Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Big Ideas Behind "Small Hours"

By Nancy Bilyeau

There are some books you open at Page One and the next time you look up, hours and perhaps days have passed and you just made it to the end. It's impossible to tear yourself away. Jennifer Kitses' Small Hours is an engrossing novel of a single day in the life of a young couple whose suburban life is far less perfect than it seems. Over the course of a single day, the viewpoint swings back and forth between Helen Nichols, a graphic designer working at home while taking care of young twins, and Tom Foster, the commuter in the family who is hanging on to his job as a financial editor by a thread. Money problems and the stress of parenting are taking a toll on Helen and Tom, issues that I could completely relate to--and I'm sure I'm not alone. As their lives unravel, the tensions and secrets between the two come to a full boil. I found myself reading the book while holding my breath! 
I caught up with Jennifer Kitses to ask her some questions about this, her debut novel. 

Has your life ever changed this substantially in a single day?

I’m not sure if my life has ever changed significantly in one day. (If so, I’ve erased that from my memory!) But I’ve had many days, particularly when my twin daughters were very little, when I experienced so much in one day: maybe there’s a major problem at work (the kind that can cost you a job), and then something crazy happens at the park, and then suddenly a child is very sick and needs to go to the emergency room, and meanwhile everyone in the family is sleep-deprived and making one terrible decision after another. I’ve had that day many times, only to get up the next morning and start the process all over again. I think there’s definitely a kid-factor at play here, but these types of days can happen to anyone. One you’ve made one terrible decision or had a moment of bad luck, more seem to follow ¾ it’s like there’s a law of compounding errors

Do you think of this story as one about a strong marriage being tested by a devastated economy (and specifically the downturn and collapse of the media) or is it primarily about the issues the couple have deep down and they would manifest no matter how their careers fared?

Tom and Helen face a number of crises over the course of one day, and I think they would be forced to confront some of their problems--particularly the ones that arise in Tom’s storyline--no matter what they were experiencing financially. However, Helen’s story is very closely tied to changes in the economy, and to her position in it. She is watching her family slide down the economic ladder. She’s very aware of how job losses and downsizing have hurt her family, and how the financial decisions and mistakes that she and Tom have made are now affecting their well-being.

The year isn’t specified in the novel, but the 2008 financial crisis was very much on my mind as I was writing it: Tom and Helen bought their house at the height of the market, and then they were hit by the collapse of the media industry and the economic downturn. But I also feel that the middle class has been struggling for a long time, and that was something I wanted to weave into the story. There’s a large section of the middle class (increasing all the time, it seems to me) that is barely scraping by, and the downsizing of a job or even an unexpected medical bill can be devastating.

Would you say that trust is a theme of the novel?

Trust is one of those themes that sort of worked its way in, without my realizing it at the time. I think both Tom and Helen would say that they trust each other completely. Yet at the same time, neither is being completely truthful, or trustworthy. They both have trouble with self-perception. I’ve always been fascinated with the difference between how we see ourselves and who we really are, and that runs through the story. (Personally, I think most people are still deserving of trust, even after terrible errors of judgment.) 

Is the upstate New York town based on a real place? It felt incredibly real.

Devon is based partly on Beacon, New York, although the real Beacon is faring a lot better than my imaginary town. I also brought in aspects of Maynard, Massachusetts--another former mill town that I love.

Doing the research about the setting was one of my favorite parts of working on this book. I loved taking the train to Beacon on weekdays, and seeing what it felt like when so many people were off at their jobs in the city. I’ve often imagined leaving the city for various Hudson Valley towns, and it was great to have an excuse to explore.

How about the jobs that the husband and wife have? That too felt very authentic. Did you need to do research being a graphic artist or a financial editor?

After putting aside an earlier novel that required endless research, I decided to make things a little easier for myself with this story. So I borrowed a lot from my personal experience. I was a reporter at a financial newswire (Bloomberg News) for about four years, and I’ve also worked at magazines, so I was able to draw on those settings for Tom’s workplace. Helen’s job is based on my husband’s work in graphic design. He read all of those sections very carefully, many times, and even helped me vet product names for nutritional supplements (which play a role in Helen’s job). There are so many crazy supplements out there--it was hard to come up with names that aren’t actual products!

