Sunday, 17 August 2014

THE BEST KIND OF PRAISE

     'A gripping read', 'well-written and extensively researched', 'a fast-moving, Tudor crime story', 'wonderfully well-rounded characters', 'D.K. Wilson is a master of intrigue and suspense', 'historical crime at its best', 'unputdownable would be an understatement'. To judge by the early reviews, The First Horseman will give fans of historical fiction a great deal of pleasure. A writer can't ask for more and I'm very grateful to those who send in reviews or contact me direct to express their appreciation. Yet what gratifies me particularly is comments such as the book, 'illustrates clearly what a different world the past was'. I can only really feel I've done my job properly if readers find my writing authentic; if their response is, 'Yes, that's what it must have been like.'
     For a long time I wanted to write about the year 1536-7 because it was such a crucial year in the reign of Henry VIII - a real turning point. The king had de-poped the English church and begun the process of grabbing for himself much of its landed wealth (the biggest nationalisation in our history). More than that, the regime gave encouragement to scholars, preachers and pamphleteers who challenged some of the basic religious teaching that people had believed for generations. And 'believed' is the operative word, for what marks the Tudor age from our own is that virtually everyone was 'religious'. The social, intellectual and spiritual upheaval profoundly affected people at all levels of society. It dismayed those who clung to the status quo but, at the same time, thrilled others, who were hungry for change. That was why the northern half of the country rose in the most widespread rebellion England had ever seen. It was why bonfires and gallows throughout the land were well supplied with victims. And it was why, on a foggy November morning, a London merchant really was shot and killed in Cheapside.
     That's the point from which the tale of The First Horseman (published in paperback on 28 August and now available in ebook format) takes off. What follows is certainly a whodunit. It propels its main characters on a journey of investigation, revenge, danger and divided loyalties. But above all - I hope - it conveys something of the insecurity of an England turning its back on its past but unsure where its future lies.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

ANNE OF CLEVES

THE PRICE OF SURVIVAL


      The list of those who seriously annoyed Henry VIII and lived to tell the tale would not fill a very tall page. Close to the top would be the name of Anne of Cleves. A mere four years after the execution of that other Anne whom the king disposed of, he found it necessary to wriggle out of his marriage with wife number four. Though distressed, Anne was clever enough to put up no resistance. As a result she was allowed to enjoy an honourable and comfortable retirement from public life.

     But there was a price to be paid: the king's 'good sister' had to live the rest of her days as a prisoner in England. She was forbidden to leave the country or to have any direct contact with her family in the Rhineland duchy of Cleves. Any correspondence had to pass through official censors. Why were such stringent conditions placed on Anne's keeping her head in its accustomed place? What state secrets might she have blabbed if she had been allowed to return to her native land? The answer, I believe, lies not in politics, but in sex (insofar as the two can be separated in royal biographies).
     Henry VIII was not the virulent stud of legend (a legend he was at pains to promote). By 16th century royal standards his womanising was modest (The Emperor Charles V had at least four illegitimate children and several mistresses). Certainly, by 1540, when he entered his fiftieth year, he was an overweight, semi-invalid man with a very limited sex drive, if not actually impotent. It was a truth he refused to face himself and one he concealed from everyone else. Everyone, that is, except his wife. When Henry failed to consummate the marriage he, inevitably, blamed Anne. She was unattractive and she smelled! It was Henry's complaints about her appearance that laid the foundation of the myth Gilbert Burnett embellished a century and a half later when he dubbed Anne, the 'Flanders Mare'. Ravishing beauty she was not but nor was she physically repulsive. The poisonous Lady Rochford and her cronies, seeing which way the wind was blowing, tried to lend support to the king's version of events by putting it about that Anne was so naive that she did not know the facts of life. Unfortunately that canard ran counter to Henry's insistence that, having examined his bedfellow's body, he doubted her virginity!
     Henry's problem was that he could not perform his husbandly role without considerable sexual stimulus (if then) - the sort of encouragement provided by the flighty Catherine Howard, currently being dangled before his lascivious eyes. Such arts were certainly beyond the modest German princess who had been brought up in a very 'proper' home. Thomas Cromwell tried to suggest to her some tricks of the bawdy-house, but to no effect. The end result was that Henry faced the prospect of a long, joyless marriage. Now it was up to his archbishop and his ministers to get him out of the mess, which they obediently did, leaving him to pursue a younger and more vivacious woman.
     Things were not quite so simple for Anne. She had to endure permanent homesickness and learn to live in a land of strangers. Her story could never be told. For why? She knew too much.
WMDs - Sixteenth Century Style
THE AWESOME SECRET WEAPON

