Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Tudors are SO 2015. This? Is Where It's All Happening

But the Tudor era is a period of lust, of intrigue and sexy debauchery and passion and jealousy and desire and excellent dresses.... so why don't I write about the Tudors?

It's a funny one. I mean, it'd be easier if I did. I'd be riding on the coat tails of Philippa Gregory and Anya Seton and Hilary Mantel - and everybody knows about Henry VIII and his convoluted love-life, and Elizabeth (and Essex....maybe) and her even more convoluted and intriguing passions. The fashions are gorgeous, the TV producers and the film producers are crying out for bodices to rip open and breeches to undo: why, in the name of creation, am I writing about a period mostly known for its unflattering fashions and spawning the man who coined the term "warts and all"?

And I guess the answer is - because I find principle sexier than unprinciple.

I'm fascinated, intrigued, and ultimately repelled by the English Civil Wars - a war without an enemy, as the Parliamentarian commander William Waller wrote in 1643 to his friend the Royalist commander Ralph Hopton. "We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy, let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities".
I think it's interesting that many people's perception of the protagonists now is that the King's supporters were fun-loving, free-spirited party animals who loved wine, women and song - 17th century rock stars, in effect - whilst Parliament's were dour, short-haired, joyless and worthy.
It's cobblers, of course - both sides had men of fire and honour, as committed to their cause as each other.
And to me, that's considerably more appealing than a fat old guy with a bad temper and a gammy leg, a sexual predator who abused his power to bribe, flatter and coerce women into his bed and whose politics were - allegedly - based in his codpiece.

I think we love the idea of the Tudors because they're so marvellously larger than life, an almost Machiavellian world of political treachery and intrigue apparently centred on a thing we all understand - sex. We "get" desire, and jealousy, and love-conquers-all; we understand, we sympathise with, a world where a man-monster is a figure of terror as well as desire - almost the ultimate Christian Grey, the sexy uber-CEO who manipulates as well as seduces.
And maybe the idea of a quieter passion isn't so flamboyant. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms don't inflame the public imagination the same way because there is, simply, no sex involved. Oliver Cromwell looked like a potato. (Elizabeth must have seen something worth the having in him, because they had a long and happy marriage and a number of children.) Thomas Fairfax was married to the somewhat volatile Anne for twenty-seven years, and praised her lack of beauty as a virtue in his - somewhat dodgy - poetry. Charles and Henrietta Maria were uxorious enough that she went over to Europe, sold her jewellery, and raised troops for him. Rupert - well, Rupert never married, so let's not mention Rupert's love life. (Suffice it to say it was varied and active.)

It's not that women were not strong, involved, characters in their own right. Why should Brilliana Harley, sending the family plate to safety in boxes marked up as "Cake" to avoid detection by Royalist troops, be any less appealing that poor hapless Anne Boleyn?
Or if your taste runs towards tragic romantic heroines, Bridget Cromwell, travelling across a war-torn country to marry her scarred hero Henry Ireton under siege in Oxford, only to be widowed so short a time later?
Or the King's spymistress, Jane Horwood, intelligencing for him and loving him at one and the same time? (Oh, I hope she had some happiness with him, even if his letters to her portray their liaison as more pragmatic than romantic. Her husband was such a vile, abusive, violent piece of work, I do hope that Jane found love, after a fashion, with Charles - someone who was decent, and honourable, and treated her with courtesy. Not my type, but then what do I know? I'm a Fairfax girl...)

So many stories, and so much passion - but for the spirit, not for the body. For a cause, for a thing which people - both Royalist and Parliamentarian - believed in with, literally, the last drop of their heart's blood.

And as for the fashions? Quite like the Elizabeth of Bohemia look, myself.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

All For One, or Four For the Price of Three...

True fact. All four of the Uncivil Wars books are now available in rather elegant paperback, and from now until Christmas there's 25% off each of them. 

Which means you can buy all four, and only pay for three! 

Red Horse (An Uncivil War 1 - discount code at checkout is YMNTQP4M
Command the Raven (An Uncivil War 2) - discount code at checkout is 7EACLL7F
A Wilderness of Sin (An Uncivil War 3) - discount code at checkout is KJXPTBD7
The Smoke of Her Burning (An Uncivil War 4) - discount code at checkout is 6JQNFC4E

Get them quick....before Cromwell cancels Christmas! 

Saturday, 21 November 2015

... And In Which Het is Grateful for the Kindness of Strangers - Winter Cheese

It would seem that a kind soul unknown to the Babbitt household has a care for Het's husband's feeding.

You may imagine that to receive a recipe for winter cheese gladdened Mistress B's housewifely heart. And from Elizabeth Cromwell's own recipe-book, too! (Het thinks she might like Mistress Cromwell. Especially her recipe for sausages. But the sausages will be made next week, she thinks.)

Take some milk or cream, and a race of cinnamon.
Scald it, then take it off the fire, sweeten it with fine sugat, thgen take a spoonful of reenet to two quarts of milk, set it by and keep it close covered, and so let it stand. When the cheese comes, strow a little fine sugar and grated nutmeg, and serve it with sippets, sops in sack or muscadine.

Another manner to make a fresh cheese presently

Take the whites of six eggs, beat them very well, and wring in the juice of a good lemon to the whites. When the cream seetheth up, put in the whites and stir it all about till it be turned, and then take it off and put it into a cheese trough, and let the whey be drawn from it, then take the curd and pound it in a mortsr with a little rose-water and sugar, and so let it stand till you send it to the ytable. Then put it into a dish and put a little cream to it and so serve it.

Was it not kind, to share such lovely recipes with Het?

Thursday, 19 November 2015

November at White Notley - Christmas starts early, in 1646

Not the cheeriest of months, even with that engine of domestic devastation and her boys absent about their military duty.

Het Babbitt is somewhat at a loss.
(Remember, this is 1646, so Christmas still exists, and the Parliament is not yet so strict as to ban the celebrations altogether, although Het and her family celebrate it peacefully. Fair enough, as peacefully as anything involving her husband is likely to be.)

It is a dark time, and a lean one, and she worries about them, a little. That Hollie might not have a sufficiency of handkerchieves, because he always gets miserable colds at this time. She makes a note to find a pot of sage oil to send back with him, when he must go back to the Army. If he were here, which he is not, and is not like to be for another month - for he will be here for Longest Night, though fire and flood and all the King's men stand between them; it is a thing of pride that he will be here for the anniversary of the night they first met - she could see to it that he was rubbed with it, and had a plaster on his chest, and a dry bed to sleep in -
Well, he is not, and so she reminds herself to hem more handkerchieves. Even in 1646 people exchange gifts - or at least they do when he remembers - and not on Christmas Day, as we do, but on New Year's Day, instead.
Hollie's Puritan absentmindedness notwithstanding, Het sees Christmas as a serious business of loving, and so it is her joy and consolation in his absence, in these dark November days, to prepare.

So. Handkerchieves for Hollie, and medicaments, but - well, she will think of something less practical, nearer the time. Something edible, most likely. It's not a thing she needs to prepare. She may embroider the handkerchieves, under the pretence of a laundry mark.
Thankful, of course, being a better Puritan boy than Hollie, will neither expect nor receive gifts. This is a difficult concept to explain to a bright and loving little girl, and so no matter how much he neither wants nor expects gifts Thomazine will demand that he has them. She is not yet old enough to embroider neatly, and her hems are wobbly and uneven, and so instead she has very carefully tied bundles of lavender and rosemary and costmary with thread, to put amongst his linen. It is only the fact of his physical absence that has prevented the child from giving her friend his gifts already, and no doubt Thankful will receive his Christmas present within moments of his arrival, for if Thomazine must wait longer she may burst.

