Usurper King – Guest Post

It’s a great moment for a newbie author to have her first guest post and I’m delighted to welcome Mercedes Rochelle who has been kind enough to answer the three short questions I posed. Mercedes has recently published book three of her Plantagenet Series, Usurper King to add to what is a growing list of previously published books, both fiction and non fiction.

Mercedes was born in Missouri but now lives in New Jersey and I was curious as to what drew her to become a writer of medieval historical fiction.

Your novels are all set in England. What got you hooked about English History?

It seems like an accident, but I keep bumping into Shakespeare as inspiration for my novels. The first, HEIR TO A PROPHECY was actually inspired by “the Scottish play”, but most of the action is in England anyway. Could it be because most of us Americans have a soft spot for our ancestors? I feel that I can relate to the English, and the Plantagenets really call to me. My thirty years as a medieval reenactor probably has much to do with it, too.

The characters you write about were often blood-thirsty and cruel. How do you make them appealing to the reader (and to you as the writer)?

I would say that the middle ages were pretty blood-thirsty and cruel in general, though they probably didn’t see themselves that way. Regardless, I’m a firm believer that good fiction thrives on conflict. I also believe that nobody is 100% evil. After all, the villain is the hero of his own story!

So part of the conflict, as I see it, is the innate contradiction between a character’s good and bad side. Does the protagonist always have to be a hero? Trying to see past the actions to the man inside keeps me interested. King Richard II was a prime example. He did so many questionable things! Of course, that’s why he lost his crown.

At the same time, he was very kind to his wives and to children. He wasn’t a bad man—just traumatized by events in his minority. I don’t think he could help himself. I hope that the circumstances surrounding his fall made up for the fact that he wasn’t particularly sympathetic. I didn’t want to whitewash him, so explaining his actions rather than excusing them was my solution.

Henry Bolingbroke with Richard II at Flint Castle from Jean Creton’s The Capture and Death of King Richard. Harleian Collection, British Library

What’s the biggest challenge in writing about people and events from over 700 years ago, and what’s the most fun part?

In essence, I don’t think people were all that different than today. One of my challenges is the language. Idioms are anathema, and at the same time we often don’t even realize we are using them. I always have an etymological dictionary running in the background and look up words that sound modern to me. If the word was first used in the 17th century, for example, I’ll find something else. It limits my vocabulary!

The other thing I struggle with is travel time. Often and again I’ll read a history that claims so-and-so traveled in an impossibly short time (Harold Godwineson from London to Stamford Bridge in 1066, for example. I wrote a blog post about it.) Under the best of circumstances, a man probably wouldn’t travel more than 50 miles in a day; the average was more like thirty. How about the second day? Without a relay, the horse would give out. I really don’t think they had relay, or posting stations before the 18th century (except for the Romans). So I also have a map running in the background so I don’t screw up my distances.

My enjoyment comes from deciphering the events I’m reading about. We almost never learn exactly what, why, or how a person decides to do something. We just learn about the fact. When a character acts “out of character”, it’s quite a challenge trying to sort out a reasonable explanation. Why did Hotspur rebel against the king, when he had so much to lose? Why did his father, the formidable Henry Percy, fail to show up for the Battle of Shrewsbury? Why did King Richard go to Ireland immediately after he took away Henry Bolingbroke’s inheritance? To me, these are the things that make historical fiction rock!!


First, he led his own uprising. Then he captured a forsaken king. Henry had no intention of taking the crown for himself; it was given to him by popular acclaim. Alas, it didn’t take long to realize that that having the kingship was much less rewarding than striving for it. Only three months after his coronation, Henry IV had to face a rebellion led by Richard’s disgruntled favorites.

Repressive measures led to more discontent. His own supporters turned against him, demanding more than he could give. The haughty Percies precipitated the Battle of Shrewsbury which nearly cost him the throne—and his life. To make matters worse, even after Richard II’s funeral, the deposed monarch was rumored to be in Scotland, planning his return. The king just wouldn’t stay down and malcontents wanted him back.

Where to buy, & more information







ps. Mercedes writes a very informative blog, fascinating to any history buff.

pps. Her books are available in Audible too.

How do you dig a Siege Tunnel?