Did you consider telling the story from one character’s point of view initially and then it became the back and forth?

I planned on the alternating points-of-view from the start, and I was so happy to find a structure that worked. It made sense, because I wanted to tell each of their stories. Also, I was interested in how Tom and Helen each have their own, full life (at home and at work, with and without their kids, on the subway and at the playground), and yet they come together at the beginning and end of their days, and connect at various times. Each is a strong presence in the other’s life, but they live in their own worlds.

Which writers have most influenced you in how you approached this novel?

There was definitely a Tom Perrotta influence; I’m a huge fan of Little Children and Election, which have shifting points-of-view and a lot of momentum. But crime novels have also been a major influence, because I’m drawn to stories with tension and suspense. Current favorites are Richard Price and Kate Atkinson, for her Jackson Brodie series. Sometimes I’m very influenced by a single book by a writer; I love the sense of place in The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem.

What is your next book?

I’m very excited about the story I’m working on now, but it’s still in early stages. I’m guessing it will change a lot over the next few drafts. I wish I knew a better--or faster!--way, but at this point the details are still falling into place.


Jennifer Kitses is the author of the novel Small Hours. She received an MLitt in creative writing from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and has worked for Bloomberg News, Condé Nast Portfolio, and Columbia Business School. Her fiction has appeared in Akashic Books' online series, Mondays Are Murder. She lives with her family in New York. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenKitses.

Friday, October 27, 2017

A Tudor Halloween + Giveaway of "The Tapestry"

by Nancy Bilyeau

This post originally ran 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. In fact, an Eighth Century pope named November 1st as the day to honor all Catholic saints and martyrs with an eye toward Samhain.

Soul cakes
Nothing shows the merger of Celtic and Christian beliefs better than "soul cakes." These small, round cakes, filled with nutmeg or cinnamon or currants, were made for All Saints’ Day on November 1st. The cakes were offered as a way to say prayers for the departed (you can picture the village priest nodding in approval) but they were also given away to protect people on the day of the year that the wall was thinnest between the living and the dead, a Celtic if not Druid belief. I am fascinated by soul cakes, and I worked them into my first novel, The Crown, a thriller set in 1537-1538 England. Soul cakes even end up being a clue!

In the early 16th century, Halloween on October 31st, All Saints’ Day (or All Hallows Day) on November 1st and All Souls’ Day on November 2nd were a complex grouping of traditions and observances. Life revolved around the regular worship, the holidays and the feast days that constituted the liturgy. As the great Eamon Duffy wrote: "For within that great seasonal cycle of fast and festival, of ritual observance and symbolic gesture, lay Christians found the paradigms and the stories which shaped their perception of the world and their place in it."

Sculptures smashed at Worcester Cathedral.

Henry VIII changed the perceptions of the kingdom forever when he broke from Rome. A guiding force in his reformation of the Catholic Church was the destruction of what he and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell scorned as "superstition." Saints' statues were removed; murals telling mystical stories were painted over; shrines were pillaged; the number of feast days was sharply reduced so that more work could be done during the growing season. "The Protestant reformers rejected the magical powers and supernatural sanctions which had been so plentifully invoked by the medieval church," writes Keith Thomas. The story in The Crown is told from the perspective of a young Catholic novice who struggles to cope with these radical changes.

My children love Halloween as much as I do. Yet somehow Halloween, the day before All Saints’ Day, survived the government's anti-superstition movement, to grow and survive long after the Tudors were followed by the Stuarts. It’s now a secular holiday that children adore (including mine, who are trying on costumes four days early). 

As for me, I relish the candy handouts, costumes and scary movies—and I also cherish our society’s stubborn fondness for bonfires and charms and ghosts and sweet cakes, for in them can be found echoes of life in the age of the Tudors.

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award-winning Tudor mystery series "The Crown," "The Chalice" and "The Tapestry" and a magazine editor who has lived in the United States and Canada.

For the next four days, this Halloween giveaway will run. If you're interested in a signed copy of The Tapestry being mailed to you, comment below and please include your email address. There are six copies available.

Historical Novel Society starred review of The Tapestry: "She captures the fear, danger and paranoia of the Tudor court as well as its extravagant splendour – not to mention all its complications....A highly recommended, gripping novel."

