Mastodon The Writing Desk: February 2024

23 February 2024

Special Guest Post: Writing and Researching “The Other Gwyn Girl” by Nicola Cornick

Available for pre-order 

1671 – London: The Civil War is over and Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’, is revelling in the throne of his murdered father and all the privileges and power that comes with it. Sharing the spoils is his favourite companion, the celebrated beauty, actress Nell Gwyn.

I have an attraction to the stories of women – and the occasional man – from the footnotes of history, historical characters whose lives have either been ignored or erased from the historical record, or about whom the slightest of tantalising clues reach us. 

Those shadowy characters who have previously inspired me range from Mary Seymour, the lost daughter of Queen Katherine Parr and Thomas Seymour, to Catherine Catesby, wife of Gunpowder plot ringleader, Robert. All have been eclipsed in some way by other more famous characters in the historical narrative. All have a story to tell even if the evidence for it is faint or well-hidden.

My dual-time novel about Rose Gwyn, the sister of the far more famous Nell Gwyn came about in much the same way as the others. A relative had acquired a new portrait for his collection which claimed to be Nell Gwyn. I had a general awareness of Nell as an actress from the Restoration era and one of the more famous mistresses of King Charles II but the portrait prompted me to read more about her, and one line in a biography jumped out at me:

“Nell and her elder sister Rose both worked as orange girls in the theatre…”

I knew about the oranges – they could almost serve as Nell Gwyn’s emblem and sometimes unofficially do, but the bit that caught my interest was that Nell had an elder sister, Rose. 

Finding any references to Rose Gwyn in the historical record was almost impossible. She was more than elusive, almost invisible. There is a lot of information on Nell Gwyn and from that one can infer some elements of her sister’s life, particularly in their shared upbringing and early life, raised on the backstreets around Covent Garden and in the brothel where their mother worked. 

However, much of what is written about Nell is gleaned from letters, diaries and contemporary observations rather than official records. Many of these are biased depending on the author. A lot of what we “know” of Nell including her wittiest comments and the anecdotes such as her dangling her elder son out of first floor window until the King gave him a title, are hearsay and legend, no doubt embroidered in the retelling. So where does that leave a sister about whom no one bothered to record much at all?

The first official record of Rose Gwyn is from 1663 when she was imprisoned for theft and wrote to the King to petition for bail (or someone wrote on her behalf as both she and Nell had no formal education). One chronicler refers to her as the “notorious thief Rose Gwyn.” 

In her letter, Rose stated that her father had “lost all he had in the service of the late King.” Her petition was successful, supporting the genealogical data that suggests their father was Captain Thomas Gwyn, who died in a debtor’s prison shortly after Nell was born. Like many of the minor Royalist gentry, the Civil War had left his family destitute.

Both Rose and Nell sold sweet oranges to the audiences who flocked back to the theatre after Charles II’s restoration in 1660 but whilst for Nell this was a springboard into an acting career, Rose had no such talent. The next we hear of her she was married to a highwayman called Captain John Cassells. In 1670 Rose helped one of his fellow “knights of the road” to gain a pardon from the King for his crimes, presumably by asking Nell to intercede for him. What happened to John Cassells is a mystery – he was no Dick Turpin and his story has not come down to us through history – but we know that he pre-deceased Rose and that she married for a second time.

These then, were the meagre facts of Rose Gwyn’s life which provided a framework for my story. Had I been writing a non-fiction book I would have struggled but the gaps in the historical record give a novelist ample space to allow their imagination to roam. As this was a dual time novel, I wanted the contemporary narrative to be a mirror of the historical one in some senses, weaving together as the story progressed. And in one respect I was fortunate; there is some evidence that for the first few years of their life, Nell and Rose Gwyn grew up in Oxford. 

I was able to visit the parish that was said to have been their home, and to wander the city streets, picturing them back in the 17th century when Oxford played such a key role in the Civil War, and later when Charles II located his court there during the plague. That seventeenth-century Oxford is close beneath the surface; visiting the city, it is possible to shut out the present day and recreate in your mind’s eye the place that Rose Gwyn knew. 

