England, September 1642.
The King has raised his standard in Nottingham to summon those loyal to the crown to fight for him against his own Parliament.
Gideon Lennox, an idealistic young lawyer from London, is in County Durham to find a man and deliver a message. Having failed in the task that originally brought him north, Gideon needs to prove himself.
The man he seeks is the traitor Philip Lord, a notorious mercenary commander, with a reputation for brutality gained in the wars raging across Europe. When Gideon encounters Lord, he is abducted and set to investigate strange happenings in a Weardale village.
As he attempts to uncover the truth behind accusations of witchcraft - and the murder of the witchfinder in Pethridge - the lawyer is faced with more questions than answers.
He is convinced that Lord must somehow be involved until a gory discovery proves to him that whoever might be behind the strange events, it is not the accused women - or Lord.
Just as Gideon begins to realise that more than one shadowy hand is moving the pieces in the dangerous game being played out in Pethridge, he is seized and accused of the murder himself.
The lawyer must somehow escape - or become a victim of the conspiracy he needs to bring to light.
Thank you for joining us on The Coffee Pot Book Club blog. Please make yourself comfortable.
Thank you for having me.
Before we begin, please introduce yourself.
I've been writing stories since the time I could first hold a pen - though it was probably a pencil back then. At school they got fed up with me filling my rough-work books (the ones designed for prepping/drafting work or doing calculations) with poems and stories, so they gave me one I could use exclusively for the purpose. Things like that meant I saw myself as a writer at a young age.
However, life intervened as it so often does, separating our aspirations from our reality. Whilst I was always still writing, the opportunity to pursue it as anything more than an occasional recreational activity was never there.
In recent years the river of my life changed course again, this time flowing in a direction more conducive to allowing me the opportunity to write. As a result, all six books of Lord's Legacy - of which The Mercenary's Blade is the first volume - took just a year to write from start to finish.
Could you tell us a little about your novel, The Mercenary’s Blade, and what inspired you to set your story during this period in history?
The inspiration is the easy bit to answer.
I fell in love with the English Civil War through reenacting it.
There I was at the Freshers’ Fair on day one of my time at university, looking at all the myriad and various societies available to students from sports to politics, and I came upon some people with pikes and swords, dressed like extras from The Three Musketeers. What could be more fun than that? I joined the English Civil War Society there and then, taking part in musters (recreated battle displays) and living histories. From that, I developed an unending passion for the period. Although, after a handful of years, I abandoned reenacting - thanks to life happening a lot and loudly, that passion has remained.
It’s a bit more difficult to explain The Mercenary’s Blade.
This is the opening novel in a series of six books, collectively called Lord’s Legacy, which together tell the story of an enigmatic mercenary commander. Philip Lord has recently returned to England, with the firm intention of both clearing his name of the stain of a treason charge and unearthing a mysterious heritage which is held over his head by a manipulative cabal known as the Covenant.
The Mercenary’s Blade introduces us to his story. We view Lord through the eyes of a young man, Gideon Lennox, who has every reason to fear him, and a lot of reasons to despise him. Gideon finds himself involved in two separate but intersecting hunts. One is a witch hunt in all its gory brutality. The other is a hunt for the truth about the enigmatic Philip Lord around whom everything turns.
When researching this turbulent era, did you come upon any unexpected surprises?
There are always surprises in research, that is surely one of the real delights of the process.
While writing this series I found many.
One of the first, and quite a profound ones, came as I first began looking into witchcraft and the way it was regarded at this time. I think having been influenced by what I knew of Matthew Hopkins and the ease with which he managed to secure his convictions later in the war. I had assumed that there was in general a pretty low bar for proof of witchcraft at the time and a strong willingness to convict.
In fact, the opposite was true in England, especially in the decade leading up to the outbreak of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Whilst a belief in the idea that demonic powers did exist in the world was nearly universal, there was great scepticism in individual cases and a marked awareness of there being many reasons for accusations of witchcraft which might be based on deliberate malice or deception.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction during this time?
I think it is the degree of bias involved.
As with any turbulent period of history the sources available tend to be patchy and one-sided. It makes any of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms tough to write about - and the English Civil War perhaps especially so. Even the idea that history is written by the victor is muddied here as the ‘victors’ of this war, became ‘the losers’ a few years later at the Restoration.
Perhaps even more challenging for any writer in this period is the degree to which this same bias has persisted down to today. Even amongst respected academics.
Almost everyone who knows the period comes to a novel set in the conflict with a big backpack full of emotional baggage around their preference for the Royalists or Parliamentarians - Cavaliers or Roundheads. It is tricky to navigate that.
In all truth, if you strip away the high ideals each side proclaimed, the English Civil War was fought between two groups of wealthy men vying for power. Neither side holds much moral high ground by the standards of our day. I see my key challenge as a writer is to show that, whilst keeping true to the time and weaving about it a thunderingly good story.
What inspired you to create your main character, Gideon Lennox? What’s he like?
Interestingly Gideon, whilst the character through whom most of the story is told, is not the main character, unless one would cast Dr Watson rather than Sherlock Holmes as the main character of the Arthur Conan Doyle detective stories.
I created him to tell the story of Philip Lord from the point of view of a young man with some growing up to do. He is honest, and intelligent and his growth is part of how the story unfolds. He struggles with the changing reality as war overthrows the things he values. He also finds his world view broken apart and remoulded by the extraordinary people he is thrust into contact with and the demands made on him.
I like to think Gideon is to some degree an ‘everyman’ character with core values and attitudes that are true to his time but which are not alien to ours. So he is a relatable window into the era and events in which he is an often reluctant participant.
What are you currently working on? Are you staying in the same era, or moving to another?
Not quite the same era, but not very far removed from it.
I have been writing a new series of books set a little earlier, in the 1620s and 30s, during the Thirty Years War. These feature a few of the characters we meet in Lord’s Legacy. I have also been sketching out another short series. One that will cover the very earliest times of the first English colony in North America that actually survived (although it famously came very close to not doing so), the Jamestown settlement.
Both series are still very much works in progress and I’m not sure which will see the light of day first.
Thank you for your time.
It has been a pleasure.
Eleanor Swift-Hook enjoys the mysteries of history and fell in love with the early Stuart era at university when she re-enacted battles and living history events with the English Civil War Society. Since then, she has had an ongoing fascination with the social, military and political events that unfolded during the Thirty Years’ War and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
She lives in County Durham and loves writing stories woven into the historical backdrop of those dramatic times.