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Was Bishop Stephen Gardiner a Secret Tudor?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Finding illegitimate children in the Tudor royal family is a favorite pastime for some. Chief among the theoretical parents of these children would be Henry VIII, of course. (You'd be amazed to learn how many debates rage over whether Mary Boleyn's two Carey children were fathered by Henry VIII shortly before he fell in love with Anne Boleyn...Or maybe you wouldn't!) Elizabeth I is also accused of giving birth to secret babies, with theories targeting Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley that would make TMZ reporters blush.  As for the Elizabeth-as-bad-girl premise of the movie Anonymous, we are not going there.

The one and only accepted illegitimate child of a royal Tudor is Henry Fitzroy, son of Henry VIII and Bessie Blount, a beautiful maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon. Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, may or may not have been considered as a possible heir to the throne by Henry VIII before the boy died in 1536.

But was there another Tudor male in the 16th century, born on the wrong side of the blanket as they used to say, who not only lived through four Tudor reigns but was a key player at court?

Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, was the grandson of Jasper Tudor, Henry VIII's great-uncle, and a mistress named Mevanvy ferch Dafydd from Gwynnedd, according to a persistent theory. If the rumors are true, Gardiner's mother, Ellen, was first cousin to Henry VII. She married a cloth merchant named Gardiner and Stephen was one of their children. He attended Cambridge at a young age and studied the classics, even meeting Erasmus.

Before we go any further, it must be said that Gardiner brought out fear and dislike among many of those who knew him. Moreover, in Tudor television series, Stephen Gardiner has been portrayed with evident relish by a series of actors as a Grade A Jerk:

"The Six Wives of Henry VIII"

Wolf Hall

The Tudors

In these shows, he's the man you love to hate. When Edward Seymour punches Gardiner in the face during the last episode of The Tudors, you feel good. When the bruise-faced bishop goes running to Henry VIII to tattle and has the door closed in his face, you feel even better.

Screenwriter license aside, how did this loathsome churchman reach a position of power in the Tudor court? Was it that he was family? Not likely. Henry VIII didn't care for his extended family; he executed them steadily throughout his reign.

The reason for Gardiner's prominence in the 16th century was his brain. Even his enemies grudgingly conceded his intelligence. His nickname during his lifetime: "Wily Winchester." The lawyer, royal secretary, councilor, and bishop survived Henry VIII's reign. A religious conservative, he was thrown into the Tower of London during the reign of Protestant Edward VI and occupied a cell for years. One of Queen Mary's first acts was to spring him (along with his old friend the Duke of Norfolk). Gardiner crowned her and served as her lord chancellor. He distrusted Princess Elizabeth and pressured the Queen to imprison her half-sister after the Wyatt Rebellion. It's safe to say that if he had lived to see Elizabeth take the throne, he would have been ushered back into the Tower.

In her book Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Alison Weir describes Gardiner as "an able but rather arrogant and difficult man":

He was of swarthy complexion and had a hooked nose, deep-set eyes, a permanent frown, huge hands, and a "vengeable wit." He was ambitious, sure of himself, irascible, astute, and worldly. Henry came to rely on him, sending him on important diplomatic missions and telling everyone that, when Gardiner was away, he felt as if he had lost his right hand; yet he was also aware that the Secretary could be two-faced.

Henry VIII and Bishop Gardiner had a complex relationship. They feuded with each other (as much as one can feud with Henry VIII), and the king withheld promotions Gardiner obviously longed for. Then, suddenly, he would be back on top. When the king made him bishop of Winchester, he said, "I have often squared with you, Gardiner, but I love you never the worse." Gardiner was an enemy of Cromwell's who relished destroying him. He also despised Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, but was unable to turn the king against him. In 1540-1541 Gardiner was in Germany, representing England at a Diet convened to try a last time to heal the breach between Catholic and Protestant. (Both Calvin and Charles V also attended.) It was a delicate and important mission--which failed, through no fault of Gardiner's.

Henry VIII

But the bishop tried to have Henry's last wife, Catherine Parr, arrested for heresy, and when his plot failed, that contributed to his decline of influence. The king excluded him from his will. Henry's technique in controlling his councilors was to pit them against each other and stoke their fears. Gardiner's Protestant opponents claimed after Henry VIII's death that in excluding him from the will and list of councilors for Edward, the king explained that only he could control Stephen Gardiner.