I was twelve when I first went down the siege tunnel at St Andrews Castle. It was scary and, if you are at all claustrophobic, it’s definitely not for you.

For, the first part you bend double, creeping down the central trench, at risk of scraping  your back on the rough stone above.

The Counter-Mine and narrow entrance to the siege tunnel

Then suddenly the passage ends in a wall of rock. There is a narrow, jagged hole beneath you.  Do you dare squeeze yourself though it and descend the metal ladder to find out what’s below?

Down you go and the space opens out. The tunnel is a tale of two halves and this part is broad and high with steps leading to the sealed off entrance, which is beneath a house in North Street.  There’s also a grating visible, which my brother and his friends entertained themselves during school lunchbreaks by howling  down into, from the street above, to terrify (or perhaps create atmosphere for) the visiting American tourists creeping around below.

Where the mine was begun, the entrance now sealed off beneath a house in North Street

I have so far called this ‘a tunnel’ and was always baffled as to why it was referred to as ‘a mine.’ When I was researching The Castilians I finally understood. Here’s an extract where Will discovers what the tunnelling/mining is about …

Will works away clearing rubble but puzzling over what they’re doing.

‘Why do we not wait for our attackers to break through and then pick them off as they emerge? Then we would not have to expend effort digging, and surely it is better than both attackers and defenders meeting underground,’ he whispers to an equally baffled Nydie.

‘It would not,’ sighs Lee who has overheard them…

‘Arran’s intent is not to gain entry. The purpose of a siege tunnel is to undermine the castle defences and that is why we call it a mine. Our attackers will begin at a safe distance from the castle so they cannot be seen or fired upon, which is how we cannot yet be sure they are digging.’

‘How will it cause the castle walls to collapse, unless they mine close beneath the surface?’ Nydie asks.

‘No, that would not be wise – else they would find themselves buried alive if the wall collapsed unexpectedly. Once they believe themselves to be underneath the castle walls they’ll hollow out an area, which is supported by timber props to keep those digging safe, until all is ready. Then explosives will be laid and fires set below each prop and, when the miners are confident the fire has taken hold, they’ll flee out of the mine to safety. The conflagration will cause the tunnel to cave in and, if they’ve done their work well, the defensive wall above the tunnel will tumble down and our besiegers can take the castle.’ 

The ladder linking the two halves, and the mine built on a larger scale to set explosives beneath the curtain wall

The mine and counter-mine at St Andrews Castle have been dug through rock, which is remarkable — and why it’s still there after nearly five hundred years. It’s also the best surviving example of siege tunnelling in Europe, from that period.

I still wonder at the amazing feat to dig, and dig so fast. There’s little reference to it in the papers of the time. The French ambassador to the English Court mentions the mine and counter-mine in his letters of November 1546, but by December it’s over and the attempt to break the siege has failed again…

They hear sounds of alarm; it seems they are discovered. Any attempt to stay quiet is given up and they excavate as hard and fast as they can. Someone has fetched Richard Lee and he squeezes past Will, directing them to attack the ground beneath, and not before them.

‘We must be quick,’ he hisses, ‘else they’ll have time to set explosives and blow us into eternity.’

Will shovels the rubble behind him to keep the area clear for the miners to work – there’s no time to scuttle back up the passageway with it now. A hole has appeared in the floor of the tunnel. Lee has a man shield the candles, whispering that he needs it dark to see if there’s torchlight shining through from below.

Will, Lee and the two miners all squeezed tight together nudge one another: light is shining through. They enlarge the hole, cries beneath them growing loud, then fading. Lee kneels at the edge, and sticks his head through. Will can feel Lee’s body tense, ready to jerk his head out if necessary. He is a brave man. They wait.

Lee lifts his head out and smiles. ‘It could not be more perfect.’

If you’re ever in St Andrews Castle, don’t forget to see the mine and counter-mine. It’s one of the most atmospheric places you’ll ever visit. And in answer to the question, how do you dig a siege tunnel…it’s backbreaking work mostly using  a  pick-axe, partly because the besiegers are trying to attack without those inside the castle knowing.

frontage of the ruin of St Andrews Castle
Castle frontage and the dry moat, where the entrance to the mine can be found


A reader writes to ask what is a caitchpule — and I realise I have made an assumption. In The Castilians I mention King James V’s fondness for the game of caitch, which he regularly played at Falkland Palace. Growing up nearby I was always aware of the famous tennis court at the Palace, and so I wrote as though readers would understand what I was talking about when I mentioned the words ‘caitchpule’ and ‘Falkland Palace’ in the same sentence.


 What I didn’t know, before I wrote the novel, was that real tennis was called caitch and the tennis court a caitchpule. The game is the precursor to lawn tennis played at Wimbledon since the the 1800s.

Real Tennis Court – the Caitchpule

Real tennis is more like squash in that it uses the walls surrounding the enclosed court and the sloping roof above the viewing gallery, to bounce the ball off.  Lawn tennis, although played differently, copied the same scoring system as real tennis.

Viewing Gallery at Falkland Palace

James’s uncle, King Henry VIII of England, was also a keen tennis player in his youth.  There was a caitchpule in St Andrews, so it’s entirely possible my characters in The Castilians may have played the game – at least those with the wealth and leisure to do so.

Real tennis is still played at Falkland Palace by local residents, who would most certainly not have been permitted anywhere near the caitchpule in the 1500s.

Falkland Palace

Speaking Properly!

‘Speak properly,’ my mother was forever reminding me as a child. By which, of course, she meant don’t use Scots – either the words or the grammar. Fortunately my dad did use it, so I know and understand the language of my country. How much richer is: 

‘See ye the morn’s morn’  than ‘I will meet you tomorrow morning’.

On one memorable occasion, when Dad came to pick me up from university and I introduced him to some American exchange student friends, his greeting was, ‘Aye, and it’s a gey dreich day the day is it no.’ Blank looks all around – although he was right. It was a wet, dreary day.

Because of the general injuction to speak properly I always thought that Scots was a form of corrupted, and inferior, English. When I came to write The Castilians one of the many things that exercised my mind was what would be considered ‘correct’ speak in 1546.

I soon discovered that Scots is a language in its own right. It seems both Scots and English, are descended from the same Germanic language — Anglo-Saxon — and that there were two main reasons that contributed to Scots being considered not ‘proper’ speak.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI of Scotland departed with all possible speed to wealthy London, to occupy the English throne and become King James I of England, increasingly, his language from papers and letters, becomes anglicised.

James VI of Scotland and 1st of England
James VI & I, copyright National Library of Scotland

Here’s an extract from his Counterblast Against Tobacco, written in 1604…’A custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs…’  Translated into Scots – ‘smokin’ is verra bad fur ye’. Perhaps a pity he didn’t use his kingly perogative and ban tobacco at the time, but in any case the king spoke English, so the upper classes did, and it rapidly became a sign of wealth, and standing, to speak English.

Scotland turned Protestant in 1560. A core component of Protestantism was that everyone should learn to read the Bible themselves rather than having the Latin version interpreted by the church. This meant that we needed bibles, and lots of them, quickly. Intially the Geneva version, which was written in English and published in 1557, was adopted by John Knox. This was closely followed by the King James (sixth and first) version in 1611 — also in English. Scotland soon had one of the highest literacy rates in the world – but everyone was learning to read in English, and not the Scots they spoke at home. And surely, the language you are communing with the Lord in must be the correct one to speak!

The fiery John Knox image
The Fiery John Knox

Even before 1560 there was the beginning of a slide towards English as the ‘better’ language. In writing The Castilians, I took the decision, since Bethia’s Mother had lived in England, that Bethia would speak an anglicised Scots. Many of the other characters do use Scots words, (I provide a glossary). Initially, I had far more Scots in it, but I did want the book to be read, and understood, widely. It’s always a balance…

At least Scots speaking children didn’t suffer the fate of their Gaelic counterparts. Children in the Highland and Islands were often beaten if they spoke Gaelic in school. Gaelic, of course was never the language of Lowland Scotland. I was fourteen before I first heard it, on holiday in Islay. Thankfully Gaelic, and indeed Welsh, were saved in the nick of time, before they vanished altogether. And as for Scots, well we’ve hung on tae it despite aywis being telt tae speak properly.

crabbit; scunnersome; drookit; wheesht; gowk; oxters;  guddle; haar

For more information on Scots see

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