Sunday, 20 July 2014


     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 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


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.