Mastodon The Writing Desk: October 2020

31 October 2020

Queen Elizabeth I Visits Gorhambury Manor in 1577

The ruins of Gorhambury Manor

While researching for book two of my new Elizabethan series, I discovered the accounts of the queen's visits to Gorhambury Manor House, near St Albans, Hertfordshire, which was was built by Sir Nicholas Bacon (1510-1579), Lord Keeper of the Great Seal during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

When the queen declared her intention to visit Gorhambury in 1572, Sir Nicholas was concerned enough to write to his friend Lord Burghley, ‘If it be true, then I might understand your advice for what you think to be the best way for me to deal with the matter, for in very deed, no man is more raw in such a matter than myself.’

It seems the visit didn’t go too well as the queen is reported to have said ‘My Lord, what a little house you have gotten’ to which Sir Nicholas replied ‘Madam, my house is well, but you have made me too great for my house!’ 

Sir Nicholas added a hundred-and-twenty foot long  gallery to the house for her second visit to Gorhambury on Saturday May 27th, 1577. The vaulted ceiling was painted with murals and, in what might have been a misjudgement, a life-sized statue of Henry VIII in gilded armour acted as a focal point. He also built a new ballroom with a minstrel gallery, for the evening entertainment. 

Lady Bacon was in charge of the banquet, and records show she prepared beer and ale and wines of all kinds, beef, mutton, veal, lambs, rabbits, cow’s udders and calves feet. There were chickens, geese, mallards, teals, larks and curlews, and all kinds of fish.

Sir Nicholas also had to pay for presents for the queen’s officers, and return travel costs from London to Gorhambury, as well as a golden cup as a gift for the queen, with twenty-five bucks and two fine stags. The total cost of the three day visit was about a fifth of the cost of building Gorhambury Manor.

Queen Elizabeth was so pleased with her visit, she gave Sir Nicholas a portrait of herself, which he later found out she’d been displeased with, as she thought it unflattering and a poor likeness.

Sir Nicholas only had another eighteen months to enjoy his gift, as he died in 1579, and Gorhambury passed to his son Anthony - and then to Sir Francis Bacon.

Tony Riches

28 October 2020

Special Guest Post by Carolyn Hughes, Author of Children’s Fate, the Fourth Meonbridge Chronicle

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US 

How can a mother just stand by when her daughter is being cozened into sin? It’s 1360, eleven years since the Black Death devastated all of England, and six years since Emma Ward fled Meonbridge with her children, to find a more prosperous life in Winchester. Long satisfied that she’d made the right decision, Emma is now terrified that she was wrong. For she’s convinced her daughter Bea is in grave danger, being exploited by her scheming and immoral mistress.

Children’s Fate, like the first three CHRONICLES, is a work of fiction. The characters come entirely from my imagination. The principal location, Meonbridge, is a fictitious village and manor, but imagined as lying alongside the real River Meon in Hampshire, just as a number of existing Meon Valley villages do, and it is loosely modelled on one or two of them.

Yet, the story of Children’s Fate is underpinned by “history”, events that really happened when and as they appear in the novel.

The principal “event”, upon which the latter part of the novel hinges, is the arrival of another outbreak of the plague in England, in the spring and summer of 1361. This occurrence of the disease was thought of as the “Children’s Plague”, because a disproportionately large number of the victims were children. The reason for this is not clear, though one explanation might be that, as the children weren’t born at the time of the previous outbreak (what we call the “Black Death”, in 1348-9), they didn’t have the immunity their parents might have acquired having lived through it and survived.

If you happen to have read Fortune’s Wheel, the first MEONBRIDGE CHRONICLE, you’ll know that the novel series begins in the immediate aftermath of the Black Death, which killed up to half of people not only in England but across a huge swathe of the world from the far east to northern Europe. The next two chronicles, A Woman’s Lot and De Bohun’s Destiny, are set in plague-free years. But, for this fourth book, I had to think about plague again.

This has been a somewhat tricky book to write. For various purely “authorly” reasons, I was already grappling a bit with the storyline I’d created. I wasn’t quite sure that it was working, even though I really liked it… But then COVID-19 came into our lives and my writing world turned upside down… Well, no, that’s an exaggeration. But it was definitely disturbed… I wasn’t of course the only writer to suffer such disturbance during those difficult months, but my particular distraction was caused by what I was writing about: The Black Death…  plague… pandemic! It was rather unsettling to be writing about a pandemic, when our world was in the midst of one, but it gave me food for thought, comparing the two events.

The way that, in the first half of 2020, the coronavirus spread apparently so easily, and occasionally with such deadly effect, was frightening enough. But our doctors did at least know what coronavirus was (they understood the nature of viruses), how it spread (e.g. through coughing), had some idea of how to mitigate it (e.g. isolation) and what sort of treatment might work, developed a way of testing for the disease and began work to find a vaccine.

But imagine that you had no idea what the disease actually was, or how it spread?

In the middle of the 14th century, people had some curious (to us) notions about the causes of disease. Death was everyday – illnesses were mostly incurable, accidents commonplace, life generally subject to all manner of risk. Medieval people invariably ascribed every disaster, be it the loss of a child, dead cows, a bad harvest, or the failure of the butter to churn, either to God’s will or the Devil’s work. 

If a particular disaster was considered to be God’s will, then it might follow that the reason for his anger was man’s sin, and the disaster was His punishment. This was what priests told their congregations. It does seem rather odd that immorality was held responsible for the coming of a plague. But perhaps the apocalyptic nature of it provided a good pretext for the Church to censure the masses for their sinful ways. But I wonder to what extent the average Englishman or woman believed them? How I’d love to know…

There were scientific explanations too, promulgated by learned academics, such as complicated notions about the movements of the planets, and theories about miasma, or foul air. Foul air was thought to be a cause of disease in general, and plague was no different.

