Tournaments, Melées and Duels

Amaury, the hero in The Hunter & the Heiress, has previously competed in tournaments and has been a champion at the joust. I thought we would look today at the kinds of formalized combat that developed during the Middle Ages. The book is set in 1375 which is right around the time that formalized combat started to evolve into what we think of as a tournament. People have likely settled disputes with one-on-one combat or duels since the beginning of time and certainly the defense of one’s honor has often been a part of that.

Melées were the earliest formalized medieval combat. For these events, a number of knights gathered at a specific location and rode to war against each other in a big free-for-all. Knights would try to capture other knights, then would charge a ransom for their release. Some younger sons of noble families undoubtedly found this an exciting way to make a living. By the 14th century, though, melées had become less popular in favor of either a tournament of numerous events (possibly including the melée) and single combat.

Tournaments were often hosted by kings to celebrate marriages and coronations. Many knights would come together at an appointed time and place—Smithfields near London was one such location—and compete. These were displays of pageantry and affluence—it became increasily common for there to be costumes involved with references to legends.

The tilt or joust required mounted knights to ride toward each other. This became more developed in the fifteenth century, after the end of the Hundred Years War. Specialized plate armor was developed for tilting (both for the knight and the horse) and the median wall was added between the two knights. The goal was to unseat the opponent but piercing the opponent’s shield without giving him any other damage was considered to be artful. Fifteenth century armor becomes quite splendid, as there is a pageantry element to this display.

Single combat involved two knights battling each other on foot. In some places and times, these disputes were limited to the use of certain weapons; in others, there was more flexibility and the combatants could decide. This could be a means of settling a question of honor, as it is in The Hawk & the Hunter, and it might not be endorsed by the local authority. In the fourteenth century, kings and barons tried to control ritualized combat with limited success—which is why the Baron of Clyffton declines to attend the duel in the book.

Duels could also be commanded by a judicial authority when a verdict could not be decided in the court—it was believed that the divine would favor the innocent party. This was called a gaige de bataille and over the fifteenth century, elaborate rules were developed to govern such a duel. They might be fought until one combatant died, or the loser might be executed. In 1386, for example, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques le Gris fought a judicial duel after Carrouges accused le Gris of raping his wife. Carrouges threw le Gris to the ground in the duel, but le Gris refused to confess to the crime and Carrouges killed him. This was the last gaige de bataille ordered in France. In England, John Walsh of Grimsby fought a judicial duel in 1384 with Martlet de Villeneuve, who had accused him of treason. Walsh won the battle and Martlet was drawn, hung and beheaded for making a false accusation.

Pas d’armes were competitions that gathered a number of knights to demonstrate their prowess and these events became popular in the fifteenth century. One of the earliest occurred at St. Inglevert in 1390 (that’s south of Calais.) Three French knights invited other knights to joust against them in a specific location, where they would await challengers for a specific period of time. Another pas d’armes in 1443 at Dijon called the Pas de l’arbre de Charlemagne is also well-chronicled: two shields were hung in a tree for contenders to select their event, the black one indicating eleven courses of jousting with sharp weapons and the violet one indicating foot combat with swords or axes. That event continued for twelve weeks.

In all these forms of medieval combat, knights could battle à plaisance or à outrance—for pleasure or to the utmost. In the former, there might be a time limit on the match, or a victory declared after a certain number of hits were made, or when one opponent was thrown to the ground. In the latter, one combatant had to surrender, be injured or die to end the fight. These battles could also be fought with weapons of peace, which were blunted, or weapons of war, which were not. The idea was not to kill one’s opponent, but deaths did occur. It was a dangerous game—Elizabeth has a good bit to say on this in The Hunter & the Heiress.

I wanted to show you some wonderful images of jousting knights or medieval manuscripts but all the ones I found were copyrighted and unavailable for use. 😦 Here are two 16th century German books that are available to view on at least these websites. When you have a few minutes, take a look!

