history, new books, politics, ponderations, present, religious ponderations, romance, women

The Tudors are SO 2015. This? Is Where It’s All Happening

But the Tudor era is a period of lust, of intrigue and sexy debauchery and passion and jealousy and desire and excellent dresses…. so why don’t I write about the Tudors?

It’s a funny one. I mean, it’d be easier if I did. I’d be riding on the coat tails of Philippa Gregory and Anya Seton and Hilary Mantel – and everybody knows about Henry VIII and his convoluted love-life, and Elizabeth (and Essex….maybe) and her even more convoluted and intriguing passions. The fashions are gorgeous, the TV producers and the film producers are crying out for bodices to rip open and breeches to undo: why, in the name of creation, am I writing about a period mostly known for its unflattering fashions and spawning the man who coined the term “warts and all”?

And I guess the answer is – because I find principle sexier than unprinciple.

I’m fascinated, intrigued, and ultimately repelled by the English Civil Wars – a war without an enemy, as the Parliamentarian commander William Waller wrote in 1643 to his friend the Royalist commander Ralph Hopton. “We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy, let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities“.
I think it’s interesting that many people’s perception of the protagonists now is that the King’s supporters were fun-loving, free-spirited party animals who loved wine, women and song – 17th century rock stars, in effect – whilst Parliament’s were dour, short-haired, joyless and worthy.
It’s cobblers, of course – both sides had men of fire and honour, as committed to their cause as each other.
And to me, that’s considerably more appealing than a fat old guy with a bad temper and a gammy leg, a sexual predator who abused his power to bribe, flatter and coerce women into his bed and whose politics were – allegedly – based in his codpiece.

I think we love the idea of the Tudors because they’re so marvellously larger than life, an almost Machiavellian world of political treachery and intrigue apparently centred on a thing we all understand – sex. We “get” desire, and jealousy, and love-conquers-all; we understand, we sympathise with, a world where a man-monster is a figure of terror as well as desire – almost the ultimate Christian Grey, the sexy uber-CEO who manipulates as well as seduces.
And maybe the idea of a quieter passion isn’t so flamboyant. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms don’t inflame the public imagination the same way because there is, simply, no sex involved. Oliver Cromwell looked like a potato. (Elizabeth must have seen something worth the having in him, because they had a long and happy marriage and a number of children.) Thomas Fairfax was married to the somewhat volatile Anne for twenty-seven years, and praised her lack of beauty as a virtue in his – somewhat dodgy – poetry. Charles and Henrietta Maria were uxorious enough that she went over to Europe, sold her jewellery, and raised troops for him. Rupert – well, Rupert never married, so let’s not mention Rupert’s love life. (Suffice it to say it was varied and active.)

It’s not that women were not strong, involved, characters in their own right. Why should Brilliana Harley, sending the family plate to safety in boxes marked up as “Cake” to avoid detection by Royalist troops, be any less appealing that poor hapless Anne Boleyn?
Or if your taste runs towards tragic romantic heroines, Bridget Cromwell, travelling across a war-torn country to marry her scarred hero Henry Ireton under siege in Oxford, only to be widowed so short a time later?
Or the King’s spymistress, Jane Horwood, intelligencing for him and loving him at one and the same time? (Oh, I hope she had some happiness with him, even if his letters to her portray their liaison as more pragmatic than romantic. Her husband was such a vile, abusive, violent piece of work, I do hope that Jane found love, after a fashion, with Charles – someone who was decent, and honourable, and treated her with courtesy. Not my type, but then what do I know? I’m a Fairfax girl…)

So many stories, and so much passion – but for the spirit, not for the body. For a cause, for a thing which people – both Royalist and Parliamentarian – believed in with, literally, the last drop of their heart’s blood.

And as for the fashions? Quite like the Elizabeth of Bohemia look, myself.

Babbitt, Het, history, Mrs Cromwell, ponderations, present, religious ponderations, women

