We’re very pleased to publish a specially-chosen extract for Historia from Ben Kane’s newest book, Lionheart, ahead of its publication on 28 May, 2020. And if you enjoy reading this preview, there’s more Lionheart news to come.
1179. Henry II is King of England, Wales, Ireland, Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine. While they reign supreme, there is unrest within the House of Plantagenet.
The King’s eldest son, Henry, is infuriated by his sibling Richard’s newfound fame and glory in battle. Soon it becomes clear that the biggest threat to Richard’s life may not be rebel or French armies, but his own family…
Ten years had passed since the treacherous former king of Leinster, Diarmait MacMurchada, had invited the English into Ireland. Their conquest was by no means complete, but the grey foreigners, as we called them, had the upper hand. The proof of this lay not just with the strip of territory they held along the east coast, but the fealty offered to the English monarch Henry by many of the Irish provincial kings. Four years prior, a hammer blow to our hopes had been struck when King Ruairidh of Connacht had also pledged his allegiance.
My father was a minor nobleman in northern Leinster, and after Diarmait made an alliance with the English, he had offered his loyalty to Ruairidh. Furious with what he regarded as Ruairidh’s betrayal, Father took the inconceivable step of joining with the king of Ulster, long our enemy but still unconquered by the invaders. His choice was an ill-considered one. When the enemy came ravaging, Ulster did not answer our call. We fought bravely, but our lands were soon overrun.
Taken hostage for the good behaviour of my family, I was sent to Dublin. From there I travelled in a sturdy cog east and south over the sea, to the cloud-ridden Welsh coast, the length of which was dotted with castles. Cover a land in such strongholds, I thought grimly, and the locals, with nowhere to go, will be forced into a final stand as my own family had been. Again I saw the English knights’ charge in my mind, an unstoppable wave that had shattered our light-armed warriors.
Our voyage came to an end in sight of England, at the stronghold they call Striguil. Home to the de Clare family, it sits on a bluff overlooking the River Wye, and was the largest castle I had ever seen. A mighty rectangular tower, it was surrounded by a palisade that snaked across the summit of the hill. Beyond that, on every side but that which gave onto the Wye, I would discover, lay a defensive ditch. I did not let it show, but I was impressed. If this was the ancestral home of an earl, King Henry’s donjon must be remarkable indeed. The English weren’t just expert at fighting, I thought, they were master builders too. My fears that Ireland’s chieftains and kings would never drive the invaders into the sea returned. I quelled them, for it seemed that if I gave in to that despair, my own situation would become altogether worse. Dream of defeating the English in my own land, and the miseries heaped upon me could somehow be borne.
Nineteen years old, taller than most, mop-haired and raw-boned, full of the arrogance of youth, I spoke little French that day, and not a word of English. Since being handed into captivity by my stony-faced father, I had endured a difficult time. Taking his parting words to heart – ‘Give in only if you must. Do only what you have to’ – I had refused to obey any commands. On the first day, I called the brutish knight into whose charge I had been given a flea-infested dog, adding that his mother worked in the back alleys of Dublin. I had not considered the consequences. Some of the crew were Irish, and, intimidated by the knight, translated what I had said.
My insults that first day earned me a hiding, and my mulish carrying-on thereafter earned no respect, just more beatings and short rations. I look back now, and wonder at my bull-headed behaviour and more, my short-sightedness. By the end of the voyage I was old friends with the knight’s boots and fists. Forever burning with rage and humiliation, I would have tipped him into the brine, or worse if I had laid hands to a weapon. And yet despite my youthful bravado, I had wits to know that such an act would have seen me follow him to the ocean floor, and so I buried my hatred for what I hoped was another day.
Still unused to the name my captor had given me – unable, or more likely, I thought darkly, unwilling to try mastering my own of Ferdia – I paid no heed. My eyes were fixed on the figures standing on the wooden jetty below the castle. It seemed that word of our arrival had landed before us. I had no idea who might greet us off the ship, but it would not be Richard de Clare, the Earl of Pembroke, one of the chief nobles who had invaded Ireland. He was dead, praise God. Even when he was living, the earl would not have deigned to watch the arrival of a captive such as I. Nor would his wife, the countess Aoife, in residence here since his passing. Reputed to be a great beauty, I had nightly conjured pleasant fantasies about her to take my mind from the thinness of my blanket, and the hardness of the deck.
‘Rufus, you dog!’ Boots and Fists – my nickname for Robert FitzAldelm, the block-headed knight in charge of our party – sounded angry.
He caught my attention at last. I recognised ‘Rufus’; I knew what chien meant. I am as high born as you, I thought with contempt. My ribs were still hurting from his last attack, and yet stubborn to the last, I kept my gaze locked on the close-to jetty, and my mind on Aoife. Daughter of Diarmait MacMurchada, the king of Leinster, widow of Richard de Clare, she would be the mistress of my fate.
I did not hear.
A ball of agony exploded in my head; my vision blurred. The force of the blow sent me reeling sideways, into one of the crew. He shoved me away with an oath, and weak-kneed, I fell to the deck. Fists and Boots laid into me with his usual energy, careful as always not to kick me in the face. Sly as a fox he was, mindful that those above him would not sanction the punishments he had been doling out since we had sailed from Dublin.
