Jesus was stabbed with it, Constantine, Charlemagne and Hitler owned it, Napoleon wanted it and General George S Patton returned it home after World War Two. With a history like that, it was never going to be long before somebody wove the story of the Spear of Longinus, or Spear of Christ, into a thrilling historical novel.
And that’s exactly what Barnet journalist, broadcaster and lecturer Robert Feather has done. A Clash of Steel marks his fiction debut and he’s certainly started off with a bang. The book incorporates each of the historical figures who have possessed the famous artefact into a present-day action thriller about a race to recover the spear from the terrorist organisation that has stolen it for sinister purposes.
Work on the book started a long time back, Robert remembers. He has written many non-fiction books on biblical and historical subjects and, as a chartered metallurgist, is interested in metal artefacts. “National Geographic were commissioned to do a documentary in 2003 on the Spear of Longinus,” he says, “so they sent me to Vienna where I was able to handle the spear. They brought it out under armed guard! I got to examine it under x-ray and microscope.
“At the beginning of 2010, they wanted to do another one. So I looked again at the Vienna spear, I recreated the tests I’d done with slightly different procedures and something quite staggering occurred. I saw a little image with some letters on one part of the spear that no-one had seen before, it was absolutely stunning. The image of a fish and two Roman letters, so tiny I had to magnify them 26 times.
“The original legend was that the central pin [in the spear head] was a nail from the crucifixion – it isn’t! But the little blobs of metal on it had a different metallic make-up. Most of the spear dates to the seventh or eighth centuries, it’s a composite piece, but those original blobs might just be parts of the original cross. I got a fair bit of adrenalin, holding it!” he laughs.
Robert started writing the novel two years ago and it is released by Copper Scroll this month. The core of the book is based on Robert’s experiences with the spear and the work he did for the documentaries, wrapped up in a fictional story from his “vivid imagination”.
“I had the idea that it was stolen from a lab in Vienna,” he explains, “and asked myself who would want it? I went back through all the well-known people who have held it and went back to Hitler. He got it in 1938 when he invaded Austria. One of the first things he did was to go to the Hapsburg Museum and take it out of its case. It’s got a dark story that anyone who has it is empowered and can’t be defeated in battle. He must have seen it as a child [in Vienna] and wanted it from early on.”
This connection with Hitler leads Robert’s metallurgist hero, the perfectly named Jonathan Steel, to a violent neo-Nazi group in Germany and leads him through France to the denouement in Iran and Israel.
“It’s beginning to sell quite well,” Robert says. “If it takes off, I’ll have to find Jonathan another artefact, I suppose!”
A Clash of Steel is out now from Copper Scroll. Details: www.robert-feather.com