A Grinding of Axes – a guest blog by Stella Riley


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 A full-blooded saga of passion, intrigue and danger set against the disastrous descent into a second Civil War.

By June of 1647 England is still in a state of near-chaos. From endless conflicting factions, a tidal wave of radical new ideas threatens to drown the order of generations while the King plays both ends against the middle in a dangerous game of his own.

Venetia Clifford’s days are divided between her secret activities on behalf of the Royalist cause and the struggle to keep Ford Edge solvent despite poor harvests and inflated taxes. Ellis Brandon, her fiancé of the last five years, shows no sign of returning from exile – despite the recent death of his father.

Sir Robert’s last will and testament turns Venetia’s world inside out when he disinherits Ellis in favour of an illegitimate son she did not know existed and forces her to choose between losing her family’s home or marriage to a man who is both a stranger and an enemy. For Gabriel Brandon – tall, dark and openly sardonic – is a Colonel in the New Model Army.

Having seen Venetia at her worst during their first meeting, Gabriel can think of few things more unpleasant than being married to her – and neither does he wish to sacrifice his career in favour of becoming a glorified farmer. Unfortunately, the legal knots are tied too tightly to allow loop-holes … and the return of Ellis with his own mixture of mischief and malice, complicates matters still further.

The tempestuous relationship between Venetia and Gabriel is reflected in the stormy events buffeting the nation as Civil War flares up anew. Leaving riots in London and risings in the southern counties behind them, Gabriel’s regiment marches north to stem a Scots invasion. And, inevitably, once the danger is past, responsibility for this renewal of hostilities is laid at the King’s door.

While the Army and Parliament argue over the fate of the King, Gabriel realises that he has a very dangerous anonymous enemy and Venetia finally puts aside the ingrained misconceptions that have prevented her seeing the man rather than the Roundhead Colonel. As events gather pace, bringing the King to trial in Westminster Hall, the tangled web of danger and deceit threatening Gabriel and Venetia slowly tightens its grip.

Of the many axes – political and personal – that gave been ground, more than one is about to fall.

This author-revised and extended version of the original print edition, continues the tumultuous events of mid-seventeenth century England begun in The Black Madonna.

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If the period leading up to the first English Civil War was complicated, the period after it was convoluted almost beyond belief. To be honest, I look at it now and wonder how I found the courage to attempt to write about it.

Ostensibly, the war had been fought to reduce the power of the King and increase that of the Parliament; but by the summer of 1647, the real power of the kingdom lay in the hands of the New Model Army – as, crucially, did the person of the King. And, in the months that followed, faction upon faction sprang up … Presbyterians, Independents, Republicans, Agitators and Levellers to name but a few – all with their own axe to grind and all unable to agree with each other.

Generally speaking, ordinary people just wanted an end to the chaos. They were tired of flagging trade and uncertainty over who was actually governing the country; and, since they were still paying war taxes, they were really tired of the Army living at free quarter. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Army hadn’t been paid for a year or more and were feeling understandably aggrieved.

Add to this mix the Levellers demanding a free press and an extended franchise, the King playing Parliament off against the Army whilst encouraging the Scots to invade on his behalf, Agitators raising mutiny in the ranks and Republicans wanting to remove the King’s head … and the complexity of the two years prior to 1649 becomes fairly evident.

One of the main difficulties in writing Garland of Straw was the fact that both Parliament and the Army were constantly making decisions, then reversing them. The most obvious example of this was whether or not to stop negotiating with the King – a decision which seemed to change almost daily. This gives the impression that I’m repeating myself – for which I blame Cromwell, Denzil Holles and the rest of them!

Cromwell and his son-in-law, Commissary-General Ireton, made numerous efforts to make terms with the King – as, of course, did the Parliament. The reason they both failed was that Charles never stopped believing that, by pitting one faction against the other, he would eventually come out on top … an error of judgement which would cost him his head. With regard to the King’s trial, although it was necessary to edit it a little, I have chosen not to ‘modernise’ the language but to set it down in wholly authentic dialogue. As one of the most remarkable events in our history, I felt it deserved nothing less.

The Trial of Charles I by John Burnet
The Trial of Charles I by John Burnet

Although the fictional side of the book obviously belongs to Gabriel and Venetia, it was also important to continue Eden Maxwell’s story as he is the central character of the series. The sub-plot concerns the further adventures of Samuel Radford [A Splendid Defiance] … and I make no apologies for the re-appearance of Justin Ambrose; he’s a favourite with a lot of readers and is certainly a favourite of mine!

I’m not entirely sure when I decided that Gabriel Brandon was hero material – certainly it wasn’t at the time I first created him. He’s a little older than either Luciano del Santi [hero of The Black Madonna] or Justin, and his maturity shows in a number of ways; he is also devoid of hang-ups. He’s a capable, confident man in his mid-thirties with plenty of experience of both life and women. He knows what he wants, is good at his job and has a well-defined sense of proportion. On the other hand, he is absolutely no push-over and is frequently alarmingly direct.

On the so-called wedding night, for example, when Venetia queries his intentions, he says:

“Hard though it may be for you to accept, I’m not inclined towards rape and have an undoubtedly plebeian preference for more than just a body between the sheets. Even, I’m afraid, when the goods on offer are as decorative as you.”


Or when Venetia sneers at his plans to make Brandon Lacey pay:

‘Perhaps it’s just as well I’m only a nasty, common soldier. For if I were a gentleman, you’d be free to wipe your boots on me without fear of reprisal, wouldn’t you? And the tenants would be left to starve in genteel, time-honoured fashion.’

Despite everything, Venetia is trapped in the redundant belief that she must be loyal to her fiancé – and Gabriel’s half-brother – Ellis; and when she looks at Gabriel, she stubbornly refuses to see beyond his illegitimacy and New Model uniform. This only really starts to change when events conspire to show her how deceitful, unreliable, selfish and malicious Ellis really is … and that Gabriel, in addition to being rather sexy, is the complete opposite.

I’ve enjoyed working on Garland – attempting to tighten the history a little as well as adding a new dimension to Venetia’s back-story with Ellis which naturally impacts on her relationship with Gabriel. This, as everyone familiar with my work is aware, is the last book in my previously published list. The next one may be some time coming as it is only partly-written but, for those who like to know such things, the time-line is 1650 to 1653 and, for the first time, the story will take us into exile alongside a couple of dispirited, post-Worcester Cavaliers. Oh – and Eden will be lurking about somewhere.


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There’s a sneak preview of Book 3 in Stella Riley’s Civil War series on her website. Click HERE for chapters 1 & 2 of The King’s Falcon.


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