Saturday, December 29, 2018

What Links 'The Blue' to 'Last of the Mohicans'

By Nancy Bilyeau

It's exciting to set a historical novel in a time period that's rarely chosen by other writers.

And ... it's frightening too.

When I decided to write a thriller set during the competitive rage for porcelain, the 18th century jumped into play. The famous Meissen Porcelain began operation in 1708 and dominated Europe until Sevres Porcelain overtook it mid-century. But the English factories were contenders as well.

It's been called the long century and one thing is certainly clear: the 18th century was dominated by wars fought among the great European powers. France and England clashed again and again, beginning in the reign of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, and continuing right through to the end with the Napoleonic wars.

A smart editor friend of mine, Daryl Chen, told me that she thinks historical fiction benefits from being set during a war. I agree with Daryl, and after researching the timeline of porcelain competition in Europe, I decided the Seven Years War was perfect. It began in 1756 and ended in 1763.

I don't know the percentage breakdown for the wars chosen by historical novelists being published in the 21st century, but I'd wager a guess it is 70 percent are set during World War Two, smaller numbers for World War One or the American or English Civil War. The Seven Years War? It might come in at .05 percent: my book, The Blue. :)

Which is too bad, because the Seven Years War was a dramatic, high-stakes, game-changing conflict that raged in Europe, the Americas, West Africa, India, and the Philippines. Its resolution changed the world significantly. It left such resentment in the hearts of the losers, the kingdom of France, that when colonists rebelled against England in America in 1775, the French, driven out of North America in the 1760s, were eager to send money and officers over the Atlantic to do damage to their enemy. Many believe that by doing so, France set up the conditions for its own revolution in 1789. There were many, many reverberations from the Seven Years War.

The famous Battle of Warburg, 1760

I never regretted choosing this time period for my fourth novel. But it was lonely. When I was finished writing The Blue and was going through the editing stage, in a moment of curiosity,  I plugged into Google "Movies set during Seven Years War."

A very short list popped up, but I smiled when I saw one title: The Last of the Mohicans. Of course! I saw the film in a theater when it came out in 1992 and I loved it. The Seven Years War is called the French and Indian War in North America, and the movie tells a story set amid that conflict.

In 1826, James Fenimore Cooper published his novel set in the upstate New York wilderness, detailing the transport of the two daughters of Colonel Munro, Alice and Cora, from Albany to Fort William Henry. Guarding the women during the journey are frontiersman Hawkeye and his loyal Mohican friends and adopted family Chingachgook and Uncas as well as a British officer, Major Duncan Heyward. After being betrayed by the renegade brave Magua, the party reaches the fort, only to lose it in a French siege. In the violence that follows, some of it along a cliff in the New York mountains, Cora, Uncas, and Magua are all killed.

In his film, director Michael Mann made huge changes in the plot. The thrust of the film is a romance: Hawkeye and Cora are the ones who fall in love, upsetting Major Heyward, who wished to marry Cora. After the surrender of the fort, betrayal, and flight, Major Heyward is burned to death by order of a Huron tribal leader, and Cora's sister Alice, Uncas, and Magua die.

It was the romance between Hawkeye, played by Daniel Day Lewis, and Cora, played by Madeleine Stowe, that captivated audiences. In particular this scene became immortal:

I decided to watch the film again recently, to see if there were any common themes between my novel The Blue and The Last of the Mohicans. I wasn't sure there would be. Different continents, for one thing. And Mohicans is a story paying tribute to the struggle over America, fought deep in the wilderness. My novel is about the frenzy for fine porcelain that preoccupied Europe regardless of the war, and how a young female painter's quest to discover the most beautiful shade of blue became tangled with objections of that war.

I was, quite simply, stunned by the beauty of this film. The love story is powerful, no doubt, but I swooned to the costumes, the sets, sophisticated cinematography, and the musical score that has taken its place as one of the best of the last 50 years.

In the opening of the film, cinematography, music, and action fuse in an elk hunt that is unforgettable:

In his first major Hollywood film, Daniel Day Lewis as Hawkeye carries the film, but I found the performances of Wes Studi as Magua, Russell Means as Chingachgook, and Stephen Waddington as Major Heyward (a difficult part) nothing less than amazing.

It is a bit easy to miss in such a romantic, gorgeous film, but there is a serious political theme to the film, one that resonated with me. As the story begins, the British are trying to recruit colonial settlers in New York to serve in a militia, a proposition that Hawkeye has nothing but scorn for. This puts him on a collision course with Major Heyward, a stiff officer obsessed with rank and victory who is appalled when a general tells the colonists that they'll be allowed to leave the militia should they hear their farms are being attacked by the French-led Native Americans. Once they reach Fort William Henry, the news of just such attacks--the enemy murdering helpless women and children--leads the colonialists to insist they be allowed to go to their families. But the British renege and refuse to let them go. "Those considerations are subordinate to the interests of the Crown," declares Colonel Munro. Hawkeye helps the Americans sneak away, but then he stays behind to be with Cora, who he loves, and is arrested for sedition. 

Hawkeye is arrested for sedition

 After the French blow holes in the fort with their superior guns, the English surrender and retreat. Although the sequence of multiple battles and escapes that takes up the last one-third of the film is for some fans their favorite part of the movie, I disagree. The theme of whether a person should stand up for their rights and personal freedom is lost among the running, attacking, and burning. And a weakly established romance between Uncas and Alice Monroe suddenly guides the narrative. 