     426 years ago, as July turned into August, Philip II's great battle fleet (armada in Spanish) reached the 'narrows' between France and England. On 7 August (according to the Gregorian calendar newly-adopted in Spain) admiral Medina Sidonia led his 183 ships into Calais Roads, the only suitable anchorage on that stretch of coast, where he planned to take on board an invasion force gathered in the Spanish Netherlands. Everything was going remarkably well. He had kept his fleet together, despite harassment by the English navy. But now two pieces of bad news reached him. The first was that the promised army was not ready to embark. The second was that, after nightfall, flaming vessels were seen approaching from the direction of the English fleet. Fireships? Or could they be hellburners? If they were the diabolical 'man-made volcanoes' Philip's entire grand Armada would be reduced to splinters and dismembered bodies.
     Fear of the hellburners had escalated since their first use three short years before by Dutch defenders during the Spanish siege of Antwerp. They were the brainchild of Mantuan engineer Federigo Giambelli, currently in the pay of Elizabeth I. As Philip's spies well knew, the Italian had many ideas for horrendous war machines that he was trying to sell the English government and the Antwerp experience had given ample proof of his devastating ingenuity.
     In 1584-5 the Spanish had built a long, strong bridge over the flooded plain surrounding Antwerp in order to gain final access to the city. What Giambelli designed for the defenders was two floating bombs. Each ship contained a long, stone-walled chamber, packed with gunpowder. Above was a cone, again of stone construction, filled with chunks of iron, marble, old ploughshares, pieces of chain - anything that would cut a swathe through the bridge's timber framework and any human flesh upon it. Ignition was by means of a long fuse in one ship and a clockwork device in the other. When the 'volcanoes' exploded they would spend their deadly contents over a vast area - no-one, not even Giambelli, knew how wide the circle of devastation would be.
     On the night of 5 April 1585, the two hellburners were set to drift with the tide. One went harmlessly aground. The other did not stop until it was nestled snugly against the bridge. Soldiers gathered to douse the fires which had been set to trick them into thinking that this was just another fireship. Then, it seemed the bowels of Hades had been opened  up. The largest man-made explosion the world had ever seen lit up the river and the land. The shock wave demolished the central section of the bridge, military block-houses and other buildings far from the river. Then the deadly debris rained down, battering, flattening, slicing and smashing everything and everyone on which it fell in a radius of more than eight kilometres. A thousand Spanish soldiers were slaughtered in an instant. Many bodies were never recovered. Scattered human remains could not be re-assembled. No wonder Medina Sidonia's sailors, three years later, scrambled about severing anchor cables and hoisting sail.
     In fact the English weapons were only fireships and Medina Sidonia's captains were able to manoeuvre out of their path with little mishap. It was much the same with Giambelli's weapon of mass destruction. Effective though it was, it only delayed the capture of Antwerp by four months, and the terror weapon was never deployed again. Ironically, it proved to be more effective against the Armada. Medina Sidonia's ships, many of them now anchorless, were unable to find another haven. They were forced to sail northwards before the wind.
     The rest is ...
     