 Nicola Cornick

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About the Author

Nicola Cornick grew up in Yorkshire and studied History at the University of London and at Ruskin College Oxford where she was awarded a Distinction for her Masters dissertation on heroes and hero myths. She worked in academia for a number of years before becoming a full-time writer. She is the author of acclaimed dual-time mysteries as well as of award-winning historical romance. When she isn’t writing, Nicola volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at the 17th century hunting lodge Ashdown House. She has given talks and chaired panels for a number of festivals and conferences including the London Book Fair, the Historical Novel Society and the Sharjah Festival of Literature.  Nicola also gives talks on history topics to WIs, history societies and other interested groups. In her spare time she is a bookseller at Wantage Bookshop and a puppy walker for the Guide Dogs charity. Find out more at Nicola's website and follow her on TwitterX @NicolaCornick

21 February 2024

Historical Fiction Spotlight: The Crimson Child (Empire of Shadows Book 2) by R.N. Morris

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Spring 1880. St Petersburg

While on an outing with his family in a leafy park, a retired general encounters a mysterious child dressed in red. The child leads him to a secluded spot. And a violent death.

The shocking crime, committed in broad daylight against a respected member of the establishment, strikes terror at the heart of the city.

It also draws the attention of the powers that be, who put pressure on magistrate Pavel Pavlovich Virginsky to solve the case quickly.

But with no witnesses, apart from a drunken fantasist who may or may not have seen the murderer making their escape, Virginsky faces one of the most challenging and bizarre cases of his career.

Then an unexpected confession brings a sudden breakthrough. Or does it? For Virginsky, it’s all a little too convenient.

Meanwhile the tsar’s trusted adviser, Count Loris-Melikov, pushes Virginsky to undertake a dangerous mission. He must find a way to infiltrate a group of disaffected reactionaries with whom the dead man was associated.

Could this shadowy group be behind the general’s murder? And what will they do to Virginsky if they find out he is there to spy on them?

As he closes in on the murderer, Virginsky uncovers a dark history in which the crimes of the past give rise to further crimes.

And the desire for revenge culminates in a devastating tragedy.
R. N Morris is the author of eleven novels. His series of St. Petersburg novels revolving around the character of Porfiry Petrovich include A Gentle Axe and A Vengeful Longing, which was shortlisted for the 2008 CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger for Best Novel and was Highly Commended in the CWA Ellis Peters Prize for Best Historical Crime Novel in 2008. He also wrote the libretto to the opera When The Flame Dies, composed by Ed Hughes.

Praise for Roger Morris:

"Morris’ recreation of the seamy side of 19th-century St Petersburg is vivid and convincing … As to who did it, Morris keeps the reader guessing until the end.” The Independent.

“Morris has created an atmospheric St Petersburg, and a stylish set of intellectual problems, but what makes A Gentle Axe such an effective debut is its fascination with good and evil.” Times Literary Supplement.

“Morris’s descriptions of the horrors of insanitary slum dwellings in St Petersburg are extraordinarily vivid, but the most striking feature of the novel is the way in which Porfiry’s sophisticated understanding of human nature compensates for the limited investigatory tools at his disposal.” The Times.

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About the Author

Roger (R. N.) Morris is the author of thirteen novels. The latest is Fortune’s Hand, a historical novel about Walter Raleigh.  He is also the author of the Silas Quinn series of historical crime novels and the St Petersburg Mysteries, featuring Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment. Find out more at Roger's website and find him on Facebook and Twitter at @rnmorris

17 February 2024

A Court of Betrayal: The gripping new historical novel from the Sunday Times bestselling author Anne O'Brien

Available for pre-order from

The Welsh Marches, 1301: Strong-willed heiress Johane de Geneville is married to Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, at just fifteen years old.

Soon Johane finds herself swept up in a world of treacherous court politics and dangerous secrets as her husband deposes Edward II and rules England alongside Queen Isabella.

Yet when Roger is accused of treason, she is robbed of her freedom and must survive catastrophic events in her fight for justice - with her life, and her children's, hanging in the balance...

Will she pay for her husband's mistakes, or will she manage to escape from a terrible fate?

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About the Author

Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. She now lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire, on the borders between England and Wales, where she writes historical novels. The perfect place in which to bring medieval women back to life. Find out more at Anne's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter @anne_obrien

13 February 2024

Special Guest Post by Deborah Swift, Author of The Shadow Network (WW2 Secret Agent Series)

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

England, 1942: Having fled Germany after her father was captured by the Nazis, Lilli Bergen is desperate to do something pro-active for the Allies. So when she’s approached by the Political Warfare Executive, Lilli jumps at the chance. She’s recruited as a singer for a radio station broadcasting propaganda to German soldiers – a shadow network.

