Mastodon The Writing Desk: Special Guest post by Wendy J Dunn ~ María de Salinas: how facts inspire fiction

5 October 2022

Special Guest post by Wendy J Dunn ~ María de Salinas: how facts inspire fiction

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María de Salinas: the woman I chose to give voice to in All Manner of Things. If you asked me when I first became interested in her story, I really couldn’t tell you, other than that it was too long ago for me to remember. But I well remember what inspired me to give her voice in Falling Pomegranate Seeds — the overarching title for what I once believed would end up a trilogy of novels based on the life of Katherine of Aragon. 

Many years ago, I read about Maria de Salinas — a woman then of about fifty (elderly by Tudor standards) who disobeys her king by riding from her London home, in an English winter, to be with Katherine of Aragon, her dying friend.

María continued her defiance against Henry VIII at the end of her journey. By this stage, no one could see Katherine of Aragon without first gaining the king’s permission. Injured by a fall from her mount, Maria stood outside Kimbolton Castle, Katherine’s last dwelling place and virtual prison, and demanded to be let in. 

Because of her injuries, they could not refuse her entry. But once inside the castle, she quickly located the apartments of Katherine, her lifelong friend, and stayed with her until Katherine drew her last breath. Here is how I imagine the end of Maria’s journey to Kimbolton Castle:

Gaining ground, María neared the castle. The sound of sizzling rain came down to her as the wind blew it under the ledges protecting the torches. Nearby but unseen, dogs barked out warning. Dizzy with pain, she caught her breath. “Come on, Muchacha. Only a little more.”
   She fixed her eyes on the flame of the guttering torches, slogging step by step through the mud. Black shadows loomed, grew and took substance. Thomas rode to her side.
   “My lady! They say they won’t bring down the drawbridge.” “By all the Saints, do they indeed? Hold my horse, Thomas!” Handing over her reins to Thomas, María cursed in Castilian and picked up her skirts and limped up to the castle. She stopped at the edge of the moat, her eyes raking back and forth over the battlements. Over the stone-wall, a wan, bearded face peered. Torchlight turned his eyes luminous and spectre-like.
   “You there,” María shouted, caring not one iota for her dignity. She had left that behind days ago when she had left London. “Open up. I am Baroness Willoughby.
The man leaned across, holding his hands on either side of his mouth to amplify his voice. “Baroness, I beg you, go elsewhere! We cannot lower the drawbridge without the king’s permission.”
María could not believe her ears. “What do you mean you cannot? Will you have me die at your gates? Have you forgotten all the laws of hospitality? I have fallen off my horse, and I am bruised and need my injuries seen to. Besides that, my horse is lame. You have no choice but to open to me, unless you wish for my son-in-law, the Duke of Suffolk, to deal with you later.”
“Baroness, the king’s orders –”
“The king’s orders.” María shook her head, thinking fast. “There’s no need to concern yourself over that issue. My Lord Cromwell promised me the king’s permission will be forthcoming, perchance by the morrow.” She straightened her stance, and made her voice into a weapon of steel. “The night is foul, good sir, and my son in marriage is a prince of this land. Lower the drawbridge before you live to regret it.”

The story of this determined and loyal woman inspired my imagination and began me on a long road to complete my story about the life of Katherine of Aragon.
When I started writing Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters, I wanted Maria to be the voice for this story. But, in that novel, she was then a child telling an adult tale. Eventually, I realised I had no other choice but to switch the point of view to that of an adult, and the amazing scholar Beatriz Galindo stepped forward to take over the narration of The Duty of Daughters.

So who was María de Salinas—and why was she an important figure in the life of Katherine of Aragon? Several histories of Katherine of Aragon tell us the same story. Believed to be kin to Katherine of Aragon, María de Salinas was the daughter of Martín de Salinas and his wife, Josefa Gonzales de Salas (Earenfight 2016). Similarly, to my other works of historical fiction, my attempts to put flesh upon the bones of María’s story proved frustrating. 

Like so many women in this period, her birth year is unknown. There are no known paintings or drawings of her. I assumed she was attractive because Henry VII told Isabel of Castile to send, with her daughter, girls of ‘gentle birth and beautiful or, at the least, by no means ugly’ (Tremlett 2010 p. 63), Good looks meant they were more likely to find husbands. 

This assumption felt far less than an assumption when I studied portraits of her lovely daughter and granddaughter. Several historians have her coming out with Katherine of Aragon in 1501; others have her arriving in England to replace María de Rojas, another woman who was very close to Katherine of Aragon, when she returned to Castile to marry in 1503. 

This is when I remind myself I am a fiction writer. It would be absolutely wonderful to be absolutely certain of my facts before I allow my imagination full rein, but when history is debated, I am even freer to decide the direction of my work.

