The Unfathomable Message


King Harold Godwinson of England

My Dad grew up in the days when school children memorized historic dates. “October 14th, 1066,” he’d shout, “The Norman Conquest!” I never thought I’d live to see the day that I’d study the time frame as extensively as I have. My dad would be proud. The Conquest utterly changed the face of Europe. Scandinavia had held sway over England until William, Duke of Normandy sailed to its southern shores and choked it into submission. The English language changed, incorporating French, the feudal system was put into place, Scandinavia lost its grip on the British Isles and a strong monarchy, existing today and still related to William’s tree, was instituted. The battle’s 954th anniversary is upon us, so raise a glass of ale, I guess.

King Harald Sigurdsson at Fulford Gate

There were actually three pivotal battles in 1066. On September 20th, the King of Norway, Harald Sigurdsson, won the Battle at Fulford Gate, near York. His next goal was the throne of England, but on September 25th, Harold Godwinson, King of England, shocked the Norwegians, decimating them at nearby Stamford Gate. By October 14th, the King of England lay dead at Hastings. And you thought 2020 was bad.

I submit, for your reading pleasure, a little excitement and a little gore – the Battle at Stamford Bridge, a chapter taken from Book Two of “Margaret, Queen of Scotland.” Don’t miss the berserker. They were mostly gone by 1066, but legend has it that this one was really there.

William the Conqueror – so many stories – some other time … !

“How many are they?” asked the King of England.

Both sides had substantial numbers. The Norwegians, more, though, perhaps ten thousand.

Still, King Harold’s English army comprised his fyrdmen; elite huscarls; thegns who’d been levied; as well as some sturdy survivors from the recent Battle at Fulford, all standing at the ready for him, numbering some five thousand troops, most with weapons and some with horses. Those bereft of either, but eager to participate waited behind the lines to care for wounded soldiers and animals, and to replenish battle supplies. 

Harold sat on his war horse, gazing at the field before him and the enemy awaiting him. It was time to attack, but he was busy savoring what he called the “sublime moment,” the pause before battle that shimmered with meaning to Harold, and of which he would not be denied.

Beginning his ritual, Harold inhaled the scent of his army’s damp horses and their hay-infused breath as they snorted in nervous anticipation. He inhaled again, appreciating the sweat and stink of his men, because they’d earned it marching with him one hundred and eighty-five miles from London. He could hear their mumblings and the rustling of their spears. From the back of the army he discerned arrows being drawn from their quivers. To his left and right, the cavalry was reassuring their war horses with muffled pats on strong necks. It’s a sacred time, thought Harold, for he always felt closest to God while staring at death: his heart pounding, his nerves tingling, his muscles taut, his vision sharpened to a hawk’s, and all the while praying that God might grant him tomorrow’s sunrise. Danger slowed the world around a warrior, so that when he charged, he flew with ungodly speed toward the enemy and fought with a brutality he possessed only on the battlefield.

Harold smiled. Truth be told, this moment was as terrifyingly mortal as it was holy, because he’d never found God in the thick smell of blood or the screams of the dying. Human fragility brought about a soldier’s end – a slip in the mud and the head left the shoulders – a decision to lunge … and an unnoticed spear exited one’s back.

King Harold took a final breath and opened his eyes, assessing the fluid situation across the River Derwent. A number of King Harald Sigurdsson’s Vikings, who’d been caught unawares by the English army’s arrival now scurried across the bridge to reconnoiter with their brothers on the safer side. Scouts had informed Harold that more of the Viking king’s troops were rushing back from their ships, slowed down by the mail, shields and weapons they were carrying back to these ill-equipped soldiers. Harold felt ever-so-slightly sorry for them.The English needed to attack immediately because right now, only Stamford Bridge, with its medieval wooden planks laid across the original Roman stone pillars, stood between them and an exposed Norse enemy. The bridge was narrow, though. His foot soldiers would have to cross it two abreast.

King Harold glanced down either side of his cavalry line. Each of his husctarls held one of his White Dragon banners. They’d be lowered to signal the charge, in unison to protect the king’s identity, since an hour ago, Harold had braved the Norwegian camp to offer his brother peace. Certainly, Tostig had revealed Harold’s presence to the Viking King by now.

“I’m ready,” said Harold to the air around him. He nodded imperceptibly and the banners dropped, pointing toward the battlefield and releasing his foot soldiers to explode toward the bridge, crossing it with bloodcurdling screams and swinging swords.