Magua is killed in the finale, but Chingachgook has lost his son. He is now the "last" of the Mohicans,

But fighting for your freedom is still the deepest message of the film. And that dawning awareness of a person's right to determine their own fate amid a meaningless and brutal war between superpowers is an important part of my novel The Blue as well. The ideas sparked by the Enlightenment cannot be extinguished. The chemist who is creating the color blue, Thomas Sturbridge, puts science above politics. He is unimpressed by the war, and his ideals spark important changes within my main character, Genevieve.

In a Hollywood now dominated by cartoons and superheroes, it's sad to think about the narrative ambition and beauty of Last of the Mohicans. Happily, the film is admired and written about by others than me. I found a great story on its 25-year anniversary.

And because no one can be unmoved by the song "The Kiss," I leave you with this clip:


The Blue is an editors pick by Goodreads and Bookbub. Publishers Weekly said: "historical fans will be well satisfied." To learn more, go here.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Thank You, Alison Weir!

I am pretty sure I've read all of Alison Weir's books, not just those bestsellers set in the Tudor era but books on Eleanor of Aquitaine, Katherine Swynford, and the Wars of the Roses players. Her current series of novels on the wives of Henry VIII is fantastic--she unveils new theories on each wife through the novel. And I particularly enjoyed Queens of the Conquest: England's Medieval Queens.

And it's not just me that enjoys and values her work. Alison, the biggest selling female historian in the United Kingdom, has sold more than 2 million books around the world.

When I found out Alison liked my Joanna Stafford trilogy, it was a surprise. I hadn't sent the first novel to her--I was too nervous--but when I worked up my courage to friend her on Facebook, she accepted and told me she'd just read The Crown and really liked it. That was a good day!

I am thrilled and grateful that Alison posted this: "Nancy Bilyeau, whose wonderful Crown trilogy I hugely enjoyed, has just published a new novel, The Blue, which I highly recommend."


Happy dance!

Alison Weir

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Christmas in Georgian England: The Magic and the Myths

By Nancy Bilyeau

Some people cherish an image of Victorian Christmas as the peak of all celebrations. This was when the Christmas tree first found its way into English homes, thanks to Prince Albert, and when families gathered to "make merry" and give thanks for their good fortune, just as they did in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

Um, that's not quite right.

While there is a strong belief that Albert brought with him from Saxe-Coburg the tradition of a Christmas tree, the honors belong to Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. She was raised in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and it was following her marriage to George in 1761 that the tree tradition found its way to England.

As for the bubbling warmth of a Dickens' Christmas, look closer. He actually wrote it in a fury to make a point over the government's callousness to hunger and poverty in England--"the Hungry Forties" --as well as to make some money quickly. Dickens himself was strapped for cash. Much of the original novella is a passionate argument for more compassion for the near-starving in England. (You can read more about it in my article about The Story Behind Dickens Writing 'A Christmas Carol')

No, I would argue that it's the people of the Georgian era, encompassing my beloved 18th century, that got Christmas off the ground, so to speak.

Queen Charlotte's Tree

The tradition of chopping a yew branch and bringing it inside for Christmas was quite popular in Mecklenburg-Strelitz. Samuel Coleridge, while visiting the Northern German duchy in the late 18th century, was impressed enough to write about it:

"On the evening before Christmas Day, one of the parlors is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go; a great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fixed in the bough ... and coloured paper etc. hangs and flutters from the twigs. Under this bough the children lay out the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift; they then bring out the remainder one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces."
Queen Charlotte

At first Queen Charlotte confined her importing of German Christmas traditions to mounting a decorated yew branch, but in 1800 she threw a memorable party at Windsor for the kingdom's leading families, showing off an entire tree. Dr John Watkins wrote with some awe of how "from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged; the whole illuminated by small wax candles." He said that "after the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets it bore, together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted."

Before long, anybody who was anybody wanted a Christmas tree.

The Punch Bowl 

Who doesn't enjoy a dip into the punch bowl during the holiday season?

Any idea that the punch bowl belongs to the Victorians is wrong. This was not only a custom but an obsession for the Georgians. They did not do things by halves in the 18th century. Everyone drank. A lot. William Pitt the Younger, prime minister from 1783 to 1801, was said to have drunk a bottle of port before giving a speech before the House of Commons.

Punch was made using a mixture of rum or brandy, adding sugar, citrus fruit, spices – sometimes grated nutmeg – and adding water. The punch bowls could be ordinary, or splendid. Some were created to commemorate a victory or birth.

Gathering around a punch bowl was seen as the height of happiness. One man wrote:

"…we hope nothing will ever hinder a Man drinking a Bowl of Punch with his Friend, that’s one of the greatest pleasures we enjoy in the Country, after our labour."

It cannot be denied that imbibing punch, at Christmas and other times, sometimes went too far. William Hogarth captured that in his satirical print A Modern Midnight Conversation. Says the British Museum about Hogarth's creation, dated to 1733: "A drinking scene with eleven men in a panelled room around a table on which is a punch-bowl decorated with Chinese figures; wine bottles on the floor and mantelpiece and an overflowing chamber pot at lower left."

The oil painting of Hogarth's widely disseminated image was, interestingly, purchased by King Edward VII.

Hogarth's 'A Midnight Modern Conversation'

Plum Pudding

You can get into deep trouble claiming a century as the most important in the evolution of plum pudding, but I'm going to live dangerously by claiming the 18th. True, it was invented in medieval times but it was called "frumenty," made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices, and very watery. The Puritans banned it, who knows why, and when Charles II restored the monarchy, nobody particularly wanted to restore frumentary.