The bishop's relationship with Henry's oldest daughter, Mary, also had its difficult moments. Early in his career, Gardiner devoted his legal brain to the king's case for annulment of the first marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Therefore, even though he was one of Mary's adherents, she never could bring herself to trust him completely. Once she was queen, Gardiner wanted her to wed an Englishman, and opposed her marriage to Philip of Spain, repeatedly trying to talk her out of it.

Mary I

Stephen Gardiner died in 1555. One story has it that on his deathbed he said, "Like Peter, I have erred. Unlike Peter, I have not wept."

A strange thing to say. He was, it's safe to say, a strange man.

But was he related to the Tudors, whom he served and quarreled with for so many years? Returning to Jasper Tudor, the man was something of a warlord in a time when he didn't have a choice. During the Wars of the Roses, Jasper possessed two qualities in short supply: loyalty and patience. He supported his half-brother, Henry VI, without question, and did everything possible to help his nephew, the future Henry VII.

It was very important that Lancastrian nobles marry and beget heirs--the Yorkists were way ahead in that regard. Yet Jasper did not marry until after the Battle of Bosworth when he was 54 years old, and he wed the dowager duchess of Buckingham. They had no children. Since much of his earlier life was spent in battle, regrouping from battle, going into hiding, and living in exile in France or Brittany, perhaps he did not feel a wife was possible. A mistress made more sense.

In Gardiner's lifetime, no one said he was the grandson of Jasper Tudor, or at least it hasn't shown up in contemporary letters and papers. In the 18th century, this "fact" popped up in Cockayne's Peerage and a reverend's genealogical table. It gained strength over the years, though some always had their doubts.

Recent studies of Jasper Tudor do not dispute that he fathered one or two illegitimate daughters but suggest there could be some confusion over whether Ellen married the Gardiner who was the father of Stephen or another man with the same last name. It's unclear. The suggestion that he would need discreet royal blood to get into Cambridge and then rise in legal and ecclesiastical circles is not true. Gardiner's father was a prosperous cloth merchant, and the Tudor period was a time of men rising on their merits: the "new men," as they were called.

And so Stephen Gardiner may have achieved every illustrious promotion and survived every shouting match with a strong-willed king or queen not because he had Tudor blood but .... because he was Stephen Gardiner. A reality I suspect that Wily Winchester would have been prepared to accept.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Tudor trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, published in nine countries. The main character is a Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford; an antagonist running through the plot of each book is Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester.


Read Nancy Bilyeau's newsletter for links to more nonfiction stories about history and for first look at new short stories, tons of giveaways, and the first chapter from Nancy Bilyeau's upcoming spy novel set in the 18th century: The Blue. To subscribe to the monthly newsletter, sign up here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Edward Kelley: The Dangerous Life of a Necromancer

By Nancy Bilyeau

The castle of Hrad Krivoklat, built forty kilometers west of Prague in the 12th century, possessed a Gothic chapel known for its statues of the twelve apostles, gazing at worshippers from high above. Also of note was a statue of Jesus at the altar, flanked by angels with golden wings.

Hrad Krivoklat: 
In 1591, a lone Englishman of middle age and cropped ears, Edward Kelley, was confined in this castle, which began functioning as a prison in the 16th century. Kelley, held in a cell at the command of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, had decisions to make. He was no doubt forbidden to avail himself of the castle chapel while making his decisions. But if he had, those winged angels might have carried special significance to him. Perhaps they would have comforted him.

Or perhaps not.

Edward Kelly, from a 19th c drawing
After months of imprisonment, Kelly was due to be released  but for a single purpose. The emperor expected much of the man who came to Prague with the renowned John Dee in 1586. Rudolf had favored him, enriched him, spoiled him. The English commoner even held an imperial title: He was Sir Edward Kelley of Imamyi, "Baron of Bohemia," and he lived in high style in Prague.