Just to panic the Norsemen, Harold led his cavalry down the long slope toward the River Derwent. Although the river ran deep and fast, if they could pass through its waters, they’d ravage King Harald’s men before the remainder of their army returned from Riccall.

The strategy worked. While the cavalry threw spears at Harald’s shield wall, archers like Unwin released arrows that ripped through the un-mailed bodies of the Viking King’s army.

The ferocious hand-to-hand battle felled many Norse soldiers, like trees logged into the river. Bubbles of blood rose to the surface, swirling in circles until the bodies drifted downwards. It seemed secure that the battle would be brief – until the stuff of legends appeared.

From behind the Norse phalanx on the other side of the river emerged a gigantic Viking berserker – dressed in bear pelts and swinging his huge double-handed axe from side to side, his sword sheathed at his massive waist. He foamed at the mouth like an animal before pausing to take a bite from his leather shield, hardly chewing it before swallowing. English soldiers later claimed they’d seen him transform from man to beast before their eyes as he growled and made guttural, non-sensical noises. The English army stared in horror to see him stride onto the Stamford Bridge. He blocked out the very light of the sun, they said.

Regardless, Harold’s foot soldiers neither faltered, nor hesitated, for the berserker had to be killed. Two at a time, they threw themselves at him, their weapons swinging, only to be whacked in half by his sword, dropping like broken dolls off the sides of the bridge into the river and onto the growing pile of bodies.

Unwin watched the berserker’s domination from the rear. He threw down his bow, grabbed his spear and ran toward a small tub moored on the riverbanks. In the mess of battle, no one noticed him navigating his way through the water, pushing off dead bodies until he was stationed beneath the loosened wooden planks of the bridge. The giant had slaughtered at least forty English troops, and Unwin was determined to end it there. Wedging his tub between one of the old Roman stone pillars and several bodies, he peered up through the bridge’s cracks, tracking the berserker’s movements. The moment the giant stood directly above him, Unwin heaved his spear upwards through a crack, screaming with all his strength to skewer the Viking’s stomach from the bottom, not stopping until he’d popped his heart with the tip of his spear. The animal/man shrieked and looked around for his phantom attacker as blood began to pour from his body. He bent over, his large eyeball looking directly at Unwin, who watched his huge forearms unsheathe his sword. He was aiming it through a crack, at Unwin’s head. Rolling out of the tub and into the river in the nick of time to avoid a split skull, Unwin looked back as soon as he thought it was safe. 

The berserker hadn’t brought down his sword, after all. He must have hesitated and now was gazing blindly up at the sky. Then he lost consciousness and collapsed into a heap, blood spurting from his slowing heart. The bridge swayed wildly under his weight, tossing his body into the river where it landed on top of Unwin, pinning him underwater. He held his breath for an interminable time, groping for a path toward air, until he wiggled out from underneath the Norseman’s gargantuan carcass. By the time Unwin had dragged himself, gasping, from the River Derwent, the English were surging across the bridge again, cheering loudly. Thousands of soldiers were engaging in hand-to-hand combat, swords swinging and battle-axes smashing. The sound was deafening, but the Norse shield line was being broken.

The King of Norway, seeing his secret weapon dead in the river, and his men fighting at a deadly disadvantage, frantically attempted to rally them. He picked up one of his “Land-Waster” standards, its black raven menacing against a white background and waved it wildly, urging his men to counterattack. In so doing, Unwin realized he had a clean line of sight to the king from where he lay on the riverbank. Dragging himself to an abandoned bow and quiver with two arrows, he rapidly nocked one onto the string.

“I will not miss,” he vowed.

He released the arrow and watched it fly across the battlefield. He’d missed. Gritting his teeth, he nocked the other arrow, taking a split second longer to aim. This time his arrow snapped into its target, burying itself into the Viking King’s neck and buckling his knees before he lay on the ground trying to suck his last few breaths through a crushed trachea.

With their leader dead, the Norsemen fought uncomfortably. Tostig scooped up the Raven Standard to take command, but few had the confidence to follow Tostig. The Vikings were lost until Harald’s second-in-command, Eystein Orri, arrived with the men who’d run the twelve miles from their ships at Riccall while wearing mail and carrying shields and weapons. They joined the battle, but their exhaustion made them easy marks for the English, and they fell quickly, including Orri, the first of them to be hacked into pieces. As the sunset neared, some of the Norsemen tried to retreat. Most were cut down before they could escape. Tostig fought on, valiantly for him, until he and his huscarls were swarmed and killed where they stood.

