Conversos and the Spanish Inquisition

For centuries, Jews functioned as courtiers, government officials, merchants and moneylenders in Christian Spain. The Jewish community was useful to the ruling classes, and to an extent, protected by them. The middle years of the Reconquista coincided with a phase of economic expansion, in which both Jews and Christians contributed to the general prosperity and […]

WHO WAS THE REAL JOHN BLACKTHORNE IN SHOGUN?

The recent hit TV series, Shogun, is based on the eponymous novel by James Clavell. Its main character is a British explorer called John Blackthorne. Was there really such a man? In fact, yes. Shogun’s Blackthorne is based on the real-life navigator William Adams, the first Englishman to ever set foot in Japan. Adams was […]

Cleopatra: separating fact from fiction

And the one thing you think is true, but isn’t Back in the thirties, Cecil B. de Mille offered the role of Cleopatra to Claudette Colbert with the words, ‘How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?’ Was she really history’s wickedest woman, reclining on an antique sunbed, being fed grapes by Nubian slaves and […]

Robert Clive and the Pirates of London

In the eighteenth century, if you were a young man high on ambition but low on prospects, the place to be was India. A job with the fledgling British East India Company was the epitome of high-risk, high-reward. The Company’s poster boy was a man named Robert Clive. He had begun his career as a […]

From Forrester to Follett: the lure of epic adventure

When I was a kid, I got half an hour of reading time before I went to sleep. I soon finished all my Classics Illustrated epic adventure comics, so my dad gave me one of his books – CS Forrester’s The Gun. I got hooked on historical adventure fiction. Many of the classic stories I was […]

Cortes and the Aztecs: 500 men against a million

And one woman The scene was a publisher’s office in Mexico City. Three journalists were interviewing me at once. My novel about Cortes and the Mexican conquest had just been published and had attracted a lot of attention, more than the publisher had anticipated. Two of the journalists liked my take on Mexican history. The third absolutely did not. Why was he so upset? It was […]

The Pope’s Crusade

Most people are familiar with The Crusades, a series of religious wars initiated by the Catholic Church in the Holy Land between 1095 and 1291. But few are as familiar with the most notorious crusade of them all: the Albigensian crusade, directed by Pope Innocent III.  In 1209, he ordered Christian armies against fellow Christians […]

Pondicherry: the Indian French Riviera

The checkered history of a fascinating town The Romans knew about Pondicherry as far back as 100 CE. They called it Poduke. Its name is believed to have derived from that.  Travel companies like to refer to it as the Indian French Riviera because of its obvious French influence. The locals call it Pondi. It […]

The Silk Road of the Sea

Valerius’ journey: Ends of the Earth Many people have heard of the Silk Road, mainly because of Marco Polo. But few are familiar with the ancient maritime silk route that linked the East and West at the same time. The people who pioneered this sea trade were originally from the desert – the Nabatean Arabs. The […]

Stigmatics: Saints or charlatans?

The story behind the stigmata The first recorded stigmatic was Saint Francis of Assisi, who received the stigmata – the wounds of Christ – on his hands and feet during a religious ecstasy in 1224. But most stigmatics throughout history have been women. In the fourteenth century, Catherine of Siena, a mystic and laywoman, is reputed to have lived for long […]