I’ve been looking forward to chatting with Tonya ever since I heard of her debut novel’s subject – the intrepid New York reporter Nellie Bly. When I first moved to the city I lived across the East River from Roosevelt Island, and a bleak, unwelcoming, derelict place it was. Reading of its history, I was not surprised. Tonya’s done a superb job of recreating the atmosphere and suspense in her novel, A Feigned Madness. Highly recommend.
I was fascinated to read of Jean Robert’s journey as she researched her ancestors for her historical fiction novels. Join us on Author Chats to discover more…and share that amazing feeling when you realize you are walking in your forefather’s footsteps.
Betrayal, treachery, treason, deceit, perfidy—all names for the calculated violation of trust. And it’s been rife since humans trod the earth.
A promise broken
A mission betrayed
A lover’s desertion
A parent’s deception
An unwitting act of treason
Betrayal by comrades
Betrayal by friends
Could you resist the forces of misplaced loyalty, power hunger, emotional blackmail, or plain greed? Is there ever redemption, or will the destruction visit future generations and even alter history? These questions are still with us today.
Read twelve tales by twelve accomplished writers who explore these historical yet timeless challenges from post Roman Britain to the present day.
AD 455—Roman leader Ambrosius is caught in a whirlpool of shifting allegiances
AD 940—Alyeva and cleric Dunstan navigate the dangers of the Anglo Saxon court
1185—Knight Stephan fights for comradeship, duty, and honour. But what about love?
1330—The powerful Edmund of Kent enters a tangled web of intrigue
1403—Thomas Percy must decide whether to betray his sovereign or his family
1457—Estelle is invited to the King of Cyprus’s court, but deception awaits
1483—Has Elysabeth made the right decision to bring Prince Edward to London?
1484—Margaret Beaufort contemplates the path to treason
1577—Francis Drake contends with disloyalty at sea
1650—Can James Hart, Royalist highwayman, stop a nemesis from destroying his friend?
1718—Pirate Annie Bonny, her lover Calico Jack, and a pirate hunter. Who will win?
1849/present—Carina must discover her ancestor’s betrayer in Italy or face ruin.
Today I’m thrilled to invite Roman scholar and novelist Brook Allen to my blog, celebrating the publication of her new book, Soldier of Fate, which includes one of history’s most famous couples – Antony and Cleopatra.
Brook, great to talk, and congrats on the fabulous new release. And, of course, I have to ask the burning question… “But did they LOVE one another?”
Over to you, Brook!
As author of The Antonius Trilogy, it’s my most-asked question and one that historians have tried to figure out for thousands of years. I say thousands, because whatever the truth was, Octavian Augustus—victor against the lovers, swept any evidence of Marc Antony under the rug. Strangely, he allowed Cleopatra’s statuary to survive. Although it’s believed that a wealthy man used gold to convince him to do so.
Figures. Money always talks.
Antony’s memory, however, was treated with damnatio memoriae—the damning of one’s memory. His statues were destroyed, inscriptions bearing his name were chiseled out, the Senate declared his birthdate as nefas—a bad luck day. No other member of his family was allowed to name their child “Marcus Antonius”. In other words, there was little love lost between Antony and Octavian.
Officially, the Augustan spin on the fate of both was to portray Cleopatra as a wily femme fatale who sexed her way into Caesar’s bed first, then Antony’s, to make a bid at ruling what would be known as the Roman Empire. Indeed, the tale stuck, didn’t it?
But what about the emotions between Antony and Cleopatra? What did they feel for one another?
Some could argue that Caesar was old enough to be Cleopatra’s grandfather when he and Egypt’s Queen first met—when she was smuggled into his presence during a time of Egyptian and Roman civil unrest. Past Ptolemies had managed to destroy and sell Egypt out through corruption and the Romans had been busy fighting themselves and fellow Italians for nearly one-hundred years by the time Cleopatra rolled out of her carpet.
Caesar, a known womanizer wasted no time in dictating his expectations of the young Queen. Though she may have been a virgin—or not—Cleopatra was certainly not naïve. Here was a young woman of twenty-one who spoke at least seven languages, was astute in mathematics, politics, and astronomy. She was Queen over the most prestigious center of learning in the known world at the time, and wound up impressing Caesar enough to wind up as sole ruler. Especially after the convenient death of her brother during the Alexandrian War, which Caesar fought on her behalf.
