Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3

Our Walcheren Expedition Day 3 was dedicated to museums. This turned out to be a good thing because it rained all morning.

I was woken at around 2am by a spectacular thunderstorm. I’m not scared of storms, but I do find it difficult to sleep through them, so while the man I married snoozed on happily, I sat by the long windows in the living room and watched the sky light up, thinking about the reported thunderstorms in the days leading up to the bombardment of Vlissingen in 1809.

The storm rumbled on until about nine, but the rain continued. We hovered, unable to decide, and then got bored with waiting and set off for Middelburg Abbey. It’s about ten minutes walk and the rain had stopped by the time we got there. Nothing was going to stop our Walcheren Expedition day 3.

Middelburg Abbey originated in the twelfth century. Monks from Antwerp established a large religious foundation with two churches and extensive lands on Walcheren and in other parts of Zeeland. Many of the surviving buildings from the monastic period  are Medieval Gothic, and date from the late sixteenth century.

Monastic life came to an end in 1574 when the Spanish surrendered to the Protestant Dutch separatists at the end of the two year Siege of Middelburg. William of Orange had given guarantees that the clergy would be left alone, but both the abbey and Roman Catholicism in Middelburg were nevertheless forcibly terminated.

The abbey was taken over for use in the secular administration of the province. Initially it was used as the seat of the district assembly and for other administrative functions including the admiralty, a mint, and a court chamber. Following reforms during the Napoleonic occupation, in 1812 the former abbey complex became known as the Province Building.

The abbey church was badly damaged in May 1940 by German aerial bombers targeting Middelburg in order to persuade the Dutch army not to hold out against German invasion and rebuilding was not completed till 1965. Other abbey buildings continued to accommodate government activities till the end of the twentieth century, such as the land registry and state archive.  Part of the complex now houses the Zeeuws Museum and the Roosevelt Study Centre.

The two Protestant churches are still referred to as Abbey Churches, reflecting their monastic origins. The Choir church or Koorkerk was built around 1300 and comprises a tall chancel of seven arches in length, with a five sided apse to the east of the choir stalls  with elaborate roof vaulting. On the south side is the church tower known as Lange Jan.

The New church  features a double nave and dates from the rebuilding that followed the fire of 1558. It replaced an earlier church built around 1300 which also featured a twin nave. The eastern wall of the New church is also the western wall of the Choir church, and the two interiors were originally connected through an arch, but this was subsequently blocked up. After 1833 the New church became the only parish church for the central walled area of Middelburg.

Both churches are beautiful, although in the middle of the tourist season it was hard to get the sense of peace that I love about old churches. I found this in the old Abbey cloisters, cool and dim, with sunlight peeping through and a gloriously tangled herb garden in the centre; my favourite part of the Abbey.

There is a big, open square in the middle of the Abbey buildings, with trees and seats and a couple of cannon which look rather as though they had been carelessly abandoned by some negligent commissary officer. There is also the entrance to the museum and cafe.

This part of the building has been thoroughly modernised inside, giving little sense of the original abbey. The museum has exhibitions over a number of floors. It is very well designed and put together with very modern themes, but I will be honest and admit that I was a little disappointed. While I wasn’t expecting to find anything about the campaign of 1809 which was not especially significant in Dutch history, apart from the people who died in Vlissingen and Veere, I was very much hoping for some information about the history of Middelburg and Walcheren and that was very much lacking. The one exhibition which dealt with history, was an amazing selection of tapestries telling the story of the rebellion against Spain. I loved that section. Much of the rest of the museum was beautifully put together but gave very little actual information about the town or its history. Given that there is no other museum in Middelburg to do that job, I thought it a shame, although I did pick up some useful information about historic costume.

We climbed Lange Jan to see the fabulous views over the town, following in the footsteps of my fictional Lieutenant Durrell who found it a quiet haven away from the chaos of the campaign in 1809. After coffee and cake outside a local cafe, dodging another rain shower, we went back to Veere to the two museums there. The Veere Museums consist of the City Hall and the Scottish Houses on the quay, both fabulous historic buildings.

There is a unique collection of 16th century statues which once adorned the façade of the City Hall and are on display in the ‘Statue hall’. The ‘Scottish attic’ tells the story of the long lasting trade relationship between Scotland and the city of Veere. Veere was once the centre of the profitable wool trade between Scotland and the Low Countries; the town won staple-rights on Scottish wool in 1541, meaning that the goods had to be made available for purchase there for a set time before being allowed to go on sale elsewhere. This important and profitable trade right encouraged Scottish merchants to establish themselves in Veere permanently and for a period of time, the small Scottish community was ruled by Scottish law and their own leader within the Dutch town.

The museums in Veere were far more interesting in terms of history, although I have to say that there was still more art than history in both of them. I really enjoy art, and I loved the story of the English family who set up an artists’ community in Veere before the second world war. I still felt a slight sense of frustration, however. These towns have so much history and I came away knowing very little about the people, the development of the town, their economy and agriculture and what shaped them. Perhaps there’s a museum somewhere else in this area that I’ve not found which offers that.

Having said that, I had a fabulous day. The museums were great at what they did, even if it wasn’t what I wanted, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I also found, in a rather more modern painting of a woman in traditional Dutch costume, my perfect Katja de Groot. Honestly, I couldn’t stop staring at her. Isn’t she beautiful?

Tomorrow is Vlissingen, and the nautical museum. I really like this part of the world; it’s very relaxed and we’re having a great week. Even if my husband dreams of hills he could cycle up…

Our Walcheren Expedition day 2

Our Walcheren Expedition, day 2, could be sub-titled “What I learned about cycling.”

One of the things well known to our friends and family is that Richard cycles, and I don’t. That sounds like a simple fact of life, but it’s a lot more extreme than it sounds. Richard’s cycling involves owning about six bikes and more gadgets than you would believe. His gadgets measure everything. An entire community of online cyclists share information from these gadgets and congratulate each other on their prowess. Also there is lycra. A lot of lycra.

I did not own a bike as a child and was at university when I first learned to ride one. My mother had lost a cousin of some kind who was run over while cycling in London and refused to budge on the bike issue. Both my sister and I learned as young adults, but while she took to it, I didn’t. Travelling on two wheels seemed to make no sense to me. I did it, from time to time, but remained wobbly and uncomfortable.

Over the past 25 years, I have made fairly regular attempts to improve. There were rides round the Hertfordshire countryside and cycling weekends where I wondered if divorce was a rational option. Eventually, we moved to the Isle of Man which is basically a large hill and I pretty much gave up. I cycled around Lake Kielder on the Scottish borders with the kids about seven years ago, falling off all the way. Two years ago I chickened out of a cycle tour of Berlin. My cycling career was officially over.

I don’t know what made me decide that on Walcheren, I wanted to try again. Perhaps it was just because I knew it was incredibly flat. I’ve also been looking for exercises to help with my hip arthritis and have been told that cycling could be good. Whatever the reason, a couple of months ago I hauled my daughter’s old mountain bike out of retirement and took it down to the prom, probably the only flat area nearby, and wobbled up and down. By the time we arrived in Middelburg, I felt confident enough to give it a try. So on our Walcheren Expedition day 2, we rented bikes and set off into the unknown.

