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Monday, 16 July 2012

Tracing the Tudors - Jenny Barden Talks at the RNA Conference

Apologies to Jenny for the slightly blurry photograph, caused by my over excitement at seeing a real pistol! I was lucky enough to hear Jenny Barden talk about how she researched her new Tudor novel, Mistress of the Sea at the Romantic Novelists Association Conference in Penrith.
Jenny's book features Sir Francis Drake, and she told us how his illustrious career actually began with a disaster at San Juan de Ulua, and that he spent years seeking revenge, "Vengeance is always a good theme," she said.

In tracing the real events surrounding the sinking of the English flagship at San Juan de Ulua
she showed us how she traced the story from modern historians colourful accounts, back to the almost contemporary reports, and from there even further back to the original source. Often the amount of material can be overwhelming for a novelist embarking on this sort of research, but as Jenny said, "Fear not and relax. The only things that matter are the primary sources." She then explained that the original account from the ship had been burnt in a later fire and that the account had been reconstructed from the fragments. This was demonstrated by slides on the screen.

Original sources can disagree about events, depending on which side they are on, but Jenny said she enjoys building a story around the parts where sources disagree. 

Visits to real places are a large part of Jenny's research, such as to tall-ships to see how cramped the spaces are on board ship, and a trip to the islands where Drake sailed. In Mistress of the Sea the character of Drake is drawn by the opinions of those around him, and Jenny told us that the evidence showed he could be both compassionate and ruthless - for example he was outraged at the mortal wounding of a black messenger following his attack on Santo Domingo and had two friars hanged in retaliation.

Jenny treated us to slides from her research visits, showing us the mule tracks and mangrove swamps where Drake would have walked.  Her talk included showing us the  pistol (see the picture) along with a ruff and a boned bodice of the time, which Henri Gyland dutifully put on - sorry,  I forgot to take a picture. We were also treated to the waft of rosemary, the sound of Thomas Tallis's music, and were allowed to handle a 16th century key - all to give us a flavour of the past. These little touches - to feel, smell, hear the past, brought the period more vividly to life.  Jenny has a reconstruction of an Elizabethan musket on order, and she tells me she's looking forward to being able to show a proper 'caliver' in future talks.

Questions from the floor enabled Jenny to talk more about her cross-dressing heroine, Ellyn, who stows away on Drake's ship the Swan. For those interested in more nautical tales of cross-dressing heroines you might like to check out Linda Collison's blog.

For an hour's  talk Jenny managed to cram an awful lot in, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I've always been a sucker for the romance of the sea, so I'm really looking forward to the book, which will be published by Ebury Press 30th August 2012. More about Jenny Barden and her research process can be found here

More about the Romantic Novelist's Association here

Jenny is organising the Historical Novel Society Conference in London in September, more about that here.

Mistress of the Sea
Plymouth 1570; Ellyn Cooksley fears for her elderly father's health when he declares his intention to sail with Drake on an expedition he has been backing. Already yearning for escape from the loveless marriage planned for her, Ellyn boards the expedition ship as a stowaway. 

Also aboard the Swan is Will Doonan, Ellyn's charming but socially inferior neighbour. Will has courted Ellyn playfully without any real hope of winning her, but when she is discovered aboard ship, dressed in the garb of a cabin boy, he is furious. 

To Will's mind, Drake's secret plot to attack the Spanish bullion supply in the New World is a means to the kind of wealth with which he might win a girl like Ellyn, but first and foremost it is an opportunity to avenge his brother Kit, taken hostage and likely tortured to death by the Spanish. For the sake of the mission he supports Drake's plan to abandon Ellyn and her father on an island in the Caribbean until their mission is completed. But will love prove more important than revenge or gold?

Pre-order the book

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Eleanor Crosses - More Miniature Gothic Cathedrals

Waltham Cross by Greig 1803
I was doing some research into market crosses for a novel I am working on, when I came across these - the so-called Eleanor Crosses, in their  time probably the most elaborate wayside crosses in England.

In 1290 Queen Eleanor of Castile, to whom Edward I was devoted, died at Harby in Nottinghamshire. The king directed that crosses should be set up at every station at which the funeral procession would stop on the way to Westminster.

At Westminster she was buried at the feet of her father-in-law Henry III. Although some of her internal organs had been removed for burial at Lincoln during the enbalming process, her heart travelled with her and was buried in the abbey church at Blackfriars, London.

Geddington Cross
The processional route went through Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans,Waltham and London (St Paul's) before Charing village and Westminster - twelve stations in all. At every halt, the office for the dead was celebrated.

Of the twelve crosses, only three remain today - the ones at Geddington, Northampton and Waltham. All are three-storied with tall spires and gothic tracery. On the second level is a a niche, occupied by a statue of Eleanor. Geddington Cross is triangular and almost forty feet high, whereas Northampton's Cross is octagonal.

Northampton Cross has four statues of Queen Eleanor, and this cross commemorates Eleanor's resting at nearby Delapre Abbey. King Edward I stayed at Northampton Castle nearby. The cross was begun in 1291 by John of Battle; he worked with William of Ireland to carve the statues; William was paid five marks (£3 6s. 8d. or £3.33 in old English money) per figure.

The cross is set on steps, which are not original. The cross is built in three tiers and originally had something on top - probably a cross.

Daniel Defoe refers to it where he reports on the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675:
"... a townsman being at Queen's Cross upon a hill on the south side of the town, about two miles off, saw the fire at one end of the town then newly begun, and that before he could get to the town it was burning at the remotest end, opposite where he first saw it."

Its bottom tier features open books. These probably included painted inscriptions of Eleanor's biography and of prayers for her soul to be said by viewers, which are now lost.
Cheapside Cross

As for the vanished crosses, Cheapside Cross probably has the most colourful and telling history. It featured in the pageant held  to celebrate the birth of Edward III, where a tent was set before it where anyone who passed might drink from a tun of wine. It was rebuilt in 1486 with the statues of the Queen replaced with statues of the Saints and the Virgin Mary, but in 1600 with the advent of anti-Catholic feeling,  Mary was replaced by a statue of a half-naked Diana. Later in May 1643 John Evelyn records in his diary how he saw a furious Puritan mob destroy this cross altogether.

The Puritan destruction of the market crosses is what made me first interested in them, as they seem to be sites of significance to so many. My other article about Market Crosses can be found at

Find out more:
Wikipedia article.
Thanks to
Nicolas Pevsner