But, if medieval people had some notions of the “what” of the disease (even if they were wrong), I imagine that the “how” must have been trickier to understand.

People did understand the value of isolation as a way of avoiding plague although, practically and logistically, running away can’t have been easy or even feasible for most. Boccaccio’s Decameron (completed in 1353) is based upon the isolation premise, being a collection of stories told by a group of young men and women who flee Florence to a secluded villa to escape the 1348 Black Death. And Eyam in Derbyshire is famous for going into “lock-down” in 1665, after plague invaded the village (apparently from fleas in a bolt of cloth). The plan was to prevent the disease spreading beyond the village, but a large proportion of Eyam’s population did lose their lives to plague.

So keeping oneself to oneself was certainly understood: the value of social distancing, as we now call it, was recognised. A 14th century French physician, Jean Jacmé, wrote in a treatise on the plague: ‘In pestilence time nobody should stand in a great press of people because some man among them may be infected’*.

The good doctor also mentioned the value of hand-washing ‘oft times in the day’*, though with water and vinegar, rather than with soap.

Touch was clearly to be avoided, though another physician posited that looking into a plague victim’s eyes was also risky, on the grounds that plague could be transmitted via the “airy spirit leaving the eyes of the sick man”*, which does seem rather curious.

But, something again more familiar is avoiding a victim’s “foul air” – breathing, coughing. Doctor Jacmé recommended avoiding foul smells in general: ‘…every foul stench is to be eschewed, of stable, stinking fields, ways or streets…’* The “plague doctor” bird beak masks of later centuries hadn’t yet been invented, but I can imagine that those who attended victims might well have covered their nose and mouth, albeit just with a rag, or perhaps more elaborately with a bag full of protective and sweet-smelling herbs.

What medieval people didn’t seem to know about was the role of rats and fleas, which have long been implicated in the spread of the plague. Though some scientists think the speed of spread was, in practice, too rapid and too far for transmission by rat flea alone to be viable. Others have it that the rat fleas jumped host to people, and then human fleas and lice were infected, making it much easier for rapid people-to-people transmission. But the situation is unclear. The World Health Organisation says, ‘human to human transmission of bubonic plague is rare’. Yet, the 1361 outbreak was in the summer months, in which bubonic, as opposed to pneumonic plague, was more common. Whichever it was, it spread very quickly, and was undoubtedly hideous and terrifying.

But, if doctors had some ideas of how the disease arose, and even how to avoid it, they had little notion about how to treat it. Some would probably have tried their favourite cure-all, blood-letting, or applied a variety of substances to the suffering body, from herbs and vinegar, to urine and excrement, none of which were beneficial. In the novel, I have the barber-surgeon lancing buboes, a practice that wasn’t necessarily carried out in the 14th century, but was a couple of centuries later. But I can imagine some more eager surgeons might have tried an uncommon method if it might save their patients.

Horrific as it undoubtedly was, catching plague in the 14th century wasn’t inevitably a death sentence, for some people evidently did survive – even people who had been close to, or even nursed, victims – though of course vast numbers didn’t. Terrible as COVID-19 is, the huge numbers who died of the Black Death, as a proportion of the entire population, are very hard to even imagine. 

Of course our understanding of pandemic and that of 14th century people are undoubtedly very different, as I’ve already shown. But I have found it fascinating to discover also how very similar in many ways were 14th century reactions to disease and what people did to counter it, compared to ours.

Perhaps you’d enjoy a fictional visit to that long ago experience through the pages of Children’s Fate. Do give it a try!

Carolyn Hughes

* Quotes are from The Black Death, translated and edited by Rosemary Horrox. If you’d like to read more about plague in the 14th century, I really do recommend it, for it has a wealth of fascinating detail, and uses contemporary texts to reveal the thinking of the time.

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About the Author

Carolyn Hughes has lived most of her life in Hampshire. With a first degree in Classics and English, she started working life as a computer programmer, then a very new profession. But it was technical authoring that later proved her vocation, as she wrote and edited material, some fascinating, some dull, for an array of different clients, including banks, an international hotel group and medical instruments manufacturers. Having written creatively for most of her adult life, it was not until her children flew the nest several years ago that writing historical fiction took centre stage, alongside gaining a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton. Find out more at Carolyn's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @writingcalliope

Special Guest Post by Dr Danna R Messer, Author of Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John's Daughter

New on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Joan of England, King John’s illegitimate daughter, Henry III’s sister and the wife of arguably the most famous and successful Welsh ruler Llywelyn ap Iorwerth of Gwynedd is the subject of my new book Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter. It is a biography of a woman who played a central role in early thirteenth-century Anglo-Welsh politics, simply by the nature of design of her position as daughter, sister and wife to three enigmatic rulers of Britain in the High Middle Ages. 

She was also player in Welsh courtly culture, again, by sheer design of her status, for all intents and purposes, as a ‘queen’. The ultimate intention and underlining drive behind the research and writing of this biography was a way of paying homage to a woman who’s name holds much significance in medieval Welsh and English history, but who’s real story has remained wholly unexplored, and arguably even misunderstood, over the past 800 years. 

The aim is to finally pay this mysterious woman her dues. Wales and its history has always been a place of fascination for me. As young child and adolescent the legends of King Arthur were the first to captivate my attention, for both this seemingly singular place on earth where myth, history and landscape overlap. As a late-teen inching towards a desire and calling to be a historian, I became more enchanted by Wales through historical fiction. Fiction yes, but stories driven by events and people in history. 

Above all, my hat needs to be taken off to Sharon Penman and her Here Be Dragons. Unsurprisingly, I was riveted – not only on its first read when first published, but with many subsequent reads over the years. More importantly, there was something in the undercurrents of the story line itself and characters that resonated with me on a much deeper level that first time around, in ways I probably still can’t explain in full. In particular, it was Joan’s character, Joan’s story that captured my attention in full. Who was this woman really?

