Saturday, August 13, 2016

An Event at the College of St Elizabeth

On Wednesday I was the guest of honor at a lunch held for the College of St. Elizabeth, a small, private liberal arts school in Morristown. The alumni met at Shadowbrook, a lovely historic building not too far from the Atlantic Ocean. I was invited by alumni Patricia King, who writes wonderful historical mysteries under the pen name Annamaria Alfieri.

With the roses given by the college, and my friend Patricia King.

I enjoyed the Q&A the most. It's always so interesting to learn what people are curious about. My opinion on Henry VIII's Reformation, how I consulted with a Dominican nun in fact checking my books, and whether I feel "Wolf Hall" is fair--those were the topics of discussion.

The warm and friendly alumni

And I was very pleased and grateful to see the books selling briskly at the table staffed by BookTowne, an independant shop in Manasquan. The Crown sold out! :)

My books on sale!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Five Myths About the Man Who Died With Cromwell

by Nancy Bilyeau

The fall of Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell was swift, deeply cynical and brutal to the point of savagery. And yet the worst part of it may have been that Cromwell saw it coming--and could not save himself.

Months before his arrest, Cromwell gathered his many servants and told them "what a slippery state he stood and required them to look diligently and circumspectly into their order and actions, lest, through their default, any occasion might arise against them."

Thomas Cromwell

Just as the nobility hated Cromwell's humbly born patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, they loathed and envied the self-made man whom the king relied on through the 1530s, the man who had risen from blacksmith's son and mercenary soldier to Lord Privy Seal and Earl of Essex. Joining nobles such as Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, in their hatred of Cromwell were the religious conservatives, led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Wolsey fell because he could not extricate Henry VIII from his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. And once it became clear that the King wanted out of his marriage to fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and Cromwell was not hastening to do so, the pack of enemies smelled blood.

Cromwell was arrested on June 10, 1540, in a way meant to cause as much humiliation as possible. The Duke of Norfolk ripped the Order of St. George from around Cromwell's neck while the Earl of Southampton tore the Order of the Garter insignia from his gown. "Traitors must not wear the garter," shouted Norfolk. Cromwell was then hustled directly to the Tower of London; within two hours, the treasurer of the royal household had emptied Cromwell's house of valuables while others ransacked his papers.

There was no trial. Cromwell was condemned of treason and "abominable heresies" and executed on July 28, 1540.

An execution on Tower Hill in the 1550s

But Cromwell did not die alone.

Following Thomas Cromwell to the scaffold erected on Tower Hill (not Tyburn, as some historians have written) was Sir Walter Hungerford. The decision to behead two men that day was unusual, though not unprecedented. Two noblemen that Cromwell had targeted for destruction--Henry Pole, Lord Montague, and Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter--died together in late 1538. But those two men, condemned without trial for treason, were lifelong friends, distantly related, and requested a joint execution.

Why was Sir Walter Hungerford chosen for this ghastly honour? Cromwell was the author of the Reformation, a brilliant and ruthless statesman. His enemies sent Hungerford on the same path, from Tower of London cell to scaffold. It's a mystery that still swirls around that hot, pitiless day. In this post, I examine the myths, the theories and evidence.

True or False: Hungerford Was a Nobody

One theory is that Sir Walter Hungerford was an obscure and debauched criminal, so despicable that it would taint Cromwell to share a scaffold with such a creature.

Hungerford was a man of dark secrets, it would seem. But he was not a nobody.

Although some followers of Tudor history may not have heard of Hungerford, his family was a distinguished one with generations of service to the royal family. Sir Thomas Hungerford was steward to John of Gaunt in the 14th century and built the grand Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset.

A reconstruction of Farleigh Hungerford Castle in its heyday

His son, Sir Walter, fought at Agincourt, served as an admiral and became Speaker of the House of Commons. The Hungerfords sided with the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses and accumulated much wealth, establishing a London house on the Thames near Westminster Abbey. Nonetheless, the family had an unpleasant reputation: "..their record for dishonesty, vice and violence seems to have been exceptional even in the unsqueamish age in which they flourished," reports one chronicler.

The Sir Walter Hungerford of our tale was born in 1503 and served as a squire of the body to Henry VIII. In May 1536, he was a member of the jury that heard the case of the accused lovers of Anne Boleyn--Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, and William Brereton. The King and Cromwell made it clear what verdict they expected to hear, and Sir Walter Hungerford delivered. Guilty, on all counts.

Anne Boleyn

On June 8, 1536 he was summoned to Parliament as Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury. By this time Hungerford owned estates all over Wiltshire, especially in Heytesbury parish. He was a man on the rise.