And Luce? She finds him hardest of all to think of gifts for, because he is much-beloved, and yet she is aware that he is between being a little boy to delight in nuts and sweets and little books, as Thomazine and Joyeux do, and being a grown man to receive sensible, useful things, like handkerchieves.
(If she  perhaps could make him some stockings, then, in a bright, frivolous colour, as a compromise.)

So, then. It wants just over a month to Christmas. The pig's cheek is sousing in pickle for the collar of brawn for the Christmas table. There are nuts, and apples, and pears aplenty stored in the attics, and a few raisins - not many, for they are expensive, though still obtainable even in the wars. Those she has are somewhat dry and dusty with keeping, but he has promised to bring more when he comes home, and so she is happy to plan to use the last of her store for the festivities.
There is cider, and it will be good by Christmas, being last autumn's brewing.
It crosses her mind that she needs to go up into the attics and check her apples and pears, and that perhaps Thomazine may be the ideal partner for this cheerful, if chilly, occupation. Thomazine's quick little fingers are deft at finding soft places in the fruit, and she can promise that any damaged pears might be baked sweet, later.
Het wishes there would be new cheese, but there will not. New cheese is a spring treat, and Hollie must make do with its ripe, buttery counterpart, in these dark, wet days. (She hopes so. She would lay out the riches of her store, for her boys, and send them back to their duty sleek and cared-for.)

Well, then. The preparations begin here, for the brawn must souse for a week or two. And should you choose to try Het's pickled cold meat -

To Collar Brawn
Take a quarter of brawn, lay it in salt three days. Then take some all spice, cloves & mace & season it. Boyle it in a cloath very soft with some vinegar, salt & water till it be tender. Then rowl it over new with another cloath & fresh tape as hard as possible. Then let it be cold. Then boyle yr pickle with some brawn with a little fresh water. Let it be cold & keep ye brawn constantly in it tyed up. Make fresh liquor once a fortnight.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

In the Shadow Of The Storm by Anna Belfrage - a review

In The Shadow of The Storm: Book 1 of The King's Greatest Enemy

I have to admit to a degree of worry as I started to read this new book, because I am a great fan of Ms Belfrage's Graham Saga.

My first worry was that it wasn't going to be as good - and my second was that it was going to be Alex and Matthew in the 14th century: a trap that many successful authors fall into, of replicating carbon copies of their successful characters in another period of history.
Well, I needn't have worried on either head.

I am very fond of Alex and Matthew Graham, but there is always - in my reading - that element of tension in their relationship. With Adam and Kit, despite the somewhat - unusual - beginning of their marriage, there is never any doubt for me that no matter how tumultous this period of history is, their love is solid. This is not, I don't think, a will-they won't-they story, set against a faintly-drawn generic historical background. It's a story of will Fate let them, in what has to be one of the most violent, tumultous, passionate, uninhibited periods of English history. A man and a woman, who find each other, and are determined that conflicting loyalty, intrigue, and murder will not come between them.

Be not misled, gentle reader. We are not in the realms of courtly love here. We are dealing with a real and passionate period, where a brutal punishment can be meted out to a man in scenes of graphic savagery, and a woman be poisoned to death by her own family - and where the same man who raises a sword with violent skill, can make love to his wife with kindness and tenderness.
We are also dealing with a very accomplished author, who can describe love as well as pain with skill and empathy.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Alex and Matthew are very much a self-contained unit, but Kit de Courcy and Adam de Guirande are a fantastically-drawn pair of lovers enmeshed in a complicated political and social web. And a well-researched, authentic, believable one, that feels as right to the reader as a warm wool surcote.

Be warned: there is a considerable amount of brutality in this book. The Welsh Marches in 1321 were a place of unpredictable political allegiances, where a wise man keeps an eye on the main chance. Not a period where an author should tread, without a considerable amount of background research, and certainly not a period where an author who fears to describe spilled blood should go. (Just as well this author fears neither.)

I scent a long and happy relationship for this reader, with the de Guirandes....

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Fourth Musketeer - an interview with J M Aucoin

So tell me about your new book, and why I should immediately rush out and buy it.
Sure! Honor Among Thieves is the first book in the Hope & Steel series. It takes place during 17th Century France, a few decades after the Wars of Religion decimated the countryside and a couple decades before the famed Musketeers were formed.
Under Henry IV’s reign, France was starting to bounce back from those wars. The country was a little more stable financially and life was returning to “normal.” But Henry also really hated the Hapsburgs and dreamed of taking their dynasty down.
The decades of religious warfare also meant there were a lot of soldiers without employment. Some lacked skills for traditional working life; others just preferred to make their way with lead shot and steel, so many turned to banditry to get by.
Hope & Steel series is what happens when the bubbling political climate of early-17th Century France meets the harsh reality of a soldier’s post-fighting life. And all with a heavy dash of swashbuckling adventure.
We follow Darion Delerue, a former soldier turned highwayman, who has only two things of value—the hope in his heart and the steel at his side. We also follow Jacquelyna Brocquart, a young lady-in-waiting for the queen, who gets a rude awakening about the less than glamorous life at court. After a heist on a royal ambassador goes wrong, both Darion and Jacquelyna are thrown into a political plot to undermine the crown which could send France straight back into civil war.
There’s plenty of political intrigue rooted in historical events, intertwined with a fictional plot and fictional characters. And there’s also plenty of swordplay for readers who, like me, enjoy a little steel to warm their blood.

You've been compared to Alexander Dumas. Who are your writing heroes?
I’m pretty sure I pulled a Tom Cruise and started jumping on the couch when I originally read that comparison. Dumas is definitely one of my favorites, so I was floored to be considered in his company.
I think anyone who gets into the historical adventure genre has read The Three Musketeers. It’s a classic that really helped define the swashbuckler genre. For me, that story was very influential growing up.

I’m also a huge fan of Rafael Sabatini. Captain Blood and Scaramouche are some fantastic swashbuckling reads. Sabatini really knows how to turn a phrase. I swear he’s left none of the good lines for the rest of us poor authors.
I also love the Captain Alatriste series by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Arturo has taken the classic swashbuckling genre and has given it a little more of a real world feel. A lot of time the swashbuckling/adventure tales tend to have happy endings, but actions have consequences in the Alatriste series. It’s fun and refreshing.
I really try to merge the high adventure and political intrigue of Dumas with the witticism of Sabatini and the realism of Pérez-Reverte. That’s what I’m aiming for in the Hope & Steel series.

Are you a swordsman who writes, or a writer who fences? And does it help?
Tough question! I think I’m equal swordsman and writer. I’ve been a huge fan of the historical adventure genre ever since I was a little lad. I used to watch reruns of Guy William’s Zorro on the Disney Channel every week. I must’ve dressed up as Zorro for Halloween for five straight years as a kid. It was around this time that I also saw Disney’s Three Musketeers adaption with Tim Curry as Cardinal Richelieu. I guess we can blame Disney for my swashbuckling obsession.

So swordplay is what turned me on to reading and writing. But it wasn’t until college that I started learning about swordplay. I started taking foil fencing classes as well as stage combat classes, so I learned both the practical and the entertainment aspects of swordplay. A little later I discovered the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). I enjoyed foil fencing, but being able to actually duel with folks in full period garb while using full-length rapiers and daggers really sung to the side of me that wanted to be d’Artagnan growing up.
Knowing swordsmanship definitely helps when writing swashbucklers. Readers expect a little sword play, and knowing what you’re talking about is a good thing. I’ve read some pretty atrocious swordfights written by people who don’t really understand how the sword works on even a bare basic level. Not that I really want to read (or write) a super technical fight scene either. It still needs to be entertaining and help further the story. There needs to be a balance between the realism of two people trying to skewer themselves with sharpened steel with the good ol’ fashion fun nature of what’s expected from the genre.
- my weapon of choice is a 36” munitions quality cavalry backsword, Birmingham steel. What’s yours?
I’m a big fan of my 37” Spanish Bilbao rapier. I had it custom made by Darkwood Armories, based after the sword Viggo Mortensen uses in the Alatriste movie adaption. I use it when fencing. As soon as I picked it up, I knew I had found my true blade. I do love me some backswords; I need one for my collection.
I also have a strong adoration for wheellock pistols. Those things are just works of art – from the aesthetics to the mechanics.

What are you writing at the moment?
I’m in between stories, you could say. I’m plotting out the next Hope & Steel novel and also world building for a possible fantasy series. Some fans have been bugging me about when the next Jake Hawking Adventure is coming out, so maybe I’ll add that to the queue.
Like a lot of writers, I have more ideas than time to do them all. Bah!
What are your plans for the future?
Keep writing. Keep fencing. Keep costuming.
Creating historical costumes (especially 17th Century) and cosplays is a fun hobby of mine. It sort of ties into the writing and fencing. While writing is fun because I’m creating something out of nothing, costuming is fun because I’m making something tangible and with my hands. And I get to look dashing as hell afterwards.
I’m also going through Capoferro’s fencing manual and writing up my interpretations of that, which can be read on my historical research/SCA blog for folks who are interested in the technical aspects of swordplay. My regular swashbuckling blogging can be found on my author blog.

... and finally, the importantest question....
Roundhead or Cavalier?
O0o0o0…. Tough question!
When it comes to fiction I usually like to root for the rebels. My protagonists tend to be people who like to live outside the conventional norms of society. So you’d think I’d side with the Roundheads. But I’m going to go against my own grain and say Cavalier. And I’ll say it’s because I like The Tavern Knight by Sabatini. Sir Crispin Galliard (aka the Tavern Knight) was a Cavalier.
I hope that’s the right answer and that we don’t have to fight over it. Although, if we do, I’ll go fetch my rapier! :D

Connect with J.M. Aucoin!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Meet the Staith - Abbots Staith exposed

 The Abbot's Staith in Selby is, in the new book, the site of Sir John Belasyse's powder store in the city, and the scene of one or two of the climactic moments of the book. 
I don't think it was ever used as a powder magazine, but even so, I've taken some artistic licence with this fascinating building. In recompense, the first month's royalties of the book will be going to the Staith for the restoration fund of the building - so buy The Smoke of Her Burning and support the Staith!

The warehouse building currently known as the Abbots Staith, near the river Ouse in Selby, has been interpreted as being from the 14th century in a survey done in 1995, based on the style of the stonework. The building is shaped as a shallow capital 'H' with narrow slot windows to the ground floor frontage and leaded lights to the second floor which would have had internal shutters. At 132 feet 3 inches long by 60 feet 7 inches wide it is slightly shorter but wider than the nave of Selby Abbey (140 feet by 58 feet). All the doors face the river, except for one in the front central bay which has a flat or 'French' arch and would have been the main access route from the river to the monastic complex.

The name Staith or Staithe refers to a jetty or wharf and there are two ancient monuments on the site, the warehouse building and the wharf area. Most of the latter is now covered by a 20th century jetty, but the piles and timbers can be seen underneath this at low tide. The building itself is listed Grade II* and the English Heritage Buildings At Risk registers calls it a former monastic wool warehouse, reflecting the main trade of the medieval abbey in the town.

Formed in 2014 the Abbots Staith Heritage Trust are a group of volunteers dedicated to preserving, restoring and bringing the building back into use for the community of Selby. Some of the volunteers have spent many hours researching the Staith and have found references to in old texts dating back to the 15th and 16th century, including one that calls it the ‘Great Staithe’.

In more modern times a two storey Georgian building was added to the front west wing of the Staith warehouse. This was known as the Counting House, as it was where taxes and tithes were paid. The land and building were owned for a time in the 18th and 19th centuries by both Lord Petre, lord of the manor of Selby and by the renowned surgeon and naturalist Jonathan Hutchinson, who was born in a cottage immediately behind the warehouse in July 1828, which is now the office for Westmill Foods. There is a blue plaque on the wall celebrating this fact.

For much of the 19th century and into the early 20th the warehouse was part of the Abbot’s Staith Flour Mills, that business passing through various owners, before the building was sold in 1911 to George Woodhead and Sons, Seed Merchants.

During the years from 1911 to 1995 the Counting House became the shop front and small offices for Woodhead Seeds (later larger office space was created on the top floor of the west wing of the warehouse itself). Woodhead Seeds moved out in Spring 1995 and since then (aside from a brief use as a car radio outlet in the shop front) the main building has remained empty, though it is still owned by a member of the Woodhead family.

On April 20th 2015 Abbots Staith Heritage Trust took a one year licence on the Counting House as a base to promote their vision for the restoration of the building. More information can be found on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, with a full website coming soon.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Fifty Shades Of..... Gender Bias and Sexuality in Historical Fiction

Isn't it reassuring to know that all those heroines of historical fiction, who found that they just weren't maternal, or meek, or submissive enough - that they identified themselves more strongly as masculine, that they cut their hair, or wore breeches, or climbed trees - they were all sweet, frilly girlies, really: because with the right man, you can get better!

Five hundred years ago - three hundred, two hundred years ago - women weren't allowed to identify with masculine gender stereotypes. We conformed, to the Gospel according to St Paul; we learned in all subjection, we were respectful, we covered our hair and our bodies as we were taught, or we paid the price of social ostracism.
You know the old chestnut of the girl who dresses as a boy to follow her soldier lover to war and bring him home safe? Don't get many of them in the 17th century. In fact, I don’t think I know of a single example of a woman who enlists as a soldier during the English Civil Wars - maybe that's because women were following the drum anyway, in the guise of camp followers, or maybe it's because until the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 no one was looking, or maybe it's because 17th century women were more than capable of fighting the good fight in skirts, viz. Lady Derby, Brilliana Harley, Elizabeth Lilburne, I'll stop now but I could keep going all night. The 17th century highwaywoman Moll Frith lived and dressed as a woman - as attested by her nickname, Cutpurse Moll - and anecdote reports that at one point she robbed Thomas Fairfax, shot him in the arm and killed two of his horses. Which must have pleased him no end…

But it's not really till the 18th century that we start to see the "mannish" woman appear - Kit Ross, who followed her man into Marlborough's Army and then decided that she quite liked the Army life and lived as a soldier for the better part of ten years, serving in two different units undiscovered; Anne Bonney and Mary Read, that pair of unglamorous pirate captains, who were as fierce and merciless as any of their masculine counterparts - what's interesting is that most of the 18th century women who disguised themselves as men disguised themselves successfully, and lived within close male communities undiscovered for long periods, but that they also were considered as equals of their male counterparts. Kit Ross was officially pensioned off, despite the discovery of her gender; Anne Bonney and Mary Read were sentenced to an equal punishment to their male counterpart, Calico Jack Rackham.