The story goes that George I, after tasting it, called for its return shortly after his accession in 1714, and it was served at royal feasts for Christmas. He was accordingly dubbed the "Pudding King." (By the way, this has been debunked by some as hokum invented during the 20th century reign of George V to bolster the image of the monarchy, though why the much-respected George V needed a boost from George I two centuries later is unexplained.)

In any event, plum pudding, as it was now called, tasted differently than frumenty. Recipes called for more dried fruit and sugar. There were rarely any plums but there were raisins. Samuel Johnson himself wrote that the definition of plum was "raisin; grape dried in the sun."

Plum pudding became more and more  popular, and was officially linked to Christmas in the 1830s, in the reign of William IV. He was quite fond of it, and even gave a feast for 3,000 people on his birthday in 1830, offering boiled and roasted beef and plum pudding.

The bowling ball we love: plum pudding

Some historians and food writers declare that plum pudding took its place as dessert for Christmas dinner in the Victorian era, during the time of William IV. It's been a staple since. One writer sighed over "the glossy, currant-speckled cannon-ball that appears on Victorian-style Christmas cards."

Only one problem with that: William IV, uncle of Victoria, was the last Georgian king. :)

Victorian family enjoying their Christmas dessert, one made possible by the Georgians


My 18th century-set novel The Blue is the story of a Huguenot artist who becomes caught up in a spy mission in a porcelain factory.

And in the novel, William Hogarth and punch bowls do appear :)

Sunday, December 2, 2018

The Unbearable Beauty of a Sevres Porcelain Ship

My novel The Blue sends the main character, Huguenot artist Genevieve Planche, into the heart of the porcelain business that thrived in Enlightenment Europe. It is a spy story, a love story--and also a story of art.

This is not about making plates and cups and other dishes, although in the 18th century wealthy people did use their porcelain at the table.

The celebrated Sevres pieces of the 1750s are ravishing. They are works of beauty, but so elaborate and decorated that it's like eating too much rich candy. You feel as if you could get a stomach ache looking at Sevres porcelain. And you'd still enjoy it.

Madame de Pompadour

The preeminent porcelain factory, or workshop, of the time was that of Sevres, near Versailles in France. It was the patronage of Madame de Pompadour, the elegant and cultured mistress of Louis XV, that powered Sevres. Without her, Sevres could not have survived. Fortunately for the many highly trained artists, sculptors, chemists and decorators employed there, Pompadour was obsessed with the factory.

It is difficult to even grasp the difficulty and expense of creating an intricate piece of Sevres soft-paste porcelain in the 1750s, when my novel takes place. Jean Hellot, the chief chemist, said the goal was to produce porcelain of such translucence it was like "squeezed snow." Then came the painters and the gilders.

I offer you as an example one type of porcelain Sevres produced: Pot pourri à vaisseau, or the pot pourri holder as a ship. These were produced from 1757 to the early 1760s. Frivolous to an extreme, they were exquisite--and decadent. While war raged and some French people were starving to death, enormous effort was put into these ultra-luxury objects. Supposedly they held the pot pourri people used in order to scent a room.

They were some of the largest pieces produced by the factory, and quite difficult to fire. They tended to collapse in the kiln. Only ten survive today. The one shown in the photo above is part of the collection of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, one of only four "ships" in the United States.

Resting on a gilded wooden base, it takes the form of a stylized boat, complete with rigging, port-holes and a flag. The lower part is decorated with a scene of sailors packing fish on the front, and a marine themed trophy on the back, painted by Jean-Louis Morin.

The scene of sailors preparing a boat, painted during this period, could only have been inspired by the Seven Years War, in which France and Austria battled England and Prussia. What was at stake was supremacy in Europe and the colonies spread across the world--would it be France or England? Historians say that Madame de Pompadour supported this war, and pushed her royal lover to declare it. But it was a loss for France, a turning point, and she was ultimately blamed.

The design of the vase is attributed to Jean-Claude Duplessis père. He was a a goldsmith, sculptor and ceramics modeller, bronze-founder and decorative designer who worked in the Rococo style. He invented these boats, which were cherished by Madame de Pompadour.

A number of boats survived the French Revolution, as did the factory itself. The Revolutionaries did not burn down Sevres but respected its talent. A little later, Napoleon and Josephine took pride in Sevres porcelain, as did Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III.

At the turn of the century, a wealthy Baltimore railroad magnate and collector named Henry Walters took a fancy to the ship, purchased it, and bequeathed it to the city in 1932.

Across the centuries, the porcelain ship still exerted a fascination for the wealthy. Some things just don't change. :)


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the 18th century-set novel 'The Blue,' published on Dec. 3, 2018, in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. The protagonist is a Huguenot artist living in Spitalfields who becomes a spy in a porcelain factory. Publishers Weekly said, "Historical fans will be well satisfied."

I'm on the Cover of The Big Thrill!

Very pleased to be on a magazine cover for the first time ever :) I was interviewed by Dawn Ius, an editor of The Big Thrill, on my new novel The Blue. How I got the idea for the book, the historical underpinnings of the 18th century, and creating the characters.

She concluded the feature with:

"The novel, both beautifully written and historically impressive, delivers surprises not only for the author, but for the reader as well, demonstrating just how much one is willing to suffer in pursuit and protection of their dreams."

To read the whole story, go here.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Historical Novelist Tony Riches on Finding the 'Real' Mary Tudor

I've been impressed with the fiction of Tony Riches for quite some time. Tony writes about the early Tudors, bringing to life the exciting dramas of Owen Tudor and his sons, Edmund and Jasper Tudor. Without these men, there'd have been no dynasty at all!

