Dan Jones writes every history book as though it were a Netflix drama. Now he tells Sarah Freeman why a 12th century woman from Beverley is among his latest leading ladies.
Historian Dan Jones admits that when he stumbled across the story of Margaret of Beverley it was a bit of a free gift.
When he began his latest book, which tells the story of the Crusades through the eyes of 27 individuals touched by the religious wars, he was determined not to simply focus on the kings and military leaders who shaped those 200-odd years of history.
A new chapter for literature fans in Yorkshire
Instead he also wanted to shine a spotlight on the ordinary people who found themselves caught up in the most extraordinary of circumstances and give voice to those women whose efforts have often been overlooked.
“There are some stories which sound too good to be true, Margaret’s was definitely one of those,” says Jones. “She was born in East Yorkshire, but when her brother was called back to the monastery she decided to travel to the Holy Land.
“When she arrived in Jerusalem in the mid-1180s, the sultan Saladin was about to launch an assault and Margaret found herself in the middle of a siege. She didn’t run, instead she took to the city walls wearing only a saucepan on her head for protection and used a slingshot to fire rocks on the armies below. When you find a story like that, you can’t ignore it.”
Margaret now gets a starring role in Jones’ new book Crusaders, which has been described as a ‘rip-roaring page turner’ and like his other work it is unashamedly accessible.
“Everything I do is meticulously researched, but when it comes to the writing I do approach it like a producer would approach a TV series and I make no apology for that,” he says. “If you look at a script for say Game of Thrones you can break it down into beats, those key moments which give each episode its rhythm and which keep the attention of the audience.
“That’s how I plan a book. I decide on those key moments and then I decide who would be the most interesting character to tell that story.
“Wolf Hall author Hilary Mantel says that that she bends the fiction to fit the facts and a good historical novelist has much in common with a straight historical author.
“Our past is full of fantastic deeds and great achievements; it’s full of the exotic and the alien. There is some wonderful material out there and I’ve always thought it must be much harder to make history boring than it is to make it interesting, but so many people come up to me and tell me that they switched off at school because they found it dull.”
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Jones, who has previously written about the War of the Roses, the Magna Carta and the Knights Templar, decided to focus on the Crusades, which were an attempt by the Christian church to overturn Muslim rule in the Holy Land, as he reckoned it was a period which most people would recognise even if their knowledge wasn’t particularly in depth.
“When you say the word ‘crusades’ it rings a bell with a lot of people, even if it is just an image of Richard the Lionheart riding off into the sunset or if you’re from my generation, Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood arriving back from the battlefields to take on the Sheriff of Nottingham.
“What I wanted to do with this book is to show just how many lives were affected by these religious wars. We tend to think of them as being contained in the Holy Land, but they stretched into Greece, Turkey and southern Spain - Andalucia where so many of us have been on holiday was Crusade country - and we are still seeing their impact.”
Earlier this year Jones was in Sri Lanka when Islamist suicide bombers launched a series of attacks in in which more than 300 people were killed. ISIS later claimed responsibility and the language used harked back to a much earlier age.
“Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, praised the attackers, saying ‘The battle of Islam and its people against the crusaders and their followers is a long battle’. The original crusades may have officially come to an end in the 13th century, but the ripples are still being felt today.”
Dan Jones is appearing at the Yorkshire Museum as part of York Literature Festival’s autumn programme tomorrow, October 16. For more details visit yorkliteraturefestival.co.uk