True or False: Hungerford an Important Cromwell Ally

Sir Walter married three times (more on his unhappy marriages later). In 1532, his father-in-law, Sir John Hussey, wrote to Cromwell, saying that Sir Walter "much desired" an introduction. To make the best possible impression, Hungerford sent Cromwell "a patent of five marks a year." In other words, he bribed him. Through serving on the jury condemning Anne Boleyn's lovers and paying his patent of marks, Hungerford must have pursued his goal in just the right way, for soon after, Hungerford became Sheriff of Wiltshire, an important position. By all accounts, he then dedicated himself to enforcing the law and rounding up traitors to the King.

So yes, Hungerford was known to be a Cromwell client and ally, but there were many other men who fulfilled more important roles in the kingdom. Hungerford's influence did not extend beyond Wiltshire. He was by no means a principal supporter, nor was he a royal councilor. So why kill him with Cromwell?

True or False: Hungerford was a Dangerous Traitor

One of the most striking things about Sir Walter Hungerford was how marital unhappiness, if not violence, surrounded him. Either his stepmother, Agnes, or one of his wives was found guilty of murder and hanged.  His marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of John, Lord Hussey of Sleaford, suffered when his father-in-law rebelled against Henry VIII in the religious rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. One of the aims of the pilgrimage was the removal of Cromwell. The rebellion failed; Hussey was executed. At around the same time, according to Elizabeth, her husband, Lord Hungerford, imprisoned her in the family castle and tried to do away with her.

After Cromwell's arrest, among all the letters found, was the one by Elizabeth accusing Lord Hungerford:
Here I have been for three or four years past, without comfort of any creature, and under custody of my lord's chaplain, which hath once or twice poisoned me, as he will not deny under examination. He hath promised my lord that he 'would soon rid him of me,' and I am sure he intendeth to keep his promise.
In the same letter, she said she refused to eat or drink anything the chaplain brought her, claiming that food donated by "poor women" was "brought to my window in the night."

Was the letter genuine? It's hard to know--after her husband's death, Elizabeth married the courtier Sir Robert Throckmorton and gave birth to four daughters.

The treason charges against Sir Walter Hungerford are also mixed up with the Pilgrimage of Grace. According to his indictment, in October 1536, Hungerford pretended to arrest a vicar sympathetic to the rebels, William Bird. Instead, he employed him as chaplain for "several months." (This was not the same chaplain as the man who supposedly imprisoned his wife; Hungerford had a large household.)

But even if true, was this enough to condemn a man to death?

True or False: Hungerford was a Witch

The second crime that Hungerford was accused of was witchcraft.

A 17th century witch

Supposedly, on March 22, 1537, at Farleigh Castle, Hungerford called upon two men, Sir Hugh Wood and Dr. Maudlin, to use magic to predict how long Henry VIII would live. The spring of 1537 was a dangerous time. The Pilgrimage of Grace was suppressed, but it had been a frightening struggle for Henry VIII and Cromwell. Their enemies were being rounded up and executed.

At that time, Prince Edward had not yet been born; Henry VIII had no male heir. It wouldn't have been surprising if some people had questions about the future of the kingdom. But using prophecy to forecast the length of the life of the sovereign was high treason. This was the same charge that brought down Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, also for supposedly employing minor religious figures to gaze into the King's future in his private castle. The similarity of the charges is striking--and suspicious.

True or False: Hungerford was a Moral Criminal

The third crime Hungerford was accused of was "the abominable and detestable vice and sin of buggery" with several servants. The Buggery Act was an act of Parliament passed in 1533, sponsored by none other than Thomas Cromwell. It was thought that he meant to use it to confiscate the property of monks accused of the crime.

Despite being married several times and fathering four children, was Hungerford gay? It's possible. Hungerford was the only person to be executed for the accused crime in the entire Tudor period. (Let me emphasize that being gay is not a crime at all!)

Another possibility exists. It's believed that in 1536, Anne Boleyn was charged with incest with her brother George as a shock tactic, the crime concocted to make it easier to condemn her on the shakier charges. Hungerford's enemies--whoever they were--might have tried the same thing in 1540.

July 28, 1540

A great many soldiers appeared on Tower Hill the day of the execution, in case of some last-minute defense of Cromwell. The chronicler Edward Hall said he was greatly mourned by the "common people." But there was no outcry on his behalf that day. Sir William Kingston, who listened to Anne Boleyn's terrified rambling while she was imprisoned, was still the constable. Perhaps it was Kingston who led Hungerford and Cromwell out to the hill and formally handed them over to the jurisdiction of the city of London for execution.

Eyewitnesses agree that Hungerford panicked before the crowd. Some modern historians refer to Sir Walter as well known for insanity. But the pragmatic letters he wrote to Cromwell just a couple of years earlier attest to Hungerford's being well able to function in society. It is likely that, during his weeks of interrogation and with the knowledge he would soon die on the block, Hungerford had a nervous breakdown, like Jane Boleyn would in late 1541.