Why did this bounty rain down on Kelly? Because Rudolf, an emotionally erratic Hapsburg obsessed with art, philosophy and magic, was convinced that Kelley possessed a secret of alchemy. There had been tantalizing glimpses of his power. However, Kelly had not come through as yet with what the emperor sought. He'd been arrested for dueling. But it was believed the true reason for his imprisonment was to force him to produce what Prague wanted to see.

While deciding what to do, Kelley reflected. This is only speculation--but might not these be the turning points that flitted through his mind:

March 1582: John Dee, scholar, astrologer, mathematician, physician, and philosopher, was in residence at his house, Mortlake, when a knock at the door produced a young man who called himself Edward Talbot, in the company of a Dee friend, Mr. Clerkson. Talbot was a name used by Edward Kelley.

John Dee
They had arrived at a prestigious address. Dee had a unique relationship with Queen Elizabeth. He was her personal astrologer--Dee selected her date of coronation--and adviser, but their meetings were discreet and their communications guarded. Courtiers at the pinnacle of her court--Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton--also believed in Dee. But endorsement could not be open because Dee's methods skirted heresy. During the reign of Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary I, he was arrested under suspicion of casting the horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth with an eye to predicting the succession. This was treason. He managed to exonerate himself, and found favor with Elizabeth but she did not financially reward him to the extent that he wished. Money worries dogged Dee for his entire life.

As for "Talbot," he was born in St. Swithin's, Worcester on August 1, 1555, according to a discovered astrological chart. Kelley may or may not have attended Oxford. He always wore his hair long or donned a monk's cowl or cap with hanging flaps to conceal the fact that his ears were missing. It was said he had been pilloried for "coining" (forging or adulterating coins) and lost his ears as punishment.

Mr. Clerkson brought Kelley to Dee because he had heard that the Queen's conjurer was in need of a new "skryer," or crystal gazer.  Such men were not uncommon. "Almost every parish, and apparently several aristocratic households, boasted a 'cunning man,' who for the price of a beer or a bed would summon spirits or tell fortunes," says The Queen's Conjurer: the Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I, Dee's patron
Dee had lofty motives for wanting to communicate with spirits of the other world: to elevate and unite mankind in an era of religious wars, hunger and disease. He sought to understand the universe. On his next visit to Mortlake, Kelley gave him what sounds like a winning audition. After looking into one of Dee's crystals for a quarter of an hour, Kelley said he'd made contact with an angel named Uriel, "the angel of light." Uriel had a number of messages for Dee.

Kelley was hired.

1583: A boat sailed from England, carrying Dee, Kelley and their respective families. Destination: Poland. Dee had a much younger wife named Jane and small children; Kelley had recently married a widow with children.  The trip was paid for by Albert Laski, a Polish count who came to England as an envoy to Elizabeth and was introduced to Dee and Kelley by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Laski was a known dabbler in the occult, and soon spent much of his time at Mortlake.

Dee and Kelley had been focusing a tremendous amount of time on their "conferences" with angels. Kelley acted as medium, and Dee pondered the communications, which had to be decoded. The language that the various angels--Uriel was joined by Michael as well as other celestials--used was "Enochian." These were the pure words God spoke to Adam, before the Fall.  Dee sought to decode the entire language and capture the wisdom of the angels in a book.

In recent weeks, the angels, through Kelley as medium, had begun to urge Dee to leave England, at the same time that Laski was making his offer. Dee was also worried that Elizabeth's support of his work was wavering. Rumors abounded that Dee and Kelley were practicing necromancy,  which was communication with the dead. Dee did not want to clarify to anyone that it was actually angels they spoke to. Not yet. So it was time to leave England.

Dee & Kelley, raising the dead?
March 1587: Dee and Kelley, full of dread, were summoned to appear before the papal nuncio Germanico Malaspina, bishop of San Severo, in Prague, the cosmopolitan city of Bohemia.

The last four years had been difficult ones. Laski ran out of money almost the instant they arrived in Poland, and the two men and their families wandered through Central Europe, conducting their "actions" with the angels as they sought aristocratic sponsors.

They finally were given permission to present themselves in Prague, where Emperor Rudolf held court. Although Rudolf was intensely interested in magic, his court was dominated by papal and counter-Reformation forces. It was a treacherous climate. Dee had managed to obtain an audience with the reclusive Rudolf but that didn't prevent him from falling under suspicion of necromancy again. It also didn't help that Rudolf's uncle, King Philip II, was planning to declare war on Elizabeth I and all English Protestants were anathema.