Things I learned about cycling…

  1. You never forget how to swim or how to ride a bike. Only one of those is true for me.
  2. In the Netherlands, the bike is king and road users take care not to endanger them. Tell that to the b*****d in the black van who forced me onto the pavement.
  3. Cycling is easier than walking. No. It’s really not.
  4. Every other cyclist on the road / cycle path is better than I am. Including the four year olds. Especially the four year olds.
  5. “Don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on you” means “I will cycle off into the distance painfully slowly to make a point and not even glance behind me at your yell of pain.”
  6. Cycling on cobble stones is an experience.
  7. Nobody wears a cycle helmet in the Netherlands. This is WAY much more fun.
  8. Hardly anybody wears lycra to cycle. Also, much better. I feel normal.
  9. You can get to most places on cycle paths. This is AMAZING.
  10. I can cycle 28.3 kilometres in a day and still walk / go out to dinner / drink wine. I’m fitter than I thought.
  11. Cycling doesn’t hurt my arthritic hips at all.
  12. My shoulders would hurt less if I didn’t grip the bike in sheer terror.
  13. Renting a city bike from Cycle Hub in Middelburg is a great leveller and my super-cyclist husband was in more pain than I was at the end of the day because the bike was the wrong shape / height / age / type / colour.
  14. Nobody cares that I’m a clumsy oik on a bike here. Because cycling is just normal.
  15. I want to do more of this.

Perhaps it’s time to venture off the prom and try a few gentle hills at home…

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview

Our Walcheren Expedition: Preview took us to Naarden. We travelled to Walcheren via Amsterdam, which gave us the opportunity to spend a couple of days visiting some friends who live in Naarden. I’d not been there before, and given that most of this trip is about Me Me Me, I had already decided to let everybody else plan these few days. It says a lot about my friends that day one was spent exploring the seventeenth century star fortress and day two was spent at the National Military Museum…

The town of Naarden dates back to the tenth century when it was actually situated about 2.5 km to the north-east. The town was destroyed during the wars of the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1350  on a high sand ridge on the eastern route to Amsterdam. Because of it strategic position, Naarden became one of the most important fortified towns in The Netherlands.

The current star shape of Naarden dates back to the 17th Century, when the fortifications were improved after the siege of 1673. Naarden was part of the New Dutch Waterline, a defensive line through the Netherlands which I’d never heard of before. I would love to do a tour of these forts, they look stunning, but that will have to be another visit.

Naarden is beautiful, with not only the military buildings and fortifications and the Dutch Fortress Museum, but also a fantastic variety of shops and restaurants within the fort. It deserved far longer than the short visit we were able to manage

The National Military Museum is definitely a full day out. It is situated on the former air base at Soesterberg and apparently combines the collections of the former Military Aviation Museum in Soesterberg and Army Museum in Delft.

The museum depicts the history of the Netherlands armed forces in a collection of huge and very interactive displays. Vast halls display tanks, planes, armoured vehicles and helicopters. There are sections on the various wars the Dutch have been involved with over the centuries and how their armed forces developed and changed. While not directly relevant to my favourite period (although there were some interesting bits about Waterloo) I did learn a lot about the history of the Netherlands which provides context to the story I’m currently telling in “This Blighted Expedition”.

For anybody interested in military history, or even who just likes tanks, planes and helicopters, this was a fabulous day out, especially with children, there is so much for them to do there.

It wouldn’t feel right to end this first section of our trip without mentioning our evening out at the Red Sun at Blaricum, Japanese fine dining with great company. We had the tasting menu, seven courses, which is an event as much as a meal out and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Thanks so much to our friends, Patrick and Serena, for being excellent hosts and guides. We had a great time. Next step, Walcheren…

This Blighted Expedition

JAN ANTHONIE LANGENDIJK (1780-1818) The Bombardment of Flushing, 13/14 Aug 1809. drawn 1809

This Blighted Expedition: Book 2 in the Manxman series, coming this autumn…

It is 1809. Austria is back in the war and London has committed to a new campaign in Europe in support. A force of 40,000 men and 600 ships gathers along the south coast of England. Their destination is Walcheren; a lightning strike against the French dockyards on the Scheldt.

Captain Hugh Kelly RN finds an old adversary at the centre of the campaign and realises that Sir Home Popham never forgets a perceived slight. Meanwhile his wife, Roseen, waits in England, but news of victory at Flushing is quickly clouded by more sinister reports and as the troops begin to arrive home, it is clear that something has gone badly wrong with Lord Chatham’s Grand Expedition.

Lieutenant Alfred Durrell finds himself on a temporary secondment as Popham’s aide, a posting which places him at the heart of the campaign as relations between the army and navy begin to deteriorate.

Lieutenant Giles Fenwick is broke and tired of serving under the worst captain in the 110th infantry and longs for a chance to prove himself. As the campaign drags on, Giles faces a stark choice between regimental loyalty and personal integrity with a potentially heavy price to pay.

Captain Ross Mackenzie is newly promoted as captain of the light company and tries hard to fit in, but finds himself pitted against a fellow officer whose personal problems could bring disaster down on the second battalion.

Katja de Groot runs the business she inherited from her husband and is raising three children when the British invasion takes over her home and threatens her livelihood. Katja finds unexpected happiness in her growing friendship with the captain of the light company, but can it survive the horror of war?

As the campaign begins to crumble under bad weather, poor planning and divided leadership, it seems that retreat may be the only option. But in the damp, mosquito-ridden dykes and canals of Walcheren, the British army faces an enemy more deadly than the French…

An excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

When the work was done, Hugh stood on the quarterdeck looking out over Ter Veere. He was feeling slightly sick and he wondered how his other officers were feeling. He could not confess his discomfort to anybody other than Durrell. Durrell had been with him at Copenhagen and knew how Hugh had felt watching the bombardment and burning of the city. Hugh had been relieved at the time that he had not been called upon to participate; most of the work had been done by land batteries on that occasion. This time, Lord Chatham’s army had not had time to land all their guns and Fraser’s division had only five 9-pounders and a howitzer. Reducing Ter Veere would be the job of the navy.

The Iris was the largest of the ships called into action; most of the others were small gunboats. Hugh wondered about that. With fire coming from the town, the Iris was going to present the best target. He knew that Chatham rather than Strachan had given the order for the gunboats to engage and he was not sure that the Earl knew one ship from another, but Sir Home Popham was Chatham’s constant companion and Hugh suspected the list of ships had come from him. Hugh found it hard to believe that Popham would deliberately risk a ship of the line to settle an old grudge, but he had also always suspected that Popham could hold a grudge for a long time.

Hugh had tried to minimise the risk to the Iris by positioning her at an angle where the guns could still direct accurate fire but would be less vulnerable. It was the best he could do. In a skirmish at sea he was an expert at manoeuvring his ship out of danger but there was no way to do so when bombarding a target on land.

General Fraser, having given plenty of time for a message of surrender, gave the order and Hugh relayed it to his crew. He stood at the ship’s rail watching as the first of the guns boomed out. There was some movement among the gunboats to find the best range and the town walls were hit. Almost immediately, the town guns returned fire and a deafening cannonade drowned out everything else. Hugh gave no orders to move the Iris. He had the range and his guns were doing damage to the town walls. Some of the smaller boats were moving in closer to fire barrages over into the town itself, but Hugh kept his position. He was following his orders to the letter and could truthfully answer any questions about his actions but he had no intention of risking his ship for the glory of slaughtering innocent citizens.