Hungerford "seemed so unquiet that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise," said one observer. Cromwell, who was about to make his final remarks to the crowd, took aside Sir Walter and said to him:
There is no cause for you to fear. If you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy enough for the Lord, who for Christ's sake will forgive you. Therefore be not dismayed, and though the breakfast we are going to be sharp, yet, trusting in the mercy of the Lord, we shall have a joyous dinner.
Cromwell was the first to die, in a bungled beheading infamous for its ghastliness. Hungerford followed. Both bodies were carted to the nearby Church of St. Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower walls. Their graves are a few feet from Anne Boleyn's. As Macaulay wrote, "In truth there is no sadder spot on earth than that little cemetery."

Because he was a traitor, Hungerford's estates and homes were claimed by the crown. Henry VIII gave Farleigh Hungerford Castle to his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Seymour. It was not a small acquisition. Which is perhaps as good a reason as any for the destruction of Sir Walter Hungerford.

The ruins of Farleigh Hungerford Castle today


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award-winning historical trilogy The CrownThe Chalice and The Tapestry, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster. The protagonist is Sister Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice. The Crown was an Oprah pick; The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense for 2016. To learn more, go to

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dee, Nostradamus, Agrippa: The Secrets of the 16th Century Magicians

By Nancy Bilyeau

On January 12, 1559, Elizabeth Tudor entered the Tower of London to prepare for her coronation as Queen of England. Her half-sister, Mary I, had died on November 17th and Elizabeth seized the reins of power immediately, but the all-important coronation was not set to take place until nearly two months later.

The date when Elizabeth would ride through the city of London to Westminster Abbey was January 15th. At the suggestion of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth consulted Dr. John Dee, the astrologist and scholar who later served as Shakespeare's inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Dee chose the date as most favorable to a successful reign.

Elizabeth's years of reliance on Dee puzzles some people today. How could the Tudor queen, educated, enlightened and brilliant, known for saying, "I would not open windows into men's souls," make decisions based on an astrologer? But to wonder that misreads the importance of men like John Dee in the 16th century. The more well versed in the Renaissance the ruler was, the more he or she favored the educated seers and wizards.

The career of Dee echoes that of Nostradamus in France and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in Germany. By looking at them together, the life of a seer comes into focus.


Of all the mystics who exerted influence in the 16th century, Nostradamus is the most notorious today. He has been the subject of hundreds of books and several recent television documentaries and is even portrayed by Rossif Sutherland (Donald's son) in a key role in the popular TV series Reign.

Catherine de Medici advised by Nostradamus (Sutherland) in Reign

Historians believe that Michel de Nostredame came from a family of Provence forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. After years of censure, taxation and increasing acts of violence against Jews in both Spain and France, King Louis XII ordered the exile of all Jews from Provence in an edict published in 1500. The Gassonet family did not leave; they had already converted to Christianity, with their name changing from Gassonet to Nostredame, arguably one of the most Catholic names imaginable. Michel was born on December 14th in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

Birthplace of Nostradamus in Saint-Remy
Michel definitely showed academic promise, learning Greek, Latin, Hebrew, logic and mathematics as well as medicine. At the age of 15 he entered the University of Avignon. But he was also drawn to the study of astrology, a respected practice in the 16th century, and herbal medicine. In his 20s, he achieved fame as a physician whose patients survived the plague more than average. In a time when medicine hurt more than it helped, Michel believed in fresh air, clean water and hygiene for patients--most unusual concepts--and prescribed a pill made of crushed rose petals. But after his own wife and children died of the plague despite his efforts to save them, he seems to have moved away from medicine and toward the arts of the occult. He wandered through Europe for years, and unfortunately became of interest to the Inquisition, who persecuted both conversos and those who dabbled in heresy. Somehow he managed to survive his Inquisitors, and subsequently became more--not less--interested in prophecy and mysticism. He Latinised his name to "Nostradamus."

In 1555, the first of Nostradmus's collections of prophecies foretelling the history of the world were published. The Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, who has gone down in history as a conniver and a poisoner, was also a passionate supporter of the arts, particularly architecture, and like other Renaissance patrons, was intrigued by prophecy. Many 16th century seers studied the philosophy of the ancient Greeks (as well as the Kabbalah and Arabic texts). The Queen summoned Nostradamus to the French court, and he advised her, on and off, until his death in 1566.

In the 16th century the most famous Nostradamus prophecy was a published quatrain:
"The young lion will overcome the old,
In a warlike field, in single combat,
In a cage of gold, he will pierce his eyes;
Two wounds being one he then dies a cruel death."
Based on contemporary sketch
In 1561, France's King Henry II died after being injured in a tournament joust. He was struck in the face, through his visor, by an opponent whose coat of arms included a lion. The lance drove into his brain just above his eye and he died days later, in agony. (In recent years, this chilling prediction has come under fire, as some say the quatrain came to light after the death of the Valois king, not before.)

Many of Nostradamus' prophecies seem to have been drawn from ancient end-of-world writings by Livy and Plutarch, among others, with astrological twists. Believers credit him with predicting everything from the French Revolution and American Civil War to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and World Trade Center attacks ("earth-shaking flames from the world's center roar"). But critics say his writings were vague enough to allow for just about any interpretation. Whether Nostradamus obscured his sincerely-meant prophecies to protect himself from the Inquisition or because they were cynically concocted wholesale inventions, we can never know.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

In 1818's Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes of an impressionable young medical student's fateful moment of discovery:
"In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with antipathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into great enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery..."
And so Victor Frankenstein was lost to his obsession--the creation of life.

Frankenstein: The man and his creation

The name Agrippa was not a fictional one but belonged to Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a 16th century German theologian, alchemist, philosopher and magician. Shelley's use of Agrippa's beliefs to fuel her tale is not as strange as it may seem at first glance. He also played an important part in a nonfiction book written by her journalist-philosopher father, William Godwin: Lives of the Necromancers. It's clear that this group of mystical thinkers--Godwin's list includes  not only Agrippa and Nostradamus but also Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon,  and a dozen others--proved fascinating to the poets and philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Godwin wrote of Agrippa:
"He was one of the most celebrated men of his time.... It is more than probable that Agrippa was willing by a general silence and mystery to give encouragement to the wonder of the vulgar mind. He was flattered by the terror and awe which his appearance inspired. He did not wish to come down to the ordinary level." 
Like Nostradamus, Agrippa was a precocious student. Born in Cologne in 1486, he mastered six languages and studied medicine and law as well as the work of the Humanists. Alchemy was his passion rather than astrology, and he believed "magic comprises the most profound contemplation of the most secret things, their nature, power, quality, substance and virtues." He published De Occulta Philosophia, three volumes on magic, an influential collection still in print.

Page from Agrippa's book

Contradictions abound in the life of Agrippa. He served the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in various capacities--as secretary, soldier and perhaps spy--and dedicated a book to the Hapsburg Emperor's respected sister, Margaret of Austria. Eustace Chapuys, the erudite Imperial Ambassador to Henry VIII, was Agrippa's student, friend and correspondent.

And yet the aura of the black arts clung to Agrippa. Godwin repeats the oft-told tale that a black dog accompanying Agrippa on all his travels was "a devil attendant." And it is in Lives of the Necromancers that a bizarre story is told, of Agrippa meeting Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in Germany and showing him, in a "magic glass," the image of his far-away mistress. For other noblemen, Agrippa summoned up the images of Ovid and "the whole destruction of Troy in a dream."

Despite his writings on magic and being a vocal critic of witchcraft trials, Agrippa was never persecuted for his beliefs, perhaps because he was protected by the Hapsburgs. He died in Grenoble in 1535.

Dr. John Dee

If Agrippa is tainted with black magic, Dr. John Dee is associated with white magic--angels, to be specific. He spent years of his life trying to decipher the language of the angels.

Of all of his mystic contemporaries, Dee was perhaps the most brilliant. Along with his spiritual studies, he is believed to have coined the phrase "British Empire" and urged both Tudor queens to create a national library (they both said no, so Dee built up the finest private library in England, if not all of Europe).

Born on July 13, 1527, Dee attended Cambridge and studied mathematics and the sciences as well as astrology and alchemy. In his twenties, he worked as a tutor and advisor for the Herbert and then the Dudley families, two powerful Protestant clans in the reign of the boy King, Edward VI.

But on the death of Edward and accession of Queen Mary, the power structure turned inside out, and Dee received a chilling lesson in loyalty. He was arrested in 1555, charged with casting the horoscopes of Queen Mary, her new husband, Philip of Spain, and Mary's half-sister Elizabeth. To look into the future of the royals, forecasting their deaths, was treason, and people had perished for such acts in the reign of Henry VIII. Moreover, Dee, a Protestant, was suspected of sympathy with the Princess Elizabeth, held in prison for her possible involvement in the Wyatt Rebellion.

Elizabeth Tudor

Informers were found who said Dee "endeavored through enchantments to destroy Queen Mary." He was interrogated, found wanting, and referred to the Star Chamber. Though he defended himself well, Dee was then charged with heresy and delivered to the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, one of the most diligent persecutors of heretics, later dubbed "bloody Bonner" by John Foxe.

Edmund Bonner, bishop of London

Things couldn't have looked bleaker for John Dee. Yet somehow he survived, not only convincing Bonner of his innocence and becoming a Catholic chaplain but even assisting Bonner in some of his interrogations of other Protestants. (He took on the "Dr." honorific because he was ordained by Bonner.) When Elizabeth took the throne, Dee rapidly switched back to the Protestant side, becoming Elizabeth's cherished special advisor, while Bonner, holding fast to his Catholic beliefs, ended up dying in prison.

