On this day 552 years ago, my ancestress, Elysabeth St.John Scrope, was in Sanctuary within Westminster Abbey with the deposed queen, Elizabeth Woodville. My Elysabeth had been ordered there by King Henry VI to attend Elizabeth “late calling hir Quiene” to witness the birth of her child. Writing historical fiction is all about finding facts and weaving imaginary thoughts, dreams and conversations around known actions. When I discovered the warrant within the National Archives, this fired my imagination to wonder what Elysabeth Ladie Scrope’s life was like. How she felt when she was ordered into captivity with her enemy. And if she felt she was betraying her own family when she was forced to join the opposition as godmother to the young prince. Free thinking, letting thoughts wander, inhabiting another’s world, expressing emotions and dreading outcomes are all part of a writer’s process. From this single fragile and ancient fragment of parchment, which has survived almost six centuries of war, political strife, and frankly, tidying out filing drawers, I created a medieval world and turned it into a novel of 126,000 words. I am so grateful I get to do what I love, and share my passion with other history lovers too. Transcription: Henry by the grace of god king of Englande and of Fraunce and lorde of Irlande. To the Tresorer and Chamberldine of oure Eschequier greting. We wol and charge you that unto oure right trusty and Welbeloved Elizabeth ladie Scrope for hir attendance by oure co(m)maundment by thavis oure counsail aboute Elizabeth late calling hir Quiene ye do paie of oure Tresore the somme of x li To have of oure yefte by waye of Rewarde for the cause abovesaid Yeven under o(ur) prive seal at Westm(inster) the xxx daye of Octobre The xlix yere from the begynnyng of oure Regne and of the readepcion of oure Roiall power the furst yere Langport
Exploring castles, houses, churches, lost gardens and hidden follies is all part of the fun of being a historical fiction author. England is full of such finds, and one of the times I love most about planning a novel, before getting down to the hard grind of writing, is discovering the places where your characters lived. There is also that moment where you pause in your adventures, draw breath in the quietness, and let your imagination populate the scene. Once, this was not a ruined chamber, but was full of music and dance and the aroma of roasting meats. Once, someone tended this garden, gathered the herbs for a curative to treat a sick child. It is my job to bring these glorious remnants of the past to life again. Sometimes, we are fortunate that someone has preserved the past, reconstructing rooms and walkways, putting furniture back, replanting lost flowerbeds. Other times, we just have the company of the wind and birdsong, and the light of a rising full moon to connect with the past, think of the people who lived here, and remind us that we too are just passing through.
Today I have a real treat – a visit from Anna Belfrage, a brilliant – and prolific – historical fiction novelist. I first read Anna’s fabulous “Graham Saga” when she was awarded the prestigious HNS Indie Award by the Historical Novelists Society. I love how Anna combines intricate research with heart-warming fiction, creating unforgettable stories. And, her latest release, Her Castilian Heart does just that. If you’d like to jump right to my review, it’s here. Otherwise, learn more about the novel and the fascinating historical background of 13th-century Europe in her guest post today.
Originally thought to symbolize the Black Death, this 15thC wall painting of skeleton posing as a sexton, complete with pick and shovel, is now identified as a Memento Mori. With the other half of the memorial still yet to be restored, this life-size painting is by the door in the Church of the Blessed Virgin and St. Leodegarius, Ashby St. Ledger. I came face-to-face with him after I’d just discovered the concealed brasses of William Catesby and his wife Margaret Zouche, ancestors to me and kin to Elysabeth St.John Scrope, the main character in The Godmother’s Secret. Already feeling a bit guilty for (very carefully) pulling up the carpet by the altar to find their brasses, Mr Bones here reminded me of the inevitability of death. Where the mystery lies is that William Catesby, who was Richard III’s right-hand man, was executed by Henry VII on this day in 1485, after being captured at the Battle of Bosworth. They had already killed Richard, the battle won by Henry, aided by Sir Thomas Stanley. Stay with me on this…Elysabeth’s half-sister Margaret Beaufort was married to Sir Thomas Stanley – and was also the mother of Henry VII. William left a cryptic clause in his hastily written will, which some scholars have interpreted as saying that he expected Stanley to spare him. And with his wife and mother-in-law so closely related to Henry VII, it’s not surprising poor William thought blood would be thicker than water. The other twist? There are a number of wall paintings, yet to be fully restored, indicating connections with the Battle of Bosworth – including one that carries the Beaufort portcullis, the emblem of both Margaret Beaufort and Henry VII. Perhaps Margaret Beaufort took pity on William Cateseby and wanted him to be at least be memorialised in his church, if she couldn’t spare his life.
A few weeks ago I was walking through the woods that lay between the Bosworth Battleground Memorial and the land where the battle was fought, where Richard III died and Henry Tudor was proclaimed King of England. The woods were hushed except for birdsong and the wind rustling through the leaves, and I came upon this stone memorial to Richard, covering a spring where legend has it he drank before the battle. Today, the surrounding white roses create a sanctuary, and I paused to remember the men who may have also stopped here to refresh themselves before bracing for the slaughter that lay ahead. After leaving the footpaths that criss-cross close to the estimated site of battlefield, I headed to Leicester and the Richard III Visitor Centre, a fascinating multi-media interactive experience telling Richard’s story, as well as touching on other characters in my book – the Scropes, Margaret Beaufort, William Catesby, Francis Lovell, and, of course, Richard’s nephews, the missing Princes in the Tower. I stayed until closing time, engrossed in the displays, the archeological dig, and the fascinating story of the finding of Richard’s remains. Most of all I enjoyed sitting with the docent in the area over Richard’s grave, where through a glass floor you can see a hologram of his remains. I was the only one there for about an hour, and we chatted all things Richard, exchanging ideas and stories. It was memorable, and after a day full of such emotional experiences, I knew I could now finish the book and tell my story. The Godmother’s Secret is my version of what happened to the missing princes, written in the words of my ancestress, Prince Edward’s godmother, Elysabeth St.John Scrope. The Godmother’s Secret is available for pre-order and publishes worldwide on 4th October, 2022.
So, after three years of researching archives, reading thousands of pages, exploring ruined castles, retracing my ancestors’ footsteps, and then the really hard work of drafting, re-drafting, editing, re-editing, my newest novel goes on pre-order today. I felt like I’d fought in the Wars of the Roses myself some days, wrestling this book to the finish. But I fell in love with the characters, am intrigued by the history and family connections, and now am so excited about sharing my new book with you! And yes, the heroine is my 15th-Century ancestress, Elysabeth St.John, the Lady Scrope and Godmother to Edward V, one of the “Princes in the Tower”. More about her later. Available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited