless acres just waiting for a new owner. It also promised religious freedom, an unknown concept in Sweden where the Swedish Lutheran Church ruled absolute and did its best to squash any alternative religion, such as the Methodist Church or the Evangelists. (Religious freedom is a relatively new concept in Sweden, where Conventicle Laws existed until 1858)

In the poorer parts of Sweden, these new expressions of faith resonated with the people. In response, the Swedish Church fined and punished, making the poorer even poorer. A vicious circle that ultimately drove entire communities to sell off everything they had and set off for the land of hopes and dreams come true.

The Dead Village is one such community. The inhabitants took a collective decision to leave in the 1860s or so, and off they went, leaving their houses behind. In a terrain littered by stone, the village was crisscrossed by dry stone walls, testament to just how much stone and rocks had been moved off the narrow fields.

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Woods that once rang with the sound of axes, where boys chased after piglets and girls tended the precious cow, now lie silent. The wind soughing through the trees, the distant sound of water and birds – that’s all I could hear. A branch broke under my foot, a deer leaped off down a hillside, and the only thing that showed this was once inhabited land was the road beneath my feet – an old, old road – and the stone walls, now covered with moss. Nothing remained of the houses beyond the odd shallow indentation. Nothing remained of gardens and fields, nature having reclaimed its own. That’s how ephemeral our presence in this world is – give nature time, and it swallows back whatever we have wrested from it.

“Not these days,” my daughter said when we discussed this. “These days, we build in concrete.”
I merely smiled. A block of concrete left in the open will soon be perforated by grasses and dandelions, crumbling back into its basic components with the rain and the sun.

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All that remains…

To me, it is somehow comforting. Life is so much more than us, the Earth is so much more than us. We may think we are the pinnacle of creation, that whatever we build will stand forever and more, but this is just us succumbing to that most ancient of sins, hubris. I stood in the middle of the bright green beech forest and rested my hand on an ancient granite gatepost. This is what remained, a piece of standing rock. Everything else had returned to being what it was – before man, before ploughs and axes.

All in all, it was a good hike. A walk through centuries of history, through woods as constant now as they were then. A lesson in humility, bringing home just how short and precious our time on Earth is. Because once we die, we leave very little behind – beyond the dreams we’ve passed on to the coming generations and the hope that somewhere someone will remember us, maybe even speak our name. The people who once lived in the Dead Village are nameless today. The valiant Danish rebels are just as anonymous, casual facts in a history book, no more. But they lived – just like us – and they died – like all men do. And somewhere, someone wept and called their name.

Niece, cousin and wife rolled into one – meet Mariana

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Baltasar Carlos, Velázquez

After far too many posts outside of my favourite era, I feel an urge to return ”home”. The 17th century beckons, and I long for men in breeches and coats, lace collars and cuffs, for women with covering skirts, with their hair tucked out of sight. I long for the swaggering of young musketeers, for the determination of the people who crossed the seas to better themselves. So, dear 17th century, here I come!

I thought I’d begin this little 17th century frenzy with a post about a Spanish queen. Now, as many of you know, the 17th century is Spain’s Golden Age. El Siglo Dorado, as the Spanish themselves say, some of them with a somewhat crooked smile, as it is also the century that effectually bankrupted Spain, leaving it weak and economically unstable for centuries to come. How? Why? I hear you asking, and to keep this very brief and simplistic, the Golden Age is an explosion of art and culture, of exquisite paintings, of fantastic literature, of a court dripping with jewels – all of it paid for by the riches that came from overseas, from Spanish America.

Problem was, the Spanish imported the gold and silver, sent it on to (mostly) present day Netherlands to be converted into objects of beauty, and paid through their noses for the artisan’s added value. So, in actual fact, it was the goldsmiths of the Netherlands that amassed wealth. Plus, of course, it didn’t help that Spain was constantly at war, its huge sprawling empire attacked on all fronts by the greedy French, the belligerent Italians, the rebellious Flemish, the sneaky English and the back-stabbing Portuguese. Wherever Spain looked, it saw an enemy – well, more or less. More, as per the Spanish…

In actual fact, El Siglo de Oro is a gilded veneer on a society that was anything but golden, with rampant poverty in various parts of Spain, with the excessive wealth offered by the colonies controlled by a relatively small upper class. For the common man, there was nothing golden about 17th century Spain. It was as dark, dirty and dreary as the preceding centuries had been. For us modern people, the outpouring of cultural activity in El Siglo de Oro is a treasure trove. Probably because we don’t have to sleep with rats running over our faces, or live off bread and watery bean soup.

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Mariana and her brother, F Luyc

Anyway, before I get all carried away and turn this into a deep dive into the dark underbelly of the 17th century in general – being poor is never a good thing to be, no matter in what age, and the number of poor in Europe was substantially higher back then than now – allow me to introduce my leading lady – Mariana of Austria.

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Mariana’s mother, Felipe IVs sister, Maria Anna, Velázquez

Born in 1634 as Maria Anna, this young woman was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III and Maria Anna of Spain (to avoid confusion, she was therefore called Mariana). In keeping with Hapsburg tradition, Ferdinand and Maria Anna were closely related – they were first cousins, which meant that Mariana’s maternal grandmother also was her paternal great-aunt. Intermarriage, however, had been going on for ages, and this was a tradition the Hapsburgs saw no reason to break, which is why Mariana early on was selected as the future bride of her first cousin, Baltasar Carlos of Spain.

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Baltasar Carlos – Velázquez

Baltasar Carlos was the only son of Felipe IV of Spain. Despite several childbirths, Felipe IVs wife, Elizabeth of France, had failed in giving her husband more than the one precious son and one surviving daughter. The male heir was frequently portrayed – the equestrian painting by Velazquez that graces the top of this post is especially famous – and by all accounts Baltasar Carlos had it in him to be a good future king and a handsome husband. Except, of course, that he died of smallpox at the tender age of sixteen.

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Felipe IV, Velázquez

Oh dear, oh dear. Spain was left without an heir, Mariana was left without an intended. Being of a pragmatic nature, Felipe IV came up with an elegant solution, very much egged on by his sister: he could marry his little niece, thereby ensuring Mariana ended up Queen of Spain as promised. Everyone thought this was a splendid idea, and all that consanguinity further up the family tree was waved away as being irrelevant – after all, there were papal dispensations for each and every one of them.