The English army cheered their decisive victory.

“Huzzah to the mighty King Harold!”

But Harold regretted not witnessing his brother’s death, so as darkness fell, he lit a torch and searched among the nearly 7000 corpses until finding Tostig’s mutilated body. Kneeling to say a prayer, he removed a ring from Tostig’s finger.

“He fell here,” Harold informed his men, “and you can retrieve the body tomorrow. We’ll carry it back and bury him at Westmynster. He should have accepted my offer for peace. Now help me find King Harald Sigurdsson.”

The robust older Norwegian wasn’t difficult to find. Harold stood over him, staring. He’d admired the brave, smart and just king, for years. Harold had a feeling he was looking at the last Viking King the world would admire. He closed the man’s eyes and placed stones on them.

“Leave him here for his men to take home. His son needs to bury his father.”

Then King Harold left the battlefield for York. The war was over, he’d squashed the insurrection and tonight he’d enjoy the exhilaration of achieving the impossible – his army had obliterated King Harald’s Vikings, and that, after the brutal march from London to York. The age of the Vikings was finally over.

King Harold made a point of granting mercy to Harald’s fallen army. Not many remained – only enough to sail home twenty-four of the original three hundred ships.

“You may go in peace,” declared Harold, “but you are leaving England forever, never to return.” They nodded, grateful to return home.

Harold was ambitious. He knew it. England knew it. But in his heart lay the desire to be respected in peace as well as in war. He believed he’d clearly achieved that at Stamford Bridge. Surely, he could now rightfully demand unquestioned fealty from his subjects, even those who’d originally doubted his claim to the throne, and he believed that he’d earned a place as one of the greatest kings in English history. 

He rested among his men for a few days, and then honored them with a victory banquet for their efforts. England was secure.

But in the midst of their rowdy festivities, a courier arrived seeking the king, and bearing a history-altering message.

King Harold shook his head.

“You’re certain?” he asked the messenger.

“I’m certain,” the messenger answered.

“You may go.”

The King of England buried his head in his arms.

Against all odds, Duke William and his Norman army had landed on English shores.

Life is but a stage, says Will

My girlfriend told me a great joke: A lady was asked if she’d ever read Shakespeare, to which she snorted, “Yes, but it was just a bunch of cliches!”

In her less-than-enriched world.

As we know, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Twelfth Night

Some never learn that, “The better part of valor is discretion.” Henry IV

For, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Hamlet

“Truly, what fools these mortals be!” A Midsummer Night’s Dream

And, specifically for our lady …
“Get thee to a nunnery!” Hamlet

April 23rd is William Shakespeare’s birthday. He’s around 456 years old. This date comprises one of the cosmic clumps in my life, for April 23rd is also the birthday of our youngest grandchild, James, who is turning seven; plus, it’s the birthdate of a dear friend’s husband, as well as the date of his passing. There’s great significance to this last coincidence, for Dr. Roger Gross was a renowned professional Shakespearean scholar, director, actor, composer and playwright. Dr. Gross taught Shakespeare and playwriting at the University of Arkansas and wrote a marvelous book entitled, “Shakespeare’s Verse,” which scrutinizes and explains with masterful authority how properly to scan Shakespeare’s writing.

I’m currently rereading Macbeth. I guess I just can’t get enough of those witches, which, incidentally, originally were played by men.

The main reason I’m taking on this darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies is that Malcolm III figures prominently in the play. Yes, that Malcolm, the husband of Queen Margaret of England, about whom I’m writing my trilogy. I’m half-through Book Two’s manuscript, which centers on the Norman Conquest. Book Three is all about Malcolm and Margaret.

In Macbeth, Malcolm and Macduff rise up to defeat King Macbeth, with Shakespeare giving Macduff the honors of beheading Macbeth. This is most likely dramatic license, or else post-Shakespeare scholarship has simply decided differently. You’ll want to hang with me through Book Three to find out. In the meantime, for me to read Shakespeare’s character of Malcolm, while continuing to research the historic Malcolm, is another cosmic clump, which makes my life fuller and more meaningful. And it’s so cool.

“To thine own self be true.” Hamlet

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare, Roger Gross and James Bowman!

A Blond Moment at Dunfermline Castle

By now, most of you have seen some photos of our trip to Scotland and the visit to Castle Dunfermline. It was inspirational for me, since I’m writing about Queen Margaret and King Malcolm III.

