Book Review: Winter Siege by Ariana Franklin & Samantha Norman

It is autumn 1180. The Abbott of Perton Abbey is dying, but before he dies “he has something important to do. He has to record a tale of treachery and murder, also a story of courage and love”.  A record of a tale of events that happened over 40 years before, during the war for the crown of England between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Too weak and ill to write it himself, he dictates the story to a young scribe.

Gwilherm de Vannes (Gwil) is a leader of a band of mercenaries and a crossbow man “one of the finest arbalists in Christendom”.  While crossing the Cambridgeshire fens in winter,  an act of betryal sees him lose his horse and his crossbow. Without these, he is powerless to intervene when his men chase and capture a young red-headed girl and ride off with her. One of these men is  an evil, malodourous monk with a penchant for red-heads and murder. 

Gwil believes his soul is lost for good, but still offers up a prayer to God for the deliverance of the courageous little girl - and the return of his crossbow “so that he could kill the men who had taken both”.

By chance Gwil discovers the young girl left for dead. In her hand she clutches a quill case containing some parchments, an item that Gwil believes belongs to the evil monk and will endanger her further.  He nurses her back to health, but the trauma of the attack leaves her with amnesia. Unable to abandon her, Gwil names her Penda, instructs her in archery and keeps her identity hidden by dressing her as a boy.

In their travels they cross paths with the Empress Matilda and her bodyguards, who are being pursued by King Stephen's men. Their destination is the strategically placed castle of Kenniford. Here they ask for sanctuary from Maud of Kenniford. Maud swears fealty to the Empress, but soon has cause to regret her decision once her castle is besieged.

I loved all the characters, especially Gwil, a hardened mercenary, trying to atone for some of the things he’s been a part of by honouring his promise to God to protect Penda. Penda slowly healing from her ordeal, coming to trust Gwil and showing great fortitude. Maud of Kenniford, shocked by events that turned her ordered world upside down, determined to be a good chatelaine of the castle despite her young years and to do right by the people that look to her for guidance and protection. Milburga, whose mannerisms and speech reminded me so much of  Pam Ferris’ character in Call the Midwife that if a movie should ever be made of this book I hope she is asked to play the part. The Empress Matilda, haughty, stern and imposing, but also a woman of courage, revealing a sense of humour at the end. Alan of Ghent, a man of honour, loyal to his Empress. Even Maud's brutish husband and his strange mistress left an impression, as did the evil monk and his stench. It is the memorable characters that make this novel so successful.

There are snippets of humour throughout the novel, mostly through Gwil’s conversations with God, but also with Maud’s inner thoughts and of course, the character of Milburga. Even the conversations between the dying Abbott and the scribe managed to raise a smile or two.

Winter Siege is like an adventure story of old: not too graphic in the portrayal of the unsavoury scenes and battles, filled with good and evil characters to love or hate, murder, plenty of action, a heart-warming romance and lots of poignant moments. The narrative flows at a steady pace, rolling on to the action-packed siege and final confrontation involving the evil monk, Penda and Gwil. Just when I thought it could get no better, there is a surprise revelation at the end.

This is the first novel I have read by Ariana Franklin. It was the last one she wrote and was finished by her daughter, Samantha Norman.  I really enjoyed it.

I was saddened by her death and that there would be no more novels from this author. However, I discovered she has left a huge body of work which includes numerous historical crime novels and other historical fiction written under her own name of Diana Norman. I look forward to reading these.


  1. I enjoyed this one too and will have a review up in the near future. The book is classic Diana Norman in terms of setting, theme, and style, and her daughter skillfully completed the story. If you haven't read Norman/Franklin's work before, you're in for a treat. Not all of her books are in print or easy to find, but they're worth seeking out.

    1. My local library has half a dozen novels by Diana Norman including the first book in her Makepeace Hedley series. After that I'll have to look further afield. Perhaps because of her death her previous novels will be re-issued. I look forward to seeing your review of Winter Siege.