Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Ultimate Feud: Joan Crawford and Bette Davis

The new miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan debuts in less than a week, and to my delight Town & Country, whom I write for regularly, asked me to write a story about the real grudgematch between the two stars.

On the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

As I wrote:

"While both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford would no doubt revel in a buzzy premium series about their lives, they might not be so thrilled to find their grudge match played out on television screens. That's because they never publicly admitted to the feud and were all smiles whenever the reporters asked or the TV cameras rolled..."
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Read my full story here.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and the Lost Palace of Whitehall

by Nancy Bilyeau

At about 4 p.m. on January 4, 1698, during the reign of King William III, a fire broke out in the Palace of Whitehall. The possible cause was linen left to dry by a fireplace. The "devouring flame," in the words of James Vernon, destroyed the king's and queen's lodgings and most of the rest of the sprawling complex. "Except the banqueting house and the great gate, all is burnt down or blown up." The scene was chaotic, with court officials desperately trying to retrieve their possessions as the "gates were locked up to prevent the mob coming in."

The Palace of Whitehall, seen from
St. James Park in a painting from 1675.

This was the end of Whitehall as a royal residence, the palace where Henry VIII and Charles II died, where Elizabeth I entertained the French prince come to court her, where The Tempest was first staged for James I, where Hans Holbein designed a gatehouse and Inigo Jones a banqueting house, where Charles I was beheaded. Years after the fire, Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, said she wanted to rebuild Whitehall, but it came to nothing.

Today little remains above ground of the royal residence that covered 23 acres in Westminster, on the edge of London. The name "Whitehall" is synonymous with the British government and its civil service. Yet present-day Downing Street once was part of Henry VIII's royal entertainment grounds, with the street's first known house leased by Elizabeth I to a favorite, Sir Thomas Knyvet. The Tudor roots are strong.

Not everyone mourned the palace's destruction in the late 17th century. The duc de Saint-Simon said in his memoirs "a fire destroyed Whitehall, the largest and ugliest palace in Europe."

But Whitehall, the obsession of royal lovers Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, had once been thought beautiful.

It was Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII's lord chancellor, who turned a bishop's residence on the Thames, just a short distance from Westminster Abbey, into a place of splendor. Since Wolsey held the bishopric of York, he was entitled to make use of York Place, as it had been known since the 13th century. Wolsey borrowed money and devoted his considerable energies to expanding it "most sumptuously and gorgeously." Banquets were held there, and elaborate "masques and mummeries."

Cardinal Wolsey

On March 1st, 1522, Cardinal Wolsey looked on as an elaborate entertainment was performed at York Place after supper. A "Chateau Vert" was raised, with the King and his friends masqued to storm the castle, occupied by costumed ladies, including a young brunette named Anne Boleyn, who was named "Perseverance" and had "black and beautiful eyes."

Anne Boleyn

Five years later, Henry VIII made public his quest to divorce his longtime wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne Boleyn. It was a struggle with momentous consequences, among them the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey, whom, the king felt, didn't work hard enough to win his master the annulment.

On Oct. 19, 1529, Wolsey was deprived of the great seal and he threw himself on the king's mercy. Hampton Court, York Place--the palaces became Henry's. A week later, Henry VIII arrived at York Place for a royal walk through, accompanied by Anne Boleyn, her mother Elizabeth, and the courtier Henry Norris. (Norris would be executed for adultery with Queen Anne in 1536, but that's another story.) The king found "the present more valuable even than he expected." No one gave a thought to Cardinal Wolsey, who would the following year die, arrested and alone, on his way to the Tower of London.

Turning York Place into a palace fit for a king and his future queen was no simple matter. Wolsey's residence revolved around a great hall, privy chamber and a receiving room, a cloister and a chapel, and kitchens; there were no lodgings for the vast number of people who lived in a Tudor royal residence. No tiltyard for jousting or ornamental garden. On one side was the Thames. On the other was a large marsh that once contained a leper hospital. Not a lot of room for expansion.

Yet expand it did.

During the same tumultuous years that Henry VIII fought for his annulment, breaking with the Pope and alienating those still loyal to Queen Catherine and her daughter the Princess Mary, he was personally directing the legal procedure of seizing the surrounding land for the new Whitehall. He inspected each building plan before it went forward. Anne Boleyn was as involved as the king in overseeing the design of the new palace, taking tremendous interest in its architecture as well as the stylish details. Anne possessed the sort of sophisticated taste that came from serving the French queen as a teenager. She and Henry shared a fondness for French and Italian decor. Anne liked "antique" touches, such as classical columns and ceilings and patterned grotesque work.