Now I’m going to let you view an “outtake” from the excursion. My excuse for what you’re about to watch is that I’d recently had leg surgery and was still gimpy. Those of you who know me personally may insist that no, this is just typical Lisa, although I can’t imagine why.

Our friend Colin Hewitt (see my last post) and I went down inside the ruins to the kitchen area. I don’t know how the servants got up and down the steep and very narrow winding stairway. My right leg was having none of it, so I wound up crawling. What I didn’t know, was that Chuck was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. No problem. I think I salvaged my dignity.

My Favorite Things

These are a few of the books I referenced at home in writing “As a Deer Yearns for Running Streams,” about the eleventh-century Queen Margaret of Scotland. I also scoured ten or so more books during our stay near the the Scotland National Library in Edinburgh, and took copious notes from more than thirty at San Marino’s Huntington Library. Research is truly one of my favorite things: it’s falling down the rabbit hole; searching for Easter eggs; holding the golden ticket for Willy Wonka’s factory. It’s weirdly exhilarating !

If you enjoy historical novels or know someone who does, may I suggest this book as a Christmas present? It’s full of history, as seen through the eyes of many of those who lived it. Queen (and Saint) Margaret was a beautiful, kind and conflicted woman. “As a Deer Yearns for Running Streams” is Book One in a trilogy. Book Two is well underway on my computer, and, surprise – there’s even a prequel in the works! This is a project from my heart. I hope it will touch yours.

Buy on Amazon:


As a Deer Yearns … the Story of Queen Margaret of Scotland is coming.

Tile by Mary Philpott

You may remember seeing this tile crafted by Mary Philpott on this blog. Scroll down to earlier posts to read the story about how I “met” Mary online and asked to use this tile for the cover of my historical novel, which is entitled, “As a Deer Yearns for Running Streams, The Story of Queen Margaret of Scotland,” and will be out in about five days, as an eBook and soft bound.

This novel is one in a series of three about a fascinating 11th-century queen and saint who conquered personal loss, survived the Norman Conquest and became a beloved queen. Researching her for nine months, both in Scotland and at the Huntington Library in Southern California was an exciting adventure for me.

Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing some images from our 2018 trip to Scotland. I managed to book a hotel right across the street from the National Library of Scotland.

I hadn’t been in Scotland since I was 25. (I’m older than that now.)

I love Scotland and Chuck and I had a great time there. We traveled to Dunfermline, where Malcolm III and Margaret lived. I can’t wait to show you the photos from there.

I’d love to share Margaret’s story with you. You should be able to preorder the book now on Amazon, at least the eBook. The bound version will be showing in a few days. Amazon looks favorably on preordering, so if you feel so moved, please do. Here’s the cover:

Crown Jewels, Jewels, Jewels

Heavy the head that wears the crown. Well, actually, the quote is, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Shakespeare wrote it for “Henry the Fourth, Part Two,” and he’s referring to uneasy sleep when you carry heavy responsibilities. Still, any way you slice it, crowns are heavy. Can you imagine trying to nod your head while balancing this on it?

St. Edward’s Crown

But there’s something very special about this particular crown: it holds the oldest jewel in England’s crown jewel collection. Nope, it’s not the large jewel in the center of the crown. It’s the one at the very top and it dates back to the eleventh century. This sapphire once belonged to King Edward the Confessor, who is responsible for beautiful Westminster Cathedral. His death in 1066 precipitated the Norman Conquest, which changed history.

Edward, who despite his renowned piety, left something to be desired as a king, wore the sapphire in a ring. The legend goes that one day he came across a poor beggar and discovered he had nothing to give him, so he removed the ring from his finger and handed it to the beggar. Several years later, two men returned the ring to him, saying that St. John the Baptist had appeared to them. The biblical John had told them that one day, he had approached King Edward disguised as a beggar and that the king had given him the ring. Because of his generosity to the poor, the king would be blessed forever.

The stunning sapphire has been recut since the eleventh century, but it truly is a crowning jewel in England’s rich history. And now you know, if you didn’t before.

Are you biphasic?

You just might be and you don’t even know it.

But don’t worry, no one can tell just by looking at you.

Find out if you’re biphasic:
1. Do you take a nap during the day?
2. Do you sleep for awhile at night, wake up and do some things and then go back to bed?
3. Did you live at any time in human history before about 1925? (!)

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are biphasic, meaning you sleep twice during a 24-hour period. In fact, from the dawn of mankind, until electricity became common (by 1925 half of American homes had it), many, if not most, people went to bed around dusk for their “First Sleep,” awakening around midnight. Then they might play a game, stoke the fire, meditate, do a few chores, have sex, or steal some fruit off a neighbor’s tree. After about an hour, they’d go back to bed for what was called “Second Sleep,” until the sun came up.

