Thursday, December 1, 2016

Giveaway of "America's First Daughter"

If you would like a free copy of "America's First Daughter," the fascinating, untold story of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, written by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie, comment below.

It is a compelling, richly researched novel that is hitting all the bestseller lists.

United States residents only.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Excerpt of 'The Tapestry' and a Giveaway

By Nancy Bilyeau

The holiday spirit is upon us! I'd like to give away seven (yes, seven) signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry. To enter the giveaway, comment at the end of this post.

And I'd also like to share an excerpt from the book: Chapter 11. I've selected a fateful dinner:  my main character, Joanna Stafford, dines with Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves at Whitehall. If you've read the first two books in the series, The Crown and The Chalice, you may be wondering how the heck that would happen. If there is one man Joanna hates, it's her second cousin, Henry Tudor! To set the stage, Joanna was summoned to Whitehall at the beginning of the novel, and with little choice, traveled to Westminster. Her talent with tapestry weaves drew the attention of Henry VIII, an obsessed collector. Since that day, she's fended off an attack on her life, earned the ire of Thomas Cromwell, Thomas Howard, and Stephen Gardiner, and renewed her friendship with the queen's maid of honor, Catherine Howard. Yes, she's been busy. :)

And now...the excerpt:

            I was flooded with relief to see the new Queen Anne—the fourth of his consorts— followed by a group of ladies. Lady Rochford, her shoulders thrown back, took her place in the queen’s train.

            I made my deepest curtsey, one that would have made my mother proud.

            “You are welcome to court, Mistress Joanna,” said Queen Anne, with a dignified tilt of the head. Her accent was thick, her words halting. But I was impressed that after four months, she spoke English this well. On the boat from Calais to Dover, she had possessed not a single word.

            She looked different and it was not just her wardrobe. Anne of Cleves wore English fashions now; that strange hat and sleeves were gone. She was still a pleasant-looking young woman—the widespread rumor that the queen was too plain to attract the king were nonsense. But she was paler than I remembered. And thinner too.

            “Will you stitch with me?” she asked. “With stitches, you… are good.”

            “I would be honored,” I said, curtseying again. I could not help but be flattered that she remembered my fondness for embroidery.

            And then came the king. Henry VIII filled up the room with his presence:  tall, broad, a crown atop his red hair, and draped with a diamond-laden pendant. We all of us made our obeisance, and he limped to the table, nodding. Queen Anne sat at the other end of the table from her husband, with my place halfway between.

            At first the king said little. His attention was on neither the queen nor myself but on the food. He was quite intent on a certain course—the stuffed capon—and visibly relaxed when it appeared, just after the civet of hare. Some worry he’d had over its sauce disappeared with the first bite, and his heavy jowls shook as he consumed slice after slice.

            Six ladies attended the queen, bringing her food and serving her wine. Catherine was not among them, but Lady Rochford was. George Boleyn’s widow saw to my dinner service as well, which meant that I was frequently treated to that unfortunate smile. Such heavy dishes were not to my taste, but I did not want to appear rude and so did my best to keep up. The odors of the food mingled with the burning wax of many candles and the king’s own scent, the musk and lavender and orange water—this was not conducive to appetite.

 Peeking down the table, I detected, even in candlelight, a tenseness in Queen Anne’s expression. A certain wariness. She ate even less than I did.

            “Madame, you have met our guest before?” said the king to his wife after the capons were cleared. “We are told that our cousin Joanna made your acquaintance in France.”

            Queen Anne swallowed and said, “Yes, Your Grace, I knew—I knew…” She paused, faltered and a man surged forward. He listened to a flood of Anne’s German and then explained to the king the circumstances of my meeting her.

            “You are fortunate to be able to travel abroad,” the king said to me. “In truth, we envy you. If we leave the kingdom, it’s assumed we are planning war. We’d have to raise taxes, muster an army, and set fire to the Scottish border before we go. A high price to pay for trying out the stuffed capon in Calais.”

            The room erupted in laughter, and, to my own amazement, I joined in. I had heard from my Stafford relatives that King Henry had the power to charm, that he was witty. Now I experienced it for myself.

            One person failed to laugh. Queen Anne’s translator had conveyed the king’s joke to her, but perhaps the humor did not survive translation. She did nothing but frown.

            I was not the only one who noticed that the queen was at a loss. The king sighed and then drained his goblet. “More wine,” he called out sharply, as men scurried to obey. A silence fell over the table again.     

They were so ill at ease with each other.  Would this have been a harmonious couple even if he hadn’t been sickened at the outset? There was no way for me, for anyone, to know.

            As soon as his goblet was replenished, King Henry sipped from it, nodded, and then turned to me.  “Cousin, we should now like to hear about your tapestry enterprise. First of all: Who precisely taught you to weave?”

            Henry VIII had ordered the destruction of the monasteries, had ended a way of life held sacred in England for a thousand years. How could I tell him that it was nuns who taught me to weave? But as he drummed his fingers on the table, growing impatient with my silence, I had no choice.

            “I learned it while I served as a novice at the Dominican Order of sisters in Dartford,” I said.