There is also no biography of María de Salinas. I was reliant on what I discovered about her through the biographies of other, more well-known figures of Tudor history. Sometimes María’s personality flashed out and gave me more than just a side note in the stories of others. 

Like when Weir wrote of María’s desire to stay with Katherine of Aragon after her marriage to Henry VIII. ‘The girl desires of all things to remain with me’ (Weir, p. 98), Katherine told her new husband in 1509. María de Salinas, by then, was well and truly part of Katherine’s life. In these earlier and happier years of his first marriage, Henry liked María, too, and did not mind her influence on his wife, or that she was so close to her.

Weir, while frustratingly not providing her sources most of the time, provided me with the most important bones of María’s story. According to Weir, in 1505, María had hoped to marry a noble Fleming, but Katherine — forced again to write a begging letter to her father for a dowry for Maria. No money arrived, so the arrangement came to nothing.

María did not marry until 1516. If she was a similar age to Katherine of Aragon, which I believe, that means she was then at least thirty by the time of her marriage. For a writer of Tudor fiction, this is an intriguingly mature age for a first marriage for a woman of her time and rank. 

Her husband was William Willoughby, the 11th Baron of Willoughby de Eresby—a man of great wealth, long noble lineage, and the largest landowner in Lincolnshire. Henry VIII clearly approved the marriage because he gifted Willoughby additional wealth and properties to celebrate the match.

Ten years later, María was a widow. Like her Queen Katherine of Aragon, María also grieved the death of all her children, bar for one daughter, named for her lifelong friend.
Maria became widowed when her daughter was only about seven. It must have been a terrible time for María when she lost her husband. Her brother-in-law, Sir Christopher Willoughby, who inherited the Willoughby properties that could only come down to the male heir, caused a lot of trouble by trying to grab whatever he could of his brother’s wealth, and María had to fight for her daughter’s rights. 

But Katherine was the primary heiress, and a very wealthy heiress at that. Less than three years after her father’s death, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, brought Katherine’s wardship for a great deal of money (Read 1963).

María never married again. After her husband’s death, she continued in her service to Katherine of Aragon until 1532, when Henry VIII ordered her to leave Katherine’s household. By that stage, Henry had annulled, what he claimed, was ‘never a true marriage’ to Katherine of Aragon. María was far too loyal to Katherine for Henry to risk leaving her in her service.

One of my most favourite quotes about writing historical fiction comes from William Styron. He tells us, “While it may be satisfying and advantageous for historians to feast on rich archival material, the writer of historical fiction is better off when past events have left him with short rations”. 

It is those short rations which ignites a writer’s imagination. That does not mean what I know about this period adds up to ‘short rations’. Not at all. All the research I have done over the years is now, well and truly, part of my writerly compost.
My writing philosophy is the same as Margaret Atwood, who says, ‘when there was a solid fact, I could not alter it … but in the parts left unexplained—the gaps left unfilled—I was free to invent’ (Atwood 1998, p.1515). I create characters. Most of them are inspired by real people, constructed through my research. 

When I am provided with short rations—like what happened with María de Salinas—my imagination fires up and begins filling in the gaps. This is when I become immersed in the real magic of writing: I am dreaming my story onto the page. 

Sometimes, I wake from this dream agonised where my dream has taken me. But historical fiction is foremost a work of imagination—and story is what beats its heart. And like the great Hilary Mantel once said, ‘“I have written books and I cannot unwrite them. I cannot unbelieve what I believe. I cannot unlive my life”.

Wendy J Dunn 



Le Guin, UK 1989, Dancing at the edge of the world: Thoughts on words, women, places, Grove Press, New York

Read, E. 1963. My Lady Suffolk, a Portrait of Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. New York, Knopf.

Tremlett, G. 2010 Catherine of Aragon: Henry’s Spanish Queen Bloomsbury House

Weir, A YEAR, The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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About the Author

Wendy J. Dunn is an award-winning Australian writer fascinated by Tudor history – so much so she was not surprised to discover a family connection to the Tudors, not long after the publication of her first Anne Boleyn novel, which narrated the Anne Boleyn story through the eyes of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the elder. Her family tree reveals the intriguing fact that one of her ancestral families – possibly over three generations – had purchased land from both the Boleyn and Wyatt families to build up their own holdings. It seems very likely Wendy’s ancestors knew the Wyatts and Boleyns personally. Wendy is married, the mother of four adult children and the grandmother of two amazing small boys. She gained her PhD in 2014 and loves walking in the footsteps of the historical people she gives voice to in her novels. Wendy also tutors at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.. Find out more at her website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @wendyjdunn

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