William Napier on the pivotal battle of Lepanto, featured in his latest novel Blood Red Sea

Richard Lee

Unknown-120RL: Tell us about your heroes Nicholas and Hodge. How did you decide on these two very English heroes to fight against the Ottoman threat?

WN: I wanted English heroes because, er, I’m English! Shameless nationalism. In fact there were very few Englishmen at this most heroic of sieges, mainly because the Knights of St John had been abolished in England by then, but a few went into exile – like Smith and Stanley. Nicholas and Hodge are of course “gentlemen adventurers”, and it is at least plausible that Nicholas’s father, old Sir John, could have been a Knight himself.

RL: We first meet the protagonists at The Great Siege. Without undue spoilers, what happens there?

WN: They team up with around six hundred Knights, facing an Ottoman army of some 30-40,000. And the result was, shall we say, unexpected.

RL: How likely do you think it was that Christendom would fall in the late 16th Century? Should the battle of Lepanto (1571) be as well known to us as the defeat of the Armada (1588)?

WN: It was a real danger, and YES! Arguably Lepanto even more significant than the Armada. Virtual History is always a guessing game – but if the Turks had won at Malta, and then wiped out Christendom’s navy as well at Lepanto, six years later, you can be absolutely sure things would have been different. The Ottoman Empire was still powerful, expansionist – Imperialist, if you like, and ahead of the European powers in many ways. They might easily have taken Western Europe, as they took eastern Europe, and then the consequences, for Africa, for the New World, are far-reaching indeed …

Unknown-121RL: Crusaders get rather a bad press these days. What do you find to admire about the Hospitallers?

WN: Men of their time, saw nothing wrong with slaughtering Muslims for Jesus. Not very fashionable concept nowadays, it’s true. But then again it’s absolutely accurate, not biased or partisan, to see the Crusades as technically Counter-Crusades. Islam was every bit as militant as Christianity and conquered many of the old Christian lands – Syria, Palestine, Egypt, even Sicily and Spain – long before the concept of Holy War ever dawned on the West. This salient fact is very brushed over by the “BBC school of History.” Nowadays one needn’t take sides, but you can always admire heroism, loyalty and comradeship in battle, and Malta and Lepanto had those in abundance.

RL: Do you think it was religious zeal that drove the Ottomans westward?

WN: Zeal and … money! They make a great pair. Ditto the Spanish in the New World. It’s always nice if you can get rich AND have God on your side.

RL: You earlier wrote about Atilla. Are you particularly drawn to East-West threats?

WN: Subconsciously I think it’s there. But also, Europe under attack, threatened, is heroic, whereas Europe on the rampage, colonizing in its turn, is harder to like.

Unknown-122RL: You also write as a reviewer and critic. What do you particularly look for or admire in other people’s writing?

WN: All the usual things really: character, plot, decent but unshowy prose, perhaps some startling new way of seeing. The greatest sin is being boring. (Still can’t get through Henry James.)

RL: Are you working on another historical novel now?

WN: Certainly am. My four heroes end up caught between Turkey and the new power rising – Russia. I found out to my delight that Ivan the Terrible actually sent a marriage proposal to Elizabeth I. She declined, obviously. He was livid. (Can you imagine what their offspring would have been like? Terrifying. Red-haired toddlers from hell.) At the same, time, the Turks and their nomadic steppe allies the Tatars were plotting to erase this threatening new Christian power to the north – but did the West really want to team up with someone like Ivan? It’s a great story, and little known.

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