            I waited for him to erupt, to bellow. Here would come the famous, feared temper. But the king stroked his beard and said, “They had a loom, correct? Your work was not done with needles, I think.”

“No, Your Majesty. I mean, yes. We used a loom.”

“Your work was first-rate on the phoenix tapestry that the queen our wife purchased,” said the king. “It shows a certain delicacy, an interpretation of myth, that is too often lacking in these triptychs from Brussels.”

            My cheeks hot, I said, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“And you have begun another?” he said, leaning toward me across the table, his eyes alight with interest.

I explained that I’d ordered the design for The Sorrow of Niobe, a Greek queen who lost everything to the Gods.

It would not seem possible for King Henry to look at me more intently, but that piece of news seemed to trigger some deep contemplation.

“Hubris, ahhhh,” he said.  “You have made an interesting choice.”

“Pardon me, Your Majesty?”

A smile playing on his lips, the king said, “Niobe’s children were slain by the gods because of hubris. She defied them, saying that her children were superior. For her pride and arrogance, for her over-estimation of the importance, she was punished.”

I had seen the word hubris in relation to this myth but not understood its full meaning. Now my stomach twisted as I realized my choice could be seen as celebrating defiance of the gods. If King Henry saw himself as a sacred being—which seemed quite likely—then this tapestry would offend him.

“Pride is a sin, Your Highness,” I said.

“Very true, Cousin.” He sipped some wine and asked, “Will you use a living woman as your model for Niobe the queen?”

“I know that near the end of a weave, when finishing the faces, some have been known to use paintings or even living subjects as models,” I said, relieved at the change in course of conversation. “I suppose it is possible.”

The king beckoned for a servant, who shortly after darted away, and suddenly Master Thomas Culpepper appeared at the table. He bent over so that the king could say something to him alone. He nodded and then withdrew from the table. I tried to catch his eye—it felt wrong to fail to acknowledge Culpepper, my greatest friend at Whitehall after Catherine Howard—but he did not look in my direction.

“There is no substitute in art for experience,” said the king, approvingly. “Bearing that in mind, tell us what you think of our collection of tapestries. You see only a portion here at Whitehall, but we are proud of what is so displayed.”

            And so went my discussion of tapestry with the king of England. As the sovereign worked his way through three more courses of food, we talked of the series I had seen thus far. He was eager to hear my opinions. The one in the main hall turned out be called The Fall of Troy. Most of the king’s tapestries told tales of classic Rome or stories of the Old Testament. “Our prize is still The Story of David, we purchased it twelve years ago,” he said. “We’ve assigned a man in Brussels. And scouts in Italy and France and Flanders. We hate to think of missing a good tapestry, particularly if it’s to the king of France.”

            This was a world I had not imagined. Of course I knew that the largest tapestries were woven in Brussels and that the wealthiest families prided themselves on their possessions. But this sprawling community of artisans and weavers, fueled by new ideas and techniques, financed by the competitive kings of Europe—I’d had only an inkling.

 “Our grandfather, Edward the Fourth, built up a strong collection,” the king explained as he dove into the next course, one of roasted pig. “The king our father added to it; he had a perceptive eye for tapestry, as he did for all things. When he died, the crown owned four hundred pieces of tapestry.”

            “Four hundred?” It did not seem possible.

            He smiled proudly. “We had it inventoried. We do so periodically. We like to know exactly what we own.” He turned his head to the group of servants standing behind. “Fetch Sir Anthony Denny.”

 Not a moment later, a thin, red-haired gentleman appeared, and the king ordered him to commence with a new inventory of the tapestries of Whitehall.

“Your Majesty, if I may?”

With a start, I turned toward the queen, who had called out to her husband in her quavering, heavily accented voice. I was overcome with shame at my incivility. I had been embroiled in conversation with the king for some time, and had made no effort to include the queen.

“Sire, I know—that you love the music,” she said, slowly. “I have surprise.”

The doors swung open and four men strode in, carrying musical instruments. They were all dark, resembling each other to an unusual degree. With one graceful movement, the quartet bowed low to the king and queen.

The queen’s translator announced on her behalf, “These are the Bassano brothers, come to court from Venice at the queen’s invitation, to entertain Your Majesty.”

King Henry looked truly taken aback. But he gathered himself and pointed at one of the brothers and asked what instrument he carried.

“It is called the violin, Sire,” the man answered in French.

I will never forget the performance of the Bassano brothers in the queen’s privy chamber. It could have been the potency of the wine, or my jangled nerves over conversing with King Henry, or my constant and underlying fear of the Palace of Whitehall. Perhaps it was all of those things. But I found the piercing, soaring, aching sound of that violin, the principal instrument in the quartet, so powerful that I found it hard to draw breath.

I loved music—I used to play a vihuela, taught by my mother—but it had been a long time since I’d heard instruments play. When was the last occasion? It took me a moment, and then I remembered, with a twist of my heart. The wedding of Agatha and John Gwinn just a year ago. I danced at that wedding, the last one with Geoffrey Scovill, who admitted more than he should have of his feelings for me. Although I had always known--always. How much Geoffrey and I had hurt each other. And the Gwinns said he would leave Dartford. What if he’d already done so—and I’d never have the chance to speak to Geoffrey again.