For the past thirty years, Joan and the need to not only unearth her truth but to tell her story have haunted me. In essence, it was my fascination with Joan that drove my career to become a medieval historian by training and trade – specifically, to be come a women’s historian and a historian of medieval Wales, as it was before the end of the thirteenth-century.

Admittedly, it was very hard to write a whole book about a noble/royal woman who appears so little in sources, but who has been recognised, albeit often in a cursory manner, by both medieval contemporaries and later historians as being ‘relatively’ important in assuaging the political dynamics between an independent Welsh kingdom and the Angevin dynasty. 

As readers will note, my book aims to fill in some of the gaps – of the records, of our knowledge of events and in our understanding of how that world worked. There is a fine line between outright conjecture and a truly educated appraisal of situations at hand based on what evidence does, in fact, survive. Often, deep, historical research is about unearthing patterns found through things such as activities or similarities in circumstances that helps bring some of the shadows into the light. This is most true for research concerning women and minorities.

Although this book on Joan is biographical, I’ve tried to provide more of a thematic focus on two fronts: 1) Joan’s identity as a woman, an illegitimate member of England’s royal family, as a foreigner to Wales and, more specifically, her identity and position based on her lifecycles a wife, daughter, sister and mother; and 2) her status as a Welsh ‘queen’ and ‘the king’s consort’. 

As Joan’s appearance in sources is extremely limited, this approach provides a wider context to helping us understand what her influences were, what they may have been, and the how they may have helped define her agency and political activities. Again, assessing the patterns found in her activities and contextualising these against the backdrop of examples taken from her female forebears, her predecessors, contemporaries and successors, both in Wales and beyond, we find that, unsurprisingly, 

Joan found herself in situations similar to those that other women of her position and status found themselves. Such a finding of similarities also helped put pieces into place. Her story is an individual one, of course. But, it also falls within the greater collective.

One of the main threads I followed to try to tease out a better idea of how she may have been more politically involved in Anglo-Welsh relations than is actually recorded was to look at her economic agency, mapping English manors that she was gifted by the English Crown and when. Though there is supposition, it’s based on viable information in English Chancery sources that strongly suggests Joan was gifted her English lands as rewards for her role as a political diplomat – including the three instances during her lifetime in which England set out to invade and subjugate Wales.

In the overall picture, there just seems to be too many instances where her lands were either gifted or taken away by the English Crown exactly around specific times when political relations were fraught. Although much of the history of the medieval royal woman is centred around the personal being political, in Joan’s case it seems that the political was personal, too.

I also throw into the mix an underlining thematic discussion on what Welsh queenship may have looked like, in both practice and custom. A deeper reading of Welsh sources collectively suggest that a recognised royal consort in Wales was viewed as the female-symbol of the hegemonic authority of her husband. Such a perception likely included real expectations that women in these positions be more active, both in the royal court and the realm, than has been recognised by historians.

In many ways, Joan can be seen to be a paragon of Welsh ‘queenship’. Based on her activities that we do know about and our newer understanding of what ‘queenship’ may have looked like in Wales at this time, Joan’s story goes hand-in-hand with discussions of what a ‘queen’ or ‘queen consort’ was, certainly as pertains to the court of Gwynedd and the Venedotian rulers.
Ultimately, Joan, Lady of Wales: Power and Politics of King John’s Daughter aims to provide a fuller understanding of Joan’s life and activities, not forgetting the important notion that she was, after all, a human being, interacting with other human beings; all of whom were driven by emotions, and those emotions were conflated with ambition, necessity and protocol.

Danna R Messer 
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About the Author

Danna R. Messer is a medieval historian who received her PhD from Bangor University in Welsh History. Her doctoral thesis was on the agency of the wives of Welsh rulers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and this remains her overall specialism and main research focus. She is a contributing author to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography (articles on Joan and Eleanor de Montfort already out) and has published additional research on Joan and Welsh queenship in general for Women’s History Review, the Encyclopedia of the Global Middle Ages (Arc Humanities Press and Bloomsbury Academic), Foundations: Newsletter of the Foundation for Medieval Genealogy and in A Companion to Global Queenship, edited by Elena Woodacre (2018). Her current project is as editor for ‘Norman to Early Plantagenets’, the first volume (of four) of English Consorts: Power, Influence, Dynasty, edited by Aidan Norrie, Carolyn Harris, Joanna Laynesmith, Danna Messer and Elena Woodacre (forthcoming, Palgrave Macmillan). English Consorts will be the long overdue and much needed ‘handbook’ on the spouses of England’s rulers from 1066 to the present. Danna works in publishing as an editor for medieval history with Arc Humanities Press and Pen and Sword Books.

27 October 2020

The Many Faces of a Queen: The Armada Portraits of Elizabeth I

Lise many Elizabethan portraits, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, painted in 1588, is heavily symbolic, and intended to be a show the queen's strength and majesty. Unlike most portraits, it is in a landscape format, and three different versions survive.

The most famous of the three Armada portraits is thought to have been commissioned by Sir Francis Drake, and is known as the 'Tyrwhitt-Drake' portrait (above). 

The Armada Portrait held by the National Portrait Gallery has been cut down at some point, to fit the conventional portrait format, leaving  the central figure of the queen and remnants of the background.

Finally, the Woburn Abbey version has  the columns of red with gold coloured bases, which suggests these two paintings may have come from the same artist.

Restoration work on the 'Tyrwhitt-Drake' portraits included X-Rays, which revealed that the ships in the background had been painted over older ships, similar to those in the Woburn Abbey version.