The Aspidistra Radio Transmitter by Deborah Swift

The Shadow Network which forms the title of my latest book refers to the fake news radio stations set up by Sefton Delmer in WW2. These secret radio stations operating in WW2 pretended to be genuine German radio stations and employed German prisoners of war or other German speakers to make their broadcasts. 

The broadcasts were deliberately racy and were designed to capture the hearts of ordinary Germans and make them believe they were listening to a forbidden radio station from their own country. Their popularity spread, and they got wide audiences for their programmes.

The radio signal for these ‘fake news’ radio stations needed to be strong enough to appear as though it came from Germany and had to be more powerful than anything that was then available.

Harold Robin

By coincidence, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) had created two high-powered radio transmitters which could not be used in the US, because of a change in American law. The RCA were eager to sell them to Britain. So Harold Robin, a Foreign Office radio engineer, saw their potential, and travelled to America to examine them, and then worked to improve them. 

He adapted a transmitter so it was able to move frequency in a fraction of a second, at the flick of a switch.The powerful ex-RCA transmitter, eventually installed in Sussex, England, was named Aspidistra, referencing the popular Gracie Fields song ‘The Biggest Aspidistra in the World’, in which an Aspidistra houseplant grows until it ‘nearly reached the sky’.

In fact, most of the technology was buried underground at the site at Crowborough, though its antennae were visible – three guyed masts, each 110 metres tall, directing the signal broadly eastwards. The Art Deco–style transmitter building was housed in an underground shelter which had to be excavated by the Canadian army troops who were stationed nearby.

Intrusion operations

The Aspidistra mast was so powerful it could be used to intercept German frequencies. During Allied air raids, German radio transmitters were switched off so the Allies couldn’t use them to locate their installations.
As soon as the Germans switched off their masts, Aspidistra began transmitting on its frequency, just like the German station. The transition was seamless and German listeners believed the original station was still broadcasting. Aspidistra operators would then insert pro-British propaganda and fake news into the broadcast as if it was coming from official German sources.

Radio Transmitter

After the war, Aspidistra was used by the BBC. It made its final transmission on 28 September 1982, before being finally switched off by Robin, the man who had been responsible, forty years earlier, for bringing the transmitter from the US and setting up the station at Crowborough.

In my novel based around the Aspidistra transmitter and the fake news radio stations, I include a fictional plot to blow up the transmitter. Although fictional, this is not unlikely as there were several attempts by the Germans to sabotage infrastructure and communications systems in England at the time.
If you’d like more information about Radio Aspidistra I recommend this Nuts and Volts Magazine article.

Deborah Swift

Deborah Swift is the English author of eighteen historical novels, including Millennium Award winner Past Encounters, and The Lady’s Slipper, shortlisted for the Impress Prize.  Her most recent books are the Renaissance trilogy based around the life of the poisoner Giulia Tofana, The Poison Keeper and its sequels, one of which won the Coffee Pot Book Club Gold Medal. Recently she has completed a secret agent series set in WW2, the first in the series being The Silk Code. Deborah used to work as a set and costume designer for theatre and TV and enjoys the research aspect of creating historical fiction, something she loved doing as a scenographer. She likes to write about extraordinary characters set against the background of real historical events. Deborah lives in North Lancashire on the edge of the Lake District, an area made famous by the Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Find out more at Deborah's website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @swiftstory

10 February 2024

New Audiobook Sample: The story of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan Court, Narrated by Nigel Peever.

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US
and from Audible

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, is one of the most intriguing men of the Elizabethan period. Tall and handsome, he soon becomes a ‘favorite’ at court, so close to the queen many wonder if they are lovers.

The truth is far more complex, as each has what the other yearns for. Robert Devereux longs for recognition, wealth and influence. His flamboyant naïveté amuses the ageing Queen Elizabeth, like the son she never had, and his vitality makes her feel young.

Continuing the story of the Tudors, begun in Tony Riches’ best-selling Tudor trilogy, this epic tale of loyalty, love and adventure follows Robert Devereux from his youth to his fateful rebellion.

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About the Narrator

Nigel Peever is a northern based actor with thirty years experience in Theatre and TV and especially pantomime. Originally gaining equity status the traditional way through weekly rep at the Lyceum Theatre in Crewe straight from school and college and his first professional production with The Rollingstock Theatre Company when he was aged just 14. Since turning pro aged 19 in 1985 Nigel has worked extensively in Theatre and TV. He also produces audiobooks at home working in conjunction with authors and rights holders for sale at Amazon, Audible and Itunes. Find out more from Nigel's website and find him on Twitter @NigelPeever 

9 February 2024

Special Guest Post by Melita Thomas, Author of 1000 Tudor People

Available for pre-order from

Pre-orders at a discount may be made here 

The product of years of diligent research, this ambitious title brings the incredibly varied lives (and deaths!) of 1000 Tudor people into a single, accessible volume. Illustrated with historical portraits and a wealth of detail, including specially designed family trees to chart the links between major Tudor figures.

