Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Sinister Richard

This is another shot from the Richard III Museum in Monk Bar Gate, York.

He looks pretty sinister in black, though he needs a moustache to twirl to make a proper Evil Overlord ™. *grin*

I use this to announce a new blog about Richard III, maintained by Susan Higgin-botham of Reading, Raving, and Ranting by a Historical Fiction Writer fame. Her aim is to deconstruct both the Big Bad Guy image Shakespeare presents of the king and the Perfect Noble Hero as whom Richard has recently been described in some novels. I'm looking forward to some interesting posts.

I hope Shakespeare actor David Blixt will visit her and join the discussion with his view of the character he played on stage.

Here is another pic of the interior of Monk Bar Gate house.

Monk Bar Gate, main room

It looks rather comfortable for a 14th century building, though I have no idea if they ever managed to get rooms with such thick stone walls warm. The secrets of Roman hypocaust and wall heatings had been lost then, and fireplaces don't make up for that. Though there might have been carpets and tapestries.

Closeup of one of the ceiling vaults

No torches and hanging lamps with candles these days, but unromantic neon lights.

  Roman Saddles

Roman saddles look quite different from the English ones I'm used to. They're probably closer to Western saddles though my experience with those is limited to one ride, and it felt pretty unusual for someone trained in the classical style.

Roman saddle from the side; the horse's head would be to the right
Since Roman saddles had no stirrups, they used four horns to support the rider. It's quite comfortable, but movements are more limited than with stirrups. If you want to stand up to have more swinging room for a cavalry spatha, you need to rely on pressing knees and lower legs against the horse's flancs. Stirrups were an improvement there. Also, the horns can get in the way if you want to turn in the saddle to fight someone sneaking up from behind.

Roman saddle seen from the front angle
I'm not sure if most auxiliary cavarly used the same sort of saddle - we know from the Numidian mounted archers that they used no saddle at all but only a blanket. Heavy cavalry like the Parthian cataphracti will have used it, I suppose, because they needed to keep a firm seat to balance the impact of a close attack with the lance. Cataphracti can be compared to Mediaeval knights to some extent, only the latter knew stirrups. But Mediaeval saddles are different from modern ones in having higher support in front and back as well.

I couldn't resist to try the saddle, and I would love to ride a real horse that way. I sit relaxed here (if I sat properly, you shouldn't see an empty space between my knees and the movie horse), but I had to relax in order to take a decent pic without flash; it's the trick to make those work. The light was a bit strange which counts for rather more red in my face than the sunburn I got in Corbridge gave me.

Pictures taken in Carlisle Museum.

  More Stones

Remains of the headquarters of some Roman forts at the Wall. Because I know you like old stones. :)

Cilurnum (Chesters)

I'm so glad they let the tree stand. It adds an element of picturesque to those ruins. The past coming alive in new surroundings.

The hypocaust heating shown in this post is on the other side of the building.

Vercovicium (Housesteads)

Housesteads is pretty much a hill fort. In no other place at the Wall I visited did the Romans have to deal with such an uneven ground, though maybe there have been some mile castles facing the same problem.

I was asked why I visited so many Roman forts, since they all follow the same basic pattern. The reason is simple - every of these has its own, particular atmosphere. It is also the reason I'm going to see some Roman forts at the German Limes border in August. I'm sure they'll be different again.

  Where Richard III is Hanging Out

The little Richard III Museum in York is located in the Monk Bar Gate, one of the gate houses of the town fortifications. Since I was looking at the fortifications anyway, and some of my blog friends are Richard III 'fans', I decided to have a look and maybe take some pics. I didn't regret it.

Monk Bar Gate, seen from the battlements

It's a bit of a fan museum, with lovingly drawn geneaologies, information tablets and some decorations like banners and replica of period armour. They also sell books and such. Central part is the audio tape trial the plays via loudspeakers in the main room, and a volume where you can add your own verdict. Someone wrote 'George Bush'. :)

Portcullis in Monk Bar Gate, framed by Richard's family.

The location is part of the charme of the museum. Monk Bar Gate has the oldest working portcullis; it was last lowered in the 16th century but it's still in working order. The interior is very Mediaeval - stone vaults and not much space.

I took more pics of the interior, so there will be another post or two. See also the post below. And I'll have to read Sunne in Splendour now, that one is still lurking on my TBR pile.

  Monk Bar Gate, Interior

No, not the name of a pub, but a gate house of the York town fortifications that hosts the Richard III Museum.

You enter from the street level, pay your fee, and then you have to go up a narrow and steep 14th century staircase.

People must have been smaller back then, and they obviously didn't carry big backpacks. I did not have one this time, but I remember shoving one of the suckers through some stair-cases in Scottish castles, lol. Well, maybe the guards sometimes had to drag a reluctant prisoner up there. Binding him tightly and hauling him up the stairs by a rope might have worked best. Yes, I'm evil - I'm a writer, what did you think? :)

Monk Bar Gate was also used as prison. I got a giggle out of that one. The ensuite facilities were a night pot and a water jar. The cell is tiny, someone from our time who's 180 cm or so tall would have difficulties to lie down comfortably.