So, you know, there are hundreds of years of history of women living successfully as men, competing with men, existing forcefully in a male-dominated society. Succeeding, on their own terms, against men. (If piracy is your thing, obviously.) Being acknowledged as comrades and peers, by men. Women in Restoration England were running their own businesses, their own coffee-shops, although they weren't permitting female customers in those hotbeds of political discourse and dissent. Women in 1649 were presenting petitions to Parliament saying…"Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?"

And now, four hundred years later, we're denying this again in mainstream historical fiction.
The tomboyish heroine, that old favourite of romantic fiction, who's not satisfied by a life of conventionally girlish pleasures, and who finds freedom and self-expression as an equal in masculine company - she changes, of course, when she meets the right man. (He "makes" her a woman, as often as not. *shudders*)

All those strong women, who lived and worked and loved as women in their own right, who ran businesses and ships and companies of soldiers in their own right - they just needed a man, to make them want to give up their independence and be hobbled by skirts again?

I was talking to Kim Wright from the arts programme Art2Art on Swindon 105.5 FM earlier on (just thought I'd drop that one right there, me on the radio, not swearing, not once. Hardly. Much. At all) - he had the idea that this sudden gender conventionality in fiction was a reaction against women's freedoms in World War 2, where women were suddenly doing men's work, men's equals, threatening established masculine domains, and the womenfolk had to be groomed a little into getting back into their boxes after the war. And, you know, perhaps the reason for the popularity of that aggressively masculine, Chandleresque stuff was that a lot of women were comfortable within those boxes, too. 

And that's fine, if that's what works for you, but it's not right for everyone. We're still promoting the idea of binary genders - of girlie girls and butch men - and pushing the myth that if you are not a pink princess, or a brave hero, you can't have romance, you can't have adventure, you can't be successful. That to be atypical, in fiction, makes a character a curio, a freakshow. There was a Paul Verhoeven film called "Flesh + Blood" in which Rutger Hauer's mercenary band contained, amongst others, two sniggering and not always very kind best mates, who were rough and tough, who always had each other's backs, who were a pair of loutish young gentlemen always spoiling for a fight.
At the end of the film one of them is killed and you realise, by the response of the other, that these two testosterone-fuelled hooligans were a deeply loving and long-established couple.
And it's not relevant to the plot, it's just a throwaway scene where actually, these two brawling roughs are seen to have a capacity for deep emotion - but it's two men who are in love with each other. 

Does that matter? Yes. They're a pair of aggressive street bravos who've systematically gone through life as their own two-person gang, and now all of a sudden one of them is alone, and we see a vulnerable, frightened side to him. 
Does it matter that it's two men? No. Or it shouldn't. As Het Babbitt points out to Hapless Russell in "A Wilderness of Sin", "There is, in my opinion, an insufficiency of people loving each other in this world, dear. As if it were something to be ashamed of."

Takes all sorts to make a world, as they say in Lancashire, but if you're going to write, the world is at your fingertips. Women, and men, in history fought hard to live outside convention, knowing they faced exposure, ridicule, social ostracism, even death, for disclosing themselves. And they still do, we have not yet come so far. We owe it to readers to write those men and women back into historical fiction, not as plaster saints or  wayward sinners, but as real, rounded human beings. Just lke us.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

About Time We Heard From Luce... an interview with young Pettitt

Friday, 4 September 2015

Rosie and Tyburn. Luce and Rosa. Meet Russell's Doubting Thomas....

“Got a surprise for you, Hapless,” Hollie said smugly.
Percey had groomed the bay horse till its coat gleamed like a dark conker. He'd even acquired some chalk from God knows where and he'd whitened the gelding's stockings. There were times when you had to wonder about Mattie Percey's previous career in a stable-yard in Essex. Just how honestly he might have come by certain skills. That lad was a better painter than Lely.
What he hadn’t done was improved the big horse's temper, and it came out of the line rearing, ears pinned against its skull. Mattie had his hand gripping the bit-ring, trying to keep the horse's head down, and even so the bay nearly had him off his feet.
It was a bloody fine horse, though. Big-built, not one of your lightweight sprinters like Luce Pettitt's spindly witless Rosa: backside like a gable end and a proud arch to its thickly-muscled neck that hinted that someone might have been a little behindhand with the shears to its gelding. That was a beast that'd go all day chasing Malignants and come in at the end of it dancing. It was the sort of mount any junior cavalry officer with any dreams of a future career in the Army might covet, provided a man could train some sense into its thick head. Plenty of staying-power, plenty of fire and dash, though possibly a bit light on good humour. Hollie closed one eye and looked at the bay horse consideringly where it ramped and curvetted like some maniac heraldic emblem.
"What d'you reckon to him, then?" he said, and looked at the scarred lieutenant, expecting to see gratitude and pleasure on that cold, half-lovely face.
Instead the lad was white to the lips, the great scar on his cheek standing out a most unlovely purple, and his eyes were as mad as the bay horse's.
"Is - thish - intended to be meant in humour?" he said stiffly, and his voice had that funny slur it had when the ragged muscle in his cheek had gone stiff as wood, like it did when he was tired or ungovernable. Or drunk. That was still always a clear and present possibility.
Hollie shook his head, thinking he must have misheard, or Russell must have misheard, because –
"All right, ain't he?" Percey said happily, still being jerked around like a rag doll by the beast's flinging head, but as cheerfully good-humoured as ever he was even when his arm was being yanked from its socket by an unwanted cavalry remount. "Want to take him out, Hap- uh, Lieutenant Russell? Take a bit of the ginger out of his heels?"
"I. Should. Rather. Be. Dead," Russell said, through gritted teeth. Flung his own head up, looking not unlike the bay horse, and glared fiercely at Hollie, and Hollie would have sworn to it the lieutenant's dark eyes were brimming with wholly incomprehensible tears. "A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
"What?" Hollie said blankly, and Russell snarled at him, actually snarled, baring his teeth like a dog.
"The Book of Proverb. Ss." He bit off the last consonant with a hissing, furious sibilance, and then hit himself in the temple with the heel of his hand. "Shir."
And then wheeled about and was gone, shoving Luce rudely out of the way, storming back to the house. "What," Hollie said again, shook himself, "what the bloody hell was that all about?"
"What on earth did you say to him - oh, sir, that was not well done!"
There were times when Luce didn’t half remind Hollie of Het. Well, Hollie's wife was his cornet's father's little sister, it wasn't so much of a surprise, but even so. That hurt, shocked, disappointed look was pure Het, an expression she reserved for when he did something completely stupid. What, precisely, he'd done this time, he did not quite know, save that he was still trying to make things all right for a lad who was as tricksy to handle as a barrel of rotten gunpowder, and he didn’t know from day's end to day's end what mood he was going to be on the receiving end of. Like walking on eggshells, if eggshells were volatile, suspicious, and prone to soothing their tempers by getting fiercely rat-arsed.
"What wasn't?" he said warily. "What, seriously, sir? You did not mean to be - um - funny?"
"No, of course I bloody didn't!"
Luce gave a great sigh. "Ah, God. So you - you know - did you look at the beast? Other than, um, you know - professionally?"
"What -" With one final jerk of the bit, Mattie had the bay horse with all four feet on the ground. It was still a handsome beast. It was just - odd-looking. Three white feet, and a great lopsided white blaze to its face. One blue eye, and one, slightly manic, brown one.
A perfectly sound, sturdy, fine cavalry mount, who just happened to look both ugly and irregular. It was a bloody good horse, sound in wind and limb, beautifully put together, a mount a man could rely on - could be proud of. But now Luce came to mention it, the brute did look a bit like it had been sewn together from bits of at least two other horses. Good ones, but -.
And that had been a coincidence.
"Ah," said Hollie.