Throughout his long, colorful, often controversial career, Dee would need to show nimble survivor tactics time and again, though perhaps none quite so extreme as this. Nonetheless, Dee, despite his partnership with necromancer Edward Kelley (see below), is a benevolent figure in today's pantheon of seers. In fact, it is his tall, thin, white-bearded visage and scholarly, mentorish demeanor that seems to have inspired the wizards created by J.R.R. Tolkein and J.K. Rowling.

John Dee

It is a legacy that, one feels, John Dee would have entirely approved of.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Is There Historical Basis for the Forbidden Love on 'Game of Thrones'?

By Nancy Bilyeau

“The man looked over at the woman. ‘The things I do for love,’ he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove. Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into open air.”

It was one of the most shocking moments of the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones. The child was Bran Stark, caught peeping through a castle window when he heard voices during one of his climbs up the outer walls. The “man” was Jaime Lannister, and the "woman" his twin sister, Cersei Lannister, married to the king of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon. What Bran saw was brother and sister making love, and for that, Jamie tried to silence the boy through murder, for Cersei’s children were not fathered by the king and that was a secret the twins would kill to conceal.

Jaimie and Cersei Lannister

In the current season of Game of Thrones, the forbidden love between Cersei and Jaimie rages stronger than ever. When threatening Lord Edmure Tully, Jaimie, heading up the Lannister army, says:

I love Cersei. You can laugh at that if you want; you can sneer, it doesn't matter. She needs me. And to get back to her, I have to take Riverrun. I'll send for your baby boy, and I'll launch him into Riverrun with a catapult. Because you don't matter to me, Lord Edmure. Your son doesn't matter to me. The people in the castle don't matter to me. Only Cersei. And if I have to slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, that's what I'll do.”

There is no denying that Game of Thrones is submerged in incest. Whether it’s a dynastic predilection, a forbidden love affair or a source of horrific abuse, incestuous couplings serve as both world-building foundation and crucial plot devices in the books and the series. While Game of Thrones is a fantasy, filled with dragons and “White Walkers” and “the Long Winter,” it draws some of its overarching plots from the medieval period—and the ancient one. Where do the precedents for rampant incest come from? Let’s examine the clues.

George R.R. Martin created a complex and ornately imagined world of seven kingdoms in his series. At the start of the first book, Cersei Lannister is married to Robert Baratheon, but his rule was established through a coup. Robert overthrew the “mad king,” Aerys II Targaryen, the last of three centuries’ worth of rulers of that family. Martin clearly establishes that House Targaryen is built on brother-sister royal unions. He wrote, “For centuries the Targaryens had married brother to sister, since Aegon the Conqueror had taken his sister to bride. The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of Old Valyria, the blood of the dragon.” 

In the television series, this is rarely referred to, although there is no indication that the show runners have changed the family history. Daenerys Targaryen, the product of generations of incest, is a major character of the show, and a sympathetic point of view for the audience, and it’s possible the script writers do not want to weaken the fans’ liking for Daenerys.

Martin most likely modeled the brother-sister Targaryen unions on the Ancient Egyptian royal families that practiced incestuous marriages. The famous Queen Cleopatra was the daughter of a Ptolemy XII and his sister or half-sister. At Ptolemy’s death in 51 BC, 18-year-old Cleopatra ascended, married to her 10-year-old brother (whom she of course had killed). Such marriages were not a peculiarity of the House of Ptolemy. King Tutankhamen, who took the throne in 1332 BC, was the son of a brother-sister marriage. Egypt was then a world power, and the young Tutankhamen worshipped as a god during his short life.

Coffin of King Tut

Scientific analyses recently confirmed that “King Tut” was the offspring of siblings. Moreover, he suffered a bone disease connected to inbreeding and was physically frail, walking with a cane. 

Martin does depict the psychological damage caused by incest in his books and the force often used, particularly in the horrific storyline of the character Craster. The undeniable genetic problems in incestuous families are not addressed, but, interestingly, mental instability often shows up in children of incest in the books. And no character was more unstable than the “Mad King.”

Martin has never said in interviews whether he based the brother-sister love affair of Jaime and Cersei Lannister on either real characters from history or literary characters. He has confirmed that, overall, in Game of Thrones, the depiction of the civil war that breaks out at the death of King Robert Baratheon, leading to so many battles and betrayals, clings “closest” to England’s Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, the struggle for the throne between the houses of York and Lancaster. 

Lancastrian Siege of London, 1471

The kings, princes and lords who fought over the English throne were ruthless and duplicitous—but there was never a hint, in fact or rumor, of incestuous. In fact, royal marriages were arranged with an almost obsessive attention to the partners’ being too closely related by blood or in-law precedents. The medieval popes essentially held control over these monarchies because only a Holy Father could issue a papal dispensation allowing couples within forbidden degree of “affinity” to marry. Since there were centuries of dynastic intermarriage to contend with, these rulings became essential. 