But I suppose comfortable wasn't a requirement. At least, the cells had daylight and probably less rats than your average cellar dungeon.

Though I hope the princes in the Tower had a bit more space and some furs to lie on.

  Some Kings, Having a Bad Hair Day

Your Honour, I have no idea what happened to the princes in the Tower, I swear.

But I do know what will happen to the idiot who did my hair this morning. Mwuahaha.

Richard III standing trial, Richard III Museum, York

The scene is accompanied by an audiotape that plays a virtual trial with the arguments for and against Richard's involvement in the death of the princes safekept / imprisoned in the Tower in London.

York has close connections to Richard III and there's a little museum dedicated to him. A fun place hidden in one of the towers of the old town fortifications.

And for our Edward fans:

Edward I-III, York Minster

There are statues of the kings of England from Henry I to Richard III.

I can't help, but Edward III's hair looks like a perm gone wild. And that Gimli beard ... Ed II looks sullen. Did Piers smile at another man? :)

I took the photo without a flash. It's slightly blurred but the relief is a lot more plastic than in a pic of the same motive I took with flash and which looks cold and flat. An experience I've made more than once.

This is post no. 300. *opens champagne bottle* :)

  Mithraeum at Brocolita (Carrawburgh)

Mithras came from the Mespotamian and Persian pantheon, god of light, of oaths and treaties, of truth and justice. He supposedly was the god of the warrior élites in Mesopotamia and Persia, though in the latter religion he stood in competition to Ahura Mazda.

His cult was carried west by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, and at the end of the first century AD he had become one of the most popular gods among the soldiers. Caves and grottos were now seen as places sacred to Mithras. The Mithras mysteries were celebrated in subterranean buildings, the mithraea. A good number of these has been discoverd all over the Roman Empire. Central part of the celebration was the killing of a bull, replaying the killing of the primordial bull by Mithras, the fight of Good against Bad, in some versions the creation of life.

Mithraeum at Brocolita, overview

Even some emperors (Commodus, Julian Apostata) became members of the Mithras mysteries. Because of its popularity, the cult stood in competition with the Christian religion, and there were similarities between both. The Mithras cult knew something like the last supper where the members shared bread and wine in commemoration of the last supper Mithras shared with his disciples before he entered his sun chariot and descended to heaven. They also believed in ressurrection and eternal life after the body went through the spheres of the planets (the 7 then known) and some sort of final judgement.

Closeup of the sanctuary

Almost everything we know about the Mithras cult comes from iconography (sculptures and reliefs), there is little written information because the cult was supposed to be a mystery to all but the initiated. There have been seven grades of initiation, and membership was restricted to men. Its aim was the fight against untruth, treason, and bad morals. Membership in the Mithras mysteries didn't exclude membership in other religious cults.

Closeup of the anteroom
The blue umbrella peeking out from the entrance is mine. :)

The mithraeum at Brocolita (Carrawburgh) was built about 200 AD. The altars were dedicated by the officers of the Batavians stationed in the nearby fort, the main altar depicting Mithras slaying the bull has been destroyed - assumably by Christians who saw the the Mithras ceremonies like the above mentioned final supper as parody of their own religion.

The mithraeum was originally a dark room with only few lights, most of them close to the altar. The anteroom was probably used for initiation tests. In the central nave, stone benches would have stood on both sides. At the far side lies the sanctuary. Mithraea were small and usually didn't hold more than 30 to 40 people.

The mithraeum seen from the other angle

The mithraeum at Brocolita was discovered by chance when after a dry period the ground sank and some stones became visible. It was excavated in 1949. The altars have been replaced by replica; the originals are in the museum at Newcastle, while other finds are displayed at Chesters.

To the left is a closeup of one of the altars depicting Mithras as Sun Charioteer. If you look closely, you can see that the rays surrounding his head are cut out of the stone, and behind them is an hollow where an oil lamp would be put so the rays shone in the dark. Time has destroyed part of the corona.

The identification with the sun god became so strong that Mithras was celebrated as Sol Invictus in the Roman pantheon.

I want to thank my very kind hostess in the B&B in Haltwhistle for having been able to see this one. She had offered to come and give me a ride back from Housesteads because the bus time schedule was such a mess, and then asked if I was in for some more walking through wet grass and rain, and drove me to Brocolita. It was worth getting wet.

  Let's Go Swimming

The third Battle Writing Workshop post is up, and the third picture post follows - just for fun. This time it's some Roman baths at the Hadrian's Wall.

Cilurnum (Chesters), view from the bath to the river Tyne

And proof that the sun shines in Britannia, sometimes. It was a lovely day. I sat in the grass and had some tea while enjoying the view.

Cilurnum, anteroom of the bath

The other side from where I sat. The niches are not clothes' lockers, but places where statues would have stood.

One of the baths at Vindolanda, remains of the heating system

Though the sky was overcast, it was warm enough I'd have enjoyed a nice swim in a cool pool. Well, I got one in Haltwhistle public pool the other day. There's nothing better than an evening swim with the sun peeking out from the clouds and sparkling on the water.