The Spanish ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote that the king concentrated on Whitehall "to please the lady who prefers that place for the king's residence to any other." Perhaps planning their new home was an escape from stress for the embattled couple.

Henry VIII ordered his people to survey the surrounding property, purchase the leases and then demolish buildings. This caused "great discomfort" to those who still lived in Westminster, but the king wasn't concerned. At one point, the up-and-coming Thomas Cromwell drew up a list of the leases. When Cromwell accompanied Henry and Anne to France to meet the French king, an official left behind wrote a reassuring letter that "there is as much speed as can be made there."

Whitehall had to be everyone's priority!

In his detailed book, Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240 to 1699, Simon Thurley wrote about the astonishing lengths taken to build a wall along the river.
The whole area was low lying and prone to flooding from high tides...In July 1531 a pump was installed in the foundations at Lamb Alley and leather buckets were also in use to bail out the waterlogged trenches. To keep the works dry torches were provided so the pumpers and diggers could work through the night, and in reward forty barrels of beer, forty dozen loaves and four whole cheeses were distributed to the workers.

Sheriffs, bailiffs and constables were informed that at absolutely any time the king's representatives could seize workmen for the "speedy furnishing and building of our new manor." Anyone who refused to relinquish bricks and other materials was subject to arrest.

New galleries and chambers were built, extensive gardens, jousting and tennis yards, a bowling green, cock-fighting pit and, of course, the magnificent Holbein gatehouse, with its checkered pattern and fleur de lis. Historians believe that on the upper floor of this gatehouse, in January 1533, Henry and Anne married in secret. Now she would reside in the palace as the king's wife.

Expansions and renovations Whitehall continued for much of Henry VIII's life. But Anne Boleyn never saw the completion of their cherished plans, since she was beheaded three years after their wedding. Some have speculated that the king did not reside in Whitehall as much after her death out of a sense of guilt, and he seems to have gone to great lengths to obliterate her memory there. But he definitely was at Whitehall at important moments: Henry VIII married Anne's successor, Jane Seymour, in the Whitehall chapel. The famous mural of the king and his family painted by Holbein shows Jane at his side, displayed in the privy chamber of Whitehall. And Henry seems to have deliberately chosen Whitehall as the place where he wanted to die.

Holbein's mural in Whitehall, from a copy made in
early 17th century. The original mural burned in 1698.

Today it's nearly impossible for us to inhabit--to imagine--the dazzling Whitehall palace that Henry VIII was so obsessed with. The Banqueting House that survived the fire was built by the Stuarts, after all. But there is one 16th century room that remains. Underneath the Ministry of Defence is a preserved chamber referred to as Henry VIII's Wine Cellar. It may be named for the Tudor monarch, but the stone-ribbed, brick-vaulted chamber was built by Wolsey.

In that, the cardinal had the last word.

Queen Mary, widow of George V,
insisted the Tudor wine cellar be preserved


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical mystery trilogy The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, published by Simon & Schuster and available in North America, the United Kingdom and Germany. The Crown was an Oprah magazine pick. Much of the third novel, The Tapestry, takes place in the palace of Whitehall in 1540. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Katherine Howard's True Crime

By Nancy Bilyeau

Katherine Howard is the dirty joke of the Tudor era.

The second of Henry VIII's wives to be executed, she is a tragic figure, but there is not the same level of outrage over her fate as exists for Anne Boleyn, her cousin. Many who have studied the life of Queen Anne believe that the charges of adultery and incest and treasonous conspiracy were false, concocted by Thomas Cromwell to free Henry VIII of a woman he had come to hate. Not so for Henry's fifth wife. Queen Katherine, some 30 years younger than her ailing and obese husband when they wed, took lovers before and after her marriage, it is commonly believed. She was guilty.

Wasn't she?

A miniature portrait believed to show
Katherine Howard, perhaps 18 when she married

I believe that Katherine Howard was guilty but not of what you may think. Whether she was unchaste before marriage is not her chief crime. Her struggles to hide her premarital past from her husband and his councillors--and her mysterious meetings, perhaps adulterous, with Thomas Culpepper after her marriage--were just the excuse seized on to effect her removal.

