Sunday, September 10, 2017

Solving the Mysteries in the Vatican Secret Archives

As the U.S. editor of The Vintage News, I edit stories and write them. It's rewarding to see the reach of the history-news website--there are as many as 6 million readers a month!

A favorite story of mine is a feature I wrote on a scientific breakthrough in medieval manuscripts.

Breakthrough discovery on 13th century parchment kept in Vatican Secret Archives created a new mystery

The appearance of purple dots on manuscripts written in the Middle Ages has long been a frustrating problem. The dots grow and grow until they obscure the writing on a scroll or book page, making it impossible for us to read the words today. Keeping the manuscripts in a controlled environment, such as the air-conditioned, low-light sanctum of the Vatican Secret Archives, can only do so much. The spread of the purple dots has destroyed documents that historians are desperate to learn from.

But this year a team of researchers led by an eco-toxicologist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata–using as their sample a 16-foot-long, 1244 parchment roll asking that a man named Laurentius Loricatus be made a saint–discovered what created the purple dots. It was salt-loving marine microbes, according to a paper released September 7 in the journal Scientific Reports.

At first, the results just didn’t seem right. “When my students came to me, saying, ‘Luciana, we found marine bacteria,’ I told them, ‘Repeat, please; there is a mistake. There must be a mistake,’ ” Dr. Luciana Migliore told Live Science.

To read the rest of the story, go here.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The OTHER Anne Boleyn

By Nancy Bilyeau

Anne, queen of England

In September 1534, Hatfield House radiated incredible tension. The handsome manor, built forty years earlier by a cardinal, housed an army of servants and two Tudor princesses: one-year-old Elizabeth, the cherished heir to Henry VIII's throne and the daughter of Anne Boleyn, and 18-year-old Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and former heir to the throne, now very much in disgrace. She had been forced to join her half-sister's household and lived there as an inferior. Turning her into a quasi-servant was part of King Henry's campaign to break Mary's spirit because his daughter would not acknowledge his second marriage as lawful.

This particular day, Mary lay in bed, seriously ill. Her sickness was a matter of international incident, as rumors of poison swept through courts and filled ambassadorial letters. Thanks to her mother, she was a first cousin of the Emperor Charles V, and his vigilant and suspicious ambassador in England, Eustace Chapuys, told many people he feared for her life.

Hatfield House today 

Elsewhere in Hatfield another woman, much older, was distraught, even, according to contemporary accounts, prey to fits of weeping.  If Mary died, she would be blamed and the repercussions were terrifying. Her name was Anne Boleyn.

No, not that Anne Boleyn. The other one.

The woman in charge of Hatfield was born Anne Boleyn, the sister of Thomas Boleyn. She long ago made a good marriage to Sir John Shelton and raised eight children in Norfolk. That all changed when her niece became queen of England and she was thrust into a prestigious position that progressed from stressful to impossible.

Looking at the interactions between the two Anne's is enlightening.

The senior Anne was born in 1475, the daughter of Sir William Boleyn and Margaret Butler, daughter of the earl of Ormond. Anne grew up in comfort at the Boleyn seat of Blickling Hall, in Norfolk. * There are no authenticated portraits of her, but based on the much-admired beauty of two of her daughters and her Boleyn nieces, we can assume she, too, was attractive. A stained-glass window image of her shows a woman with a trace of fair hair, unlike her famously brunette niece.

A stained-glass image in Norfolk identified as Lady Anne Shelton

Her husband, Sir John Shelton, was from an important land-holding family. Around the time they married, he was made high sheriff of Norfolk. He attended the coronation of Henry VIII in 1509 and attended Queen Catherine of Aragon at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 but the couple were not inner-circle royal courtiers like Thomas Boleyn. The Shelton base was in Norfolk--until her niece Anne became a force to be reckoned with.

It's unlikely that the two Anne's were close. While the younger one was also born at Blickling Hall, she spent much of her youth outside England. In 1513, Anne Boleyn was sent to Europe to serve Regent Margaret of the Netherlands, followed by the French Queen Claude. She returned in 1522 and spent much of her time at court or at Hever, in Kent. But once she married the king, Anne Boleyn--hated by Catherine of Aragon loyalists and unpopular in the country at large--desperately needed supporters, and that meant recruiting members of her extended family.