  How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, part 3

The second part of the workshop is here.

Writing an entire battle in omniscient and being in the heads of a dozen characters all the time might get confusing. Or it could end up in a lot of telling. Personally, I tend to mix third limited and omniscient scenes, depending on what I want the scene to do. But I have to admit, the choice is mostly by instinct, so I can't tell you how to figure out when to use omni.

It is a POV seldom used; I can't come up with a writer who has a battle in omniscient. Gemmell with his short, multiple POV scenes comes closest.

The other end of the spectrum is limited third one person or first person POV. It's tricky to cover several aspects of a battle if you're in one head only, but there are ways.

First, let's have a look at the diary of our hero Titus Bravus, Roman soldier in the forth cohort of the Legio II Adiutrix.
Day 1: We marched 25 miles to the north and built camp. Damn digging.
Day 2: We marched 25 miles and built camp. One of my socks has a hole. Need to write to mother to send me new ones when I'm back in Vindolanda.
Day 3: We marched 25 miles and built camp. It rained. I hate Britannia.
Day 4: We marched only 15 miles because we had to cross some bloody bogs. Built camp. Everything is wet. I want a decent bath. And that bastard Sextus Nastius cheated at dice.
Day 5: Marched ten miles, then saw the Caledonians in the distance. Quite a lot of them. Built camp. Our centurion says there will be battle tomorrow.
Day 6: We arrayed for battle in the morning. General Agricola sent the Batavians in first, they kicked those Caledonians off the hill where they were hiding. Don't really like the Batavians, but they're good fighters. I killed two Caledonians. Have to clean my gladius now. I hope there will be wine tonight.

A somewhat limited presentation of the Battle at Mons Graupius, isn't it? But there is a way you can have a MC like Titus Bravus and yet get a broader view of the battle and the incidents leading up to it. He could do a good job on a special mission and the centurion would keep an eye on him, always needing a few guys who had a brain; maybe promote him to optio. Next time a tribune needs and escort, Titus will lead it and save the tribune's life because he managed to see the tracks the Caledonian war chariots left. Titus has a fling with a local girl and picks up some of the language, so he's called when a prisoner is brought in. More staff officers begin to remember him as able soldier and with the next vacancy, he's made a centurion. In that position, and with his knowledge of the locals, he could be called to the strategical discussions. From that position, Titus Bravus would understand better what is going on, and so would the reader.

Though I bet Titus still hates digging, and centurions weren't exempt from that duty.

It's pretty much what Bernard Cornwell does in The Winter King, told from the first person POV of one of Arthur's followers called Derfel. Derfel rises to a postion where he holds the trust and often the confidence of Arthur and thus can see the grander scale of a battle and other events of Arthur's time. In addition, he tells his story as old man, in form of a chronicle, and he can therefore use the occasional glimpse ahead because he knows the outcome. That is a trick not to be overused, though.

If something important happens elsewhere on the battlefield, you can introduce a messenger to get the information to the character and the reader. But make it brief during battle - if you want a more detailed version in form of a witness describing the event, it's better done after the battle.

What one gains with such a tight POV, is the immediacy of the battle action. The reader is in the shield wall with Derfel. So, if you feel more comfortable with a single third or first person POV, there are ways to still tell an epic story. Jacqueline Carey has her first person MC Phèdre watch the battle to relieve a siege in Kushiel's Dart, and since Phèdre is a trained observer, she notices a lot of details. And she knows most of the major players in person, which gives the reader a connection to more than one character. The same goes for Derfel as 'mediator' between the reader and the main players.

It's even easier if your character already has a position that gives him a broader view of events, like Simon le Preux. Wait - who would like to be in that head? No, make it Aubric le Noble, the doomed hero of your Romance who will survive the battle of Crécy only to languish in the dungeons of an English baron. In vain, he has told the king not to underestimate the English, not to listen to arrogant men like Simon. In the end, he has to ride in an assault he knew would fail.

One of the challenges with a single POV is the breaking up the battle into scenes, because you can have only scenes from that POV, and it might end up in a screwed pacing if there's fe. too much fighting frenzy and no calmer moments.

Which leads us to the last part of the workshop.

Pacing the Battle

5K of breathless action will leave the reader bored. You'll have to intersperse the actual fighting with calmer scenes like a view to King Isandor watching the battle, or the women in the camp some way from the field (see The Archer's Tale). You can even add emotional tension that way.

Also, many battles have times where the fighting slows down in some area because after several attempts to break a shieldwall, the men are simply exhausted (see The Winter King), or because the development of the battle will leave a group without an enemy for some time.

The longer a battle lasts, the more probable are periods without fighting. The battle of the Teutoburg Forest (technically an ambush on the marching army) played out over three days, and in the first night, the Romans still managed to build their fortified marching camp. The Germans knew they needed time to deal with three legions and several auxiliary cohorts, and they knew better than to attack the night camp - their leader Arminius had been a Roman officer, after all.

