Matthew Harffy, author of the Bernicia Chronicles novels, finds unexpected similarities between the seventh-century siege of Bebbanburg and his life in 2020, whether it’s coping with lockdown or making a television trailer.
The world is under a cloud of sickness. People despair at ineffectual politicians as more of the global population fall ill and succumb to a new and terrible disease. With the events of 2020 it would seem obvious for a historical novelist to think about the parallels of the Covid-19 pandemic and plagues throughout history.
And I’m sure there are many authors working on novels about the Black Death, who are either bemoaning the fact that nobody will want to read a plague-based story now, or, more darkly, secretly hoping that the coronavirus will create more of an interest in the subject matter of their works of fiction.
Beobrand, the protagonist of my Bernicia Chronicles series of novels set in 7th-century Britain, lost most of his family to an unspecified pestilence, but in the latest volume, Fortress of Fury, it is not a plague that echoes current events.
The story takes place in 647AD. It is summer and the days are long and hot and Beobrand finds himself unable to leave the fortress of Bebbanburg. But Oswiu, the King of Northumbria, has not imposed a lockdown to try to prevent the spread of a disease. His arch-enemy, the pagan king Penda of Mercia, has led his troops into Bernicia and has besieged the castle.
And yet, despite being separated by 14 centuries, in many ways Beobrand and his friends find themselves in a similar situation to that faced by so many across the world in 2020.
They are cooped up together, unable to leave; the walls that protect them from the outside threats feeling just as much as if they imprison them. The inhabitants of the fortress fear for the future and for their lives, and, just as with so many families locked up in houses and apartments all over the world, emotions run high.
Also, just like people in modern-day lockdown, my early medieval characters also face the logistical problems of dealing with a limited supply of drink and food (though mercifully they do not seem to face a shortage of toilet paper!).
The siege of Bebbanburg ends in flames and death, but at least it doesn’t drag on as long as this pandemic threatens to…
It is perhaps surprising to find such obvious similarities between a medieval siege and a government-enforced quarantine in the 21st century, but I was even more surprised to realise that many of the skills needed to survive the siege of Bebbanburg were also needed to succeed in the other endeavour that has taken over my life in the last 12 months.
Besides writing Fortress of Fury, I have also been closely involved with adapting the Bernicia Chronicles for TV.
I was approached by an amateur historian and keen fan of the novels about creating a television series based on my books that would be not only exciting, but as historically accurate as possible. I loved the idea and soon we had joined forces with a production company and a scriptwriter to begin work on the series we chose to name after the first novel, The Serpent Sword.
As part of the process of bringing my vision to the screen we decided to produce a proof-of-concept trailer that, on a very limited micro-budget, would show viewers, potential production partners, networks and distributors, exactly what we were aiming for.
I have never been involved in television before, but it soon became clear to me that my role as producer would be very close to that of the leaders of the people besieged within Bebbanburg in Fortress of Fury.
The end product of the proof-of-concept trailer is beautifully shot, has wonderful performances, stunts, visual effects, gorgeous locations, historically authentic costumes, props and weapons and an original score of soaring music.
But the job of getting all of the pieces in place to make that happen felt similar at times to being a general on a battlefield (or in a siege).
It is as much about the logistics as it is the talent of those involved. Ensuring that people are in the right location at the right time, with the correct costumes and makeup. Making sure that nothing gets forgotten. Feeding everybody involved. Keeping everybody’s spirits up when they are tired and cold.
In the end, just as in warfare, it is down to good preparation and faith in all of the individuals involved. And, like soldiers, actors spend a lot of their time hanging around waiting to perform in sudden bursts of energetic action.
I am exceedingly happy with how the trailer has come out and I could not have hoped to work with a more talented and hard-working crew and cast.
Please share the trailer far and wide. The more people who see it, the better. Fingers crossed we will secure funding for the full series, but whatever happens, I certainly see the trailer as a massive success.
As to the outcome of the siege of Bebbanburg in AD 647, well for that, you will just have to read Fortress of Fury. And with any luck, you’ll be able to see the events of the book in televisual glory in a future season of The Serpent Sword TV series!
Read more about Fortress of Fury.
Matthew Harffy lived in Northumberland as a child and the area had a great impact on him. The rugged terrain, ruined castles and rocky coastline made it easy to imagine the past. Decades later, a documentary about Northumbria’s Golden Age sowed the kernel of an idea for a series of historical fiction novels. The first of them is the action-packed tale of vengeance and coming of age, The Serpent Sword.
He has worked in the IT industry, where he spent all day writing and editing – just not the words that most interested him. Prior to that he worked in Spain as an English teacher and translator. Matthew lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife and their two daughters.
Bethan Harvey as Hessa in The Serpent Sword trailer: © Roni Glasthal
Bamburgh Castle (Bebbanburg) by James Emberton: via Flickr
Liam Hatch as Beobrand faces Simon Dwyer as Hengist in The Serpent Sword trailer: © Dan Norris
Liam Hatch as Beobrand and Cat Williams as Sunniva: © Dan Norris