The symbols in all three versions would have been recognised by the Tudor audience. The many large pearls symbolise Elizabeth’s chastity and connect her to Cynthia, the Greek goddess of the Moon, who was a virgin and seen as 'pure'. Elizabeth's hair and clothes are draped in pearls, and where Henry VIII's portrait by Holbein displays the king wearing an oversized codpiece to emphasise his virility, Elizabeth's portrait shows a giant pearl. 

Mermaids and sirens were subjects of Poseidon, god of the sea, sent to tempt sailors and then ruin them, so the inclusion of a mermaid here could show Elizabeth’s might against the Spanish seamen. It has also been suggested the mermaid symbolises Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth is facing away from the plots and Mary's execution

The red, egg-shaped object over Elizabeth's shoulder might seem out of place, and has been described as an egg, an acorn and a pomegranate, or even a decorative finial, but I believe nothing in these paintings is there by accident, and it is an egg to represent fertility, rebirth and eternal life, and is a symbol of wealth, luck and health.

Elizabeth rests her right hand on a globe, with her fingers pointing at the New World – imperial symbolism that underlines her power over the world, as well as England. The first European colony in America, Virginia, was established in 1584, a few years before the Armada Portrait was painted, and it was named for Elizabeth.

Her skirt and her sleeves are decorated with golden suns. The sun is an artistic symbol as old as history itself, a signifier of power, enlightenment and life. The circle of ruff extends from Elizabeth’s face like the Sun’s rays. She is shown as the centre and source of warmth, beauty, and goodness.Elizabeth herself is placed between scenes of storm and calm, suggesting that she is the sun, and the source of the clear weather shown to the left.

The Queen's posture, with open arms and serene gaze signify strength, and the exaggerated dress symbolises the the medieval idea of the ‘King’s two bodies’: the frail, physical one, and the spiritual, from where true power originates. 

Royal Museums Greenwich secured  the 'Tyrwhitt-Drake'  Armada Portrait in 2016 after raising £10.3m including £7.4m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to buy the painting from descendants of Sir Francis Drake. The three surviving versions of one of the most famous portraits of Elizabeth I were on display together for the first time in 2020:

A gripping read - it felt like I had been transported back in time.”  

Drake – Tudor Corsair (Book One of the Elizabethan Series)

🇺🇸 Amazon US.      🇬🇧 Amazon UK

26 October 2020

Blog Tour Guest Post ~ The Last Blast of the Trumpet (Book 3 of the Knox Trilogy) By Marie Macpherson

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Scotland 1559: Fiery reformer John Knox returns to a Scotland on the brink of civil war. Victorious, he feels confident of his place leading the reform until the charismatic young widow, Mary Queen of Scots returns to claim her throne. She challenges his position and initiates a ferocious battle of wills as they strive to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. But the treachery and jealousy that surrounds them both as they make critical choices in their public and private lives has dangerous consequences that neither of them can imagine.

The Influence of John Knox
The louring figure of John Knox has cast a long, deep shadow over Scottish history and, love him or loathe him, you cannot deny his influence not only on our culture and psyche but also on the development of English Puritanism and the establishment of Presbyterianism around the world. To the great Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle, Knox was ‘the one Scotsman to whom the whole world owes a debt’ and who takes his rightful place alongside the leading reformers, Calvin, Beza and Farel on the Reformation Wall in Geneva.

For many, however, Knox is a prophet without honour in his own land. Carlyle’s fulsome praise was certainly not echoed by the Scottish bard, Robert Burns, a frequent victim of the cutty stool, a punishment for fornication. In Holy Willie’s Prayer he mocks the ‘unco guid’ the pious, self-righteous and dour Elect created by the doctrine of predestination. Knox is blamed for the stringent, puritanical restrictions that grasped Scotland in a tight iron grip for centuries and the caricature of the long-bearded, black-robed, Old Testament prophet spouting fire and brimstone endures. It is difficult nowadays to imagine but the preachers was a charismatic performer whose sermons drew huge congregations. Catholic congregations who’d been used to standing behind a rood screen at mass, cut off from priests chanting in Latin, were enthralled to hear scripture being expounded in their own language. 

Nevertheless, Knox’s extremism has become an embarrassment to his own Church of Scotland and his achievements have been overshadowed by his polemical pamphlet, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which has marked him out as a rampant misogynist and violent revolutionary. Contrary to popular opinion, Knox did not hate women. Far from it. He was quite the ladies’ man as his two young wives and flock of female admirers and correspondents would testify. Nonetheless, he believed that because women were ‘the weaker vessel’ they were unsuited for any form of public office, let alone that of supreme monarch. He was appalled and bewildered by the prevailing situation when so many women were ruling the roost: Mary Tudor in England, Mary of Guise in Scotland, as regent for her daughter Mary, Queen of Scots, and Catherine de Medici, regent in France. This was not only monstrous, against the laws of nature, but against divine law. Taking his inspiration from Paul in Timothy 2:12, he famously wrote:

To promote a woman to bear rule, superioritie, dominion or empire above any realme, nation, or citie, is repugnant to nature.

Knox was not a lone wolf crying out in the wilderness, however. Most of his male contemporaries, and indeed the law, deemed women to be second-class citizens. Meanwhile in various Protestant countries subjects were beginning to question the validity of despotic rulers. In 1550, the authors of the Apology of Magdeburg urged its citizens to take up arms against a tyrannical magistrate. In 1556 an exiled English bishop, John Ponet, argued that tyrants could be deposed by common authority, a sentiment shared by Knox’s colleague, Christopher Goodman, as a popular rhyme of the time recorded:   
No Queen in her kingdom can or ought to sit fast
If Knox or Goodman’s books blow any true blast.
But no one was as vehement and violent as Knox who clamoured for the Catholic female rulers not only to be brought down but executed. This alarmed many including John Aylmer who accused Knox of overstepping the mark and ‘cracking the dutie of obedience’ to a monarch. For this rebuttal Queen Elizabeth rewarded Aylmer with the bishopric of London and banned Knox from ever setting foot on English soil. 

