Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.
For many years he taught history in a Berkshire secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing and now lives in Dorset.
He is interested in a wide range of historical themes, but at the start of his writing career he focused on the late medieval period, writing action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.
His debut historical novel, Feud, is set during the Wars of the Roses and is the first of a series entitled Rebels & Brothers which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family. A second series, The Craft of Kings follows the exploits of the next generation of Elders.
Derek’s interest in the Wars of the Roses period goes well beyond writing fiction and he has produced almost fifty non-fiction podcasts about the subject for those who want to explore what really happened in more depth.
Recently Derek embarked upon a new historical fiction series set in Europe during the turbulent fifth century. The Last of the Romans, an Amazon bestseller, focuses upon the shadowy historical figure of Ambrosius Aurelianus. The sequel, Britannia: World’s End, explores Ambrosius’ arrival in post-Roman Britain.
Apart from writing, Derek spends his time travelling – especially to research locations for his books – though in 2020 this has not been so easy and he has spent a good deal more time gardening, and walking.
Part 1I have had a bit of a rant on Facebook about the common myths which persist about many aspects of the Wars of the Roses period. I vowed to do something about it, so here’s my second offering which seeks to explode the myth that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, justified the epithet ...
Mining for HistoryResearching British history can be both a pleasure and a trial. You might well start with the relevant secondary works, but in my experience that only serves to whet the appetite. It’s when you trawl through the minutiae of contemporary written evidence, or root about in ...
Mining for History Part OneHistory tells us that the Romans left Britain in 410AD but, as the historian Michael Wood put it: “The Romans did not simply abandon Britain and sail back to Italy.” So, what did happen?This was certainly not a sudden blunt trauma injury inflicted upon Britain
On 22nd August 1485 two armies assembled near Market Bosworth to contest the throne of England. One was vast and the other tiny, yet the ensuing battle provided one of the greatest upsets in English history. Once the fighting started at Bosworth, the outcome was in genuine doubt until the last ...
What prompted you to choose the period that you wrote your first book in?I have a longstanding interest in late medieval history – especially the Wars of the Roses period which I have studied and researched a great deal over the years. It was an obvious choice when it came to deciding what period to write about because it has everything: larger than life characters, epic battles and many twists and turns.I’ve also produced over 40 non-fiction podcasts spanning the period in an attempt to give structure to what is often regarded as a confusing period.What is your approach to researching your novels? Has the process changed over the years?I’ve always done several types of research: the academic study, which looks at original sources and archaeological reports where appropriate; and location visits which help to give me an insight into the events.Academic research will often uncover unexpected anecdotes which will later form part of a novel plot. It is essential when trying to pin down exactly where the ‘real’ characters were at any particular time.But there is no substitute for actually visiting a site where I intend to place a scene – to be get a sense of the scale of a place, the feel of it – even 500 years later. I’ve been fortunate that people have been very accommodating in allowing me to have a private visit where a building is not open to the public.Historical fiction is a great introduction to history. Can you recommend any historians to our readers to learn more about your period?As a starting point for the Wars of the Roses I always recommend John Gillingham’s book The Wars of the Roses - if you can get it. I would also recommend the late Charles Ross whose work on Edward IV is still very useful. Anything by A.J. Pollard is good and also more recent work such as Susan Higginbotham’s The Woodvilles.What three pieces of advice would you give to a budding historical novelist, looking to write and publish their first book?Firstly, you are a fiction writer, so the story itself is paramount – and an engaging story is essential.Research is vital but it must not swamp the novel – you are an entertainer, not an educator. Tiny historical mentions are helpful, information dumps are not.Get your story edited by someone who knows what they are doing before you submit it to anyone for publication.If you could choose to meet any historical figure from your period, who would it be and why? The temptation is to say Richard III and ask him the $64,000 question: did you kill your nephews? But I would prefer to meet Margaret Beaufort who lived through the whole period and had enough connections to know exactly where all ‘the bodies were buried.’ As a source of information she would be incomparable. Also of late she has undergone a lot of character assassination and I suspect it is largely undeserved; it would be great to find out!Similarly, if you could witness one event from history, what would it be and why?Gosh. There are so many seminal moments in this period but, if I had to choose one – for its sheer theatre - it would be 22nd July 1470 at Angers Cathedral where the Earl of Warwick was on his knees before Margaret of Anjou as he pleaded for an alliance with his erstwhile worst enemy. That must have been an emotion charged moment on both sides.Which other historical novelists do you admire?I grew up reading Alexandre Dumas, Rosemary Sutcliffe and so on. In more recent times as a writer my inspiration, no doubt like many others, has been Bernard Cornwell. I also admire the work of Conn Iggulden, David Gilman and Ben Kane. But there are many, many others.When first sketching out an idea for a novel, which comes first - the protagonist, plot or history?I think that for me the protagonist and the overall story arc come first. Once you have a story then you can weave it carefully around the history. The main plot elements will follow fairly naturally after that.Do you have a daily routine as a writer? Also, how important is it to know other writers and have a support network?I do have a routine which is that I mainly write in the mornings – though I’m perfectly capable of writing later in the day and do sometimes do that. It’s a lifestyle choice really because there are other things to do in life apart from writing. I write on a laptop in my study and I tend to write with music in the background because it cuts out other distracting noises.Meeting other writers has been a vital part of my development as a writer and I will be forever grateful to those generous authors who helped me in the early days and gave me the confidence to keep going. They have provided much ongoing support over the years and I hope I’ve been able to reciprocate.Can you tell us about the project you are working on at the moment?My current writing centres upon a new period but also one that has fascinated me since my student days: post-Roman Britain. One of the few actual historical figures from fifth century Britain is Ambrosius Aurelianus who, it appears, masterminded the British war effort to hold back Saxon advances from east to west. Yet we know almost nothing about him and what we do know is shrouded in the legends of King Arthur.I have been contracted by Sharpe Books to write three books about him. The first was The Last of the Romans, which is almost entirely fictional because we know nothing about his origins. In the sequel, Britannia: World’s End, which came out in July 2020 we find Ambrosius arriving in Britannia and getting into a dispute with the so-called High King of Britain, Vortigern. Though the book is about the dispute it is still fictional but I hope plausible within what little we know. I’ve also written a couple of short stories and novellas which feed into the narrative and the third novel will be published in the coming months.
Douglas Jackson, I’ve very much enjoyed reading The Wall – one of your very best books I would say. As one who has written about Britain in the fifth century, I appreciate the problems of trying to represent life in that shadowy period. How did you go about researching the area of Hadrian’s Wall in 400AD?Firstly, I visited the Wall several times to get a feeling for the topography, the scale and the impact it must have had on the landscape and the people who defended it and lived in its shadow. That gave me a perspective on the physical entirety of the structure, but also highlighted the challenge I faced. At first glance, we appear to have a huge amount of information about the Wall, its forts, the legions who built it, the auxiliary units who manned the ramparts, even down to their names and ranks. I put together a chart of every inscription found in the vicinity of the Wall, and its location, which supplied me with my supporting cast for the book, but turned out not to be of huge value in pinpointing the era I needed. We have only a handful of inscriptions from after the Severan invasion of the early third century and the reality is, that, considering the immensity of the structure and the length of time it was occupied, our knowledge only scratches the surface. To pin down 400AD I had to get to know the men of the late Roman army who would have defended it at that point, and understand their lives and how they fought, the social structure of the Empire they served, and the material state of the forts they garrisoned. It was only then that I really had my world.The Picts are the Roman opponents in your novel, and are often presented as a pretty savage bunch. What do we know about them?The short answer is ‘Not a lot’, certainly at the time Marcus Flavius Victor embarks on his mission. The first reference to Picts is in an anonymous panegyric of 297AD, and a few years later another writer refers to ‘the forests and marshes of the Caledones and other Picts’, which would appear to suggest the Picts were a federation of northern tribes rather than a single entity. They’re mentioned as part of the Great Barbarian Conspiracy of ‘Attacoti, Scoti (from Hibernia), Picts and Saxons’ which despoiled Britannia in 367AD. We assume the word ‘Picti’ means Painted People, and that suggestion is reinforced by the poet Claudian’s reference around 402AD to soldiers who had ‘watched the life leave the tattoos on a dying Pict’.How significant was the Roman presence in Britain during the time you’ve written about?In 400AD, everything in Britain south of Hadrian’s Wall was an integral part of the Roman Empire. Its people’s lives were regulated by Roman bureaucracy, they paid taxes to Rome, they were defended by soldiers who would have vowed loyalty to the Emperor Honorius, and they would have considered themselves Roman citizens. Yet their leaders would also have been aware that Rome’s interest in their province was on the decline. The flow of luxuries – wine, olive oil, exotic fruits, fine tableware - they’d come to expect, had slowed to a trickle. A once great field army had shrunk to a few cohorts of heavy infantry and seldom-paid limitanei frontier soldiers who by now were probably little more than semi-independent war bands.Was there a decision made to abandon Hadrian’s Wall, or was it a steady decline?There’s no epigraphic or archaeological evidence to suggest a great mass abandonment of the Wall defences after Honorius told Britain’s civic leaders in 410AD that they’d have to fend for themselves. The reality is that the garrisons had probably been fending for themselves for years. Regular supply chains would have broken down as Rome focussed on saving itself from the barbarians beyond the Rhine and the Danube. Soldiers would have been paid in kind, if they were paid at all. The Notitia Dignitatum tells us that the First Frisians were based at Vindobala (Rudchester) and the Second Asturians at Cilurnum (Chesters), but by this time these units would have been manned mostly, if not entirely, by native Britons. The forts were their homes and provided shelter and security. The people in the attached settlements would have been their families and friends.The book is populated by a host of vividly-drawn characters – were any of these based on actual historical figures?Unlike my Valerius books, the only ‘real’ historical character in The Wall is Dulcitius, the Dux Britanniarum, who did occupy the post at some, probably much earlier, point in history. Sadly, all we know about him is his name. I’ve based the social structures of the northern tribes and the military roles of the soldiers on what we know or believe we know about the era, so the other major players would have existed in some form in the positions they fill in the book and faced the same challenges. The exception is Marcus. There’s no record of an officer with the title Lord of the Wall, but I think it makes sense there was someone in overall charge of the defences closer than York, where the Dux was based.At the centre of the story is Marcus Flavius Victor. Did you always intend to make him such a complex character, or did he evolve during the writing process?My initial motivation was to make him different from Valerius Verrens, my main character in the Hero of Rome series. Valerius was a man driven by duty and friendship, I wanted Marcus to be tougher – a bit of a b*st*rd, though a likeable one. The biggest challenge was to make him hard, but not callous. A rogue, but a rogue with principles. I suppose he owes his complexity to the fact that I was inspired to make him the product of two fathers, the one a soldier who rose to greatness, but is reviled by history, the other a great warrior whose place in that history went unacknowledged.Among the remaining characters, I must confess I was drawn to the three very different females: Valeria, Calista and, of course, Briga who, between them, play a major part in the whole story. Each is so very distinct from the others but, in an age often dominated by men, how were you able to create three such different yet influential roles for these women?Of the three, I suppose Calista is the easiest to explain. We know from the numismatic evidence that people were still making sacrifices of Roman coins – by then a relatively rare and presumably valuable commodity - at the shrine of Coventina around the year 400AD, more than twenty years after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. Coventina is the goddess of the sacred waters, and of Celtic origin, and it’s quite likely the keepers of her well were priestesses. By Marcus’s time, I reasoned it would have fallen into disrepair and the keeper a focus of resentment from the followers of the official religion. In Valeria’s case, individual women of fortitude, talent and initiative have found a way to join just about every army in history. Brought up alongside Marcus by her warrior father, she learned the arts of war at his side, and when he rose to command his unit why wouldn’t he take her with him? Briga is more of a one-off. There’s little evidence of Pictish warrior queens, but I had the Celtic examples of Boudicca and Cartimandua, from a couple of centuries earlier. There have been many other powerful, ruthless women rulers through the ages, and those were traits they needed to keep them on the throne, though I doubt many were as truly savage as Briga.You mention that you found some of the character names from gravestone inscriptions, were there any of those that you were able to get a sense of their own stories – or any that you found particularly intriguing in your research?There were quite a few, some sad, the gravestones of lost wives and children, some quite inspiring, like the relatively low-ranking cavalryman Flavinus of the Ala Petriana, who was so revered by his comrades that they set up a huge, intricately carved stone in his image. My personal favourite though is the altar dedicated to the goddess Maponus by ‘the Germans, Durios, Ramios, Trupios and Lupios’, whom I like to think of as the Roman Marx Brothers.Your description of the landscape both north and south of the wall is both vivid and convincing. How far was this based upon research and how much was it intelligent guesswork?When