Saturday, September 22, 2018

Evidence Found of a Centuries' Old Scottish Feud

There are feuds, and then there are feuds.

The conflicts between clans in 16th and 17th century Scotland are famous, and one that raged between the Campbell family and the MacDonald family was particularly unrelenting.

Now a seal owned by one of the clan leaders, Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, has come to light. It was buried beneath mounds of rubble at Dunyvaig Castle on Islay, where the clans fought.

Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland, and is celebrated today for its whisky. In fact, Islay is known as “The Queen of the Hebrides” and celebrated as the reigning monarch of a typically smoky, peaty style of single malt whisky. Its 17th century history was considerably more tumultuous.

The artifact that attests to the conflict was described as “remarkable” and “extremely rare” by archaeologists.

Once used to sign and seal charters and documents, the seal is a disc of lead that carries the inscription “Ioannis Campbell de Calder.”  (Calder was the original spelling of Cawdor). It carries the Cawdor coat of arms with a galley ship and a stag and is dated 1593.

The Campbells and the MacDonald’s fought over Dunyvaig in the early 17th century, with a series of sieges of the castle until the Campbells won. Sir John took ownership of Islay in 1615.

A field school student has unearthed the seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, a leader of the Campbell clan. Photo by Islay Heritage and the University of Reading

Losing the castle was a bitter blow for the MacDonalds. The castle was once the naval fortress of the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of the clan MacDonald. Most of the castle remains are from the 16th century but the foundations are believed to be centuries older.

The seal was found by a field student during an excavation of the castle being carried out by Islay Heritage and the University of Reading. According to the BBC, University of Reading student Zoƫ Wiacek, who found the seal, said everyone on the dig became excited when it was uncovered.

She said: “I removed a piece of rubble and it was just sitting there on the ground. I immediately knew it was an important find, but had no idea what it was. I called over my trench supervisor, and when it was lifted, the soil fell away to show the inscription.”

The clan feud was a bitter one and long lasting, with much blood spilled.

The website Memories of Scotland says, “Memories run long in the highlands of Scotland and, we've heard tell, the bitterness between Clans Campbell and MacDonald continues to this day. The clash between these two ancient Celtic houses, which has lasted for hundreds of years, is not just about lands, religion, Jacobitism, or even betrayal. Rather, it is about power.”

In 1344, the chief of the MacDonalds began to style himself “Lord of the Isles.” Each of the succeeding Lords of the Isles rebelled against their Stewart king, often in coordination with the English kings.
Dunyvaig Castle, Islay, Scotland. Seen from northeast. Photo by Otter CC BY-SA 3.0

Said Memories of Scotland, “They sought an independent Highland kingdom and bitterly resented paying fealty to lowland Scots. They had been kings and wished to be kings still. Yet, they were completely unsuccessful and there were only four acknowledged Lords of the Isles.”

The Campbells, however, sought power in Scotland while cooperating with the Stewart kings, and they were the ones who tried to take down the MacDonalds.

“The Campbell lands lie in Argyll. By the 16th century, the chiefs were Earls of Argyll, and these days (and for some time past) there has been a Duke of Argyll, the 9th of whom married a daughter of Queen Victoria.”

As the clan with the muscle in that part of Scotland, the Campbells were all too ready to besiege the castle on Islay and try to dislodge the MacDonalds. After they won, there was of course considerable bitterness.

The most notorious chapter in the clans' feud was the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. The Campbells, now loyal to the British Crown, held by William of Orange, instead of the Stuarts and their Jacobite cause, initiated an underhand and savage attack against the MacDonalds. Their soldiers killed the chief of the clan, 33 other men, two women, and two children.

The massacre took place after the Campbells and their followers were welcomed by the MacDonalds for two weeks of Celtic hospitality. The Campbells had pretended to come as friends. But in the dark early morning of February 13, 1692, the guests slaughtered their unarmed hosts, not even sparing the children.

The horror of the Glencoe Massacre is thought to have inspired George R. R. Martin in his “Red Wedding” section of Game of Thrones, in which one family is wiped out under the guise of hospitality.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

DNA Evidence and the Princes in the Tower

The fate of the Princes in the Tower, who disappeared in the late 15th century, has become not only an obsession but a question loaded with potential blame--and exoneration too.

Some say Richard III, the boys' uncle, had them killed, but others furiously defend Richard and point the finger at those they say stood to gain from the removal from the succession of the vulnerable sons of Edward IV.

Before he died at the age of 40, Edward IV instructed his younger brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to serve as Lord Protector for his oldest son, also named Edward, who was just 12.