The Smoke of Her Burning. October 2015.

Friday, 14 August 2015

About Face - thoughts on disability in fiction

Too often in fiction we like to see characters with a disability as "brave" or "tragic" - something that can be mended, or magicked away, or ignored, or overcome. Sweet, and gender-neutral, and slightly romantic, but broken: a thing not quite right, that can be made "right" - and socially acceptable - by an external agency, under the right circumstances. Because that's the point of fiction, isn't it? We can edit out the things we don't want to know about, airbrush over the horrid bits, especially in historical fiction.

Well, I've been reading a lot lately about the soldiers in the first World War who suffered facial disfigurement, and the reconstructive surgery they were (and weren't) offered. It's been an ongoing battle in my head, around Thankful Russell, hence the research around facial disfigurement. Because it's so hard not to slip into romantic hero mould and have him just lightly damaged but noble, like a sort of 1640s Heathcliff - dark and brooding and, well, Ross Poldark. After all, he's handsome, right, our Russell? Fair and elegant and rather stunning from the right side - he can't be too disfigured, not so it shows: that's not how it works in books, he's got to be just a little bit enigmatically damaged.

And he ain't. The stories of those young men in the early twentieth century were heartbreaking - young men who'd lost their beauty by shrapnel, by machine gun, by fire, and who came home to find their sweethearts turning away, or that nurses didn't want to remove their bandages because they didn't want to see underneath. Their children cried to see them. Many of them turned to drink, many committed suicide because they were -
"..not meek and biddable, He was not grateful. He was sullen-mute and his cheek was an agony for most of his waking hours, itching and burning and throbbing. He whimpered and sobbed through most nights. He was barely worth the pennies Parliament paid for his care." ( -A Cloak of Zeal)

I used to work with a man, some years ago, whose face had been badly burned in an incident at his old workplace and who had ended up having to be redeployed because he could not bear to be looked at. He'd grown a beard, which was possibly not one of his better ideas, because it had grown in patchy and fair over the scars. (He was rather gorgeous, actually, with or without the scars, but he wouldn't have believed me if I'd told him.)

I had a really interesting review of the short story in which Russell meets the lady who will eventually become his wife (which is called "Si Tu Dois Partir" and it's available in the anthology "Steel and Lace" HERE) in which it was described as the story of two less physically-fortunate people who manage to find a touching and meaningful love. I get that, I get that absolutely, but why on earth should the fact of Russell's scarred face preclude him from romance?  Imagine a hero who isn't sure if he can still kiss a woman, who slurs his words when he's tired, who's not prepared to meekly put up with being stared at by the curious and patronised by the great and the good. Imagine a man with a conspicuous facial disfigurement who's still got a sexual identity, who is bloody good at his job, and who, every now and again, falls off the wagon when the strain of conforming to everybody else's normal is too much for him.

Thankful Russell's not pretty, not any more. Get used to it.

Friday, 7 August 2015

To His Coy Mistress, Some Lines After the Battle New-fought at NASEBY

Why court'st thou death instead of me?
Why, mistress, must thou prove thy worth
By putting all thy foes to flee
Despite the virtues of thy birth?

For lady, spurn me as you must
I know and love thy bravery
That's never failed to keep thy trust
In th'face of the King's knavery

Yet may I hope, my mistress gay,
My plea your fair ear reaches:
You dress yourself in fine array
And put on skirts instead of breeches?

I dare not test, lest what I find
Is frailer yet, a bubbled glass
That shatters in a changing wind
Or withers, like the mower's grass

Yet, lady, your secret's secure
- As yet is mine: that I am yours.

If you wondered what Luce was writing during A Wilderness of Sin....

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Smoke of Her Burning - and a bargain!


To celebrate Yorkshire Day, an exclusive cover reveal of the new book, The Smoke of Her Burning, set in Selby 1644. And to celebrate the cover reveal, the first three books in the series will remain at 99p each till the end of August! - help yourself here.

I hope there's a good explanation for this, Colonel Babbitt," Fairfax said, with a sigh. 
"No," said Hollie honestly, "but there is an explanation." 

There's a lot of miles between Essex and Cheshire.... 

...and newly-promoted Colonel Hollie Babbitt is cursing the most recent additions to his company, for every step of them. 

A scarred lieutenant with a death wish, and they don't call him Hapless for nothing. 
Captain Drew Venning. And his dog. 
Captain Penitence Chedglow, last seen smashing up the inside of Worcester Cathedral in an excess of godly zeal, and his new companion in bigotry, the silent but violent Webb. 
The mysterious Trooper Gray, a one-man insurrection. 

Forced to leave a posting to Cromwell's Eastern Association as a result of some more than usually scatter-brained chivalric meddling by the posh poet Lucey Pettitt, Hollie finds himself up to the elbows in freezing mud at Nantwich, mired in intrigue and insubordination. 

When Hollie's old nemesis Prince Rupert relieves the siege at Newark, freeing up a cavalry force to hammer Fairfax’s garrisons in Yorkshire, it looks as if the gallant Parliamentarian defenders will be overwhelmed in the North. But after a fierce attack is repulsed, the Northern Royalists retreat to their foothold at Selby, with its vital strategic command of both the Ouse and the road to York. 

It will be hard. It will surely be bloody. But Hollie’s rebel rabble may be the difference between victory and defeat for Parliament in the North.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

If you like it, put a vote on it - A Broom At The Masthead preview....

He sniffed surreptitiously at the lustrous collar of his court suit.

It smelt, faintly, of stale rosewater and tobacco and sea-coal fumes, with an acrid note of sweat, and a slight overlay of wine. Under that was the strange, fugitive scent of silk, of tar and the sea and the spices of the hold of an East Indiaman - although that was possibly in his imagination, for he had never set foot on a ship bound for anywhere more exotic than the Low Countries.

He'd been told, in no uncertain terms, that he'd shirked long enough. That an officer of some seniority, even a supply officer of no great military significance or birth - General Monck had been very specific on that last, and Russell could still hear his commander's round rural Devonshire accent in the memory of it - it was his duty to present himself at court, and pay his loyal respects to His Majesty, on the glorious event of his restoration to the throne after eleven years of misery under the Commonwealth.
And then Monck had glowered, and narrowed his little bull's eyes, pouched in sagging red flesh. "You'll do the pretty, Major Russell, for all ye were a damnable Roundhead."

