In both my next two novels, the work in progress, Empress & Soldier, and the planned last book of my series, Empire’s Passing, death and grief play an important role. In Empress & Soldier deaths transform my central characters in different ways. For both, deaths are the pivots that change the directions of their lives. One grieves in ways he cannot articulate (he may not even realize he is grieving); one is forced by circumstance to pick up the pieces of a shattered life far too soon.
The personal relationships of the characters of my Empire’s Legacy series have always been a metaphor, or a reflection, of the political relationships among their countries, their creation of an unusual ‘found family’ and the depth and expression of love among them echoes their work towards understanding and cooperation among their nations. The loss, in Empire’s Passing, of two of these central characters, deeply loved, deeply grieved, will also reflect the fragility of the political alliance; both families and political unions can be strengthened or destroyed by catastrophic events.
I am 64 years old. In my life death has, of course, touched mine. But not yet the deep, life-changing grief of losing life partners that my characters will experience. My parents died at 93 and 99: I mourned them, miss them still, but life didn’t change in any significant way. My brother’s too-early death came closer, hit harder, but I wasn’t left to find a way forward alone.
So I turned to others accounts: CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Personal accounts, too: friends, family – not interviews, but remembering what they said or described. Listening, squirreling away words and concepts, as writers do.
I know what my characters do, in response to their losses. The challenge is entwining the feelings, the mental response, the confusion and darkness and irrationality with their actions in a way that is plausible and to some extent explanatory. Grief is universal but intensely personal, and in what I am attempting I am conscious I am not writing from lived experience, but from research, imagination, and empathy. Will my characters, who live only on the page and in a world that has never existed, express their pain and grief and love in ways that speak to readers? I will find out in time, I suppose.
Featured Image: Stele of Titus Fuficius in Split Archaeological Museum, Split, Croatia
Lady, in Waiting, the third novel in my Tudor Court series, takes place during the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I. Its main character, Margaery Preston, is a chamberer, one of many levels of waiting-women in the royal privy chambers.
Unlike a court headed by a king, where all public and private duties were carried out by men, a queen’s attendants, other than guards, were all female. This gave them some degree of power at court, as courtiers, court officials, and ambassadors all vied for attention and influence. To be a woman in Elizabeth’s court required connections: many attendants were related on her Boleyn side, but there were also cousins descending from her father’s sisters, Margaret and Mary.
The women were required to amuse the queen, and so had to be well-educated, often speaking several languages; skilled in music or dance; and able to keep up with the queen on horseback or at the archery butts.
At the top of the heap was Katherine (“Kat”) Ashley, first lady of the bedchamber and the queen’s former governess. Mistress Ashley kept the privy chamber running smoothly, handling expenses on behalf of the household and keeping an eye on the younger women. But her main concern was always Elizabeth.
The ladies of the bedchamber came next—senior ladies-in-waiting whose duties included dressing and undressing the queen, combing and styling her hair, serving her food, entertaining her with music or conversation, and occasionally sharing her bed. (The queen was a bad sleeper and liked company; it was also a form of security in that she would never be alone). These ladies were generally older, and often married. Most were related to Elizabeth in some way.
Next in line were the maids of honor, who were both entertaining and decorative. Maids were generally well-born girls of fourteen to eighteen years of age. Their placement made it easy to secure good marriages under the queen’s eye.
The other women, including chamberers, were more all-purpose, and did whatever needed doing at any given time, from carrying trays to emptying chamber pots to my character Margaery’s least favorite task, collecting the pins which held the queen’s daily costumes together. (Heads would not roll if Her Majesty stepped on a pin, but it would be an unpleasant time, nonetheless).
With so many women, the court should have been a brilliant display of color, but it was not. As Margaery learns early on from Mistress Ashley, “Her Majesty likes her women to be soberly dressed.”
Elizabeth Tudor did not like to be upstaged, even by those closest to her.
Did I unfollow you on Twitter? Don’t take it personally. You didn’t offend me.
Like most of us, after 21 months of pandemic, I’m tired. I don’t need to go into the reasons why: we all know them.
Social media is both a blessing and a curse; a place to connect and relax, and a place to be embroiled in controversy. A place where I find readers, and researchers to connect with, and things about archaeology and late-antiquity/early medieval history I didn’t know, and a place to find authors and books to read.