What Mariana might have thought is unknown. From being promised to a young boy five years her senior, she was now to marry her uncle, almost thirty years older than her. Being a princess back then was not exactly a bed of roses – but Mariana had been raised to do her duty by her family, and in any case there was little she could do. So in October of 1649, not yet fifteen, she married Felipe IV. In July of 1651, she presented her husband with the first of their children, a little girl called Margarita Teresa. This little princess is the central figure in Velazquez’ masterpiece Las Meninas.

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Margarita Teresa, Velázquez

A girl, however, was not good enough. Felipe IV already had a daughter, Maria Teresa, who at the time was 13 or so, a mere four years Mariana’s junior. There was a growing opinion that Felipe should name his eldest daughter his heir – Spain had no Salic law, which meant a woman could inherit as well as a man – but Felipe was not about to give up hope of a son. The pressure was on, and as months became years with no sign of a royal pregnancy, one imagines Mariana grew increasingly nervous. After all, her husband had fathered multiple children – some of them on the wrong side of the blanket.

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Mariana at 19, Velázquez

Other than failing at her duty to deliver a male heir, Mariana was isolated at court, too young to be a valuable companion to her husband, too naïve to be included in any political discussions. She took solace in religion, becoming so devout it raised brows even in the extremely religious Spain. I imagine her praying and praying for that elusive son, weeping every time her period came – a symbol of her failure to deliver.

It took four years before the next royal baby entered the world in December of 1655. A girl. A sickly girl who died within 15 days. Felipe may have looked grim. Mariana may have been despondent. Did they comfort each other as well as they could? Who knows, but two years later, Mariana was delivered of a boy – a prince named Felipe after his father.

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Little Felipe Próspero, Velázquez

Little Felipe Próspero’s arrival allowed Felipe IV to conclude his negotiations of marriage for his eldest daughter. Maria Theresa was dispatched across the Pyrenees to marry Louis XIV (and here bride and groom were first cousins on BOTH sides) something Felipe IV could safely do now that he had a male heir. But Felipe Próspero was frail, and he also developed epilepsy. It seems both his parents were resigned to the fact that their little son’s hold on life was anything but robust.(And IMO, this portrait is among the best ever)

There was another pregnancy, another son – but Fernando Thomas died the same day he was born, in late 1658. Mariana and Felipe, so aware of their son’s failing health, were frantic for another son. In 1661, Mariana conceived again. At the same time, Felipe Próspero’s health took a turn for the worse. In a sad little drama, Mariana was to lose one child on November 1 of 1661, only to welcome a new son into the world on November 6. But this time, there was no denying there was something seriously wrong with the baby boy. Prince Carlos was to be the recipient of all the drawbacks of recurring incest, starting with the infamous Hapsburg jaw, mandibular prognathism so severe he couldn’t chew – or talk all that much.

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Carlos II – note the jaw

In 1665, Felipe IV died. The new king of Spain, Carlos II, was physically and mentally disabled (he couldn’t talk until the age of four, nor walk until he was ten) and was generally known as Carlos el Hechizado (Carlos the bewitched). Mariana assumed the role of regent, and one of the first things she oversaw was the send off of her daughter Margarita Teresa, who was destined to Vienna to marry Leopold, Mariana’s younger brother and future Hapsburg emperor. Yet another incestuous marriage, with Leopold being Margarita Teresa’s first cousin on her father’s side and maternal uncle. It’s no wonder that of four children only one daughter survived to bear a sickly son who died…

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Valenzuela by Coello

Mariana was not a competent regent. She was too unschooled in the political aspects of things, too unfamiliar with how the Spanish court worked. She relied heavily on favourites, first on a German Jesuit, later on the dashing Fernando de Valenzuela, rumoured to also be her lover. It didn’t help that her son was utterly dependent on her for everything, incapable of such simple things as keeping himself moderately clean.

In 1673, Mariana received the sad news that her daughter had died. It left her devastated – of all her pregnancies, all she had left was the son who was nothing but a huge disappointment. In 1675, her son reached his majority, and immediately a political struggle began between Mariana and her husband’s illegitimate son, Juan de Austria. Capable and robust, Juan had always been his father’s loyal servant until Mariana succeeded in discrediting him, hating that her husband should allow his bastard access to his royal person. Plus, Juan’s obvious vitality must have been a chafing thorn, a constant reminder that a mere actress had succeeded in giving Felipe IV what Mariana herself could not: a healthy son. During the last few years of Felipe’s life, he had therefore been estranged from his son, something Juan was very bitter about, having loved his father dearly. Now, Juan saw the opportunity to get his own back…

Juan’s first attempt to wrest power from Mariana failed, but in 1677 he succeeded, and Valenzuela was stripped of all his power and exiled to the Philippines. Mariana fled to Toledo, and over the coming three years Juan managed to restore some sort of capable government. Then, unfortunately, he died, and Mariana came into her own again. She was to remain in control for the rest of her life.

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Marie Louise, miniature by J Petitot

Seeing as Carlos II was a major disaster, the only hope left to Spain was to find him a wife and hope he would impregnate her with a healthy child. The girl chosen was Marie Louise de Orleans, niece to Charles II of England and Louis XIV. By all accounts a bright and intelligent young girl, she was sent off like a sacrificial lamb to marry the young man everyone in Europe considered a royal idiot. (For more on that, see here).

Carlos II adored his young wife. But no matter his efforts, there was no baby. All that inbreeding had affected his fertility as well. In 1689, Marie Louise died. There were rumours of poison, of Mariana wanting to rid herself of her barren daughter-in-law. Seems far-fetched, given how fond Mariana was of Marie Louise. A new bride was procured, one with whom Mariana had an anything but loving relationship. Maria Anna (they weren’t great on variation when it came to names back then) of Neuburg was a grasping German princess, who stole paintings from the royal collection and sent them to her family, who used her monumental temper to control her weak husband, and who in general made herself extremely unloved.

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Mariana in her old age

Mariana’s last few years were fraught. Constant conflicts with her overbearing daughter-in-law, constant shortage of funds, and then her son, so inept, so vulnerable. In 1696, Mariana succumbed to breast cancer. Her son would survive her another four years, and when he died in 1700, the Spanish branch of the Hapsburg family became extinct. Instead, Philippe, Duq d’Anjou, grandson to Louis XIV and Felipe IV’s daughter Maria Teresa, would ascend the Spanish throne as the first Bourbon king.