Dee acquitted himself well under questioning by Bishop Malaspina, professing himself a pious man who would never cause religious discord in Prague or traffic in the black arts. Then it was Kelley's turn to speak. What he chose to say was astounding:
"It seems to me that, if one looks for counsel or remedy that might bring about a reformation in the whole church, the following will be good and obvious. While there are some shepards and ministers of the Christian flock who, in their faith and in their works, excel all others, there are also those who seem devoid of the true faith and idle in their good works. Their life is so odious to the people and sets so pernicious an example that by their own bad life they cause more destruction in the Church of God than  they could ever repair by their most elaborate, most long and most frequent discourses. And for that reason their words do not carry the necessary conviction and are wanting in profitable authority."
The papal representative remained calm. But he said later, privately, that he had wanted to "throw Kelley from a window"--a common way to resolve conflict in Prague. For a time Kelley and Dee were able to evade arrest or formal censure. But eventually the emperor turned on them. The order came to leave Prague within six days.

Vilem Rozmberk
May 1587: Dee and Kelley found a new sponsor: the wealthy Bohemian noble Vilem Rozmberk. He had a passion for alchemy and had set up several laboratories for experiments--Dee and Kelley now had one of their own. Although Dee was less than enthusiastic, Kelley threw himself into this work. Alchemy was the quest to transform base metals into noble ones--silver and gold--through the  Philosopher's Stone, a legendary elixir.

Kelley had brought with him from England a mysterious red powder he said he'd discovered buried in the ground. As a demonstration before dignitaries visiting the laboratory, Kelley dropped a speck of it into mercury held in a crucible. To all who witnessed it, shimmering gold appeared. Soon the news spread across Prague, Europe and even back to England: Kelley had discovered the Philosopher's Stone and could produce gold.

Now the balance of power between Dee and Kelley shifted. Dee wanted Kelley to communicate with the angels and obtain the wisdom of the universe. But his skryer wanted to focus on the alchemy experiments that were earning him fame. This was the time, when the angels communicated something new and shocking: Dee and Kelley must share wives.

With great reluctance, Dee's young wife slept with Kelley. Nine months later, Theodorus Dee was born. In 1589, the Dees returned to England. Kelley would never see them again.


Emperor Rudolf II
It was not long after Dee's departure that Kelley reached his height of riches and renown. The Emperor's interest in alchemy went deeper than filling the imperial treasury. Rudolf was as unusual a ruler as Elizabeth I. He never married, recoiled from religious mania, and maintained a cautious stance among war-crazed relatives. "Wise hesitation" is what his supporters called it. His enemies found him inert and unfit to rule a Catholic empire.

One aspect of Rudolf's personality was fear of death. Alchemy's ultimate promise was immortality. He threw money, property and titles at Kelley, but there was a catch. The Englishman must deliver. He must turn base metal into gold. Despite his tantalizing experiments, Kelley could not prove his abilities to the emperor's satisfaction.

And so Kelley was imprisoned in Hrad Krivoklat. After his release, he was again given a chance to perform successful alchemic experiments. He failed. Kelley tried to flee Prague, but was captured and jailed in another imperial castle.

It is said that Edward Kelley died in 1598 after he crawled out of a Bohemian prison window and fell to the ground. Other reports say he survived to see 1600, but maintained a low profile.

He is considered a charlatan today, someone who was able to convince wise and astute people of mystical abilities ... until his tricks ran out.

But that is incorrect. Edward Kelley did perform an act of alchemy. It was on himself.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of novels set in 16th century England featuring Dominican novice Joanna Stafford: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.  The books were published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) and are on sale in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense at RWA in 2016. For more information, go to

The Chalice is priced at $3.99 for the month of October.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Secrets of Anglesey Island, the Home of the Tudors

by Nancy Bilyeau

View from a cliff on Anglesey Island [wikimedia commons, photo by Eric Jones]

After the army of  Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, an effort swung into action to make Henry seem as kingly as possible. It wasn't enough that Richard must be seen as the blackest villain ever to draw breath. Henry himself, to hold the throne, must be venerated as royal.