Look at some images of knights from Hans Burgkmair’s Turnierbuch ca 1530

Look at some images from the Knights Tournament Book ca 1550

Here also is the online facsimile of the Codex Manesse, a book created between 1304 and 1340 in Germany including songs. Here’s a lovely image of a knight accepting tributes from the ladies. And here’s a melée. The images in this book are wonderful depictions of medieval life, including several of hunting and hawking.

Look at the entire Codex Manesse online facsimile

The Hunter & the Heiress, book two of the Blood Brothers series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

Nothing could be further from Amaury de Vries’ expectations than joining his half-brother’s company of mercenaries in the wilds of Scotland. A knight and a champion at the joust, he expected to inherit a holding—until the man he has known as his father revealed a terrible truth and disavowed him. Left with nothing, Amaury rides to Kilderrick, where he loses his heart to a beautiful noblewoman in the forest. A practical man, he knows he has no right to court the lady, but when she is abducted, Amaury follows, determined to fulfill his knightly duty by aiding a damsel in distress.

Elizabeth d’Acron has been a pawn and a prize, pursued for her father’s wealthy holding, and wants only to be desired for herself. Seized again, she vows she will surrender to no man—even the handsome knight who comes to her rescue. And truly, there could be no one more vexing than this confident yet inscrutable man, so concerned with duty that he could be wrought of stone—but Elizabeth soon learns that she can trust Amaury to defend her at any cost. She does not expect the seductive fire awakened by his touch, much less his conquest of her wary heart—but has she fallen in love with a man whose affections are already claimed?

Snared between duty and passion, Amaury finds himself beguiled by the lady who challenges his every expectation, but knows he has little to offer her. But when Elizabeth is threatened by a former suitor who will not be refused, Amaury risks his all in her defense, hoping it will be enough. But can he intervene in time? And will love alone convince Elizabeth to place her hand in his for all time?

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The Siege of Caerlaverock

At the end of The Wolf & the Witch (and the beginning of The Hunter & the Heiress), Elizabeth has been seized by two men seeking the bounty that will be paid by her betrothed, Calum Moffatt, upon her delivery to him at Caerlaverock castle. Amaury pursues this small party from Kilderrick, with the squire Oliver, intent upon defending Elizabeth. We know that she fled this arranged marriage, but Amaury doesn’t know that part of her story yet.

Today, I thought we’d take a look at Caerlaverock castle, which is built on a site that has been fortified for centuries. There was a Roman fort on Ward Law Hill and a British hill fort around 950 AD. The site allowed a view over Solway Firth. The name Caerlaverock appears in 1160 when the lands were granted to the Cistercian monks of Holm Cultram Abbey in Cumbria (across the firth). They held and rented lands in Galloway and used stone from there to built their abbey, but their grasp on these holdings steadily eroded. Interestingly, they were attacked by Scots, including Robert the Bruce in 1319, despite the fact that his father was buried in the chapel.

Caerlaverock Castle
Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries, Scotland

The lands of Caerlaverock were granted to Sir John Maxwell in 1220 by King Alexander II, sealing its association with the Maxwell clan. Sir John Maxwell began construction on the first castle, which was square in shape with a moat, in the 1220’s. That castle and site was abandoned (possibly incomplete) in favor of a rise some 200 feet to the north, where the triangular moated castle was built by Sir Aylmer Maxwell—it was complete in 1271.

Caerlaverock Castle
Caerlaverock Castle

In this image, you can see the curtain walls that survive from the 14th century and the view over the Solway Firth. It’s likely that the walls were built from the stone excavated to dig the moat. The keep is also surrounded by earthworks. There are 17th century additions inside the walls called the Nithsdale Lodging.

Here’s the website for Caerlaverock Castle from Historic Environment Scotland.

What is interesting for my story is that the castle was besieged in July 1300 by King Edward I of England with an army of knights. Ultimately the castle was compelled to surrender, but there was a poem composed in Old French, called the Siege of Caerlaverock (or the Roll of Caerlaverock) which lists the attending knights, their credentials and standards, as well as describing the battle itself. 87 knights accompanied Edward to this battle, so it’s quite a list.