It was a pope’s refusal to reverse an earlier pope’s dispensation for a marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon that famously led to King Henry’s break with Rome. Henry VIII and Catherine were distantly related, but the dispensation was needed because she was first married to his older brother, Arthur. That was considered an incestuous connection, a sin before God, and Henry VIII claimed he had no sons in his first marriage because he was punished by the Almighty. There are many other, lesser-known examples of fears of “affinity.” The king’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, had to get a papal dispensation to marry because they were distant cousins.

If fears over the sin caused by distant cousins marrying was this prevalent, it would lead to the assumption that incest was rare in medieval Europe. The answer to this is…yes and no.

Incest was an abomination, a mortal sin, the darkest part of lechery in the Seven Deadly Sins. It was a direct path to damnation of the soul, which men and women feared above all. It wasn’t just kings and queens who were subject to scrutiny. Bishops investigated charges of incest. On the parish level, priests were expected to be on the lookout, asking probing questions and making sure that relatives did not marry. If caught, those who had sex with blood kin were punished by the church. Penance was proscribed, and sometimes the guilty were forced into monastic life. (Incest remained a matter of canon law in England until 1908!) The definition of incest was incredibly broad, too. It extended beyond immediate family and second cousins to distant relations. In-laws and godchildren were included. In the 12th century, marriages were forbidden between any couple related by blood or “affinity” to the seventh degree.

This level of medieval policing may seem extreme to us but it followed the lead of Roman law. In the year 295 AD incest was explicitly forbidden by Imperial edict. Before then, rules were most definitely broken—at the top. The Emperor Caligula is believed to have had sex with all three of his sisters. His uncle, who became Emperor Claudius, changed the laws to accommodate himself when he wanted to marry his niece, Agrippina (who, years later, is thought to have had sex with her son, Nero.) Both Caligula and Nero were mentally unstable. It’s possible that this first-century storm of debauchery inspired George R.R. Martin, who has written several characters that, once they achieve power, become mentally unhinged and sexually uncontrollable. 

Lucrezia Borgia

There are two rumored cases of royal brother-sister incest outside of the Plantagenet Wars of the Roses that may have inspired Martin. Gossips say that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, children of the 15th century Pope Alexander, were lovers. The charge was first heard when the Borgia family pushed through Lucrezia’s divorce from her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. It was a purely political marriage that teenage Lucrezia seems to have had no problem ending. The grounds for divorce were nonconsummation, which Sforza denied, hitting back with Borgia brother-sister incest accusations. Adding to the rumor-mill was the withdrawal of Lucrezia from public life around this time, followed by the birth of a child:
 Giovanni Borgia,"infans Romanus." Historians have long debated the parentage of this Borgia. The mother could have been Lucrezia. Was the father Cesare, brilliant and murderous? Or was the child fathered by Cesare (or his father) with another woman? No one knows for certain.

Anne Boleyn

Less than a century later, Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was accused of incest with her brother George, along with adultery with four men. Thomas Boleyn, the father of the queen and her brother, was an extremely ambitious man, obsessed with titles and money. Anne and George are talented, witty and attractive. In George Boleyn’s trial, evidence was produced that they acted “contrary to all human laws.” Anne had allegedly "tempted her brother with her tongue in the said George's mouth and the said George's tongue in hers." Also heard was that the siblings had mocked the king’s poetry and his sexual prowess. George is supposed to have repeated Anne’s claim that Henry VIII "was not able to satisfy a woman and he had neither capacity nor virility." Even more seriously, the Boleyns were supposed to have plotted the king’s death. The vast majority of historians do not believe that Anne and George Boleyn committed incest. It was part of Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to blacken her reputation and condemn the queen, freeing Henry VIII to marry again.

With both the Borgia’s and the Boleyn’s, this is key: blackening their names. No one questions that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and Anne and George Boleyn were fond of each other. But incest? These were two families that vaulted to power, with members who were ambitious and attractive. They had many enemies. Even a ruler who was feared and revered could face defamation. Charlemagne’s reputation is dogged by the rumors that he had sex with one of his sisters and had feelings other than fatherly for his daughters. When the powerful family in question is more of a parvenu, the sexual-misconduct rumors ran wild indeed.

Let’s take a closer look at the Lannister pair. There are echoes of Borgia and Boleyn in Martin’s creations. The Lannisters are a powerful family, envied and disliked by many others. There is a cold, strong father—Tywin Lannister—controlling a ruthless family. Cersei and Jaime are gorgeous specimens: the queen is famously beautiful and Jaime Lannister has “hair as bright as beaten gold.” Cersei Lannister is ordered to marry young for political reasons. The marriage is very unhappy. Jaime is his sister’s companion and defender, and in secret, her lover. The queen’s three children are fathered by Jaime, although they go to great efforts to create the impression they are Robert Baratheon’s, including trying to murder innocent Bran.