But that wasn't going to be easy.

Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was descended from the great John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and while that gave him the right to call himself a Lancastrian heir, the Beauforts were the children of Gaunt's mistress, Katherine Swynford. True, Gaunt married her after the five children were born and Henry IV had them legitimized. Still, no less than an act of Parliament barred a Beaufort from ever succeeding to the throne. Serious obstacle, that.

Henry VII

So the Tudor propaganda machine got busy with building up the reputation of the last Lancaster king, Henry VI. In life he suffered complete nervous breakdowns, was led by his relatives and his wife, and would have been far better off as a monk than a king during the vicious family disputes later known as the War of the Roses. In 1471, defeated, he was murdered in the Tower of London by the triumphant Yorks. Some say that he was the worst king of the medieval era.

But Henry VI needed to look better that that and quickly. He was the half-brother of Edmund Tudor, father of the new King Henry VII. He was family. Some serious revision was in order.

So in the inaugural pageants of Henry VII, prominence was given to his dead uncle, the "Martir By Great Tormenting." Stories circulated of King Henry VI's miracles, such as curing the blind and saving children from fires. Strenuous efforts were made to persuade the Pope to make Henry VI a saint.

The new royal family was working with what they had. The Tudors' connection to Henry VI was not as straightforward as might seem at first glance. Henry VI's half-brother, Edmund Tudor, did not possess one drop of Plantagenet blood. Edmund's mother was Catherine of Valois--a French princess who was briefly married to Henry V and gave birth to Henry VI--and his father was Catherine's handsome Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. The legend goes that the young widow spotted Owen swimming naked in a river. Catherine secretly married Owen and they had four or five children.

Catherine of Valois marrying first husband Henry V

When he came to the throne, Henry VII's Welsh descent was honored, of course. After all, Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper (Edmund's younger brother) purposefully landed in Wales with their army and made a popular appeal for support as they marched toward England. The Welsh flocked to his cause, and his army flew the flag of the red dragon of Cadwallader,  the legendary Welsh ruler. After he won the battle, the new King Henry VII proclaimed himself as heir to the 7th century Cadwallader, a new king whose rise was foretold in the misty prophecies of Merlin.

As for the king's far more recent, undoubted Welsh background, not much was said about that. After all, when it was discovered years ago, the secret marriage was an embarrassment. Queens didn't marry their servants. Following the death of Catherine of Valois, her oldest child, Henry VI, committed the non-saintly act of sending his stepfather, Owen Tudor, to Newgate Prison (he was later pardoned and pensioned).

But the Tudor family--which did give its name to England's most memorable dynasty--should not be ignored pre-Bosworth. They were a family of genuine achievement and for centuries they lived on a remarkable island, Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales. It was a place of mystical power...and a spirit of ferocious independence.

The beautiful island [wikimedia commons, photo by Stephen Elwyn Roddick]

We learn of Anglesey (its Welsh name is Ynys Môn) through the writings of Roman historians.  Roman rulers feared its occupants. That's right, feared. At its height, the Roman empire controlled land lived on by 50 million people. Yet Anglesey held a special place among the strategies of the caesars.

It was because of the Druids. Anglesey was the last Druid sanctuary.

The revival of the Druid religion in the 18th century confuses our understanding of the original. We may envision robed figures dancing in the moonlight, swathed in wreaths. That's Druids 2.0. The Romans encountered something else.

Julius Caesar fought the Celts for eight years in modern-day France. The Gallic Wars gave him fame and fortune but he didn't win easily. The priestly, educated class of the Celts in France, England and Ireland were the Druids, and he was fascinated by the mysterious spiritual leaders of his adversaries.  Julius Caesar wrote:

"The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions....The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow so to do, employing the druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless for a man's life a man's life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent."

Whether or not Druids oversaw human sacrifice is hotly debated. Historians long dismissed it as Roman gossip, but recent findings suggest otherwise. "Lindow Man," found in the peat bog of Cheshire, was a young Celtic of high status who was strangled and then had his throat cut, during the first century AD.

What cannot be disputed is that when the Romans struggled to conquer Britain, they targeted the Druids as those who fomented rebellion.  They were 1st Century freedom fighters. The Romans could not subdue the people for long; frustrated, they decided to wipe out the Druids to break the people's spirit. To do that, they must march on Anglesey, the Druid stronghold.