It starts like this:

In chronicles of great monasteries
It is found that King Edward the Third,[1]
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,
Not in coats and surcoats,
But on powerful and costly chargers,
In order that they might not be taken by surprise,
Well and securely armed.
There was many a rich caparison
Embroidered on silks and satins;
Many a beautiful pennon fixed on a lance;
And many a banner displayed.
And afar off was the noise heard
Of the neighing of horses;
Mountains and valleys were everywhere
Covered with sumpter horses and waggons,
With provisions, and the train
Of the tents and pavilions.
And the days were fine and long,
So they proceeded by short journies,
Arranged in four squadrons;
The which I will describe to you,
That I will not pass one over.
First I will tell you of the companions,
All their arms and names,
Especially of the bannerets,
If you will listen how.

Henry the good Earl of Lincoln,
Who embraces and loves valour,
And holds i sovereign in his heart,
Leading the first squadron,
Had a banner of yellow silk
With a purple lion rampant

(That first footnote notes that the chronicler believed Edward I to be the third Edward who had reigned over England, counting Edward the Elder and Edward the Confessor.)

In this era, the use of insignia was comparatively new and unregulated. There were already certain elements associated with royal families – fleur-de-lis for the French king, or on azure, three leopards rampant for the English king, gold on gules, and ermine for the Kings of Brittany – but many knights simply chose their colors. An incident like this one described later in the poem was thus possible:

Brian le Fitz Alan, saw I,
full of courtesy and honour,
barry gold and gules
displaying in a very splendid banner. 
this the same as Hugh Pointz carried —
difference there was none at all —
which was cause of strife between them,
and a marvel to men all.


Here‘s the Wikisource of the poem, from which I took the first excerpt as it’s in the public domain. Some of the poem is presented in a side-by-side translation from the Old French to English, and there are some illustrations of the standards.

Here‘s an English translation of the text with illustrations of all the described standards at the Heraldry Society. The second excerpt came from there.

This is a fascinating chronicle for its detail, but also, in terms of story, I’m sure Amaury is familiar with it. He has a love of pageantry and heraldry, given his history of jousting in tournaments. He’s attended royal courts and heard the troubadours sing, and this poem recounting deeds of knightly valor, would certainly be one he’d find appealing. It’s evocative of the life he expected to life, and also the one Elizabeth abandoned for the sake of having her own choice. Amaury had an insignia, but of course, he was disavowed by Gaston de Vries, the man he believed to be his father, at Jean le Beau’s funeral at the beginning of The Wolf & the Witch. He had been hoping to ride to Paris to tourney (check on a stallion and a noble maiden), so I have to think he had all his trappings with him. He would have packed them away, not discarded them, because of their cost. At Caerlaverock, he will have use for them again – which means I had to design his insignia.

The Hunter & the Heiress is the second book in my Blood Brothers series and will be published in January 2022.

The Hunter & the Heiress, book two of the Blood Brothers series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

Nothing could be further from Amaury de Vries’ expectations than being compelled to join a company of mercenaries in the wilds of Scotland, much less one led by his notorious half-brother. He chafes to return to his former life of privilege and knows a wealthy bride will allow him to regain his stolen legacy. Elizabeth is a prize unexpected—beautiful and an heiress—and when she is abducted by barbarians, Amaury’s path is clear. He may not be the sole contender for the lady’s hand, but he knows himself to be the best one—and he will use whatever means necessary to seal his triumphant claim.

All Elizabeth D’Acron desires is to wed for love, but her inheritance has made her both a pawn and a prize. Caught between warring chieftains, her defiance blossoms—she chooses instead to flee with Amaury and make a marriage of convenience, hoping her trust in the gallant knight is not misplaced. She does not expect the beguiling fire awakened by Amaury’s touch, much less his unexpected conquest of her heart, and she dares to hope that true love has found a way.