When she visited Rome, she was Caesar’s “guest” for a good two years, living in a fantastic villa across the Tiber from the pomerium—Rome’s official boundary which wasn’t to be crossed by foreigners. Caesar himself was absent for much of that time, still finishing his civil war against the sons of Pompeius Magnus in what is now Spain. But she did make impressions and according to ancient writers, most notably Cicero, they weren’t good ones.
Cicero wrote an enormous collection of letters to his close friend, Atticus, which actually makes for fascinating reading. I highly recommend them! He was truly Rome’s megaphone and continued to have great influence within the Senate. He denounced Cleopatra vehemently, snarling, “The arrogance of the Queen herself when she was living on the estate across the Tiber makes my blood boil to recall.” He went so far as declaring, “I detest the Queen!” After she left Rome, Cicero may have even spitefully voiced glee at her possibly miscarrying a second pregnancy by Caesar.
Cicero attacked Antony too—fourteen times—in letters to the State, known as his Philippics. Antony had many reasons for despising Cicero, and they were very good reasons. (Read my books!!!) When he finally made his way into Cleopatra’s life, Antony had made it a priority to have Cicero executed and he was at the height of his career. He’d just defeated Brutus and Cassius, putting an end to true Roman Republican voices forever. What he didn’t bargain on was what his own colleagues would think about having a woman given equal footing in their strategic planning. Nor did they imagine his generous nature would include granting her large land endowments.
Was he foolish in capitulating with her like this? Not necessarily.
Cleopatra had something Antony needed too—GOLD. He needed it to pay and upkeep his enormous army which he’d use to invade Parthia. He needed assurances of allies at his back to keep the East in line in his absence and to guarantee fealty from client kings. His territory was enormous and I see him as a huge risk-taker, and with the soldierly, easy-going nature he had with his men, it’s possible he believed that they’d come around to see the benefits of his alliance with Egypt.
Sadly for Antony, they never did. Roman sentiment for Egypt’s Queen had been marred by Cicero, Octavian, and Caesar’s behavior with her. His full acceptance of her as a mistress, and possibly as a wife, wound up being fodder for Octavian’s propaganda against him and reason for defections from his staff and army.
Some historians and classicists simply believe that this relationship was political and mutually expedient to achieve what they both needed. For Cleopatra, that was sole, secure power and a restoration (of sorts) of former Ptolemaic lands. Antony on the other hand, could have used her for coin, to bolster his strength with a new navy, and for sex. He did have quite the reputation!
As an amateur historian, lover of ancient tales, and yes—a novelist. I don’t buy that this was all they were to one another. I fully believe that Antony and Cleopatra were committed to one another, whether they were married or not. And the funny thing is—my belief in this doesn’t necessarily stem from extravagant gifts they gave each other.
It’s how they acted at the end.
Both Antony and Cleopatra, as it turned out, were in communication with Octavian during their last year of life. He did his UTMOST to drive a wedge between them. To Antony, he refused to spare Cleopatra’s life. Antony could have surrendered the Queen over to him easily. His ally Herod of Judea urged him to do so. But instead, he pleaded mercy on her behalf. Here was a broken man who had lost everything, yet he was still concerned over her well-being. Cleopatra also asked for mercy—for Caesar’s son, Caesarion. She requested that he reign in her stead. Octavian promised her nothing, but suggested leniency if she would but turn over Antony’s head or person—dead or alive.
So, for me, it’s what they DIDN’T do that is the tell-all. Okay, maybe they didn’t LOVE each other, but certainly they were unified in their last stand, willing to die together. And yet when there was confusion on that final day and Cleopatra may or may not have sent Antony a message telling him she was already dead, where did he want to go, following his attempt at suicide?
He wanted to be with her.
Plutarch, who lived nearly a hundred years after the demise of Antony and Cleopatra, left to us the most complete story of their relationship. Oh, there were other ancient sources that left tidbits, but Plutarch really “put out” a story worthy of attention. Shakespeare snagged it in a heartbeat. And each time I’ve read it, I can’t help but believe that there was something more emotional there than what some scholars want us to hold on to. Plutarch had access to a lot more contemporaneous history—both written and oral, I might add.