you’re dealing with a landscape from about two thousand years ago, I’d say you’re looking at twenty-five per cent research and seventy-five intelligent guesswork. All you can really do is study the ground, delve into the known science about the impact of people around the time, strip away the shops, houses and factories and insert the type of Celtic farms and fields that would have existed then. It’s helpful that there was very little civilian urbanisation of the north of England. Almost all reasonably large settlements are associated with the forts that guarded the roads and river crossingsThe main battle in the book fills a broad canvas; so choreographing such a large-scale conflict must have been an exercise in keeping a dozen plates spinning. How did you go about it?I like to think of battles as one of my strengths as a writer. I’ve been a student of military history for all of my adult life and the books I enjoy most are those that put you boots on the ground at the centre of the action. Most of the battles I’ve written about actually happened, so you have a factual framework to work within, but this one was different. I had to write it from scratch. Fortunately, I’d done something very similar in my previous book Avenger of Rome, with the battle of the Cepha Gap. The most important thing is to find the right ground that provides you with the opportunity to manipulate your forces and those of the enemy to achieve the result you want. I’m a frustrated general really.The Wall is a departure from your previous Roman writing which tended to focus on a much earlier period. Are you planning any sort of sequel to the Wall?It already exists, at least in manuscript form. It’s called The Barbarian and takes Marcus and his companions on a quest to find his son, and which eventually brings him into potentially deadly proximity to Flavius Stilicho and Alaric the Goth. Hopefully it will be published this time next year.Douglas Jackson is the author of The Wall, published by Transworld.Derek Birks is the author of The Last of the Romans series.Aspects of History Issue 10 is out now.Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn. Daisy Dunn.
Derek Birks, The Last of the Romans is set in the dying days of the Roman Empire. What was it about this time that interests you, as there’s so much that is seemingly unknown?I’ve always had an interest in the fifth century perhaps because it was such a turbulent period in European history where the political, cultural and social landscape of the western half of the continent was continually evolving. Historians used to describe it as a period of crisis for the Roman Empire but now the view seems to be that the whole period from the third century to the sixth was one of evolution. In terms of what we actually know, it is very patchy. We do know a reasonable amount about what was going on in Rome itself, but far less about the western provinces.I was especially drawn to the achievement of the Roman Magister Militum, Flavius Aetius, who held the western empire together against all the odds. He was by no means perfect, but his achievement was still, I think, rather heroic – especially considering that he served a foolish and feckless emperor, Valentinian III, who eventually stabbed Aetius to death.Your hero is Dux Ambrosius Aurelianus – what sort of man was he?Ambrosius is something of an historical wraith. We can reasonably safely assume that he existed and that he exerted considerable influence over events in the post-Roman Britain of the fifth century. It’s likely that he came from a high-born Roman family – so perhaps his father was a magistrate or a military commander. Of his origins, we know very little more. Since he managed later to unite the squabbling British tribes to resist the Saxons for a generation, we can assume that he was not only an effective commander in the field, but blessed with a persuasive personality.I’ve made him the commander, or dux, of a company of bucellarii – a private army, basically. The rank of dux appears to have been rather fluid but often involved responsibility for a region. In Ambrosius’ case, I’ve made him an agent of Aetius – a fixer, perhaps – and given him a roving brief. Most Romans of any power or status would have bucellarii – sometimes hundreds of them. They were oath-sworn to the emperor but also to their individual masters which was bound to cause problems.Because we don’t know a huge amount about him, presumably that gave you a lot of scope with regard to creating his character?I’ve created a man who was exceptional in his abilities and outlook because he would need to have been to marshal the divided Britons. I’ve started him off in the empire because that gave him both his military experience and his understanding of the world outside Britain. He was almost certainly a Christian with a strong belief in ‘doing the right thing’ - however difficult that was.I suspect he could be quite ruthless so I’m not sure he was a character that a modern audience would find it easy to empathise with. I’ve given him a Roman Gallic father and a noble British mother because I feel he would have needed such status to be influential in Britain. In the trilogy he is a young man, still learning and working out what he wants to do. He had to be a character who could inspire the loyalty of others and this is a thread running through the trilogy as he interacts with different tribes – not only British but also Saxon and Scotti.The Last of the Romans begins in northern Italy, and moves to Gaul. What were these places