But Elizabeth’s legacy is not so readily claimed—when Amaury’s plan is revealed, she is shattered to learn that her chivalrous husband is no different from other men. Recognizing that the true prize is his lady wife, Amaury rejoins the company of mercenaries and leads the battl to ensure Elizabeth’s freedom, whatever the cost to himself. Can these two lovers overcome the wounds of the past to build a future together? Or will the secret behind Elizabeth’s inheritance destroy any such hope forever?

Coming in January 2022!

The Hunter & the Heiress will ba availble in wide distribution for one week after publication, then it will be exclusive to Amazon and enrolled in Kindle Unlimited.

Pre-order available at some portals:

The Hunter & the Heiress, book two of the Blood Brothers series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix, audio edition

The Hunter & the Heiress will also be available in an audio edition, narrated by Tim Campbell.

King Robert II of Scotland

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

Robert II, King of Scotland, has a cameo role in The Wolf & the Witch, so I thought we’d talk a bit about him today. He’s an interesting king because he was older when he gained the throne: his sons were adults, and maybe that’s why he was known for being such a delegator.

This is the Author’s Note that appears in The Wolf & the Witch.

This is a work of fiction, but it does include some historical facts and actual figures. Robert II was crowned King of Scotland in 1371 and was the first Stewart king. He had alliances beyond Lothian and is believed to have fostered the increased raiding on the Scottish borders from 1375 – 1377. In 1378, he reclaimed Annandale. I think he would have been very glad to have a mercenary like the Silver Wolf move into that region.

Upon his coronation, Robert granted the earldoms of Fife and Monteith to his son, Robert; the earldoms of Buchan and Ross to his son, Alexander; the earldoms of Strathearn and Caithness to his son David by Euphemia. (Alexander was known as the Wolf of Badenoch for his savagery and cunning.) Robert also wed his daughter Isabella to James, the son of William, Earl of Douglas, as part of a settlement to address William’s protest against Robert taking the crown. Douglas was also name Justiciar south of the Forth as part of that arrangement. Robert’s son-in-laws were James (who became second Earl of Douglas), John Dunbar, Earl of Moray, and John MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.

This last marriage of the Lord of the Isles (also known as John of Islay, Eòin mac Dòmhnuill, and the chief of clan Macdonald) to Robert’s daughter, Margaret, required John to divorce his wife, Amie mac Ruari. John and Amie had three sons—John, Ranald and Godfroy—who also had to be disinherited as part of this arrangement. Upon that divorce, Amie’s dowry of Garmoran (Knoydart, Morar, Moidart, Ardnamarchan and the small isles) had to be relinquished by John, as well. It was returned to the macRuaris and granted to Ranald—after the death of the son, John—and ultimately granted to Godfroy after Ranald’s death. Little is known of the sons other than Ranald, but it seemed likely to me that they might have been dissatisfied with their father’s decision: Alys’ betrothed, Godfroy, is modeled upon him. He was the youngest and I chose to make him an indulged favorite who dealt poorly with rejection.

Kilderrick itself was inspired by the Hermitage, a fortress in Liddesdale (there is a post on my blog about this keep) and Alys’ father, Robert Armstrong, was inspired by Robert de Soulis, who first began to build a keep in the location of the Hermitage. His descendant, William de Soulis, was said to have had a reputation as a sorceror and a redcap as his familiar. Sir Walter Scott recorded a ballad by J. Leyden about him in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders called “Lord Soulis.” The family had a claim to the crown through Margaret, an illegitimate daughter of Alexander II, and that claim prompted William de Soulis to enter a conspiracy against Robert the Bruce. It was foiled in 1320 and his lands were forfeit for treason. He died imprisoned at Dumbarton. In the story, however, he is boiled alive in a cauldron at the Ninestang Ring, a local stone circle, in a revolt by the peasants against his villainy.