But there is just too much of it. My Home feed isn’t giving me what I’m on Twitter for, primarily. I have to search for the people I want to interact with, whose tweets I want to read, with whom I want to check in. It’s not that you’re not all valuable members of the Writing Community – it’s that I don’t have enough mental energy left to appreciate you all. I need, for a while at least, to focus on history, archaeology, birding and nature, and the writers who write and/or tweet about these subjects. Mostly.
So I am culling who I follow down to fewer than 2000. How many fewer, I don’t know. Already my Home feed is looking better, frustrating me less, giving me the connections I’m looking for.
I probably – almost certainly – have unfollowed people I didn’t mean to. I hope I’ll figure that out over the next few weeks. If you’re upset by what I’m doing, I apologize for my actions inducing those reactions in you – but not for doing what I need to for myself.
Social media’s not the only place I’m pulling back. I’m not planning on doing any serious work on the WIP for a couple more months. Too many responsibilities, some self-imposed, others not, have come together just now. I’ll be culling those, too, as I can.
Midwinter’s eve, and the fire burned high. Food had been shared, and beer, and for once the sheep were unguarded, the fire and songs thought to be enough to dissuade the wolves. We sat with Fél and Kaisa and Aetyl, and beside me Audo and his three dogs. His brindle bitch, who had taken a liking to me, lay with her head on my feet.
Kaisa had instructed me in the expectations for tonight: come newly washed and in clean clothes, and bring something to give to the fire. The more precious, the better. The sun must be honoured, she said.
I had struggled to find something to bring. Audo sat with an ermine skin on his lap, his gift to the sun. My most precious possession was Colm’s history of the Empire, and I certainly wasn’t sacrificing that. Cillian had devised a solution for himself: a poem, written on a small piece of his carefully rationed paper. In the end, I gave an arrow, one of the small ones from the bird bow that had kept us fed on our journey across the mountains.
One by one, people rose to throw their offering to the fire, the men first. When they were finished, the women gave their gifts, and finally, me. Drumbeats had sounded throughout, and now the men began to sing. Audo, on one side of me, growled the words, not keeping time, but Cillian sang true. When did he learn the words? His singing voice was light, but clearly trained: Dagney’s hand there, I thought.
Aivar rose as the song ended. Everyone quieted. The two boys who became men tonight stepped forward. They both looked tired and a little disoriented: I guessed they had fasted for at least a day. There had been rituals earlier for them, attended only by the village men.
In any other year they would now just be presented to the village as men, but I had something to do, first. Aivar, leaning on his stick, called my name. He and I had spoken a few days earlier about what I should do.
“This village has never had a devanī,” he told me, “but others have. I remember what their vēsturni told me. A blessing from you is all I ask. Will you do that?”
I told him what Cillian and I had discussed. “Very good,” he said.
I rose, the two arrows in my hand, walking to where the two boys waited. At a word from Aivar they both knelt. I kissed each boy on his forehead and placed an arrow in each waiting hand. “The huntress guides your hand,” I told them as I did. Aivar had chosen those words.
The devanī should give her blessing to us all for the new year,” Ivor shouted, as I turned to leave. Other voices joined his. I thought I heard Gret’s among them. Aivar raised his hand.
“We…” He began to cough, a deep, racking cough. He tried again. “We do not ask for what we do not need,” he rasped. “Our men hunt well. If we need the devanī to give luck to a hunt, she will give it at the time. Do not waste the gift.”
Aivar’s edicts could not be disputed. Ivor and his friends quieted. The drumbeats began again, and this time women began to sing, and a few to dance. More beer made the rounds, Cillian, as usual, refusing. In the northern sky, green lights flickered; shadows rose and fell in the firelight. Fél wrapped a fur around himself and Kaisa, holding her against him. “Keep Lena warm,” he told Cillian, “or she’ll have to cuddle Audo, or his dog.” I glanced at Cillian. We had never touched in public.
“Then I better,” he said. I moved close, tucking the fur around us, leaning into him. We listened to the drums.
Ivor walked by, dressed only in a light tunic, spurning the cold. The empty mug in his hand told me what he searched for. He gave us a scornful look. “Devanī,” he said. “Why waste yourself on this man?” One of Audo’s dogs snarled. “Incapable vēsturni and idiots,” Ivor spat. “I will show you what a real man is one day.” He kept walking.