The first Shelton to be plucked from Norfolk was the Sheltons' teenage daughter Margaret, called "Madge." She attended Queen Anne in spring 1533 and in January 1535 records show she received a royal gift. That same year she had a colorful--if not notorious--role to play at court, but more on that later.

When Princess Elizabeth was born in September 1533, her parents set her up in a separate royal household twenty miles away at Hatfield, to emphasize her prestige. It's often emphasized that this had nothing to do with lack of love for their daughter (born in place of the prayed-for son), and was a normal thing for royalty to do. To do so with a three-month-old was a bit unusual. Catherine of Aragon had kept the infant Mary Tudor close by. Mary received her first lady governess, Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury (and a Yorkist noble), at age four and she was not sent away to Wales with her own extensive staff until she was nine.

With Elizabeth, it was extremely important that her position be as exalted as possible as soon as possible.  Anne Boleyn was involved with all the details of her daughter's care and wardrobe and setting up her household and visited when she could. Elizabeth had a wet nurse and many servants. The woman who spent the most time with the red-haired baby was Lady Margaret Bryan, also a trusted relation of the Boleyn family.

Lady Margaret Bryan

Lady Anne Shelton and her husband, both of them in their late 50s, were the ones officially put in charge of the princess's household.  Perhaps it was because they'd succeeded in raising a large, thriving brood. More likely, it was because they would do what the Boleyn family needed done.

Before the end of 1533, Hatfield had that other, most unwilling member: Mary Tudor. Catherine of Aragon, in exile but insisting she was queen, hadn't been allowed to see her daughter for a while but sent her a stream of letters urging resistance to King Henry. Mary complied without hesitation. She refused to acknowledge the annulment of her parents' marriage. She was the true princess, she insisted. She said she would not address Elizabeth as princess but as "sister," just as she addressed the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy as "brother."

This news sent Queen Anne into a rage. In one of her many letters to her aunt, she wrote that if Mary insisted on being called a princess, she was to have her ears boxed as a "cursed bastard." It was a priority to curb her "proud Spanish blood."

                                             Mary Tudor as a young woman

The next several years of Mary Tudor's life were so traumatic they are believed to have damaged her physically and psychologically. In her teens she was often described as pretty, accomplished in music and a dedicated scholar, as well as a faithful friend. Praise was more muted in her twenties.

But the truth is, this period was horrible for Anne Shelton as well. She was under orders from the king and queen of England to break Mary down. The elder Tudor daughter had a strong will and seethed with hurt and anger. She was fully prepared to contest every single point of etiquette and household business with Anne Shelton. On one side was the Sheltons' niece, the Queen, calling for ear boxing. But on the other side was Ambassador Chapuys, representing the most powerful monarch in all of Europe, the Emperor Charles. He made it known to Anne Shelton that any forceful actions against Mary could have consequences for her.  A year earlier, Lady Shelton was managing her husband's estates in Norfolk and seeing her first grandchildren born. Now she was in the sights of one of the most brilliant and resourceful ambassadors of the century. (What disturbed Chapuys most were reports that the queen was making wild threats about Mary, including vowing to have her killed if Henry VIII ever left the kingdom. She famously said "I am her death and she is mine.")

For Mary, outwardly petite and delicate, it was simple. War. Mary would not eat with the rest of the Hatfield household; she stayed in her room most of the time; she demanded unsupervised access to exercise; she refused medicine offered when she felt poorly; she would not answer unless addressed as Princess. She also attempted to send and receive secret letters, which the Sheltons did their utmost to prevent.

Anne Shelton did not box her charge's ears. She issued orders, she meted out consequences. She did plead with Mary to cooperate, and when Mary refused she is known to have taken her by the arms and shaken her. Harsh words were said. The household had to move from Hatfield at one point, but Mary wouldn't leave the manor house unless she was treated as a princess. Eventually, Anne Shelton ordered servants to pick up Mary and carry her bodily out of the building.