Jean le Beau is fictitious but characteristic of mercenaries of the fifteenth century. These warriors joined into armies for hire called free companies (because they were not beholden to any specific king or baron), were sometimes called routiers in the chronicles, and could be of noble background. Scotsmen often traveled to the continent to join these companies in the hope of earning their fortune. One famous free company was called the White Company, led by John Hawkwood and active in the Italian states in the 1360’s, was likely the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventure stories of The White Company. The actual company may have been named as much because they wore white tabards in battle. John Hawkwood was an Englishman, who had English archers in his company, and eventually married into the aristocracy. He was not particularly known for his handsome features or his numerous bastard sons, but Jean le Beau, the Silver Wolf’s father, was inspired by him just a bit.

Of course, events of this story did not happen, but I like to tuck my stories into historical events as if they could have happened. I hope you enjoyed The Wolf & the Witch, and will join me for Elizabeth and Amaury’s story, The Hunter & the Heiress.

14th Century Mercenaries

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

The hero of The Wolf & the Witch, Maximilian de Vries, is a mercenary and formerly the leader of a free company called La Compagnie Rouge. That free company was formed by his father, Jean le Beau, the bastard son of a baron with a reputation for violence. This is fiction, but based on historical fact. Today, I thought we’d talk a bit about those 14th century free companies of mercenaries.

In theory, medieval kings summoned armies from their vassals, who owed military service—or the service of knights sworn to their service—to the monarch on demand. In reality, this didn’t always work out well. Military training was likely to be inconsistent. Knights might not arrive on time or prepared for battle. Mercenaries, which were warriors paid to take any cause, filled the gap. They were professional fighters who could be hired at a price. In the fourteenth century, mercenaries proliferated in Europe and joined together in free companies: “free” because they weren’t bound to any particular monarch or territory. Philippe Contamine (in Wars in the Middle Ages) defines mercenaries as warriors who are 1/ specialists; 2/ stateless; and 3/ paid.

What’s interesting about these men is that even though they contributed to the course of history, often in significant ways, they are seldom named in chronicles. This doesn’t mean that they all had humble roots—remember that being trained for battle was a privilege of aristocratic society. I suspect there were a lot of bastard sons and younger sons without legacies in these companies. As Jean Froissart notes in his Chronicles (a 14th century account of the Hundred Years’ War), Scottish warriors often journeyed to the continent to seek their fortune as paid mercenaries.

Here’s a wonderful excerpt from Medieval Mercenaries by William Urban, for those of you who like words as much as I do:

“Territorial rules wanted warriors who were young, skilful, ready to obey orders…and numerous. Vassals often failed on all four counts, especially the last one. Therefore, rulers turned to mercenaries. A mercenary soldier is obviously one who fights for pay. Strictly speaking, to say mercenary soldier is a redundancy. Mercenary comes from mercer, meaning to buy and sell. Sold is the German word for money; solde in French. Both have their roots in the word for a silver coin, a solidus, which ultimately goes back to the Latin word for salt, which Romans used for paying salaries (“worth his salt”). Consequently, the word soldier implies an individual who hires out his talents, much like a common workman. We only need the two words together now because the evolution of governmental institutions later transformed irregular hired warriors into a professional class. Warriors who fought because of personal obligations, such as knights, were referred to as one’s men or one’s vassals. Today soldiers are committed to serve a nation no matter whether they are volunteers or in a professional army. A soldier no longer changes employers and rarely goes on strike for higher wages.”

The French word for free companies of mercenaries is routiers, which certainly brings to mind the idea of a raiding company roving over the countryside. When free companies were not employed (or not paid), they pillaged. All the same, their numbers grew during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France—because they were so useful. By the middle of th fourteenth century, several companies were sufficiently large and successful to be known by their names and reputation.