A Little Commonwealth – some thoughts on romantic fiction

I hate genre romantic fiction and I can’t write it
There, it’s said. I joke about it but I was once signed off work for a month with whiplash, and amused myself by reading the entire canon of A N Other writer of Regency romance. (Who will remain nameless.) The first one, I thought, what a hoot, fluff, frolics and frocks. The second one I was starting to know what was coming. By the third one I was actually rather scared.
See – and this is me being serious – though a straight down the line Dissenter and thoroughgoing Independent, with (dare I say) atheistic leanings, I am increasingly inclined to agree with the Puritans’ view of marriage, to wit, it’s all about companionship and affection and mutual respect. Genesis 2:18 – And the LordGod said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. Since sexual intimacy in marriage was part of God’s plan for man before the Fall, it could not be less so following the Fall, and therefore sex within the confines of a loving relationship was not the ultimate transgression that caused man’s expulsion from the Eden.
And this book – these books – portrayed relationships about as far from companionable, equable, loving marriages as my cats are from bars of chocolate. Brave, feisty, innocent heroine meets arrogant, tortured, handsome hero with a dark past. Misunderstanding in which hero thinks heroine is more experienced than she is and treats her with sexual contempt. Heroine falls in love with this pillock in spite of the fact that she is fully well aware that he’s a toe-rag. Misunderstanding upon misunderstanding, at the end of which tragedy of errors even hero realises that he’s a bloody idiot, does the decent thing and falls in love with the heroine. The End.
That appalled me. Because there is a whole genre of these books, these peddlings of the Cinderella myth – that love is all about passion conquering all, that sexual desire is the be-all and end-all of a relationship, that a man (and it’s almost always a man, as if, poor things, they are little better than beasts driven at the mercy of what my mother discreetly used to call their “urges”…) if he really loves a woman should be made unreasoning by violent passion.
I think I can safely say that my Hollie desires his wife. (Makes no secret of it, the libidinous creature, but then after several months apart, she rather misses having her bed warmed by that lolloping great object as well.) Would he ever be driven to lay ungentle hands on her, shout at her, abuse her in a jealous rage? Would he bloody hell as like. I think – I hope– that there has never been any dramatic will-they won’t-they tension about the relationship of Het Sutcliffe-as-was and her gallant captain. They meet. They like each other. After a while, they love each other. And isn’t it that way for most of us? We meet someone, we like them, one day we wake up and realise that we love them, want to spend the rest of our lives with them. We don’t want to hurt them, or frighten them, or control them, or humiliate them.
And yet we encourage our fictional heroes to be emotionally retarded – to be abusive. To commit acts of sexual violence on women. The number of “forced” kisses and torn gowns I’ve come across in that certain genre, defies belief. It’s a funny thing, but I’m in a line of business where I work with victims of crime. Dealing with a young man at the moment who’s come my way because he “forced” himself on a girl. He didn’t rape her, didn’t hurt her physically, but frightened her and distressed her: he touched her in places she did not want to be touched. In certain books, if he’d been a strong, silent alpha-male, that would be her fault, you see – that the strength of his desire was such that he just had to have her. That she encouraged him, led him on. It’s a compliment, girls. Did you not know that you only have to leave the house for those poor lust-maddened menfolk to be tearing at your clothes, such is the power of your womanhood?
That’s not emancipation, that’s just tricking out an old whore in new paint, and calling it escapism. And life throws up enough intrigue and uncertainty, without a need to invent some more.
I leave you with a quote from the 1598 “Godly Form of Household Government”, by Robert Cleaver –
“Matrimony, is a lawful knot, and unto God an acceptable yoking and joining together of one man, and one woman, with the good consent of them both: to the end that they may dwell together in friendship and honesty, one helping and comforting the other, eschewing whoredom, and all uncleanness, bringing up their children in the fear of God: or it is a coupling together of two persons into one flesh, not to be broken, according unto the ordinance of God: so to continue during the life of either of them.”
Take out the religious references, if you like. But – to dwell together in friendship and honesty, one helping and comforting the other?
In all honesty, can you see Christian Grey and Anastasia in twenty years’ time, one helping and comforting the other?
Because I’m damned if I can. 
Het, history, Mrs Cromwell, religious ponderations, society, women

Kitty, My Rib – the story of Katie von Bora

Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn’t have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.

There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like – but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient…. right?
Well – some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant’s daughters – and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction – convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther – a man she had presumably never met formally in her life – and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn’t take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum – sorry, Martin, the only man I’m taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms – he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she’d have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it’s not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years – not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she’d been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that “It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace,” – she probably didn’t mind too much.

Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora – the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.

free stories, history, new books, politics, religious ponderations, Russell, Uncategorized

A Cloak of Zeal – preview

A sneak peek at the novella due out at the end of this month. Set in the summer of 1642, with a family split by more than just politics and religion….