The Bassano brothers finished, and the queen clapped her hands, well pleased. As for the king, he had gone still as a statute, his small blue eyes a touch bleary in his fleshy face.

We waited for his reaction. Surely he must be impressed.

Henry VIII cleared his throat and said, “Such music is not appropriate for a small dinner of family in a privy chamber.”

The queen’s face fell. I could not believe that His Majesty, known for his passion for music, did not appreciate what his wife had done. Standing behind her, Lady Rochford smirked.

The king continued, “Still, we shall be sure that these brothers from Venice are fairly compensated.”

I was in an odd way grateful for his coldness to Anne of Cleves, for it broke the spell. During the long discussion of tapestry, I had found it hard to hold onto my hatred of the king. It had almost seemed as if we were family, speaking of a common interest. His depth of knowledge of tapestry, his references and insights, were so exceptional that I had been quite carried away. But now I’d returned to earth. The king was a tyrant who had ordered the deaths of people I loved. He could never be my family.

The king rose to his feet with a groan, pulling himself up by gripping the top of his high-backed seat. He had eaten and drunk so much. It was surprising he was able to rise without assistance of strong-backed menservants.

“We bid you good day, Madame,” he said to his wife. “We have another matter of tapestry to discuss with our kinswoman, Joanna.”

Anne of Cleves said quietly, “Good day.”

I rose and curtsied to the queen. To prolong my time with the king was a daunting prospect. I’d hoped to be free of him by now. But at least this meant we would soon finish our business and I’d be able to leave for Dartford.

The king moved with difficulty from the queen’s privy chamber. He had been sitting a long time; his leg seemed now a source of utter agony. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him—Master Culpepper had said something about open sores on the king’s leg requiring constant physician attention. 

We passed a portrait of his third queen, Jane Seymour, hanging on the wall. How pale and pensive she looked, as if she knew she would die before the marriage was two years old. I wondered which ghosts walked with King Henry along the passageways of Whitehall: the first wife he spurned; the second one he had killed; or the third one he lost after she did her duty and produced a male heir. Perhaps it was not so strange the king showed no interest in Queen Anne, for he could well be a man worn down from being husband to the trio who proceeded her.

Now that I stood close to him, that singular odor filled my head. Aside from the fruit and floral extracts and the musk was the same indefinable smell—familiar and animal-like and yet somehow disgusting. At dinner I’d thought it came from one of the myriad dishes of meat. But we were far from the table now. In trying to place it, my mind skipped to a memory of Edmund treating a wound in the Dartford infirmary and then I had it—what I smelled was infected flesh. As much as he tried to cover it up, the king’s leg wound stank.

We finally arrived at the destination the king had in mind: the chamber housing The Story of David. It was undeniably magnificent, each glittering tapestry in the long series depicting an episode of the ancient king’s life. We stood side by side, saying nothing, for a few moments.

“We come here often, for only this King of the Israelites could understand our destiny,” said Henry VIII, very solemn. “We are another David, chosen by God.”

I stole a glance at him. Did he truly believe this? King Henry’s face was red and slick with sweat, whether from the long meal in the candlelight or the stabbing pain of his leg, I did not know. “I must lead the people from the darkness and ignorance of Papal superstition to truth and goodness,” he announced.

I clutched my hands tight, to keep them from trembling.

Although he did not turn from The Story of David to look at me, the king must have sensed my fear. “Do not be troubled, Joanna, for you were not at fault for seeking to become a nun. You are clearly a woman of intelligence. What you require is instruction.”

I did not like the sound of that, but there was nothing I could do but pray that soon I would be freed from royal company.

Sir Anthony Denny approached, and to my relief, reminded the king of a council meeting, but Henry VIII waved him off. “We shall be there soon enough,” he said in that high, sharp voice. Then, his tone gentler, he said to me, “Tell us, cousin, what you think of the paintings of Whitehall. You are knowledgeable about tapestry, we would like to discover what else you can speak to.”

“I appreciate art but know little of its technique, Your Majesty,” I said. “When a painting moves me, I am not sure of the reason.”

“And has a painting of mine moved you?” He turned to inspect me. “Ah, yes, one has.”

When I described the painting I had seen in the hall just before dinner, the king laughed a little. “You are a woman of surprises,” he said. “That is one of our favorites. It is part of a series done years ago by our court painter, Hans Holbein, called The Dance of ‘Death.”

“Then the skeleton in the painting is…”

 “… death.” Henry VIII finished my sentence. “It appears in each one of the series, but to different people: a nobleman, a poor man, a merchant, an abbess, even a king. You see, Joanna, death comes to all.”

I felt a chill. And for a fleeting second I thought I glimpsed fear in the king’s face too. To believe yourself chosen by God to be another David, and yet to quake before mortality, what a strange state. Or was it guilt that haunted him, guilt for the monasteries he’d destroyed, the parade or martyrs he’d created?