Sunday, 20 July 2014

JULY (3) - POWERFUL WOMEN

     Next year the Church of England will appoint its first female bishop and Hilary Clinton will decide whether to try for the US presidency. We might think that such manifestations of female power were novel. Feminist campaigners and male chauvinists alike could be surprised to learn that 500 years ago women held most of the top jobs in Europe.
     We know, of course, that Henry VIII's two daughters consecutively ruled England throughout the second half of the 16th century. But, over the border, Scottish affairs were in the hands of female regents from 1513 to 1560. James IV died in 1513 and was succeeded by the infant James V. Until 1541 state affairs were, (though not uncontested) in the hands of his widow, Margaret Tudor. In 1542 history repeated itself when James V died, leaving only a baby daughter as his heir. His widow, Mary of Guise, held the regency until 1560. Only months before France had been plunged into mourning by the death of Henry II in a tiltyard accident. Once again it was the widow, Catherine de Medici, who took up the reins of government on behalf of her underage son, Francis II. She had the misfortune to see, not only Francis, but his two brothers die without heirs. Until 1588 Catherine exercised political power, which was particularly ironical, as the Salic Law, operative in France, specifically rejected female inheritance.
     However, more central to the affairs of Europe was the fate of the Hispano-Habsburgs. Isabella of Castile (1451-1504), by her marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon made Spain a major force in Europe and, by colonial expansion, the leading world power. Once again, fate refused the couple a surviving male heir and it was through the marriage of their daughter, Joanna the Mad, with the Habsburg prince who became Philip I of Spain, that considerable territories in the Netherlands and Burgundy were added to the empire ruled by Isabella's grandson, the Emperor Charles V. It was one thing to rule such extensive possessions but quite another to govern them. There were simply not enough Habsburg men to do the work. Effective control of the troublesome Netherlands was left to a remarkable series of female regents or governors: Margaret of Austria, Charles' aunt (1507-1530), Mary of Austria, Charles' sister (1531-1558), Margaret of Parma, Charles' half-sister (1559-1567).
     How different was the rule of all these women from that of their male relatives? Well, they could not strike a macho stance by leading their armies in battle (though Isabella and Elizabeth I both paraded in part armour before their troops). They preferred conciliation and diplomacy to force. Elizabeth, for example, long resisted the pressure to become champion of Protestant Europe. However, on matters of conviction they could be absolutely rigid. Isabella set up the Spanish Inquisition. Mary Tudor's name is associated with a fiery purge of Protestants. Catherine was complicit in the notorious St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, when thousands of Huguenots were killed.
     It is not possible, briefly,to offer a sensible analysis. What is clear is that, for purely pragmatic reasons, several capable women held sway in Europe at this time, against all the odds and, certainly, against the prevailing politico-religious conviction which agreed with John Knox that the 'regiment' (rule) of women was 'monstrous'.

Monday, 14 July 2014

JULY (2)

Quote of the month (2):

'An assassin [is one] that will slay men for money
at the instance of every man that will move him to it,
and such a man may lawfully be slain...by every private person.'
- Christopher St.German, A First Dialogue in English on 
Fundamental English Law and Conscience, 1531, II, xli

So wrote the leading legist in Henry VIII's London in a manual for students to describe a sinister new criminal phenomenon. His definition came home to fellow citizens five years later with an atrocity which shook the capital to its very foundations - Robert Packington, a respectable and respected member of the merchant community, was shot and killed in pre-dawn Cheapside. According to contemporary records, what really inflamed common fear and indignation was that the murder was committed 'with a handgun'. This was something horrible and unprecedented. It conjured  up the spectre of an escalation of violent crime. If there were desperate men in their midst who would kill for pay, who would be safe from his enemies?
   
Of course there had always been victims of vendettas but what was different about Packington's murder was that it was committed by a total stranger and 'with a handgun'. The only personal firearms available before the 1520s were military arquebuses. They were long, cumbersome weapons which required a glowing match to ignite the powder. But now an implement of death had been invented so diabolical that the Holy Roman Emperor had forbidden its manufacture and use throughout his extensive domain. This was the wheellock pistol which was fired by the striking of a spark from flint. It was small, could be operated by one hand, concealed beneath a cloak and, just as quickly, reconcealed. By using it a murderer could approach unnoticed, do the deed at several paces from his target and melt away in the crowd while passers-by were rushing to the aid of the victim. A new era in violent crime had dawned. No wonder the laws of England sanctioned the killing of an assassin 'by every private person'.
   