It would be logical to assume Anne Shelton hated Mary. But despite the frequent quarrels, she didn't.

Her nephew, George Boleyn, and the Duke of Norfolk chastised Anne Shelton for behaving to Mary "with too much respect and kindness, saying that she ought only to be treated as a bastard." Her bold response: "Even if the Princess were only the bastard of a poor gentleman, she deserved honour and good treatment for her goodness and virtues."

The unhappy household struggled on. In the fall of 1534 Mary, whose health was never strong, fell ill "with a disease of the head and the stomach." Ambassador Chapuys asked King Henry if Mary could be reunited with her mother or her former governess, the Countess of Salisbury, to be nursed. Henry VIII"s reply: "He replied that the Countess was a fool, of no experience, and that if his daughter had been under her care during this illness she would have died, for she would not have known what to do, whereas her present governess [Lady Shelton] is an expert lady even in such female complaints."

Chapuys then made it crystal clear to Anne Shelton the stakes: "I warned her by a third hand of the mischief which might arise to her if anything happened to the said Princess, and I also took care to get the King's physician to tell her that of late there was a common report in London that she had poisoned the said Princess."

Ambassador Chapuys

When a worried Anne Shelton brought in an apothecary to give Mary some pills, she became worse. The apothecary dissolved into panic. As for Anne Shelton, Chapuys reported triumphantly that she was "in terrible fear, so that she can do nothing but weep when she sees the Princess so ill."

Mary recovered, to the deep relief of all at Hatfield.

The year 1536 brought about many changes to all parties, most of them brutal. The death of Catherine of Aragon devastated Mary. Queen Anne attempted a conciliation with Mary, facilitated by Anne Shelton. If Mary would acknowledge her as queen, she'd be a "second mother" to her and expect only "minimal courtesies." But the girl rejected this overture with great rudeness.

In May, Anne herself was arrested. All too soon the status of Princess Elizabeth would be plunged into uncertainty, bordering on penury.

But first, Anne Shelton had one more important part to play in the life of her niece. When Queen Anne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, Lady Shelton was definitely one of her six attendants, appointed by Thomas Cromwell. The queen bitterly complained about her female attendants, saying she "never loved" any of them and they were spies.

This seems strange, after the service Lady Shelton did in raising Elizabeth and controlling Mary. Some historians have speculated that their relationship strained to the breaking point because of what happened to Margaret Shelton, "Madge," while she served the queen.

According to court gossip, Henry VIII had an affair with Madge.  The king was taking mistresses during this time. Chapuys wrote: "The young lady who was lately in the King's favour is no longer. There has succeeded to her place a cousin of the Concubine [Queen Anne], daughter of the present governess of the Princess [Mary]."

An even more sordid theory was that the queen connived to put Madge in her husband's bed so that he wouldn't fall in love with a woman from a family hostile to the Boleyns and so undo her. (Which is exactly what happened with Jane Seymour later.)

After her brief affair with the king, Madge Shelton was engaged to courtier Henry Norris but they never married. He was charged with adultery with Queen Anne and beheaded. Also the queen once accused Sir Francis Weston, who was married, with flirting with Madge, according to her own ramblings in the Tower. He told Queen Anne he came to her chambers not for Madge for her "herself." Weston, too, ended up accused of sleeping with the queen and lost his life. It was a complicated, appalling situation, and certainly not the dream of any mother. *

Was Anne Shelton at the side of her niece when she, too, was executed? We don't have these women's names and there were conflicting reports. One eyewitness said the queen's handful of attendants were "young," and Anne Shelton was pushing 60. The queen's ladies wept that day. It's not hard to imagine that Lady Shelton would cry at this frightening scene, no matter the women's differences.