Writing 1000 Tudor People has been a labour of love over three years. I began it in the autumn of 2020 and handed the final sections to the publisher towards the end of 2022. It then took a further year to bring together all the illustrations and the timelines, proofread it, and turn it into the weighty volume that will hit the shelves on 28th March 2024. 

The idea behind the book was to give readers information about a much wider range of people who lived during the Tudor period than just the usual suspects who appear in books or on-screen. Of course the panorama of the royal family with their sneaky courtiers and scheming councillors is fun to read about, but there was so much more to the Tudor age. 

It was a period of massive change: life in 1485 was not very different from life in 1385, but by 1600 things had altered considerably, not just because of the Reformation, but also because of the expansion of knowledge brought about by the printing press, the introduction of plants and food that came from discoveries in the New World, the changes in the economic fortunes of England and Wales, and the expansion of mathematical and scientific knowledge.
Choosing the thousand people was difficult. At the beginning, I thought that I might struggle to find enough individuals whose lives were sufficiently interesting or important to merit sharing, but once I began the research, I was quickly overwhelmed with quirky and fascinating characters, and I have a long list, which continues to grow, of people whom I have had, reluctantly, to leave out.

Sir Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London © British Museum

Although I wanted to expand from just the rich and famous, I had to include them. You can’t have a book about Tudor People that doesn’t include Henry VIII or Thomas Cromwell. But once I had dealt with the monarch, the royal family, and the principal politicians, I turned to the arts. Shakespeare, of course, was high on the list, so I consulted the research I had done on him for the feature on the Tudor Times website. 

© Folger Shakespeare Library Christopher Saxton. Atlas of the counties of England and Wales. London, 1590?

This led me to his colleagues and friends, so I added them, and as I researched each one, I found more names. Gradually, a great network of writers, philosophers, theatre-owners, entrepreneurs, gardeners, mathematicians, and even criminals evolved.
One of the difficulties of writing about fifteenth and sixteenth century people is the inequality in records available, particularly of women. Even high-ranking women are much less represented in the records than men, and women below the level of nobility usually only appear in the records if they seriously transgressed social norms – consequently, a disproportionate number of the women included were considered to be criminals. 

Another challenge I had to address was the massive change in our approach to the past, which has happened in the last twenty to thirty years. This is partly about more inclusion of women, but also a different perspective on elements of our history. Older historiography has a fairly uncritical attitude towards individuals who have been seen as heroes for centuries – such as Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, and the other ‘sea-dogs’. 

Sir Walter Raleigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, historians are grappling with more honest interpretations of these men’s activities and I needed to seek out a wide range of sources to present a balanced view, without having the luxury of a word count that would enable me to explore these varied perspectives in detail. Unsurprisingly, I have some favourite characters – some of whom I’d like to meet, but others who might be rather scary in the flesh. 

One of the latter is Katherine Howard, Lady Berkeley, who was such a stickler for protocol that she made her manservant practise one hundred bows to get it absolutely right – I like her because she kept her pet hawks in her bedchamber, and did not care if her dresses got dirty. Another fun entry is Twm Sion Cati – otherwise known as Thomas Jones. He was a trickster who relieved his victims of their belongings by tricking them, rather than by violence. 

Ralph Rishton was another conman, who, at the time of his death had no fewer than eleven ongoing law suits relating to his matrimonial entanglements. Then there are the incredibly sad stories, such as those of Anne Askew and Margaret Clitherow (nee Middleton), who were martyred for their faith - one Protestant, the other Catholic.

Margaret Clitherow (Wikimedia Commons)

I hope that when the readers delve into 1000 Tudor People, they will find stories to entertain, as well as inform them about the Tudor period. Hopefully, the book will also be a manual to be on hand every time the reader opens another book or watches a film or television programme about the Tudors, to find the key facts about all of the people involved.
Melita Thomas

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About the Author

Melita Thomas is the author of non-fiction works The King’s Pearl, and The House of Grey and co-author of the Tudor Times Books of Days series of gift books. She is a doctoral candidate at UCL, researching the social and political networks of Mary I and is the co-founder and chief contributor for Tudor Times, a repository of information about the Tudors and Stewarts 1485 – 16625. In her spare time, Melita enjoys long distance walking. You can find her on and on Twitter @melitathomas92 and @thetudortimes.

