A KNIGHT AND A SPY 1410: Nine Questions for Simon Fairfax [INTERVIEW]

Knight on black horse
Simon Fairfax embellishes history in A Knight and a Spy 1410. (Photo courtesy Canva)

Intrepid spies, valiant knights, and the fair maidens who win their hearts. There are good reasons we romanticize the Medieval period and are captivated by its pageantry. Somehow, even now, the legends of iconic royals tease our imaginations and lure us back to their own era, centuries before any of us ever walked the Earth. It takes a deft writer to capture these stories on paper, to resurrect faded characters and bring old world history to vivid life. Yet that is exactly what author Simon Fairfax has done with his new series and its debut novel, A Knight and a Spy 1410. That’s why we were delighted to catch up with Simon and learn some of the stories behind the story in this insightful interview. Enjoy! —J&H

J&H: Your last four books were in the thrilling Deal series, which was primarily set in the 1990s. A Knight and a Spy 1410, however, is set more than six centuries in the past. What was it about this story that begged to be told and why was this the right time to write it?

SF: This is a great question. The Deal series was planned as a five-book series (as is AKAS) and book five is in my head ready to go. However, I start thinking about and plotting, at least one book ahead as I’m writing the current book and it got to the point that this story was banging a hole in my head trying to get out. So, I decided to give Rupert a rest for a while, as much as anything so I didn’t get stale and formulaic, which can so easily happen even amongst the best writers. So now was the time to get it down on paper. Many writers have covered the battle of Agincourt and placed stories around it. Yet I found the lead up to it and the characters such as Sir Richard Whittington, this enigmatic figure from the time, so interesting and the part that he played in the background to so many influential events. These years from 1410 to 1415 have not really been covered in great depth fictionally and there was so much going on, I don’t know how they fitted it all in, let alone me!

I suppose in some ways it was slightly similar to the Deal series in that I took real events and wrapped or inserted, my characters into real life. That is the lovely thing about history: there are so many gaps about what happened or why, that you can make assumptions and put your characters in as the pivotal reason for something happening. So, for example, a fire happened in a cathedral, we don’t know for certain who started it or why exactly: great, enter my character.

J&H: Does the Medieval series require you take a different approach to writing than you may have used while working on the Rupert Brett books? If so, how? And what challenges did this present?

SF: Yes, it was a completely different approach, in the sense that for the Deal series I would do lots of research, but it was much more peripheral, in that I commanded the story apart from one basic premise. For example, saying there was a Gulf War so this happened and a directive from the UN that was it. The plot in my head and the characters drove it forward.

Now with AKAS, I took two or more pivotal events and then looked at all the ‘Real’ people and characters that were around and played a part. I had to investigate them and research what they were like both in looks and personality. This in itself was difficult and so little was known about Sir Richard Whittington that I had to dig really deeply to get to know him and learn all that he did.

Finally, for the first time ever, I had to make a timeline for the whole year of who did what, when and why. I also had to make a list of characters both ‘Goodies’ & ‘Baddies’ so I didn’t get confused, let alone my readers! It was exhausting but essential. I have attached a copy of this as a separate document in case you may be interested.

J&H: For the Deal series, you’ve said that you always research weapons and settings to write them vividly. Where did your research take you this time and did you learn anything that surprised you? Did you have difficulty finding people to talk to you about historical details dating that far back? What were one or two things you learned that ignited your imagination?

SF: This time I was lucky because it took me a year to do the research and I finished it all before lockdown. I travelled to France and Saint Omer although the cathedral is different now to how it was then, yet some of the surrounding terrain remains the same. Castles in England and the Borders including Stokesey which is just how I describe it and really well preserved; and Machynlleth, including the Great Hall where Owen ap Glyndower stayed so often.

I had to read a lot of nonfiction research books and one of these gave a reference to the fire in Saint Omer cathedral. For me this was fascinating that God fearing men would build a war machine to take back Calais in a cathedral some 15 miles from the port. Then someone fired it, destroying half the town. Incredible really and you couldn’t make it up.

The second point that was extraordinary and again was so influential, was the similarity between the French and English courts. Both had kings still ostensibly on the throne yet had lost their power to rule. France through Burgundy taking over through the Queen and a Council because the king was mad. Then England, with King Henry IV physically ill and unable to rule so his son Prince Henry and a Council again ruling in his stead. The parallels are fascinating and all intertwined.

J&H: Because it just isn’t feasible for writers to include everything, they learn about a certain time period into their work, we always like to ask: Was there something you were dying to include, but couldn’t? Maybe a scene you had to cut or a historical detail you had to save for another time? If so, what was it?