Portrait of Richard III of England
The trouble was, Edward's queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and that brother, Richard of Gloucester, hated each other. There was a lethal split in the family, and Richard seized his older nephew and had him put in the Tower of London for his "protection" before the coronation. The boy's maternal uncles were killed, and Elizabeth Woodville fled with her other children to Westminster Abbey, claiming sanctuary.

But after weeks of intense pressure on the widowed queen, Richard was able to secure the younger son, too. Both princes were placed in the Tower of London. Richard declared himself the rightful king and took the throne as Richard III. He was the one who had the coronation, not his nephew, on July 6, 1483.
The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, 1483, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1878, part of the Royal Holloway picture collection.
The two princes were last seen by any members of the public in the summer of 1483. Richard III reigned as king but was killed in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and in the time of his successors, Henry VII and Henry VIII, it was widely said that Richard had murdered his nephews. Rumors of the deed circulated in the last year of Richard III's reign as well. It became a baffling mystery, and source of debate.

Now researchers say a recently identified DNA sample could bring some answers.
The DNA obviously cannot come from the boys' direct descendants, since the two of them, Edward V and Prince Richard of York, were assumed to have disappeared before they reached adulthood, married, and had their own children.

But the boys' maternal grandmother, Jacquetta Woodville, is the confirmed ancestor of a modern-day English opera singer, a woman named Elizabeth Roberts, whose female-line mitochondrial DNA scientists were able to isolate. Elizabeth Roberts is the 16 times great-granddaughter of Jacquetta Woodville, also called Jacquette of Luxembourg.
King Edward V and the Duke of York in the Tower of London, by Paul Delaroche.

That still raises the question: How does one compare Elizabeth Roberts' DNA to the boys' DNA when they disappeared?

That brings the story to a wooden box discovered two centuries after the boys vanished. Workmen in the Tower found a box buried in the grounds near the White Tower in 1674. The bones were thought to be that of the two princes and were buried in Westminster Abbey in an urn by order of Charles II.

Researchers say that if the DNA could be extracted from those remains and compared to that of Elizabeth Roberts, and there is a match, it proves that the dead boys were Edward V and his younger brother, Richard of York. And that, some say, strengthens the theory that Richard III had them killed while they were confined in the Tower of London.

However, there are problems with that line of logic. Some defenders of Richard's reputation say that Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, and also the Duke of Buckingham both had something to gain from the murder of the princes, and could possibly have gained access to the Tower during that time, or bribed someone with access.

If the bones of the boys in the buried box do not match with the Woodville descendant, Richard's defenders say that means the princes did not die in the Tower of London. Some say one or both were spirited away and lived in obscurity, although why that would happen is hard to explain. Some say the younger prince was Perkin Warbeck, a pretender to the throne eventually executed by Henry VII.

“The discovery of the descendant, and her decision to supply a sample of her DNA have opened up significant avenues of investigation. The traditional narrative surrounding the so-called Princes in the Tower is deeply problematic – but this new DNA brings solving a number of key questions that much closer,” said Philippa Langley, the historical researcher who was responsible for successfully discovering the long-lost grave of Richard III, in an interview published in The Independent.

Sarcophagal urn of the presumed bones of Edward V and his brother, Richard, Duke of York

Another problem with this theory is that it is unlikely permission will be granted for the bodies buried in Westminster Abbey to be tested. The Abbey has turned down similar requests in the past 50 years, and there seems but a slim chance of officials changing their mind.

The new book The Mythology of the Princes in the Tower in which the DNA discovery is revealed “was written by an Essex University historian, John Ashdown-Hill, who tragically passed away just a few months ago,” according to The Independent. It is being published in July 2018 by the UK publisher Amberley Books.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Unhappiest Royal Marriage of all: George IV and Caroline of Brunswick

The wedding of Prince Harry to American actress Meghan Markle and the upcoming nuptials of another of Queen Elizabeth's grandchildren, Princess Eugenie, to Casamigos Tequila brand ambassador Jack Brooksbank make it clear that marriages in the English royal family are made for love.

It wasn't always this way.

For centuries, the monarchs of England married to forge alliances with other European countries, with the side benefit of dowries fat enough to fill depleted royal treasuries. For example, in 1662, Charles II's bride, Catherine of Braganza, was said to have brought with her a dowry of 2 million Portuguese crowns, plus the port of Tangiers.

Many of these marriages evolved into working partnerships within which some affection, and perhaps even love, developed.

But there were very unhappy ones too.

Three of Queen Elizabeth's four children divorced their first spouses, but this wasn't easily done in the past. Unhappy kings could imprison their queens, as Henry II did with Eleanor of Aquitaine, or execute them, as Henry VIII did with Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (he managed to annul marriages to two other queens too).

George, Prince of Wales and later Prince Regent

In the annals of royal matrimony, however, there is nothing quite like the marriage of George IV to Princess Caroline of Brunswick. It kept going from bad to worse, until reaching the nadir of George's coronation on July 9, 1821, when at the age of 57 he finally succeeded George III.

Estranged from her husband and living abroad, Caroline returned to England to be crowned as Queen. She was told not to attempt entering Westminster Abbey for the ceremony but ignored that advice. Caroline arrived and attempted entry, but the Deputy Lord Chamberlain slammed the door in her face.

Caroline of Brunswick

After banging on the door and shouting that she belonged inside, Caroline stumbled back to her carriage. Later that night she fell ill, and she died three weeks later.

This tragedy began years earlier, in the 1790s, when Prince George realized he had no choice but to marry a princess. The heir to the throne had wracked up massive debts as an extravagant pleasure seeker.

St Margaret Church, Westminster Abbey, London

George IV served as Prince Regent (meaning he carried out the duties of the monarch due to his George III's unstable mental state) for ten years, but was not able to be crowned king in his own right until his father's death in 1820.

During this period, George III was still in possession of some of his wits -- and he seriously disapproved of his oldest son's lifestyle. The king sent letters "void of every expression of parental kindness or affection," said a contemporary.

To make matters even more difficult, George had entered into an illegal marriage at age 23. He wed a woman he was desperately in love with, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, a commoner, a widow, and a Catholic. It was against the law for a royal to marry without the monarch's consent and the spouse of a Catholic could not succeed, but he lived with her fairly openly for a number of years.

Maria Fitzherbert, secret wife of the heir to the throne

The prince's debts mounted, and his father remained intractable. Why should he pay for the lifestyle of a son without a family? Finally, George IV, who was tired of Maria in any case, informed his father he was ready to marry a fellow royal and start a family. His debt of £650,000 was cleared -- and his bride was secured.

Caroline, then 27, came from the minor royal German house of Brunswick. Many of the British monarchs of the 18th and 19th centuries married Germans, who were reliably Protestant.

Caroline was George's first cousin, since her mother was one of George III's sisters. The king, her father-in-law, always liked her -- much more than he liked his son.

Caroline in 1795, shortly before her marriage

But there were warning signs that she was not the best match for the heir to the throne. George, for all of his faults ("gluttony, drunkenness, and gambling," observed a courtier), was acknowledged as a man of great taste. He patronized artists and was himself a talented singer; he pushed for innovative architecture, and he was on the forefront of fashion.

Caroline was not very well educated, excitable, garrulous, and badly dressed. One biographer of George III wrote that she was "rumored to be dirty and extremely indiscreet and was undeniably no beauty."

Other observers at the time thought that she was well meaning and friendly, and would have calmed down and made a good wife if the man in question were a kind one. That's not, sadly, what Caroline got.

The couple met for the first time three days before the wedding date. George embraced her, then withdrew to a corner and called for brandy. Caroline, for her part, was taken aback by his appearance and behavior and said, "My God! Does the Prince always act like this? I think he's very fat and he's nothing like his portrait."

Having no choice, the two of them married on April 8, 1795. George drank so much that he spent most of his wedding night unconscious on the floor. It is said that in the first week of the marriage, the two of them had sex three times. And then...never again.

However, she had become pregnant, and Princess Charlotte was born nine months after the wedding (tragically, Charlotte would die at the age of 21 from complications during childbirth).

Just a few months after his marriage, George informed his father he wished to separate from his wife. King George III wrote to him, "You seem to look on your disunion with the Princess as merely of a private nature and totally put out of sight as Heir Apparent of the Crown your marriage is a public act."

But Caroline wanted out of the marriage as much as he did. She departed for the Continent in 1814. There she reportedly had affairs and perhaps even an illegitimate child. George of course had many affairs too, while trying to divorce his wife who he once called "the vilest wretch this world ever was cursed with."

The wedding of George, Prince of Wales, and princess Caroline of Brunswick officiated on April 8, 1795 in the Chapel Royal of St. James's Palace, London.

The public, however, took up Princess Caroline cause, sympathizing with her plight. English writer and chronicler William Hazlitt said, "It was the only question I have ever known that excited a thorough popular feeling. It struck its roots into the heart of the nation; it took possession of every house or cottage in the kingdom."

Even after he became king, George IV could not manage to get a divorce. Caroline had decided to return to England and take her place as Queen of England. A desperate George offered her a large bribe to stay on the Continent, which she refused.

The spectacle of her being turned away from Westminster Abbey while pounding on the door and shouting, "I am your Queen!" was an enormous scandal of the time.

Caroline died at the age of 53. Her funeral was a scene of general chaos, with an outraged public throwing bricks at soldiers who tried to keep order.

At her request, she was buried in her native Brunswick in a tomb bearing the inscription "Here lies Caroline, the Injured Queen of England."


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Joanna Stafford trilogy, historical thrillers set in the 16th century, published in 9 countries, and the upcoming historical novel "The Blue," a suspense story set in the art and porcelain world of 18th century England and France.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Cover Reveal for 'The Lost History of Dreams'

Ta da! Here's the cover reveal for Kris Waldherr’s THE LOST HISTORY OF DREAMS, which Touchstone Books will publish on April 9, 2019! In this captivating debut novel in the gothic tradition of Wuthering Heights and The Thirteenth Tale, a post-mortem photographer unearths dark secrets of the past that may hold the key to his future.
Learn more or preorder here:
Read an exclusive interview about the cover design:

Share this post for a chance to win one early copy from Touchstone! US residents only.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

My Conversation with Ruth Ware

I was delighted to have the chance to profile Ruth Ware for the cover of The Big Thrill. Her new novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is exactly the kind of mystery I enjoy reading.

Sharing my story here:


A Classic With Delicious Twists

The eerie Manderley estate of Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca has mesmerized not only decades’ worth of readers but also novelists—and for Ruth Ware, the Cornwall estate of Menabilly, which inspired du Maurier, has very particular meaning. The British suspense author, whose novel THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is winning acclaim, said that Menabilly “was the main reason I chose to set my novel in Cornwall, as a tribute to her fabulous settings.”

Ware explained, “I tend to think of the settings for my novels as another character in themselves. I have to find the right place for my novels, just as much as I have to find the main characters, and they play off each other.”

In THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY, the “character” in question is a Cornwall house called Trespassn, and it’s much more than a slightly crumbling estate of wealth and dark secrets. It’s a property that the novel’s main character, Hal, may or may not be entitled to. Hal is a near-destitute tarot card reader with a stall on the Brighton Pier when she receives a letter saying that her grandmother has recently died and she may be due an inheritance. The problem? Hal believes her grandmother to be long dead. Should she decide to attend the funeral of the mysterious Mrs. Westaway, it’s those abilities to “read” people refined through tarot-reading that could set her own future.

The Cornwall estate Menabilly that served as the inspiration for Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”

The author of the psychological thrillers The Woman in Cabin 10, In a Dark, Dark Wood, and The Lying Game said the strikingly original character of Hal did not come as a product of exhaustive research. “Hal is very much straight out of my imagination,” Ware explained. “Most of my characters are—occasionally I’ll steal a small quirk or a figure of speech off a real person, but I try not to magpie too much from real life, it feels a little disrespectful and I fear my friends might start to rebel. She probably has a good dose of me, though. Most of my characters are me to some extent.”

And even though tarot plays a key role in the novel, Ware said, “I knew very little about tarot before I started writing the novel. I had seen the cards of course, and always found them beautiful and evocative, but I had no idea about what they symbolized and how to conduct a reading. I went into it thinking it was a load of old cobblers, to be totally honest —I’m not a natural believer in anything supernatural, and I tend to dismiss anything that isn’t provable in a sequence of peer reviewed double blind trials. But I emerged from the research process rather impressed, and more inclined to use tarot in my own life. Like Hal, I don’t think the cards themselves have any particular predictive power—but I do think that any process that encourages you to ask yourself questions about your motives and hopes and fears is probably healthy. Ultimately the cards are just a way of making you consider things from different angles, and analyze what forces might be acting on your life. I wouldn’t encourage people to take them too literally—like Hal, I think they can become a crutch. But as a means of enabling self reflection, I think they’re quite useful.”

Whatever her creative method, it’s clearly working. THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is winning glowing reviews, from “Expertly paced and crafted” in Kirkus to “tense, twisty modern 
gothic” in Publishers Weekly.

The Washington Post in particular delighted in the novel’s charms, saying in its review, “A classic never goes out of style. Consider the confident simplicity of the dry martini, the Edison lightbulb and Meghan Markle’s wedding dress. Now, add to that list Ruth Ware’s new novel, THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY.”