‘Areste!’ The voice was reedy, but full of command. A girl’s voice.
I knew that French word as well: it meant ‘stop’.
My heart hammered. No more kicks landed.
The girl spoke again, an angry question. I did not understand.
Boots and Fists moved further away as he answered. His tone was respectful yet sullen. I could not make out the words.
Light-headed still, I opened my eyes, taking in the sideways view. A line of iron nail heads. Gaps in the planking. Below, scummy water, several fingers’ depth of which occupied the space under the deck. The whiff of piss – despite the captain’s rules, some men did not like urinating over the side – and rotten food. Boots and shoes moved about; the former worn by the men-at-arms, the latter by the callous-handed crew. A coil of rope. The bottoms of barrels that held water, mead and salted pork.
Boots and Fists had not come back. Deciding that it might be safe to get up, I eased into a sitting position. Darts of pain came from my belly and back, from my arms and legs. I tried to feel grateful that the only part of me he had missed – apart from my head – was my groin. I cast a glance at Boots and Fists, who was talking yet to the girl on the jetty. We had come in alongside it now, and men with thick ropes were making the ship fast. Standing, gripping the vessel’s side to steady myself, I was astonished to see she was a mere child. Clad in a mulberry gown and over it, a dark green cloak edged with silver braid, she was perhaps six years of age. Long tresses of red hair, a lighter shade than my own, framed an oval, serious face.
Her grey-eyed gaze fell on me. For some reason, I suspected she was Richard and Aoife’s daughter. What she was doing here alone was beyond me. I dipped my head, a show of respect I did not feel, and met her stare once more.
‘Are you hurt?’ she asked.
I gaped. The girl had addressed me not in French, but my own tongue.
‘Mother says that it is impolite to let your mouth hang open. If nothing else, flies will go in.’
I closed my jaw, feeling foolish, and managed, ‘My apologies. I did not expect to hear Irish here.’
‘Mother insists that we learn it. “You may be half-Norman,” she says, “but you are also half-Irish.”’
My gut had been right. I pulled a smile. ‘Your mother sounds like a wise woman. To answer your question, I do not think he broke any bones.’ I wanted to glare at Boots and Fists, who I sensed was doing his best to understand, but thought it wiser not to. ‘My thanks for intervening.’
A little nod.
She was a small child, but there was a gravity to her. It was no surprise, I decided, given her breeding.
‘What is your name?’
‘Ferdia Ó Catháin.’
To my surprise, she pronounced my family name correctly, the ‘c’ hard, the ‘t’ silent, and the rest of the word like ‘hoyn’. Her mother was proud of her Irish roots, I thought with a flash of pleasure.
Boots and Fists growled something in French. I understood only ‘Rufus’.
‘He says they call you Rufus.’ The girl cocked her head. ‘I can see why.’
I raised a hand to my head, amused despite my pain. ‘Mother used to say that the fairies dangled me by the heels in a pot of madder to give me such red hair. They must have done it for a shorter time with you.’
The girl’s serious manner vanished, and she laughed. ‘I shall also call you Rufus!’ She must have seen something in my face; her expression changed. ‘Unless you had rather I did not?’
Once more Boots and Fists interrupted. Despite my lack of French, it was clear that he wanted me off the ship. The men-at-arms were already on the jetty, taking the shields and leather-wrapped bundles of weapons passed to them by the crew.
Ignoring the discomfort it caused, I swung a leg over the side and eased myself onto the dock. Boots and Fists followed. He pointed to the path that led through a scattering of houses to the base of the palisade, and again spoke in French.
Curse it, I thought. I shall have to learn their tongue, or my life will be impossible. ‘He wants me to go up?’ I asked the girl.
‘Yes.’ Her previous air of command had waned; it was if she knew that her power was limited. She could stop my beating, but not my destiny as a captive.
I resisted the first dig in the back that Boots and Fists gave me. ‘What is your name?’
‘Isabelle!’ The voice – a woman’s – came from somewhere behind the palisade. It was shrill, and unhappy. ‘Is-a-belle!’
An impish smile. ‘Isabelle. Isabelle de Clare.’
My instinct had been right. I dipped my head a second time, more willingly, for the girl’s heart was in the right place. Lowering my voice so the Irishmen among the crew could not hear, I said, ‘I owe you my thanks, for stopping that amadán from kicking me to a pulp.’
She giggled. ‘Careful what you call FitzAldelm. He might speak some Irish.’
‘He does not understand a word.’ Confident that I would soon be dining in the great hall, I half turned. ‘Do you, amadán?’
Boots and Fists – FitzAldelm – scowled, and gave me a shove.
‘See?’ I said, my cockiness growing.
‘Isabelle!’ The voice had risen to a harridan’s screech.
‘That is my nurse. I had best go,’ she said, rolling her eyes. Picking up her skirts so they did not trail in the mud, she sped up the path ahead of us. ‘Farewell, Rufus!’
