Posts by: James Aitcheson

Edward Ruadh ButlerThis week I’m pleased to be interviewing fellow historical novelist Edward Ruadh Butler, the author of the Invader series, which is set in twelfth-century Ireland and begins with Swordland (Accent, 2015).

Ruadh recently ran a Q&A with me on his own website, albeit a Q&A with a difference. Instead of giving me a conventional list of questions to answer, he presented me with a selection of quotations from famous works of literature, including Moby-Dick and The Great Gatsby, which I was invited to reflect upon and respond to however I saw fit.

In this interview, I thought I’d turn the tables, offering up a range of quotes not necessarily from the great novels of the past, but simply from books currently sitting on my shelf. Without further ado, then, I’d like to welcome Ruadh to my blog.


“Small beginnings. The principle of the oak tree, and the secret of the successful artist, politician, sportsman. Nice and easy does it.” (From The Mighty Walzer by Howard Jacobson.)

It was never an ambition of mine to write a novel. I love reading. I have done for as long as I can remember and as a kid nearly everything I read had the grand backdrop of history; Herge, Goscinny and Uderzo came first, then Morgan Llywelyn, Mary Stewart, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, before Bernard Cornwell came along and I became more than a little obsessive, reading and re-reading his books a number of times. It simply never occurred to me to write since all I really wanted was the next book of Sharpe, Starbuck and Derfel’s escapades!

It was only when I was studying journalism in London in 2007 that the kernel of an idea to write a novel took seed. I was staying with a cousin and came across a whole raft of journals about the Butler family, and, having only the vaguest knowledge of what that meant, I started investigating. They had come to Ireland in the wake of the Norman invasion of 1169, an invasion which had, for better or worse, changed everything in the country, across all strata of society. Surprisingly, it remains a period of history that has been largely unexplored by most people. I had found an untapped treasure trove of stories, of intrigue and adventure, of men and women, in a land so alien to modern eyes. They were stories of remarkable deeds and fascinating characters. I had to write about it. I didn’t know how, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.

My first attempt was named Spearpoint. Told from the perspective of Dermot MacMurrough, an Irish king exiled from his throne by his enemies in 1166, it simply didn’t work, principally because Dermot proved a little too unsympathetic as a lead character. So I began again, this time from the angle of one of the real-life Norman mercenaries who Dermot had employed to help him reclaim his kingdom.

With a bit of patience – and a number of re-writes – a book called Spearpoint became one called The Outpost with the Welsh-Norman knight Robert FitzStephen as the protagonist for the first time. Further work and fine-tuning (for one hour during my work lunch break as well as a good few weekends and late nights) saw The Outpost become Vanguard.


Swordland • Edward Ruadh Butler • Accent • 478 pp. • £7.99

It was only when I was certain that the book was ready for public view that I sent it to my father’s sailing pal, the late Wallace Clark, a respected (and much missed) travel writer, for his assessment. He loved it but suggested a name change. Thus, Swordland was sent out for the consideration of literary agents in late 2010. It found a home with Accent Press and was published in paperback in April 2016.


“You must understand, therefore, that there are two ways of fighting: by law or by force. The first way is natural to men, and the second to beasts.” (From The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli.)

In the period in which I write it is true that the Normans employed both military and legislative force to overcome the Gael and so conquer much of Ireland. However, it was a much greater power than either ‘law’ or ‘force’ that would win out in the end. This was culture.

The Normans were, without doubt, superior to the Gael militarily but what the invaders met in Ireland was a far older, more vibrant culture to their own, and within two centuries most of the would-be conquerors had absorbed the traditions of those against whom they fought. They had famously become “more Irish than the Irish themselves”. I can think of few circumstances in history where the victorious invader adopted the cultural practices of the conquered to such an extent or so readily.

Of course this campaign was conducted principally through marriage. Wherever they ventured, the Normans married local women, usually well-connected ladies who would give them an advantage politically, but the effect was to inject new ideas into already complex mongrel lineages that the Normans had developed over the previous centuries of conquest.

