Hazel McHaffie

Tower of London

Living breathing history!

14th November 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.

What a fab opening paragraph; dramatic, intriguing, suspenseful. And credible. Here is a 16-year-old girl surrounded by ambition, scheming, greed and treachery: ‘I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.’ And we know it to be true. That’s the thing with historical fiction about famous figures. We know the basic plot, we even know a lot about the characters, but Alison Weir brings them totally alive. And because she’s an authority on the historical detail, she weaves in so much real life, that we can easily believe the fiction too. We’re in extremely safe hands. Some parts of this book may indeed seem far-fetched, the author concedes, but they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.

A word then, about this remarkable author. Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the UK since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books. Her biography makes fascinating reading in itself.

Having published ten factual history books, she moved into fiction, ‘which is something serious historians attempt only at their peril‘, as she says herself. But it gave her ‘a heady sense of freedom’, allowing her imagination free reign, trying to penetrate the minds of her characters. In telling the shocking stories of life in one of the bloodiest and dangerous times in history, her aim is to enthrall and appall in equal measure. And indeed she achieves that aim.

Her writing is masterly. We can smell those fetid, hot, dark, fearful birthing rooms; sense the backbiting and treachery behind the obeisance; fear each fickle regal mood change and caprice; despair at the restrictions and inequalities of court and diplomatic etiquette, class and gender; tremble with the naive maidens, pawns in their destiny as obedient and virtuous brood mares; cringe at the barbarity of religious fanaticism. Weir weaves together a massive cast of characters, intricate contextual detail, politics, religion, romance, with consummate skill.

Innocent Traitor is the first of two books set in Tudor times, telling the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her death through, not just her eyes, but those around her.

Lady Jane Grey is the granddaughter of Henry VII, great-niece of Henry VIII; cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Precious Tudor blood runs in her veins. From the moment of her birth, she is in direct line to the throne, and destined for great things. As a growing child she is bright and articulate, extremely well educated and articulate and a devout Protestant. Unwanted daughter of a ruthless mother and a scheming father, she nevertheless becomes a pawn in their dynastic power games. They set her up to be Queen of England, a reign which lasts a mere 9 days from 10th to 19 July 1553.

These are the times when a sovereign could command a whole country to espouse his/her preferred religion. With a change of monarch or a regal whim the people are required to swing from Catholicism to Protestantism … and back again. Protesters are put to death as heretics. Following Lady Jane’s brief reign, Queen Mary demands a return to the Catholic faith. Initially she is keen to show leniency and give people time to change, but  unscrupulous schemers (including Jane’s father) take advantage of her gentleness and plot to overthrown her. She is forced to accept the dangers of giving them a foothold – heresy, revolt, treason – and concludes: ‘I have thought long on this, and prayed for guidance and I have decided to revive the old statute against heresy, and root it out, for it is like a canker that gnaws away at the very vitals of the Church. Those who do not recant will be burned at the stake. If my people will not come to salvation by gentler means, then they must be constrained to it, for the safety of their souls.‘ As the French Ambassador puts it: ‘…a foretaste of hell-fire on Earth wonderfully concentrates the mind, and can bring about the conversion of the most stubborn heart.‘ Gibbets are placed at every street corner to help the people ‘learn that it is no light thing to rebel against their lawful sovereign.‘ And Weir doesn’t spare us the horror of what burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering, mean. The people of the time thronged to watch the spectacle; she drags us into the crowd, forces us to watch with them. But looking on through the eyes of a 16-year-old innocent girl counting down the days to her own beheading, walking to that feared block, kneeling, praying for the last time … it’s powerful, harrowing stuff and definitely not for the faint-hearted.  As a reviewer from The Times says: ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.’

Faced with the burden of consigning that innocent girl to death, Queen Mary says: ‘I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.’  I suspect there are royals closer to our time who might embrace the same sentiments at times!

 

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66 letters – lest we forget

I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?

When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)

And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:

It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)

You can lose yourself in another time.

So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.

And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.

If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.

Used under Creative Commons Attribution - ShareAlike License

Thiepval Memorial (Used under Creative Commons Attribution – ShareAlike License)

A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.

Nevard-panelHis name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.

His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.

 

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