Baltic Crusader by AAG Whitehead is a fast-paced work of historical fiction based on medieval Europe. I have always had an interest in the Teutonic Knights after spending an enjoyable week touring around their castles in modern-day Latvia and Estonia. I also have Teutonic wargame armies in 15mm and 28mm. So, a fictional romp around this conflict looked attractive from an author I hadn't read before.
The Hero is Eorle Wulfstan, squire to the Balliol’s of Castle Barnard in Yorkshire. The somewhat dissolute eldest son is joining the crusades in the Baltic. Our hero sleeps with his wife before they leave and when he dies in an ambush en-route, takes over his identity and command of a company of crusaders. If you are thinking a bit far-fetched for historical fiction, you would probably be right. However, it is fiction so let us just suspend credibility for a while.
After fighting in the Baltic, our hero’s company sorties to Transylvania, Bulgaria, Saxony, France, back to Yorkshire to sort out the Scots, and finally the Mongols in Hungary. If you think this sounds more like a modern parachute regiment than a medieval mercenary company, you would be right!
The best historical fiction keeps relatively close to the actual history, adding in new characters and obviously dialogue. The characters are larger than life, and their achievements may stretch credibility. It does involve some historical research, and while the author emphasises that he isn’t a historian, I’m afraid the book also falls down somewhat here.
There are very few dates given in the book, other than at the start we are told it is the 1200’s. Some of the events our hero participates in do have dates. The Mongol invasion of Central Europe was in 1241, and this is when our hero meets his end. So, we assume that the book is based in the early years of the century.
Our hero wields a longbow and commands a company, initially recruited in north-east England that is also armed with the longbow. The problem here is that the longbow was introduced in English armies by Edward I after the Welsh wars in 1276. Before that, the longbow was a Welsh weapon.
English troops ‘holidaying’ on crusade in the Baltic during the winter months did happen, so the basis for our hero’s trip is sound. However, there was no expectation that they would become Brother knights, this was just a useful source of additional manpower. The reference to the building of Marienburg Castle is more than a bit presumptuous. The castle wasn’t even started until 1274 after the Order gained control of the area – long after our hero dies.
He was sent ahead of the Teutonic Knights to defend Hungary against the Cumans, which actually happened in 1211 and King Andrew II expelled the Order in 1225. The Cumans were allied to the Bulgars (some of the time), but they are not the same people, something you might suppose from the book.
An important character in the book is Ivan Asen II of Bulgaria. He was in Russia until 1218, when he came back to seize the throne. There is some weak evidence that Ivan was tutored by the Cumans before going to Russia after Kalojan’s death in 1207, but leading Cumans invading Hungary in 1211 is pretty unlikely. The wedding between Ivan and King Andrew’s daughter, which our hero was escorting, occurred in early 2021. The Battle of Klokotnica was in 1230, again not quite matching the author’s timeline.
I could go on, but you get the drift. A bit of historical licence is fine with a work of fiction, but I'm afraid I found myself getting irritated in most chapters. Any one of these actual historical events would be a good setting for a book. There is just no need to try and link them together.
In summary, if a breathless romp around Europe, and I don't just mean the slightly cringe-worthy sex scenes, is your thing, then this book is harmless enough. Just not for me.