The king said firmly, “We did not ask for your company after dinner to speak of death. Put Holbein and his fancies from your mind. We wish to commission your next tapestry, The Sorrow of Niobe, but we have a condition. We would choose the subject whose face you model Niobe’s on.”

It took me a moment to grasp what he was saying. “But Your Majesty, my loom is in Dartford. I do all my weaving there. Unless you plan to send this person to Kent, I don’t understand how it will be possible.”

“We have a proposal on where you will weave,” he said. “Many thoughts have come to us on that. But first, we would have you meet your Niobe, we think you will agree she is worthy of admiration.”

To my shock, a fond smile played on his lips, the like of which hadn’t seen this entire day.  It was in anticipation of the Niobe I would now meet.  Once he learned of my tapestry, he’d arranged for her to be brought to this unknown room.

So he was not weary of women. Although he was a man of some fifty years of age, married to a fourth wife, fat and near-lame, Henry VIII was behaving like a love-struck swain.
The king gestured, impatiently, for a servant to open the door to a room on the passageway. With a dread approaching sickness, I walked toward it.  

 Inside was a small, windowless study. A cushioned stool was put in the center of the room, and a young woman perched on it, her skirts spread in a perfect circle, her cheeks flushed as her eyes met mine.

It was Catherine Howard.



So ends Chapter 11 of The Tapestry. If you are interested in receiving a signed novel, please comment below and include your email. I will pick the winners on December 7th and mail them shortly afterward!

Before you go, I have an important request to make. My husband wrote a modern thriller set in New York City, it was accepted into amazon's Kindle Scout program for reader-powered publishing. For 30 days, the book's first two chapters are posted and information on the novel. The more nominations his book receives, the better his chance of winning his first book contract. So please take a moment to vote! It means a great deal to me. Thank you.

To vote, click here. It takes less than a moment.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

How to Support a New Author on Kindle Scout

A fantastic modern noir thriller is up on Amazon's Kindle Scout, which some are calling the American Idol of publishing. If you nominate a book, you are helping the author get a book contract.

Here's the description of the thriller "The Gods Who Walk Among Us":

Adam Azoulay scrapes out a meagre existence as a paparazzo in New York. One night he shoots video of an African president-for-life spending half his country’s GNP on jewelry for his mistress. The next day a non-profit charity run by a rich kid hires him to track down a reclusive human-rights icon who might’ve been in the video. When Adam discovers the icon has an ugly past, he learns that the world of human rights is one of secrets and even murder. The deeper he gets, the more he must be stopped.

It only takes a moment to nominate the book and help the author, Max Eastern, win his dream of being published. You don't have to buy the book--you're a supporter!

Go here:

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Tudor England and Halloween

I published the following story on English Historical Fiction Authors:

I have a passion for 16th century England. My friends and family, not to mention my agent and editors, are accustomed to my obsession with the Tudorverse. Namely, that for me, all roads lead back to the family that ruled England from 1485 to 1603. Could it be possible that Halloween, one of my favorite days of the year, is also linked to the Tudors?

Yes, it turns out, it could.

The first recorded use of the word "Halloween" was in mid-16th century England. It is a shortened version of "All-Hallows-Even" ("evening"), the night before All Hallows Day, another name for the Christian feast that honors saints on the first of November.

But it's not just a literal connection. To me, there's a certain spirit of Halloween that harkens back to the Tudor era as well. Not the jack o' lanterns, apple-bobs and haunted houses (and not the wonderful Christopher Lee "Dracula" movies that I watch on TCM network every October, two in a row if I can). It's that mood, frightening and mysterious and exciting too, of ghosts flitting through the trees; of charms that just might bring you your heart's desire; of a distant bonfire spotted in the forest; of a crone's chilling prophecy.

The Oxford Astrologer
In pre-Reformation England, the Catholic Church co-existed with belief in astrology and magic. It was quite common to attend Mass regularly and to consult astrologers. "The medieval church appeared as a vast reservoir of magical power," writes Keith Thomas in his brilliant 1971 book Religion and the Decline of Magic. Faithful Catholics tolerated the traditions of the centuries-old Celtic festival of Samhain ("summer's end"), when people lit bonfires and put on costumes to scare away the spirits of the unfriendly dead...

To read the full post, go here.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Mysteries of Whitby Abbey

I have a passion for abbey ruins. Part of the reason is that I wrote a thriller trilogy set during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and through my research I've discovered fascinating things about the world inhabited by my protagonist, a Dominican novice, in Dartford. But every ruin has a story to tell, and few are as enthralling as Whitby, in north Yorkshire.

THE FOUNDING: The first religious establishment on the site sprang up during Christianity's infancy in Britain. The founding abbess was Hilda (or Hild), a princess born in 614. She was the great-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria. After her father was poisoned in a court plot, she was brought up in the royal family, baptized by Paulinus, a  Roman missionary.

Inspired by her sister, who became a nun, Hilda chose a religious life and became an abbess. When she was about 40, Hilda became the abbess at Streoneshalh, named after a Roman tower (later known as Whitby). She created a double monastery of Celtic monks and nuns, who studied the scriptures and performed good works. Her wisdom was so respected that the first synod of 664 was held there.