The White Company was composed primarily of English warriors who left France after fighting in the Hundred Years’ War, traveling to Italy in 1361. They were hired by the count of Montferrat to battle the Milanese Great Company employed by the duke of Milan—they won. They wore plate armor, highly polished, which might have contributed to their name (or they might have worn white tabards in battle.) They also had many archers with longbows in their company, an effective weapon mastered by the English. In 1364, the Florentines offered the White Company a ransom to leave Tuscany, the money was accepted. Part of the company moved south toward the Papal States, following Albert Sterz and calling themselves the Company of the Star. The remainder of the White Company followed John Hawkwood and remained in Pisa.

John Hawkwood (1323- 1394) was an English mercenary and longbowman who later led the White Company. He was knighted at some point, married twice, and had five legitimate children as well as many illegitimate ones—two of his illegitimate sons are documented. What is striking is the money he earned as leader of the White Company: he was paid in gold florins, and according to L.W. Mazzeno’s John Hawkwood, “In the 30 years that he served as a captain, Hawkwood’s earnings ranged between 6,000 and 80,000 florins annually (in comparison, a skilled Florentine craftsman at the same time earned 30 florins a year).” He was reputed to have been brutal and cunning, as well as loyal, even though the record challenges that last one. John died in Florence and there is a fresco in the Duomo of him on horseback. You can read more about the specifics of his military career in the Wiki about him.

John Hawkwood was not specifically my inspiration for Jean le Beau, Maximilian’s father (I had already chosen his name by the time I dug deeper into the history of free companies) although his story helped me to add details to Jean’s history and to understand better how free companies functioned. Jean le Beau is much nastier piece of work than I believe John was, and is much more enthusiastic about sexual conquests. When I named Jean le Beau, I was thinking of Philip le Bel (Philip IV, King of France 1285-1314) who was notoriously handsome but so inflexible that he was also called the Iron King.

There were more mercenary captains in Italy—called condottieri—including Giovanni de’ Medici (della Bande Nere), and Cesare Borgia—but these tend to be later, in the fifteenth century. If you watch The Borgias, you can see them in action in that era. If you watch The Tudors, you’ll see how reliant Henry VIII became upon mercenary armies in the fifteenth century. Watching either series, you’ll get to enjoy some wonderful eye candy, too.

One of the things that interests me is how a father’s nature will shape the choices and the characters of his sons, legitimate or illegitimate. All four of the heroes in Blood Brothers struggle with the legacy of Jean le Beau, partly based on how well they knew him and how close they were to their mothers. They all despise their father, but that manifests differently for each one—and they all find it particularly troubling to notice any resemblance between themselves and Jean le Beau. That struggle is something we’ll see more of in the rest of the series.

Inspiration for Kilderrick

The Wolf & the Witch, book one of the Blood Brothers trilogy of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

When I began to plan for my Blood Brothers trilogy, I wanted to visit some new territory, so to speak. I’ve written books set in medieval France and England—as well as less conventional settings, like Persia—and my Scottish medievals begin at Ravensmuir, inspired by Tantallon to the east of Edinburgh. My Scottish medieval family at Kinfairlie had links to the throne and to France, and their background was Norman. Ultimately, they married into families from the Highlands. The Rogue begins in 1371 and The Beauty Bride in 1421: I like to stay clear of the years that the black plague was in Scotland, 1349-50 and 1362. In my Champions of St. Euphemia series, Fergus returns home from Crusade to Galloway in 1188 in The Crusader’s Vow, while in The Beauty, Alasdair has returned home from Crusade to the Highlands in 1183, which sets those stories on the other side of the plague.

The heroes in the Blood Brothers series are warriors and sons of a successful mercenary. Mercenaries—or blades-for-hire—existed throughout the Middle Ages, actually even longer than that. They traveled to wherever there was a battle, hiring themselves and their companies out to the highest bidder. They were particularly successful before kings established standing armies, because their services were needed by those kings – it was true that vassals owed military service or knights to their overlords or king, but these men weren’t always as well equipped, trained or sufficiently numerous. In the fourteenth century, mercenaries proliferated in Europe – some were nobly born, some weren’t, and they tend to be left out of the chronicles. I like the sons of mercenaries as heroes: they are often conflicted about their legacy and their livelihood, which makes them ideal candidates for the Beauty-and-the-Beast stories I so love to write.