He wasn’t paying very particular attention. He was looking at his neatly folded hands on the scrubbed white tablecloth, and thinking how black his bruised knuckles looked against the linen, and how much he hoped she wouldn’t notice. And that his cuffs were wet, and he hadn’t managed to scrub all the spatters of blood from Symonds’ nose completely out of the linen.
Far off at the top of the stairs, he heard the familiar buzzing whirr as the longcase clock wound itself up to strike the hour, and thought, with a deep sense of resignation, that Roger Coventry had been going for a good half hour already and was like to go for another. Without looking up, he let his mind wander on its customary idle conjecture, imagining his stiff, righteous sister in bed with her appalling husband, the pair of them laid side by side like a pair of marble statues on a tomb, their nightcapped heads rigid on identical stony pillows. What exactly Fly-Fornication and Roger Coventry – and he could never think of his brother-in-law as either Roger or Master Coventry, but by his full name, all run together, Rogercoventry – might say to each other, in the privacy of their chamber. His imagination had never stretched that far, but whatever it was, it had not run to the engendering of children, in five years of marriage.
It was an odd thing. Of his many besetting sins, Thankful Russell did not consider false modesty as one. He was not ill-looking: he was tall and as lithe of build as a sight-hound, with long, thick, pale hair that he wore plainly tied back in a tail at the nape of his neck. His limbs were straight, he did not have a crook-back, or a limp. He had, he flattered himself, a not unhandsome face: high, wide cheekbones, a straight nose, neither too long nor too short; dark eyes that contrasted vividly with his barley-blonde hair and fair skin.
Thankful Russell had been described as beautiful, before now. (Though it had been dark, and she had been three parts drunk at the time, and he had been under her petticoats. Regardless. She’d called him beautiful.) His sister Fly-Fornication had the same build, though on her, it was as lean and comfortless as one of the Egyptian kine in Pharaoh’s dream. Her fair hair was lank and stringy, yanked back from her face and confined under a starched plain white cap. Her eyes were as dark and wide-set as his own, but without any leaven of humour, or kindness, or wit. Afire with zeal, for sure, but he couldn’t imagine Fly as afire for Roger Coventry.
She was looking down the table at him, and Roger Coventry was winding to a confused halt partway through his grace. Fly even unmanned her husband, a man she confidently described as an upright member of the Lord’s Elect. (Thankful would concur with that description. Roger Coventry was, indeed, a prick.)
“Your devotions, sir!” she said, glowering. “You fail to attend!”
“On the contrary, good sister. I am present.” Over twelve years of her sole care, he had grown quick in verbal ambiguity.
Tonight, though, she was having none of it. Tonight her little brother was the worst of miserable sinners, destined to burn for eternity unless he turned to the Lord’s grace and repented his sins. It had frightened him, badly, as a little boy. He had been very, very afraid of the fires of hell. She was fifteen years older than he was and when their mother had died, Fly had taken her duties very seriously. She had held his chubby little five-year-old hand in the kitchen fire until he screamed and told him, very earnestly, that if he was a sinner, he would feel that for all eternity. He’d believed it, too. He had been an unnaturally dutiful little boy, haunted by the twin ghosts of hellfire and the lack of his mother’s love. Had thought that Fly did not love him because he was naughty – because he sinned, even when he didn’t mean to – and that if he was a good boy, she might love him, and then he might be happy, and she might not make him afraid and hurt him. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but he made her angry, because he was bad, and then she had to punish him to make him good again.
And then Fly had married, at the advanced age of thirty, and it hit Thankful like a bolt of lightning that it was nothing to do with his presumably innate wickedness that made his sister so utterly cold towards him. Fly-Fornication did not love anyone, apart from possibly her own image of God, who was as righteous and unforgiving as she was herself. She didn’t love her little brother, and she never would, and there was nothing he could do about it. She didn’t love her stocky, stolid husband – but as he didn’t seem to love her either, there would be no tears shed on that front. (Two identically night-capped heads, staring upwards on a stony pillow, unspeaking.) The Lord be praised Master and Mistress Coventry had never produced children, to continue the unloving. Fly didn’t hate Thankful. He was nothing to her, a blot on a copybook, to be fiercely erased and redrawn over and over until he was as perfect and featureless a copy of God’s little template as she thought she was herself.
He looked back at Fly’s gaunt face, her mouth moving although he wasn’t listening. Thinking of the difference between his sister, who was allegedly female, and Phoebe – whose name was probably Betty, or Joan, but Symonds called her Phoebe when he was drunk, for her rosy-gilt hair. Phoebe was soft and warm and the folds of her skirts smelled of spilled ale and sex. Phoebe liked Thankful. It hadn’t been her that had called him beautiful – he couldn’t remember her name, it had been a while ago – but she liked to sit with his arm round her shoulders in the White Hart in Great Missenden, close to him, with her back against his flank and his hand just under the edge of her bodice, resting on the warm flesh of her breast. He’d acquired some facility at eating and drinking left-handed, though he had not yet learned to play the fiddle with his left hand only. He wouldn’t call Phoebe his girl, exactly. He thought it might have been that which Symonds had objected to. Symonds wanted her, and she wanted Thankful, and Thankful had been more than half-drunk and feeling generous and said if Symonds wanted the wench he could have her, it didn’t bother him greatly, and Phoebe had gone off sobbing. Symonds had took exception to it and it had all gone downhill from there, really. He had ended up in bed with Phoebe, because it was that or go home, but he’d been more irritable than amorous. He liked her, she was warm and funny and generous, but truly, out of bed the girl was as thick as pig-shit and she bored him senseless. She was kind, though.
“And the stink of sin follows you,” she finished malevolently, and he raised his eyebrows politely.
“Indeed, madam?”
“You reek of whores, you filthy, unclean – abomination!”
“Indeed.” In his head, he lowered his lashes with a glance of withering contempt and applied himself to his supper, ignoring her spittle-sodden ranting. In the hall of the house at Four Ashes, he felt the old familiar hot, tight feeling under his collar, and he slammed his chair back and tossed his head and said, “And I imagine you should know, dear sister, as your dear husband doubtless seeks out the cheapest sluts in Buckinghamshire rather than frequent your cold bed.”
“See the mark of Cain, there!” Fly shrieked jubilantly. “On his throat!”
“That’s a kiss mark, you witless bitch!” he yelled back at her, and Roger Coventry rose to his feet, spluttering. Ordering Thankful out of his own house. He reminded her of that fact. It was his house. He was the last of the Russells of Four Ashes. If he chose to turn her out onto the streets he could do so –
The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly. He could match her, text for text, and the little, cool part of his mind wondered if he’d drive her to an apoplexy, if he kept it up. He felt a little warm glow of satisfaction that fifteen years of punishment had given him that much vengeance. Hours of confinement with no company but his Bible till he had learned his verses to her satisfaction – cold and dark and frightened and hungry, with his head aching because it was too dark to see the words on the page, but not lonely, because if he’d ever known how to be lonely he’d had that broken out of him, and he was now what his sister had made him.
Occasionally, the Lord put words into Thankful’s mouth, and he was possessed by the Spirit. Cool, now, calm, he sat down again and bowed his head over his plate and said quietly, “But of course you may remain, good sister, in all charity. I have volunteered myself in Sir John Hampden’s regiment this very day, to take arms to defend our liberties against His Majesty’s persecutions.”
She was silent, choked off as effectively as a noose. “We have the honourable task of guarding the Train of Artillery,” he went on. “I shall be leaving to take up my commission as soon as may be.”
history, Naseby, politics, religious ponderations, Russell