St Hilda
It is said that given a choice between Celtic religious laws and those of Rome, the majority voted for Rome at the synod. The Celtic influence--and the female leadership--faded at Whitby and at other monasteries in the early medieval age.

Hilda died on November 17, 680. She was made a saint and her relics were transferred to Glastonbury by a king.

For centuries, visitors have sworn that they see Hilda when they visit the abbey. Lionel Charlton, in his 1779 History of Whitby, writes:
"At a particular time of the year, in the summer months, at ten or eleven in the forenoon, the sunbeams fall in the inside of the northern part of the choir; and 'tis then that the spectators who stand on the west side of Whitby churchyard, so as just to see the most northerly part of the abbey, imagine that they perceive in one of the highest windows there the resemblance of a woman, arrayed in a shroud. Though we are certain that it is only a reflection caused by the splendor of the sun's beams, yet it is commonly believed to be an appearance of Lady Hilda, in her shroud."
More happily it is said that when sea birds fly by the abbey, they dip their wings in honor of St. Hilda.

THE ORDER:  Hilda's monastery did not last--Viking raids in the late 9th century wiped out the monks and destroyed the structure. For 200 years the place by the sea was desolate.

A soldier serving William the Conqueror named Reinfrid became a monk and discovered the crumbling monastery. William de Percy, the first of the illustrious Northern noble family, gave Reinfrid the land and enough money to create a Benedictine order of monks.

This house of monks thrived for almost 500 years. This was when the large buildings, church and cloister and library and so forth, were raised, the ruins of which can be seen today.

That way of life came to an end when Henry VIII broke with Rome and destroyed the monasteries. Whitby was surrendered to the will of the king by its abbott on December 14th, 1539, one of the last of the large abbeys to fall. Stripped of its valuables and abandoned, its annual value was estimated in the Valor Ecclesiasticus at £437 2s. 9d.

Sir Walter Scott in one of his early epic poems, Marmion, tells a romantic story that lends a lingering eeriness to Whitby. With more than his usual looseness with the facts, Scott conflated St. Hilda and the Benedictine monastery with the Celtic-tinged magic of the Isle of Lindisfarne, in a plot that is ostensibly about the battle of Flodden in 1513 but actually revolves around a lustful English lord.

Lord Marmion has a secret mistress at the "Abbey of St. Hilda", a "dishonest" nun named Constance living at "high Whitby's cloistered pile." After her lover abandons her, for her "broken vows" and "sordid soul," Constance is walled alive at the abbey:
"Yet well the luckless wretch might shriek, well might her paleness terror speak! For there were seen, in that dark wall, Two niches, narrow, deep, and tall; Who enters at such grisly door shall ne'er, I ween, find exit more...Two haggard monks stood motionless; Who, in holding high a blazing torch, Showed the grim entrance of the porch: Reflecting back the smoky beam, The dark-red walls and arches gleam. Hewn stones and cement were displayed, And building tools in order laid."
An illustration from Marmion
Grim indeed.

But Whitby was to find its greatest fame nearly a century later.

An Irish author and theatrical manager named Bram Stoker decided to set part of his 1897 novel, Dracula, in Whitby. Stoker, who had spent several holidays at the coastal town of Whitby, makes vivid atmospheric use of the abbey ruins, the churchyard, the many steps leading up to it as well as the train station and lighthouses.
Bram Stoker 

In a key section of the book, the Demeter, a ship that had set sail from the Bulgarian port of Varna, drifted into the harbor of Whitby after a ferocious storm. "A strange schooner" it was, wrote Mina in her journal, "and lashed to the helm was a corpse, with a drooping head which swung horribly to and from with each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on deck at all." No other crew were found in the boat, just its cargo: "a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould."

The next day, Mina writes:
"Early this morning a large dog, a half-bred mastiff belonging to a coal merchant close to Tate Hill Pier, was found dead in the roadway opposite its master's yard. It had been fighting and manifestly had had a savage opponent, for its throat was torn away, and its belly was slit open as if with a savage claw." 

Of course, that was only the beginning...

THE PRESERVATION: During World War I, the abbey was damaged again. This time it was two German battlecruisers aiming for a signal post. They blasted away at the abbey for 10 minutes.

Whitby is now in the care of English Heritage, available for visits most of the year. To learn more, go here.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of Tudor suspense novels, on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Russia and the Netherlands. The last book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, was the runner-up for the Daphne du Maurier Award 2016 for Best Historical Romantic Suspense.

Nancy's other historical novels include The Blue, a thriller set in the porcelain world of the 18th century.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Gloria Vanderbilt: Writing About a Society Scandal

I'm excited to share that I will be writing for Town and Country, a wonderful magazine with a long, rich history. My focus will be Society Scandals of the past. I launched this with a story on the Gloria Vanderbilt custody case, which began on Oct. 1, 1934..

