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 ...