The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson

The Black Caravel by Harry Nicholson is his second novel about Tom Fleck: a Novel of Cleveland and Flodden, which I reviewed in 2011.


This story follows the struggles of a farm labourer in North-East England. The series began with the novel, ‘˜Tom Fleck’, in which we followed Tom’s adventures, loves, and troubles in the year 1513, the year of the Battle of Flodden. The present book re-enters his life twenty-three years later in 1536, in the dark year of the dissolution of the monasteries and the subsequent rebellion known as ‘˜The Pilgrimage of Grace’. Tom is on a journey with his wife and blind daughter and must travel through the chaos.

My view:

Once again I was transported back to the 16th century with Tom Fleck and his family, this time it is 1536. He now has grown-up sons, Francis and Isaac, both at sea, part of the crew of the Plenty under Captain Ben Hood, a daughter of seventeen, Kate, who is blind and twins aged 15. Tom is now a farmer, living for the past twenty years at Crimond Hall on the Durham coast. As Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries begins Tom and Rachel, his wife, together with their daughter Kate set out for London to visit a lawyer as Rachel has been bequeathed five hundred gold sovereigns in her father’s friend’s will.

As the blurb indicates their journey is not without danger, bringing them into contact with the rebels led by Robert Aske (a real historical character who led the Pilgrimage of Grace protest). Tom’s sons, Francis and Isaac are also in trouble as the Plenty runs aground on the Goodwin Sands in the Dover Straits, encounters a ‘plague ship’, a grounded Portuguese caravel with just one man and a dog left on on board, and engages battle with Barbary pirates from North Africa.

The Black Caravel is a fascinating story about ordinary people set against the background of national affairs and how it affects their lives, for example one character refers to ‘poor Anne Boleyn what’s got no head‘ and he thinks that Richard of York was the true King, not Henry VIII. I was immersed in the time and place – the landscape, the bird sounds, the plants and animals, the towns and the seascape are all beautifully described; for example this passage describing the scene as the fog over the Goodwins lifted:

The fog shifted. Then swirled. Driven before a freshening breeze the murk swept away to the northeast. The shore boat approached the grounded Plenty in bright noon sun. In the shallows around her, the sea was a burnished duck-egg green. Farther out, the surface glowed steel-bright and sparkled with a million ripples. The drying sandbanks threw back white light, fierce to the eyes.

An urgent shout came from the Plenty. The rowers bent harder. A hoard of dark shapes undulated across the sandbank. The seals bugled in alarm while they jostled to plunge into the sea. A flock of pied birds lifted in panic before the approach of men who ran full tilt armed with crossbows and spears. The oystercatchers flew overhead, bleating. Urgent hands reached over the side to heave the heavy captain onto the deck of the cog.(page 59)

There is so much packed in this short novel, reflecting the way of life and the attitudes of the times such as the religious fervour as England broke away from Rome, the ways of treating illness (Kate is blind as a result of a blow to her head) and the anti-semitism that prevailed. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

My thanks to Harry Nicholson for sending me a copy to read and review.

  • Paperback: 188 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (30 Aug. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1535378085
  • ISBN-13: 978-1535378086
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Tom Fleck: a Novel of Cleveland and Flodden by Harry Nicholson

I don’t often get offered books for review that really appeal to me, but recently I have had two – one was Dorte Jakobsen’s The Cosy Knave, which I wrote about earlier and the second is Tom Fleck by Harry Nicholson.

When Harry emailed me to ask if I would review his book I knew I couldn’t refuse – a book set in the 16th century and about the Battle of Flodden Field. Now, I love history and historical fiction. Flodden Hill, where the battle took place in 1513 is just down the road from me and it’s a place that fascinates me.  I replied saying that I’d like to read it but it could be some time before I did as I have so many other books queued up to read. But as I opened it and started reading it I just had to carry on!

Harry Nicholson is a really good storyteller and as I read I was transported back to the 16th century. His book is well-researched, but the detail never reads like a text book or intrudes. He consulted many sources, including primary and secondary sources such as wills, inventories and parish registers, printed journals and historical and archaeological society papers as well as studying military costumes and weapons at the national museum of arms and armour at Leeds.

From the Back Cover

The year: 1513. The place: North-East England. Tom Fleck, a downtrodden farm worker but gifted archer, yearns to escape his masters. He unearths two objects that could be keys to freedom: a torque of ancient gold and a Tudor seal ring. He cannot know how these finds will determine his future. Rachel Coronel craves an end to her Jewish wanderings. When the torque comes to rest around the neck of this mysterious woman, an odyssey begins which draws Tom Fleck into borderlands of belief and race. The seal ring propels Tom on a journey of self-knowledge that can only climax in another borderland – among the flowers and banners of Flodden Field.


The story is about Tom, a young farm worker on the Warren Manor Estate in Cleveland. He longs to escape and farm his own land. So when Mark, the Lord of the Manor’s son orders him to go north with the militia from the manor to fight against the Scots on the border, he takes matters into his own hands and leaves home to join forces with drovers from Durham.  The drovers and Tom get caught up in the preparations for war and as Tom is a gifted archer he is pressed into joining the English forces in fighting against the Scots under James IV at Flodden Field.

It is also a love story, as Tom and Rachel fall in love, but then there is his sweetheart, Mary who he left behind at home. Who will he choose, if indeed, he should survive the battle? Generally I’m not keen on reading battle scenes but Harry dealt with this very well and actually I think it’s one of the best accounts of the Battle of Flodden that I’ve read.

All in all, this is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of ordinary people and the aristocracy in the 16th century, caught up in war.  It highlights differences in their lives and in their deaths – the rich received honours and church burials, whereas the rest were simply bundled together in pits in the field:

‘That’s the way of it, Tom – that’s the way of it; no stone lions at our feet, nor a brass plate to cover us. There’ll be nowt apart from green rushes to mark our spot.’ (page 230)

More information on Tom Fleck is on Harry’s website where you can read Chapter 1.  And for more details of the battle, including the routes the armies took and a tour of the battlefield see The Remembering Flodden Project.

  • Paperback: 266 pages
  • Publisher: (11 Jan 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1908147768
  • ISBN-13: 978-1908147769
  • Source: review copy from the author