The which Major Thankful Russell could not argue, for with a name like Thankful, he could scarcely deny his staunch Puritan upbringing, and having almost had himself executed as a political subversive, he had to admire General Monck's perspicacity.
But. He had thought that after twenty years of keeping his head down, of being a ferociously good supply officer of no great military significance or birth, of waking and sleeping lists and requisitions and logistics - after a life of ruthless and selfless service, he might not, actually, be forced to show his face at court against his will. Monck said it was a matter of respect. Russell was a god-damned administrator, a jumped-up pen-pusher, who the hell did he think he was, in his arrogance, to refuse to present his respects to His Majesty in person?

They forgot, you see. They saw this neat, slightly austere, mouse-haired gentleman in his forty-second year, tall and a little stiff in the shoulders as a result of stooping over his requisition lists these last years. Short-haired, where preposterously curled wigs were the fashion, and so they called him Old Crophead, for his old Parliament leanings and his present lack of vanity. Not given to excess, of any nature, but a most prim and sober and respectable senior officer, the sight of whose scarred face could be relied upon to damp the high spirits of any gathering.
They forgot that twenty years ago he had been a firebrand, and a rebel. He looked cold and implacable, but how else might a man look, who had taken the thrust of the shattered butt of a pike through his cheek in the early years of the civil wars?

And so it had been a matter of duty, and a direct order, that Russell should present himself at court. Well, he had. He remembered little of it. He had, admittedly, fortified himself with perhaps more wine than he ought to have: anything to stop the shaking of his hands, his absolute bone-deep horror of being so conspicuously displayed in a public place. More than that, though, it had just been dull. Nothing happened. Lots of nothing happened. Just a lot of people talking a lot of nothing in a big room, that smelt of stale bodies and tallow and too much scent. He didn’t remember being presented to the King, though he supposed he must have, or Monck would have made him go back. Smiling politely at everyone, because he didn’t have a clue who was sleeping with whom, male or female, and it did not do to cut the reigning favourite, or the court wit. Being called Bosola, which he did not understand, but which had been kindly explained to him some months later by a friend who had read such old-fashioned tragedies that it referred to a most notorious court malcontent and bird of ill omen, in a play.

Being told, by a gaggle of cackling, bewigged striplings, that if one gilded a turd, it remained, regardless, a turd.
Suggesting to the Earl of Rochester that if he passed such remarks in Russell's hearing again, Russell would take Rochester's ungodly ape and insert it where the Lord's grace did not shine.
(Russell had known poets, in his time. The men he knew would have hesitated to scrawl such doggerel as Rochester wrote, on the wall of a troop latrine. He was not impressed by a seventeen-year-old libertine. And he meant it about the monkey.)

He'd stayed close to the wall, mostly, trembling, with the small of his back against the moulded plaster, taking some comfort from that cool strength. Holding to his duty, because that was what he did, what he had done since he was seventeen, and first a young officer. Feeling like an impostor, in his charcoal-grey lutestring silk, with a jacket that was so short and tight it barely covered his arse, and great billowing shirt-sleeves hanging from under the shrunken sleeves. Festooned with ribbon, like a damnable maypole, with a cravat that trailed in his supper if he was not cautious how he sat. Ribbons and lace and high-heeled shoes, which made him mince like a girl, and he could not and would not grow one of those ashy smears of moustache, even if his scarred face would allow it.

He had been a little drunk, and a lot nervous, and his teeth had been chattering on the rim of his delicate Venetian glass goblet even before he'd seen a face he knew, however vaguely: the chubby, deceptively amiable countenance of Charles Fairmantle, a distant Buckinghamshire neighbour. Member of Parliament now, he thought. Couldn't remember, and did not care, overly much. Fairmantle was a toady and a lecher, and a hanger-on to the peripheries of Rochester's lewd cohort, and the touch of his pudgy hand made a sweat of sheer repulsion break out on Russell's top lip, as if a warm slug had crawled over his skin.

They exchanged idle pleasantries, or at the least, Fairmantle made idle pleasantry and Russell stared blankly at him for the most part. And then,
"Accept my condolences, Major. A bad business. A bad business, indeed. You must be devastated."

"Oh. Indeed. Which condolences?"

The pudgy hand on his sleeve, solicitous, leaving a faint, damp print on the glimmering silk.
"I am so sorry, sir. I had assumed you knew. Your sister, major. God rest her, she - Four Ashes was burned, not three months ago, and poor Mistress Coventry with it." Fairmantle shook his head. "I am sorry. I had not meant - I had not known - sir, you turn positively pale -"

And Russell, who had hated his sister, and not set eyes on her in the better part of ten years, had bitten clean through the rim of his goblet in his shock nonetheless.

He thought that had been the moment when he had decided to come back to Buckinghamshire for good and all, though it had taken him a few months of despair and penny-pinching and soul-searching to work out how he might rebuild the house at Four Ashes.
And then a further few months of despair and soul-searching when he realised that there was only one woman he'd have entertained as mistress there, and that she was as utterly, irrevocably not for him as the moon for the moth.

Possibly he ought to have mentioned that fact to Thomazine Babbitt, for she was under no such doubts at all, as it turned out. There had only ever been one man for Thomazine, and the Lord be praised, it turned out it had always been Russell. It seemed she'd considered him her especial property since she was three years old. It might have saved him some considerable distress if she'd thought to tell him, though, he thought wryly.

Well. He smoothed the charcoal silk again, absently.

He'd thought to do her honour on their wedding day, and wear his finest.

Well, she was marrying a plain gentleman, not a courtier. He'd given all that up, along with his commission, just under a year ago. He was no man's but his own.
- And hers, of course. Always hers.

He took a deep breath, and pulled on the plain, decent, pewter-grey wool waistcoat with the plain silver buttons, and the plain, old-fashioned, straight-fitting coat that went with it.
"At least the lass will recognise you," he told himself, smiling wanly at his reflection in the mirror.
Ruffled a hand through his hair - grown to his shoulders, now, and no longer so indeterminately mouse as it had been when he'd worn it close-cropped, but streaked fair and dark as a field of wheat when the wind blows through it. She liked it so, worn long, and straight.

He was scarred, and worn, and weary, and his head hurt when the wind was in the north.
All that was true.
But Thomazine loved him. And further than that, he did not care.  

If you liked the first chapter of A Broom At the Masthead, vote for it HERE

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Luce's love life

Wilbrecht is five today.

It's an odd thing, being in a room full of happy, healthy, lively, noisy, well-nourished children. On the one hand, it's something like being dropped into a pan of boiling water, when you first walk through the door. Hot and well-nigh unbearable, for about thirty seconds, and then you start to become numb.

And then on the other hand, you think how very fortunate they are, and how lucky we are to have them, and what a privilege it is that the vexatious little buggers are happy and healthy.  (And that five years ago there was no Wilbrecht, and six years ago I did not imagine there ever might be.)

And, you know, I wonder what it might be like, if you were on your own - that you loved someone, maybe, but that maybe they didn't know, or that it just wasn't the right time or place to tell them - if maybe, it might choke in your throat, to see a room full of happy, healthy, bright children, and to think - I could do that. One of those screaming, laughing little whelps could have been mine. If she hadn't died. If she had known.
That everyone you knew, even the unlikely, even the plain and the unpromising, belonged. And there you were, at twenty-ish, single, a widower, someone who had known what it was to be a part of a little commonwealth, and who had lost it. Thinking, perhaps, that life was unfair, and wondering what your own children might have looked like, if you had been blessed.
If she hadn't died.