The noise was deafening. Firing a naval cannon was a complicated process which required endless practice to ensure a quick turnaround, and Hugh’s men had practiced until they were expert. Some of the youngest boys were employed as powder boys, running gunpowder up from the magazine below to keep the guns supplied. The number of men in each gun crew depended on the size of the gun with the largest manned by twelve men. It was hot work and the crews worked stripped to the waist, labouring to haul the enormous guns back after each recoil. 

Listening to the guns, Hugh thought his men were firing more slowly than usual. In battle they could usually manage a shot every two minutes, but this was a more steady pounding. Some of the gunboats were firing more quickly. Hugh thought about sending a midshipman below with orders to speed up and then changed his mind. He remained in place, his eyes fixed on the town walls which were being reduced to rubble and silently prayed for a signal of surrender.

It was becoming more difficult to see now, as clouds of black smoke rolled across the water. Hugh could smell it, felt it in his throat and his nose and instinctively changed his breathing to accommodate it. Below his feet the deck shuddered as another broadside crashed out. Hugh felt it as well as heard it, the whizzing sound as the heavy shot flew through the air and hit the target. At one end of the town wall a small tower had been tilting over for some time and suddenly it collapsed as if it were made from a child’s building blocks, folding in on itself and disappearing in a cloud of brick dust.

None of the return fire had touched the Iris, but not all of the gunboats remained unscathed. Two had already retired out of range with damage to masts and rigging. Through the morning the wind had increased and Hugh kept a wary eye on the weather. He did not know the tides in this water at all but it was clear that some of the smaller vessels were beginning to struggle and he watched for a signal, hoping that the barrage would be called off.

One of the gunboats on the starboard side of the Iris appeared to be in some trouble. Hugh had been looking out towards the town, which was more visible now that the wind was blowing away the black clouds of smoke which had hovered above the waves for the past few hours. Lieutenant Greene’s voice made him turn.

“She’s in trouble, sir.”

Hugh went to join him. The gunboat had lost its mast and given its lurching progress on the tide, Hugh suspected its wheel as well. Gunboats were generally small un-decked vessels which carried between one and three cannon depending on size. This was one of the smaller versions, a single-masted boat with one cannon and a swivel gun mounted on the railing. It was listing badly and Hugh could see a dozen crewmen frantically manning the oars, trying to bring the little boat under control. She was drifting wildly, tossed on the increasingly choppy sea, and two men trying hard to bail out were fighting a losing battle.

“Launch boats,” Hugh said. “Let’s get them out of there, she’s going down.”

Greene spun around, shouting the order and Hugh’s men raced towards the ship’s boats. As with all the ship’s routines they were well practiced. Hugh stood on the quarter-deck watching the progress of the stricken gun-boat.

The first of the Iris’s boats had barely touched the water when an enormous crash made Hugh stagger and almost fall. He turned back to the town just as a second shot hit, smashing into the port railing. A seaman staggered out of a cloud of black smoke clutching his upper arm which was soaked in blood. An enormous splinter protruded just above the elbow and he looked stunned.

“Get him down to the surgeon,” Hugh yelled furiously. “Are the boats launched?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get those men off the gun-boat. Mr Perry, check for casualties. Mr Greene, bring her about, we’re a sitting target here, let’s make it hard for them to aim.”

As the Iris moved smoothly into her new position, Hugh stood watching his boats. It was difficult to row with the gusting wind and against a strong tide and progress was slow. Beyond them, he could see the gunboat low in the water. Suddenly she tilted and the single cannon began to roll.

The crew abandoned all attempt to salvage her and jumped to safety. Several of them began to swim strongly towards Hugh’s boats. The gun-boat upended with her bow pointing towards the sky and then she was gone, a black shadow visible for a while through the slate grey water until she vanished from sight.

Another barrage from Ter Veere crashed out and one fell just short of the Iris, sinking harmlessly into the waves. Hugh thought he was out of range now, but was taking no chances. He was trying to balance the safety of his ship but at the same time remain within reach of the returning boats. They had reached the first of the stricken crew now and were hauling them up into the first boat while the second rowed on into the litter of smashed wood which was all that could be seen of the gun-boat. Several crew members clung to pieces of wreckage and Hugh realised he was holding his breath. He was out of range of the guns but his boats were not and a lucky shot would send them instantly to the bottom with all hands lost.

“Sir, signal to retire,” Greene called, and Hugh took a long breath and then another. He had been waiting for it; the wind and tides were making it impossible to continue the bombardment from sea.

“Get them aboard, Mr Greene and get us out of here,” he said.

This Blighted Expedition is the second book in the Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly RN and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell. Have you read the first book yet? An Unwilling Alliance is also book 1.5 in the Peninsular War Saga and forms a bridge between the two series.

Readers of the Light Division romances may also be interested to know that Giles Fenwick, hero of The Reluctant Debutante, is one of the main characters in This Blighted Expedition. Giles also features briefly in A Regrettable Reputation and is the hero of my ghost story, An Exploring Officer which is free to read here. Giles also features in several books of the Peninsular War saga and might very well have a starring role in book six, An Unrelenting Enmity which is due out at the end of this year or early next year.

An Unwilling Alliance (Book 1 of the Manxman series)

It is 1806.

Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years with a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money to find himself a sensible Manx wife.

Roseen Crellin is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband. Still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart, she has no intention of encouraging Captain Kelly’s courtship and certainly no intention of developing feelings for the man.

Major Paul van Daan is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills need some work and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

An Unwilling Alliance is available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback.

Matho Spirston

Today at Blogging with Labradors I’m delighted to be interviewing Captain Matho Spirston. I first met Matho in Abduction of the Scots Queen by author Jen Black, which follows the young Matho on his adventures on the Anglo-Scottish borders in the sixteenth century. Matho has come a long way since his first appearance in Fair Border Bride and is beginning to make a name for himself in the service of the Scottish Queen Dowager.

Jen Black gives the following introduction to her character:

Abduction of the Scots Queen is rather a giveaway to the time and the place, not to mention the storyline! However, the story really begins with what I call the prequel ~ FAIR BORDER BRIDE ~ in 1543. The setting is a hamlet called Aydon not far from the northern bank of the river Tyne about twenty miles west of Newcastle. The Carnaby family are the local landowners and their daughter, Alina, has grown up liking Matho Spirston, the guard captain who keeps the family safe from raids by those rascally Scots.

Matho has rather a soft spot for Alina. When she falls for well-to-do Harry Wharton, and her father throws Harry into the dungeon, she begs Matho to help Harry escape. The friendship begins there and prospers when Harry’s father invites them both to ride into Scotland and bring the infant queen south in order that she should marry King Henry’s son. With heads full of promises of gold, the two young men set out north.

Each book is complete and sees Matho learn how to conduct himself as he climbs the social ladder and deal with lords and ladies of the time.

Without further ado I would like to welcome Matho Spirston to Blogging With Labradors.

Matho, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, I know you’re busy these days, you’re a man on the rise. But it wasn’t always so, was it? Will you tell me a bit about the early days? Who were your parents and where were you raised?

The early days? Thinking about them make me smile. My da was head cowman for the Carnabys, the local gentry who lived in the big house at Aydon. The Scots raided so many times we fortified the farmstead with big high walls and parapets and called it a castle. I grew up with the gang of youngsters who fought and played around the castle farms, cots and cabins in the Aydon Township. Lionel Carnaby was in our gang, until we all grew up and had to take on responsibility. I was fourteen when da took me to work for the family. I got to be guard captain by the time I was twenty, but I never earned more than enough to feed myself.