Inside the Custody Battle for 10-Year-Old Gloria Vanderbilt

The gray Rolls Royce eased to a stop at the curb of 60 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. Out stepped Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, thin and unsmiling. Dressed in a fox fur, hat, and gloves, the 59-year-old founder of the Whitney Museum, accompanied by her lawyer Frank Crocker, silently headed up the 32 steps leading to the Corinthian-columned Supreme Court of the State of New York. Every inch of the way, she was swarmed by nearly 100 jostling newspaper reporters and photographers.

October 1, 1934: the opening court date of The Matter of Vanderbilt. A family dispute over who should have guardianship of a shy and sickly 10-year-old heiress, Gloria Vanderbilt, had escalated into a “trial of the century,” complete with media circus. The opposing parties were two sisters-in-law: Gertrude Whitney and the child’s 29-year-old mother, also named Gloria. The next six weeks would treat reporters to charges of maternal neglect, greed, and “immorality” that ranged from drinking cocktails till dawn to leafing through a book of pornography with a prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg while wearing silk pajamas.  And then there was the kissing and cuddling with female friends.

The Vanderbilt case was a pop-up into the lives of the ultra-rich for Depression-stricken America. Of all the principals involved in a “trial of the century —and there have been, truth be told, a string of them—no one was more horrified by the accompanying publicity than the deeply private Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Her life was the 1934 equivalent of clickbait. ...

For the rest, go here

Monday, September 26, 2016

Interview With Historian & Novelist Dominic Selwood

By Nancy Bilyeau

I discovered Dominic Selwood's writing on twitter when I saw a link to a story he wrote for The Telegraph headlined "
How the Tudor Spin Machine Hid the Brutal Truth About the Reformation." How refreshing to read fearless, well-argued insights into what actually took place in the 16th century! Dominic, a historian, novelist and lawyer, has written similarly fascinating essays about controversies from history, ranging from the ancient world to the 20th century. They've been gathered in the new book Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The History You Weren't Taught in School.  

I read the entire book, enthralled, and put these questions to Dominic:

When it comes to these categories, spies, sorcerers and sadists, which is the most fun when it comes to research--digging up the unknown story?

I am intrigued by all of them, but my favourite is definitely sorcerers! Whether it’s the Knights Templar, the Malleus Maleficarum, the early-modern witch craze, the Word War Two witch trials in London, remnants of pagan religions in our modern world, or any of the other stories in this category, I am fascinated by exploring magical beliefs and seeing how they tap into universal ways of thinking. Our digital world has not stopped people being captivated by the Harry Potter stories, celebrating Halloween, or remaining anxious about that thump in the middle of the night. As a historian, I never get tired of finding out about attitudes and responses over the centuries to magic and the supernatural. And that’s probably also why I write ghost stories, too!

Why AREN'T most of these stories told in school?

Sometimes there is straightforward manipulation of what is taught – like in Nazi Germany or Communist China – but I’m not really talking about that here. What I’m looking at is something that affects everyone. Take the history of World War Two. Schools in the USA, the UK, Germany, Russia, and Japan all teach it – but they don’t tell the same stories. It’s no surprise, really, because the task of teaching history has always been selective. In many ways that’s a good thing. Not everything is relevant for everyone. But selectivity brings problems about what should be left out, and the danger is that we end up retelling the version of history that suits us best. For example, take the following three statements. (1) Winston Churchill could be stubborn, and at times made disastrous military decisions that needlessly cost many thousands of lives. (2) Sir Isaac Newton was an early scientist, but he also spent a great deal of time on alchemy and what we would call ‘magic’. (3) President Andrew Jackson called American Indians ‘savage dogs’ and boasted that he kept trophy scalps of those he killed. Now. There will be people who feel upset or angry at one or more of these statements. Maybe they just flat out disagree. Or perhaps they justify it with a, “Yes, that’s true, but … .” However, regardless of our emotional response, all three statements are provable from original documents. Given that history is selective, and these statements are not what people want to hear, eventually, over time, they stop just being taught. 

So, to answer your question, I think a lot of history is not taught in school because it doesn’t agree with the clear-cut image we have of a person or an event, and it’s simpler to ignore complexity and present events as black and white, especially when its suits our traditional cultural view of things. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious process by schools or teachers. It’s inevitable really. But it does make room for a book like Spies, Sadists, and Sorcerers to dig out some of the stories that might surprise us the most.

You often occupy a revisionist school of thought or at least a contrary perspective. When do you first remember realizing that you are an independent thinker on matters of history?

When I was at junior school, my history teacher was a World War Two fanatic. He had been an RAF instructor in the war, and had dozens of World War Two model aircraft hanging from his ceiling. In lessons he told us endless stories of the larger than life people involved in the amazing dramas of World War Two. I loved it. But when I moved to senior school, history quickly became a subject I loathed. The first book I was told to read was about an eighteenth-century Austrian diplomat called von Metternich. The book set out with elaborate tedium his successes and failures in backroom negotiations. I mean, seriously? How many 13-year-olds are going to care one way or the other whether some Austrian prince brokered a d├ętente with some other country or joined the War of the Sixth Coalition? I tuned out completely. I ended up training as a lawyer. I only became a historian later, when I became fascinated by the Knights Templar, and was lucky enough to get to research them for a doctorate. But by then I was able to decide what interested me – and it comes down to two things. I want to learn about amazing people and their stories. And I want to learn about things that I can share with people and they’ll say. “I just did not know that.” Both of these come through in Spies, Sadists, and Sorcerers, because almost every chapter is told through the eyes of someone, which lets me go into the extraordinary things they did in a personal way. Looking back, I thank the history teacher who tried to get me to read about von Metternich’s diplomacy. One day I might really get into 18th century Austrian politics. But until then, whenever I write something, in my head I compare it to that von Metternich book. If I find I am straying into that kind of territory, the pages go straight into the bin.