The novel I just read is Mary, Tudor Princess. It's a book about the sister of Henry VIII. I liked it so much I asked Tony for an interview!

NB: I found your depiction of Mary Tudor very fresh. She seemed younger and more naive in this story than in other depictions. Did you have a strong idea of her character before you began or did it evolve as you wrote?

TR: My first encounter with Mary was her birth in book three of my Tudor trilogy. She was close to her mother and shared many of her mother’s qualities, and of course her paternal grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort. When I finished the trilogy, I had a wealth of information about Mary Tudor – and decided her amazing story would make the perfect ‘sequel’.

What were your main sources of information on Mary?

One of the most useful sources was Erin Sadlack’s book ‘The French Queen’s Letters: Mary Tudor Brandon and the Politics of Marriage in Sixteenth-Century Europe (Queenship and Power)’. As well as translations of all Mary’s surviving letters, this has invaluable analysis of the context. I also discovered a wonderful biography, ‘Mary Tudor the White Queen’, by Walter Richardson. This is full of fascinating details which I could research further to bring her world to life. The most intriguing research was my visit to her home at Westhorpe and to see Mary’s tomb in Bury St Edmunds (where I also saw a lock of her hair).

What surprised you the most in your research of her?

I think it was her stoical acceptance of her brother Henry’s insistence that she should marry the aging King of France. It seems she accepted his wishes as her duty – and tried to make the best of it. Mary insisted on being referred to as ‘Queen of France’ for the rest of her life.

Your depiction of Catherine of Aragon came alive in this novel. Young Catherine is so different than the woman we meet in the many Anne Boleyn novels. How did you develop this view of her?

As with Mary, I’ve ‘lived’ with Queen Catherine for the last few years, as she first appears as a fifteen-year-old in my Tudor trilogy. I recommend Giles Tremlett’s biography, ‘Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s Spanish Queen’ to anyone who would like to see beyond the more traditional treatment of Catherine. The developing friendship between Catherine and Mary was interesting to write.

What led you to this series, and specifically to Owen Tudor?

I was born in Pembroke, Wales, birthplace of Henry Tudor, and began researching his life – as like most people I barely recalled a mention of him in school history lessons, as the focus was always on Henry VIII and his wives. I eventually had so much material I realised I could write his story as a trilogy, with Henry being born in book one, ‘coming of age’ in book two and becoming King of England in book three. At the time I wrote Owen there were no books about his life, so I wanted people to appreciate how he founded the Tudor dynasty.

Does living in Wales give you a special viewpoint on the early Tudors?

Yes. Pembroke Castle is well preserved and only a few miles from where I live, as is Edmund Tudor’s tomb at St David’s Cathedral. Henry and Jasper escaped to exile from the nearby coastal town of Tenby, so it was easy for me to ‘follow in their footsteps’ all the way to the remote chateaus in Brittany which feature in my books. Last year a group of us raised the funding for a bronze statue of Henry Tudor to be placed in front of Pembroke Castle, so now no one can forget the Tudor connections to the town.

Henry Tudor statue at Pembroke Castle

I must confess I find the romanticism of Charles Brandon in many mediums trying. I think a lot of it has to do with Henry Cavill playing him in The Tudors. How did you approach such a famous figure from Henry VIII's court?

I researched Charles Brandon for my book on Mary, and realised there was much more to him than is generally known. This inspired me to write my latest book, ‘Brandon – Tudor Knight’ which follows him from his early days with Anne Browne and the young Henry, through his life with Mary, and on to his final marriage to his young ward, Catherine Willoughby. Brandon was no saint - but I’ve tried to show why he acted as he did. I also kept his story as factually accurate as possible and hope this new book will help readers understand him.

Do you think that in the end Mary made the right choice in Brandon?

Mary’s life would have been so different if King Louis XII of France had lived even a few more years, as I don’t think Brandon would have been able to wait for her. The problem she had was that Louis’ successor, King Francis, would have happily married his widowed stepmother off to whoever he wanted a favour from. I believe Mary married for love, despite the risks – and that Brandon loved her in his own way for the rest of her life.

# # #

Tony Riches

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony was a finalist in the 2017 Amazon Storyteller Awards and is listed 130th in the 2018 Top 200 list of the Most Influential Authors. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website and his popular blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Goodreads Review : "' The Blue' Is a Triumph"

I'm pleased and honored to share this review written by mystery author James Lincoln Warren. James is a frequent contributor to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and is the author of two mystery short fiction series and several standalone short stories. The "Treviscoe of Lloyd's" series features 18th century insurance investigator Alan Treviscoe.

The review was posted on Goodreads.

By James Lincoln Warren

Crime fiction is primarily a literature of human behavior under extreme moral pressure. At its worst, it is sensationalist and emotionally shallow at one extreme, and escapist and emotionally inauthentic at the other. But at its best, it is a contemplation on the power of evil acting upon both the innocent and the culpable, the dangers and rewards of shadowy compromise on the one hand and moral inflexibility on the other, and the confused morass of human motivations and interactions.

Good historical crime fiction, by changing its cultural context to another time, compelling the reader to compare the past with the present, benefits by limning these issues against an ethical background that starkly contrasts with the familiar. In 18th century England, a pickpocket could be hanged for stealing a handkerchief, but human trafficking was perfectly lawful.

By their nature, historical mysteries provide the reader with two complementary insights.

The first is an awareness of how differently people behaved in the past than they do today, conveying how much our attitudes have evolved over time, and stimulates meditation regarding our ethical evolution our time, good and bad.

