21 August 2019

Special Guest Post by Author Judith Arnopp ~ Keeping perspective in A Song of Sixpence: The Story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck

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In the aftermath of the Battle of Bosworth, a small boy is ripped from his rightful place as future king of England. His Sister Elizabeth is married to the invading King, Henry Tudor. Years later, when the boy returns to claim is throne, Elizabeth is torn between love for her brother and duty to her husband. As the final struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is played out, Elizabeth is torn by conflicting loyalty, terror and unexpected love.

There is just something about the Tudors, whether it is the costumes, the politics, or the violence, they are never boring. There are so many avenues to follow, and new perspectives to take up. I am not mad-keen on revisionist history which is in danger of turning everyone into a saint but I am keen on looking on events from a new perspective. The thing that makes Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies great for me, is that instead of showing the Tudor world through the eyes of a victim, she shows it instead from the viewpoint of an abuser.

Usually Cromwell is depicted as a grim, self-serving monster, reaping, without compunction, the victims that come between him and his all-consuming ambition. Mantel’s genius is to consider how he came to be that way, and why.

There are no thoroughly evil people, even the hardest criminals among us justify our actions. Cromwell was doing a job, a dirty job that few others could have done. In the end he was consumed by his own ruthlessness, destroyed by his own laws. In the last screen of the BBC production of Wolf Hall, when he is embraced by the increasingly manic King Henry VIII, the realisation of his own eventual end is written clearly in Cromwell’s eyes. And, for the first time (possibly) in history, and in literature, we have empathy for him. That is the beauty of perspective, the joy of approaching a well-known subject in a fresh manner. It opens our eyes.

Tudor history, well, all history I suppose, is full of people yet to be treated in this way. Historical fiction is replete with stock figures, cardboard ‘monsters’ and plastic ‘saints.’ My hope is that Mantel has helped other writers of historical fiction to see the benefits of viewing these things afresh. I don’t mean white-washing, I mean trying to understand and perhaps empathise.

It is something I strive for in my own writing. There are negative characters, we need those for the sake of the plot, but I always try to provide a reason for their behaviour. No one is born ‘bad’; life experiences form our characters, and even the worst offenders among us never see their own actions as monstrous. When you study a character in depth, you will, in most instances, find possible motives or an event that altered their path.

There are few characters in my novel A Song of Sixpence who are traditionally treated negatively. Margaret Beaufort, for one, is usually an ageing, overly pious, sometimes neurotic termagant but there is nothing to suggest this in the historical record. She was very religious, most people were, but there is no suggestion that she was unhinged. Devoted to her son Henry, she worked tirelessly and determinedly to restore his rightful inheritance. It wasn’t until much later that she schemed to put him on the throne. There is nothing wrong with that, she should be praised for it. I am sure we’d all fight tooth and nail for our children.

When it comes to her relationship with Elizabeth of York, I have some suspicion Margaret may have been an interfering mother-in-law. Many of us have experienced those, but why do we always suppose her intentions were negative? Maybe her motives were born of affection and concern. The historical record suggests that she and Elizabeth of York were quite close so, in my novel their relationship is a slow burner; they start off at odds but mutual goals ensure they end up as friends.

And then there is Henry VII. Traditionally he is seen as a miser, the thief of another man’s throne, but he couldn’t have been all bad. He lived in harsh times. He saw the throne as his right – we all fight for what we see as our rights, don’t we? Once he was king, he did a good job – when he died the royal coffers were comfortably full; he put down all the pretenders to his crown, and made numerous advantageous alliances. He also left an heir, Henry VIII. There is very little more required of a ‘good’ king.

In A Song of Sixpence Henry is at first insecure, unsure of Elizabeth, and distrusting of his courtiers but in all likelihood, given what he’d witnessed of Richard III’s reign, he had good cause. He is quiet, calculating and wise. I’ve mixed negatives with a dollop of good intentions and, I hope, produced a credibly complex character.

As for Elizabeth of York whose fictional representation is usually meek, and sometimes cowed, I have tried to provide her character with more depth. History presents her as a good queen, obedient and supportive of Henry VII. She took no part in the politics of Henry’s reign, but her charitable work is well recorded. She kept close to and cared for her sisters and also had a direct hand in the upbringing and education of her younger children, keeping them close to her and teaching them their letters.

Prior to their marriage, Henry and Elizabeth had fought on opposing teams. It is more than likely that there were some initial misgivings on both parts. In A Song of Sixpence, I tried to explore Elizabeth’s inner mind, her thoughts. She is determined to be a good queen, has ambition for her children, love for her country and fights to break down the barriers between her and Henry.

When Perkin Warbeck appears on the scene, claiming to be her brother Richard, the younger of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower in 1483, her emotions are conflicted. She does not know if Warbeck’s claim is true. If he is indeed her brother, what will she do once Henry gets his hands on him? How will she stand by and watch her husband execute her brother? Yet, if he is her brother and he is victorious, can she stand by as he destroys her husband and takes her son’s throne. She is faced with a complex situation and an unenviable mix of emotions.

I take great pleasure in reconsidering historical figures. My other novels depict Anne Boleyn, Katheryn Parr, Margaret Beaufort and I am currently working on Queen of England, Mary Tudor. For me, the thing that makes Tudor era a great setting for my fiction is the host of figures still to cover; Margaret Pole, Katherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour and ultimately … when I pluck up sufficient courage … there is Henry VIII himself. The scope is endless, the prospect exciting, and my time in Tudor England far from over. I hope you will join me there.

Judith Arnopp

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About the Author

A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith Arnopp holds an honours degree in English and Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Writing both fiction and non-fiction, Judith works full-time from her home overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales where she crafts novels based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life, prostitutes to queens. Her books are available in paperback, Kindle and some are available on Audible. Find out more at Judith's website www.judithmarnopp.com and find her on Facebook and Twitter @JudithArnopp

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