If you have a longer battle and a second plotline taking place somewhere else, you can switch to that for some scenes and then return to the battle.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the battle probably lasts longer than it takes to read it, but a single fight between two men last only seconds and takes longer to describe. If you are deep in one POV, avoid having the character muse about the god and bad of mankind in that moment. No soldier does that. What thoughts there are should be short and related to the fight. Aubric threw himself back in the saddle and the horse skidded to a halt before the pit. He ducked an arrow. Damn the king and his stubborness. With a tug on the reins, he veered the horse to the left. A blade flashed, Aubric lifted his targe, the sword caught in the wood.

Some books have more than one battle. In most cases, the battles increase in scope and importance, like the skirmish in the Mines of Moria, the siege of Helm's Deep and the great battle on Pelennor Fields. The build-up takes longer each time, and usually the battle scenes will require more space in the book. Bernard Cornwell invents the smaller siege of La Roche-Derrien to present his MC Thomas Hookton as archer and as part of a group of men that will stick together, plus he introduces one of the bad guys. The subsequent actions will find their culmiation in the historical battle of Crécy that gets a much more detailed treatment.

German writer Iris Kammerer has her MC getting captured on a mission, and he spends the time of the Teutoburg Forest battle wounded and prisoner in the house of a German leader. That way, the main battle of her trilogy is Idistaviso. Same basic structure as Cornwell uses. I can't resist to have Teutoburg Forest as major battle in the first third of my novel and I'll have to see how I can uppen the stakes for Idistaviso. But that's the challenge and the fun of writing military historical fiction. *grin*

I hope this has been of some help for writers who have to deal with battles. The actual writing is a question of your personal style, so I won't go into that. I have some other stuff to deal with, but there may be a post about sieges and naval battles later. If you are not one of my regular readers and want to be informed about that, drop me a line in the comments. And feel free to ask questions.

  The New Garrisons

There's another Battle Writing Workshop post, and I wanted to give you another picture post as well.

Here are the new garrisons of some Roman forts at the Hadrian's Wall. *grin*


Ain't they cute? It took me some tries to get them stay down - most sheep would rise and walk away the moment I approached them. Starlets they are not, lol.


They are everywhere, and the little brown things they leave behind are everywhere, too. Which is less cute. But you still can't resist the charm of some curious lambs. I caught several shots of these before they realised I was photographing and decided to show me their wiggly waggly tails instead.

Remains of the latrines at Vercovicium (Housesteads) to the right

I wish the sheep would use that one.

  How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, part 2

The first part of the workshop is here.

The battle in your novel begins before the first arrow is fired and the first sword drawn on the fiield. Climactic battles need some build-up, and part of it will be what you, the writer, have to plan beforehand, pretty much along with King Isandor or general Agricola.

A battle weaves into the story.

Let's have a look at a well known battle avaliable both in word and image: the battle on the Pelennor fields in Lord of the Rings. Several earlier scenes are part of that battle: Aragorn riding throught he Path of the Dead in order to block the Corsairs of Umbar from reaching Sauron's troops, the muster of Rohan and the secret march through the woods led by Ghân buri Ghân, Éowyn hiding Merry - without him the witch king would not have been slain, Denethor sending Faramir off in a doomed attempt to retake Osgiliath.

And like waves, cause and effect ripple backward to the very moment Merry and Pippin join the Fellowship, because without Merry present at the battle, the Witch King would not have been slain, and without Pippin in Minas Tirith, Faramir would have been burned. Aragorn and his friends might still have won the battle, but at a much greater price.

If Isandor had not overcome the death of his first love and developed feelings for the daugher or the neighbour king where he lives in exile, the king would not have seen a reason to give Isandor his splendid cavalry. If Malgant's mother had not been so ambitious and poisoned his mind, he might not have taken the throne to begin with.

If the Batavian auxiliaries at Mons Graupius had rebelled - and Agricola was afraid they might because there had been a major rebellion in Batavia a few years ago - the Romans might not have won the battle (history). If Madalric, the Batavian leader, had not trusted the tribune Horatius Aquila, the Batavians would have rebelled (fiction). And so forth.

Now we've anchored the battle in the plot, planned it out and put our armies in position. - That's nice, but how do I move those armies on the page and make it interesting and coherent?

It's actually quite simple: by breaking up the battle into smaller scenes.

Remember how it's in the movie? The Rohirrim lining up, Théoden holding a little speech, the hosts starts to ride, closeup on Éowyn and Merry, then camera from above showing all those riders, and then it splits. Éomer throwing his spear at one of those XXL elephants, Éowyn riding under one of the beasts cutting the sinews of its legs, Théoden's horse falling, followed by the scenes with the Witch King. Enters the green goo from the ships, Legolas performing some crazy stunts - "that still counts only as one...."

All those scenes focus on characters people know and care about, like Éowyn, Merry, Théoden, and secondaries like Gamling. The Random Rohirrim 1-283 only come into the picture in the wider views, and at the periphery, so to speak. You'll see glimpses of them to enhance the impression that there are many men in the battle, but no scene focuses on them.