The Scot and the Sorceress, book two of the Blood Brothers trilogy by Claire Delacroix

I chose the titles for the books because of their alliteration, and because they reminded me of the titles of historical romances when I first started to read these books. I loved those sweeping stories, filled with history and passion, and that was what I intended this series to be like. (And yes, the swishy type is a bonus.) Since the heroes were warriors, the women needed to have some abilities of their own: the first two heroines are called Witch and Sorceress, but I knew that would only be their cover story to keep unwanted suitors and intruders away. I envisioned them like the witches in MacBeth, surviving on the edge of the wilderness, fiercely independent and fearless.

This series was to be set in Scotland and I was fascinated with the Border Reivers who operated on the Western Marches. Although these border raiders operated from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, most of the stories about them are from the later period, and I expected this series to be set in the late fifteenth or even the sixteenth century. I had mixed feelings about this era, but liked the idea of my heroines being rebels who were indifferent to authority.

Then I dug into my research and—as is so often the case—the pieces fell into place, as if by magic. It seemed as if I’d brought together the perfect combination of elements. Liddesdale is a valley to the north and east of Carlisle, notorious as a retreat for reivers, with a large forest to the east which is today preserved as the Border Forest Park. South of this park, Hadrian’s Wall remains. At the north end of the Liddesdale valley is a castle ruin at Hermitage.

The ruins of Hermitage Castle on the Scottish Borders

Many of the medieval stone buildings in the area frequented by the reivers are fortified towers, but this is a fortress. Hermitage is said to derive from the French l’armitage or guardhouse and this keep was called “the strength of Liddesdale”. The original structure was built in 1240 by Nicholas de Soulis and was a motte-and-bailey keep. In 1320, his descendant William de Soulis was said to have practiced witchcraft and/or been a magician who could not be harmed by steel or rope. He terrorized his tenants and the story is that they rose up and boiled him in molten lead in a nearby stone circle called Ninestang Ring. The keep is said to be haunted by his familiar, Redcap Sly, and that story was recorded by Sir Walter Scott in his Minstrelsie of the Scottish Border. (We’ll talk more about this next week.) It’s a great story, but William was actually imprisoned by his overlord and died imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle. The current structure, imposing even in ruin, was built by the Earl of Douglas in the late fourteenth century, likely with the services of John Lewin, the master mason from Durham Cathedral.

The ruins of Hermitage Castle on the Scottish Borders

And so, I have a fourteenth century story inspired by historical events: I now know that the mercenary (and son of a mercenary) Maximilian burned Kilderrick, the motte-and-bailey keep held by Alys’ father, at his own father’s command. Hermitage is the inspiration for Kilderrick, making Alys the sole survivor of a family experienced in border raiding (as the Armstrongs were said to be). Of course, she remembers the fire and blames Maximilian for everything she’s lost. Of course, Maximilian will be the one to build the new keep in stone when he returns to claim the holding – he’ll want to ensure that it is a fortress that can never be taken from him, as his rightful legacy has been. We’ll miss the plague of 1365, although both protagonists remember its ravages. Maximilian arrives at Kilderrick in 1375, fifteen years after he left it smoldering. England and France have signed the Truce of Bruges that will last only until 1378—which means Maximilian will be able to travel from Normandy to Scotland with comparative ease. The Scots and the English will ride to war in 1384, although both sides were already making preparations for the inevitable conflict, which is why Maximilian will be able to secure the financing for construction from the Earl of Douglas in exchange for his alliance.

Is there a ghost in the ruins? Alys would like Maximilian to think so—and as Maximilian’s unwilling bride, she has the ways and means to make her husband doubt his own sanity, as well as the motivation to do so. (Enemies-to-lovers stories are so fun.)

Next week, we’ll talk about the story of William Soulis.

Learn more about The Wolf & the Witch.