“Be careful of him, Lena,” Fél warned.
“I am,” I assured him. The drumbeats continued, faster; the dancing grew wilder. Under the fur, Cillian’s hand began a gentle caress.
“Shall we go to our bed?” he murmured.
We rose. Fél looked up. “Sleep well,” he said, “when you finally remember to sleep, that is.” Kaisa laughed. “Can we send Aetyl to sleep with her cousins?” I heard him say to her, as we left.
In our hut the fire had burned to coals. Cillian added wood. “Do you need to make tea?”
“I did, earlier.” My mouth was dry. I dropped the fur on the bed. We regarded each other across the space, in the light of the newly blazing fire. “It is a new year,” I said softly. “Don’t you have a fancy to fulfill?”
He crossed the room to me, beginning to smile; not his usual, quickly-gone smile, but one slow and genuine, lighting his whole face. My breath caught. He looks so much younger, I thought, and so beautiful. I saw tenderness in this smile, and vulnerability. He took me in his arms. I raised a hand to his face.
“This is something I haven’t seen before,” I murmured. “Why have you kept such a beautiful smile hidden?”
He turned his head to kiss my fingers. “My one legacy from my mother, I am told,” he said. “As to why, it is just reticence, Lena, like much else about me, long habit.” He bent to kiss me, a long, exploratory kiss. “Perhaps I will have more reason to let it show after tonight.”
I didn’t need to damp down desire now. My hands, low on his back, found his skin. I pulled him closer. Part of my mind noted the ridges of a scar under my fingers, but it wasn’t important. Nothing was, except his lips on mine and his hands, under my tunic now, making me gasp.
“You are very sure?” he asked, his voice low and barely controlled. “Tell me now, if you are not.”
“Yes.” I fought to speak. “Are you?”
“I am.” His mouth came down again, demanding now, insistent. How long has it been for him? I wondered, before I gave myself up to my need, and his. He hesitated once, just for a moment, and then there were only lips and hands and cresting pleasure, and unexpectedly, tears that were not mine.
The Lost Prince 2003 BBC/WGBH biopic of Prince John.
Even for those people with an interest in the British royal family, Prince John is a shadowy figure. Not the ‘evil’ brother of Richard the Lionheart, whose barons made him sign the Magna Carta in 1215, but the youngest child of King George V and Queen Mary.
John was born in 1905 at York Cottage on the royal family’s private Sandringham estate, in west Norfolk, and here too he spent much of his early childhood, until his father succeeded to the throne in 1910. His early childhood was uneventful, but by age four he was described as ‘painfully slow’ by Queen Mary’s biographer Anne Edwards. Later, Queen Mary would write to a friend, saying John ‘a great anxiety to us for many years, ever since he was four years old.’
A seizure some point in his fifth year led to a diagnosis of epilepsy, but other behaviours, especially a repetition of actions and an inability to learn from consequences have led to a posthumous diagnosis of autism. As a result, and typical of the times and social class, John was removed from the public eye, to live quietly with his governess Lalla at Wood Farm (then Marsh Farm), one of the farms on the Sandringham estate.
Wood Farm (the red arrow in the map below) is isolated, even by Norfolk standards. At the end of a long private track which itself runs off the public lane that circles the hamlet of Wolferton, it is five kilometers away from Sandringham House itself. Overlooking flat farmland out to The Wash, and on private land without footpaths, it would have been indeed a quiet, private life. Although, in the years John lived there, the train from King’s Lynn to Hunstanton ran very close to Wood Farm, with a station at Wolferton for the royal family. Perhaps it provided some excitement.
But quiet and private did not mean neglected or forgotten, even as his seizures worsened. Along with his nanny, local children were chosen to play with John, and among those children was my father’s first cousin Mary. Her father was an estate employee, as was his father (my great-grandfather). Two years younger than John, she remembered this vividly in the last years of her life; it was one of the stories she loved to tell us when we visited her in the 1990s. I spoke to the last surviving member of that generation of cousins, Anne, last week; she’s in her 101st year, with a memory clearer than mine. I had been under the impression that the estate children were taken out to Wood Farm for their ‘playdates’ with the prince, but that wasn’t the whole story. John was also brought to the village, and Anne told me of her grandmother’s exasperation after Mary and the prince had made themselves horribly muddy jumping in the stream of water that ran down the side of the lane my great-grandparents’ house stands on.