Some of your early success came through your friendship with Lord Wharton’s son, Harry. It seems an unlikely friendship on the surface. How did it come about?

 Well, I suppose it would be because of Alina Carnaby. Pretty girl, the same age as me. We were friends. Well, maybe I fancied for her a bit, but I wasn’t breaking my heart over her when she fell for Harry. There was a nasty tangle because he used an alias, a family name that her father hated. He threw Harry into the dungeon and was going to execute him, so I helped him escape. Saved his life. Then the reivers galloped off with Alina on her wedding day, and without me, Harry had no idea how to find her. The friendship just grew. We complimented each other. I can see that now. He had all the book learning I didn’t have, but I had been ordering rough men about since I was fifteen, and he was a little naïve in that respect. I mimicked his accent, which is why I talk so well now, kept his wild ideas in check and taught him all I know of the dirty tricks of hand-to-hand fighting.

You were on a mission with Harry Wharton when you first encountered the Earl of Angus’ daughter, Margaret, I understand. I’m told this is a sore point with you, and she’s a controversial woman, I know. What do you think of her and are you still friends?

Ah, you mean the beautiful, calculating, scheming, delightful Meg Douglas. Oh, I was a fool. Because she was a noble lady, I was flattered that she took an interest in me. It went to my head, according to Harry. He knew of her in London, and he warned me, but I thought I knew best. She was young, attractive and I thought she was rich. Compared to me, she was. The money Harry’s father gave me was the first real money I’d ever had. She nearly got me killed, and I wouldn’t call her friend now, not since I scarred her handsome new husband’s face…but with hindsight, she also got me noticed by the Dowager Queen and that has been good for me. 

And now you’re working for the Dowager Queen. Another formidable woman. You’ve known her for a while now, I suppose. Can you tell me how you first came to be working for her?

I’m laughing because she threatened to have me executed at dawn and if I hadn’t escaped from Stirling’s dungeon, I would be dead. She thought I’d stolen her child, the little queen. In fact, I had stolen her but Meg tried to save her own skin by returning the child to its mother. I got away and came back to England. The next time I met Marie de Guise, I didn’t think she’d remember me, but she did and drove a hard bargain, which I honoured. After that, I think she trusted me.

What is she like, Mary of Guise? Do you like her?

She is a brave woman surrounded by a pack of greedy nobles who will serve anyone who pays them. I admire and respect her, for she has a good head on her and manages to outmanoeuvre most of them. I was wary of her for a long time, still am to a point, but if you ask me again in five years’ time, I will probably say I like her.

This may be a difficult question to answer, Matho, but I have to ask. You suffered a loss, back in Edinburgh. Can you tell me about her? What happened?

Briefly, because I don’t wish to dwell on this, Phoebe and I were in Edinburgh when the English invaded. We were going to marry, found ourselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and the English cut her throat. Going to France was a Godsend. It got me away from everything that reminded me of her.

Your first mission for the Dowager Queen took you through France, delivering letters to her family and was a great success, I’m told. What was the most important thing to happen to you on that journey?

I learned a lot about people and dealing with strangers, especially important ones. I learned a language on the hoof, you might say. I made good friends in Jehan and Agnes and the lady who reintroduced me to the pleasures of a shared bed. I suppose the most useful thing was le duc de Guise told the Dowager Queen he approved of me.

There’s a rumour that you recently married, Matho, although it doesn’t seem to be generally known. Can you tell me the truth about that? Who is she?

Agnes de Guise is a distant relative of the Dowager Queen. She’s illegitimate, the daughter of a de Guise brother in the church, but her mother was of lower class, and he did not marry her. The Dowager seems to have taken to Agnes, and she now has a place at the Scottish court. Since we both have an enemy in the Cardinal of St Andrews, we have decided to leave the court and I am taking her to my old home on the banks of the Tyne. Yes, I am returning to Aydon. No doubt there will be changes there, but at least I can say hello to Harry and Alina again.

You’re an Englishman and you work for the Scottish Crown. Some people would call you a traitor for that. How do you see it? Do you ever imagine a time when you’ll find yourself with divided loyalties, with England and Scotland at war?

So far, nothing I have done has damaged England. The Dowager likes me because I am not Scots and have no loyalties to anyone in Scotland. No claims of clan, or family. No Scotsman can say that. She also likes me because I am honest and tell her the truth. I hope the situation you describe will not happen, but if it does, I shall deal with it. In a way, the border folk are used to being at war with each other. You might say it has been an ongoing situation for the last two hundred years.

What happened to your friendship with Harry Wharton? Does he know where you are and what you’re doing? Do you think it would cause a breach between you?

I shall be seeing Harry soon. He probably thinks I’m dead in a ditch somewhere! He won’t think me a traitor for he was always open minded, but he might ask a lot of questions about Scottish policy on the borders. If he does, he’ll find I don’t know a great deal on that topic.

You’ve come a long way from a lowly captain of the guard, Matho. What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself being over the next few years?

I hope my house is not taken over by roaming bands of homeless men. It has been empty a while now. I spent a lot of time building two new rooms onto the cottage for Phoebe, but she never saw it. I imagine my new French wife and Alina will become friends. What will Agnes make of life in Aydon? It’s a very different life to the one she led with the Duc de Guise’s family, and it is nothing like the Scottish court. Jehan may join us from time to time. If things settle down with the Cardinal in Stirling, I may go back, or I may work for Harry’s father again. The Dowager may need me again. Something will turn up.

I’m sure it will for a young man as resourceful as yourself. Matho, thank you so much for joining us today. Good luck with your return to Aydon. Personally, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures, and I sincerely hope to see more of them from Jen Black in the future.

That’s all from Matho Spirston for today and it’s been a pleasure talking to him. For more details of his adventures, I strongly recommend you try the books yourself, available at these links.

Fair Border Bride (The Prequel)

The Abduction of the Scottish Queen (Book 1)

Queen’s Courier (Book 2)

The Queen’s Letters (Book 3)

More information about Jen Black and her books can be found at the following links:

Jen’s Website

Jen on Twitter

Friends of Jen Black Facebook Group

Jen on Facebook

Giveaway

All Jen’s books are available on Amazon. Abduction of the Scottish Queen, the first in the Scottish Queen Trilogy is £1.52 on Kindle and £8.99 in paperback. To celebrate Matho’s appearance in the Blog Hop, Jen has MOBI copies of this book to give away. To win one, please add a comment to the blog and she will DM you for your e-mail address.

About the Author

Jen lives in the lovely Tyne valley between Hexham and Newcastle in north east England, a stone’s throw from the Roman Wall and with a castle that dates from the 1100’s around the corner. Writing and photography are her main interests and rambling the Northumbrian countryside with her Dalmatian Tim twice a day keeps her fit. She has a degree in English Language & Literature and managed academic libraries for a living; now retired, she disappears to France for a long holiday in the summer. (Adventures in France are recorded on her blog!) Her father’s family have been traced back to the 1700’s on the Welsh and English border—a place she has never been, but her maternal grandfather worked in Skye, and a more remote ancestor came from the Aberdeen area, so if ever there’s time, perhaps there’s more to learn on that score.