In the book most of the ride of the Rohirrim and the scene with the Witch King are shown from Merry's POV, then the POV shifts to Éomer when he takes the banner from the fallen king. For the last part of the battle, after Aragorn and Éomer met on the field, Tolkien does something most writers won't get away with these days: He tells how the united forces of the men from Belfalas and the Rangers led by Aragorn, the Rohirrim led by Éomer, and the sortie from Gondor led by Imrahil of Dol Amroth ("and so great was the power of those three that few dared to face them in their hour of wrath") kick the Orcs and Southrons off the field albeit with great losses (follows list of those who didn't make it).

It is a scene with great impact because of the beautiful, heroic language, but I suppose in a different book, most readers would want to see Aragorn killing Orcs and Halbarad die.

What Tolkien uses is a mix of narrative omniscient and multiple third POV. Tolstoy does the same in War and Peace (and adds some philosophical musings, but never during the actual battles). It's a mix that works quite well for battles. You can use use narrative omniscient - aka the camera overview - to inform the reader about the positions of different contingents and their moves, if they are relevant for understanding how the battle develops. But such parts should be short nowadays.

To have more than one player to focus the POV on makes it easier to break the battle into scenes without losing the view of the large scope of the action. Many historical fiction and epic Fantasy novels have more than one POV character, and we'll stick to those for now.

Back to King Isandor. He is not the only POV character in our Fight for the Invented Kingdom. There's his faithful follower Earl Lycander who shares the kings exile because he likes Isandor and because Malgant has put one of his cronies on Lycander's lands. Then there's Isandor's brother-in-law Valerin, leader of his father's cavalry, and Carlis, a farmer who fled from Malgant's henchmen. Malgant has POV scenes, too, as does Kervec, the man who sits on Lycander's lands and also leads one of Malgant's phalanxes.

Here are some possible scenes. Lycander has convinced the king that he should not take the risk to fight himself though Isandor stays close to the field. During the battle, Lycander sees Kervec in the melée and presses through to him; the leaders fight. With Kervec's fall, the phalanx gets discouraged and the formation breaks, so Valerin manages to have his riders press them closer into the trap. Valerin is wounded and Isandor gallops in to take his place. Carlis only sees what's happening in his vicinity, he's tired and scared, but he keeps fighting.

You see how the POVs build up during the novel and continue to the battle. We have six POVs here (and maybe Isandor's wife who doesn't fight) which is a nice average. I haven't counted the POVs in Lord of the Rings, but I think every major player can hold it, and some not so major ones as well. But not everyone is present at the two major battles, Helm's Deep and Pelennor Fields, and not everyone present necessarily gets a POV scene. There must be a balance between enough POVs to have diversity and not so many it gets confusing. Tolkien knew that.

Much depends on how many POVs you feel comfortable juggling through the entire novel. Adding a new POV only for the battle usually will not have a great impact, because the reader has not learned to care about him. Though of course, like with all writing 'rules', it can be done well enough to work.

Also, you can build up such a character through previous glimpses. If you have Common Soldier guard the king's tent, the king asks his name and sends him on an errand or some other small stuff like that, it won't confuse the reader if you decide to get into his head during the battle. You will always need some minor characters anyway.

Focussing on the POV characters doesn't mean that there are no Random Soldiers™ in your battle. Your characters fight them and may notice them fight each other on the periphery of their focus. You want to give the reader a feel that there are many of them guys around.

The main rule is: The scenes you pick must present important points in the battle and / or have an emotional impact.

Carlis is scared at the sight of that big, mean looking phalanx, but he has a memory to stick to. One evening, the king talked to him and called him friend. Isandor is a king worth fighting for. Also, Carlis' wife died of exposure when Malgant's henchmen chased him off his farm because he could not pay the taxes.

The moment Lycander kills Kervec is important, because Kervec's men sorta panick. Kervec had never taken as much as a scratch in the many battles before, he was said to be charmed.

When Valerin leads the cavarly to close the ring, he is severely wounded, but his men hold the place because Isandor takes over the lead.

And Malgant doesn't lead the mercenary cavarly because it's beneath him, and they promptly leave the fun when the hidden archers come forth.

You see why writing battles can be a lot fun? *grin*

A good example for a fine battle description with several POVs is the battle of Crécy in Bernard Cornwell's The Archer's Tale. He uses three or four POVs and presents both sides, with one clear MC, Thomas of Hookton. Scott Oden employs the same technique in Men of Bronze, a few POVs covering both sides, and Hasdrabal Barca the hero. Both authors shift between fighting and the leaders discussing tactics to keep the reader oriented. It's a way of dealing with that aspect if you don't like to have narrative passages.

David Gemmell usually has a whole basket full of POV characters throughout his novels, and he was a writer who could rip it off to introduce another one just for a battle. He often achieved that by giving us a little glimpse into the character's backstory, making him real.

In my books, technically everyone who has a name can also carry a POV, and I often write pure omniscient (I define narrative omniscient as telling what the characters do, and pure omniscient as showing it while being in everyone's head). We'll deal with omniscient and the other end of the line, single first person, in the next lesson.