The Tower of London chapel where Queen Anne is believed to be buried

There are two more points to be made. After the death of Anne Boleyn, Lady Anne Shelton remained on good terms with her two charges, Elizabeth and Mary Tudor, even though both soon passed from her hands. When Mary Tudor's right to the throne was contested in 1553, Anne Shelton's oldest son, Sir John, rushed to Kenninghall to support her and not Lady Jane Grey. Mary took into her household several of the Shelton children when she became queen of England. As for Elizabeth, she considered the Sheltons as much her family as the Careys, another branch of the Boleyn tree. When the half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth quarreled, Elizabeth sometimes fled to the Sheltons' homes, for comfort.

When Elizabeth in turn succeeded to the throne, Shelton women were some of her favorite ladies-in-waiting. Anne Shelton's granddaughter, Audrey, was a devoted lady of the bedchamber and walked in Queen Elizabeth's funeral procession in 1603.

Mary Shelton, later Hevingham, by Holbein

Finally, one of Anne's Shelton's other daughters, Mary, made quite an impression on the men of the Tudor court, including the poets Thomas Wyatt, who sighed after her in verse, and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. She was mentioned in passing in an ambassador's letter as drawing the interest of Henry VIII after the death of Jane Seymour. Well, we know he had a predilection for sisters! Mary Shelton possessed talent in her own right, contributing to the Devonshire Manuscript, a collection of 185 poems. She married Sir Anthony Hevingham in 1546. One of their children, Arthur Hevingham, is believed to be the ancestor of Diana Spencer.

And so when Prince William succeeds to the throne, a descendant of Anne Boleyn will reign at last. But it will be the other Anne Boleyn.

* More information on Blickling Hall and the homes of the early Boleyns can be found in the book In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, by Natalie Grueninger and Sarah Morris. Their new book is In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII. Review here.

* An excellent historical novel on Madge Shelton, At the Mercy of a Queen, was written by Anne Barnhill. Interview with Anne here.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of historical novels set in Tudor England: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. The Crown was an Oprah pick of 2012 and The Chalice won the Best Historical Mystery Award from Romantic Times Reviewers. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Suspense in 2016.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Book Editor

I didn't know much about Jackie Kennedy's career as a book editor, but in a vague way assumed that she was no more than a dilettante in publishing. After stumbling on a book about her life early this year, I read an intriguing chapter about how much she put into being a book editor. She acquired nearly 100 books over a long and steady career. As a lifelong editor myself, newspapers and magazines, I wanted to know more.

I pitched a story on her book career to Town & Country, a regular home for my work, and they gave me the greenlight. I researched the First Lady's life in this period very thoroughly, sticking to her professional life and not diving into the gossip. I came away from it with respect for Jackie.

The eventual story seems to have pleased my own editor at Town & Country, and I'm happy to share it here:

How Jackie Kennedy Became a Powerful Book Editor After Leaving the White House

With little experience in the publishing world, she went from being First Lady to making just $200 a week

By Nancy Bilyeau

Early one September morning in 1975, a 46-year-old woman busied herself preparing to go in for the first day of a brand-new job. She boiled an egg, saw her teenage son out the door to Collegiate School, donned a conservative gray shirt dress, and caught a taxi outside her 1040 Fifth Avenue apartment for midtown Manhattan.

When that cab pulled up outside 625 Madison Avenue, it looked like a riot was erupting. Every reporter and photographer in town was jostling for advantage outside the office building’s entrance, joined by a crowd for whom curiosity had edged into fixation. The woman calmly got out of the taxi and made her way into the building, which housed the New York editorial office of Viking Press.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was reporting for her first day of paying work since 1953, when she was an unmarried “inquiring camera girl” for the Washington Times-Herald...
Jackie Kennedy Onassis. David Mcgough, from Town & Country


To read the whole story, go here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Writing about New York City crime

I write thrillers and I have a part-time job as the deputy editor of The Crime Report, a website of the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, so I guess you could say crime is already my "thing."