It could be argued that her alleged misdeeds were echoes of the mistakes in judgment Anne Boleyn made, in her flirtatious banter with Henry Norris and Francis Weston. But most importantly, Queen Anne was the victim of a politically motivated coup, and I would argue that her cousin Katherine Howard was too.

Anne Boleyn, first cousin of Katherine Howard.

To read the books written about Katherine Howard is to plunge into a vat of scorn, contempt and disgust: "empty headed," "good time girl" and "juvenile delinquent."

There has, recently, been a shift of opinion. In his excellent book Katherine Howard: A New History, Conor Byrne makes a convincing case that Katherine, whose mother died when she was very young and whose father was the black sheep of the Howards, was the victim of sexual predators while living with her step-grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. And Thomas Culpepper's attentions may have veered into blackmail.

In this post, though, I would argue that the crime she was actually guilty of—the reason Katherine Howard died—was not her morals, or lack of. It was her effectiveness as queen. She was the wife that Henry VIII was visibly most besotted with, according to contemporary records: his "affection was so marvellously set upon her." And, most critically, she was more than a mere plaything. She was the effective center of a power base.

What? people scream. But Katherine was promiscuous, frivolous, semi-literate, immature, grasping and heedless, right? That's what the miniseries depict and the books all agree on, even those that are supposedly sympathetic.

I would like to present some facts of Katherine's life and reign as Queen.

*  Within the span of not more than six months, Katherine, a barely literate teenager, was able to convince Henry VIII that she should be his next queen, rather than his mistress, even though he was married to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, when he "first set eyes upon her." Jane Seymour  is credited with shrewd managing of Henry VIII in similar circumstances. But Jane displaced a wife who was most likely pregnant when she began her relationship with King Henry, and is not known to have balked at Anne Boleyn's execution to make way for her. Anne of Cleves received a divorce and large settlement, not the axe. Moreover, Katherine went to great lengths to treat her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, with kindness and respect in public after the divorce.

* Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, was more than 60 years old when arrested and confined in the Tower of London, charged with treason. Henry VIII considered her son, Reginald Pole, his greatest enemy, but the religious scholar lived in Italy and France, safe from the English king's grasp. So the king wiped out his family: brother, nephew and, finally, mother. Her imprisonment was not only terrifying but physically rigorous. Katherine arranged to have a set of warm clothes sent to Margaret Pole in the Tower, including a satin-lined nightgown, shoes, and slippers. It was an act of incredible bravery.

* Katherine persuaded her husband to pardon at least three people who could easily have been executed were it not for her intervention, including Thomas Wyatt. In 1541, Wyatt was arrested and sent to the Tower of London, accused of corresponding with Cardinal Pole, and referring to the prospect of Henry VIII's death. Katherine's actions led to his freedom. This success sets her apart from Jane Seymour, who when she attempted to dissuade Henry VIII from dissolving the monasteries, was told never to meddle in his affairs, and from sixth wife Catherine Parr, who was very nearly arrested after haranguing the king over religion. Although considered a 16th century "bimbo," Katherine was an effective political player.

* Katherine managed a relationship with a man in ill health, possessing volatile emotions and holding high expectations of a wife. After a "honeymoon" of several months during which Henry VIII appeared rejuvenated, his health problems returned and he was often in pain--and highly irritable. Ambassador Eustace Chapuys reports rumors that Henry VIII refused to see his wife for a long stretch of days, and even considered divorce briefly. Rumors flew throughout the marriage that Katherine was pregnant, though it is unlikely she ever was. This must have been a source of considerable stress to Katherine, since the king continued to be obsessed with begetting male heirs. Yet Katherine was able to solidify her hold on the king's affections. When they returned from their progress in late October, the king proclaimed his wife a "jewel."

Less than two weeks later, Katherine was being investigated. What happened?

It is a story often told that Anne Boleyn said of Mary Tudor, her husband's daughter, that "she is my death and I am hers." As it happened, it was not her stepdaughter who killed Queen Anne. However, that same phrase could be used for Katherine Howard and Thomas Cromwell. She was his death. Many historians believe that Cromwell stalled in obtaining the king a divorce from Anne of Cleves because he didn't want a Howard queen, but that stalling was fatal.

Yet in a chilling way, Cromwell, executed on the wedding day of Henry VIII and Katherine Howard, was the cause of her death 20 months later.