Knox in England

It’s often forgotten that Knox once had a promising career in the English church. Released after a 19-month stint in the galleys, the heretic was outlawed in his own country but welcomed in England where he served as pastor in Berwick-upon-Tweed and Newcastle. When the young King Edward VI invited the charismatic preacher to London as one of his chaplains, Knox’s career in England seemed assured. However, his uncompromising Calvinist beliefs startled the moderate Anglican bishops who sought to dilute them by offering him plum jobs–vicar of All Hallows in London and the bishopric of Rochester–if he followed their liturgy. Knox who abhorred idolatry in all its forms, refused to bend the knee at communion and wear episcopal vestments. No compromise was the motto of God’s chosen messenger.

Knox in Geneva

Edward’s premature death in 1563, followed by the succession of Mary Tudor, was a great blow for Knox. Chased out of England he sought refuge in Geneva, confident that Calvin would back his call to depose the ‘wicked Jezebel’ who was persecuting Protestants. When Calvin advised obedience and passive resistance, Knox approached other leading reformers in Switzerland and Germany but failed to drum up support. Sensing the fiery Scot was more Calvinist than he was, Calvin sent him as trouble-shooter to Frankfurt where Canon Cox, leader of the English exiles, was sneaking dregs of popery into the English rite. Knox failed to convert Cox who hounded the zealot and his radical followers out of Frankfurt. Though Knox didn’t realise it at the time, the Church of England’s door had been slammed firmly behind him. 

Angry and frustrated, Knox picked up his pen to write The First Blast of the Trumpet against the cursed Jezebel of England. Conscious of the criticism it would provoke he published his vehement attack anonymously. A furious Calvin banned its publication in Geneva and wrote to William Cecil, that the ‘thoughtless arrogance of one individual’ had endangered the lives of the English exiles.

For all his legendary gift of prophecy, Knox didn’t foresee Mary Tudor’s demise in November 1558, nor her succession by another woman. At least Elizabeth was a Protestant, Knox conceded, and promised his support if she acknowledged that God had allowed her to reign as a special case to restore the true Protestant faith. This arrogance combined with his misogynistic comments greatly offended the young queen who refused his request to return to England. I fear that my First Blast hath blown from me all my friends in England, Knox complained.

It must have stuck in his craw to hear that his bitter rival, Canon Cox had officiated at Elizabeth’s coronation. It needed no gift of prophecy to see that ‘bells and smells’ were turning the queen’s head.
His austere Calvinist Presbyterianism may not have been to Elizabeth’s taste, but Knox still exerted influence amongst rebels in the Anglican church who, sensing ‘creeping papistry’, were unwilling to submit to her seemingly trivial demands. Those who refused to use Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer or wear vestments were mockingly called ‘Puritans’ or ‘precisians’ and went on to form a dissident arm of the Church of England.

Knox in Scotland 

Outlawed in England, Knox returned to his homeland to lead the Lords of the Congregation in deposing the Catholic regent Mary of Guise and establishing Protestantism as the official religion of Scotland. With the regent’s sudden death, victory seemed assured and, in 1560, Knox set about producing The First Book of Discipline, his manifesto for a Christian commonwealth with education for all children, more universities, and a system of poor relief. However, because the nobility refused to hand over the rich benefices they’d purloined from the Roman Catholic Church, his visionary, democratic ideas were never put into practice during his lifetime. 

Statue of Knox the teacher, outside Knox Academy by John Denham, Wikipedia

The Protestant honeymoon period was cut short with the arrival of the charismatic young widow, Mary Queen of Scots, to claim her throne. And so began a bitter battle of wills between the minister and the monarch for the hearts and minds of the Scots. Many of the lords, embarrassed by his constant attacks on Mary, dropped their support for Knox and baulked at the idea of deposing their anointed queen. Nor did they dare execute Knox for his treacherous sermons for fear of making a martyr of him.

Knox reproving Mary Queen of Scots by David Wilkie

In the end it was not the revolutionary democrat Knox but her sister queen, Elizabeth Tudor, who signed Mary’s death warrant, on the advice of her powerful minister. By removing this threat to his mistress’s throne, William Cecil had one of his wishes granted and then in 1603 another one. The accession of James VI of Scots as James I of England signalled the Union of Crowns under a Protestant monarch, laying the foundation for the Union of Parliaments and the establishment of the United Kingdom in 1707. This dramatic change in the troubled relationship between the auld enemies, England and Scotland, it could be argued, was in no small measure a result of John Knox.

Meanwhile, after a tumultuous life, Knox died peacefully in his bed and was buried in the churchyard outside St Giles Cathedral Edinburgh where lot No. 23 in the car park marks the spot. Ironically, Knox the great iconoclast who ordered the destruction of graven images, is forever set in stone. How long in this iconoclastic age will the statue in New College depicting the preacher in full flow remain standing?

John Knox in New College, from Wikipedia

Praise for The Last Blast of the Trumpet

‘Macpherson has done for Knox what Hilary Mantel did for Cromwell.’

Scottish Field

‘This richly realized portrait of a complex man in extraordinary times is historical fiction at its finest.’

Linda Porter, author of Crown of Thistles; Katherine the Queen, Royal Renegades; Mistresses: Sex and Scandal at the Court of Charles II

‘Marie Macpherson has once again given us a cavalcade of flesh and blood characters living the early days of the Scottish Reformation in a complex tale told with economy and wit.’

S.G. MacLean, author of The Seeker Series and Alexander Seaton mysteries
Marie Macpherson

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About the Author

Scottish writer Marie Macpherson grew up in Musselburgh on the site of the Battle of Pinkie and within sight of Fa’side Castle where tales and legends haunted her imagination. She left the Honest Toun to study Russian at Strathclyde University and spent a year in the former Soviet Union to research her PhD thesis on the 19th century Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish poet and seer, Thomas the Rhymer. Though travelled widely, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her enthusiasm for the rich history and culture of her native Scotland. Writing historical fiction combines her academic’s love of research with a passion for storytelling. Exploring the personal relationships and often hidden motivations of historical characters drives her curiosity. Find out more at Marie's website  and find her on Facebook and Twitter @Scotscriever

25 October 2020

Special Guest Interview with Mandy Eve-Barnett, Author of The Commodore's Gift

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Under the Buldrick Empire’s rule, Owena finds herself fighting alongside a rebel force. Her aptitude for strategy and swordsmanship come to the fore. When she meets Galen, not only does she fall in love but becomes even more determined to join the fight to restore the rightful 
King to the throne.

I'm pleased to welcome multi-genre author Mandy Eve-Barnett to The Writing Desk

Tell us about your latest book 

My latest novel was launched 26th September 2020 at the virtual book fair and sale, Words in the Park. It is a steampunk adventure/romance with a strong female lead. The Commodore’s Gift began life as a prompt at a writing retreat, in 2018. I thought I could submit the resulting story (8K words) to an anthology and did find one. 

However, the project failed so then I put the story on the back burner. When NaNoWriMo loomed, I decided I would expand the story to a novella. Creating a beginning and ending to the central story. However, it became clear, pretty soon, after I began, that the characters had different ideas. The short story/novella grew to over 79K words and a novel. 

Bizarrely the main character in the original story became a secondary character, as a strong, determined female personality took over as the heroine.

Owena is not the typical Victorian lady, she wants adventure and freedom from the normal society expectations. With determination and expertise, she joins the rebel force to conquer the oppressive Buldrick Empire.

What is your preferred writing routine?

I tend to have writing days, when everything else is secondary. I become totally absorbed in my characters and ‘live’ with them. I can write at my desk, on the sofa or on road trips. I have been a free flow/panster writer up until very recently, when my idea for this year’s NaNoWriMo popped into my head. It is a book series and I realized I had to plan the plot arc for each book and the series. This is a new experience for me, and I am enjoying learning about this new skill.

What advice do you have for new writers?

All writing is good writing in the sense that it is practice, practice, practice. It also is a way for you to learn how you create. This will become your writing voice in time. Test new genres and styles until you find the one (or ones) that resonates with you. Join a local writing group, that encourages and supports you and your style. Practice writing to a time limit, use prompts and enjoy the process of writing.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books?

Before COVID19, I attended many book events, which broadened my reach and gave me the opportunity to answer questions on my stories. I loved the interaction. Now, my main promotion avenue is social media (I am on a lot!) as well as my website. I also have great readers and followers, who also champion my books.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

Goodness, I have researched a lot of ‘strange’ things in my time. I think the weirdest one was when I was writing a suspense/thriller (The Giving Thief - unpublished at this time). I wanted to know under what conditions a body could desiccate/dry out.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

I think a rape scene in The Twesome Loop was the hardest, as I didn’t want it to be too descriptive but at the same time be true to the act.

What are you planning to write next?

I’ve mentioned earlier, that a new, unexpected idea came to me recently. It will be a detective three book series. Firstly, a new genre for me and secondly my first three book series. I did write a sequel to a novella several years ago due to reader demand (The Rython Kingdom and Rython Legacy). This was a thrill, as you can imagine but gave me anxiety as I had not planned a follow up for the initial novella.

Mandy Eve-Barnett

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About the Author

Mandy Eve-Barnett is a multi-genre author writing children’s, YA and adult books. Every story has a basis of love, nature, magic and mystery. Her passion for writing emerged later in life and she is making up for lost time. With nine books published since 2011 and another five awaiting the editing process, she indulges her Muse in creative as well as freelance writing. Mandy regularly blogs and encourages support and networking of all writers. She is also prolific on social media. As Secretary of her local writers’ group, the Writers Foundation of Strathcona County, she hosts the monthly meetings and creates weekly writing prompts for the website. She is also the past President of the Arts & Culture Council of Strathcona County Council. Mandy Eve-Barnett lives her creative life to the fullest. Find out more at and find Mandy on Facebook and Twitter @mandyevebarnett

24 October 2020

New Stories of the Tudors podcast: Queen Elizabeth I Part One

This podcast is the first of a series of three looking at the life of Queen Elizabeth I, and is an introduction to the key events of Elizabeth’s life.

I’ll be looking at Elizabeth’s challenging childhood, her teenage years, how she ended up imprisoned in the Tower of London, and why she spent most of her reign in fear of assassination.

The next podcast explores the myths and legends which surround the last Tudor queen, and the third will look behind the familiar façade, to see what Elizabeth was really like.

Listen on PodBean  or find Stories of the Tudors 
on Amazon, Spotify or iTunes

23 October 2020

Special Guest Post by Author David Wilson: Inspiration and Perspiration for The Golden Bird

Thomas Edison famously said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.  I do not claim to be a genius by any stretch of the definition, but I certainly believe the same ratio applies to writing.  We all yearn for those shocks of divine inspiration when the hand of God itself reaches down and gives us a great idea, sending us into a manic frenzy of writing that lasts all through the night until the sun rises the next day. 

Far more often, however, our stories come about one page or even one paragraph at a time, subservient to our priorities and our patience.  My own novel, The Golden Bird, is the result of teaspoon of inspiration and a few buckets of perspiration.  And unlike Thomas Edison, I didn’t have to steal the idea from Nikolai Tesla.

My story originates from a graduate school guest lecture.  The history department invited Mel Fisher, a treasure hunter, to give a talk about his business and his practical application of history.  Fisher runs his operations off the eastern Florida coastline, where the treasure business is booming thanks to the confluence of Spanish shipping routes and hurricanes.  His claim to fame is the discovery of the Atocha, a treasure galleon chock full of emeralds and silver.  Fisher pulled up a PowerPoint slide showing some of the valuable gems and coins, as well as the less valuable, but no less fascinating, artifacts like cannonballs, spikes, and nails, rusted from four centuries of Atlantic seawater.