Most of those who had taken part in the invasion of 1169 were of the second or even third generation living in Wales and as a result as much of their maternal pedigree was Welsh, Breton or Flemish as it was Norman. The central character in Swordland, Robert FitzStephen, was a real-life man and the son of a (presumably) Norman warrior, Stephen of Cardigan, and a Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys. It is interesting to imagine the impact that this hybrid background would have on Robert, how it affected his personal and public life, and how it influenced the decisions he made.

The Song of Dermot and the Earl – written in the first half of the 13th century – has Maurice FitzGerald, Robert’s half-brother, upon the walls of besieged Dublin in 1171, just two years after the Normans arrived in Ireland, stating:

“Is it succour from our country that we expect? Nay, such is our lot that what the Irish are to the English, we too, be now considered Irish, are the same. The one island does not hold us in greater desperation than the other. Away, then, with hesitation and cowardice, and let us boldly attack the enemy, while our short stock of provisions yet supplies us with sufficient strength.”

While Maurice is unlikely to have said such a thing, it does give an idea of how his descendants identified themselves during the 1220s. By 1366, these Hibernicised Normans were referred to as “the middle nation” and as a result the English government tried to impose the Statutes of Kilkenny to prevent further degeneration of the settlers. They didn’t succeed. Gaelic culture proved more persuasive than either law or force.


“Tonight the curtain that separates the dead from the living will quiver, fray, and finally vanish. Tonight the dead will cross the bridge of swords.” (From Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell.)

I’m not a religious person but I do believe that one way for a person to ‘live’ beyond their lifespan is through storytelling. In the future I plan to write about fictional characters, but at the moment it gives me great pleasure to write about the deeds of men and women who really existed (albeit in a fictionalised manner). My characters are people almost forgotten by history, but, by telling their story with as much authenticity and passion as I can muster, I hope that they will be in a sense ‘resurrected’ and the curtain separating their time from ours will indeed vanish – if only in the mind of the reader.

My most recent novel, Lord of the Sea Castle, is currently with my editor and I’m very much looking forward to hearing what he thinks. I really enjoyed writing it. The story picks up right after the end of Swordland and is based around the siege of Baginbun in the summer of 1170. The battle is not terribly well-known today, even in Ireland, but Richard Stanihurst, the celebrated Tudor historian, claimed in 1577 that “by the creek of Baginbun, Ireland was lost and won”. If he is to be believed Baginbun should be remembered as Ireland’s version of the Battle of Hastings. My host, James, will know that this hardly tells the whole story of the conquest of England and it is much the same with its Irish equivalent.

Baginbun Head, County Wexford

Baginbun Head in County Wexford, where Raymond de Carew made his stand against an army of several thousand Waterford Vikings in summer 1170. You can still identify the remnants of the double embankment he constructed at that time, running between the beaches at the narrowest point.

Without giving too much away, the main character in Lord of the Sea Castle, Raymond de Carew (or Raymond the Fat, as he was more commonly known), leads an advance force of just 120 warriors to Ireland to establish a bridgehead for his lord, Richard de Clare, ahead of his invasion of Ireland. With no hope of aid from home, Raymond is confronted by an alliance of Waterford Vikings and Gaelic tribesmen who outnumber him by at least twenty to one and are bent upon wiping out his small company. The part set in Ireland is lifted almost totally from 12th- and early 13th-century sources. Some of the acts of bravery are so incredible that you might truly believe them to be fictitious! They are deeds worth remembering and I hope I can do them justice.


“Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” (From The Road by Cormac McCarthy.)

One of the great losses to Ireland was Brehon Law. These ‘laws’ came about over several thousands of years before the Norman invasion and are, in their widest terms, a set of ‘fair dinkum’ principles and customs to which all 140 ancient petty-kingdoms in Ireland adhered. They managed to survive and thrive during the Norman colonial period before being stamped out during the second half of the seventeenth century. I find it tantalising to imagine what form it would’ve taken if it had survived and developed through to modern times.

Unlike the rest of medieval Europe which for the most part took on a Romanised form of laws, under the Brehon system the responsibility of law-making and taxation was taken out of the hands of kings. Neither could they create new laws to subjugate their people. Outlandishly for the time, the laws of the land were derived from the bottom of society rather than the top.