The second, and to my mind, more important, is an awareness of how much people remain very much the same, and how much their existence is governed by their essential humanity, irrespective of the wider circumstances. Crimes and sins may change, but love, hate, hunger, greed, and compassion, to name just a few characteristics, are eternal.

As are certain themes—the themes explored by Nancy Bilyeau.

In her new novel, The Blue, Bilyeau revisits several of the dominant themes she explored in her well-received earlier trilogy featuring Joanna Stafford, a displaced young nun in Henry VIII’s England, but sets the drama in 18th century England and France, during the Seven Years’ War. Like the Stafford novels, The Blue is a first-person narrative (but in present tense) told by an artistically gifted young woman frustrated by the restrictions placed upon her in the society in which she lives. Along the way, there are other similarities: discussions on the nature and abuse of power, the major and minor tragedies attending religious intolerance, the role and purpose of art, the loneliness of exile, the pitfalls of overweening ambition, the need for painstaking discretion to avoid peril, the challenges of keeping a pure conscience, the pain of imprisonment (both literal and figurative), and romantic love as a means of salvation.

It may seem on the surface that The Blue is a reiteration of the story told in The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. Even the similarity of all the titles may seem to indicate that the books are all one of a piece. But this is misleading.

Joanna Strafford was a nun who had to learn how to live out of the cloister as a layperson against her will. Genevieve Planché, the protagonist of The Blue, is a third generation English Huguenot, a staunchly anti-Catholic Calvinist, who knows exactly how to thrive in her community as far as she is allowed to do so, but dares to dream of a more fulfilling existence. Joanna lost her vocation, but Genevieve is looking for how to enter hers: she longs to be a serious painter in oils, an occupation closed to women. (The first celebrated female portraitist was still a generation away: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun was only three years old when The Blue takes place, and was a scion of Paris salon society rather than a middle-class member of an iconoclastic sect.)

And the title has a secondary meaning from its literal one. Crowns, chalices, and tapestries, while powerful symbols, are tangible things. The color blue, however, is an abstraction, tangible only to the eye, and was at the time the most sought after tincture in the spectrum. A rich, enveloping, royal blue—although there was Prussian blue available at the time, it was not considered entirely adequate—a blue that was just beyond the reach of art. Like Genevieve’s ambition, it was an artistic goal fraught with barriers and obstacles.

Although Genevieve’s quest is directed squarely at canvas, the primary medium for this color to which Bilyeau directs our attention is fine porcelain: delicate, fragile, sublime, formed through a metamorphosis of rough clay, God’s earthly material for creating Man, into something altogether precious and celestial, the paragon of taste and elegance.

Something that leads beyond simple avarice. Something that leads to obsession.

That singular theme is something new in her work, and imbues her story with an even greater psychological depth.

Nancy Bilyeau has given us a world of industrial espionage and international intrigue, high art and low cunning, profound love and intractable hatred, rational discourse and irrational behavior, all for the love of a color, painted in deft strokes both fine and broad. The Blue is a triumph.


[Full disclosure: this book was provided to me by the author’s publicist at the author’s request. I moderated Nancy Bilyeau’s first appearance in a panel at a mystery convention, Bouchercon XLIV in 2013 in Albany, NY. The topic was historical mysteries.]

Saturday, November 17, 2018

From Sir Walter Ralegh to Samuel Pepys, the Sinister Westminster Gate-House Prison

By Nancy Bilyeau

In 1663, in the flush of the Restoration, a woman named Mary Carleton went on trial for bigamy. Born in Canterbury of humble parents, she’d married a shoemaker and given birth to two children before disappearing to Cologne. There she had a torrid affair with a nobleman, turning down his offer of marriage but keeping his rich gifts and some money besides.

Mary Carleton then returned to England, claiming to be an orphaned German princess and marrying one John Carleton. A discovered letter betrayed her first marriage and she was arrested.

Bigamist and impersonator Mary Carleton, 1663
© National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under CCA.

Mary’s colorful life—she was acquitted of bigamy after a spirited defense and went on to marry, steal from, and abandon a string of new husbands before being transported to Jamaica and, finally, hanged for theft in 1673—is not, however, the focus of this post. It is her place of incarceration before going on trial, a strange prison within a very short distance of Westminster Abbey where men and women had been held for three centuries before Mary’s celebrated trial, captured in the book The Arraignment, Tryal and Examination of Mary Moders, Otherwise Stedman, Now Carleton, (styled, the German Princess) At the Sessions House in the Old Bayly, Being Brought Prisoner from the Gate-House Westminster, for Having Two Husbands.

The Tower of London holds claim to being the prison of greatest tragic renown, where queens were feted and beheaded and Jesuit priests screamed on the rack. But the Westminster Gate-House has many stories to tell too, holding errant clerks, religious dissidents, poets and legendary Englishmen such as Sir Walter Ralegh and Samuel Pepys before imprisoning a great many miserable, anonymous debtors.

In a description of the Gate-House Prison written in 1768, it "is situated near the west end of the abbey, entering into Tuttle Street, and the is the chief prison for the City of Westminster liberties, not only for debt, but treason, theft and other criminal matters."

In the beginning, the prison was more connected to Westminster Abbey, which makes sense. Some say it was a powerful abbot who transformed the gatehouse into a prison, but documents point to William Warfield, the cellarer of Westminster Abbey. In 1370 he arranged for the gatehouse’s upper storey to house a jail.

But why?

By the time of the reign of Edward III, Westminster was in full medieval throttle. William Rufus' majestic Great Hall, where Parliament met and kings sat on marble thrones, was raised near the spectacular Westminster Abbey, founded by Edward the Confessor in 1065.