Another source of inspiration for George R.R. Martin could be medieval poetry and storytelling. There is a lot to choose from. “Medieval incest stories are so numerous that it is impossible even to mention them all, let alone to discuss them all in detail,” writes Elizabeth Archibald, author of Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Many functioned as cautionary tales, to warn the faithful of sin. But it’s possible the tales also served as prurient entertainment.

Two classical myths clearly influenced medieval stories: Oedipus, who unknowingly married his mother and killed his father, and Apollonius of Tyre, who uncovered King Antiochus’s rape of his daughter (this story became material for Chaucer, Gower and Shakespeare). Less well known is the Greek myth of the twins Caunus and Bibylis. In Ovid, Bibylis falls in love with her brother but when he learns of it, Caunus runs away. She follows him, heartbroken and still obsessed. She eventually goes mad and dies. Because of her constant weeping, the gods turn her into a spring.

Bibylis and Caunus

A very interesting story can be found in Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), based, in part, on late 13th century Icelandic prose. In one cycle, the hero Siegmund seeks shelter at the house of the warrior Hunding. He meets Sieglinde, Hunding's unhappy wife, and they are drawn to each other. In the course of their conversation, Siegmund tells her that long ago, while he was hunting with his father, his mother was killed and his twin sister abducted. She is, of course, that sister. They flee together, committing adultery and incest, cursed by some and protected by others. Siegmund is killed, despite wielding his magic sword, drawn from a tree. Sieglinde dies giving birth to their son, Siegfried, the hero of further adventures filled with battles, quests, a ring and a sword, and even dragons.

Siegmund and Sieglinde

Perhaps the most famous medieval story of incest can be found in Le Morte d’Arthur. In Sir Thomas Malory’s version, published in 1485, the same year as the Battle of Bosworth that ended the Wars of the Roses, King Arthur has a child with his half-sister, Morgana. Arthur may not have realized when they had sex that she was his sister, or been somehow tricked. The son is Mordred, a traitor whose destiny is to kill Arthur.

In John Boorman’s enthralling 1981 film of the Arthur legend, Excalibur, the character of Mordred is turned from traitor into full-out murderous sociopath. “Come father, let us embrace at last,” sneers Mordred on the final battlefield, as he prepares to spear Arthur. Throughout the film, German music can be heard, most of it composed by Wagner. When young Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, we hear Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung, the final segment from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Intriguing choices by Boorman.

Joffrey in Game of Thrones

Mordred in Excalibur

It’s impossible not to wonder if George R.R. Martin was influenced by this mixture of sources when you consider Prince Joffrey, the oldest child of Cersei and Jaime Lannister who everyone is fooled into believing is the son and heir to Robert Baratheon. Joffrey is cruel and violent, “a monster,” in the words of Sansa Stark, the sister of Bran Stark, once betrothed to Joffrey. The blond actor who plays Joffrey bears an eerie resemblance to the one who portrayed Mordred in Excalibur.

In Game of Thrones, Joffrey, the child of incest, is poisoned at his own wedding feast, surrounded by those who fear and loathe him. And it is his mother, Cersei, who kneels by his side, screaming and sobbing as he dies.


This post is adapted from the original article running in the April 2016 issue of Medieval magazine.

'The Tapestry' a Finalist for Daphne du Maurier Award

I'm extremely proud to share the news that The Tapestry is a finalist for the 2016 award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense from the Romance Writers of America.

Daphne du Maurier was an influence on my writing from the very beginning, and I look on this as a tremendous honor.

The news on who won the award will be released in July!

Friday, June 3, 2016

Was the Duke of Buckingham Guilty?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Edward Stafford

On May 17, 1521, Edward Stafford, 43, third duke of Buckingham, was beheaded on Tower Hill outside the Tower of London, found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII.

In Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, the king said of Buckingham, “He hath into monstrous habits put the graces that were once his, and is become as black as if besmear’d in hell.”  In the miniseries The Tudors Buckingham actively plots against the king, seeking to replace him, and goes to his execution wailing in terror.

What was the actual evidence against him at trial? Separating fact from fiction, did Buckingham plot against the king? The answer: there was no proof of any plot, no actions taken against Henry VIII. But Edward Stafford was guilty nonetheless — of being too noble, too rich and too arrogant to survive in the increasingly paranoid court of Henry VIII, his cousin once removed.

Buckingham’s entire life was marked with loss and suspicion.

When he was five years old, his father, the second duke, was executed by Richard III. His father allied with Richard to seize Richard's nephew on the road to London, and the duke of Buckingham is considered a key suspect in the murders of the princes in the Tower. For whatever reason, he suddenly turned against the king, and was actively trying to overthrow him when arrested. His heir, young Edward Stafford, was hidden from Richard III in relatives’ homes, not to emerge until  Henry VII defeated the last Yorkist king at Bosworth.

Edward became a royal ward of the Tudor family, knighted at the age of seven. His closest blood tie came through the Woodville family. His mother, Catherine, was the sister of Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV and mother of Elizabeth of York. Edward Stafford was from a strong Lancaster family that recently married into the York dynasty. It should have made him a special favorite.