In your thriller, The Sword of Moses, which I really enjoyed, you have elements taken from history: holy relics, the Knights Templar, and other mysteries. Did you know most of this history before you plotted the novel, or did you learn some of it while specifically researching your thriller?

Fortunately, a bit of both! Some of the subjects have fascinated me for years, and I’ve studied them a lot. For example, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Knights Templar for 20 years, so I didn’t really have to do much research about them. Other things did need work, though. For instance, I grew up listening to a lot of 1980s heavy metal music and watching horror films. So I had some sense of where I wanted to go with the black magic angle to the story, but I did need to put in quite a lot of time reading about it all. However, I find that the research is often just as much fun as the writing, and it’s great to have an excuse to go off and become really immersed in all sorts of really oddball subjects!

You are the first person I've come across to say that the Knights Templar, while horrifically wiped out because of a plot by the French king, were in fact up to something very bizarre and possibly heretical. How did you discover this, and is there any hope of someday learning the truth?

This is such a great question – and it comes back to what we were saying earlier. History moves in great waves of consensus. For the last fifty years every serious historian has said that the Templars were completely innocent, and were sacrificed on the pyre of the king of France’s greed (he wanted their money) and ambition (he wanted to take the pope down a peg or two). That’s all true, and I agree with it. But the king of France did it intelligently. He heard that the Templars had a curious moment in their initiation ceremonies in which the new knight was asked to spit or urinate on a crucifix. We still don’t really know why they did this. One theory is that it was part of a psychological test to see how the knights would react if captured and asked to renounce their faith. Anyway. The king of France was canny enough to use this ceremony to whip up a hysteria that would allow him to invent all sorts of other things that people would then be more likely to believe. So, the Templars were innocent of most of what the king of France accused them of. But they were not innocent of it all. I think you’re right to ask, ‘when will we know the truth?’ One thing that keeps me very excited about research is that every year something new and amazing crops up. For instance, moving forward to World War Two, who would have thought that this year archivists would find more of Himmler’s diaries? It’s in the nature of archives, really. Things get misfiled or misplaced, and then some lucky researcher stumbles across something fascinating and unexpected. So I’m sure that we will learn more about the Templars. Their story has not been fully unearthed yet!

You've done substantial academic research into the Crusades. Do you think the Crusaders are getting hopelessly caught up in political correctness?

The human brain has remained largely unchanged since homo sapiens began to walk the earth about 200,000 years ago. But what has changed many times – and will continue to change – is how different groups of humans see the world. For example, in medieval times, it was possible for children under the age of 10 to marry. These days that would be abhorrent. As a historian, it’s really easy to assume that people in a previous age saw things the same way we do – especially if it’s something that we now think is fundamental. We may forget that people did not always think a certain way. The Crusades are a great example. Nowadays some will say that that the Crusades were an unforgivable barbarian invasion by bloodthirsty and bigoted religion-crazed Europeans. Others will say they were a noble response by European chivalry to counter centuries of Islamic aggression in the Mediterranean. I don’t really have much sympathy with either of these views, as they’re both loaded with modern value judgements. The Crusades can only be understood in medieval terms. So, yes, I do get frustrated when political correctness stops us peeling back the centuries and understanding a historical event on its own terms.

I was shocked to read in this book that you believe that it was NOT Richard III they dug up in Leicester. Are these doubts widely shared, and who do you think they are re-burying?

I know it sounds sort of barmy to say it, but there is actually a definite debate about whose bones they are! Ultimately, it all comes down to the question: how certain do we want to be? The team in charge of the reburying said that they were 99.999% certain the skeleton was Richard. I have to say that I struggle with that statement. On the one hand, the skeleton’s female line DNA is the correct group for Richard. That looks promising. But there are several serious problems. (1) Richard died in 1485, but the carbon dating on the skeleton gave dates of 1412–1449 and 1430–1460. (2) The skeleton’s male line DNA shows the wrong group for Richard. (3) The skeleton’s DNA is for blond hair and blue eyes, whereas Richard is thought to have had black hair and brown eyes. (4) There is no evidence from Richard’s lifetime of a deformed spine. So, being blunt, the only really solid connection with Richard is the female DNA group. However, this type of DNA – called mitochondrial DNA – is passed from a mother to her daughters and sons (and then passed on by her daughters to her daughters and sons, etc.), so it is a huge pool that runs down the ages. 