So—this novelist chooses to believe the best in Antony and Cleopatra. That they tried to craft a kingdom that would join Rome in its glory, that they were loving parents who were proud of the family they’d made, and lastly, that they loved and loved greatly, passionately, and just as marriage vows still state—unto death.
Author Brook Allen has a passion for ancient history—especially 1st century BC Rome. Her current work is a trilogy on the life of Marcus Antonius—Marc Antony, which she has worked on for the past fifteen years. The first installment, Antonius: Son of Rome was published in March 2019. It follows Antony as a young man, from the age of eleven, when his father died in disgrace, until he’s twenty-seven and meets Cleopatra for the first time. Brook’s second book is Antonius: Second in Command, dealing with the Antony’s tumultuous rise to power at Caesar’s side and culminating with the civil war against Brutus and Cassius. Antonius: Soldier of Fate is the last book in the trilogy, spotlighting the romance between Antonius and Cleopatra and the historic war with Octavian Caesar.
In researching the Antonius Trilogy, Brook’s travels have led her to Italy, Egypt, Greece, and even Turkey to explore places where Antony once lived, fought, and eventually died. While researching abroad, she consulted with scholars and archaeologists well-versed in Hellenistic and Roman history, specifically pinpointing the late Republican Period in Rome. Brook belongs to the Historical Novel Society and attends conferences as often as possible to study craft and meet fellow authors. In 2019, Son of Rome won the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year Award. In 2020, Son of Rome was honored with a silver medal in the international Reader’s Favorite Book Reviewers Book Awards.
Though she graduated from Asbury University with a B.A. in Music Education, Brook has always loved writing. She completed a Masters program at Hollins University with an emphasis in Ancient Roman studies, which helped prepare her for authoring her present works. Brook teaches full-time as a Music Educator and works in a rural public-school district near Roanoke, Virginia. Her personal interests include travel, cycling, hiking in the woods, reading, and spending downtime with her husband and two amazing Labrador Retrievers. She lives in the heart of southwest Virginia in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains.
Today, I’m thrilled to welcome historian and author Annie Whitehead, who has done a bit of her own family tree research. Annie’s books are brilliant at shining a light on the dark ages – and I am fascinated to read of tracing back 1000 years of relatives! Thanks for stopping by, Annie!
I’m delighted to be a guest on Elizabeth’s blog today to talk about my favourite historical people, the Anglo-Saxons, in a stop on the Stepping Back into Saxon England tour with Helen Hollick. Elizabeth’s wonderful series of novels and her ‘Counterpoint’ novelettes are fabulous reads, made even more interesting because they feature her relatives. Is there anything in my bloodline to match this?
Well, sort of.
I’m married to a Whitehead, at least five generations of whom have lived in the same northern county, and are quite possibly of ‘Viking’ heritage. But my maiden name was Swale, and there’s long been a story in our family about our being descended from the dukes of Normandy.
I was thrilled recently to be appointed keeper of the family archive, and am now custodian of indenture and birth certificates from the eighteenth century. I also have the family tree, which shows an illustrious forebear and so-called ‘gateway’ ancestor: Sir Solomon Swale, 1st Baronet of Swale Hall. From him, the line goes back not only to the dukes of Normandy, but – and this made me dance round the room – Ælfthryth, daughter of Alfred the Great.
She was, undoubtedly, less famous than her sister, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians, about whom I’ve written many times, in fiction and nonfiction. Thanks to the Welsh monk, Asser, we know the names of Alfred’s children. They were Æthelflæd, the first-born, Edward (later to be King Edward the Elder), then two more daughters, Æthelgifu and Ælfthryth, and another son, Æthelweard. Asser also poignantly said that in his list he leaves aside ‘those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death and who numbered…’ How many? We don’t know. As historian Simon Keynes points out in the notes to his translation of Asser’s biography, the numeral, if it was there, is unreadable. Sadly it seems that even royal queens weren’t immune to miscarriage, stillbirth, or loss of infants.