What do we know about the lives of the Druids? Very little. The Druids left no written records. Researchers believe it took twenty years for a student to become a Druid. They honored the winter and summer solstices. The conjecture is that the Druids believed in the immortality of the soul and that after death it found a new body. According to the Museum of Wales, between 300 BC and 100 AD, chariots, weapons, tools and decorated metalwork were cast into a lake at the site of Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.

Whatever the Druids were doing, the Romans set themselves to wipe it out. Tacitus wrote vividly of the slaughter of Druids on Anglesey, some of them women, led by Roman commander Suetonius Paulinus in 61 AD:
"On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames."
Menai Straits, where the Romans crossed
[wikimedia commons, photo by Mark Chambers]

Little more is heard of the Druids. Rome did its horrific job. Moreover, as Wales accepted Christianity, the Druids as a priestly class were bound to become extinct, probably by the 7th century.

But for the people who remained on the island, the defiant spirit of Anglesey was not broken. After Rome fell, waves of invasion by Saxons and Vikings took their toll across England. Wales for the most part stayed true to its Celtic origins. (Anglesey was taken by Irish warlords for a time, before throwing them off.) The "Kingdom of Gwynedd" rose in Wales, its rulers declaring themselves "Kings of the Britons," and for several centuries the town of Aberffraw, on Anglesey Island, was this kingdom's power base.

Then came Edward I. 

As far as Anglesey was concerned, the kings of England, first Norman and then Plantagenet, weren't English at all. They spoke French, for starters. The Welsh maintained their independence throughout the rules of families based in far-away London, until Edward I launched war, using strategies nearly as horrific as the Romans. When the last king of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, died in battle in 1282, Edward I sent his severed head to London to be displayed, mockingly, with a crown of ivy and then mounted over the gate of the Tower of London. 

It's during this turbulent time that the Tudor name first appears in historical record. For four centuries, the Tudor family served the independent Welsh kings of Gwynedd in high positions, resisted English attempts at subjugation and, even after Edward I's brutalizing wars, continued to support revolt.  Henry Tudor's known ancestor was Edynyfed Fychan ap Cynwrig, a seneschal of Llywelyn the Great in the early 13th century. The Tudor seat on Anglesey was the village of Penmynydd, which means top of the mountain in Welsh. They were undoubtedly a leading family.

The rocky coastline [wikimedia commons, photo by Lesbardd]

So how did Owen Tudor end up working as a servant for a widowed English queen? By the time of his birth, the island of Anglesey was worn down by generations of fighting the English. The Tudors were on the front lines of the latest struggle. Owen's father, Maredudd ap Tudor, and uncles were key combatants in the Glyndŵr Rising, also known as the Last War of Independence. The Tudors were fierce guerrilla fighters during that long revolt, and were left impoverished at its end in 1415. The victorious English crown fined the defeated rebels and seized their land. Seeing no choice, Owen's father took his family off the island.

There is some speculation Owen Tudor fought under Henry V as a soldier at Agincourt and won royal notice that way. After the death of the wife they shared, Catherine of Valois, Owen supported the rights of Henry VI. He was descended from men who rebelled against the English kings for decades. Now he was the stepfather of such a king.

Owen was fighting in the army of his own son, Jasper, when the Lancasters lost to the future Edward IV at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross and he was captured. The Yorkists decided to execute Owen immediately. Shortly before he was beheaded on February 2, 1461, Owen Tudor said, "That hede shalle ly on the stocke that wass wonte to ly on Quene Catheryn's lappe."

When, more than a century later, Queen Elizabeth defied Spain and roused England to defend itself from the Armada, historians see the character of her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, in the Queen's courage and eloquence.

Elizabeth said to her soldiers:

"Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust."
And maybe, just maybe, we can hear in her words an echo of the spirit of the many freedom fighters of Anglesey Island.

Island of Anglesey [wikimedia commons; photo by Lesbardd]

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of novels set in 16th century England featuring Dominican novice Joanna Stafford: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.  The books were published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) and are on sale in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense at RWA in 2016. For more information, go to

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