Kings could not sit in judgement over the people below them in society and they were subject to the law just like everyone else. Kings were elected from amongst a group of suitable males and they acted as figurehead, particularly in times of war while also being expected to finance judges and poets from an area of land given over to him by the tribe to support him during his time in position. The next holder, considered the most capable at that time, might easily be his brother, son, uncle, or distant cousin.

The law was the realm of the Brehon class. These professional jurists studied the customs of their petty-kingdom and settled disputes. Elsewhere in Europe (and up to the current day) if you committed a crime it was not an offence against your victim, but against the law of the land. In Ireland, the state (represented by the Brehons) was merely the adjudicator between disputing parties. Their rulings were based solely on compensation rather than punishment (even for the worst crimes such as murder) with the ultimate aim being to attain a position of mutual agreement and of resolution. Responsibility for every crime was shared around a kin-group rather than by the offender alone. It was the entire family who put forward monetary sureties and this led to the family unit most commonly trying to rehabilitate unruly members in order to avoid further liability. Only the most wayward in society lost this protection, becoming outlaw and therefore susceptible to killing without risk of legal reprove.

These laws were thousands of years old yet surprisingly modern in many aspects. They were comparatively liberal and compassionate towards women, offering certain protections and independence within marriage and divorce, as well as towards the disabled and children (particularly those of illegitimate birth). Inheritance was equal amongst all the sons rather than having everything inherited by the eldest.

The Normans who came to Ireland were initially subject to English Law but they slowly began to adopt the Brehon customs. Why would they do this rather than look to Dublin or for the king’s judgement? Is it because they found the older laws more fair-minded and impartial than the centralised and distant governments with the monopoly on power?

As a journalist, I spend a great deal of time in court rooms and have seen just how isolated young people can become caught in the criminal justice system, unable to break out of the circle of offending, while going through the list of ineffectual punishments to overly severe sanction that impacts the rest of their life. It seems to me that many caught in this life have devolved personal responsibility to a district judge rather than take it on themselves.

The Brehon Laws put responsibility squarely on the shoulders of those accused of crimes and put them face to face with their accusers. They were asked what it was worth for them to stop aberrant behaviour. It bound their future and finances up with that of their entire family. It caused them to be part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves rather than in opposition to it. The ancient Irish didn’t have to look to the government (or the church) as the adjudicators of good conduct within society. They constructed it themselves and were proud of it.


“I have a story to tell you. It has many beginnings, and perhaps one ending. Perhaps not. Beginnings and endings are contingent things anyway; inventions, devices.” (From The Algebraist by Iain M Banks.)

I’m not a historian. I write historical fiction. Despite writing about people who, for the most part, actually lived, I have no problem changing a few historical details if I think it pushes forward the story. My aim is to make any changes feel authentic to the period and I always try to come clean in the historical note!

One instance was when I had both Dermot MacMurrough and his daughter Aoife able to speak French in Swordland. This was not because I have any evidence that they could, but because it would have been infuriating to have them converse with the Normans through an interpreter at every turn (I also tried everyone speaking in Latin but that didn’t quite work).

Similarly, at the end of the novel I had a major engagement between the High King’s vast army and Robert FitzStephen’s thousand-strong force at Dubh-Tir. This fight never occurred. Instead, the High King is said to have taken one look at the Normans’ newly constructed defences and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, sending forward emissaries to negotiate rather than his spearmen to make battle. That wasn’t an exciting enough conclusion for me and so, having just watched the Bastogne episodes of Band of Brothers (again), I decided to construct a battle in the mountains in the depth of winter for the big finale. I hope it was an exhilarating conclusion to the story, but more so, I hope it came across as truthful to the period in which it was set.

Lord of the Sea CastleI have taken some liberties with the first half of my next book, Lord of the Sea Castle. In this case it was more out of necessity than choice! Next to nothing is known about the main character, Raymond de Carew, before he landed in Ireland in the summer of 1170 and so I made up a backstory for him, dragging him places he almost certainly never went and allowing him to interact with historical figures that he almost certainly never met. He even gets to attend events to which he undoubtedly would never have been given an invitation! The changes permitted me to look into various aspects of the Welsh Marcher lands, the Viking colony cities in Ireland, and the court of King Henry II which, had I stuck to what is definitively known about Raymond, I might not have had the chance to investigate.


