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A medieval Scottish privateer in Greece

the history that inspired my new novel's hero

This is the second in a series of History Hunter’s reports about the true history behind my new historical romance/suspense novel Sea of Shadows.

Sea of Shadows is book 2 in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, a trilogy of stand-alone novels about ordinary people living under the rule of the Knights Hospitaller in medieval Rhodes, Greece. The first report in this series focused on the real women who inspired my heroine Anica Foscolo, the artist daughter of a Venetian painter and his Greek wife.

Today’s report zooms in on the hero of my tale, Scotsman Drummond Fordun. When I researched the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John, I learned that men from all over Europe sailed to Greece to work for the Order during its two hundred years of rule in Rhodes and surrounding islands. Before I dive into Drummond’s story, let me give you a wee bit of Hospitaller history.

Who were the Knights Hospitaller?

After early successes in the Crusades, the Knights Hospitaller were expelled from the Middle East by Muslim forces over a period of centuries. By the early 1300s, they set up shop in Rhodes, taking over the already well-established port city of Rhodes Town as their headquarters. They also possessed a stronghold called Bodrum in Turkey and were a dominant presence on the island of Cyprus.

When Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Turks sacked Constantinople in 1453, the knights redoubled efforts to prepare for an inevitable siege by Muslims from the East. Most of their time was spent engaging in naval warfare with the Ottoman Turks and the Mamluks of Egypt, taking goods and captives at sea or raiding coastal villages. They also had a conflict-laden relationship with the city-state of Venice, which at that time ruled the Mediterranean. There were only about three hundred knights living in Rhodes Town during the fifteenth century, so the Order hired privateers and mercenaries to supplement its forces, both for business operations and military missions.

The Knights Hospitaller had vast land holdings and properties in Europe. The organization was composed of men from various “langues” (tongues), including France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England. The English langue had outposts (called ‘preceptories’) in Ireland and Scotland, so the occasional Scottish or Irish knight shows up in the organization’s records as having fought for the Order in Rhodes. Here’s Torphichen, the Scottish preceptory:

One of these men was Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy (1400-1480), whose family history asserts that he possessed a charm-stone which he “woir when he fought in battell at the Rhodes agaynst the Turks, he being one of the knychtis [knights] of the Rhodes.” Another Scot who fought for the knights in Rhodes as a layman, not a knight, was a man known as Diguerus le Scot. Apparently he travelled with a Scottish knight to Rhodes sometime in the 1430s, where he made a career for himself and returned to Scotland with a pension from the Order in 1454. He is described as “a servant of the grand master, who served the order for many years by land and sea, with manly striving against the infidels.” [Source: Scotland and the Crusades 1095-1560, by Alan Macquarrie]

Where fact meets fiction: Drummond Fordun

My character Drummond Fordun is based on Dugerus le Scot. But Drummond has a bit of a circumvented journey to Rhodes that takes him deep into the dangerous and lucrative spice trade. From my research into this topic, I learned that the Mediterranean spice trade was a bit like the Gold Rush. It was one of the few ways that a man of limited means could become wealthy in a short period of time. He would serve as crew member aboard a spice galley originating in Venice or Genoa, and if he survived the journey to the spice markets of Alexandria, he would get a portion of spice as payment upon return to Genoa or Venice. Spice was tremendously valuable at the time, so reselling black pepper, ginger, saffron, or cinnamon to western merchants was an attainable get-rich quick scheme.

[My favorite source for information about the spice trade is The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice, by Michael Krondl.]

Here’s what a medieval Venetian galley looked like:

In Sea of Shadows, Drummond manages to survive the pirates and storms of the Mediterranean and save enough gold to buy his own galley. Soon he starts freelancing as a privateer for the Knights Hospitaller in Rhodes. With his seafaring experience, language skills, and reputation as a fierce fighter, he quickly gains the favor of Lord Jacques de Milly, the Order’s grand master (and a real-life historical figure).

It turns out many of the ships used by the Hospitallers for their naval warfare and commercial operations were owned by privateers, typically Catalan or Genoan men. I found evidence of the Order bestowing gifts of land and property in Rhodes, Cyprus, and elsewhere to such agents of the organization in recognition of their work and their value to the knights. Does Drummond receive such a gift? All will be revealed in the pages of Sea of Shadows!

Sea of Shadows launches in April. To pre-order the book, click here.

To buy Island of Gold, book 1 in the Sea and Stone Chronicles, click here.

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