SF: Yes, one really lovely and fascinating story that I learned about Prince Henry, but before my story begins. It involves surgery and medicine at the time. If you notice, no picture or portraits of Prince Henry/Henry V show his full face on. This is due to a huge scar under his eye.

 He was just 16 years old, leading a full battle wing of his father’s army at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Halfway through he was shot in the face with an arrow that went all the way through to lodge millimeters from his spine. He refused to leave the field saying it would weaken moral, broke the shaft off and fought on for hours longer! This at just 16! Here is where it gets fascinating. The battle ended and he was taken to Shrewsbury castle, where he lay for 4 hours in agony (no painkillers then!) as surgeons tried to remove the arrow head. Finally, a brilliant surgeon named John Bradmore was called to the dying prince. Seeing him, Bradmore demanded that he be moved across country, with the arrow still in his head, to Kenilworth some 65 miles away, by horse drawn wagon!

Bradmore then designed a tenaculas and had the local blacksmith make it for him. It looks a bit like one of those reverse corkscrews where you pull the levers down to remove the cork. Then hours after the battle, the arrow still there and prince nearly dead, he inserted tents of old Elder stitched into boiled lined and soaked in honey. He probed open the wound, found the arrow head, used the tenaculus device and gradually removed it feeding back with the tents or splints. Extraordinary and of course he saved the prince’s life who later became Henry V. I do manage to describe the mundificative or poultice that was used to heal him. He was incidentally, up around and fighting again with 10 days!

J&H: Horses played a significant role in warfare 600 years ago, and at least one of the horses you write about is quite large. Are you an avid equestrian or did you have to study these beautiful creatures to write them so vividly too? And were horses typically that big?

SF: Horses have played a huge part in my life. They caused me to meet my wife and have given me untold hours of pleasure. I learned to ride some 30 years ago and have ridden ever since, of which the best part was training horses and playing polo with my son, who could literally ride before he could walk. What is lovely, is that polo ponies are trained in very similar ways to knight’s destriers and many film stars have been to a polo club to learn to ride before commencing a new acting role involving riding.

One, who I won’t mention by name, thought it was a piece of cake after about an hour, not realising that the well-trained polo pony was making it easy for him. They then stuck him on a ‘green’ unmade horse and it ran away with him and he could not make it do a thing. Great levelers horses!

Horses of the time, more particularly destriers or war horses, were about 15- 15’3” high, so Richard, the real one, (you can see a picture of him on my web site, www.simonfairfax.com) was just within the scope of the size. Palfreys were smaller and much gentler.

J&H: Do you have a favorite character from the book that you’d just love an opportunity to spend time with in real life? Which one and why?

SF: It would have to be John, Thomas’ man-at-arms and Jamie’s mentor, as he is middle aged, grumpy and irascible-like me! Seriously he is such an interesting character, as he has a life of experiences. He is well-travelled, having fought with Henry Bolingbroke (now Henry IV) all over Europe and made the pilgrimage to the Holy land and fought there. So much experience and would be amazing to meet and chat with him. If ever they made a film of my book and they offered me a bit part (as they sometimes do), he would be the one I’d love to play.

J&H: For us, Contessa Alessandria de Felicini was particularly fascinating. Is she a good representation of women from the 15th century or do you think she was a woman ahead of her time?

SF: She was a delicious character to write about. I needed a strong woman to cope with Cristoforo and his ways and yet she had to have a legitimate and inclusive background to help with the later books and be embedded in real events in history. She also needed to be rather lovely. Physically as a muse, I used the daughter of great friends of ours who live in Italy in Tarquinia. Each year Tarquinia (where we used to live) has a huge medieval festival with jousting etc. Their daughter Alice (A-lee-shay) dresses up and rides around in medieval dress in the procession. A picture of her is to be found on my website.

Alessandria’s uncle in the story is a real character, Filippo Albertini and was one of the real bankers exiled from Florence in the early 15thC to end up living in England and bankers to the crown. The women of this family were very strong willed -they had to be- and independent. So, I think her fortitude and forthright manner are probably acceptable behaviour for noblewomen of the day.

In addition, her strength of character is echoed by many English women of status as my research showed that often typically masculine trades, such as bell making, blacksmithing and merchants had some very famous women some of whom were accepted into the Guilds. So, it was not quite the downtrodden subservient situation we imagine from today’s view point.

J&H: When you aren’t writing thrillers or Medieval history, how do you enjoy spending your free time? Were there any books you enjoyed reading in 2020? And which authors have inspired you most over the years?

SF: I read extensively across many genres from Regency Romance to westerns, because everyone has something to offer and the only way to get better is to read everything you can. But aside from reading, I run with the dogs most days or free swim in the lakes even in the winter. With my son, we also restore classic cars and are currently in the middle of restoring a 1976 TR6 that we bought as a complete wreck.

I adore and have an abiding love of Northern Soul. I still travel the country (pre-covid) dancing at “Dayers” and “Nighters” – KTF!

On authors, I love Louis L’Amour and still read one of his books every winter. His sense of place and descriptions are beautiful and so evocative.

In terms of inspiration, for thrillers: Fleming (his writing is immaculate), vintage Dick Francis, Michael Dobbs and Michael Ridpath. For medieval, Anthony Riches who for me is the best writer in the Roman sub-genre, Bernard Cornwell, Sharon Penman and Christian Cameron. All fantastic and I love Cameron and Riches fight scenes.

J&H: 2020 has been a year unlike any other. How has it challenged you? What is your most fervent wish for 2021? And are there any words of advice you have for your readers as we all struggle to stay safe until this pandemic is over?

SF: I have to admit in the first Lockdown, it made me concentrate even harder and as an author, I lead quite a solitary life, shut away in my ‘garret’. So it was no real hardship- apart from missing dancing. I think like everyone else I hope that life returns to ‘Normal’ if indeed it will ever be normal as we knew in our lifetime. Some things have changed irrevocably, very little for the good. In terms of advice, I do not believe I am qualified to offer any, but I would say that I would like to see more kindness and consideration for others on an everyday basis. It is not just you it affects as an individual. It is those near and dear to you. You may survive with ease, but think of other, more vulnerable relatives and friends who you unknowingly pass it on to. It is they who may suffer and die. Consideration for others, simply that.

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ABOUT A KNIGHT AND A SPY 1410

Simon Fairfax's A KNIGHT AND A SPY 1410
Corinium Associates Ltd

January 1410, and King Henry IV is brought down with an unknown illness. Despite his 10 year reign the kingdom is far from secure: he is at odds with his son Prince Hal who vies for a new Council; Owen Glyndower threatens his Welsh border, whilst the Scots are ever in revolt seeking secret alliances with France.

Burgundy and the French King Charles VI plan to take back Calais and re-ignite the 100 years war. England is torn with enemies on each side and within. The court is a swirl of rumours and treachery, with the powerful seeking the ultimate prize: the English crown.

Power is controlled by unlikely forces, the most important of these men is Sir Richard Whittington, merchant, former Lord mayor of London, financier, adviser to the Crown and spy master for the King. Realising the peril of the kingdom, he needs someone who can move inconspicuously abroad and at home. Skilled yet unobtrusive.

Jamie de Grispere: squire in training, son of a merchant, known to Whittington, is tasked to do his bidding and spy for the good of the crown. He holds the future of the realm in his hands. It is a perilous path, from the depths of France to Wales and the Scottish borders. Joining with two comrades he seeks to aid the crown and Sir Richard’s plans for the safety of the realm.

Treachery, the 100 years war, revolts, battles, the wool trade, piracy and pivotal events: all are brought alive in this story of the 15th Century England and the fight for the crown.

Simon Fairfax

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As a lover of crime thrillers and mystery, I turned what is seen by others as a dull 9 – 5 job into something that is exciting, as close to real life as possible, with Rupert Brett, my international man of mystery whose day job is that of a Chartered Surveyor.

Rupert is an ordinary man thrown into extraordinary circumstances who uses his wit, guile and training to survive.

Each book is written from my own experiences, as close to the truth as possible, set against world events that really happened. I go out and experience all the weapons, visit the places Rupert travels to, speak to the technical experts and ensure that it as realistic, as possible allowing you to delve deep in to the mystery, losing yourself in it for a few hours.

For more information, visit SimonFairfax.com, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Goodreads.

A KNIGHT AND A SPY 1410
By Simon Fairfax
442 pp. Corinium Associates LLC. $12.99

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Purchase A Knight and a Spy 1410 direct from Jathan & Heather Books or from one of these other fine online retailers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, Half Price Books, Hudson Booksellers, or IndieBound.

A Knight and a Spy 1410 is brought to you in association with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours.

GIVEAWAY

Win a paperback copy of A Knight and a Spy 1410 by Simon Fairfax!

The giveaway is open internationally and ends on December 21st. You must be 18 or older to enter.

About Jathan Fink
Jathan is a journalist, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. He is also a travel junkie, foodie and jazz aficionado. A California native, he resides in Texas.

3 Responses to A KNIGHT AND A SPY 1410: Nine Questions for Simon Fairfax [INTERVIEW]

  1. Pingback: Simon Fairfax’s Pasta Schizophrenica [RECIPE] | Jathan & Heather

  2. Thank you so much for hosting Simon today! It was a wonderful interview!

    Amy
    HF Virtual Book Tours

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