Asser said that two of the royal children, Edward and Ælfthryth, were ‘at all times fostered at the royal court’ and were left under the care of tutors and nurses. We cannot assume though that the other children weren’t also schooled. Education was important to Alfred and it seems unlikely that only some, rather than all, of his children would have ‘attentively learned the psalms’ and read books ‘in English, and especially English poems’. The sad reporting of the losses in infancy of a number of other children and the careful nurturing of the surviving offspring suggest a close family relationship.
However, though they might have been a close family unit, marriage arrangements took the daughters away from Wessex. Æthelflæd famously married the Lord of Mercia, and went on to rule the erstwhile kingdom. Æthelgifu stayed a little closer to home, becoming abbess of her father’s foundation at Shaftesbury. But my apparent ancestor, Ælfthryth, went over the sea. She married Baldwin II of Flanders. He was the son of Alfred’s step-mother, who was also his step-sister. Maybe I should back up a bit?!
Alfred the Great’s father married, for the second time, a very young woman called Judith of Flanders, much to the chagrin of his grown-up sons who feared that any children of the union might displace them as heirs to the throne. Her father was the Carolingian king, Charles the Bald, and her wedding took place in Verberie in 856 when Judith was probably no more than around twelve. She was crowned and anointed by the archbishop of Rheims. She was clearly a catch, and when Alfred’s father died, she married the eldest son. Thus she became step-sister to Alfred, having been his step-mother. This was really quite the scandal, and Asser proclaimed that it was ‘against God’s prohibition and Christian dignity’. Her second husband, however, only lived for two more years and Judith went back to Flanders and was virtually imprisoned by her father, kept under episcopal guardianship at his stronghold at Senlis. Clearly a spirited individual, she managed to evade the cloistered life and eloped with Baldwin I. It’s not clear whether she was fully a willing participant, but it would be nice to think that she preferred a third marriage to life in a nunnery and had a high old adventure running away with Baldwin.
I’m not sure of the technical relationship between her son and my Ælfthryth, but the marriage was clearly sanctioned by the church between these step-cousins once removed?? They had four children, and named one of the daughters Ealhswith, after Ælfthryth’s mother. I think this is touching. Ealhswith is an uncommon Anglo-Saxon name and, although she bore Alfred the Great all those children, Ealhswith was not mentioned by name in Asser’s biography of Alfred.
Ælfthryth’s marriage to Baldwin II seems to have been part of an alliance to help Flanders repel the Vikings, a reminder that England was not the only place to suffer such incursions. Baldwin died in 918, just a month or so after Ælfthryth’s sister, the Lady of the Mercians, died in Tamworth. Ælfthryth herself lived on until around 929, presumably remaining in Flanders after she was widowed.
Through the line of the various counts named Baldwin, the family tree which I own links the counts of Flanders to Gilbert de Gant, mentioned in Domesday Book and recorded as being present in York when English rebels opposed to William of Normandy’s reign attacked the city and set it alight. From him, the tree branches spread out and downwards until they reach the Swale baronets.
Just one eensy weensy problem: when examining the family tree more closely, I realised that although the present day family can be traced right up to William Swale (1780-1858) and his father who was possibly called Solomon, this tree does not connect with that coming down from Sir Solomon, the first baronet.
It would be lovely to think that I am directly related to Ælfthryth, who was not only the sister of my favourite Anglo-Saxon woman, Æthelflæd, but who also married into the energetic family of Flanders but, alas, I think I am only as closely related as any other person in England might be. However, this does not in any way dim my enthusiasm for the period, nor my interest in these fascinating and lively women.
Annie has written three novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. To Be A Queen tells the story of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians. Alvar the Kingmaker is set in the turbulent tenth century where deaths of kings and civil war dictated politics, while Cometh the Hour tells the story of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia. All have received IndieBRAG Gold Medallions and Chill with a Book awards. To Be A Queen was longlisted for HNS Indie Book of the Year and was an IAN Finalist. Alvar the Kingmaker was Chill Books Book of the Month while Cometh the Hour was a Discovering Diamonds Book of the Month.
As well as being involved in 1066 Turned Upside Down, Annie has also had two nonfiction books published. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom (Amberley Books) will be published in paperback edition on October 15th, 2020, while her most recent release, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England (Pen & Sword Books) is available in hardback and e-book.
Annie was the inaugural winner of the Dorothy Dunnett/HWA Short Story Competition 2017.
Connect with Annie:
“…Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthven being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she (Lucy St.John Apsley) suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, partly to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians. By these means she acquired a great deal of skill, which was very profitable to many all her life. She was not only to these, but to all the other prisoners that came into the Tower, as a mother. All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made them broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.”
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
When I was working on research at the Tower of London, I was delighted to hear from one of the Beefeaters that there is a restoration underway of the Bloody Tower, and the medicinal garden that bordered it. Built over by the Victorians, the garden appears on old maps of the Tower as a thriving section of cultivated land stretching from the Queen’s House (home of the Governor) all the way to the Bloody Tower. It was vital component of the Tower of London, and one that my ancestress, the Lieutenant’s wife Lucy St.John Apsley, made good use of during her time there in the early seventeenth century.
Portion of Hayward and Gascoyne’s survey of the Tower of London, 1597, showing the Physick Garden (lower left)
From the windows of his prison in the Bloody Tower, Sir Walter Raleigh would have looked out over the thriving physick garden, complete with an orchard and a large hen house. Tended by Lucy, the herbs and curatives grown within the garden served as the basis for the medicines she made to care for the prisoners of the Tower of London. A noted botanist himself, Raleigh occupied his time in prison with his own scientific experiments. However, his work was not limited to restoratives—he was also an eager alchemist, and so his search for the Philosopher’s Stone consumed much of his research. So fascinated by this was Lucy, that she gave Raleigh her hen house within which to conduct his experiments, and I have no doubt that she spent time at his side as he worked away.
The extract from the pages of Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs featuring the story of her mother’s life in the Tower immediately set me on a hunt for more information about Lucy St.John and the world she inhabited. Writing about her mother, Lucy Hutchinson chose to focus on the attributes of medicinal skills and recipes she used to tend to the prisoners within the Tower. This paragraph inspired the writing of my debut best-selling novel, The Lady of the Tower, and sent me on a glorious journey into the methods and curatives that were an everyday part of Lucy’s life.
These seventeenth-century remedies were precious commodities exchanged by family and friends alike. And since Lucy St.John would have known her nephew’s wife, Lady Johanna St.John, it was no stretch of the “probable” for me to think that Lucy would be familiar with the recipes within Johanna’s collection, or may even have contributed some of her own.
Already acquainted with Lady Johanna and the Lydiard estate through my own family records, I delved into her recipe book, which is archived at The Wellcome Library in London. The beautifully preserved leather-bound book contains recipes designed to help a knowledgeable and educated woman manage the health of her family, servants and livestock. Relying on a great deal of herbal wisdom, as well as the more exotic ingredients found in the London apothecaries, Lady Johanna’s book is a testament to the importance placed on remedies, in an age where so little was still known about the body and its infirmities. When I decided to use extracts from the book to illustrate Lucy’s learnings in The Lady of the Tower, I was fascinated to discover that many of the herbal properties and therapies Lady Johanna recommend are still used in pharmaceutical production today.One particular recipe of interest is that for “Gilbert’s Water.”
“It is bad for nothing it cures wind and the colick restoreth decayed nature good for a consumption expels poison & all infection from the Hart helps digestion purifies the blood gives motion to the spirits drives out the smallpox for the grippes in young children weomen in labor bringeth the Afterbirth stops floods for sounding and faintings”
Lady Johanna devotes two pages of her precious recipe book to Adrian Gilbert’s Cordial Water, which was perhaps indicative of the importance she placed on its curative powers. The recipe itself was complex, requiring Dragons Burnett leaves (probably the simple dragon’s mace, a common weed), and then moving on to a page full of rarer ingredients, such as “Crab’s eyes taken in the full of the moon.” Promoting the contemporary belief man shared the virtue of the plants digested, Mr Gilbert was taking no chances with his curative, empowering the recipient with dragon strength to fight his condition.
But there is more to the story. Adrian Gilbert was a well-known alchemist and amateur scientist, and half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh, himself a distinguished botanist. Adrian’s brother, Humphrey Gilbert, was under the patronage of Robert Cecil and Robert Dudley who maintained an alchemical laboratory in Limehouse. Back to the garden of the Bloody Tower, where Lucy and Raleigh were creating their recipes and experiments. I don’t believe it is that much of a stretch to think that Sir Walter and his half-brother Adrian Gilbert traded medicinal recipes, nor that Lucy St.John would keep a record of any precious curatives that came into her possession. For her to then pass these on to her niece, who shared her passion for botany, gardens and curatives, would be a natural occurrence.
Writing credible historical fiction is always about linking the probables, and in connecting Lucy St.John with Lady Johanna and using their common interest in medicinal curatives, I brought truth to my narrative. What is undisputed is these interesting women’s common desire to protect their families and charges from the dangers of seventeenth-century life, and a shared concern for health, hope for treatment, and the rewards of recovery.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reviewing Annie Whitehead’s seminal work, Women in Power in Anglo-Saxon England, and was bowled over by the scope of her research, and the readability of her book. Today, I’m thrilled to announce it is now available in the US, and would encourage anyone who has an interest (either as a reader or a scholar) to pick up a copy. Annie explains what captured her interest in these long-lost, but now not forgotten, women. (And what history fan can resist that opening to your post, Annie!)
Scrolling through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is something I do regularly, and it’s a great resource. Most of the time, anyway. (One entry forgets to tell us who won a major battle, but does report that marvellous adders were seen in one part of the country.) Often, we get pages and pages of information and then occasionally we get things like this: ‘Queen Æthelburh demolished Taunton, which [King] Ine had built.’ Wait, what? There must be such a story here and yet the entry is casual, throwaway, as if the event was barely worth mentioning. If you were to ask me why I wrote my new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, there’s the reason. Pre-Conquest history is loaded with such stories and I wanted to dig up the detail and bring them into the light.
Stories such as that of Judith, a teenager when she married Alfred the Great’s father, and still a teenager when she then married her own stepson. When she was widowed a second time her father put her under the watchful eye of a bishop, who clearly blinked, because she then eloped and married for a third time. Her son subsequently married Alfred’s daughter. Working that complicated relationship out quite made my head hurt!
There is also a tale of a nun escaping down a sewer to evade the clutches of a libidinous king, and of another who was put into a hot oven when she refused to marry. Yet another abbess spent a year living with Harold Godwinson’s brother and the sources are ambiguous regarding whether or not she was with him through choice.
But not all of these stories – many of them fanciful embellishments by later Anglo-Norman chroniclers – are so salacious.
How about Hild, princess and abbess, who educated no fewer than five future bishops? And her kinswoman Ælfflæd, whose testimony decided the outcome of a succession dispute? Whitby, their abbey, was a centre of learning where beautiful books were produced. Hild also encouraged her herdsman to write, and thanks to her we have Cædmon’s hymn, thought to be the earliest English verse.
And then there are the women who ruled countries in all but name. I don’t just mean the most famous, Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians, either. When King Cnut conquered England, he had the foresight to marry the previous king’s widow, Emma. But he did not repudiate his first wife, who is known as Ælfgifu of Northampton. Not only did he not put her aside, he sent her to be regent of Norway on behalf of their son. I found quite a few instances of these queen-mother-regents and yes, it seems likely that the woman who torched Taunton was fighting on behalf of a son who had not yet reached his majority.
When King Cnut died, both his ‘queens’ had adult sons and the women waged a propaganda war as clever and nasty as any modern political campaign. Both lived to see their sons on the throne but one 20th-century historian was in no doubt that in Ælfgifu’s case, it was she and not her son who was in charge for his short reign.
Even the strongest, fiercest women faced tragedy. Some lived to see all their adult children die before they did, while some lost many children in infancy. The very fact that these infant deaths and stillbirths were recorded shows how devastating they must have been.
This is probably the main notion my research gave me, that these women went through so much that was relatable. I sympathised with those who had to travel huge distances in order to marry, and those who were caught up in bitter rivalries and feuds. What on earth was the human story behind the incident where one of Æthelred the Unready’s sons-in-law killed another? How did the two sisters get along after one’s husband had murdered the other?
As I researched and wrote, I was of course reading the history of men, of kings, of battles. But always I kept in mind the women’s experiences, reminding myself in one instance that when the chronicles talked of a king’s body being taken to an abbey for burial, it was his mother who was abbess there. I knew this, the chroniclers knew this, but for me the book became an exercise in ‘joining up the dots’. How must she have felt, receiving her own son’s body for burial?