But as Edward grew into a proud, preening adolescent, Henry VII cooled toward him, fearing that he outshone the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII. 

The Tudors saw the Staffords as a threat. 

The family's history was turbulent from the start. In 1347, Ralph de Stafford, a supporter of Edward III and a founding member of the Order of the Garter, built Stafford Castle. Ralph was a tough, ambitious and ruthless soldier. After his first wife died, he abducted a wealthy young heiress and married her, ignoring the outrage of her parents. When the girl's family turned to Edward III for justice, he refused to order Stafford to give up his bride. Instead, he gave the parents more titles to shut them up. 

One of the descendants of this union married a descendant of Edward III's youngest son, Thomas of Woodstock. The Staffords now had a royal stake. Humphrey Stafford, the first Duke of Buckingham, was a passionate loyalist to Henry VI and a leading Lancastrian aristocrat and commander of armies. He was known for saying such things as, "The earl of Warwick shall not come to the king's presence, and if he comes, he shall die." He died at the Battle of Northampton in 1460, defending the king's honor.

It was a fiery family legacy for Edward Stafford.

Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509, unchallenged by his older cousin. In fact, the duke was lord high steward for the coronation and carried the crown. But Stafford was noticed. A foreign ambassador wrote admiringly of “my lord of Buckingham, a noble man and would be a royal ruler."

Over the next ten years he was pushed out of the center of power more and more--if he had ever occupied it, which is doubtful. As friends, Henry VIII much preferred lower-born, jovial men of the joust yard like Charles Brandon and William Compton. And the man who ran the entire kingdom was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. There was no place for Buckingham.

In response, Edward Stafford married a noblewoman of the Percy family, fathered four children (and several illegitimate children), and withdrew to his estates, where he was the unquestioned man in charge. The family seat was Stafford Castle, but he wanted something more modern and spectacular. He began construction of Thornbury Castle. Did its beauty draw the hostility of Henry VIII, himself a fanatical builder?

Thornbury Castle

What more likely changed the cousins’ relationship was Henry VIII's lack of a male heir. 

Catherine of Aragon's last pregnancy was in 1518. They had a daughter, Mary. But the Tudor dynasty was a new one , and Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey weren’t sure that the nobility would accept a female ruler when Henry died. Might they not look to the duke of Buckingham or one of his sons, instead? (Henry VIII's decision to annul his marriage and try to father a son with a new wife was years in the future. Anne Boleyn was still in France.)

On April 8, 1521, the duke was ordered to London from Thornbury. He set out for the court, seemingly unaware of any danger, and was greatly shocked when arrested along the way and taken to the Tower.

 At his trial, he was charged with “imagining and compassing the death of the king,” through seeking out prophecy from a monk named Nicholas Hopkins about the chances of the king having a male heir. Evidence was supposedly obtained from disgruntled former members of the duke’s household.

This was a controversial charge. In 1397 a statute was introduced making it treason to imagine or "encompass the death of the king" and conviction could be based on it. But the law was repealed just a few years later because of the need for some action along with the imagining to make it treason. At Buckingham's trial, certain lords asked the chief justice if a person could be convicted "on the basis of words alone." They were told that it was not a felony without an action taken, but nonetheless,  "if one intends the death of the King, it is treason." The message was clear.

Buckingham denied all charges, including seeking prophecy. His friends said those who testified against the duke were bribed or threatened. But a jury of 17 peers found him guilty, led by the duke of Norfolk, who condemned him — while weeping.

Edward Stafford died with dignity on Tower Hill, and was buried in the Church of the Austin Friars. One chronicler said Buckingham’s death was “universally lamented by all London.”

Parliament passed a bill of attainder, and the duke’s enormous wealth — his castles and holdings and titles — passed to the crown. Henry VIII took Thornbury for himself; he stayed there for more than a week  in 1535 with Anne Boleyn. Buckingham's London residence was given to Henry Courtenay, marchioness of Exeter. 

The illustrious Stafford clan never rose to prominence again. They were the first noble family to be crushed by Henry VIII … but definitely not the last. Those who say that Henry VIII changed from a good man into a tyrant in the 1530s, particularly 1536, should take a long look at the death of Buckingham.


Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice, is the protagonist of The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, set in Tudor England and published in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick for 2012 and was shortlisted for the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award.

For the month of June, The Crown is discounted 70 perecent on amazon and Barnes & Noble. Go here.

The third book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, is a finalist for the RWA Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense.

E-Book Price Slashed 70 Percent on THE CROWN

My publisher is discounting the price of the first novel in my series, THE CROWN. The ebook is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $3.99.

THE CROWN was shortlisted for the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award from the Crime Writers' Association. It was an Oprah pick in 2012.

The review said: "Bilyeau deftly weaves extensive historical detail throughout, but the real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy and betrayal."

To order, go here.