How you might have loved your never-children. Dried their tears, kissed bumps and grazes, told stories. Wiped noses. And it would have all been a kind myth, because you would have been just as cross and impatient as any other of these harrassed parents at times, but not in your never-world.

They loved their children, even in 1645.

Reckon we need to get Luce married off?

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Selby - a poll, please!

I have a certain situation, in Selby, and your opinion would be much valued.

Luce, Gray, and Russell, inside the barricades. Doing deeds of daring nefariety, if that is a word, which Hollie is going to go mental about when he finds out, but there it is.

("You did WHAT!! If you get your damn' fool self killed Lucifer your bloody auntie will never sleep with me again!")

Luce - nice young man, earnest, principled.
Gray - no principles at all but likes Luce and wouldn't want to make him sad
Russell - stark mad most of the time and nothing to lose, but essentially a decent young man

So.... having been helped by a Royalist sentry, how would you feel, as a reader, if either Russell or Gray cut the sentry's throat?

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Losing Her Cherry - what did happen to Margriete Babbitt?

"Kersen" is back in the Kindle short story charts. Which is, of course, right and proper.

But whilst I have been playing with the formatting of "Red Horse" prior to its being unveiled with its lovely new cover courtesy of Jacques le Roux, I have realised something that I think I might have always known.

You see, Margriete Babbitt - nee Gerritszen - aka the Amazon, is all of thirty-seven, thirty-eight when she marries her young mercenary. (He's eighteen, but it's all right... he's tall for his age.)
And that would make her forty-five when she dies. Now Hollie never knew what happened to his first wife: he was away at the time of her death, up to the elbows in mud and blood at the siege of Nuremberg. But I think I might...

Pregnancy and childbirth were a risky business, in the 17th century. It is estimated that between 6 and 7 per cent of women could expect to die from childbirth related causes. A married woman would become pregnant, on average, five or six times.

From 1619 to 1660 in the archdiocese of Canterbury, England, the median age of the brides was 22 years and nine months while the median age for the grooms was 25 years and six months, with average ages of 24 years for the brides and nearly 28 years for the grooms, with the most common ages at marriage being 22 years for women and 24 years for men; in one parish in Devon, the aberage age of marriage fluctuated between 25 and 29 years. Interestingly, the Church dictated that the age when one could marry without the consent of one’s parents was 21 years. A large majority of English brides in this time were at least 19 years of age when they married, and only one bride in a thousand was thirteen years of age or younger. (So much for the myth of the Early Modern child bride!)

So - Griete, married for a second time, a middle-class widow of independent means, already living on the polite peripheries as the owner of a tavern. In her book In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860, Dr Judith Schneid Lewis gives details of a woman whose last surviving child was born when she was 46; Catherine Tothill, wife of William Tothill, Esq., who resided at Shardeloes in Buckinghamshire during the 17th-century, is thought to have given birth to 33 children, the last, presumably, being in her forties. Margriete at forty-four would be an older mother, but not a freakishly old one.

And it would seem that women were aware of their chances, in childbirth. Anne Bradstreet's poem "Before the birth of one of her children" addresses her husband directly on the possibility of her death in labour, with resignation, though not necessarily with fear. It has been suggested that women possibly expected their suffering in travail as an affliction of humanity resulting from Eve's original sin - certainly, most women expected danger in childbirth, and expected to get on with it in as well and with as much Christian fortitude as may be. The midwife, and, if you could afford one, the physician, were instruments of God's will, and although it would be sinful to rely on them to thwart His design, it would be equally sinful to not take appropriate concern over one's bodily welfare.

For a good, thorough reading of the 17th century woman's approach to childbirth, I suggest Sharon Howard's academic paper 'Imagining the Pain and Peril of Seventeenth-century Childbirth: Travail and Deliverance in the Making ot an Early Modern World' (2003)

And as for Margriete?
No, that won't ever be a story in its own right, because she died without her lollopy mercenary-boy with her, and he would have held her hand if he could, and he couldn't.

Some things are too sad for even me.

(Image of The Cholmondley Ladies copyright Tate Gallery)

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Babylon is Fallen, to Rise No More

Well, the good news is, I've finished the new book.
The bad news is, it is not "Babylon's Downfall" - it's part one of the road to Marston Moor, it's the battle at Selby in 1643, and it's called "The Smoke of Her Burning".

I should like to say, worry not, I am not turning into George R R Martin (tha knows nuthin', Hollie Babbitt)

But I'm not sure that I'm not.

I can honestly say no one comes back from the dead, mind, but there is a Walk of Shame, all the way from Essex to Yorkshire. Instead of the Wall I have the Ouse. I have in-fighting Babbitts, disfigured heroes (yes, Russell's back!) stern heroines, and there may even be one or two scenes of Het Babbitt without her stays on.

Game o' thrones, my lily-white backside, as Rosie would have it.
Bloody game o' commonwealths, more like it.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The Earl of Essex - In Cromwell's Shadow

When I started writing "Red Horse", I knew it would be set around the battle of Edgehill, 1642, the early days of the English Civil War. I'd been lurking around Worcestershire since I was knee-high to a backsword. I'd been to Powick Bridge, I'd been to the Commandery in Worcester - been inside the cathedral, admired Prince Arthur's Chantry Chapel: what Tyburn left of it. I'm a 17th century re-enactor, I know about the clothes and the food and the smell of black powder. 

What I needed was a villain, of course. And the chances of one plain provincial captain of horse getting close enough to the Royal household to have His Majesty as the villain of the piece were minimal. (Even if I thought he was. Which I don't. But more on that another day.) 
Black-hat-wearing Puritan villain? Um, got a black-hat-wearing, if somewhat lapsed, Puritan hero, don't need another one. I get one - don't I, Russell? - but that's not for another book. 
Oliver Cromwell? Not at Edgehill (turned up late, probably muttering darkly) and even if he was, I happen to know that one big, scruffy redhead with the ability to quote apposite bits of Biblical text quite gets on with another. For now. 

I settled, then, on Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. 

Now if you Google the Earl of Essex you see image after image of a handsome, charismatic courtier, beautifully dressed, a dark-eyed man with a fashionable beard and an enigmatic smile. 
Pity it's not the same one.The second Earl of Essex was the spoiled favourite of Queen Elizabeth, possibly her lover, certainly her beloved: an intriguer, a true Renaissance man, who pushed his luck too far and was executed for treason in 1601. 

God alone knows how that political pirate produced such a pedestrian boy, but there he is: Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex. 

Life did not begin well for that young man. King James (not a man whose taste in women I would rely on, much) arranged a marriage for young Robert and at the age of fourteen he was married to Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. He was under-age, and she wasn't impressed. He was sent abroad, presumably to acquire a little finesse, a little polish, a little je ne sais quoi, and she acquired Sir Robert Carr in his absence. She was then granted a divorce in 1613 on the grounds of Devereux's impotence. 

(Let's just take a minute to think about that. Even now, even today, a young man would be hurt and ashamed and humiliated, at such a public declaration of his not being up to the manly job. Imagine how much more shame he might have felt in 1613, when divorce was a much rarer thing.) 

