The Champion: David Pilling on Aragon and Peter III

The author talks about his new book and the history behind it.
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David, congratulations on your latest book, Sword of Aragon: A Champion Tale. This is a prequel to your Champion series, which is set in France and Spain – what is it about this area of Medieval Europe that fascinates you?

My interest stems from a childhood dragging my unfortunate parents about castles in Wales. These included the famous ‘Iron Ring’ built by Edward I to hold down his conquest of Wales, and everything went from there. I have a general interest in the medieval era, but the 13th century has a particular fascination. This is partially due to early influence, but also the personalities involved: Edward himself, of course, his even more ruthless cousin Philip the Fair, Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his wayward brother Dafydd, Robert de Bruce, William Wallace, plus the various rulers of Germany and the Low Countries (etc). I could equally have chosen to specialise in the era of the Norman Conquest, or the Wars of the Roses – I just happened to fall down this particular rabbit-hole.

As the title suggests, we’re in Spain of the late 13th century, when it isn’t quite as we recognise it today. What constituted the Iberian peninsular?

It was essentially made up of a number of Christian kingdoms and Islamic states (this was prior to the final phase of the Christian Reconquista, of course). The Christian realms to the north consisted of Navarre, Aragon, Castile and Portugal, with the Muslim or Almohad Caliphate to the south-east.

The main threat to Aragon was Philip III (the Bold) of France – why did he want to extend his lands south into Spain, and would his ambitions have stopped there?

Philip’s desire to conquer Aragon stemmed from his feud with King Peter of Aragon. This was part of a wider conflict called the War of the Sicilian Vespers, after Peter’s subjects massacred the French occupying garrion of Sicily in 1282. As a result Pope Martin IV declared a crusade against Peter and officially deposed him as king, on the grounds that Aragon was a papal fief. Martin then offered Aragon to Charles of Valois, Philip III’s second son. The failure of the crusade seems to have embittered Charles, who then played a key role in the build-up to the French invasion of English-held Gascony in 1294. Even if the venture  had succeeded, it is likely the French would have used Aragon as a springboard for the conquest of Gascony to the north and possibly neighbouring states in Iberia.

The Almagavars feature as a military unit deployed to defend Aragon from the French invader. What were they, and were they loyal to Aragon or was there a mercenary element to them?

They were essentially guerilla fighters in the mountainous regions of northern Spain and Catalonia, similar to the people of North Wales or (much closer to home) the Montagnards or ‘mountain folk’ of southern Gascony. As such they were light infantry, experts at ambush warfare and harrying enemy supply lines, armed with javelins and daggers, but no useful in set-piece battles. Their first loyalty was to the crown of Aragon, especially during the Aragonese Crusade (featured in my novella), but can also be found as mercenaries in the employ of neighbouring states. A band of Almogavars served as a mercenary company as far afield as the Byzantine Empire in the late 13th century

Your hero is César – leader of the Almagavars – was he based on a real person and what sort of character is he?

César is entirely fictional, though partially based on Sancho Panza, squire to Don Quizote, and Planchet, D’Artangan’s manservant in The Three Musketeers. Basically, a put-upon dogsbody with a mind of his own!

The war between Aragon and France seems to be brutal, even for that period. Is that the case?

Not especially. The Scottish and Welsh wars inside the British Isles were just as brutal, as well as the Bruce invasions of Ireland or the slightly later French campaigns in Flanders and Aquitaine (etcetera). It was a brutal age in which all sides made use of what we would call ‘terror tactics’ . This usually consisted of destroying crops, slaughtering the peasantry, and the avoidance of direct contact with the enemy unless absolutely necessary. War was a business, after all.

Peter III the Great at Col de Panissars, by Mariano Barbasán

Peter III of Aragon was the king – how does history view him? There is a stunning painting by Mariano Barbasán (Peter III the Great at Col de Panissars) – which has a slight whiff of Don Quixote – perhaps I’m being monstrously unfair?

I’m not aware of too many recent judgements on Peter III. Dante, his contemporary, had him ‘singing in accord’ with his former rival Charles of Anjou outside the gates of Purgatory, which sounds most unlikely. He certainly had plenty of dash about him, and was one of the more remarkable figures in a remarkable age. It is easy to be dazzled, of course, especially at a distance of seven hundred years, and forget the ruthless nature of such people. Peter, for instance, benefited from and was almost certainly involved in the organisation of a famous massacre on Sicily, the Siclien Vespers. It was sheer gangsterism, really, so many Al Capones in chainmail. One can be fascinated, but should probably steer clear of admiration.

You’re a prolific medieval writer, with many bestselling novels under your belt now, what’s next?

I have just completed a short entry-level biography of Prince Dafydd ap Gruffudd, one of the most controversial figures in Welsh medieval history, and am in the early stages of Blood and Battle, part IV of the Champion series, starring En Pascal of Valencia and the long-suffering César.

David Pilling is a historian and writer, and author of Sword of Aragon, part of the Champion series of novels.