I’ve long believed that history before 1066 is fascinating, vibrant, and filled with stories of interesting characters. After researching and writing this new book, I’m even more aware of the people who inhabited that world and especially the women who enriched every aspect of it.
Women of Power is an apt title for this absorbing volume of research, speculation, and postulation that comprises Ms Whitehead’s fascinating new release. But in this break-through study, there is a huge bonus for those of us not deeply familiar with this period of history. For behind the records lies something even more tantalizing — the whisper of legends that have grown up around powerful women in Anglo Saxon England, perpetuated by later chroniclers and extant in mis-information and myths.
Ms Whitehead’s grasp of family relationships is impressive, and the minute details of her research a powerful catalyst propelling the narrative forward. And yet, for me, the stories within the details are what enthralled. A record of a woman’s right to receive goods, cattle, and the residual of estates, hinting at a full life well-lived. An illustration of how a simple action of defense could be twisted by future chroniclers into a full-out war, with women as the hapless antagonists. And, perhaps the most poignant of stories, how the discovery of blue lapis lazuli in the mouth of a woman’s remains led to the conclusion that female scribes were not only in the monastery scriptoriums, they were entrusted with the most precious of volumes. In between her illustrations, she must have been licking her paintbrush.
The depth of research and breadth of detail in Women of Power is articulated on every page; family trees and carefully planned chapters help navigate us through these centuries of oral and recorded history, and Ms Whitehead’s steady hand on the wheel steers us through known and unknown territories. Her conversational style brings the records to life, and her inclusion of the personal details ensures the extraordinary, powerful women are not consigned to the shadows, but shine as personalities within their own right. Highly recommend for researchers, historians, and those genuinely interested in enjoying learning more about this formative time in English history.
Today, I’m so excited to host Kathleen Marple Kalb and her fabulous Ella Shane history mystery series. Her newest novel, A Fatal First Night, will be publishing in early 2021. Kathleen grew up in front of a microphone, and a keyboard. She’s now a weekend morning anchor at 1010 WINS New York, capping a career begun as a teenage DJ in Brookville, Pennsylvania. She worked her way up through newsrooms in Pittsburgh, Vermont and Connecticut, developing her skills and a deep and abiding distaste for snowstorms. She, her husband the Professor, and their son the Imp, live in a Connecticut house owned by their cat. Come join us for a cuppa and a chat!
On July 20th, 1615, the six St.John sisters stood proudly commemorated in the lifesize polyptych portrait at St. Mary’s Church, Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire. According to Lucy Hutchinson, author of Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, “there were not in those days so many beautiful women found in any family as these”. She went on to say “but my mother was by the most judgments preferred before all her elder sisters, who, something envious at it, used her unkindly.”
Her mother was Lucy St.John, the youngest of the six sisters, and one who would perhaps lead the most adventurous life of all of them.
As a generation of women who were central to the Stuart milieu of patronage and influence, the portrait also celebrated their husbands, for at the foot of each woman rests a tablet with the coat of arms of the men they married. And through the lives of their husbands, we can trace the rise in their fortunes and catch glimpses of the informal power they wielded in their respective marriages. Lucy’s lozenge is blank, for although she had met her future husband, Sir Allen Apsley, they were not yet married. And yet, he arguably promoted Lucy to one of the most influential of the sisters, for shortly after the marriage he purchased the office of Lieutenant of the Tower of London, and they moved into The Queen’s House overlooking Tower Green.
For the next thirteen years, Lucy St.John looked after the prisoners and raised her children within the confines of the Tower of London, Sir Allen was generous, and gave her “a noble allowance of 300 for her own private use.” She certainly put this to good use, for her daughter goes on to say “Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Ruthin being prisoners in the Tower, and addicting themselves to chemistry, she suffered them to make their rare experiments at her cost, party to comfort and divert the poor prisoners, and partly to gain the knowledge of their experiments, and the medicines to help such poor people as were not able to seek physicians.”
