In a work of historical fiction, the author is bound to invent characters, events and places that are fictitious, even if they are loosely based on historical reality. This true of Winning His Spurs . Several of the places in which the story is set are fictious. Although the town of Evesham is real enough, there was never a Norman castle built there. Across the River Avon, however, the suburb of Bengeworth did have a castle. Evesham is home to one of Europe’s largest abbeys, founded by Bishop Egwin, an early Saxon convert to Christianity in the eighth century. After the conquest of 1066, a Norman knight built Bengeworth castle, which rivalled the abbey for income, so when some drunken knights trampled the abbey’s graves, it provided the excuse to have the castle levelled – an example of the power of the Church in those days.
The Baron of Wortham is as imagined as his stronghold, and the same goes for Sir Baldwin of Béthune. In fact the only real historical characters are King Richard I, his brother Prince John, King Philip of France, the German Emperor Henry IV, Pope Celestine III, Duke Henry III of Saxony, Archduke Leopold of Austria, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry, the unfortunate Conrad of Montferrat, who did not end up succeeding King Guy (Lusignan) of Jerusalem, Longchamps and, of course, the Ayubbid sultan, Saladin.
King Richard frequently removes gold chains from his neck as a form of payment to his loyal followers, or breaks up the links to distribute. In the early medieval period, coinage as a means of paying for things was almost unknown in England. Even in Europe coins were rare, usually of silver mined in Saxony (which is one reason the dukes of Saxony were powerful princes). The majority of trade was through the exchange of goods of similar values. However, the first notions of banking were beginning, with the Swabians (Swiss) and North Italians in the lead. The Jewish communities typically handled monetary transactions because they were allowed to charge interest (usury), which was unlawful for Christians.
The basic silver coin in circulation was based on the Imperial Roman denarius (penny). Twelve denarii made a solidus (schilling in Germanic-Saxon), and 20 solidii became a libra (pound). The system was retained in use in Britain until the later 20th century; this explains why the pre-decimal notation for a penny was d for denarius. The L of libra was – and still is – written in old-fashioned style as £.
At the end of the 12th century as much as half of Europe was still covered in dense forest, although land-clearing was getting under way on an almost industrial scale. The forests made ideal hiding-places for those placed outside the law – outlaws. In England of the time, many outlaws were not criminals, merely unfortunate tenant farmers who had been thrown off their lands – usually Saxons who, after the Norman conquest, were regarded as little more than slaves by most Norman barons.
Saladin’s popular image as a chivalrous and tolerant ruler is at odds with his massacre of all Christians when he attacked Gaza in December 1170 during his rise to power. On the other hand, as a strictly orthodox Sunni Muslim, he disobeyed his commander Nur ed-Din’s orders to eradicate the Shi’a Muslims in Cairo and famously spared Jews and Christians when retaking Jerusalem from the crusaders in 1187. His relations with Richard the Lionheart are well attested to. Through a mix of extraordinary good luck and political skill, Saladin united the fractured Muslim world and made it possible for Islam to triumph over Christendom in the Holy Land.
During the Middle Ages, the term ‘Saracen’ was used generally to cover all Muslims of whatever kind. It comes originally from the Latin Sarakene, or the people inhabiting the region around the town of Saraka, located in the northern Sinai between Egypt and Palestine, and which Cuthbert passes in Winning His Spurs in Chapter 14.
In Chapter 19 Cuthbert speaks of the ‘Swabian people’. The southern part of the Duchy of Swabia later became northern Switzerland, always rebelliously independent of the dukes of Austria who claimed sovereignty over Swabia.
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Among the many crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, none was sadder than the Children's Crusade, inspired by a 12-year-old shepherd boy who had a vision. He preached that the Muslims could be shamed into handing over the Holy Land to its rightful Christian owners if they were faced by a crusading movement made up entirely of children. All they had to do was get there. Few did.
Some 9,000 gathered near Vendôme in France in 1212, then trekked south to Marseilles. From there, many perished at sea in storms; others fethced up on the North African coast to be sold into slavery. The remnant made it to Brindisi in the south of Italy where an unscrupulous trader promised them passage to the Holy Land, but shipped them to the brothels and slave markets of the Mediterranean. The few who reached the Holy Land failed to make any impression on the Saracens who occupied Jerusalem. Like Christian merchants, they saw the children as a commodity.