Edward Ruadh Butler’s debut novel Swordland is available now, published by Accent Press; the second book in the series, Lord of the Sea Castle is forthcoming. You can find him on Twitter (@ruadhbutler).

It’s hard to believe, but last month marked the fifth anniversary of the publication of Sworn Sword. My debut novel and the opening instalment in the Conquest trilogy, it arrived in bookshops across the UK for the first time on 4 August 2011.

Where has all that time gone? It seems like only yesterday that I was a wide-eyed young author preparing to release his first work of fiction into the wild, with little experience of literary festivals, book signings or radio interviews and everything else that comes with promoting a book, or indeed much knowledge of the publishing world in general.

Sworn Sword

My personal copy of Sworn Sword, seen here in pristine condition in August 2011. Nowadays it looks very well-travelled, having accompanied me to many events over the last few years!

Five years on, having just come back from chairing a masterclass on point of view in historical fiction at the Historical Novel Society’s biennial UK conference in Oxford, I realise not only how much I’ve grown as a public speaker, a perfomer and a teacher, passing on my wisdom and hard-won experience – but most especially how far I’ve travelled as a writer.

Four published novels, each very different to the one before it, sometimes in ways that might not necessarily be obvious to the reader, but which to me as the creator are very clear. Around 600,000 words in total, and that’s not including the many revisions, deleted chapters, alternate endings and discarded drafts that never made it into print, nor the pages upon pages of handwritten outlines, character sketches, diagrams or research notes.

And then there’s The Harrowing. I’m proud of all my books, but I’m proudest of this one, partly because it’s the kind of novel that I’ve always longed to write, but mainly because I feel it represents better than any of my other works the full extent of what I have to offer as a novelist. Of that five year period since 2011, more than half my time has been spent on this one project: researching, drafting, redrafting, re-redrafting, editing, polishing, perfecting.

I’ve adapted and in some aspects entirely reinvented my writing style, learnt to write in different voices, played around with unfamiliar narrative structures and devices, generally challenged myself to do things that I’d never attempted before, and (I believe) emerged from the experience a more complete writer.

The Harrowing

My personal copy of The Harrowing, still looking in good condition – for now!

So thank you, readers, for your loyalty and your continued support over the last few years, for following me on Facebook and on Twitter, for reading my blog and listening to my podcasts, for turning out to hear me speak at events up and down the country, and for buying each new book that’s released and thereby following me on this exciting and most rewarding creative journey.

Last year the novelist Joanne Harris presented her writer’s manifesto, making twelve promises to her readers. In a similar way, I’d like to end this blog post by outlining my personal writing philosophy and make some pledges of my own for the next five years and beyond, namely:

  • to seek new ways of reaching out to my readers and providing you with insights into my writing process;
  • to continue challenging myself both technically and creatively;
  • to explore alternative, sometimes unconventional perspectives, as well as different narrative forms;
  • to innovate in historical fiction and push the boundaries of what the genre can do;
  • never to be afraid of going against the current or of breaking conventions in the name of originality;
  • ultimately, to create something the likes of which has never been seen before.

Here’s to the future, and all that it may bring!

Today’s the day that The Harrowing is officially released into the big, wide world! Almost three years have passed since I first began working on it, so to see it finally in bookshops is hugely exciting.

The Harrowing in the London Review Bookshop

Signed copies of The Harrowing in the London Review Bookshop.

I’d like to take the opportunity to thank everyone at Quercus Publishing who has worked on the novel over the course of its long journey from manuscript to finished product, including my editors Jon Watt and Stefanie Bierwerth, as well as Kathryn Taussig, Olivia Mead and Jeska Lyons, whose hard work has been invaluable.

Signed copies of the book are already available in several bookshops across central London, including but not limited to Foyles, Waterstones Piccadilly, Goldsboro Books and the London Review Bookshop. I’ll be continuing my book tour over the coming weeks with events across the country.