John died in 1919 at Wood Farm. My cousin Mary died in 2001, before The Lost Prince was made. I would have loved to have known her reaction to it. Like me, she would have to have first get past the landscape: it was filmed in Buckinghamshire, which does NOT look like the flat coastal landscape of west Norfolk; nor did the house they used bear much resemblance to Wood Farm. But those details aside, and allowing for dramatic flourishes and emphases, my overall reaction was one of a reasonably fair portrayal of a child whose neurology did not allow him to adapt to the demands and changes of the early twentieth century, ones that also nearly destroyed the royal family. An allegory as much as a biography, perhaps.
Intense, moving and deeply personal, this novel set on the edge of history is a picture of an unconventional family under various threats is an engaging read. A political thriller of sorts, this is a novel which features a subtle and intelligent story of a group of people who are playing for high stakes – their lives and the survival of their country in the face of a powerful ruling Empire. The talented author continues a saga in a created world which draws inspiration and historical veracity from Roman history with other elements added. This book is the second in a second trilogy of an Empire where women are frequently warriors, politicians and in the case of one of the main characters here, diplomats. Gwenna is a young woman who is the acknowledged heir to the land of Esperias, and it is largely her…
Smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limb intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood…This weapon should be learned by all recruits with frequent exercise, because it is no effort to carry a sling. It often happens too that warfare is carried on in stony places, that some mountain or hill has to be defended…
Vegetius: De Re Militari
Druisius, one of the main characters in my work-in-progress, Empress & Soldier, is a new recruit facing his first battle, defending a mountain pass. In the vanguard of the troops facing the enemy are the slingers. (No, this isn’t historically correct: what I write isn’t. It’s a created world that looks a lot like ours, but I’m not bound by absolute accuracy.)
Slings are an ancient weapon, most likely in use long before any written record. The first written record in the western world is the story of David and Goliath in the Old Testament of the Bible (1st Samuel), thought to have been written about the 6th century BCE. Used across the world, the oldest-known slings are from coastal Peru, radio-carbon dated to c. 2500 BCE.
Roman slingers, which I am using as my model, used lead sling-bullets: the density of lead means that the mass of a sling-bullet made from the metal is much greater than one of stone. Lead sling-bullets could therefore be small, able to travel further than a stone of the same mass due to less resistance in the air, and difficult to see in flight. A painful projectile, with larger ones capable of speeds up to 160 kph. As archaeologist John Reid of the Trimontium Trust told Scientific American, it could take the top of a head off. Romans (and Greeks) literally added insult to injury: bullets were sometimes inscribed with images of snakes or scorpions, or inscriptions such as ‘catch!’.
Perhaps the most interesting of all the sling bullets found from the Roman period are those from Burnswark, or Birrenswark, Hill in southwestern Scotland. In the second century CE, troops under the command of Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the Roman governor of Britannia (himself following orders from Antonius Pius, the Roman Emperor) attacked the hillfort of the Caledonian people here. Archaeological investigations at the site discovered about twenty percent of the sling bullets were smaller than average, and had holes drilled into them. These bullets whistle as they fly. Their assumed purpose is to terrify the enemy: small, stinging, whistling projectiles, almost like a swarm of biting insects.
Druisius isn’t a slinger; he’s infantry, a foot soldier using shield and sword. But he sees the value of the sling in his first battle. Will he ever use it? You may have to read Empress & Soldier to find out!
Translated Texts for Historians Volume 16: Vegetius: Epitome of Military Science. N.P. Milner, Translator. Liverpool University Press, 1996. pp 16-17
OUT NOW Kidnapped in 7th century England and sold as a slave to a powerful mayor in France, Bathilde needs to adapt to survive. When the mayor’s beloved wife passes away, he looks to Bathilde for comfort. Fleeing his attentions, she is forced to live on the streets until she catches the king’s eye and everything changes.
How did a slave navigate the treacherous Merovingian courts and rise to rule an empire? And why have so few people heard of her? https://amzn.to/2VPPUIE
Paperback OUT NOW; e-book AUGUST 18: In the beginning there was confusion.