For more intriguing interviews with favourite characters from a selection of historical novelists along with book news and giveaways, keep an eye on the ongoing Historical Writers Forum “Interview my Character Blog Hop” (June 5 – July 20 2019).

In particular, remember to visit Nancy Jardine’s blog on 26th June where she will be interviewing Colonel Paul van Daan of the 110th Light Infantry about his  career since we first met him in An Unconventional Officer.

 

Historical Writers’ Forum “Interview my Character Blog Hop”

The Facebook Group, Historical Writers Forum, are holding a blog hop in which readers will get to meet characters from the novels. Below is a list of the authors taking part. Why not join us on our Facebook page here to read all the interviews and get news, quizzes and giveaways too!

The full schedule with links for the blog hop is below.

Wednesday 5 June Jen Black interviews courageous eolderman, Byrhtnoth, of the Byrhtnoth Chronicles by Christine Hancock.

Saturday 8 June Sharon Bennett Connolly interviews wild and beautiful, Eleanor Elder, heroine of the Rebels & Brothers series

Saturday 15 June Lynn Bryant interviews handsome, wily, Matho Spirston of Jen Black’s, The Queen’s Letters

Wednesday 19 June Judith Arnopp interviews the intriguing, fiercely ambitious, Edward Seymour of The Seymour Saga by Janet Wertman

Saturday 22 June Derek Birks  interviews the courageously defiant, Nicholaa de Haye, of Sharon Connolly’s Medieval Heroines

Monday 24 June Vanessa Couchman interviews the wily, intrepid Saxon in a Norman’s World, Wimer, from Sheriff & Priest, by Nicky Moxey

Wednesday 26 June Nancy Jardine  interviews Paul van Daan, Lynn Bryant’s unconventional young officer from The Peninsular War Saga

Saturday 29 June Stephanie Churchill interviews Marie Therese, talented singer of Vanessa Couchman’s historical novel, Overture

Monday 1 July Christine Hancock  Interviews Wulfhere, Thegn of Horstede, flawed but heroic thegn of Horstede from Paula Lofting’s Sons of the Wolf series

Wednesday 3 July Paula Lofting interviews the conflicted, yet honourable, Prince Casmir of Agrius,  from Stephanie Churchill’s Crowns of Destiny trilogy

Saturday 6 July Nicky Moxey interviews General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, exceedingly determined soldier from Agricola’s Bane, by Nancy Jardine

Monday 8 July Janet Wertman interviews steadfast and resilient, Margaret Pole, from Faithful Traitor by Samantha Wilcoxson

Wednesday 10 July Sarah Dahl  Interviews Geoffrey de Mortagne, a man torn between an oath and his duty, in Cathie Dunn’s, Dark Deceit

Saturday 13 July Alex Marchant  interviews Joanie Toogood, the rough, tough, but kind hearted street girl from Judith Arnopp’s The Winchester Goose

Monday 15 July Samantha Wilcoxson  interviews the tormented and conflicted, Munro, of the Munro Scottish Saga by Margaret Skea

Wednesday 17 July Cathie Dunn  interviews Aldaith, the long-haired, muscular Viking Warrior from Sarah Dahl’s Bonds and Battles

Saturday 20 July Margaret Skea interviews Alex Marchant’s loyal young page to Richard III, Matthew Wansford, in The Order of the White Boar series

How does it feel to be 57?

Me at 57

How does it feel to be 57?

Yesterday was my birthday and I’ve already been asked that several times. I’m trying to remember if people used to ask that question in my younger days, but I can’t. Perhaps on the big birthdays; becoming a teenager, reaching 16, 18, 21 and then the landmarks of 30, 40 and 50. Today, I’m 57 which is not a particularly special birthday, although it feels different because yesterday was my silver wedding anniversary. But I think that question, at my age, seems to carry an undertone of “are you feeling old yet?”

I think 57 means something different now, to what it meant many years ago. Certainly for my grandparents generation, reaching 60 meant retirement or at least being within touching distance of retirement. Reaching 65 definitely heralded the end of most people’s working life. Reaching 70 meant you were old.

Of my grandparents, my mother lost her father in 1946 when he was around my age and her mother died at the age of 73. My paternal grandfather was 72 when he died and my grandmother was 80. In the next generation, Dad was 77 when he died of cancer, Mum was 82. Both had been retired for more than ten years.

Theirs was a different generation and a lot has changed. Improvements in medical science means that most of us have the possibility of a longer life; lifestyle changes gives us the risk of shortening it again. The retirement age has risen for both men and women, and the expectation of stopping work at 60 or 65 is a thing of the past. We’re living longer, working longer and I rather suspect remaining engaged with the world for longer.

Baby No 1 when I was 36

A lot has been written about post-menopausal women and ‘empty nesters’. These days, if you listen to the media, it is difficult to decide whether or not the empty nest is to be dreaded or longed for, but for all of us with growing children it is bound to happen at some point. In my own case, I’ve a daughter doing A levels, hopefully bound for University either this year or next and a son of 20, living at home and working full time. But unusually for me, it’s made me think a bit about where I am in life at the moment.

Baby No 2 when I was 39

Years ago, when I used to work for Relate, we used to look at Life Stages when considering the difficulties people might be having in their relationship. People react very differently to entering a different life stage and it can bring up all kinds of problems if a couple respond to a particular life stage in different ways.

Approaching the empty nest stage, I’m aware that I am in a very different place to many of my friends and family. My sister, my cousin and several of my friends who have worked full time have either retired, cut down their hours or have their eyes fixed firmly on retirement as a goal. Some of them are lucky enough to have their finances in place; others are less so, angry at the changes in the law which has pushed their dream further away. Some are hesitant about leaving the world of work; others are burned out and for them it can’t come fast enough.

I, on the other hand, have never been more excited about my future career. I have so many books to research and write, I need more hours in the day. Off the back of my writing, I’ve been asked to teach several courses at the local college on creative writing and history and I’m also starting the first year of a further education teaching course later this year. I’ve got a dozen projects both paid and unpaid on the go. In talking to friends, I realise I’ve got more in common with some of the younger women I know, who are heading back into the workplace after a break with children than many of my contemporaries. It’s odd. It’s also very exciting.

In the middle of all this, though, I’m still 57 and that gives me pause. My brain may be racing ahead, but my body is a bit more hesitant. I’ve got arthritis all over the place and I don’t have the physical energy that I used to have. When I sit writing all day and then into the evening, I can barely move when I get up.  It has started to occur to me that if I want to be fit enough and healthy enough to enjoy all these amazing new opportunities, I might need to stop, take a breath and think about the physical for a while.

I have never been that interested in fitness. Lucky enough not to need to diet to keep my weight down, I have always walked regularly, but other than that I’ve really not paid that much attention to my physical health until now, when it is starting to get in the way a bit. And I realise that I’m not willing to sit back and let that happen.

57 is not old and I don’t want to feel that way. I’m thinking more carefully about my diet, and reluctantly cutting back on those extra glasses of wine. I’ve started to look at what exercises I can do to keep the arthritis at bay and strengthen those parts of the body that have been very neglected. I’m going back to the swimming pool, trying yoga and thinking of joining a tap dance class. I’ve been on the rowing machine and tried, very cautiously, some light weight training. And earlier this week, for the first time in very many years, I got back on a bike and tried to remember how to cycle. I’m never going to be keen on health and fitness as a hobby, but if I’m going to still be writing, teaching and researching into my seventies, which I would love to do, I realise I need to do some work on my body as well as my brain. 