The Harrowing in Goldsboro Books

A stack of 100 signed copies of The Harrowing in Goldsboro Books

The Harrowing is also available online through all the usual retailers, and of course is published in digital formats as well to meet your e-reading needs. If you’re based outside the UK and would like to get your hands on a copy, I recommend ordering from the Book Depository, which is based in England but offers free worldwide delivery.

The Harrowing in Waterstones Piccadilly.

The Harrowing prominently displayed in the hardback fiction section at Waterstones Piccadilly.

I hope you enjoy reading The Harrowing as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, and I look forward to hearing your comments and feedback over the coming weeks and months! Feel free to get in touch with me at any time, either by emailing me via the Contact page, or through Facebook and Twitter.

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Those of you reading this who follow me on Facebook and Twitter will most likely have already seen the pictures that I posted recently of the finished hardback edition of The Harrowing, which will very soon be published by Heron Books.

For those who haven’t glimpsed it yet, however, here it is in all its splendour:

The finished article!

The hardback edition of The Harrowing.

As you can see, the jacket design is quite different to those for my Conquest Series, but I feel that it fits the mood of the novel perfectly. In fact I fell in love with the design from the moment I first saw it, and the final product lives up to my expectations in every way possible.

To see this ambitious project come to fruition and to be able to hold the finished book in my hands – nearly three years after I first began work on it and knowing just how many hours’ work is represented in those pages – generates feelings that are difficult to put into words.

Even more exciting is knowing that in just a little over two weeks on Thursday 7 July, this fine tome will appear in bookshops up and down the country. (If you haven’t already done so, you can pre-order your copy either online or from your favourite high street bookshop so that it arrives on the very day that it’s published.)


The title page, where I’ll be placing my autograph at the many book signings and other events coming up in the next few months.

My events calendar for the summer and autumn is taking shape nicely, with signings and talks planned so far in Nottingham, Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, Marlborough, Newbury and Croydon among other places, and more dates to be announced soon.

If I’m not yet scheduled to appear at a venue near you, please do get in touch with your local bookshop or library and ask them if they can invite me to come and do an event.

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Always eager to find new ways to connect with my readers, this week I’m launching my official podcast channel on SoundCloud. In my first podcast I talk about my new novel The Harrowing, which is due to be published in the UK in July (Heron, £16.99).

In the coming weeks and months I’ll also be discussing some of the history behind my novels, including the infamous Harrying of the North, which is the subject of The Harrowing.

I’ll also be talking about this year’s 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, and about the third volume in my Conquest Series, Knights of the Hawk, which is due to be published in the US in paperback format in August (Sourcebooks Landmark, $15.99).

Stay tuned for further podcasting adventures!

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The first printed copies of The Harrowing arrived in the post recently, courtesy of my excellent publisher Heron Books, to my immense delight. But this isn’t the finished edition of the book; these are what are known as bound proofs, also sometimes called advance review (or reading) copies (ARCs).

The Harrowing

Bound proofs (ARCs) of The Harrowing.

The bound proof is the first time that the author gets to see his or her words on the page, and as such it’s an exciting moment: a preview of how the final article will look. It has a soft cover, whereas the edition that will be hitting bookshops in July will be a hardback, and the text inside doesn’t necessarily bear the author’s final changes, but the typesetting and binding are otherwise exactly as they will appear in the published version.

The Harrowing

There’s no doubt as to who the author of this fine tome is!

So if you haven’t already done so, mark Thursday 7 July in your calendar. If you’re super-keen to read the novel as soon as it’s published, you can already pre-order your copy either online or from your favourite local bookshop.

I’m also starting to put together my calendar of talks and book signings for this summer and autumn. As always, check my Events page to see if I’m appearing at a venue near you. If not, please do get in touch with your local bookshop or library and ask them if they can invite me to come and speak.

Keep a look out for more news on The Harrowing in the coming weeks. For now, here’s one final photo to whet your appetite. And so it begins…

The Harrowing

Here’s what it looks like on the inside.

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