In true salesman fashion, he saved the best for last, showing the audience a tantalizing glimpse of what they, too, could hope to achieve in a career as a treasure hunter (or more accurately, as an investor to a treasure hunter).  Fisher showed us a photograph of a golden statue carved in the shape of a pelican. 

This fantastic work of art served double duty as holy metaphor, for medieval bestiaries held that the bird pecks at its chest to draw blood for its chicks, just as Christ gave life for mankind.  Fisher did not say this; instead he said it was worth nearly one million dollars and let us gawk. He closed his talk by promising the audience that anyone who came to visit his base of operations in Florida would receive a first-hand glimpse of his salvage operations (I would later email him to cash in this favor; I received no response but was put on the company’s mailing list). 

I remember staring at that photograph, captivated by its beauty and its intricacy, trying to commit all the little details to memory: the individual feathers along the head, the arc of the neck rising and falling, the plumage of the wings, and the talons gripping on to the pedestal.  I wondered who had crafted it, when, where, why, and how.  When I came home from classes that day, I sat down at my computer to write the story of a goldsmith living in Spain, trying to sail across the seas to the New World and carrying the bird with him as a secret.  “Emmanuel de Alcocaba,” I wrote, deciding it to be a good first line, “had taken a debt to pay a debt.”

That was the inspiration, the 1%, the hand of God reaching down to plant the idea within me.  The rest of the story required the perspiration, the 99%.  That meant research, setbacks, storyboarding, typing and deleting.  It meant changing $10 words for $1 words no matter how badly I wanted to be eloquent and figuring out how to make a MacGuffin chase into a richer story.  It meant a realization halfway through that I had to change a major plot point.  

Finally, it meant determining which chapters and which characters to put on the chopping block since I needed to edit 525 pages into 275 pages so that a publisher wouldn’t laugh me out of their office.  That first line was one of the sections put on the chopping block, and in my completed manuscript Emmanuel de Alcocaba isn’t even the introductory character.  Dutch pirate Nikolaas Schoonraad gets that honor instead and the first line is him wondering whether his Spanish captors will hang him or behead him.

The perspiration, all 99% of it, resulted in the finished story.  Like so many stories, it evolved drastically during the writing process over half a decade.  Authors often say that a story writes itself; I find it more accurate to say that once you create compelling, realistic characters, they’ll write the story for you.  Put them in a place where they are challenged, where their weaknesses are brought out, where they make difficult choices.  You may be surprised by what happens. 

I tried to build strong characters and I flatter myself to say that I succeeded: they wound up surprising me, several times, especially when a character I had written to be no more than a throwaway happened to become one of the most important characters to the novel.  By the conclusion of the story, the goldsmith from Spain who made the statue is just one of several narrators, all of whom saw something different when the bird’s guardian was killed and the statue was stolen out from under them.

That’s what The Golden Bird is, a murder mystery, because as interesting as I find the statue, it becomes many times more interesting whenever people are willing to kill for it.  I wrote the story in the hopes that readers, like the characters, would see the statue’s appeal as not just its precious metal but also its symbolism.  I wrote The Golden Bird from the perspective of characters who look into its sheen and see the light of God.  After all, forgiveness for your sins – and do not we all have sins we wish forgiven? – is a much stronger motivation than gold alone.

I was lucky to be inspired to write the novel.  I was further fortunate to have the time and drive and support to put its words on the page, perspiring over each one, until there were no more to write.  I hope I have luck enough to complete the last and most difficult part of the trifecta: finding a literary agent and a publisher who want to get The Golden Bird onto bookshelves.

If you happen to know an agent eager to find a new voice in the genre, please send them my way.  I hope they enjoy reading my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

David Wilson

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About the Author

David Wilson is a writer living in Denver, Colorado who has published educational history books and articles.  His novel manuscript The Golden Bird is currently being workshopped by the Historical Novel Society’s writing masterclass and he is searching for literary representation for publishers.  His writing blog,, contains his many opinions on writing history. You can find him on Twitter at @writes_david

21 October 2020

Using Photofunia To Create Content For Social Media

Busy writers don't have time for complicated image editing or creating  picture effects for their books, so if you’re looking for a quick and professional picture effects online service, then PhotoFunia could be the  solution.

With PhotoFunia you can edit photos online for free in a matter of seconds resulting in high quality photo collages.

I've seen an increase in likes and RT's on Twitter for some of the more creative effects, so it's worth a few minutes, costs nothing and can be used on any social media.

Tony Riches

20 October 2020

Special Guest Post By Tonya Mitchell, Author of A Feigned Madness

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. —Nellie Bly

The story of Nellie Bly kind of fell into my lap. I happened to stumble across a post online about a woman reporter who feigned insanity in order to go undercover in a mental institution in 1887. I was not only fascinated that it happened, but equally fascinated I’d never heard of her. Who was this woman? What kind of person would put herself at risk like that? 

Nellie Bly

So, I started digging. What I found was Bly’s own account she’d written for the newspaper that gave her the assignment: Ten Days in a Mad-house. It was a re-print of the installments she wrote for the New York World upon her release from the Blackwell’s Island insane asylum.

It was captivating, but it was also only part of the story. Who was Nellie Bly really? Ten Days only focused on her asylum ordeal and what happened directly following her release. There was no hint in her write-up of why she took the job. I sensed a lot of desperation going into her decision to disappear inside a madhouse, but nothing in her newspaper account revealed any answers. 

So, I did what any avid reader would do: I looked for the novel. I found some biographies and plenty books about her around-the-world trip she did a few years later. To my surprise, however, no one had written a fictionalized version of her 10-day stay behind asylum bars.