  Just Some Pictures

With that long workshop post below, my blog looks sadly devoid of photos, lol. So here are some more.

East coast near Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The clouds looked like a very British welcome, but they evaporated into nothing during the next hours.

Lighthouse at the entrance to the harbour of North Shields/Newcastle.

It's not Roman, but the Roman fleet already used the Tyne harbour at North Shields.

  How to Make a Battle Come Alive on the Page, part 1

This is part of Paperback Writer's Left Behind and Loving It virtual workshop. She has been so kind to invite me to hold some lessons on my blog and I'm honoured to participate.

Writers of Historical Fiction and Fantasy (and sometimes other genres) often have to deal with major battles where Romans and Caledonians meet at Mons Graupius, English archers and French knights at Crécy, and the rebel forces of the rightful king face the army of the ursurper half-brother in a final fight for the Invented kingdom.

The bad news is: battles require some amount of preplanning, even if you're not an outliner.
The good news: you don't need to be a general to write a believable battle.

In this first post, I'll give you a check plan for setting up the battle. Friday we'll deal with the writing of battle scenes from different POVs and layers, and Sunday with the little tricks that make a battle more interesting.

The first point to consider is: What role does the battle play in my book?

If your king and his few faithful followers spend a good deal of time setting up that rebel army because it's the only way to kick ursuper half-brother off the throne, you better have a battle at the end or the reader will be disappointed.

The same goes for a Roman MC whom you put in northern Britain in 84. If he skips the battle at Mons Graupius, the other Romans will point fingers at him and his career will be ruined. And your valiant 14th century French knight better fights at Crécy albeit it sucks to be a French knight in that battle.

But if your hero is part of a Romance, you don't need to spend that much space on the battle because the fact he's in lurve with the daughter of an English baron is a lot more important. In that case, you can reduce the set up to: who against whom and who won, and just have a scene where your valiant knight rides in the charge, cuts down an enemy or two and luckily survives - or gets captured because some English archer shot his mount under him.

So, let's assume you want a pretty major battle in your novel, though it looks a rather scary idea right now. In case of historical fiction you sometimes can research a battle, but the basic questions are no different for Historical Fiction and Fantasy.

Who fights? Against whom?
Where do they fight?
How well are the soldiers armed and trained, how well led?
What is their motivation?

The Troops: The normal infanty/cavalry ratio is something between 3:1 to 5:1. Cavalry is more expensive and takes longer to train. There are exceptions, of course, if you deal with mounted nomadic tribes like the Huns, or mounted knights who pay for their horses. But even in a cavalry-oriented army usually has some infantry (fe. the French at Crécy had Genoese crossbow mercenaries).

Sometimes there are specials forces, like Balearic slingers and Scythian archers in the Roman army.

Don't make your armies too big. The largest armies in the Roman and Medieaveal battles I've researched are some 80,000 maximum, often smaller.

The Weapons: Arm your armies. Some of it will depend on social status. Chain and plate mail cost money, and some men will only be able to afford a boiled leather jerkin, and not everyone wore a helmet. Not everyone had a sword, either, spears were more common in many cultures. Professional armies were usually better equipped than tribal societies where everyone gets what he can afford or filch from a dead enemy.

Depending on how your battle develops you might for example want to know how far a javelin or arrow reaches. You don't want your archers start shooting at a distance where the arrows will stick in the mud some 50 metres in front of the hostile lines. Arrows don't magically multiply either, except in Hollywood.

What damage can an arrow or sword cause if the opponent wears armour / doesn't wear armour? Questions like these will often pop up when you start writing the actual scenes, and it's time enough to check details then. Reenactment groups are a good source for that sort of information.

The Training: Is your army professional, well trained and disciplined, or a bunch of brave and fierce warriors who can't keep a line and rush at the enemy like mad? We'll see below that the latter will have a more difficult time. Or a warband that meets now and then, where the men know each other and have fought side by side - they won't have the training of a professional army but may be able to keep up some sort of formation (fe. a shieldwall).

The Terrain: Where a battle takes place can be an important factor for the outcome. Does one army have to charge uphill, is there a river that blocks retreat, a wood where one can hide reinforcements? Weather can also play a role - rain will make the ground slippery and heat can lead to exhaustion. More than one crusader died of heat shock because he was fried in his armour.

Have the armies fortified their position with trenches and palisades, put up traps in front of their lines? If they have the time, they'll often do.

Some more questions that belong in this part are: Is the army far from their supply lines? (The Romans moved back to their forts at the Rhine during winter because they could not maintain the supply all the way to the Weser). How well do they know the land, can they be ambushed, or spring an ambush?

It may prove useful to draw a little sketch of the positions of the armies. If your general orders the cavarly to form the left wing, you don't want it to gallop in from the right later.

The Movements: That one is the most tricky for us armchair generals. But writers of historical fiction are not always at such a great advantage - the battle of the Teutoburg Forest lasted three days, but the information we have doesn't paint a clear picture at all. Because I've played with historical battle formations for quite some time, I have some ideas how to stage a fictive battle that looks realistic. Here are some basic setups.