The murder of Robert Packington, a 'headline' event in the troubled year 1536, raises several questions: Who pulled the trigger? (The murderer was never brought to justice.) Who was the assassin's paymaster? What was the motive for this cowardly act? The First Horseman (published next month) offers some possible answers and exposes the tensions within English society in the 'Year of the Three Queens' and the 'Great Northern Rebellion'.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

JULY

Quote of the month:


'Facts are the mere dross of history'  -  Lord Macaulay

That comment by one of our great historians (Thomas Babington, Baron Macaulay - 1800-1859) might strike the casual reader as odd - but it's one that every writer of history needs to keep in the forefront of his/her mind. We are not in the business of simply accumulating and describing facts. Our prime responsibility is not recording the past but interpreting the past. This holds true for the historical novelist as well as the writer of historical non-fiction.

For example, my novel The First Horseman, which has its UK launch next month, starts with a well-documented fact. Before dawn on 15 November 1536, a leading London merchant, Robert Packington, was shot and killed in Cheapside. Anyone today presented with this scrap of information might be inclined to respond, 'So what?'  'Well,' I reply, 'it was the first recorded murder with a firearm in this country.'  'OK,' the sceptic may concede, 'so perhaps that makes it worthy of a footnote in the history of crime.'  'Yes,' I respond, 'but it happened at a time when England was in crisis. Two queens died that year, one of them under the headman's axe. The whole of the North was in arms against Henry VIII's religious policies. London trembled at rumours that the rebels were advancing on the capital. The king had taken refuge in Windsor Castle. He had sent out a ridiculous order that all priests were to relinquish whatever weapons they had, except for, "a knife to cut meat". Does that suggest a clerical conspiracy against Packington, a man who did not hide his dislike of the church establishment?'

One simple fact lifts up a blazing torch with whose aid we can peer into the shadows of mid-Tudor society. What we see or half see we must begin to interpret. We will then begin to gain some sense of what it felt like to live at a time of great upheaval in English society. And that's what I want to do - give readers a feel of what life was like when England was changing so fundamentally; to get beyond the facts to what really matters. The medium I chose, in this instance, was a whodunit, the investigation of a crime and the hunting down of a criminal. I hope readers who enjoy a good murder mystery will be intrigued by my imaginary story. But I'd also like to think that they'll gain a fuller, richer, deeper understanding of what life was like in Henry VIII's England.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

JUNE

Quote of the month:  
'Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn't'  
                                               -  Mark Twain

Because I write both novels and 'straight' history, Mark Twain's famous dictum about truth being stranger than fiction often comes to my mind. While I know what 'the father of American literature' meant, I do find myself taking issue with him. I'm using the summer months to get stuck into my next major project which is all about the roles played by women during the Reformation. After the publication of The First Horseman, my novel about 1536, the most critical year in Henry VIII's reign (Catherine of Aragon died, Anne Boleyn was beheaded; Henry came close to death; the north of England rose in revolt; etc.) comes out in August. That will involve me in a lot of publicity activity so I need to make a good start on Reformation Women before I'm inevitably distracted by signing and speaking activities.

The nuggets of truth I'm mining about women activists of the 16th C are remarkable. There are inspiring stories of courage, intellectual brilliance, defiance of male domination, profound humanity and toleration in an intolerant age that might appear OTT in a work of fiction. And yet, in the novel, although I have to keep within bounds set by actual events, I have scope for
imagination. I can try to impart what I believe it felt like to live in tempestuous Tudor England. My imaginary characters experience the trials, tribulations and triumphs many people must have experienced, though their stories have not been recorded.

Both fiction and non-fiction can be enthralling and exciting. At least, I hope so.