I adore Barbara Henderson’s children’s fiction and so I’m genuinely thrilled to be starting off the blog tour for her latest book The Siege of Caerlaverock by hosting a wonderful guest post and sharing my review.
In case you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Barbara’s children’s books before, I have featured several here on Linda’s Book Bag. You will find:
A smashing guest post from Barbara about Fir For Luck publication day here.
Another super post from Barbara about why a book launch matters to celebrate Punch here.
A guest post from Barbara about nature and my review of Wilderness Wars here.
A guest post about novels and novellas and my review of Black Water here.
The Siege of Caerlaverock will be published by Cranachan imprint Pokey Hat on 6th August 2020 and is available for pre-order here.
The Siege of Caerlaverock
Nowhere to hide.
12-year-old Ada is a laundress of little consequence, but the new castle commander Brian de Berclay has his evil eye on her. Perhaps she shouldn’t have secretly fed the young prisoner in the tower.
But when the King of England crosses the border with an army over 3000 strong, Ada, her friend Godfrey and all at Caerlaverock suddenly find themselves under attack, with only 60 men for protection.
Soon, rocks and flaming arrows rain from the sky over Castle Caerlaverock—and Ada has a dangerous choice to make.
Heraldic Poetry behind The Siege of Caerlaverock
A Guest Post by Barbara Henderson
To tell you the truth, I have always been drawn to coats of arms. I walked past our family one, framed in the hallway of my parents’ house, every day of my childhood (I was born a ‘Haas’). It was displayed as an example of an old family crest at our nearest medieval castle, and I was a frequent visitor throughout my childhood and youth, particularly during the annual medieval festival with re-enactments – you got in free if you dressed up in medieval attire. Who could resist that?
I do love a good castle ruin too – you know, the kind that leaves a lot to the imagination. But I was also fascinated by heraldry in general – the symbolism, the motto, the flattery in the poetry. You could think of heraldry as a precursor to PR – it managed how a family or clan was perceived.
When I visited Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries with my family, I had no idea that I was about to be assailed by a new story which would conquer my heart to the extent that I simply had to write it. I often see displays in museums and castles which interest me, but this exhibition on a medieval siege was utterly compelling – because it came with a story attached! A medieval heraldic poem about the siege survives to this day, and it gives us a unique insight into the events which took place exactly 720 years ago this summer.
The poem was written in the fashionable French, most likely by a court poet to the King:
In chronicles of great monasteries
It is found that King Edward […]
In the year one thousand three hundred
Of grace, on the day of Saint John,
Was at Carlisle, and held a great court,
And commanded that in a short time
All his men should prepare themselves,
To go together with him
Against his enemies the Scots.
Before the appointed day
The whole host summoned was ready;
And the King with his great household
Immediately set forward against the Scots.
I found it so exciting to read the description of this great train of warriors, their horses and banners and tents. Each of the 87 knights travelling with the King is described separately, with their heraldic symbols and heroic deeds mentioned while the vast army of archers and soldiers remain unnamed.
It is likely that the author was a court poet due to the flattery he uses, portraying Edward as fierce but fair:
‘The King is dreadful, fierce and proud…nevertheless, he is soon reanimated with gentle kindness, if they seek his friendship and are willing to come to his peace.’ As a storyteller, I had to decide whether to ‘buy’ some of the more positive portrayals of the King’s actions, as a court poet may not always have told the truth. My story was from the point of view of the besieged, so I skipped through some of the poem detailing all the King’s most valued knights. One of the squadrons was led by the Crown Prince, so this campaign was a bit of a who’s-who of the royal elite. Once they get there, the description of the castle is striking (and I agree wholeheartedly with the last lines!):
Caerlaverock was a castle so strong
that it did not fear siege…
It was formed like a shield,
for it had only three sides in circuit,
with a tower at each angle…
with a drawbridge, well made and strong.