The aim of a battle is brutally simple: to kill as many of the enemy as possible with as little losses on your side as possible.

Lets have two equally strong and well trained armies meet on flat terrain with dry ground. Both armies have considerably more infantry than cavalry.

Both would put the heavy infantry (the guys with the armour, helmets and shields) in the center, and lighter infantry like archers and the cavalry at the wings. The mounted generals and staff hold behind the infantry.

The armies will try outflank and encircle the enemy. The infantry moves forward until they clash and begin to fight, while the archers try to get some arrows into the enemy. When the melee gets to tight, they'll draw their swords and join the fun, all the while trying to get around the bulk of the enemy and attack it from behind. Pretty much the same happens with the cavalry, they whirl around, trying to close the circle and at the same time keep the enemy's cavalry at bay. At some point, one of the armies will either have managed to encircle the other, at which point the butchering starts - if the enemy doesn't manange to break out; or there will be an indecisive end to the battle because everyone is tired and it's getting dark.

You can imagine this basic scenario leaves a lot of room to play. One infantry could form a wedge and try to break the other's lines, one army might have hidden reserves. The moment the defender is situated on higher terrain, a charge becomes more difficult for the attacker. But such a position doesn't mean a sure victory; at Mons Graupius, the more disciplined Romans took the Caledonians out despite having to charge uphill and being outnumbered. If there's a river, the could try and push the enemy into it.

If a dominantly infantry army meets one composed mostly of heavy cavalry, keeping the horses at bay is the most important thing. Archers can shoot the horses from a distance, but the best way to stop a charge is to have the first lines of soldiers kneel, spears or pikes firmly planted in the ground, and the next lines stand, with spears pointing more upward so the whole thing looks like a hegdehog. That's what Jackson got wrong in Éomer's downhill charge at the end of The Two Towers - no horse crashes into a thicket of pointy things.

The Psychology of Battle: This is the most important aspect and the one you can have the most fun with. An army is made of humans and human feelings, and a good general or leader not only tries to govern the men's motions in battle but also their emotions.

Let's get inside the head of some soldiers/warriors and look how it can affect the outcome of a battle.

Titus Bravus, Roman soldier. "This army is the best. I know what I have to do and the chaps around me know what they have to do, the centurion knows what he has to do, and we won't let each other down. Look at them barbarians milling around. Maybe there's twice as many as us and they're said to be fierce fighters, but we are Roman soldiers, we'll have them for dinner."
Now imagine the majority of the men in a legion thinks like that. No wonder they often won battles against less disciplined opponents even when outnumbered.

Simon Le Preux, French knight. "I'm a French knight, I have won many tournaments, I'm better than the other knights in this," he snorts, "army. Those English archers? Only a peasant would employ archers. I'll have some for dinner - no wait, I don't think they'll taste any good. But I will demonstrate my courage and attack them, and the other knights who still hesitate be damned."
See why the French lost at Crécy? They underestimated the enemy and they didn't really work together.

Psychology of masses is an important factor. If some soliders begin to think they'll lose and the wood over there looks a lot better than those mad warriors in front of them, and start to run for the wood, others will follow, and soon there's scarcely a way to stop the route. In an army, fear can spread like a disease. As can hartred. After several battles against the same damn enemy, the level of cruelty committed during and after battle will rise.

Another point is whether the soldiers can trust the officers not to screw up. Since military service was part of the political career in Rome, some of the tribunes and legates were not exactly military men, and Rome lost some battles because the general did screw up. If soldiers begin to distrust the leaders, there's the danger of mutiny, and morals will go down. "Why should I risk my ass for Quintus Idiotus Stupidus? Who got the job because he married the daughter of Publius Pomposus to begin with."

Motivation plays a role as well. If you fight off invaders who threaten your way of life, your freedom and your family, you'll probably hold your place even with little fighting experience and a rusty sword. Because there are things worse than dying in this battle.

Fear of the unknown is a strong human emotion. The Romans held discipline during the first phase of the German attacks at the battle of the Teutoburg Forest, but they must have hated those primordial woods so different from what they knew from home; and they were superstitious besides. The forest was infested with demons and ghosts.

So, and how can I use all that cool stuff?

Let's go back to our rightful king Isandor, his ursurper half-brother Malgant, and that final battle. Exiled Isandor won't have access to large, professional armies, but he has some faithful followers and their retainers, so he is not utterly devoid of trained warriors. He also has some talent for things military. And a lot of people are not happy with Malgant. He takes too much taxes, sells men in debt bondage, and his minions molest the women.

After several year of strife, and a marriage to the daughter of a neighbour king who happens to have a troop of splendid mounted archers and some heavy cavalry, Isandor assembles whoever can hold a sword or spear. He'll have good cavalry, some decent and well equipped infantry, and a rather large contingent of men with little experience but a damn good reason, let's say some 40,000 in all.

Malgant has a professional army. His élite troops are really well trained and have a lot of privileges, but part of the army has been recruited by force, and the men want to be anywhere else than at the mercy of the drill sergeants, good equipment be damned. Malgant has to hire cavalry from the Mountain Savages. His army is 80,000 in all.

