Posts for : February 2011


Original Sources for Welsh history

J. Beverley Smith, in his exhaustive history of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, lists primary sources for his research in the back of his book Llywelyn ap Gruffydd: The Prince of Wales, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998).

In perusing the documents, it becomes clear that while the thirteenth century was no longer officially the ‘dark ages’, there is very little documentation for an enormous amount of what happened in Wales during Llywelyn’s reign. On one hand, we have the cryptic Chronicle of the Princes (from which I quoted a few days ago), but no other record, official or otherwise, of the events leading up to Llywelyn’s death.

In addition, we don’t know:

1) When Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was born

2) If Senana was definitively his mother, though there is reference to him as the ‘uterine brother’ of Owain and Dafydd.

3)  Where he was when his family exchanged inprisonment in Criccieth Castle for the Tower of London.

4)  What his relationship was with his Uncle Dafydd.

5)  What happened in the belfry at Bangor and who betrayed him in 1282.

This is in large part, I suspect, because the English did everything they could do destroy all knowledge and records of the Welsh royal house, but it seems astonishing that no historican/churchman/author at the time, thought the events leading up to December 11th were important to record, immediately after the event. It may be that the English didn’t realize exactly how momentous his death really was, or Edward didn’t want to encourage any discussion of him at all.

What we do have is letters back and forth between Edward, Llywelyn, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some of these translations can be found here:

As well as:

As with the conquests of his grandfather, Llywelyn Fawr (posted here:, Llywelyn is mentioned extensively in The Chronicle of the Princes, particularly again, the Ystrad Fflur version.  Some samples:

1246 In this year the shield of Wales, Dafydd ap Llywelyn, died in his court at Aber; and his body was buried at Aberconwy with the body of his father. And since he had no heir of his body, there ruled after him the sons of Gruffudd, Owain Goch and Llywelyn. And those by counsel of the wise men of the land, divided the territory into two halves between them.

1260 In this year Llywelyn ap Gruffudd went to the land of Builth; and he took that land from Roger de Mortimer. And Owain ap Maredudd of Elfael came to Llywelyn’s peace.

1267 In this year Llywelyn ap Gruffudd made a pact with the earl of Clare. And after that the earl gathered a mighty host and made for the city of London; and forthwith through the deceit and treachery of the burgesses he took the city. And king Henry and Edward, his son, forced the earl to submit.  And peace and concord were arranged between Henry, king of England, and the Lord Llywelyn, prince of Wales, with Ottobon, the Pope’s legate, as mediator between them, at Baldwin’s Castle. And for that peace and agreement he promised to the king thirty thousand marks of the king’s sterling. And the king granted that the prince should receive the homage of the barons of Wales, and that the barons should maintain themselves and their followers wholly under the prince, and that there should be princes of Wales from that time forth, and that they should be so named. And that was also ratified by the authority of the Pope.


Footsteps in Time Review (from Smashwords) 2

This was pretty cool, so I felt the need to repost it . . . so thank you Wil!  I’m glad you liked the book!


Review by: Wilson James on Feb. 14, 2011 : star star star star star
Honor. That’s a word not often used today, in 2011. Honor, however, was one of the only things that American teenagers David and Anna took with them in their time travel to medieval Wales. Honor also describes the way in which Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffydd lived his life as the ruler of Wales in 1282.

The best way to describe FOOTSTEPS IN TIME? An amazing tale of adventure, daring exploits, loyalty, and courage all wrapped up in a time travel young adult fiction story. This book was enjoyable from beginning to end, as it has plenty of action mixed with a truly remarkable degree of realism of life in 13th century Wales.

Based upon actual events, the premise for FOOTSTEPS IN TIME is based upon the question, “What would have happened if Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, had not died in December 1282?”

This account weaves a remarkable narrative as it follows teen siblings David and Anna in their attempts to cope on their own in a society where it appears the most advanced technology is how to make a high-quality sword.

Authors generally do best if they write what they know. There is no question that author Sarah Woodbury knows the times of Edward I of England and Llywelyn, Prince of Wales, from what undoubtedly must have been a lot of research. What’s more, FOOTSTEPS IN TIME is a very solid and well-written fiction story, with well-developed characters along with vivid descriptions that put the reader right into the action.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’m eager to read the next in the saga (Prince of Time). This is truly a great story, for Young Adults, or for anyone.

(review of free book)


Footsteps in  Time is availabe at

At Apple ibooks:  Footsteps in Time

At Footsteps in Time

At Amazon UK:  Footsteps in Time

and Barnes and Noble:


Writing Historical Fantasy: a Conversation with Jules Watson 5

Guest Post by Anna Elliott:  A Conversation with Jules Watson.   