The Duke of Norfolk and his heir, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, openly gloated over the destruction of Cromwell. Their ally, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, returned to the King's council and a leading role. But what is not often written about is how this faction tried to wipe out Cromwell's supporters. The arrest of Sir Thomas Wyatt was part of their "clean up operation," as was the arrest of Sir Ralph Sadler, Cromwell's protegee. (Sadler, too, was eventually released.)

Thomas Audley

Other Cromwell allies, like Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich, jumped to the winning side, no matter how they felt about the Howards, to survive. Thomas Audley, who had shared many of Cromwell's religious and political views, accommodated himself to the winners at court, but he was not fully trusted by Norfolk. Audley was lord chancellor, though--too useful to destroy. For now.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

The man in the kingdom left most exposed was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the only one to publicly lament the fall of Cromwell, in a distressed letter to the King himself. Some at court expected Cranmer to follow Cromwell into disgrace. But the Archbishop survived, protected (as much as one could be) by King Henry's esteem. He retreated from the forefront of court affairs.

Bishop Gardiner, Cranmer's triumphant rival, left the court in the fall of 1540 to represent England at a German meeting of many religious and state leaders determined to resolve the question of religion, including the Emperor Charles V and John Calvin. Gardiner had instructions from Henry VIII that should a way be found for the Pope to welcome England back into the fold, he should not rule out such a possibility. One can only imagine how Cranmer felt about this summit and his relief when the Diet of Regensburg failed in the summer of 1541. But there was no doubt that Gardiner would continue to lobby for a return to Rome.

Katherine's husband, Henry VIII

In the coming year, the Howard-Gardiner faction did what they could to return the kingdom to the "True Faith" and repeatedly tried to move against former Cromwell allies. Those men they targeted must have been frightened. And frightened men make passionate enemies. It was unwise to alienate men who were capable of striking back. With the King entranced by his teenage Queen, the Howards felt invincible.

They weren't.

When Henry VIII and his Queen went on their historic progress to the North of England, three men were left behind. One was Thomas Cranmer. Another was Thomas Audley, with whom he had a friendship. The third was Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who quietly shared their evangelical views and quite possibly worried that the Seymours were endangered, especially if Queen Katherine had children. There might have been occasions for this trio of men to meet and speculate about their future.

That is the moment when a man entered the picture who set the match leading to the horrible deaths of four people: Katherine Howard, Jane Boleyn, Thomas Culpepper, and Francis Dereham. His name was John Lascelles, and he was a fanatical evangelical, someone who would do anything for the Protestant cause. He had once served Thomas Cromwell. He hated Thomas Howard and Bishop Gardiner (he would die himself five years later, burned to death for heresy). His sister, Mary Hall, had served in the household of the dowager Duchess of Norfolk, and she saw and heard things about Katherine Howard's past. Scandalous things.

Lascelles found his way to the Cranmer-Seymour-Audley group and told them what he knew. The opponents of the Howards had found a fatal weakness. If they played this card, it could bring down the Howard faction, but it could also devastate King Henry. What should be done? Shortly after Cromwell was arrested, Katherine Howard had personally sent a note to Thomas Cranmer, reassuring him he was safe from harm. She was perhaps 20 years old when she returned with her doting husband from their northern progress; she had never done Cranmer any harm. But what if Lascelle's story were to reach the King's ears some other way?

On All Souls' Day, as King Henry left his devotionals in Hampton Court, his Archbishop of Canterbury handed him a letter and urged him to read it...

On February 13, 1542, not four months later, Katherine was executed. The match had been lit--and it destroyed the Howard faction more completely than their Protestant enemies may ever dared to dream.

Katherine Howard, RIP.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the new historical thriller The Blue, praised by Stephanie Dray as a "heart-stopping story of adventure, art and espionage," and a trilogy of novels set in the reign of Henry VIII: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Russia.. Katherine Howard is a character in the books.

Monday, February 6, 2017

My Interview With Ian Rankin

I'm far from the only fan of Detective Inspector John Rebus--the Rebus crime series is the best selling one in the United Kingdom--but I am one of the fortunate people who gets the opportunity to interview Scottish author Ian Rankin about his work.

As editor of The Big Thrill, I talked to Ian about his new novel, Rather Be the Devil, which was published in North America on January 31st. Among the topics, how does he handle writing mysteries with a protagonist past retirement age? His solutions are excellent while still being realistic!

I've spoken to Ian before, and he's thoughtful, funny, sarcastic and generous.

To read my interview, go here.