7 February 2024

Book Launch Spotlight: To the Wild Horizon: A captivating story of love and endurance on the Oregon Trail, by Imogen Martin

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Missouri, 1846: In the frontier town of Independence the sound of a gunshot shatters the night. As the pistol drops from her hand and clatters to the ground, Grace knows she has no choice but to leave. Now.

In this inspiring and deeply moving story of love, courage and endurance, a young woman on the run from the law sets off on a desperate journey of survival on the treacherous Oregon Trail.

Terrified she’s wanted for the murder of her landlord, Grace is certain that, even though she acted in self-defence, no one will believe her. Quickly packing the few belongings she and her little brother Tom possess, they race to join the line of dusty wagons preparing to leave for Oregon.

As they set off, over the perilous Great Plains, knowing the wild rivers and the Rocky Mountains they must cross, Grace vows to do whatever it takes to protect Tom and get them both to safety. She will prove herself capable of surviving the hardest journey of her life.

This unputdownable and heart-wrenching historical novel shows the true strength and resilience of a woman’s heart, even when she has everything to lose and the odds are stacked against her. Fans of Kristin Hannah, Amy Harmon and Olivia Hawker will lose themselves in To the Wild Horizon.

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About the Author

Imogen Martin writes sweeping, historical fiction. Her first two novels are set in nineteenth century America. As a teenager, she took the Greyhound bus from San Francisco to New York. Over those three days of staring out of the window at the majestic mountains and endless flat plains, stories wound themselves into her head: tales of brooding, charismatic men captivated by independent women.
Since then, she has worked in a coffee-shop in Piccadilly, a famous bookstore, and a children’s home. She has run festivals, and turned a derelict housing block on one of the poorest estates in the UK into an award-winning arts centre. During 2020 Imogen was selected by Kate Nash Literary Agency as one of their BookCamp mentees, a mentorship programme designed to accelerate the careers of promising new writers. Married with two children, Imogen divides her time between Wales and Sardinia. Find out more at Imogene's website  and find her on Facebook and Twitter @ImogenMartin9

6 February 2024

Book Review: Mary I: Queen of Sorrows, by Alison Weir

Available for pre-order

Adored only child of Henry VIII and his Queen, Katherine of Aragon, Princess Mary is raised in the golden splendour of her father's court. But the King wants a son and heir. With her parents' marriage, and England, in crisis, Mary's perfect world begins to fall apart. Exiled from the court and her beloved mother, she seeks solace in her faith, praying for her father to bring her home. But when the King does promise to restore her to favour, his love comes with a condition. The choice Mary faces will haunt her for years to come - in her allegiances, her marriage and her own fight for the crown. Can she become the queen she was born to be?

I've learned to go to the author's note before reading Alison Weir's books, and this one is particularly poignant.  Alison talks about how, like Mary, her own parents separated when she was eleven years old.  This experience means she can identify with the first crowned Tudor queen in her retelling of a familiar story.

Mary inherited a country in a social, political and economic mess, and did little to change the life of the people for the better, yet she emerges as a woman deserving of understanding, if not our sympathy.

Alison ran a competition for suggested subtitles for the book, and a popular suggestion was the enduring epithet 'Bloody Mary'.  After having read the book I agree the eventual choice of 'Queen of Sorrows' was the right one. 

Although a work of historical fiction, the story of Queen Mary is based on sound historical sources, and I'm happy to recommend this book to anyone wanting a more nuanced understanding of one of our most troubled queens. 

Tony Riches
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About the Author

Alison Weir is the New York Times bestselling author of the novels Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth and several historical biographies, including Mistress of the Monarchy, Queen Isabella, Henry VIII, Eleanor of Aquitaine, The Life of Elizabeth I, and The Six Wives of Henry VIII. She lives in Surrey, England with her husband. Find out more at Alison's website and find her on Facebook and Twitter  @AlisonWeirBooks

(A review copy of this book was kindly provided by the publishers, Headline UK)

5 February 2024

Book Review: The Physician's Fate: Book Four of Lord's Legacy, by Eleanor Swift-Hook

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Paris, December 1642: Gideon Lennox is now employed by Sir Philip Lord, a notorious mercenary commander with a mysterious past. When Lord is sent to Paris to present King Charles’ condolences to his brother-in-law, King Louis, Gideon is at his side.