‘Farewell, my lady,’ I cried.
It was the first time I had not resented someone addressing me so.
My pleasure was brief.
Boots and Fists gave me an almighty dunt in the behind. I nearly fell on my face. Picking myself up, my ears full of curses, I began to climb. Passing through the gate that led into the castle, Isabelle did not see.
I almost called after her, but full sure that my ill-treatment would soon be a thing of the past, I held my peace. If Aoife was a just woman, I decided, Fists and Boots might even be punished for what he had done.
Reaching the gate, which had already been closed, I looked up at the top of the palisade. Three men’s height it must have been, close enough to see the sentry leering at me, but sufficient distance upward to realise that taking the place by storm would be a lackwit’s errand.
‘Ouvre la porte!’ demanded Boots and Fists angrily.
Open the door, I thought. Remember those words.
Impatient, Boots and Fists stepped past me and rapped on the timbers with his fist. Sturdily built, it was still the weak spot in this part of the defences, and yet in the event of an attack, the garrison would empty pots of heated sand on the attackers’ heads while arrows rained down from the rampart.
The door creaked open, revealing a soldier in a gambeson and hauberk. Plainly a soldier several rungs down the ladder of command, he endured Boots and Fists’ haranguing without complaint. A question was asked. I heard the name ‘Eva’, the French for Aoife. Giving me a curious glance, the soldier replied with a shake of his head.
I had no time to dwell on the significance of this, for Boots and Fists shoved me in the back, indicating I should enter.
I had been inside a bailey – the word given by the English to the space inside a castle’s defences – but never one so large. An irregular rectangle, open at the centre to the skies, it was bordered on one side by the two-storey stone keep with its attached kitchen and storage houses. The other sides, formed by the palisade, had at their base slope-roofed buildings I took to be barracks, stables and the like. The place was crowded, but scarcely a person paid me any heed.
A smith in a leather apron bent over a horse’s foot, hammer poised to drive another nail into the shoe he had been fashioning. At the beast’s head, a youth in a ragged tunic and torn hose gripped the bridle, at the same time picking his nose with his free hand. From the back of a cart, a heavyset man heaved down bulging sacks of vegetables to a second. Out of an empty stable came a rat catcher, pushing his one-wheeled pole. He was followed by several scrawny cats, attention fixed on the half dozen rodents hanging from it by their tails. A group of men-at-arms lounged by the timber-built well, passing a costrel of wine to and fro, and eyeing the young maidservant who was pulling a bucket up from the depths.
The air was rich with smells; horse manure, wood smoke and baking bread. The last made my belly rumble, and I thought with longing of hot-from-the-oven wheaten loaf, slathered in butter and honey. Tortured, for my recent diet had been a world apart from that, I shoved the image away.
‘Ceste direction.’ Boots and Fists pointed over my shoulder at a door in the basement of the keep.
I caught a tone of urgency in his voice; the hefty push that followed confirmed it.
A woman’s voice carried from above, its tone both annoyed and reprimanding. My eyes rose to the staircase that led from ground level to the highly ornamented doorway in the keep’s wall. A diminutive shape – Isabelle, recognisable by her green cloak – had reached the top, where an amply figured woman stood. By her wagging finger and continuous carping, she was Isabelle’s nurse.
I longed for Isabelle to turn and see me, and raise a friendly hand. Again I almost called out, but Boots and Fists pre-empted me with a stinging cuff that saw me bite my lip. Sure that something was wrong now, I searched the bailey for someone of high rank, the steward, or one of the knights, but could see no one. I dragged my feet, but it made no difference. Soon we had reached the ominous-looking door, and after he had opened it with a heavy iron key, I was forced into the dark, damp space beyond.
I peered about, eyes adjusting to the gloom. Timber pillars thicker than a man stood a dozen paces apart, supporting the floor of what was probably the great hall above. Doors lined the walls on either side. I judged them to be a mixture of granaries, storerooms and prison cells, and my suspicion about the last was borne out when Fists and Boots prodded me towards a doorway that gaped like the mouth of a tomb. I stopped dead. I was no king’s offspring like Aoife, but nor was I a felon. I deserved better quarters than this.
Mouth opening to protest, I turned towards Fists and Boots.
He had been waiting for his chance. Up flew his right fist, circled as I discovered later with a heavy loop of iron, to take me under the chin.
I never felt myself hit the floor.
Kenya-born, Irish by blood and a UK resident, Ben Kane changed career from veterinary medicine to writing thanks to his passion for history. Ten of his 13 novels have been Sunday Times top ten bestsellers, and his books are published in 12 languages; a million copies have sold worldwide. Ben lives in Somerset with his wife and children, where he writes full time.
Thank you to Orion Books for pre-releasing the first chapter of Lionheart for Historia readers.
Find out more about about the Norman invasion of Ireland in Ruadh Butler’s Historia feature.
Chepstow Castle: Stewart Black via Flickr
Chepstow Castle: via Wikimedia
The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife by Daniel Maclise: via Wikimedia
Chepstow Castle, the bailey: Chris Gunns via Geograph (CC BY-SA 2.0)