like as the Roman Empire disintegrated?Gaul, like most provinces, had been changing for many years as imperial power contracted and Rome relied increasingly upon quasi-barbarians to enforce order in the provinces. As the ability of central government to collect taxes became ever more compromised, it could not afford to police the empire. Over time, the Roman army was reorganised and slimmed down. It no longer attempted to defend the long, fortified frontiers but instead was more mobile. The idea was to respond swiftly to major incursions from outside or rebellions from within. There were an increasing number of both in the 5th century.The Rhine, once the northern bulwark of the empire, was now a very porous border. In northern Gaul, there were Franks and other tribes, many of whom came as foederati – allies of Rome – to help in defence. Soon they settled in greater numbers and needed more land which created new tensions with the locals.Across much of the empire, towns were shrinking – often some buildings were levelled to use the land for agriculture or horticulture. Society was more diverse culturally and – like the army – now included many people from outside the empire. Some parts of the old empire were lost such as North Africa, Spain and Britain; but that does not necessarily mean those areas were chaotic. In such regions there was still organisation – often employing the Roman model – but Rome’s overarching authority was gone forever. Rome itself was sacked and, in the middle of the fifth century, the threat from Attila the Hun threatened the stability of the whole western empire.There is much speculation about Ambrosius being the origin for King Arthur. What is your view?I think it’s pretty clear that Ambrosius was an actual historical figure whereas Arthur exists almost exclusively in legend. Our primary written source for the period is the monk, Gildas, and he does not mention Arthur at all whereas he heaps enormous praise upon Ambrosius. It seems likely that, if Arthur had led the Britons, Gildas would have included him. I suspect Arthur’s origins lie in Welsh legend and, almost always, he was inserted into the history after the event. It’s a bit like the fictional Forrest Gump manages to appear with well-known political figures.I would love him to be real, but the Arthur of legend did not exist. That’s not to say that some of the exploits associated with him do not belong to a contemporary of Ambrosius – an ally or even a deputy. In my books, I’ve adopted this solution by inventing a character called Arturus!What historical records and historians did you use for research?Given the sparse written record – which I’ve examined carefully – I’ve made considerable use of the increasing archaeological evidence for the fifth century. It’s a period that used to be regarded as something of an archaeological wasteland; but modern science has helped us to find and interpret new forms of evidence. New items come to light all the time now and create a clearer picture of the period – as well as posing new questions, of course.There is plenty of evidence of the survival of Romano-British culture and administration in the first half of the fifth century. There is also, however, clear evidence of conflict between some of the major British tribes. How the Saxons fit into that conflict is one of the issues I’ve dealt with in the books; though we still do not even know for certain when the first Saxons came to Britain, or what their role was exactly.Places are particularly difficult to nail down: if they existed, what were they like? Were all towns ruined? Did villas still exist? Were places called by Roman names, or British? In the end, I had to make my best guess on the strength of the current evidence and go with that.The Last of the Romans is the first in a trilogy – what happens in Books 2 and 3 for Ambrosius?Spoiler alert!In Book 2 Ambrosius finally gets to Britain and finds it a dangerous place to be. Much of Book 2 is necessarily about Ambrosius himself as he first survives, and then establishes a power base, in Britain. The history here is wafer thin as any accounts of the period are very unreliable and quite possibly fiction themselves. While readers might want more actual historical content, it just isn’t known.In Book 3, Ambrosius becomes involved in a pivotal conflict with the most prominent British ruler, often called Vortigern. I’ve only used the spurious written evidence where it seems to support what the archaeology tells us – which is not easy. None of the names used can truly be relied upon; but I have, where possible, tried to introduce real characters who may well have interacted with Ambrosius. For the whole trilogy, I could have invented a lot more which readers might have enjoyed, but I was keen to stick as close as I could to what I believe might have happened.What are you working on at the moment?Recently, I’ve been working on a novel set in the 12th century during what is now called the Anarchy. It is centred upon an actual person, Thomas FitzRobert, who was the illegitimate son of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. The earl himself was also illegitimate – his father being King Henry I. Robert supported the claim of his half-sister, Matilda to the English throne which was then held by King Stephen. The book focusses on how this affects his son, Thomas. The good news for readers is that we know almost nothing about Thomas so I’ve got a lot of scope to invent!Derek Birks is a bestselling novelist and author of The Last of the Romans.