It had also good walls and good ditches,
all filled to the edge with water;
and I believe you will never see
a castle more beautifully situated than it.’
Nevertheless, over the next couple of days, the 60+ defenders of Caerlaverock were no match for the ‘three thousand brave men at arms’. The poet details the violent resistance from within the castle:
‘Huge stones showered upon them,
And quarrels and arrows
That with wounds and bruises
They were so wearied and exhausted
That it was with great difficulty they retired.’
But the greatest moment for me came when the poem mentioned the ‘Lady of the castle’! So many knight-stories focus on warfare, jousting and valour that the female characters all but disappear. I had already resolved to tell the story from the point of view of a female servant, but this was remarkable – the decision maker at Caerlaverock at the time may well have been a woman!
Caerlaverock eventually ‘begged for peace and put out a pennon’. According to the poet, the King ‘gave them life and limb, a to each a new robe.’ In other words, the King granted all the survivors mercy. Some medievalists do not believe this version of events, citing Edward I’s fearsome reputation for brutality, but according to an eminent medieval scholar, this is not an impossible version of events. Edward was at the very beginning of his campaign and may well have attempted to win over hearts and minds at this point.
I remember being close to tears when I first read and annotated the poem. What a gift it was!
As I see it, historical fiction is like a washing line. There are certain fixed events and facts which hold the story in place – the pegs if you like. This heraldic poem gave me plenty of those! But in between those, the fabric can flutter whichever way the story takes it, bright and lively against the sky. I hope that The Siege of Caerlaverock captures some of the spectacle the castle dwellers would have witnessed all those centuries ago!
My goodness, yes it does Barbara!
My Review of The Siege of Caerlaverock
Ada may only be a kitchen maid but she is in the thick of adventure.
Wow. The Siege of Caerlaverock is absolutely brilliant. I cannot praise it enough.
Steeped in meticulously researched history, this is no dry reimagining of true events, but a living, vibrant story that held me spellbound. I’m beginning to wonder if Barbara Henderson is some kind of enchantress as she seems to have the ability to transport her readers so completely to whatever it is she is writing about. Her use of the senses is hugely evocative so that reading The Siege of Caerlaverock is an absolute delight. The inclusion of historical detail is done at such a human level that the past leaps from the page through Barbara Henderson’s skilled and dramatic writing.
The story is completely compelling. The pace of the plot, the realistic settings, the exciting narrative; indeed, every element of the book is totally pitch perfect. My heart was thumping at times because the level of peril, the danger and the excitement were so masterfully conveyed.
I loved meeting Ada and Godfrey. They are imbued with such life and friendship in spite of their social differences and the brief time they spend together, that they resonate long after the last page of the story has been read. I’m wondering now what has happened to Ada because she feels so real. I loved the balance between Ada and Godfrey too because young readers can see that gender doesn’t have to define or constrain an individual. Brian de Berclay makes for the kind of villain that turns the blood cold and yet is so fascinating it’s impossible not to be riveted by his presence.
I genuinely think Barbara Henderson may be the most talented children’s writer in a generation. I am awestruck by her skill. Her books are, quite simply, fantastic and The Siege of Caerlaverock is the latest in a wonderful body of work. Whatever you do, whether you have children in your family or are reading for yourself, don’t miss this one. It’s an absolute cracker.
About Barbara Henderson
Barbara Henderson has lived in Scotland since 1991, somehow acquiring an MA in English Language and Literature, a husband, three children and a shaggy dog along the way. Having tried her hand at working as a puppeteer, relief librarian and receptionist, she now teaches Drama part-time at secondary school.
Writing predominantly for children, Barbara won the Nairn Festival Short Story Competition in 2012, the Creative Scotland Easter Monologue Competition in 2013 and was one of three writers shortlisted for the Kelpies Prize 2013. In 2015, wins include the US-based Pockets Magazine Fiction Contest and the Ballantrae Smuggler’s Story Competition.
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