So how does it feel to be 57? It feels like a bit of a landmark for me. It’s the year that I decide to take charge, not to let the weeks drift by, because they drift too fast and too far and I don’t want to find myself in a place where I can’t do what I want to do any more, at least not without making a really good effort to improve things. 57 is when I don’t have a child in school any more, I may fairly soon not have any children living at home. 57, I’ve decided, is the year I start to put myself and what I want ahead of the needs of my family sometimes, because they don’t need me all the time the way they used to.

I don’t feel old at 57. In three years time, I’ll be 60 and perhaps I’ll feel different then, but I do hope not. At 57, what I mostly feel is very lucky.

 

Happy Birthday to An Unconventional Officer

An Unconventional Officer - love and war in Wellington’s armyHappy Birthday to An Unconventional Officer.
Two years ago today, this book was published. It wasn’t the first book I had written or published, but it was the first in the Peninsular War Saga and the book that meant the most to me. I had dreamed of writing this series for years, had dabbled with it and then put it to one side. Life took over, I had two children, day jobs, a home to run and two labradors to adore. It seemed to me that since Bernard Cornwell raced to the top of the bestsellers charts with his Sharpe novels, there had been so many books written about the Napoleonic Wars that there was no space for mine and certainly no market for my slightly eccentric take on them.
When the book was finally written, I discovered that publishers and agents agreed. This period, it seemed, had been done to death. Nobody was interested any more, in Sharpe’s fellow officers and their adventures through the Iberian Peninsula. Certainly nobody was going to be interested in a series of novels which committed the ultimate crime of being difficult to place within a genre.
“Too much war. Why not write a proper romance?”
“Too much romance. Stick to the battles. Oh, and use your initials, that way people might think you’re a man.”
“Too much history. People don’t read books like this for the history. Cut it down and add more battle scenes. Or romance.”
“Not enough history. None of your characters spend enough time describing their uniforms, their weapons and their kit. The only people who read this sort of thing are re-enactors and they want a lot of detail”
“Your hero isn’t enough of an Alpha male and your heroine is too masculine in her outlook.  He’s got too much money, he should earn his commissions not buy them. And she can’t come from the industrial north, it’s not that kind of book. Maybe she should have a title and he could have come up from the ranks. That might do better…”
“Cut it down, change the characters and try Mills and Boon.”
Readers, I haven’t made any of those up. I still have the letters and e-mails. Eventually, I was left with a simple choice. Either I would continue to write the books for my own entertainment and Paul, Anne, Johnny and Carl would never see the light of day, or I would take a chance and try independent publishing. I did it and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Peninsular War Saga hasn’t become an overnight bestseller. I wish it had. I’ve no advertising budget and no experience in marketing, so I’ve sold books one at a time. It’s been a painstaking process, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’ve discovered a whole new world of interesting people online and I’ve made some friends for life.
And I’ve sold books. Gradually, painfully, the numbers have got better. I’ve never given away review copies, so the reviews have trickled in, but I value every one. Most have been excellent. One or two have been awful. I’ve learned that it’s okay that some people don’t like my books and I don’t die of it.
These days, I call myself a writer and I’m lucky enough to be able to make this my job. It’s not amazingly well-paid, but it’s more fun than working in an office. I’ve had ten books published, five in the main series and one in a linked series. Every book is meticulously researched and I love that part of the process. I’m very proud of what I do.
Today is my birthday, but it’s also the birthday of the Peninsular War Saga, and I suppose the birthday of Paul van Daan. Paul came into being gradually, little more than a boy when I first met him, growing up before my eyes. At times, he irritates the hell out of me; he won’t always do what I want him to do, he’s full of opinions and he pushes himself in where he’s not supposed to be. He was supposed to make a cameo appearance in An Unwilling Alliance and ended up as the third main character in the book. 
These days, Paul is part of my life. I hear his voice in my head more often than you would believe. Writing him is incredibly easy, he has a distinctive way of looking at the world, and he makes me laugh and makes me cry. Readers often ask me if there is much of me in Anne. There’s a bit, but there’s a lot more of me in Paul.
I’m so grateful to the people who have helped me along the way. First and foremost, my family. My husband, Richard, has been my biggest cheerleader from the first, content to spend hours setting up my website, designing my fabulous covers and telling me what’s wrong with my plots. I always ignore him. My son Jon, blissfully unaware as a young adult and not much of a reader, who nevertheless was immensely proud to discover that a friend’s grandmother was reading my books and loving them. My daughter Anya, a fellow history lover who laughs at my passion for Wellington, threatens to feed my favourite books to the dogs, shares my study and brings me joy every day of my life. And my sister, Patricia, who is faintly surprised that her little sister has it in her to do anything this interesting, but always encouraging. I love you all.
Then there are the Labradors. We lost Toby last year, halfway through the last book, and I miss him still every day. Joey, my old yella fella, his snores the accompaniment to my working day. And Oscar, my baby, who makes me get up and get some exercise in between chapters and who has taken over my sofa as if he owns it.
All my friends and family have been supportive, but one or two people stand out as always. Heather Paisley, my best friend for more years than either of us care to remember, never fails to say the right thing. Suzy Holland, who was astonished to find I could write and has discovered an undiscovered enthusiasm for military history. Jacqueline Reiter, whom I met online, and is clearly my long lost younger sister, has helped with research and is my ultimate beta reader; she lets nothing go. And Kristine Hughes Patrone, who with Jacqueline, reads every snippet I send her, laughs at all my favourite lines, and loves Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington as much as I do. Through doing this, I have found my people.
My next plan, other than finishing the current work in progress, This Blighted Expedition, is to get all the books in the Peninsular War Saga out in paperback before the end of this year. Hopefully, that will introduce Paul, Anne and the others to readers who haven’t met them yet.
I am an incredibly lucky woman to be able to spend my working day doing something I love as much as this. Occasionally, I like to be able to say thank you, and An Unconventional Officer will be available on Amazon kindle free for three days, on 4th, 5th and 6th June. Many of you have already read it, but please share this with people who haven’t.
Finally, I’d like to thank my readers. You are the most amazingly loyal and supportive bunch in the world. You’re quite shy, most of my contact with you is in private message or e-mail, but you follow my facebook page and twitter,  and buy my books. I’m so grateful to each and every one of you. I love your passion for the period, the history and the characters, you pepper me with questions and never fail to point out a typo or a mistake. I’m not sure if mainstream authors with huge advertising budgets and publishers to manage their contact with readers get half the joy I do every time one of you sends me a question I don’t have an immediate answer to and have to look up.  I love each and every one of you. Thank you.
The Peninsular War Saga is two years old today and going strong. There are many more books to come and possibly some other linked novels. Happy Birthday to Paul, Anne and the rest of the 110th Light Infantry. And gracious thanks to Lord Wellington, for taking an insignificant, over-confident and  very talented young officer under his wing on a hillside in India and for remaining a brilliant, grumpy and entertaining part of my story ever since.
 

Ramsgate, July 1809; an excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

JAN ANTHONIE LANGENDIJK (1780-1818) The Bombardment of Flushing, 13/14 Aug 1809. drawn 1809
Bombardment of Flushing

Ramsgate, July 1809; an excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

Book Two of the Manxman series is due out later this year and follows the fortunes of Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris during the Walcheren campaign of 1809. The Walcheren expedition was a joint operation and explains what the second battalion of the 110th infantry was up to while Major van Daan was fighting at Talavera.