A Demon Tempting a Sleeping Monk

Of course, Medieval monks had to be biphasic, rising around 2:00 a.m. during winter for Matins (one of the divine offices as set by St. Benedict), after which they might or might not go back to sleep for a while longer. The above picture depicts a demon suggesting to an eleventh-century monk, Raoul Glaber, that he stay asleep, rather than dragging himself to pray the Psalms in the middle of the night. “I wonder why you are so eager,” the demon would say, “to jump so quickly out of bed, as soon as you’ve heard the signal, and to interrupt the sweet rest of sleep, while you could give yourself up to rest until the third signal.”

The wealthier the Medieval individual, though, the later they tended to go to bed and the more likely they were to take their sleep in more or less a single block, say, going to bed at midnight and awakening briefly early in the morning and then going back to sleep until the sun was fully up. In fact, it was something of a status symbol if one was able to sleep all night without waking up.

Interestingly, it was recommended that children sleep through the night, getting nine or ten solid, consecutive hours. I’m thinking that was more for the parents than the children.

Unfortunately, biphasic sleeping didn’t eliminate sleep disturbances like insomnia or sleep-walking. Nor did it quiet the neighbors’ barking dog. Furthermore, studies show that people who sleep for a single block of time live longer. Einstein slept ten or more hours a night, so I guess it also makes you smarter.

Sorry, sometimes I simply need that nap.

– Lisa Di Vita

Serendipity or Destiny? Here’s how I met Mary Philpott.

This will be the image on the cover of "As the Deer Yearns" Queen Margaret of Scotland. It is a tile created by the magical artist, Mary Philpott.
Courtesy of

This image, “Medieval Bestiary Deer: Deer in a Rowan Bower,” is a tile created by artist Mary Philpott. It will grace the cover of the first book in my trilogy about Queen Margaret of Scotland. I couldn’t be happier with this magical deer, or more amazed that I found it. Generally, the internet seems as destructive as it is interesting, but occasionally it connects people who would never meet but for electronic surfing. That’s how I found Mary. I don’t remember exactly what I clicked on that brought up her work, but what I saw made me stare at the screen in joy. It felt like destiny.

Garden of Poppies by Mary Philpott.

I clicked my way to Verdant Tile Co. (, Mary’s company, and discovered the extent of her talent. These hand pressed porcelain tiles are contemporary, yet feel historical. She’s got a Medieval soul, for sure. I’ve already chosen two other tiles for the 2nd and 3rd books in the trilogy, but you’ll have to wait a while to see them, (just for the suspense). Mary’s been most gracious and generous, and as it turns out, she has numerous facets to her art, personality and lifestyle. I had to share her with you, so here goes:

Mary Philpott lives out in the countryside in Uxbridge, Ontario, surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest, “part of which we are stewards of and maintain paths, keep bees and report to the government on wildlife.”

Mary attended the University of Guelph to study Art History and Archeology. Her goal was studio art, but she fell in love with history, especially the Medieval era. After studying Anthropological Archeology, she enrolled in Sheridan College School of Craft and Design for textile design. Once she discovered clay, she’d found her calling.

Mary Philpott is an internationally exhibited artist.
She is a Master member of the Roycraft Renaissance Artisans.

I asked her some questions about her work. Her palette is unabashedly rich, and she described much of her inspiration as from Provence, France.

Mary: “I think the clouds of Provence are found in the textiles of the region. They are that sunny, deep ochre type yellow that the sun shines through. My yellow is like that and (also) like the honey I find, and the green is that deep, rich emerald type green. The blue is also found in (Provence) textiles. The colours are also similar to the early 1900s Majolica ware found in France, Italy and Portugal.”

Fox and Hare, by Mary Philpott.
Courtesy of

More recently, Mary has discovered a love of sculptural ceramics, and I think her delightful forest animals vibrate with character! She says she’s always loved animals. I think she sees them in a unique way.

Says Mary, “Although I am Agnostic, I feel like there is an Earth Spirit who inhabits the trees and the animals that is very special, and holds so much meaning for me and for the world. In this way I find myself drawn to Celtic Mythology and the earth spirits like Cernunnos.”
(Cernunnos is a Celtic god associated with animals – Lisa)
Image courtesy of

Thank you, Mary, for letting me share the wonderfulness that is you!