Derek Birks, can you first tell us a little about your short story in the collection Triumphs & Tragedies: The Emperor’s Sister, and how it fits in with your other novels?The Emperor’s Sister is a standalone short story which refers to an actual historical event when Justa Grata Honoria, the rebellious elder sister of the feckless Emperor Valentinian III, decided to escape from her unhappy life in Rome to marry the Hun king, Attila, who, at that time, was Rome’s greatest enemy. Tantalisingly, although we know of her defection, we do not know the outcome. This story, featuring several characters from my Last of the Romans series, imagines what might have happened.What attracts you to the late Roman Empire as a period to write about? Have you ever thought about writing a series set during the Roman Republic?The period of Late Antiquity fascinates me because literally everything is going through change: the empire itself, Roman lifestyle, religion, dress and customs – even the buildings themselves. Hence, for the novelist, there is fantastic scope in trying to flesh out what little we can glean from contemporary Roman accounts. Though I am interested in the Roman Republic, I relish the endless fictional possibilities of Late Antiquity.Your short story is based on a real incident; how do you go about researching and writing something like this, as opposed to a more fictionalized event?When you base your fiction around an actual event, you need to find out what is ‘known’ such as dates, places and personnel involved. First consult secondary accounts by historians then try to test those against primary evidence from the period. In the Late Roman period, first hand accounts are patchy; so, often the writer, like the historian, must piece together these fragments to create a coherent narrative.Once you have that, you can begin to build upon it by, basically… making stuff up. Since the bones of the story are already decided, the most important element you can bring in is your characters. They will give life to the story and pique the interest of readers.If you could choose any event from Roman history to witness first-hand, what would it be?Tough question because it covers such a huge period! I think possibly the assassination of Valentinian III on 16th March 455 (he just missed the ides) because he certainly had it coming. According to the diplomat and historian, Priscus of Panium, when the emperor was cut down, a swarm of bees descended upon the body and sucked up his blood. It would be great to confirm that story!Have you read the other stories in the collection? Do you have a favourite? Yes, of course and they offer considerable breadth of settings and storytelling, encompassing spies, adventure, intrigue, betrayal, murder and mystery.If I had to pick a favourite it would probably be Blood Money by Fiona Forsyth. The author manages to create a self-contained but believable mystery with a varied set of characters with whom the readers can identify.How important is it to generate a network of fellow writers?When I first started writing historical fiction, I did not know a single writer personally. I soon found that the writing community is a generous one and I shall always be very grateful to those more established authors who took time to encourage me and offer advice. You soon learn that we all face very similar problems in transferring our fictional visions to the page.Online, I now communicate with many, many authors and, through conferences and other events, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of them in the flesh. Not only is it enjoyable to chat but I think we all learn from talking to fellow authors; not to mention other publishing professionals.Derek Birks is a bestselling novelist and contributor to Triumphs & Tragedies: A Roman Short Story Collection.