Origin and background of The Northumbria Trilogy

By Birgit Constant

16 October 2023


How a single volume, a trilogy, a prequel and finally the translations emerged from a publisher's call for entries – find out all about the less than straightforward history of The Northumbria Trilogy in this blog post!

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An idea grows

Hostile nations, youngsters fighting with swords, a medieval background and a story about teenagers from days of yore – how on earth did I come up with this idea?

Inspiration

In the past, writers took their inspiration from divine and heroic deeds, legends, the Bible or saints, or they were commissioned to write a text on a certain topic by great rulers or the heads of monasteries. With large publishing houses, the latter is true even today, especially for non-fiction books.

But inspiration and calls for papers are also available to the masses, namely in the form of publicly announced writing competitions and calls for short stories or other contributions for collective works. Such was the case with the book idea for my debut novel, Das bretonische MΓ€dchen (The Breton Girl), which was published by a small publisher in 2019 and later became Volume 2 of The Northumbria Trilogy in a revised and expanded version in late 2020. It all started with a call for submissions on a completely different topic, namely "Devilish Beasts – Beastly Devils" from Machandel Publishing.

One, two, and counting

While I was quick to plot the basic story, I took some time to find the background against which the action would be set. "Nothing easier than that", said my writing coach back then. "You're a medievalist. You write historical fiction." And that's what I did.

I wrote the first fifty pages of the story, but suddenly ran into an unexpected problem, if you can call it that: While developing the main characters of the novel, my coach pointed out that one of the main supporting characters deserved a book of their own.

So after finishing my debut novel, I wrote the story of the supporting character, and now I already had two books that raised questions among readers.

Three is the magic number, or is it not?

A third volume was needed to answer those questions, but even this final volume was not the end. Readers did not only want to know what came after, but also what went before volumes 1 and 2. So there I was, finishing manuscript number 3 and wondering what had driven the female characters of the first two volumes to come to the main setting of the series, and ending up with a prequel.

Historical background

The trilogy and prequel are all set in early medieval England in the second half of the 11th century.

Time

Volume 1 is set in the years from 1066 to 1071, just before and five years after the Norman Conquest. These years were difficult ones for King William I (William the Conqueror), who had a hard time asserting his claim to power, and the rebellious North in particular caused a lot of trouble during this period – although things were not much better on the Welsh border or in East Anglia.

Volume 2 is set twenty years after the Norman Conquest in the years from 1086 to 1088, the time when William II (William le Roux, William Rufus) succeeded his father William I,.

Volume 3 is set in 1093, in the middle of the reign of William II. The rebellious English North has finally been subdued, but the Scottish king Malcolm continues to invade Northumbria. Almost thirty years after the Norman Conquest, northern England remains a hotspot for trouble to the Norman king.

Place

It's not just Lucan in the third volume who travels around a lot. The settings of the trilogy are spread all over Northumbria:

In the first volume, we follow Oswulf from Ledlinghe (Leavening) to Wilburgfos (Wilberfoss) in Eoforwicscire/Everwicscire (Yorkshire).

In the second volume, we accompany Roger in Wilburgfos and Everwic/Eoforwic (York).

In the third volume, we travel with Lucan back and forth between Bebbanburh (Bamburgh Castle), Wilburgfos and the castle of the richest Breton in the history of England, Alain le Roux, at Hindrelagh/Riche Munt (Richmond), north of Everwic.

The outsider: the prequel

The action of the prequel takes place in the same time, in 1070, but further south, in East Anglia. The land there was divided between (Norman) barons and Anglo-Saxon subjects, who, like their Northumbrian counterparts, tried to rebel against the new lords. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon Hereward (the Wake) and his allies, who later included the Earls Morcar and Edwin, made life hell for King William. They entrenched themselves at their fortress in Ely in the middle of the Fenlands, the impenetrable marshes of East Anglia.

Is everything in the novels history?

No. The story of the trilogy and all the main characters are fictional, but places, historical figures and the medieval setting are based on historical facts.

Ledlinghe is one of the few places in northern England to have been spared, at least in part, from the depredations of King William, known in English as the infamous "Harrying of the North". However, much of the area in today's Yorkshire, Durham and Northumberland, in other words the whole of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria, fell victim to the royal vindictiveness and suffered the consequences for decades afterwards.

In the second volume, I have adjusted the historical facts a little in some places to suit the needs of the story. For example, I brought forward the date of the foundation of the monastery in Wilburgfos, which did not exist at this location until the 12th century. I also had to make the squire Walter Fossard a little older because I found it too confusing to have a third Robert in the novel (namely his historical older brother, who would have been a perfect fit age-wise).

"Lucan", by the way, is the name of one of King Arthur's closest companions. He and Sir Bedevere are the last to stand by him on the battlefield.

About the author

Birgit Constant has a PhD in medieval studies, has learned eleven languages and worked her way through translation, IT and Public Relations before ending up in the world of books as an author, writer and editor.

She writes historical fiction for readers who want to immerse themselves in medieval history and languages, and has also published a guide for budding authors.