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.

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