In this excerpt both the navy and the army are becoming increasingly frustrated at how long it is taking to get the expedition underway.

Book One in the series, An Unwilling Alliance, is available on kindle and in paperback on Amazon.

It was another five days before the Iris sailed from Ramsgate. The expedition had seemed on the verge of launching several times, and was delayed each time. On the 20th Hugh had said a tender farewell to Roseen, watching her fight back tears and wondering if she knew that he was doing the same. On the following day, he sent a boat with a message requesting that she join him aboard, since it was clear that the expedition, once again, was going nowhere.

Lord Chatham’s arrival to take command of the forces was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of news from Europe. Two weeks earlier, the Austrian forces had been defeated by Bonaparte at Wagram, just north of Vienna. Hugh imagined there had been a huge in-drawing of breath among the leaders of the expedition. Lord Castlereagh and Lord Chatham, presumably after some discussion, let it be known that the expedition was not to be suspended. Although the original intention had been to use the attack as a distraction to assist the Austrians in their campaign, a successful attack on Antwerp might still act as an incentive to keep Austria in the war. Hugh sat in his cabin, writing a carefully worded letter to Major van Daan, fighting somewhere in Portugal or Spain, and wondered how much that had influenced the decision to proceed or whether the two men had stood looking out over the masts of the fleet, every ship crammed with weapons, supplies, horses and men, and decided that it would be too embarrassing or simply too difficult to call a halt to such an enormous and expensive campaign.

The delay on the 21st was caused by a change of wind, which meant that the other half of the expedition, with the forces led by Chatham’s second-in-command, Sir Eyre Coote, were unable to sail from Portsmouth as planned. Hugh received the tidings in his cabin and summoned Durrell to share the news.

Durrell read the orders in silence and looked up at Hugh. Hugh raised his eyebrows, inviting comment.

“At this rate, we’ll be lucky to sail before the end of the month, sir. And the weather is only going to get worse.”

Hugh nodded soberly and rose to bring wine. “I’ve sent for my wife,” he said. “You can call me a sentimental fool, Mr Durrell, but even a short time longer with her is worth it.”

“I wouldn’t be so impertinent, sir, I’d feel the same. But another delay?”

“Aye. What do you think?”

Durrell’s clear blue-green eyes were steady on his. “I think if we’re going to go, we should get a move on, sir.”

“Personally, I think if we were going to go, we should have already gone, Mr Durrell. But we can be very sure that nobody is going to be asking for our opinion about any of it. I wonder what the army makes of it all?”

Durrell gave one of his unexpected grins which made him look much younger. “Are you missing your source in the 110th, sir?”

“I think I am. Although I’ve a feeling that if Major van Daan were here, he’d have expired from sheer frustration by now. Never mind. I shall enjoy supper with my wife and try to remain calm, and well out of the politics of it all.”

Despite Hugh’s determination, it was impossible to ignore the politics. Over the next few days he received a stream of visitors including Admiral Keats, Captain Codrington, and to his exasperation, Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. All of them had something to say about the progress, or lack of it, made by the expedition, and all of them seemed very clear where the blame should lie.

“Bloody Chatham,” Codrington said gloomily. “We’d have been on the way if it hadn’t been for him. Did you know that the French fleet have sailed out of Antwerp and are anchored off Flushing? Sir Richard Strachan is sure we could bring them to an engagement if we caught them.”

Hugh regarded him owlishly. “If we caught them?” he enquired. “Ned, have you been over-indulging? Take that glass away from him, Mr Durrell, he’s had too much. Can you explain to me, because I’m a greenhorn here, fella, and don’t know much about the navy and suchlike, exactly why the French are going to sit sunning themselves on the quarterdeck waiting for us to sail in and cut them off? Do they do that often in your experience, because if they do, I’ve missed it.”

Codrington flushed slightly and then drained his glass and held it out to Durrell. “I’ll have another, Mr Durrell, before your captain gets stingy with it. All right, Hugh, what is it exactly you think we ought to be doing?”

“Following the orders we’re given and not going off on a spree,” Hugh said firmly. “I’m not arguing that the army are bloody slow, it’s the size of the boots they’re clumping around in, but it’s not going to help if we go without them. Even if we could bring the French to battle, what use is that when half our ships are stuffed full of redcoats? We need to offload them at the very least.”

Admiral Keats was somewhat more circumspect. “A pity so much time has been lost,” he said, settling himself into Hugh’s day cabin. “This is very good wine, Captain Kelly, where did you get it from?”

“It was a gift,” Hugh said. The wine had arrived in two crates shortly before he had embarked, having been re-routed from Chatham dockyards. “I’ve a friend serving in Portugal with Wellesley.”

“In the army?” Keats said, sounding so revolted that Hugh laughed aloud.

“In the army, sir. Although if it makes you feel better, he served in the navy first.”

“One of the better ones then. I wish I had as much faith in our commander-in-chief.”

“He’s hardly had time to do anything yet, sir.”

“He’s hardly been out of bed before noon since he’s been here, Captain. And he’s insistent on awaiting the arrival of the ships from Portsmouth. Won’t sail without Coote. Strachan is furious.”

“Strachan has been furious ever since I first met him, sir.”

“Oh, come on, Captain, don’t tell me you’re happy about this.”

“I’m not,” Hugh admitted. “Although it does mean an extra few days with my wife.”

“Is she with you?” Keats said, brightening visibly. “Bring her over to dine today, man, I’m starved of feminine company and I am devoted to your wife; I never know what she’s going to say next.”

“Nor do I, sir,” Hugh admitted. “Thank you, we’d be delighted.”

Keats settled back into Hugh’s favourite armchair reminding Hugh of Molly, the ship’s cat when she found a particularly comfortable spot in the sun. “This is very pleasant,” he said. “It hasn’t escaped my notice, Captain, that you’ve not been seen on shore much this past week.”

“Or at all,” Hugh said placidly. “To be fair, sir, I’m in the navy, this is where I’m supposed to be.”

“Popham was searching high and low for you yesterday,” Keats said, and the tone of his voice when he spoke the name made Hugh grin. “Apparently there are three stray staff members needing a passage and he thought you might have space for them.”

“More staff members? Jesus, how many are there? I’ve already got six of them wedged into the officers’ day cabin, I don’t need any more.”

“The Earl of Chatham has a large staff,” Keats said neutrally. “I have counted at least seven ADCs and I may have missed a few. At any rate, you are safe from Popham, he caught up with Codrington and has sent them over to the Blake.”

“Serves Ned right for hanging around on shore too much. I find it interesting that Popham didn’t think to look for me aboard my own ship, it clearly didn’t occur to him that’s where a captain might be. Any more news of when we’re sailing?”

“As far as I’m aware, we’ll be off the moment the Portsmouth fleet arrives, but God knows when that will be, they’re pegged in by the wind at present.”

“Captain Codrington informs me that Sir Richard Strachan is unhappy,” Hugh said, and Keats spluttered with laughter, spilling wine on his sleeve. Brian hurried forward with a napkin to mop up the mess.

“Thank you, lad. Is that the word he used to describe it? Sir Richard is pacing the quarterdeck uttering oaths I can’t even work out the meaning of and threatening to turn his guns onto Lord Chatham’s lodgings if he doesn’t get his arse moving soon. I was privileged to be present when he received the Earl’s last letter, I thought we’d need to send for the surgeon.”