Ever woken up being a God, but not knowing how to God properly? Your brothers keep creating mosquitoes and celery and other, more threatening weapons. What can your ultimate answer be – the one that will make you THE All-Father and them, at best, the All-Those-Uncles-We-All-Have-But-Don’t-Talk-About? “FML! The answer’s why I drink!” – Odin
OUT NOW: GRACE ON THE HORIZON is the second full-length novel in The White Sails Series. Grace and Seamus, united by their past experiences, are adrift on a raft of shame in the sea of 1830s London society. After a personal tragedy, Grace’s desperation to leave London forces Seamus to accept a dubious commission on the private explorer, Clover. GRACE ON THE HORIZON promises another adventure on the high seas, bursting with action and suspense. https://amzn.to/2Ulhopg
AUGUST 18: A space opera heist brimming with action, twists, and turns that doubles as a story of personal growth, mentorship, and sacrifice.
Ailo is a streetwise teen surviving alone on the remote moonbase, Tarkassi 9. She wants nothing more than to flee into the wider world of the Arm. When her chance arrives, she makes it no farther than the first ship out of the system. That’s where Jati, the Patent War veteran and general fighting the Monopolies gives her a second chance. https://amzn.to/3iIftUW
AUGUST 25 When a young man is found dead, killed in the exact manner as a martyr slain on the fields of Karbala some two hundred years before, there is no mistaking it as anything other than an attack on the Shia community of Baghdad. The city is on edge as religious and political factions are exposed sending the caliph’s army into the streets. Ammar and Tein have to clear the case, one way or another, before violence erupts. But Zaytuna has had a visionary dream of the murder that holds the key to solving the case. Can she can read its signs? And will Tein and Ammar listen? https://www.llsilvers.com/purchase
In today’s guest post, Karen Heenan, author of The Tudor Court books (Songbird and A Wider World) looks at the television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s series focused on Thomas Cromwell.
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. Photo: BBC
I’ve been a fan of Tudor-related TV since I first saw the BBC’s Six Wives of Henry VIII in the early 1970s, when I was just 6 or 7 years old, and I will watch anything about the period, even if it makes me cringe. As a writer of Tudor-era novels, my excuse is that even badly done stories can have redeeming qualities, though some programs have come very close to disproving my theory.
Not Wolf Hall, though. Based on the first two novels of Hilary Mantel’s excellent series, much care was taken with the production – from costumes to exterior locations to the marvelous interiors. So many candles! I found myself squinting in sympathy with people who had to live in half-dusk during the day. The costuming, particularly of the less-exalted characters (Cromwell himself, his wife and sister-in-law, the young men of his entourage) is wonderfully accurate, with head coverings abounding and care shown to small details. The courtiers’ costumes are also well done, though I had a few issues with Claire Foy’s gowns – something that tightly laced shouldn’t have those unfortunate wrinkles across the front! But her portrayal of Anne Boleyn made up for any costuming quibbles.
Speaking of performances, Mark Rylance’s Cromwell, is as close to perfect as they come. He’s an actor whose face, while seeming expressionless, can portray a myriad of thoughts – and Cromwell had a myriad of thoughts. Whatever your feelings are about the historical figure of Cromwell, this was a masterful portrayal. Damian Lewis would not have been my first choice for Henry, but while his physical appearance wasn’t quite ideal, he embodied the king’s dangerous volatility to a point where it was almost uncomfortable to watch him.
Mantel published the third and final volume of the series last year; there is another BBC series in the works, though they haven’t confirmed the casting yet. I hope they convince Mark Rylance take up Cromwell once again; I’ll watch it regardless, but no one else will ever quite be Cromwell to me after this.
All this to say that Wolf Hall is an accurate portrayal of the period, especially since Tudor dramas have been known to go quite over-the-top (Showtime’s Tudors, anyone? I think Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is as pretty as they come, but he’s no Henry Tudor. And don’t get me started on the costumes!)
The main point of contention regarding Wolf Hall (books or series) is whether or not you agree with Hilary Mantel’s version of Cromwell. He’s been the villain of this period of history for so long that it’s unnerving to see him humanized, even if he is still doing the occasional villainous deed. If he didn’t, someone else would – Henry would have his way, come hell or high water, and we all know that to be the one true fact of any stretch of Tudor history.