Monday, February 22, 2016

Guest Post: The Lusitania Cover Up

I'm pleased to welcome Greg Taylor to my blog today, to share with us the secrets of the Lusitania. Greg's book won the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction last year.

The Lusitania Cover Up
Nearly 100 years after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania the truth came out

By Greg Taylor

On May 1st 2015, the British government archives at Kew released declassified documents.  What documents are kept secret?  Those which are dangerous or embarrassing to the government.  In the case of documents related to RMS Lusitania released on May 1st 2014, both are true.

The sinking of the Lusitania was the 9/11 of its day.  On May 7th 1915, the 31,550-ton Cunard Liner was en route to Liverpool from New York with 1,959 souls aboard when a German U-Boat torpedoed her just 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.

Everyone is familiar with the tale of the Titanic but what about the Lusitania?

She was launched into the River Clyde to the strains of “Rule Britannia” on June 7 1906, the largest moveable object ever created by man.  On the Lusitania rested the hopes of the Empire and Cunard Lines that Britain would reclaim from the German liners the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, which she did on her third Atlantic crossing with a speed of 23.99 knots.    

In 1915, the Lusitania was the fastest most luxurious ship making the transatlantic run.  When she sailed from New York on May 1st 1915, the New York Times and other papers carried a warning from the German Embassy. Everyone ignored it - confident the fastest ship in the world could outrun any German submarine that might dare to threaten a passenger liner travelling from a neutral country.

The U20 spotted the Lusitania on the 7th of May, the last day of her crossing.  The submarine nearly lost her due to the liner’s superior speed but a last minute change of direction gave the U20 an excellent shot.  After being hit by a single torpedo, the Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes at a list so severe that only eight of the forty-two lifeboats were launched. Due to the thirty-degree list, the lifeboats on the port side smashed into the decks below, while those on the starboard side hung eight feet from the doomed ship. 

Kapit√§nleutnant Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo strike, was shocked when he saw through his periscope a second, much larger explosion.  He refused to permit his crew to look at the drowning passengers of the Lusitania

To this day, experts continue to debate the cause of the second explosion that sealed the Lusitania’s fate after the torpedo struck. Imperial Germany immediately claimed the ship was loaded with explosives destined for the front.

During the official inquiry into the sinking of the Lusitania, the Admiralty manipulated testimony so that Lord Mersey reached an erroneous conclusion that multiple torpedoes struck the ship.  The Admiralty knew Kapit√§nleutnant Schwieger had fired only a single torpedo but it was important to blame only Imperial Germany since the Admiralty had withdrawn the Lusitania’s escort ship. It was also known that First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had remarked that the loss of an ocean liner such as the Lusitania might help bring American into the war on the side of Britain. 

What was in the documents released at Kew on the 99th anniversary of the sinking? 

Under the 30 Year Rule, the British National Archive released internal memoranda between the Commonwealth Department and Ministry of War that showed that in 1982 the Government was concerned that divers to the Lusitania wreck were at risk because the wreck contained explosives.  One of the memos went so far as to say that this disclosure might “blow up on us all”.  The British government was worried about ramifications for British-American relations because the discovery of explosives on the wreck would imply the Lusitania had been a legitimate target.

A new book, Lusitania R.E.X, weaves fiction around the known facts to create a plausible explanation of some of the mysteries surrounding the sinking. The story is centred on one of the wealthiest men in the world, Alfred Vanderbilt, who lost his life after giving his lifebelt to a woman passenger. This historical fiction is replete with spies, secret societies and superweapons, as well as millionaires, monarchs and martyrs.  In the book, Alfred and his fellow members of Skull and Bones, a Yale secret society that in 1911 included the President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury, have taken a secret cargo aboard the ship.   The story unfolds on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in settings that range from gilded palaces and the Lusitania to the blood-soaked trenches of Ypres. 

To learn more, go to:

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Valentine's Day, Third Century Style

By Nancy Bilyeau

Believe me, I would like to be able to deliver a sweet and touching historical anecdote. I tried. I really did. But you don't find hearts and flowers when you get to the beginning of the story of Valentine. You find martyrdom, imprisonment, plague, and death by clubbing. It's hard to conceive of anything less romantic than death by clubbing.

The Catholic Church distanced itself from St. Valentine's Day a while ago, and not because of any sort of distaste for chocolate hearts or hand-holding. The evidence that there really was a person who committed acts worthy of sainthood is fragmentary. Valentine is one of the "saints whose cult is larger than themselves, so to speak," according to Richard McBrien's Lives of the Saints. In 1969, the Pope quietly dropped Valentine's Day from the official calendar of saints' days.

The consensus seems to be that Valentine is based on a Christian priest of that name who lived in Rome when the official religion was still pagan, during the reign of Claudius Gothicus, from 268 to 270 AD.

This was not a proud time in the history of the empire. Rome did not decline steadily from the glorious reigns of Julius and Augustus Ceasar to the crumbling under Honorius in 423 AD. There were peaks and valleys. This was a valley. Emperors rapidly succeeded each other through assassination in the mid-Third Century. There was death by poison, death by strangulation, death by hanging, death by being dragged naked from the back of a chariot through the streets. The year 238 AD saw six different emperors.

Claudius Gothicus, the Ceasar who would, legend has it, confront Valentine, was born a peasant in what is now Bosnia and rose rapidly through the ranks of the army. He was popular with the soldiers, a very tall man who liked to fight. His specialty was knocking out the teeth of an opponent, including, once, an opponent's horse. He played a key role in the assassination plot that eliminated Emperor Gallenius in Milan. The Rome that Claudius took charge of was near-bankrupt, with rebel populations causing lots of trouble in German and France in the West, and Syria in the East. Claudius desperately needed more soldiers in the Army, and he tried to officially discourage men from marrying.

As the story goes, Claudius heard that the priest Valentine was busy marrying young Christian couples. Marriage was frowned on, Christianity forbidden. Valentine was arrested, unsurprisingly. Pressure was put on the priest to abandon his faith; he refused. The emperor decided to visit Valentine in prison. During this meeting, instead of being meek and obliging, Valentine tried to convert Cladius to Christianity. Disgusted, the emperor ordered his execution. Valentine was clubbed to death and then beheaded.

Three centuries later, long after Claudius died of the plague, a pope declared February 14th Valentine's day. One theory is that the Catholic leaders really wanted to banish the mid-February fertility celebration of Lupercalia. (What happened during Lupercalia? Let your imagination run wild and you still haven't come close.) Naming the day in honor of the martyred Valentine seems a wee random today. Nonetheless, the new holiday stuck, and in medieval times, all sorts of romantic stories were told.

Did any of these sweet tales have anything to do with the Third Century Valentine? Only one, that the night before the rebellious priest was to be executed, he wrote a letter to the daughter of his jailer, and signed it "Your Valentine."

The first Valentine's Day card was born.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Celebrating the Trilogy's Publication in Spain

I was ecstatic when, after years of effort, a Spanish publisher was found for my Joanna Stafford novels.  My main character is half-Spanish, after all. :) It sets her apart in Tudor England, makes her special. Joanna's mother, a Castile-born maid of honor who came to England with Catherine of Aragon, appears in The Crown. And in The Tapestry, the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Charles V, ruler of Spain, enters the plot, along with a few of his Inquisitors.

The publisher, Siruela, is an excellent one. Their chosen title is El Caliz, which is close to the English of "the cup." The catalog page is here.

I'm always intrigued by the covers designed in other countries. This one is, I think, quite interesting.

The Spanish edition of The Chalice, now on sale.