Jules Watson writes amazing, lyric historical fantasy set in the Dark Age Celtic world.  Her newest book, The Raven Queen, will be out next month.  And she has an absolutely fantastic historical fiction workshop on her website.  If you write historical fiction or fantasy, go check it out immediately, it’s one of the best resources for writers in the genre I’ve seen. 

Where do your ideas for a book start?  With a known historical fact or myth?  A ‘scene’ that pulls you into a story? A particular character?  Or maybe none of those?

The Raven Queen and my previous book The Swan Maiden were inspired by the heroines of two ancient Irish myths. For The Swan Maiden, I had always adored the Celti story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, which is tragic, but so beautiful, too. Queen Maeve in The Raven Queen just sounded fascinating – a battle-queen who started the most famous war in Irish myth. Though in the original tales Deirdre and Maeve were very different  – Deirdre a hapless pawn, Maeve a bloodthirsty ruler – I immediately saw their similarities. They were both at the mercy of a harsh male world, subject to men’s desire and lust for control. They both broke free to forge lives of their own and wield their own power. I could imagine two complementary stories about women taking charge of their fates and following their hearts against immense odds.  My first series, The Dalriada Trilogy, was more inspired by history. I wanted to write books about the ancient Celts, and the Roman invasions in the first century AD provided a driver for the plot, plus lots of baddies to fight against my goodies.

All the research involved in writing historical fiction/fantasy can be overwhelming to contemplate when you first begin.  Firstly, how do you recommend the beginning historical novelist start the research process?  And secondly, how do you know you’ve done enough research and are ready to start writing?

Start with the general, and narrow down to the specific. If you dive in too far, you might drown in academic papers and never write anything. Also, you might do a whole load of research you don’t use. I studied archaeology at college, so had a general knowledge of the Celts. Once I decided to set my books in Scotland, I got more specific with research, narrowing it to the UK. Once I decided on the Roman invasion, I went after specific information about the Roman Empire and Scotland at that time. How much? Only enough to get an idea of the era, main characters and plot – then start writing, or you will procrastinate. Research triggers off plot ideas, and you do need to know the “daily life” of your characters, so that you don’t break the flow of a scene to check what food your heroine grabs while rushing out the door. However, once past that baseline…jump in! Get going on a great plot and engaging characters, because that will make the book a success. This saves time, too, because as you write, you discover the facts you need to finish a scene, and won’t get stuck on irrelevant details.  The characters should not be actors in a play, walking about your beautiful, perfectly realized setting. History can drive the plot from underneath, but historical details should only be there to support an emotional roller-coaster of a story.

How do you set about creating characters who are authentic to your historical world?

Confession…I don’t try to! My previous characters sprang from themes I wanted to explore about love, lust for power, or forgiveness. One reason I wrote about first-century Celts is that we know so little about them, so I could (mostly) make them behave as I wanted them to. I therefore made my first heroine Rhiann a noblewoman and priestess so she had enough freedom to get into some risky and exciting scrapes. I molded her to fit my book, not history. In the Irish books, I did need to work around what is set down in myth. In the old tales, Maeve from The Raven Queen is a warrior, but a real woman would not be as physically strong as the men around her. To believably win sword-fights I had to make her rely on her intelligence and agility instead. She is a ruling queen, but that would have been rare in the Celtic world, so I had to figure out good reasons why her people might choose her. This is not as easy in well-recorded time periods, but the most compelling characters flout the rules, anyway. Rebellion and conflict maketh a plot – toeing the line does not.

Your books have such a rich wealth of historical detail and yet completely avoid the dreaded info-dump.  How do you manage the balance?

Thanks! The thing to remember is that you are an author, not a historian. You are hoping to entertain people with a great yarn, so the story comes first. Despite your reams of research, only put historical details in if they advance the plot or develop the characters. Keep the pacing up and slip bits and pieces of historical detail in among exciting action. Have your heroine stomp into her father’s chamber and get involved in a terrible argument, whereupon she grabs a paperweight off his desk and throws it at the window. Her mother puts down whatever she is doing and gets up, nervously smoothing her dress. The focus is on the argument, but as your heroine storms about you get to describe what she is wearing, what her father has on his desk, and even what kind of windows they have (glass she shatters; shutters the paperweight bounces off; or stone openings through which the paperweight soars?).