Westminster Abbey today.
Image by ChrisO, licensed under CCA.

In Walter Thornbury's Old and New London (1878), he speculates about the preeminence in Plantagenet times of Westminster Abbey and the importance of even the "butler," who was most probably this same William Warfield: "A magnificent apex to a royal palace, the abbey church was surrounded by its own greater and lesser sanctuaries and almonries; its bell towers (the principal one 72 feet 6 inches square, with walls 20 feet thick), chapels, gatehouses, boundary walls, and a train of other buildings, of which we can at the present day scarcely form an idea. In addition to all the land around it, extending from the Thames to Oxford Street, the Abbey possessed 97 towns and villages, 17 hamlets and 216 manors. Its officers fed hundreds of persons daily, and one of its priests (not the abbott) entertained at this pavilion the king and queen, with so large a party, that seven hundred dishes did not suffice for the first table, and even the abbey butler, in the reign of Edward III, rebuilt at his own expense the stately gatehouse which gave entrance to Tothill Street."

Tudor-era historian John Stow wrote that the eastern part of the north gate was used as the bishop of London's prison for "clarks convict." So was it originally an ecclesiastical prison? That's contradicted by another report that during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, rioters set the Westminster prisoners free. It's difficult to picture the peasant rebels fired up to liberate errant clerks. But in 1596, a Southwark preacher confined in the Gate-House did write an abject letter to Lord Burghley "for keeping Wednesday a fast, and transferring the observation of it unto Thursday." Hardly a violent felon.

Another Tudor troublemaker, Giles Wigginton, a Cambridge-educated clergyman, was twice confined in the Gate-House, once for refusing to swear he was not the author of The Marprelate Tracts, pamphlets attacking the kingdom's traditional Anglican leaders. While imprisoned in the 1590s, Wigginton was joined by other fiery Puritans, such as William Hacket, who claimed to be the messiah, called for the removal of Elizabeth I, and on the way to his execution insulted the clergyman determined to comfort him.

Sir Walter Ralegh

The first "celebrity" prisoner of the Westminster Gate-House was Sir Walter Ralegh. After a lengthy imprisonment in the Tower of London under James I, he was released to lead a disastrous expedition to Venezuela to find gold. But on his return to England, he was re-imprisoned in the Gate-House, perhaps because he was to be executed in the Old Palace Yard in Westminster.

Tradition has it that Ralegh wrote this poem shortly before he met his end on Oct. 29, 1618:
Verses Found in His Bible in the Gate House at Westminster 
"Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust."
 On the scaffold, Ralegh was shown the ax that would soon decapitate him and said, "This is a sharp medicine, but it is a physician for all diseases and miseries." Ralegh was buried in St. Margaret's Church nearby, and never moved.

Richard Lovelace

The next poet adventurer to be held at Westminster--but not, fortunately, beheaded--was Richard Lovelace, a wealthy knight's son who at the age of 13 became a "gentleman wayter extraordinary" to King Charles I. In his twenties, Lovelace was arrested for destroying a pro-parliamentary petition. During his several months' stay in the Gate-House, he is believed to have written his most famous poem:
To Althea, From Prison 
"Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my love,
and in my soul am free,
angels alone that soar above,
enjoy such liberty."
Ruined by his undaunted support of the royalist cause, Lovelace died in poverty in 1658, two years before the restoration of the monarchy in Charles II.

In the late 17th century, the two most famous prisoners were condemned to the Gate-House.

Jeffrey Hudson and the Queen,
by Anthony van Dyck

The first was court dwarf Sir Jeffrey Hudson. He was presented to Queen Henrietta Maria as a surprise when he was a child 18 inches tall: he emerged from a pie, dressed in armor. Hudson became a cherished member of the royal household and eventually traveled with the Queen to French exile. At some point, Hudson tired of insults about his size; responding to a taunt from the queen's master of horse, he entered a duel and shot his opponent in the head. He then fled France. Sometime later, Hudson was on a boat seized by Barbary pirates and it took him many years to escape and make his way to England. But this was now the time of Titus Oates, and Hudson was arrested for being a "Roman Catholick." He died in 1682, two years after being released from the Gate-House.

The last illustrious prisoner was the erudite Samuel Pepys, jailed in 1690. A longtime civil servant, wit and bibliophile, he kept a diary that is one of the leading records of the Restoration, the Anglo-Dutch War, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. A correspondent of Newton's, he also wrote about his personal problems--bladder problems, fights with his wife, squalid extramarital affairs--and his love of wine and theater. But he too fell afoul of anti-Catholic paranoia. He was suspected of being a Jacobite in secret contact with the exiled James II; because of his poor health, he was given bail.

In the 18th century, the occupants of the Westminster Gate-House were almost all debtors. In 1769, this article was published about the grim conditions to be found in Westminster:
"The Gate-House, near Westminster Abbey, is the jail whereunto those poor wretches, who cannot pay their small debts, are committed, for forty days, unless they do what is all too often impossible; namely, pay the debt sooner. Add to this, that these prisoners have no other maintenance but what they derive from charity...for strange as it is, yet true it is, that there is no provision by law for the subsistence of prisoners in this jail..."

A rendition that could be the Gate-House in its final dreary decades.

Charity for the prisoners was obtained by way of a box hanging from a pole forty feet long, let down by a chain, to those who wished to give. Even more incredibly, "gin and other spirits" were allowed into the Westminster Gate-House as freely as at the "public houses." The prison keeper or under keeper would go to the window and shout into the street, "Jackass! Jackass!" so that an employee of a public house would come to receive orders.