As the U.S. editor for the website The Vintage News, I edit a wide variety of stories, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the wonder of flapper shoes to crimes of the past. I've edited stories on Lizzie Borden and Victorian poisoners. For today, I wrote a story set in my city, NYC, and a famous mafia hit: the shooting of "Big Paul" Castellano outside Sparks Steak House

Why ordering a hit on “Big Paul” Castellano at Sparks Steak House was John Gotti’s big mistake

New York City is famous for its steakhouses, and since opening its doors at 201 East 46th Street in 1977, Sparks has been a carnivore crowd favorite. The essential components of a steakhouse are as follows: tables covered nearly to the floor with spotless tablecloths, set in dark, wood-paneled rooms; middle-aged men serving as waiters, their flawless manners stopping short of obsequiousness and their Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens accents proudly on display; really good booze, like a Macallan single-malt whisky or a $100 bottle of Bordeaux; and of course the food itself: large, succulent meat portions, accompanied by baked potato heaped with butter, chives, and sour cream.

Since steakhouses haven’t changed much since their Mad Men heyday, you can assume that specific entrĂ©es found on a Sparks menu today—prime sirloin, filet mignon, and sliced steak with bordelaise sauce—were also on the menu in the 1980s.

It was the prospect of a dinner plate graced by the third cut of a prime rib of beef that drew a 70-year-old man named Paul Castellano to Sparks on the evening of December 16, 1985.

“Big Paul” Castellano was highly knowledgeable about meat, and not just because his father was a Brooklyn butcher. Since his friend, cousin, and brother-in-law Carlo “the Godfather” Gambino died of a heart attack in 1976, Castellano had been the boss of the Gambino family, considered the most powerful of the five families of the New York City mafia and worth an estimated $500 million a year. Aside from the usual racketeering, extortion, loansharking and control of certain unions, the Gambino group had a stranglehold on the concrete business and the supply of poultry and meat to much of the city.

To read the rest of the story, go here.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Celebrating the Danish publication of my 3rd novel

The foreign sales of my books mean a great deal to me. I love to think of people reading my work in other countries. One of my favorite publishers is Forlaget Punktum, in Denmark.

I received a box in the mail yesterday containing the Danish version of my book. The title they chose is a translation of "The Forbidden Covenant."

Interestingly, my title for the book was "The Covenant," but my American publisher changed it because they had a book of the same title a couple of years ago.

Here's the cover:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Who Inspired George R R Martin in "Game of Thrones?"

I'm a Game of Thrones fan, and nothing could give me more pleasure that speculating on the historical people who might have inspired George RR Martin.

As the Town & Country headline says: "The real life stories of bastard kings, faceless assassins, and incestuous royal families." Yep, the gang's all here!

To read the story that just went live on Town and Country, go here!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 4th of July with a Trip to Nathan's Hotdogs on Coney Island

On the Fourth of July, I wanted to share my story on Nathan's Hotdogs, which started in 1916 with a nickel and a dream.

My story for The Vintage News:

On the Fourth of July, the corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues in Brooklyn, New York, is transformed into a media circus, with ESPN broadcasting live an event that for at least an hour puts baseball, America’s favorite summer sport, deep in the shade. Tens of thousands of people crowd close, breathing in the odor of fried food mixed with salt air, stepping over thick television cables, hearing the screams of seagulls overhead, to witness it: Nathan’s Famous International Hotdog Eating Contest.

Boosted by the popularity of competitive eating, the 4th of July contest is “Major League Eating’s Super Bowl, so to speak,” says sportswriter Mark J. Burns in a Forbes column. It’s a Super Bowl with stars, no less. Joey Chestnut, 33, the defending champion, downed 70 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes in 2016, to set an all-time record. Former construction manager Chestnut is believed to earn upwards of $200,000 a year on the competitive eating circuit.

One wonders what the man who started it all—Nathan Handwerker—would make of this feat today. In 1916, he launched what became a hot dog empire with a small stand on the same corner. A near-illiterate shoemaker’s son accustomed to 18-hour workdays, at 19 he had left Poland and a family that hovered on the brink of starvation to follow his dream. “We were seven brothers and six sisters and we didn’t have a lot to eat,” says Handwerker in the excellent 2015 documentary Famous Nathan.

That Nathan Handwerker should end up a beloved fixture of Coney Island is perhaps not so surprising, for this stretch of beach in southwest Brooklyn drew the most audacious of all dreamers for decades

To read the rest, please go here.