You also show your readers, without pausing to describe them, that your heroine is fiery and unafraid of her father, and that her mother is timid. Take the minimum amount of historical information readers need to engage with the story, and drip feed it in when something else is happening, so they hardly notice: they just absorb.

Celtic Britain is one of those periods about which we know comparatively little for certain, which means that the historical novelist is forced to fill in the blanks at least bit.   What strikes me most about your books is how seamlessly you blend the historical facts with your own expansion of the known details.  How do you pull that off? How do you make that leap from the often scanty historical and archaeological record to a fully-realized historical world that lives and breathes?

The key is to immerse myself fully in the details of the Celtic world I am evoking.  In every scene, if I can see, smell, taste, and hear everything around my characters, then history and fiction will merge – because I believe it, the reader will. If you can’t “feel” that, then you may need to do more research, or try another era. I also use logic to extrapolate from fact to fiction. For example, in poor, rural areas of Scotland, the way of life did not change much from the first to the nineteenth centuries. A native herb used by a farmer’s wife on an isolated Scottish island in the nineteenth century was most likely used by ancient Celtic housewives, too. Of course, in the UK, some plants and animals are native, and others came with the Romans, Saxons, Normans, or later peoples. You need to know those things when working backwards, but you have more information than you think you do. There are only so many ways to skin a cat – or a sheep!


The Wool Trade

Edward I was the first English monarch to tax the wool trade–to help pay, as always, for his wars.

Sheep have been herded in Wales since possibly the Celts, though it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when sheep first came to Wales.  “Excavations show that in about 6000 BC, during the Neolithic period of prehistory, the Castelnovien people, living around Chateauneuf-les-Martigues near present-day Marseille in the south of France, were among the first in Europe to keep domestic sheep. Practically from its inception, ancient Greek civilization relied on sheep as primary livestock, and were even said to name individual animals. Scandinavian sheep of a type seen today — with short tails and multi-colored fleece — were also present early on.

Later, the Roman Empire kept sheep on a wide scale, and the Romans were an important agent in the spread of sheep raising throughout the continent. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (Naturalis Historia), speaks at length about sheep and wool.  Declaring “Many thanks, too, do we owe to the sheep, both for appeasing the gods, and for giving us the use of its fleece.”  He goes on to detail the breeds of ancient sheep and the many colors, lengths and qualities of wool. Romans also pioneered the practice of blanketing sheep, in which a fitted coat (today usually of nylon) is placed over the sheep to improve the cleanliness and luster of its wool.

During the Roman occupation of the British Isles, a large wool processing factory was established in Winchester, England in about 50 AD.  By 1000 AD, England and Spain were recognized as the twin centers of sheep production in the Western world.” (See Wikipedia for citations)

“Wool became the backbone and driving force of the medieval English economy between the late thirteenth century and late fifteenth century and at the time the trade was described as “the jewel in the realm”! To this day the seat of the Lord High Chancellor in the House of Lords is a large square bag of wool called the ‘woolsack’, a reminder of the principal source of English wealth in the Middle Ages.

As the wool trade increased the great landowners including lords, abbots and bishops began to count their wealth in terms of sheep. The monasteries, in particular the Cistercian houses played a very active part in the trade, which pleased the king who was able to levy a tax on every sack of wool that was exported.

From the Lake District and Pennines in the north, down through the Cotswolds to the rolling hills of the West Country, across to the southern Downs and manors of East Anglia, huge numbers of sheep were kept for wool. Flemish and Italian merchants were familiar figures in the wool markets of the day ready to buy wool from lord or peasant alike, all for ready cash. The bales of wool were loaded onto pack-animals and taken to the English ports such as Boston, London, Sandwich and Southampton, from where the precious cargo would be shipped to Antwerp and Genoa.”

John Davies writes, in his History of Wales, in regards to the newly formed chain of Cistercian monestaries in Wales:  ” . . . for the monks were granted thousands of hectares of grazing land, where they pioneered the Welsh woollen industry; there is very little evidence that sheep were important to the Welsh economy before the coming of the Cistercians” (2007:126).

It certainly became important as The Welsh National Wool Museum can attest:

“Power notes three breeds as accounting for most wool production in the Middle Ages, Ryeland, Cotswold and Lincoln. Ryeland was the most famous of short-woolled breeds, grown in the country between the Severn and the marches of Wales, and was largely responsible for the ‘Lemster ore’, the golden fleece of England. The bulk of the fine wool exported in the Middle Ages came from two long-woolled breeds, however, Cotswold and Lincoln and in the fifteenth century the largest source of fine wool seems to have been the Cotswolds.”