Sir Allen Apsley did not attain his appointment a Tower on his own merit, however. Lucy St.John’s sister, Barbara, married Edward Villiers, the fatherless second son of a Leicestershire squire. However, five years later, his older half-brother, George Villiers, was made Knight of the Garter, after being “discovered” by James I. Once knighted, George Villiers ascended rapidly, a comet at the court of King James with a multitude of relatives and supporters trailing in his tail. One of these was Allen Apsley. According to contemporary court papers, Sir Allen was given the option of securing the lucrative position of Lieutenant of the Tower because of his wife’s relationship to George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. For a mere £3,000 (£500,000 in today’s money), the job was his.
Unfortunately, the close friendship that evolved between Sir Allen and the Duke did not end in harmony. Sir Allen also held the position of Victualler of the Navy, and Buckingham’s frequent forays overseas to engage in foreign wars strained the nation’s finances immensely, and placed a huge personal burden on Sir Allen as he struggled to provision a Navy that was poor on men, ships and supplies. At the time of Buckingham’s assassination in 1628, Sir Allen was almost £100,000 (£9,000,000) in debt, putting his own credit and that of others on the line to support his patron. The money was never recovered, and Lucy and her children were hauled through the courts for decades after his death in 1630 in attempts to recover funds.
Riches and perquisites for the Ladies St.John did not stop here, however. Katherine St.John, the eldest of the sisters, married a gentleman of shrewd business acumen but shaky character, Sir Giles Mompesson. He devised a scheme of licensing inns that enabled his patron – again, the influential Duke of Buckingham – to secure thousands of pounds worth of fines to satisfy his very expensive habit of acquiring Italian artwork. Sir Giles’ method of extracting fines left a lot to be desired and in his resulting prosecution he was forced to leave the country in a hurry. However, no shrinking violet was Katherine, for when the attempt to arrest Sir Giles was made in his chambers, his escape was orchestrated by Katherine, her brother-in-law Sir William St.John, and her half-brother Sir Edward Hungerford. The St.John women were obviously very persuasive.
And what of Barbara, the sister who married Edward Villiers? She, along with her husband, nearly caused the downfall of the Duke of Buckingham through his tacit endorsement and granting of gold and silver thread monopolies. Sir Edward (he was knighted around the same time as George started his rise to fame) was involved in this scheme up to his neck, and when he forced the Attorney General to imprison several gold and silver makers for not paying fees to him, there was an immediate uproar. The House of Commons were out for blood, and although they were told that Buckingham had given his half-brother no encouragement in the matter, the reaction was such that it was felt an example should be made of Buckingham. Monopolists such as George and Edward Villiers were “bloodsuckers of the kingdom and vipers of the commonwealth” and the furor nearly brought down the Duke.
Interestingly, Barbara maintained a secure hold on the gold and silver thread monopolies long after her husband’s death. It is quite possible that income from this lucrative opportunity could have funded the education and lifestyle of her granddaughter, another Barbara Villiers – future Countess of Castlemaine and mistress of King Charles II.
The remaining older sisters, Anne and Jane, appeared to lead fairly quiet lives, although without a doubt they observed the antics of their sisters at Whitehall. However, they were not immune from the influences of court – Anne’s husband Sir George Ayliffe left this rather touching bequest in his will: “…to my dearest and best friend that ever I found in the world, my Ladie Villiers, my dear sister, £20 for a diamond ring, in memories of me her poor brother, who ever truly loved her and honour her even to death…”.
And what of the younger sister, Eleanor? The tablet at her feet reveals she married a distant cousin, Sir William St.John of Highlight, Wales (the same gentleman who arranged the escape of Giles Mompesson). A soldier, as pirate, and a commander of the King’s Ships, Sir William was a good friend of Sir Walter Raleigh, and tragically was instructed by the Duke to arrest him in his final escape attempt before being executed.
It is fascinating to contemplate the effort required to survive and prosper during the time this generation of St.John sisters were alive. Not only were the facing the daily threat of contagion, disease and childbirth, they faced the continual challenge of relying on others to look after their interests. Although they had little power in their own right, over and over their names appear in Chancery suits and royal warrants, indicating that at the time, they were considered just as important as their husbands in the lucrative business of handouts and favoritism. Thus, their life must have been an intricate dance where partners changed daily and the steps were never the same. More than four hundred years later we can look back and admire these women for their courage and dexterity.
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