Hugh was laughing; it was so easy to visualise Strachan’s fury. “Ned seems to think that Sir Richard could have taken the French by surprise if we’d moved faster,” he said.

“They’d have known we were coming the second we set sail, they’ve their own informants watching us and a small boat can get across to Flushing a lot faster than we can. Strachan gets carried away by his own rhetoric sometimes and he can’t stand waiting. Chatham won’t leave without the Portsmouth fleet, his second-in-command is with them and he probably wants Coote to be there to do all the work he doesn’t want to have to do. But I doubt these few days will make that much difference; it’s the previous month of farting around doing nothing which will have done the damage.”

Hugh studied Keats thoughtfully. “May I ask you a question, sir?”

“By all means.”

“Why do I get the odd feeling that nobody is really happy about this expedition?”

The Battle of Fuentes de Onoro

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'OnoroThe Battle of Fuentes de Onoro took place on this day in 1811 in and around the small border village close to the fortress of Almeida which was the last French foothold in Portugal.

In honour of the day, I wanted to share an extract from An Uncommon Campaign, where Major Carl Swanson finds himself commanding five companies under Lt-Colonel Williams of the 5/60th, fighting a bloody battle in the narrow streets of the village.

The rifles and muskets crashed around him and Carl levelled his pistol and fired. The French voltigeurs came on, dodging behind walls and hedges, and after them came the sound of the drums as the French columns marched forward.  Carl had been through many battles and he knew the effect those drums could have on inexperienced troops especially when coupled with the sight of the solid columns of Frenchmen marching inexorably forward, shouting for their Emperor with the golden eagle standards blazing overhead. But the men of the 110th had been through too many battles to be easily intimidated. The guns up on the ridge began to fire into the columns, and there were cries of agony, spurting blood and smashing bone.  And then Carl heard the clear tones of Captain Manson through the smoke and noise and fear.

“All right lads, fall back when you need, don’t take a punishing.  Carter, Dawson, Cooper, Hammond – get rid of those bloody eagles, will you, they piss me off, they don’t even look like birds.”

Carl grinned, and fixed his eyes on the eagles. As the men began to fall back steadily before the approaching columns, there was a crack, and one of the eagles fell, its pole snapped.  There was a scrabble among the French to retrieve it, and then a scream of pain and the second eagle toppled forward as the man holding it died. Even through the chaos of battle Carl could hear men cheering as each one fell and he silently applauded Manson’s imaginative piece of morale-boosting.

There was no time for it now as the French crashed into the British lines and the fighting became close and personal and bloody. Each man fought for his life, with bayonet and sword, and seeing his men in danger of being overwhelmed, Carl yelled an order and turned to run back, finding new loopholes in three houses further up. His men recovered quickly, reloaded and turned to fire again.

They fought their way stubbornly up through the narrow streets of the village, in a welter of blood and death. In places, some of the light companies had built makeshift barricades from doors and bed frames, and their officers stood beside them, calling orders in measured tones. When the French overran them they abandoned firepower once more and through sheer determination forced the French back down the hill at the points of their bayonets, scrambling over dead and wounded of both sides.

It was impossible, in the tangled streets, to know what was happening elsewhere in the battle. On an open field it was easier to scan the lines and see how other battalions were doing, but Carl was only aware of his own five companies, now somewhat depleted. He found himself alone briefly in a winding lane, closely bordered by white cottages, one of them badly damaged by artillery fire, his men moving into the houses to check for enemy ambush. Carl wiped sweat from his face on his sleeve and it came away black. Keeping a wary eye up and down the lane he reached for his water bottle and gulped down a few swallows.

Ahead of him a smoke-blackened figure emerged from one of the doorways. “Clear in there, sir,” Private O’Hara said cheerfully. “Just got to..”

There was an explosion of sound and O’Hara’s body jerked violently. He made a strangled gurgling noise and then fell forward, blood spilling onto the baked earth of the street, his back a gaping hole. The Frenchman was only a few feet away and could not have missed, even with the dubious accuracy of a musket. Carl looked down at the dead Irishman and then up at the Frenchman and as he did so there was a babble of French voices and they poured out of the building opposite, a dozen of them, racing towards him with bayonets raised.

Carl dived into the nearest doorway. The house was empty, a bare room, cleared of valuables with only a few pieces of basic wooden furniture. The door was narrow and two of the French infantrymen tried to go through it at the same time and collided, temporarily stuck. Carl could have killed either of them without difficulty but their comrades were yelling behind them and he had no intention of running towards them. He spun around, looking for an exit, but the only window had wooden shutters firmly closed and he had no time to open them. 

There was a narrow wooden staircase and Carl sprinted towards it and scrambled to the upper floor. There were two doors and he dived through the first one, slammed it shut, making plaster fall from above with the force of it, and dragged the big wooden bed in front of it. It was not heavy enough to hold the Frenchmen but it would buy him some time.

The window here was also shuttered and Carl struggled furiously with the warped wood, showering himself with plaster and splinters as he fought to open it. It gave finally and he flung the shutter open and leaned over the sill, looking down into the lane below. It was a drop of more than ten feet, he guessed and if he jumped he risked a broken leg. They would bayonet him where he fell and looking along the street, he could see only Frenchmen; the British were further up, fighting their way through the houses at the top of the hill. His stupid pause had allowed him to become cut off from his men and hearing the bed shift behind him, he took a deep breath and swung his leg over the ledge, thinking how furious his commander would have been if he could see his predicament. 

Below, under the lower window, three bodies lay immobile, two British and one French. It was impossible to tell if they were alive or dead, but the Frenchman’s bayonet lay to one side and he was soaked in blood. Carl eased himself over, trying to lower himself to minimise the fall but a crash behind him told him he had run out of time and he went over in a scramble and dropped deliberately onto the body of the Frenchman.

It broke his fall as he had intended, the feeling of the corpse beneath him making him feel sick. There was no time to think about it; shouts from the window above told him that his pursuers were there and scrambling to load a musket. Carl got to his feet shakily and turned towards the far end of the hill where his companies had been fighting.

“Sir, get down!” a voice bellowed and Carl recognised it with overwhelming relief, as Private Dawson of the light company. He dropped like a stone, flat to the ground and there was a flurry of rifle shots and an order called in the London accent of Sergeant Hammond. Above him a man screamed and then a body crashed to the ground close to him. More shots were fired and then he heard running feet, hard on the packed earth, and he was suddenly surrounded by red coats.  A hand reached to pull him to his feet.

“Sir, are you hurt?” Manson’s voice said.

“No, but I’m bloody embarrassed, that was a mistake I’d expect from a sixteen year old ensign fresh off the boat. You tell the colonel and I’m coming after you, Leo. And thank you.”

He turned and watched as his men surged past him, driving the French back down the hill in a fierce charge. Above, the men at the windows had vanished, driven off by the fire of the rifles although one lay dead in the street beside him and another hung like a broken doll over the window ledge. Carl looked at Manson.

“You all right?”

Manson nodded.  His face was black with powder and there was blood on his coat .  “Think so, sir. Bastard of a place to defend, mind.  Cooper and Blake are hurt, I’ve told them to get themselves up to the church, it’s where we’re sending the wounded for now.”