In the year 1776, as the question of freedom was raging across the ocean, the Westminster Gate-House also was liberated. The prison was closed, some say after a public campaign by the author Samuel Johnson who said "a building so offensive ought to be pulled down."

Dr. Johnson died eight years later and was buried at Westminster Abbey.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of mysteries, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, for sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and Spain.

The Crown was an Oprah pick: "The real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of murder, lust, conspiracy and betrayal."

Nancy's new novel is The Blue, a thriller set in the art and porcelain world of 18th century France and England.

For more information, please visit Nancy's website at

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Read My New Novel Serialized & For Free

I'm excited to share that my publisher, Endeavour Quill, has joined forces with The Pigeonhole, a global, interactive, online book club, to offer participants my new novel, The Blue, in serialized form, and for free!

Anyone who signs up will be able to read The Blue in segments--which they call staves--and I'll be checking in to chat with any readers along the way. 

It's interactive and innovative--and though, yes, I write books set in past centuries, I love to see new ideas and creative ways to support reading. Right now, participants are reading Jeffrey Archer's new novel. Before that, it was Ruth Ware, one of my faves. I'm honored to be in this company.

To check it out, go here

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Mary, Queen of Scots' Castle Prison, Rediscovered

Queen Elizabeth I kept her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, a prisoner in England for almost 20 years before finally ordering her execution in 1587.

The physical and psychological toll that years of imprisonment took on Mary are well known; the entire time she furiously protested that as an anointed queen of Scotland, she was not a subject of England and should be freed.

Mary in captivity, by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1578.

Now, thanks to an ambitious excavation and research project launched in the late summer of 2018, a virtual model has been created of one of Queen Mary's castle prisons in the 1500s.

Viewing it brings into focus Mary's daily existence as Elizabeth's rival and enemy for 14 years at Sheffield Castle, once one of northern England's most impressive castles but destroyed by Oliver Cromwell's parliamentarians in 1646.

Elizabeth I in her coronation robes, patterned with Tudor roses and trimmed with ermine

Ron Clayton, of the Friends of Sheffield Castle group, told The Guardian in August he was delighted that work finally got underway. “In its day, Sheffield castle overlooked the village of Sheffield. This has seen the thunder of war, the rattle of the drum, the blast of the cannon; people have been killed fighting to take possession of this castle,” he said.

“It’s a great day,” Clayton said. “This is going to give Sheffield a whole new identity in the 21st century.”

The new virtual model was developed by creative agency Human and by computer scientists from the University of Sheffield.

Sheffield ruins

Professor Dawn Hadley told the BBC: “Sheffield Castle was almost completely destroyed during the English Civil War and most of what does remain of its original structure has been hidden away from the public for hundreds of years.”

The large castle's remains were covered by an indoor market in the 1960s, but it closed five years ago.

The plan of Sheffield Castle in relation to current buildings. Photo by Gregory Deryckère CC BY 2.5

Professor Hadley said, “The castle and its history are largely unknown. But now we hope that with the creation of this augmented reality experience people will be able to see the castle in all of its glory and learn more about its fascinating history.”
Mary, Queen of Scots was confined at Sheffield Castle between 1570 and 1584, as the “guest” of one of Elizabeth's leading noblemen, the Earl of Shrewsbury.

During that period, Mary was waited on by her ladies, gentlemen, and servants and insisted on a cloth of state being mounted. It is clear that her imprisonment, all things considered, was a comparatively comfortable one.

Mary was driven out of her kingdom by an army led by her disaffected Scottish nobles.

She was accused of having been part of the murder conspiracy to eliminate her second husband, Henry, Lord Darnley. Some of the nobles who accused her had in reality been deeply involved in the murder of the widely hated Darnley, the father of James VI of Scotland and eventual James I of England. Mary's involvement in her husband's death has been hotly debated for centuries. His house was blown up with gunpowder, and he was found, strangled, near the smoking ruin.

Lord Darnley

Mary's hasty marriage to her third husband, the swaggering Earl of Bothwell, definitely one of the circle who killed Darnley, did nothing to support her claim of innocence.

After losing a battle in 1568, Mary decided to go south to seek support from her cousin, Elizabeth, in retaking Scotland. But to Protestant Elizabeth, the Catholic Mary had long been a focus of disaffected Catholics in her own kingdom, and she was reluctant to put her back on the throne.

Instead, Elizabeth cut a deal with the nobles and supported the reign of the very young James.
The Darnley Portrait

Plots were bubbling for years aimed at freeing Mary from Sheffield, with some of them ousting Elizabeth and putting Mary on the English throne. The Earl of Shrewsbury was often berated by Elizabeth for lax security measures, while he protested he did his best.

During her years at Sheffield, Mary's health deteriorated, caused by lack of exercise due to escape fears and the damp environment inside the castle walls. The queen suffered from severe rheumatism, arthritis, and “dropsy.”
Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, October 14–15, 1586.[/caption]

The Earl of Shrewsbury's high-tempered wife, Bess of Hardwick, volleyed between being friends with Mary, and joining her for daily gossip and embroidery, and accusing her husband of having an affair with the still-beautiful queen of Scotland. Such accusations were denied by both parties. As treasonous suspicions darkened around Mary, she was removed from Sheffield for castles with stricter security, and harsher jailers as well.

After a trial during which she claimed innocence, Mary was executed at Fotheringay Castle. The nervous headsman required three blows of the ax to sever her head. For a number of minutes, her lips still moved, traumatizing the noblemen who witnessed her death, including the earl of Shrewsbury, who burst into tears.