This was the end of 2014. I’d decided to put aside a manuscript I was struggling with and was looking for the subject matter to start writing another. I had always gravitated to historical fiction, and this seemed like an excellent project to jump into. 

I found a lot of interesting things about Nellie Bly’s life before she showed up in New York City looking for a job. There was also some personal stuff from her childhood that had played a role, in part, in molding her into the brave, sometimes rash woman she would later come to be known for. All this really helped me piece together the answers to my early questions. They also helped me frame the story not just of a woman in an asylum, but the woman she was before she went in, and the woman she was after she was released.

The story also worked for me in that I wanted to write something with gothic overtones. I’ve been a fan of gothic fiction for a long time, and the tale of a woman in an asylum in the Victorian era (when mental illness was so little understood) seemed like it held promise. There were definitely themes of horror, death, and yes, even romance in Bly’s experience.

That was one of the biggest surprises in researching Bly. I pieced together—based on her personal letters and some ambiguous statements in her asylum ordeal—that there was someone behind the scenes Bly never mentioned publicly, someone I felt strongly she was romantically involved with. The more I dug, the more I was convinced this was the case. So A Feigned Madness has this element too.

All of this boiled down to a story I really wanted to tell. As an author, it’s a delight to have the seeds of a story come to life as you research the characters, the era, the setting. And I operated from the standpoint that if I found this interesting, others would too.

Tonya Mitchell

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About the Author

Ever since reading Jane Eyre in high school, Tonya Mitchell has been drawn to dark stories of the gothic variety. Her influences include Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Bram Stoker. More contemporarily, she loves the work of Agatha Christie, Margaret Atwood, and Laura Purcell. When she landed on a story about a woman who feigned insanity in order to go undercover in an insane asylum, she knew she’d landed on something she was meant to write. Her short fiction has appeared in, among other publications, Glimmer and Other Stories and Poems, for which she won the Cinnamon Press award in fiction. She is a self-professed Anglophile and is obsessed with all things relating to the Victorian period. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society North America and resides in Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and three wildly energetic sons. A Feigned Madness is her first novel. Find out more at Tonya's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @tremmitchell

17 October 2020

Special Guest Interview with Phillipa Connolly, Author of Timeless Falcon - Volume One: A Novel of Anne Boleyn

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Beth, an enthusiast history student gets the shock of her life, when her professor's gold cypher ring opens up a mysterious portal that takes her to Tudor England and Hever Castle, where she becomes an integral part of Anne Boleyn's life. She's been warned not to meddle or risk changing history, but can she allow her dear friend to go on to become the second wife of King Henry VIII and to end up in the Tower of London to meet a horrific death? Can Beth save herself from the machinations of the Tudor Court, or will she meet the same fate as the queen to be?

I'm pleased to welcome author Phillipa Connolly to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book

I have several works in progress, but my latest offering is a historical fantasy novel with the ability for the main character to time-travel at its core. Timeless Falcon Volume One is the start of the retelling of Anne Boleyn's story through the eyes of a twenty-first century history undergraduate. A cypher ring carries Beth Wickers through a portal from her university in to 16th century Tudor England, where she must negotiate the machinations of the Tudor Court after befriending Anne Boleyn and her family. 

I am working on two other books at present - Timeless falcon Volume Two and the follow up to the first part of Beth Wickers story. I am also working on a non-fiction book called Disability and the Tudors, which focuses on how disabled people were treated in the sixteenth century, from the plough boy, right up to disabled nobility and royalty.

What is your preferred writing routine? 

I like to have a brief idea of a book, I outline the chapters and plot the story, but usually, I research as I write the first draft. In practical terms, I try to make sure I write for a few hours a day.

What advice do you have for new writers? 

Get some initial ideas and notes down on paper; make a plan, but just start writing. Ideas flow from the personalities you are writing about, whether it be fiction or non fiction. Get some friends and beta readers to read your initial drafts and get some feedback, which will then inform how to move your manuscript forward.

What have you found to be the best way to raise awareness of your books? 

As the books I have published so far are self published, it is more of a challenge to market your work. I tend to use social media platforms to inform people of my latest books. I created my own author page on facebook a while back and continue to use that. I have also given away free codes for audio versions of my book in exchange for reviews which is a great way of publicising my work too.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research?

When writing Disability and the Tudors, I discovered that the society in the sixteenth century was quite open to people being different, and that they either were superstitious about instances of disability or honoured people because it was felt that they were closer to God having a disability.

What was the hardest scene you remember writing? 

The hardest thing about writing historical fiction is how much of actual historical events do you put into a novel? How do you keep the story in context without getting bogged down in too many factual and small details. I found getting that balance right quite difficult.

What are you planning to write next?

I'm looking to finish Timeless Falcon Volume Two to continue Beth's story. Once Disability and the Tudors is finished for Pen and Sword books, I am going to be starting on Disability and the Victorians: Christian Charity and Chastisement. Then I need to finish Timeless Falcon Volume Three to finish Beth's time-travelling adventure at the Tudor Court. 

Phillipa Connolly

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About the Author

Phillipa Vincent-Connolly is a secondary school teacher, historian, author, consultant and broadcaster. She is a disabled presenter and broadcaster with cerebral palsy, and a consultant on a new historical drama series featuring disability as a theme in Tudor England, and has filmed pre-production documentary interviews. Phillipa has contributed to Manchester History digi-fest 2020. Phillipa's research focuses on the sixteenth century, and nineteenth century on English history. She works on Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the early Tudor court, and is especially interested in the intersection of disability, religious, political, and social history. This has led her to write Disability and the Tudors. She is also interested in disability, both physical and learning in both royal and ordinary people's lives. You can follow Phillipa on Facebook and Twitter @PhillipaJC