Can. Of. Worms.

In the current climate – political, not wet and windy – thoughts of religious extremism and godly whackjobs are much in my mind (and not, for once, in the shapely form of Thankful Russell), and so I’m presently working on the fourth book, the as-yet-untitled Naseby campaign.

– As an aside, this book will be dedicated to Charlie Hebdo. I may be the clanky side of Ironside, but there were certain actions by the New Model that even I find hard to defend. The massacre of over a hundred Welsh and Irish Royalist camp followers for their perceived godless “otherness” has, for me, rather frightening parallels with our present situation. Oh, Fairfax, Fairfax, what were you thinking?

I have just requested a copy of Mark Stoyle’s academic article “The Road to Farndon Field: explaining the massacre of the Royalist camp followers”, and likewise an article called “Mark’d for Whores – Violence against female camp followers in the English Civil War” by S. O’Brien.
The abstract of O’Brien’s paper is fascinating:
“… This paper will contend that this process of demonisation was part of what Diane Purkiss has described as the gendered discourse of the English Civil Wars. The particular targets of this gendered rhetoric: whores, Celtic women, men whose masculinity was questioned, and witches, became an important dimension to Civil War propaganda; they exemplified fears that natural order had been corrupted. In particular female camp followers, in spite of the wide variety of women who followed early modern armies, were often stereotyped as immoral, and they were assaulted and murdered for their immorality or dangerous femininity. This paper will examine the way in which these accounts were both influenced by and described in newsbooks and pamphlets, and how the gendered language of witchcraft accusations was used to denigrate or demonise both men and women. This rhetoric itself reinforced particular stereotypes of femininity and masculinity in an attempt to restore order in the disorder of the civil war. Violence against women, and men, who were perceived to directly challenge these ‘purified’ gender norms, in and around Civil War battlefields can be seen as a physical attempt to enforce order upon their bodies through mutilation, murder and desecration.”

Gender. Religion. Witchcraft. Sex. Violence. Murder.

Dear God, and they say the 17th century just isn’t interesting enough to a modern audience.