It is a death that centuries later affects us still. 


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy set in Tudor England, The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, available in nine countries.

Her new historical novel, The Blue, is a thriller set in the 18th century world of art and porcelain.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

'The Blue' on Pre-Order for Special Discount

Some great things are happening :)

The Blue, my fourth novel, goes on sale on December 3, 2018. But it can be pre-ordered now! Only the ebook is available for advance orders now, the paperback will be offered next week.

For my US friends, you can get The Blue ebook for $2.99, the publisher's special price, today. Click here.

If you want to preorder the paperback now, you can get it through Book Depository. Click  here.

For my UK readers, order the ebook or paperback here.

Also, some great advance reviews rolling in:

Nancy Bilyeau's passion for history infuses her books’ – Alison Weir

'With rich writing, surprising twists, and a riveting sense of 'you are there,' The Blue is spine-tingling entertainment.' – Gayle Lynds, New York Times bestselling author of The Assassins

‘...transports the reader into the heart of the 18th century porcelain trade—where the price of beauty was death.’ - E.M. Powell, author of the Stanton & Barling medieval mystery series. 

Thank you!


Saturday, September 22, 2018

Evidence Found of a Centuries' Old Scottish Feud

There are feuds, and then there are feuds.

The conflicts between clans in 16th and 17th century Scotland are famous, and one that raged between the Campbell family and the MacDonald family was particularly unrelenting.

Now a seal owned by one of the clan leaders, Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, has come to light. It was buried beneath mounds of rubble at Dunyvaig Castle on Islay, where the clans fought.

Islay is the southernmost of the Inner Hebrides islands, off the west coast of Scotland, and is celebrated today for its whisky. In fact, Islay is known as “The Queen of the Hebrides” and celebrated as the reigning monarch of a typically smoky, peaty style of single malt whisky. Its 17th century history was considerably more tumultuous.

The artifact that attests to the conflict was described as “remarkable” and “extremely rare” by archaeologists.

Once used to sign and seal charters and documents, the seal is a disc of lead that carries the inscription “Ioannis Campbell de Calder.”  (Calder was the original spelling of Cawdor). It carries the Cawdor coat of arms with a galley ship and a stag and is dated 1593.

The Campbells and the MacDonald’s fought over Dunyvaig in the early 17th century, with a series of sieges of the castle until the Campbells won. Sir John took ownership of Islay in 1615.

A field school student has unearthed the seal of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor, a leader of the Campbell clan. Photo by Islay Heritage and the University of Reading

Losing the castle was a bitter blow for the MacDonalds. The castle was once the naval fortress of the Lords of the Isles, the chiefs of the clan MacDonald. Most of the castle remains are from the 16th century but the foundations are believed to be centuries older.

The seal was found by a field student during an excavation of the castle being carried out by Islay Heritage and the University of Reading. According to the BBC, University of Reading student Zoë Wiacek, who found the seal, said everyone on the dig became excited when it was uncovered.

She said: “I removed a piece of rubble and it was just sitting there on the ground. I immediately knew it was an important find, but had no idea what it was. I called over my trench supervisor, and when it was lifted, the soil fell away to show the inscription.”

The clan feud was a bitter one and long lasting, with much blood spilled.

The website Memories of Scotland says, “Memories run long in the highlands of Scotland and, we've heard tell, the bitterness between Clans Campbell and MacDonald continues to this day. The clash between these two ancient Celtic houses, which has lasted for hundreds of years, is not just about lands, religion, Jacobitism, or even betrayal. Rather, it is about power.”

In 1344, the chief of the MacDonalds began to style himself “Lord of the Isles.” Each of the succeeding Lords of the Isles rebelled against their Stewart king, often in coordination with the English kings.
Dunyvaig Castle, Islay, Scotland. Seen from northeast. Photo by Otter CC BY-SA 3.0

Said Memories of Scotland, “They sought an independent Highland kingdom and bitterly resented paying fealty to lowland Scots. They had been kings and wished to be kings still. Yet, they were completely unsuccessful and there were only four acknowledged Lords of the Isles.”

The Campbells, however, sought power in Scotland while cooperating with the Stewart kings, and they were the ones who tried to take down the MacDonalds.

“The Campbell lands lie in Argyll. By the 16th century, the chiefs were Earls of Argyll, and these days (and for some time past) there has been a Duke of Argyll, the 9th of whom married a daughter of Queen Victoria.”

As the clan with the muscle in that part of Scotland, the Campbells were all too ready to besiege the castle on Islay and try to dislodge the MacDonalds. After they won, there was of course considerable bitterness.

The most notorious chapter in the clans' feud was the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692. The Campbells, now loyal to the British Crown, held by William of Orange, instead of the Stuarts and their Jacobite cause, initiated an underhand and savage attack against the MacDonalds. Their soldiers killed the chief of the clan, 33 other men, two women, and two children.

The massacre took place after the Campbells and their followers were welcomed by the MacDonalds for two weeks of Celtic hospitality. The Campbells had pretended to come as friends. But in the dark early morning of February 13, 1692, the guests slaughtered their unarmed hosts, not even sparing the children.

The horror of the Glencoe Massacre is thought to have inspired George R. R. Martin in his “Red Wedding” section of Game of Thrones, in which one family is wiped out under the guise of hospitality.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the 18th century-set novel 'The Blue,' featuring a Huguenot artist who goes undercover to spy in a porcelain factory. The novel was published on Dec. 3, 2018, in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada. Publishers Weekly said, "Historical fans will be well satisfied."