If you’ll allow me to be a lawyer for a moment, in England the courts use two different thresholds to prove something. In most cases something needs to be proved ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In other words, is it more likely than not, i.e., 51% to 49%. On that test, I’d say the skeleton probably is Richard’s. Some of the problems could be explainable. For example, the male line DNA might be wrong because of an infidelity somewhere in the Plantagenet line. However, there’s a higher test that’s used in criminal cases, when something has to be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. There’s no official percentage number to go with it, but it’s somewhere in the high 90s. On that basis I wouldn’t be confident saying the skeleton was Richard’s. And I absolutely cannot agree with the 99.999% certainty figure. There are too many ifs, maybes, and unanswered questions. The fifteenth-century Plantagenet nobility was drawn from a very intermarried pool. It’s entirely possible that the bones belong to someone else. And, no, I am not alone in this view. Fortunately a number of other people said the same thing at the time!

I discovered your writing when on twitter I came across a link to the article "How the Tudor Spin Machine Hid the Brutal Truth About the Reformation," included in your book. I felt so happy to discover I wasn't alone! Do you think other people are beginning to doubt the "official" story of the dawn of the Reformation?

Many people have contacted me about this piece. Lots of them were quite angry, which did not surprise me. We were talking at the beginning about how people get used to a certain comfortable version of history. Well, in Britain, we’ve all grown up with a very strong image of the Tudors. We were taught that the Tudors made us great. King Henry VIII was ‘Bluff King Hal’ and Queen Elizabeth I was ‘Gloriana’. We are bombarded with affirmations of the idea that their religious reforms were popular and freed England from a moribund and superstitious religion. We are taught that the vision of the Tudors enabled us to become a free trading nation that would go on to found a mighty empire and spearhead the industrial revolution. The problem is that this sort of patriotic history is far too simplistic. In reality the Tudors had to bulldoze through their reforms against the entrenched wishes of the English people. The process was a sustained, brutal, and violent act of state terror that took three monarchs and half a century. There was real opposition, and they had to wipe it out with violence. But – of course – no one wants to hear that. 

Yet the facts are there for anyone who reads the original documents. The Tudor regime was totalitarian. They crushed dissent. Opponents were beheaded, burned, and hung-drawn-and-quartered. But to get back to your question, I was delighted that a lot of other responses I got were from people who were really interested to learn the other side of the story. So, yes. I think there’s a growing awareness of the untold side of the Tudors. Academics are now working really hard in this area, and their new research on the widespread English resistance to the Tudor’s religious reforms is becoming more widely known. I am sure the story taught in schools will gradually change over the next 50 years.

I did see some public push-back to the anti-Catholicism in Wolf Hall. Is this a beginning?

Wolf Hall has got new audiences talking and thinking about the Tudors, which is excellent! The Tudors were an immensely important dynasty in European history, and such a lot changed during their reign. Really, it’s hard to understand modern Europe without an appreciation of the huge impact of the decisions they made. However, I think it’s a real shame that the story in Wolf Hall is so historically inaccurate. The author took real people from the court of King Henry VIII and invented make-believe personalities for them. The overall effect is historical nonsense, and purposefully perpetuates myths that many academics are working hard to explode. But you’re right. There’s been a lot of criticism of Wolf Hall’s blatant falsification of history. This was especially true when the television version came out, as it took the story to an even wider audience. Now that we all learn so much history from the television, something like Wolf Hall makes me want to try even harder to tell the other side. What happened in the Tudor period is too important for it to be misunderstood.

While many of the chapters in your book provoked an emotional response, it was the story of Fritz Haber that actually gave me nightmares. How did you discover this ghastly German scientist?

I was actually surfing around the Nobel prize website, and I saw the entry for him. I had vaguely heard of the Haber-Bosch process, so I had a look. The website explains what an amazing chemist he was, and how the Haber-Bosch process completely revolutionized twentieth-century agriculture to feed the world. Then I saw that it said, ‘he was appointed a consultant to the German War Office and organised gas attacks’. That struck me as a bit odd for someone awarded a Nobel prize for his services to humanity. So I went and read about him, and was absolutely horrified. He pretty much invented chemical warfare in World War One. He went to the front to supervise the gas attacks himself, and seemed totally unmoved by the suicide of his wife (also a chemist) in protest at his work. Yet he obsessively continued. His son later committed suicide in shame. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918, many people stayed away from the ceremony in protest. Years later, he lost his job in Nazi Germany under the anti-Jewish laws, but not before he had invented Zyklon B, which was the chemical used by the Nazis in the gas chambers, where some of his own relatives were murdered.

 Like you, I find his story really shocking. Although the story in the book that upset me the most is the one about Noor Khan, the gentle children’s book writer who volunteered to help the French resistance, but who was betrayed the day before she was due to fly out of France to safety, and ended up being murdered in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Her story is not so much about correcting history that has been distorted, but more about telling the amazing and tragic story of a real-life hero that people have probably never heard of. 
I was really delighted to find when researching her that there is now a statue to her in a park in London.

Dominic's novels are page-turners that pull in fascinating facts from history. His new thriller, The Apocalypse Fire, comes out in October. To find out about Dominic's fiction and nonfiction, go to his website.

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!