After days of marching around, the armies meet on a wide plateau. Malgant deploys his army in the traditional way: infantry as big block in the center, cavalry on the wings. He knows Isandor has a lot of untrained infantry and he intends to crush it with his fearsome bad boys.

Isandor comes up with a neat little trick. He puts the least experienced troops in the center, well aware that they might fall back (and hoping they won't totally panic), and the better disciplined infantry to their sides, the cavalry on the wings. He has also hidden those of the men who are good with a bow below the rim of the plateau.

So, Malgant's infantry pushes the king's center back. But since the men know about the little surprise, they manage to not panic. The better experienced troops hold their ground, and Malgant's army finds itself fanned out in a half moon with the center pushed forward like a c. At that point, Isandor's cavalry closes the circle, and Malgant's highly trained troops don't have much room to fight. Also, the men pressed into service are prone to surrender.

Malgant's hired horse tries to get in the back of the weakest contingent of Isandor's infantry in hope to break the circle, but at the moment, the archers climb up the few steps and start shooting at the horses. The mountain riders flee, thinking it not worth to risk their lives for the gold they've already got. Spending it will be more fun.

I hope this will help you to organise a battle. In the next lesson we'll get at the actual writing.

Btw, the idea for King Isandor's strategy is modeled after the battle of Cannae where Hannibal made pasta sauce of a much larger Roman army, with some things of my own added. To use and adapt actual battles can prove helpful for Fantasy battles.

Part 2 is here
Part 3 is here

  Carlisle Castle

The pictures of Carlisle Castle serve as illustration for Alianore's todays post about Edward I and his son. Edward II was proclaimed King in Carlisle Castle on July 20, 1307.

The site at the British west coast, known first as Luguvallium and part of the Hadrian's Wall defenses, had seen a sequence of Roman forts from the 1st to 4th centuries AD, and then the turbulent times when Romano-Britains, Anglo-Saxons, Picts, Scots and Vikings strove for power; at that time the place was known as Caer Ligualid.

The next traceable step in the history of fortifications took place in 1092. In the wake of the Norman conquest, William Rufus, son of William the Conqueror, raised a castle on the old Roman site, a Norman style motte and bailey construction made of timber. He had pushed the Scottish frontier north of Carlisle and needed a strong border fortification. During the following century it was refortified in stone by Henry I. The 12th-century stone keep is the oldest surviving structure in the castle, which was frequently 'updated' in the centuries to follow. For example, the rounded, shot-deflecting battlements of the keep were added when Henry VIII adapted the castle for artillery in 1540.

King David I of the Scots captured Carlisle in 1135 and completed the changes made by Henry I, but in 1157 it was retaken by Henry II who added a second curtain wall.

Carlisle Castle also served as prison on occasion, as carvings in a room in the keep, probably made by captives held here by the future Richard III in 1480, demonstrate.

Situated so close to the Scottish border, Carlisle Castle saw lots of action. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned within the castle for a few months in 1568, and it was besieged by the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War in 1644. Important battles for the city of Carlisle and its castle took place during the second Jacobite rising against George II of Great Britain in 1745. Carlisle and the castle were seized by the Jacobites, but they were driven north by the forces of the Duke of Cumberland. Carlisle was recaptured and the Jacobites were jailed and then executed.

  Birthdays, Battles, and A Saint

This time it's Ann who spreads a meme.

The rules are: You go to Wikipedia and type in your birthdate. Then you write down 3 events, 2 births, and 1 holiday. I added comments in italics.

October, 23

42 BC - Roman Republican civil wars: Second Battle of Philippi - Brutus's army is decisively defeated by Mark Antony and Octavian. He commits suicide. And 67 years later, Octavian, then known as Augustus, would ask the dead Varus to give him back the three legions lost in Germania (according to Sueton).
425 - Valentinian III is elevated as Roman Emperor, at the age of 6. He is the son of Galla Placidia, Honorius' sister and King Athaulf's widow, who plays a role in my novel 'Endangered Frontiers'.
1157 - The Battle of Grathe Heath ends the civil war in Denmark. King Sweyn III is killed and Valdemar I restores the country. Valdemar is the foil for the King of Danemark in my S&S novel 'Kings and Rebels'.

1503 - Isabella of Portugal, queen of Spain and empress of Germany (d. 1539). The House of Habsburg is later than the times of my special interest, so I admit I know little about her.
1801 - Albert Lortzing, German composer (d. 1851). His opera 'Der Wildschütz' was among the first I saw on stage.
1942 - Michael Crichton, American writer. Gotta love dinos, lol.

Saint Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. That's a cool patron saint for me; I've even read some of his stuff. :)

The links are Wikipedia and to be read with the usual caution.

Slaget på Grathe Hede, 23. oktober 1157 - Battle of Grathe Heath
as the artist Lorenz Frølich imagined. (Wikipedia Common License)

I tag whoever wants to play along. It should give the history gang a field day, lol.

The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, and other places (like Flanders and the Baltic States), with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)