He went back to Europe and fought in the Low Countries, and an amateur psychologist might make much of that - a desire to be out of society in England until the behind-hand gossip and laughter had died down, a need to prove himself as a man in other ways, an understandable wish not to keep bumping into his ex-wife and her new man at every turn. It was a largely undistinguished military career, in which he served with Prince Maurice of Nassau (which must have been awkward, later) From 1620-4, Essex served in Protestant armies in Germany and the Low Countries. He joined Sir Horace Vere's expedition to defend the Palatinate in 1620 and served with Prince Maurice of Nassau from 1621. In 1624, he commanded a regiment in the unsuccessful campaign to relieve the siege of Breda. The following year, Essex was appointed vice-admiral in Sir Edward Cecil's expedition against Cadiz, which ended in disaster for the English. But although Essex's military career during the 1620s was undistinguished, he earned the affection and loyalty of the troops who served under him because of his willingness to share their . 

Easily offended and acutely sensitive to the honour of his family name, Essex became estranged from court life and was associated with the parliamentary opposition to King James and his successor King Charles I. Because of his criticism of Buckingham after Cadiz, Essex was denied command of an expeditionary force sent to Denmark. He then turned down an offer to command a regiment on the expedition to La Rochelle in 1627. Essex refused to pay the forced loans demanded by King Charles, and he supported the Petition of Right in 1628. After the dissolution of the 1628-9 Parliament, Essex withdrew into private life at his estates in Staffordshire. In 1630, Essex married Elizabeth Paulet (who is Luce's mother's cousin, in "Red Horse" - there's the family connection!) but six years later this marriage collapsed too, because of her adultery with Sir Thomas Uvedale. When Elizabeth gave birth to a son in November 1636, many believed Uvedale to be the father. Essex once again became the laughing-stock of the court. He accepted the child as his own and even forgave the countess, but when the child died the following month Essex gave up all hope of family life

His military career throughout the English Civil War was a history of missed opportunities, also-rans, and passed-overs. At Henrietta Maria's request Essex was suddenly demoted to Lieutenant-General of Horse in favour of the Queen's courtier the Earl of Holland during the Bishops' Wars in Scotland, despite being the peer with the most military experience. He wasn't offered any command at all in the Second Bishop's Wars of 1640. In January 1642, Essex was told by the Countess of Carlisle, from gossip at court, that the King intended to arrest the Five Members regarded as his leading opponents in the House of Commons. Essex warned the MPs, who went into hiding. After the failure of his attempt to arrest them, the King was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal from London. Essex refused the King's command to join him at York and was dismissed from his office of Lord Chamberlain. He was the first member of the House of Lords to accept Parliament's Militia Ordinance in March 1642.

As the highest-ranking nobleman to support Parliament, Essex was appointed to the Committee of Safety in July 1642 and commissioned Captain-General of the Parliamentarian armies  He proved meticulous (or pedantic) in planning his campaigns but was always cautious in carrying them out, to the extent of anecdotally carrying his own coffin and winding-sheet on campaign, just in case he might require them. Although criticised for his lack of flair and initiative, "Old Robin" remained popular with his troops. (Apart, obviously, from Hollie Babbitt, who can't stand him, but as the antipathy is entirely mutual, no loss on either part.)  

Essex commanded the Parliamentarian army at Edgehill, where he is said to have stood alongside his men wielding a pike at the head of an infantry regiment, and stood his ground in the defence of London later in 1642, though his refusal to pursue and attack the Royalist army as it withdrew from the capital disappointed many Parliamentarians. He was slow to begin campaigning in 1643 while peace negotiations with the King proceeded, but besieged and captured Reading in April. He was then unable to advance on the King's headquarters at Oxford after becoming bogged down at Thame with sickness rife in his army and no money to pay his troops. Severe criticism of Essex's leadership started to appear in the London newsbooks and members of the War Party praised his military rival Sir William Waller. When even his old ally John Pym rebuked him for inaction in June 1643, Essex angrily offered his resignation, but this was not accepted by Parliament. 

Hostility towards Essex reached a peak in July 1643 after he submitted an ill-considered letter to Parliament in which he complained that his army was so weakened by sickness and desertion that Parliament's best hope was to seek a treaty with the King. This was widely interpreted as an indication that Essex was about to defect to the Royalists. However, Pym succeeded in turning the situation around by proposing a parliamentary investigation into Essex's grievances that resulted in a resolution to settle arrears of pay in his army, to raise reinforcements and to issue a public vindication of his conduct. 

In justification of Pym's confidence in him, Essex fought his most brilliant campaign when he successfully relieved the siege of Gloucester and fought his way back to London at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643. Essex's Gloucester campaign halted a long run of Royalist successes and revived flagging morale in London. 

After John Pym's death at the end of 1643, Sir Henry Vane emerged as political leader in Parliament. Vane had no confidence in Essex's abilities as a general and manoeuvred to have him removed from command. Essex opposed the formation of the Committee for Both Kingdoms in February 1644, realising that it threatened his authority. His political influence was further undermined by the failure of his military campaigning that year when, after arguing with Waller, he disobeyed orders from Parliament, split his forces and marched into the West. Although he relieved the siege of Lyme, his subsequent invasion of Cornwall resulted in a defeat at Lostwithiel in September 1644 after which Essex left his troops to their fate and made an ignominious escape in a fishing boat. The Cornish campaign is the subject for another book in its own right. 

Although he was not officially censured by Parliament, the disaster of Lostwithiel finished Essex as a commander. Returning to the House of Lords, he supported the Earl of Manchester against Oliver Cromwell's criticisms of Manchester's leadership of the Eastern Association, and in December 1644 he joined an unsuccessful attempt to have Cromwell impeached for sedition. Essex led the opposition in the House of Lords to the measures proposed in the Commons for the re-organisation of Parliament's army, but he was finally obliged to resign his commission, which he did with a dignified speech on 2 April 1645, the day before the Self-Denying Ordinance was passed. 

Thereafter, Essex lived in semi-retirement, a revered and respected figure once he had laid down his military commissions. He suffered a stroke after stag hunting at Windsor and died on 14 September 1646. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with great pomp and ceremony, and an effigy was erected to his memory. A month after the funeral, however, his grave was vandalised and his effigy beheaded by a former Royalist soldier. The effigy was refurbished but was finally destroyed on the orders of Charles II after the Restoration, though Essex's body was left undisturbed. He died without male heirs, so the Essex title was extinguished until its revival at the Restoration, when it was granted to the son of the executed Royalist, Lord Capel. 

Now, like Babbitt, I think Essex must have been an absolute pain in the backside to serve with. Pedestrian, dutiful, and yet quick to take offence and slow to do much about it, possessed of an over-inflated sense of his own significance. I have seen one suggestion that his "impotence" was in fact down to medical grounds - an insufficiency of male hormones, although his lush facial hair and tendency towards aggression would indicate the reverse. 
And yet. And yet. I keep thinking of the young man he must have been - hurt and humiliated at court, the subject of public mockery and scorn - and the older man who married again, maybe full of hope, maybe not romantically in love, but hoping for some peace and comfort, only to find history repeating itself, as his wife took a lover And to have a son - who may, or may not, have been his own, but whom Essex was prepared to acknowledge as his own boy - and then to lose him, at a few months old. 

I hope someone loved Robert Devereux, just once, in his life. 


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Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists

Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists