James Burke’s big brother

Next week will see the publication of Fugitive, the latest of Paul Collard’s Jack Lark series. I call Jack Lark ‘James Burke’s big brother’ because both are a series of books about a British soldier, albeit Jack Lark is doing his soldiering half a century later than Burke. Like Burke, Lark moves around the world from war zone to war zone. Collard is more of a straightforward military history writer than I am and his battle scenes are brilliant and meticulously researched.

I’m marking the launch of Fugitive with an extended version of the review I wrote of his last book, The Lost Outlaw, for the Historical Writers’ Association.

The Lost Outlaw

Jack Lark has fought for the British in Crimea and India. He’s fought alongside the French Foreign Legion at the battle of Solferino and on both sides in the American Civil War. Now, though, he is facing a personal crisis. After a bullet nearly ended his life in the Civil War, does he still have what it takes to be a soldier?

There is a lot of existentialist angst at the start of this latest story, which really doesn’t suit Jack, who is not an overly reflective fellow. What gets him (and his readers) going is a good fight, but fortunately one comes along soon enough. When a beautiful, if clearly crooked, woman, finds herself on the wrong side of an ambush, Jack Lark finds himself forced back into action.

The temptation to fight was strong. He could feel the pressure building in his skull and in his chest, fear and desire mixing together to produce that peculiar, volatile cocktail that was more intoxicating than the strongest arrack or the most beautiful woman. The opportunity to reveal his talent was here and it was ready to be seized.

Jack agonises for almost a full two pages, but to the reader’s relief “he made his choice” and mayhem is duly unleashed.

The girl, Kat, turns out to be working for Brannigan, a waggon-train master who is taking thirty wagons packed with cotton from the blockaded Confederacy down into Mexico where they will be sold on to make their way to Europe. The cotton is, according to Vaughan, the businessman escorting the goods, “worth a king’s ransom”. Brannigan needs gun-slingers to defend it from bandits and Jack Lark is offered a job.

So we see a very different Jack Lark from in the previous books. Although the convoy is run with near-military discipline, he is no longer a soldier. He finds himself dealing with an intriguing mix of different characters. Brannigan is a sadistic bully, but a brave and competent leader. Vaughan is an enigmatic figure, constantly hinting at plots, but unwilling to commit himself to taking sides on anything. There is conflict with Brannigan’s right-hand man, Adam, jealous of Lark’s sudden arrival and there is the mysterious, but deadly Kat. I do particularly enjoy Kat, whose refusal to fall gratefully into our hero’s arms makes a refreshing change in this genre. I suspect we won’t meet her again after this book, which is a shame.

Along the way we meet other classic characters of the Old West: Dawson, the cavalry captain whose job is to keep the route safe, but who is not above taking a bribe to supplement his pay; and Santiago, the Mexican bandit. It would be easy for these to be mere caricatures, but Collard fleshes them out enough to make them real people. In the end, though, the story is inevitably episodic. There is a fight here, a betrayal there, a double cross somewhere else. There is a climactic defence of an old building, loosely based on a famous action fought by the French Foreign Legion (though you’ll have to be a dedicated military history buff to recognise it), but a hopelessly outgunned Confederate patrol is inevitably massacred almost to the last man and the very inevitability of the process detracts somewhat from the drama. Lark, of course, survives – just one more occasion on which he shows the kind of superhuman resilience that belongs rather more in fantasy than historical fiction. Still, this is Lark’s eighth outing and by now he has already demonstrated that he is no ordinary chap. In any case, if a little thing like being left naked and bound in a desert is going to stop him, then what will we do for the rest of the book?

In the pauses between the violence, we learn some fascinating facts about the economics of the War Between the States and there are interesting insights into life on the trail, but this is, first and foremost, an action thriller. As such, it definitely delivers. If you already enjoy the Jack Lark books, you will probably enjoy this one, but if you haven’t read any of them before you are best starting with one of the earlier, more straightforwardly military, stories.

The Bastard Princess and the Altar Cloth

The Bastard Princess and the Altar Cloth

I used to find the Tudors ever so confusing. Henry with all those wives; the two daughters that everybody remembers and the son that everybody forgets; so many queens called Katherine (or variants thereof) and one too many called Mary. And who was Lady Jane Grey and how did she get to be the Ten-Day Queen?

Fortunately, I’ve just finished reading Gemma Lawrence’s The Bastard Princess. I did feel it was less a novel than a literary form of that popular television genre, the drama documentary. The result, though, is that despite its limitations as literature I now feel I understand a lot more about the history of those turbulent times. That turned out especially convenient as last week I went to see the Bacton Altar Cloth at Hampton Court.

What’s the Bacton Altar Cloth and why is it at Hampton Court?

The Bacton Altar Cloth is, as it sounds, a cloth that covered the altar at Bacton Church in Herefordshire. Like a lot of altar cloths, it’s a richly decorated piece of fabric. For over a hundred years it’s been hanging behind glass on a wall of the church because of its age. It was associated with Blanche Parry, who was the Chief Gentlewoman of Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber, who came from Bacton. Only recently it has been identified as being made from fabric cut from a dress.

In Tudor times there were strict, legally enforceable, rules on who could wear what sorts of cloth and the presence of silver thread in the fabric meant that it must have been worn by a very high status individual. The quality of the work and its similarity to dresses shown in contemporary paintings of Elizabeth suggest that the dress would have belonged to the Queen herself and that the fabric was gifted to the church after Blanche Parry’s death.

I was lucky enough to get a very close look at the cloth and to be able to admire the amazing embroidery on it.


Being able to look at fabric that was almost certainly worn by Queen Elizabeth provides an astonishingly direct link with the past. It made me particularly appreciate the understanding I had got from Gemma Lawrence’s book.

Of course there are lots of other links to Elizabeth at Hampton Court. When I was there we even had an Elizabethan lady talking about them.

I was particularly intrigued by this painting showing Henry with his family, which Lawrence discusses in her book. It’s a completely imagined scene because it shows Edward as a young man and features his mother, Jane Seymour, who died very soon after he was born.

Elizabeth is the figure on the right of the picture. In The Bastard Princess, Lawrence has Elizabeth asking the painter to make sure that the jewellery she is wearing is not too obvious because it might have been seen as treasonous by the king. That made me look very carefully at the figure of Elizabeth.

Do you see the necklace? Here’s a closer look.

The letter ‘A’ is clearly visible – a remembrance of her mother (in the book it actually belonged to her mother), the woman Henry had executed as a traitor.

Elizabeth’s choice of jewellery says a lot about the woman. She was strong-minded and courageous. (According to staff at Hampton Court she was also short-tempered and could be vicious, aspects of her character that Lawrence only touches on.) Thanks to Lawrence’s book I understood  a lot more about the woman and I knew what to look for in that painting.

If you want a readable introduction to the period, I recommend The Bastard Princess. If you want to get a real feel for court life then, you really should visit Hampton Court. If you get the chance to see the Bacton Altar Cloth, do make the effort. It’s on display until 23 February 2020.

A Word from our Sponsor

If you enjoy historical writing from a rather more recent period, could I point you at my own books? There are three novels about James Burke, a spy in the age of Napoleon. They are first and foremost adventure stories, but you’ll find yourself learning quite a lot about politics and warfare at the time. Another series of three novels (The Williamson Papers) takes a rather more serious look at Britain and its empire at the mid-19th century height of the colonialist enterprise. You can find out more about all my books on my books page on this site or on Amazon.