The glories of the classic Rebecca aside, there was another du Maurier book that influenced Ware in her novel’s creation. “I re-immersed myself in My Cousin Rachel last year, having not read it for years, and I had forgotten quite how brilliant it is.“

The plot of THE DEATH OF MRS. WESTAWAY is definitely filled with twists and well timed revelations, and some instances of clever misdirection. Yet Ware said she is not an author who plots a book in detail ahead of time. “I work mostly by instinct,” she said. “I knew what the switch was going to be in this novel from fairly early on, but exactly how it pans out and how Hal discovers the truth was something I only figured out by writing. Of course there’s a fair amount of tweaking goes on after I deliver—I rely on my editors to tell me if I’ve revealed too much or have signaled too little. They are very good at being a test reader.”

One thing that is not present in the novel is a romance for Hal, interestingly. Ware admits, “It wasn’t something I set out to consciously do or not do—just how it turned out. But I’d written a couple of books in succession where the main character’s romantic problems were a sort of counterpoint or backdrop to the mystery playing out in the foreground, so I suppose perhaps unconsciously I wanted to do something different this time round.”

Ware’s work is being compared to that of Agatha Christie, whose mysteries are so adept with questions of identity, especially when it comes to money. “Yes, some of her best books are about this topic,” Ware said. “I would also encourage anyone who enjoys those themes to read Peril at End House and Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey, to both of which I owe an undoubted debt of inspiration.”

As for Menabilly, which Daphne du Maurier leased for years, Ware said, “I have never been to the real Menabilly, which is in private hands. I would love to visit, but part of me worries that it could never be as glorious and atmospheric as the fictional versions.”

This story ran on The Big Thrill on June 1.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Earl of Sussex: "Right trustie and right well beloved cousin"

With Prince Harry and Meghan Markle taking the titles of Duke and Duchess of Sussex, it made me think of a person who bore the title of Sussex and played a crucial part in the life of Elizabeth I.

His name was Thomas Radclyffe, and he was the third Earl of Sussex.

Throughout her whole life, Elizabeth turned to and trusted the relatives on the side of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Thomas Radclyffe was part of the Howard clan. Anne Boleyn's mother. Elizabeth Howard, was his aunt. 

Although Sussex signed the document agreeing to the accession of Lady Jane Grey, which was what Edward VI wanted, he was one of the courtiers who broke away early on and rode to the camp of Princess Mary, Henry VIII's oldest daughter, to offer her support in taking the throne. Mary made him her commander-in-chief during the time when it looked as if she would have to wage a battle. Sussex had Catholic sympathies and Mary's efforts to return the country to the Old Religion must have appealed.

Sussex, at that point 28 years old, became an important councilor to Mary after she'd officially ousted Jane Grey. But it was after the Wyatt Rebellion, when those who opposed Mary's marriage to the Catholic Prince Philip, that Sussex's loyalty to his cousin Elizabeth became clear as well. Elizabeth was arrested under suspicion of conspiring against Mary, and a deputation of lords that included Sussex came to take Princess Elizabeth to the Tower of London on Saturday, March 17.

Elizabeth protested being taken to the Tower, asking to see the Queen, her half-sister. She was told no. She then asked to write a letter to the Queen and that too was refused. Elizabeth was by all accounts very upset. 

But it was at that point Sussex came forward. 

Sussex fell to his knees before Elizabeth and said, "You shall have liberty to write your mind and, as I am a true man, I will deliver your letter to the Queen and beg an answer, whatsoever comes there of."

Elizabeth wrote a pleading, eloquent letter, protesting her innocence, which Sussex then took to Queen Mary. She was enraged that Elizabeth was allowed to write to her and said, "Such a thing would never have been allowed in my father's time!"

Elizabeth survived her ordeal in the Tower, when she came closest to execution than any other time in her life, and it was in part due to the intervention of Sussex. There was no hard evidence against Elizabeth, and a leading nobleman in the realm being willing to risk the Queen's wrath to support her sister may well have slowed down the movement to proceed against Elizabeth.

Sussex continued to support her throughout Mary's reign, and when Elizabeth I became Queen in 1558, he was one of her most important courtiers. Sussex always distrusted Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, but even though he vigorously opposed her marrying Dudley and criticized him at every turn, Elizabeth never punished him for it.

In her letters to him, Elizabeth addressed Sussex in a 1570 letter as her "right trustie and right well beloved cousin," and he was a key councilor for the rest of his life.

Sussex is without a doubt an admirable title.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Crown in the Czech Republic

I'm excited to report that my first novel, The Crown, sold well in the Czech Republic. Its publisher was Euromedia Group--I still have the facebook post from a few years ago on how excited I was to get them as my twelfth foreign publisher for the book, when the deal was first made.

Its title is Koruna. And my name becomes Nancy Bilyeauova :)

I think part of the reason the book is doing well is its dramatic cover:

What do you think?