In many ways, Mariana’s life was a tragedy. Of all her children, only “the idiot” was left alive. She, whose duty it was to provide Spain with healthy heirs, had failed dismally, thereby allowing those rapacious French to claim the Spanish crown. But the little princess who was ordered to marry her uncle instead of her dead cousin did try – over and over again.

His mother’s hero – of an old letter

IMG_0104We found a letter in an old storage box. The old, hand-written type, with the odd little splotch of ink. The letter writer was accustomed to writing in longhand, made evident by the consistency of the writing over the six pages, and now and then she underlined certain words so as to really get her point across. It is dated November of 1915 – almost a hundred years ago. She was writing in Sweden, to a person in Sweden, and the first few pages are gossipy, with her obsequiously asking for his help in finding some information. You see, the lady was writing a book – about his family. So she started by sharing a little anecdote about a good-for-nothing relative – thankfully dead since some thirty years – who lost home, fortune and marriage. This, says our writer, would be an excellent example of how worthless such things as breeding, contacts and money are if there is a lack of common sense and structure. True then, true now.

Further in, our writer expanded her chest to boast about her son, her brave soldier Carl. I stopped reading, trawling through my mind to see if I could recall any Swedish involvement in World War I. Nope. It transpires our young hero Carl was fighting for the Germans, as per his proud mother “he fights like a man, honouring his family and his country”. What struck me is how dispassionately our writer went on to detail her son’s adventures. He was somewhere on the Western Front – and here I yet again had to take a break, thinking of that unforgettable book, All is Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque. Except, of course, that it was never quiet on the front – not unless you’d died and gone to heaven.

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What things looked like after constant shelling

Carl was too young to be fazed by the ongoing war – or maybe he was determinedly cheerful when writing home. “It’s all rather easy,” he said “it’s either win or die.” And Carl, so far, was on the winning side. Proud Mama described a recent situation in which Carl had been forced to step forward and take command, seeing as all communication with his commanding officer was down: his men had been shelled for two days straight, the trenches were filled with mud and gore, and the defences they’d put up had been reduced to rubble, and yet they refused to give up, defending their trench until other German troops could come and relieve them. “I was simply doing my duty,” Carl wrote to his mother, “as would any other man of honour.”

Mama went on to tell the recipient of her letter that for his valour, her Carl had received the Iron Cross. Pride leaked through in every pen stroke… The writer added a number of further anecdotes from her son, this as she knew the recipient would understand just what a parent felt when reading about a son’s bravery on the field. “After all, you also have a son in the army,” she wrote, and I realised she was referring to my husband’s grandfather, who spent his entire life as a professional officer, but never saw any real action. The unfortunate man died of a severe attack of gall stones a decade or so after WWI.

Carl, however, lived right on the edge. Life at the Western Front was a sequence of days in the trenches, the constant artillery fire becoming no more than a backdrop of distant noise against which the whistling bullets, the odd scream and suppressed gasp stood in stark contrast. Even when they were granted a few days of rest, the noise continued unabated, Carl explained, but it didn’t matter, because the moment they were out of the trenches, he and his men collapsed to sleep, exhausted after days in the mud and the cold. “It’s no big thing,” he’d written to his mother, “to take over an enemy trench once it has been bombed to pieces. It’s just a matter of running like a hare over the twenty metres that separate us from them.” Twenty metres – easy throwing distance with a tennisball…

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A gas attack on German trenches

I wonder if he ever told his mother the truth. Did he ever share the horrors of mud and cold, of living off cold coffee and dried lard? Did he tell her how the shelling never stopped, an incessant carpet of background sound, day after day, night after night? Did he describe the consequences of dysentery, or the constant fear of gas? Did he share his fear of dying, no matter how gloriously? I think not. It would have been a sign of weakness, and no true warrior of the times would burden the gentler sex with the harrowing details of war, this most manly of pursuits.

Carl went on to be awarded a second Iron Cross, this time first class. He was hailed as a hero, a young man standing side by side with our German brethren. A true paragon, a representative of all that is good and noble – except by the time the war ended, he probably didn’t believe in good and noble. War does that to you – it sort of knocks all those concepts of glory on the head. Even worse, by the time the war ended, Carl was on the losing side, the German Empire reduced to rubble, the hitherto so proud German army severely decimated.

In Sweden, sentiments would remain pro-German for some more decades. After all, the cultural ties between Sweden and Germany were strong, the well-educated spoke German as their second language, and many were the Swedes who studied in Germany, bringing back German values. When the consequences of the harsh and humiliating peace accord in Versailles finally exploded into the Second World War, most Swedes were still rooting for the Germans, even if the more intellectual among us had started questioning certain aspects of Hitler’s policies. Even in the Second World War, many hundreds of young Swedish men fought with our German brethren, no doubt wanting to honour their family and their country.

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With gun and gasmasks

Here and there in the letter, the motherly concern leaked through. Like when she admitted to having spent multiple hours trying to work out just where on the Western Front her Carl might be fighting – and no matter that she described her conclusion as being “something of a hot spot, a chance for further glory”, it is apparent she is worried. Like all mothers, she wanted her son home in one piece.

Carl did come home. Whether in one piece yes or no, I don’t know. All I do know is that he never married, he never had children, seemingly living an increasingly reclusive life before he died in 1950. By then, it had become unwise to admit to having fought on the German side – whether in the First or Second World War. By then, the Germans had been permanently tainted by the atrocities committed in their name by a madman and his cronies during the Second World War. The two Iron Crosses probably rattled unseen in a little box, Carl’s moments of heroism reduced to collaboration with the powers of evil.

The Germans in the First World War were no more evil than the English or the French or anyone else. This massacre of an entire generation of young men was the consequence of ancient conflicts and modern politics merging into an explosive mix. Both sides committed atrocities, neither side was blameless, and ultimately this bloody conflict which cost more than 16 million people their lives, resolved nothing. Twenty years later, the bubbling resentment engendered by WW1 would erupt into WW2, and an inconceivable 85 million lives would be lost to that deadliest of human pursuits: war.

We found a letter – a little glimpse into life as it was one hundred years ago. The letter writer published her book – and I have a copy of it – her son came home, and for a while things returned to being almost like they’d been before the war. Almost. Conflicts on that scale don’t only scar the individuals that participated – it shakes the foundation of the world. At the beginning of World War 1, the German Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire still existed. By its end, they were all gone. Not that our letter writer cared all that much about the larger political picture: she just wanted her “warrior hero” to be safe.

That Lusty month of May – welcoming the sun

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Bonfire against an April twilight

The older I get, the more sensitive I become to the turn of the year. These days, the dark winters cost me much more than they used to do, and from January onwards I adopt an almost religious approach to the lengthening days.

Come April, the light is well and truly back in this part of the world, daylight seeping in around four a.m and lingering until nine p.m. This is the season of twilight, of evenings that shift from sunset through deepening purple to night. To sit and watch the world sink into darkness is soothing, a moment of meditation in a life otherwise too hectic, too defined by other things than the steady rhythm of night and day.

In general, it seems to me modern man has become as fragmented as the information that bombards us. In a world where everyone seems to think time is always of the essence – at the expense of reflection – decisions have become knee-jerk rather than considered. In such an environment, it is more important to hear “all” news than to hear the “full” news – until, of course, someone makes a bad call without having studied the full picture…

I’m not so sure this is beneficial to us as a species. It is definitely playing havoc with our stress hormones, which in turn can cause heart attacks. And besides, aren’t we losing sight of the true beauty of life?

My mother is a former language teacher. (At times, this was a pain in the butt: she was quite merciless when it came to reviewing our work. On the other hand, I can to this day recite the rules for when subjunctive applies in Spanish. One never knows when that may come in handy…) She used to set her students essays by offering them an assortment of subjects to write about. One of her recurring themes was Simple Pleasures in a Humdrum Life. I can tell you this subject led to a number of pretty impressive essays, because when we stop to think about it, all of us have a list of the little things that make our everyday life bearable, whether it be the toothless grin of a six-year-old or the uncomplicated love offered by a dog.

For me, more and more, it is the returning light that is my main source of quiet joy. Don’t get me wrong, I love my adult children to bits, am more than impressed by the fact that somehow these robust, bright beings have been brought forth by me, but a source of peaceful pleasure they are not, being loud and demanding, as big in gestures as they are in heart. To be quite honest, I love when they swoop in to visit, but am just as happy when they leave, allowing hubby, youngest son and me to return to our more ordered life.

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Beeches in spring

Back to light, to spring, to the eternal cycle of rebirth. Many years ago, I was a Weight Watcher (bear with me, okay?). Well, if we’re going to be correct, I’ve been watching my weight my entire adult life, and seriously, whatever for? In keeping with a good Lutheran’s approach to sin, I have guilted myself over each morsel of cake, each delicious piece of chocolate, and all this guilt and watching has been seriously non-productive. But, as I said, once I was a bona fide Weight Watcher, back in the good old days when everything was converted to points, and the good little trooper could save up points to binge over the weekend (which raises the question as to permanent eating habits and all that). Once a week, I dragged myself off to my rendezvous with the dreaded scale – and the weekly class.

I must say many of those classes were sadly uninspiring. In many cases, the question people asked were mostly about how to continue eating their favourite foods (ergo the “save up points” strategy). Now and then, the person holding the class really tried to be inspiring. Mostly this fell flat on its face. We, the class, did not want to be inspired. We wanted a short-cut to bodies that would look gorgeous in bikinis five weeks from now. (Whoever said we were realistic?)

Anyway, one week the person holding the class was a dapper man with a slicked-back hairdo and an oxford shirt he wore with his sleeves rolled up. This gentleman started by showing us his Before and After pics – very impressive – and then he went on to talk about the need for Other Sources of Pleasure. Rather seriously, he explained that life wasn’t about food. Well, at that point it itched in me to up and leave – I don’t like being patronized, and from the look on various faces around me, this was a common sentiment. But when the man went on to describe the sheer joy he felt whenever he stepped into a beech wood in spring, I couldn’t help but smile in recognition.

IMG_0122To walk through a beech forest in spring is to enter a natural cathedral, the greying stems the pillars, the newly sprung foliage the ceiling. Sun filters through to dance along the ground, the wind soughs through the boughs, whispering a gentle psalm, a promise of verdant tomorrows, of days of plenty. Beneath my feet, a carpet of dead leaves rustle, here and there dotted by islands of green in which anemones shine like earthbound stars.

Where I live, I can walk for hours under spreading boughs, caress the smooth bark of trees that have been around for much, much longer than me. Now and then, a choir of birds break into song, here and there, a tarn of pitch-black water reminds me that the woods has it fair share of darkness too – as does life in general. Important to remember, I believe, as without the contrast of the dark, the light would not seem quite as wonderful.

IMG_0126Up here in Sweden, spring has just begun. It’s as if nature has inhaled, a huge bellyful of air, as it prepares for the explosion of colour and sound that will come over the coming weeks. A month from now, my beech forests will be more about shade than sun, the canopies hindering the sun from reaching all the way to the ground. When the spring anemones wither, not much else takes their place, because flowers, like all of us, need light as much as warmth to grow and thrive.

But for now, my beeches sprout timid leaves, the anemones lie like swathes of white across the forest floor, and I am so grateful to be alive, to be here, to be me.

P.S. So, I hear some of you wondering, what happened with the Weight Watcher thing? Did the inspiring dude lead to any revolutionary changes in my life? Pah! Seriously, when the man suggested we replace the craving for chocolate with beech leaves, telling us that they actually tasted quite nice, I did get up and leave. I may have shared his love for beeches, but a woman is allowed some vices – and mine is chocolate!

Busy, busy bees – a work-in-progress blog hop

w-1-9I was tagged by the prolific Lori Crane in a Work-in-progress blog hop. I like the word Work-in-progress, as it implies that creative juices are flowing and everything is alright in the world – at least if you’re a writer. Of course, at times the challenge lies in the fact that there is too much work-in-progress lying about, and seriously, there are days when I feel very fragmented.

Lori appears to be a somewhat more structured lady than I am – at present she is hard at work writing a series detailing the lives of her ancestors and their arrival in America. I am somewhat impressed by her pedigree. Me, it’s mostly smallholders and miners in the far north of Sweden, none of them gifted with the imagination of even dreaming of a life elsewhere – until my grandfather took the drastic step of moving his entire family south, albeit still in Sweden. My father, inspired by his daredevil father (who, if we’re going to be honest, had no choice: he was too small and puny to work in a mine) took things a further step and moved us all to South America, where I was fortunate enough to attend British schools while enjoying the vibrant Latino culture, so different from us Swedes.

Anyway, the rules of this little blog hop are simple:

  1. Tag back to whoever nominated you – done!
  2. Nominate other authors
  3. Post the first few lines of your first three chapters in your ongoing WIP

I’ve decided to nominate two authors:

Andrea 81hqmAJRriL._UX250_First of all, the lovely Andrea Zuvich, a 17th century fan like myself who maintains an excellent,erudite and elegant blog and who writes about the Stuarts (for her books, see here). Andrea has something of a crush on Prince Rupert, that talented and vivacious Stuart relative who for some time ensured the Royalists held their own. Me, I’m no Prince Rupert fan, no matter how dashing the man was, but I forgive her, just as I’m assuming she forgives me for having my heart in the other camp. Andrea is my go-to person when it comes to William III and Mary II, is a proficient baker and also shares a South American connection with me – except that her part of South America is further south than mine, home to deserts and snow-capped mountains.

Helen LargeSecondly, the magnificent Helen Hollick, author of a compelling series about King Arthur, of a heart wrenching book about King Harold and a number of other books (see here). First and foremost, in my opinion, Helen has gifted the world with Jesamiah Acorne, dashing pirate who dresses his hair with blue ribbons, who is torn between his love for the sea and his love for Tiolia, a white witch who fares badly when at sea. Helen is very involved in HNS (Historical Novel Society), lives in a rural setting with dogs and horses round her feet (well, not the horses, one hopes) and is a generous supporter of other authors. She is also something of a hat fetishist, one rakish creation after the other adorning her head. At present, other than maintaining her informative and entertaining blog and her website, Helen is hard at work on the next Jesamiah novel – as she should, so that people like me don’t expire due to abstinence symptoms.

And so to number three. And people, this is where I have to admit I have a major, major problem with this, as I don’t know which WIP to post from! At present, I am torn between a series set in the 14th century, and one set in the here and now involving souls that have been around in one way or the other for the last three millennia. (This last WIP is probably a reflection on my own hopes that one day I’ll wake up and say “OMG, I’m actually Alexander the Great in a reborn format!” Thing is, such statements cannot be made out loud, as no sooner have they been made but one might find oneself under serious psychological evaluation)

After a number of ennie-meenie-minnie-mo exercises, I have decided to post from In the Shadow of the Storm, the first in a series set around the 1320s, in an England torn asunder by internal conflicts. A deficient king and his grasping favourite face off against rebellious barons, first and foremost Baron Mortimer. Caught up in all this is Adam de Guirande, a man who owes everything to Sir Roger Mortimer – including his well-dowered wife. And as to Kit, Adam’s wife, she has been forced into a situation where she must pretend to be Adam’s intended bride, thereby duping Adam. Not, perhaps, the most auspicious start to a marriage…

Chapter 1

“Will she do?” The voice came from somewhere over her head.
“Do? She will have to, won’t she?”
With a series of grunts, the men carrying her deposited her in a cart. Kit made as if to protest. A large hand gripped her by the neck, tilted her head, and held something to her mouth. No. No more. She spat like a cornered cat, to no avail. Her mouth was forced open, sweet wine was poured, obliging her to swallow. And then there was nothing but a spinning darkness. Nothing at all.

Chapter 2

Adam de Guirande approached his impending nuptials with as much enthusiasm as a lamb about to be led to the slaughter. Had it not been for the dowry, further enlarged by the baron’s generous gift, he would have refused the honour, all too aware of the fact that most men viewed his intended wife as used goods.

Chapter 3

When Kit woke some hours later, she was alone – for an instant, before Mabel bustled into the room, followed by two maids.
“All right then?” she asked, gesturing for one of the girls to hand Kit a steaming earthenware mug.
“Alive, at least,” Kit replied, seeing no reason to tell the old crone she’d actually enjoyed some parts – a few parts – of yesterday’s events. She sipped at the hot cider. One of the maids opened the shutters, and an icy blast of wind flew through the room. A bowl of water was set down, Mabel clucked happily at the sight of the bloodied sheets, bundled them into the arms of one of the maids and shooed them all out, before having Kit sit down on a stool while she brushed her hair.

Well, people, that’s all for this time. I must rush back to yet another of my WIPs – and this time it is Alex and Matthew clamouring for attention. Seriously, it’s a miracle I remain as mentally sane as I do!

For my published books, see here.

Ragnar and Aslög – the true (?) story

Right, so I thought it about time to set the facts straight – just in case anyone is thinking Vikings is a correct portrayal of dear old Ragnar. (Not that I care, not with Travis Fimmel to rest my eyes on) First of all, I thought it might interest you to know that Ragnar Lodbrok in essence means Ragnar Hairy Breeches. Secondly, let us keep in mind that Ragnar, like all ambitious little Viking boys, early on dreamed of becoming rich – very rich even – by stealing from others, a.k.a. raiding. If he was successful enough, he’d be able to buy a farm and retire with a comely wife. Plus, if he was really successful, someone might even raise a runestone over him.

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Runestone. Picture by I,Berig

None of the above ever came true for Ragnar. The runestone thing mainly because Ragnar did not exist outside the sagas (although some say otherwise). The retirement thing because fate had other plans for Ragnar. You see, the Norse sagas are rarely very keen on the Happily Ever After. Such notions are for wimps, not for die-hard warriors like our Scandinavian forebears. No, the sagas are harsh and gritty stories of man pitted against his destiny, with not as much as a whiff of romanticism. Hang on: the sagas DO actually romanticise one thing – the concept of honour, of men who will rather die than betray their own integrity.

These days, things have gone downhill when it comes to honour and integrity – at least here in Sweden, where neutrality rather than integrity has been evoked as a guiding principle in (relatively) recent major conflicts. Not something all Swedes are all that happy about – at least not in retrospect, but then it is always easy to apply hindsight, isn’t it?

Neither here nor there – let’s get back to Ragnar. We have here a young man eager for adventure – and riches. So when he heard of poor Tora Borgarhjort, a pretty maiden whose bower was encircled by a fierce and deadly serpent, he decided to do the right thing and save her, to some extent motivated by Tora’s father’s promise that whoever killed the monster would wed his daughter and inherit his titles and riches.

We’re talking a huge serpent here, a vile creature that considered Tora its property and defended her from any potential suitor through a combination of fangs and poison. So potent was its poison that it burned holes through garments and human skin, and as a consequence, there was a pile of young dead men at the door of Tora’s bower.

Now Ragnar was a bright young man. He realised approaching the serpent required protective gear, which is why he fashioned himself a pair of breeches out of untreated goatskins (ergo the hairy breeches). These he then dipped in pitch and rolled in sand, so that they became more or less impregnable. In pants and with a spear in hand, he then snuck up on the serpent and managed to slay it, thereby gaining Tora’s hand and a jarldom.

I can hear some of you say, “What? Tora? Who’s this Tora, and where is Lagertha?” Sorry to tell you that the sagas are not always consistent, so in some Ragnar does wed Lagertha for a short while (after first having killed her tame bear and hound – beasts set upon him as a test by Lagertha) but divorces her to marry Tora, a much better catch seeing as she’s a jarl’s daughter and Danish – just like Ragnar.

By all accounts, Tora and Ragnar were very happy. Too happy as per the Norns, those rather cold-hearted crones that spin the threads of fate. Which is why they decided to cut Tora’s thread, and Ragnar was left a devastated widower. As any grieving Viking would do, Ragnar set off on a raiding expedition, hoping to dull the constant ache in his heart through violent action and plunder.

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Kraka/Aslög

Ragnar and his men were in a Norwegian fjord, and Ragnar sent some of his men off the ship to do some baking (and I rather like the resulting picture of self-sufficient Viking warriors with bulging biceps kneading dough). As they were doing their bread thing, the men were distracted by the sudden appearance of a young girl called Kraka. So beautiful was she that the bakers forgot their task, mouths agape as they stared at this female apparition. As a result, the bread was badly burnt, and Ragnar was less than pleased when his men returned to the ship.

“It was Kraka’s fault,” the men said, going on to describe this gorgeous creature. I’m thinking Ragnar was intrigued not only by the description, but also by the amusing fact that someone so beautiful should be named Kraka, which means crow. Whatever the case, Ragnar decided it was best if he did some inspecting of his own, but before doing so, he decided to do some research.

In an age devoid of internet, finding out more about Kraka proved difficult for Ragnar. Fortunately for you, dear readers, I do have internet (and books) so I can tell you in confidence that Kraka was really named Aslög, and she was the daughter of Brunhilde and Sigurd Fafnesbane of Wagnerian fame. Now that story of love, betrayal, blood and death is so complicated it would take an entire post to explain it all, so let’s just summarise by saying little Aslög is left an orphan when her parents die, and she is smuggled to safety in a harp by a gentleman named Heimer. When Heimer asks for lodging with a poor couple in Norway, the wife urges her husband to kill their guest as she can see that he is rich, and among his belongings they discover the girl whom they rename Kraka and set to hard work.

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Sigurd killing Fafnir

Ragnar got as far as the Sigurd Fafnesbane bit and was very impressed – especially as Sigurd had died like two centuries prior to Ragnar seeing the light of the day, so either Kraka was very old, or there was magic at work. When in doubt, go with magic, and Ragnar found this additional ingredient quite alluring. So he decided to set the young woman a test and invited her to visit him on his ship “neither dressed nor naked, neither hungry nor full, neither alone and accompanied”. Clearly, my ancestors enjoyed speaking in riddles…

Kraka/Aslög rose to the challenge and appeared swathed in fishnets having eaten a clove of garlic and with a dog at her heels. This, apparently, sufficed to sweep Ragnar off his feet, and he carried Aslög with him back to Denmark where he promptly married her and had many, many children with her.

Together, Aslög and Ragnar had four sons: Ivar Benlös (boneless), Björn Järnsida (ironside), Sigurd Ormöga (serpent’s eye) and Vitsärk. Ivar Benlös was supposedly afflicted with some sort of disease (in some cases attributed to his parents having had sex before marriage), but it doesn’t seem to have hampered his style much, as he and his brothers grew up to be as fierce as their father. So successful were the brothers in their raiding expeditions that people began to mutter that the sons were better warriors than their father. This Ragnar did not like. At all.

In an effort to set things straight, Ragnar decided to launch his own little raiding party – and he was going west, to ransack the lands of King Aella of Northumbria. To really show the world just what a fearsome warrior he was, Ragnar decided to go with only two ships, sufficient, in his opinion, to defeat that milksop of an English king. Aslög begged him not to go, plagued by foresight. When he insisted on going, she gave him a magic shirt, a garment which could not be penetrated by iron. But she was weeping as he left, knowing deep inside she’d never see him again.

Ragnar arrived in England only to crash straight into Aella’s army. Thanks to his shirt, Ragnar survived while one by one his men died, and so he was captured alive and hauled before a smug Aella who demanded to know his name. Ragnar refused to tell him, and so Aella had him thrown into a pit with vipers, there to die a slow, painful and – most distressing for a Viking – ignominious death.
“The piglets will squeal when they hear how the old boar suffered,” Ragnar supposedly said before dying, smiling at the thought of the revenge his sons would wreak on Aella.

The piglets most certainly squealed. As per the saga, the brothers were in their hall when the messenger carrying the tidings of their father’s death reached them. Vitsärk was playing draughts, and squeezed so hard round the piece in his hand that blood began to well. Sigurd was paring his nails and cut himself to the bone. Björn was honing his spear, and tightened his hold on the shaft until it splintered. Ivar calmly asked the messenger to tell them everything. Everything, mind.

The three younger roared and gnashed their teeth together, wanting to set off immediately to kill Aella. Ivar urged caution and stealth.
“Revenge is a dish best eaten cold,” he said, but was overruled. So off the brothers went, with Ivar choosing to distance his ships and men from his revenge-maddened brothers.

Aella was no fool. Upon realising who had died in his snake pit, he knew it was just a matter of time before the sons came, so he’d amassed a sizeable army, big enough to beat back the brothers who turned tail and ran back to their ships. All except Ivar, who decided to visit with Aella and expressed himself willing to accept weregild for his father’s death. Aella was more than happy to oblige, and settled sizeable land on Ivar, who seemingly was content to live in proximity with his father’s murderer. Not…

Over the coming years, Ivar fostered unrest and resentment among Aella’s vassals, and once the kingdom had been sufficiently destabilised, he sent for his brothers. This time, there was no army to defend Aella. This time, he was captured and dragged alive before Ragnar’s four sons. Not for Aella the snake pit, no, Aella was undressed, thrown to the ground with his back bared to the sky, and ever so slowly Ragnar’s sons “carved a blood eagle” on him. This entailed slicing through his back, breaking the ribs and pulling them wide apart to resemble wings, and then pulling the lungs out through the resulting hole. Nice.

The sons returned to Aslög, and she was satisfied that her husband had been adequately avenged. Björn and Sigurd went on to become kings of Sweden and Denmark respectively. As to Ivar, he stayed on in England – as per the saga as king of all England, as per what little facts there are as the leader of the Viking army that despoiled most of Mercia and East Anglia in the late 9th century.

There is an interesting little add-on to Ragnar’s saga, which refers to Ivar’s final resting place. It is said Ivar ordered his burial mound to be built just at the edge of the sea, prophesising that as long as his bones lay untouched, no one would be able to invade England. According to this little codicil, “the bastard William” found the mound and had it opened. Upon finding Ivar’s body un-decayed, William ordered a pyre to be built, and only once Ivar’s bones had been reduced to ashes did he proceed with his invasion plans. I’m thinking Ivar would have applauded William – after all, they both had Viking blood, a gift for violence and pillage.

100-travis-fimmel4So, did Ragnar exist in any form? We don’t know, sources from the 9th century being understandably scarce. Some people seem to think there was a historic Ragnar, a Danish Viking of great renown. But for him to be married to a woman whose father slayed a dragon, well, that does seem difficult to believe, doesn’t it? Whether real or not, the story of Ragnar and Aslög is a story of two equals, two people who meet and know immediately they belong together. Maybe it was Aslög seeing the hole of grief in Ragnar’s heart. Or maybe it was Ragnar seeing in poor Kraka a woman with the spirit of a lion. Or maybe it was those pesky Norns, thinking it would be fun to twine these two threads together and see what happened. A lot, as it turns out. Enough to build an entire TV series on.

Every time we say goodbye

A5 Mailer-FrontWhen you have children, the more helpful among your relatives and friends will tell you to make sure and enjoy them, because time is short, and one day your babies will grow into young men with whiskers and leave home. Sort of depressing to hear, when you’re sitting with your arms full of that precious miracle, your firstborn…

My mother-in-law, a woman I loved dearly and miss daily, expressed it somewhat differently. “We only borrow them,” she said, smoothing a lock of bright red hair away from my daughter’s brow. “Remember that; they belong to themselves, and you only have them on loan.” Which, IMO, explains just what parenting is about: to nurture the unique person entrusted to you so that they grow into their – not your – potential.

A lot of people get that wrong. Very many parents see their children as an extension of themselves, which is why you have wannabee football player dads yelling at their kids from the side-lines, when said kid really only wants to build Lego. A parent must be careful so that the weight of their unfulfilled dreams don’t squash their child to death. In fact, a parent must encourage their child to dream their own dreams, no matter how different from the parent’s.

It’s a bit the same way with characters. The writer shapes them to be someone based on the needs of the storyline, but at some point, the characters have developed into beings of their own. No longer can the writer say “jump” and the character will jump, instead they will ask pesky questions, like “why?”

When you’ve written EIGHT books about the same characters, they are no longer restricted to the world for which they were created. No, suddenly these characters have developed into close friends, people whose opinions you value, with whom you’d really love to share a cup of tea or two.
There’s some sort of dependency at work here, people: the characters need the writer to create them, the writer needs the characters to continue creating, and the resulting bond may be imaginary – after all, the characters don’t exist, not really – but real all the same.

Which is why, of course, writing the “last” book is like cutting your heart out. This is when one should think like a parent and let the characters go, to enjoy the green pastures of the ever after, or wherever characters go once that final THE END has been written. Or, alternatively, the writer decides there’s a certain elasticity to the word “last”. Yes, it is the last in the series, but there are a number of unanswered questions, and doesn’t the writer owe it to the readers to tie things into a neat little knot? Not that life ever ends with a little rosette, but the writer suffering withdrawal symptoms doesn’t want to hear that. Nope, the writer who clutches the “last” book to her chest (and just in case you haven’t got it yet, the anonymous writer referred to is ME) and cries buckets must hold on to the hope that she will, at some point, return to visit with her beloved leading man and woman.

Thing is, do Matthew and Alex Graham want me to visit again? Maybe they prefer to ride off into the sunset, their future adventures unrecorded and private.
“Oh, come off it,” Alex Graham says, settling herself as close as she can to the hearth. She shakes out her dark skirts and gives me a sharp look. “Mi casa es tu casa, honey – it always will be.” She tilts her head in the direction of her tall man, and her mouth widens into a dazzling smile. “After all, you gave me him.”
I look at Matthew and my heart swells with pride. Tall, strong, stubborn and brave, he has loved her from the moment he saw her, will love her until, as Robert Burns so beautifully put it, “all the seas go dry my dear, and the rocks melt with the sun, and I will love thee still my dear, while the sands of life will run”. That dear people, is a fact, no matter how imaginary Matthew Graham may be.

I smiled as I wrote the above. I smile even more right now, because suddenly I hear Alex in my head, and she is yelling at Daniel, her minister son, not to be such a straight-laced idiot, and look, isn’t that Matthew, walking side by side with Ian with a musket at hand a grim look on his face? Clearly, “last” is an elastic term for me – and for Alex and Matthew Graham. I pick up my skirts (hey, I try to blend in, okay? 17th century doesn’t go well with sweats and t-shirt) and run after Matthew, quill in hand and heart in my mouth. Why is there so much blood, and what is that obnoxious toad, Richard Campbell grinning about? Well, dear readers, who knows? Maybe I will tell you – in a future book!

Of Alcohol and Devious Merchants – a brief history of Armagnac

äppelblomThe other day, I went into the local liquor store and bought a bottle of Armagnac. It was time, I’d decided, for me to acquire a sophisticated adult vice, and I quite liked the mental image of me curled in the sofa, book in hand and with a glass of Armagnac within reach. Now, buying Armagnac – well, any kind of alcoholic beverage – in Sweden, requires a visit to the state owned Systembolaget, which has a monopoly on all such sales. They earn a mint, are among the world’s largest purchasers of wine and spirits, and never spend as much as a penny on promoting their wares. No, Systembolaget spends a considerable budget on trying to convince Swedish people NOT to drink – or at least not as much. (Swedes have a conflicted relationship with alcohol, let’s leave it at that)

Anyway, obviously this anti-spirits propaganda had not had much effect on me. There I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed (Umm…) and asking one of the knowledgeable staff where they kept the Armagnac. He laughed when I explained why I wanted to buy it – and it’s not only the pretty colour, but also the name. I mean, say Armagnac, really slow, and it conjures up men lounging in the shade of a giant beech, legs extended before them, polo-mallets littering the ground…Ahem: back to order.

The guy in Systembolaget tried to get me to go for something else instead.
“A nice aged Tequila,” he suggested, and I shook my head, no matter just how much I love The Eagles and Tequila Sunrise. So, fifteen minutes later, I was back outside, now the proud owner of a liquor that as per the guy was “rough on the palate and hot in the belly”. Sounded promising. Sounded ADULT. Sounded sinful – a nice little vice to cultivate.

IMG_6020So why all this hang-up on vices? Well, I have recently come to the conclusion that I need to cultivate an edgier profile. Maybe dye my hair henna red, and start wearing only black. Or start drinking Armagnac – seemed easier. You see, I worry that I am too proper. Outside my books – where adventures, high drama and romantic moments occur recurrently – I am a tad boring. “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee,” I could almost croon, what with preferring water to wine, books to wild parties and nice comfy pants to sexy stockings. Okay, so I do now and then put on those sexy stockings, and yes, I have a collection of lacy bits, but it’s not really me. Me is a day-dreamer who can sit for hours on the meadow at our summer house, surrounded by flowering lupines and the drone of happy bees, while I pretend I’m elsewhere, preferably somewhere that involves horses instead of cars and long, swishing skirts instead of yoga pants.

Being a to-do-list person, I therefore added a couple of items to my (interminable) list:
1. Do something wild and crazy
2. Develop an adult vice
Hubby laughed at me when I shared this with him, winking as he told me that there were some adult vices in my life. Yes, yes, of course there are, but we were talking sophistication here, something to be combined with a husky voice and slinky evening wear. I conveniently forgot I rarely wear slinky evening wear, and my voice is relatively dark anyway.

So there I was with my newly acquired bottle of Armagnac. A beautiful colour, like bottled carnelians. It smelled like the devil though, but as per the guy in the liquor store this was good stuff, however rough on the palate, single-distilled as all good Armagnacs have been since the 15th century. Okay, so now it wasn’t only the colour. Now I had a spirit in my glass that came with history. Anna was a happy camper…

600px-Armoiries_Armagnac-Rodez.svgIt comes as no surprise that Armagnac comes from the Armagnac region. This, in turn, is part of Gascony, famous for important (however fictional) people like d’Artagnan, and for having been under English control for a number of centuries before the French got their act together and ousted the English once and for all in the 15th century.

I’ve never been to this region of France, but from what I understand we are talking countryside – even more so back in the 15th century. Situated to the west of Toulouse and south of Bordeaux, Armagnac nestles into the foothills of the Pyrenees, a region that does not invite easy travelling. Historically, Armagnac used to have its own count, and through an elegant balancing act between English and French demands, the region managed to retain a high level of autonomy – until the Black Prince decided to bring Armagnac to heel. Didn’t work all that well, as the Count of Armagnac appealed to the King of France to come to his help, and from this point on, the rulers of Armagnac held to La France.

This far south in France, the cultural influence from Spain and the ancient Moorish kingdoms was substantial. The University of Montpellier – one of the oldest universities in the world, with a medical school that goes back to the early 12th century – had extensive intellectual exchange with Islamic institutions, which is why the Arab invention of alcohol distilling reached the Languedoc – and Armagnac – as early as the 1410s. Now, the Arabs distilled alcohol for medicinal purposes. The Armagnacs – and others – quickly cottoned on to the other effects of distilled spirits, namely that they could “relieve pain and bring joy”.

Edward_III_counting_the_dead_on_the_battlefield_of_CrécyThe reason why the winemakers of Armagnac eventually took to distilling their precious wine is one of geography and controlled trade. Bordeaux was the wine-trading capital of the Gascon region, and the merchants of Bordeaux had a tendency to protect their own local vine-yards by refusing to sell the wine from the Haut-Pays (the Highlands, eg an area which, among others, encompassed Armagnac). By the mid-15th century, the refusal became a prohibition, whereby Haut-Pays wines could not be traded in Bordeaux prior to December.

This was more or less a catastrophe for the Haut-Pays winemakers. At the time, wine was a fragile product, bottling and preservation techniques far from modern standards. Come December, there was a major risk the wine had gone sour, so the beleaguered Armagnac winemakers had to look elsewhere for the distribution and trading of their product. Enter Bayonne, a smaller city right at the south of France’s Atlantic coast. Problem was, to get the wines there, they had to be transported in barrels on carts, thereby risking the quality. This is when some bright young thing suggested they distill the wines before they sent them off.
“I don’t know,” one of the older wine-makers said. “Does anyone want to drink something as…as…fiery as that?”
“You bet,” Mr eager-for-change said. “Our distilled product – our burned wine – will take the world by storm.”
“Hmm.” The older wine-maker sipped at his mug. Sipped some more. “It does grow on you doesn’t it?”
The other assembled wine-makers agreed it did – most definitely, it did. In a corner, one of the men was slumped on a bench, too drunk to button his cotehardie. One of the more senior wine-makers, a dour man name Jacques, was beaming at the smoky room at large, the cup of brandy in his hand already empty.

And so the beleaguered Armagnac wine-makers decided to embrace change, and soon enough they were all doing their own little distilling – the wine-makers of the region were per definition more prone to experiment than to standardise, which is why to this day there are as many methods of making Armagnac as there are Armagnac brands. Hmm. To me, that seems to overcomplicate things. To the true fans of Armagnac, this means the variety is huge.

Whatever the case, to this day the people of Armagnac proudly insist their brandy is the oldest in the world. There are people who mutter and grumble that being first is not always best – notably the gentlemen of the Cognac region – but in recent years there’s been an explosion in demand for Armagnac, that demand now augmented by my desire to explore the world of adult vices.

the-summer-poppy-fieldIn the event, I am sad to report that I remain of the opinion that nothing beats water or tea. That single glass of Armagnac was the equivalent of swallowing fire, and I must say I’m with the ancient Arabs in this: as a medicinal device, designed to revive the almost-dead, distilled wine is a great and magnificent thing. For me, I’m thinking I’m more like Ferdinand the Bull – I prefer to sit among the flowers. And as to what I did that was wild and crazy, well, some things are best left unshared :)

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