For the first tine in this series the action moves to Paris. Christmas is approaching, but this is no holiday. as danger and intrigue lurk in every shadowy alleyway.

This is the fourth book of the Lord's legacy series and shifts up another gear with a dual narrative. I kept picking up the book, even when I had important things to do, as I wanted to know if I'd guessed right about what happened next. (I invariably found I was wrong.)

As always with this series, there are plenty of surprises, and deft touches of historical authenticity which make me want to learn more about this period. 
Although The Physician's Fate would work well as a stand-alone, I recommend starting with book one of the series to fully appreciate the impressive scale and depth of Eleanor Swift-Hook's skilled storytelling.   

Tony Riches

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About the Author

Eleanor Swift-Hook enjoys the mysteries of history and fell in love with the early Stuart era at university when she re-enacted battles and living history events with the English Civil War Society. Since then, she has had an ongoing fascination with the social, military and political events that unfolded during the Thirty Years' War and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. She lives in County Durham and loves writing stories woven into the historical backdrop of those dramatic times. You can find out more about the background of Lord's Legacy on her website and find her on Twitter @emswifthook

See Also:

3 February 2024

Book Review: Women of the Anarchy, by Sharon Bennett Connolly ~ A Compelling Narrative with Historical Insight.

Available from Amazon UK and 
for pre-order Amazon US

The story of the Anarchy from the unique perspective of the two women at the center of the struggle for the crown.

I'd never really understood the civil war known as 'The Anarchy', until now. Sharon Bennett Connolly shows her passion for the subject and her skill at translating meticulous research into a compelling narrative.

People could be forgive for confusing Empress Matilda or 'Maud' with her cousin, Queen Matilda, wife of the 'usurper',  King Stephen. As the surviving legitimate child of King Henry I, Empress Matilda fights for her birthright and that of her children. 

Sharon Bennett Connolly avoids portraying these women as pawns or victims, but reveals complex characters, driven by ambition, love, faith, and an inspiring determination to take control of their own destinies. We see their vulnerabilities and triumphs, their moments of weakness and resilience, creating a deeply human and relatable portrait of these women's lives.

I recommend Women of the Anarchy to anyone with an interest in understanding more about how these remarkable and the often-overlooked women shaped their era and paved the way for those who followed.

Tony Riches

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About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS is the best-selling author of 4 non-fiction history books, including Heroines of the Medieval World, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England, and Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon has studied history academically and just for fun – and has even worked as a tour guide at a castle. She also writes the popular history blog, Sharon regularly gives talks on women's history; she is a feature writer for All About History magazine and her TV work includes Australian Television's 'Who Do You Think You Are?' Find out more from Sharon's Blog and find her on Facebook, Bluesky and Twitter @Thehistorybits

2 February 2024

Book Launch Guest Post by Judith Arnopp, Author of A Matter of Time: Henry VIII, The Dying of the Light (The Henrician Chronicle Book 3)

Available from Amazon UK and Amazon US

With youth now far behind him, King Henry VIII has only produced one infant son and two bastard daughters. More sons are essential to secure the Tudor line and with his third wife, Jane Seymour dead, Henry hunts for a suitable replacement.

In Defence of Henry

Most people are aware of Henry VIII’s story but when I began writing The Henrician Chronicle few authors had addressed the events of the reign from the king’s point of view. I have spent four years in Henry’s company. When I wrote the first few pages in the king’s voice, I had no idea how the final books would turn out, but I quickly realised it would be substantially different to other books on the subject.
The Henrician Chronicle tells the story of his reign as the king himself would have told it. Of course, it is biased in his favour but as the narrator, he is as honest as he can bring himself to be. He makes excuses, he skims over the parts he can’t bear to examine too closely but essentially he gives as honest an account of himself as someone in denial can.

I first encountered him around 1971, as an eleven-year-old and since then I have read almost everything ever written about him, the good and the bad. I constantly see him described as a ‘monster’, usually an ‘obese monster’ but his accusers seldom look deeper or consider the events that made him the man he was. I don’t believe in monsters; I believe in ‘monstrous behaviour’ but that is always carried out by human beings. Sadly, every one of Henry’s failings were very human. He was in search of love, admiration and success, as we all are and when things went awry, he struck out, as we all do – the difference was, Henry had greater power and stronger weapons.
As for being ‘fat’, when did obesity become a crime? The suits of armour that survive were certainly made for a tall man, those from the early part of his reign intended for an athlete to wear. After his activity was restricted due to a jousting injury, and he passed into middle age his girth expanded. Many of us are guilty of that.

Just a few years before he died, he donned his armour and sailed off in search of glory, not just for himself but for England. His intent was to win back areas of France, to repeat the glories of Agincourt. Had he won, we might even be hailing him as a hero today.
The armour he wore in 1544, three years before his death, is certainly larger than that he wore in his youth, but it still doesn’t suggest he was grossly overweight. He was much closer to death before his weight became debilitating, necessitating him to be carried from room to room in a chair. 

It astonishes me in this day and age when we are supposed to be ‘kind’ and accepting of disability that he is negatively judged for growing old, ill and fat. Obesity is not the sign of a bad character, it is a physical condition, something to be pitied. Obesity does not equate to gluttony – there are many skinny gluttons.

I am not one moment suggesting we excuse his many crimes and, hate him if you will for them but please stop with the weight shaming! Perhaps even spare a thought for the golden prince who ascended the throne of England with a huge weight of expectation on his shoulders, expectations that he strove very hard but failed to achieve in almost every instance.

Judith Arnopp

Judith’s trilogy The Henrician Chronicle, comprising of A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, the Aragon Years. A Matter of Faith: Henry VIII, the days of the Phoenix, and A Matter of Time: the Dying of the Light, is available now on Amazon Kindle and paperback.

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About the Author 

Judith Arnopp is a lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader with a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies. She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction. She is best known for her novels set in the Medieval and Tudor period, focussing on the perspective of historical women but recently she has completed a trilogy from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.  Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria which is when she began to experiment with sewing historical garments. She now makes clothes and accessories both for the group and others. She is not a professionally trained sewer but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly historically accurate clothing. Her non-fiction book, How to Dress like a Tudor was published by Pen and Sword in 2023. Find out more at Judith's website and find her on Facebook, Bluesky and Twitter @JudithArnopp

1 February 2024

Book Launch Spotlight: Heaven on Earth: The Lives and Legacies of the World's Greatest Cathedrals, by Emma J. Wells

Available on Amazon UK

A glorious history of sixteen of the world's greatest cathedrals, interwoven with the extraordinary stories of the people who built them.

The emergence of the Gothic style in twelfth-century France, characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, flying buttresses and large windows, forms the central core of Emma Wells's authoritative but accessible study of the golden age of the cathedral. 

More than architectural biographies, these are human stories of triumph and tragedy that take the reader from the chaotic atmosphere of the mason's yard to the cloisters of power. 

Together, they reveal how 1000 years of cathedral-building shaped modern Europe, and influenced art, culture and society around the world.

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About the Author

Dr Emma Wells is an historian, archaeologist, author, broadcaster and award-winning academic. She is Associate Lecturer at the University of York and an Historic Buildings Consultant. She has a PhD from the University of Durham (soon to be published as a book) and is a regular contributor to television and radio as an expert on pilgrimage. Find out more at and you can find Emma on Facebook and Twitter @Emma_J_Wells.

Book Launch Interview with Jessica Mills, Author of Rosalind: one woman did the work, three men took the glory

New from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Rosalind Franklin knows that to be a woman in a man’s world is to be invisible. In the 1950s science is a gentleman’s profession, and it appears after WWII that there are plenty of colleagues who want to keep it that way.

I'm pleased to welcome author Jessica Mills to The Writing Desk:

Tell us about your latest book...

Rosalind is about the woman who science forgot. It tells the story of Rosalind Franklin, who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, only for three men to win a Nobel prize for the theory a decade later. The book explores the Matilda Effect, which has contributed to women’s contributions being written out of history books for millennia.

As a journalist I saw how women were systematically excluded from bylines on some of the most important front-page headlines, limiting women's opportunities to progress in what is still a male-dominated world. A study by Women in Journalism in 2017 showed that just 25% of published front page bylines were by women. There was another study around that time that showed a man named John or Dave was more likely to have a position on a company board than a woman.

When I began writing the novel in 2018, gender pay gap reporting showed how women's pay was lagging behind men's across all industries. This was blamed largely on men occupying more senior positions in the workplace, which seemed like a circular argument, and I didn’t think that blaming it on women's childbearing told the whole story. I wanted to explore how it was that women could do good work and not be credited for it, and why women get fewer bylines, feel less heard, and ultimately earn less than male counterparts.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, studies have shown that women were more likely to be made redundant than in previous downturns. Many more women are regularly pushed out of work after returning from maternity leave, and even fertility services have age restrictions for women that don’t apply to men.

What is your preferred writing routine?

For me, writing a novel began with an exercise in research. I started by visiting the archives and plotting out Rosalind Franklin’s part in the DNA story, which had been largely untold to date. My aim was to uncover her true role in the discovery of DNA’s structure, and how it was that three men–two of whom worked at a different lab entirely–were awarded a Nobel prize for a theory that so closely mirrored the two-strand, or two-chain, helix that she described in her notebook weeks and months earlier.

I wrote most of the novel shortly after leaving my job as an editor at a big financial news corporation, which afforded me time to work on my draft manuscript alongside freelance assignments. I like to journal in shorthand, but when writing the novel, I often sat and typed at a desk in the kitchen overlooking the garden, with relaxing music playing in the background.

What advice do you have for new writers?

To stick to your vision and stay true to it even in the face of what can seem like overwhelming rejection. There is a lot of rejection in the publishing industry, which can be difficult to deal with, particularly when it sometimes seems that celebrity authors are handed book deals on a plate. To some extent, I had experience of this from being a journalist for most of my career. Some editors can spend months deliberating as to whether to publish or accept an article, and an edit is an act of, hopefully constructive, criticism. But I still wasn’t prepared for the slow pace of the publishing industry.

In fact, I was offered a traditional publishing deal an entire year after a blind submission, while I was on maternity leave, after publishing through a print-on-demand platform and almost giving up hope of ever being traditionally published altogether. Few publishers accept unagented submissions nowadays and I understand why they can take time to respond to authors; because they are often heavily focused on their new writers.

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

This is the million-dollar question. I have personally hoped that readers will simply connect with my main character and her journey. All I have been able to do as a writer is to write the very best book I could, and I edited it and re-edited it mercilessly. Despite efforts to secure an agent, ultimately my novel received an offer on a blind pitch to a publisher. Building a social media presence seems to be an inevitable requirement for authors nowadays, and the only way I was motivated to do this was to think less of promoting my book and more about trying to build connections. I have connected with some incredible authors during my publishing journey and try to absorb their enthusiasm for the craft.

Tell us something unexpected you discovered during your research

The most unexpected finding was that photograph 51, taken in May 1952, was not Rosalind's first or arguably best X-ray image of DNA's helical structure. It was one of many photographs she was taking of DNA at different humidities. In fact, a photograph from an earlier experiment, number 49, is arguably a better photograph than photo 51 as you can see the DNA fibres were aligned even more precisely. From these photographs, she deduced as early as February 1953 that DNA was likely to be a double helix ('2-chain helix').

What was the hardest scene you remember writing?

The hardest scenes for me to write were around Rosalind Franklin’s battle with ovarian cancer. I drew to some extent on my own experiences of surgery, which was carried out for different reasons. It was a tough reminder of how cruel life can be, but it was also hugely inspiring to learn of Rosalind’s character and her absolute commitment to scientific research throughout her illness. She was driven to pursue an experiment to determine the structure of the poliovirus, despite battling cancer. This was pioneering research and her colleague at Birkbeck went on to win a Nobel prize for the team’s work on biologically important structures in the years after her death in 1958.

What are you planning to write next?

I have some material left over from an alternative narrative that was in my original draft, around the male suffragettes, who comprised a significant portion of the people who fought for women’s suffrage: the right to vote.

Serendipitously, I discovered last year that two of my old friends had an ancestor who led the male suffragettes, who was in my draft narrative. His sister married Rosalind Franklin's uncle. Her family denied she was a feminist, but there is more to Rosalind's suffragette ancestry than meets the eye.

While I have no specific or set plans to write another book, I could explore this idea in future, if there was any appetite for me to write more historical fiction, or write something completely new and different.

Jessica Mills

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About the Author

Jessica Mills is a journalist and author. She has written for publications such as The Independent, The Wall Street Journal and Business Insider, where she investigated the use of flammable cladding in hospital intensive care units in 2020. She spent several years as an editor at Dow Jones, where she led the team that uncovered the misuse of funds at Abraaj and was a mmber of the steering committee for Women at Dow Jones. Her debut novel tells the true story of Rosalind Franklin, the invisible woman behind the discovery of DNA’s double helix. It was longlisted for the Exeter Novel Prize 2020. Find out more from her website and find her on Twitter @Byjessiemills