Last August I was struggling with an inner dilemma that not-too-surprisingly corresponded with the arrival of an outer storm, Hurricane Dorian, that we had to deal with here in Florida.
Although author Nancy Blanton may not be a household name yet, after reading her intriguing novel The Earl in Black Armor we think that may very well change in the near future. As we said in our review, reading the novel “is like sitting in the best history class in college.” So of course, like any apt pupil, we had a few questions to ask. We hope you enjoy this insightful Q&A into her work. —J&H
Jathan & Heather: Thomas Wentworth wears high quality black armor to resemble the king’s own suit. As formidable as the armor is, however, it is also painful for him to wear because of his gout. (Page 44) Why was it important for him to keep it on and what treatments might he have sought for his malady back in 1635?
Nancy Blanton: In the court of King Charles I—and well before it—dress was a means of identity, a statement of wealth, power, and nobility. Wentworth’s family had great wealth, but his deepest desire was to achieve the noble title. In the absence of it, to dress like the king made him appear to be in the king’s favor, hopefully bringing greater status. In Dublin, Wentworth wanted to present himself to his troops as a man of tremendous power, commanding obedience and respect. Wentworth’s suit of armor, along with his plumed helmet, likely weighed more than 100 pounds, requiring twice the normal energy to move about and putting much greater strain on his feet and ankles. To fully impress his troops, he was willing to bear the temporary pain. He didn’t realize that in Ireland, where the troops had little more than the shirts on their backs, he succeeded in generating resentment instead.
In his day, physicians still believed in the theory passed down from Hippocrates in the fifth century, that the body was ruled by the four humours—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. (They also still believed the sun revolved around the earth.) Gout was caused, they determined, by a settling of phlegm in the joints as the result of overindulgence in food, wine and sex. The treatments varied. A century earlier, Wentworth might have been served roasted goose stuffed with “chopped kittens, lard, incense, wax and flour of rye” while the drippings were applied directly to his swollen joints. Instead, his doctors would have bled and purged him as a means to restore his humoral balance. They might have wrapped his affected areas with poultices of horseradish and ground elder. Some of Wentworth’s contemporaries preferred to take no treatment, believing gout was incompatible with other diseases and thereby kept them away, and also that it gave them greater sexual prowess because it preserved the energies they might otherwise have used in exercise.
J&H: Wentworth is heavily reliant on Denisa to manage both his household and business, in Ireland and in London. (Page 112) Was this level of responsibility typical for women of her day? If not, what made her equipped to do so? And what was it about Denisa that you found most compelling?
NB: In most cases, women of the 17 th century had only the traditional women’s jobs such as cooking,sewing, washing, spinning, butter and cheese making, child care, nursing and helping on the farms by milking cows, weeding, binding sheaves and feeding poultry and pigs. In Ireland, women contributed significantly to the economy by spinning wool and linen yarn for export. But clearly these were not jobs for a woman like Denisa. She’d had enough of a peasant’s life after she saw the village of her childhood burned gleefully by soldiers. She became a woman who would do anything to survive and to protect her child, and deal with the consequences later. She is smart and beguiling, and uses both traits to find paying positions by pretending to be what she is not.
Denisa is purely a fictional character, but quite plausible for the way she enters Wentworth’s sphere. Wentworth liked women, and liked to be seen as the masculine hero. By the time he and Denisa would have met, he had married his third wife and was carrying on a “platonic” love affair with the Countess of Carlisle in London, to whom he played the tender but powerful male protector. He assumes a similar role with Denisa, but also keeps her ‘in her place’ by using her as window dressing and entertainment during his work day, calling on her to serve wine to his guests and assist him with his infirmities, and then toying with her as he allows her to open his mail. I knew what Denisa was going to do in this book before I started the first chapter. I love her because she is fearful, but she is fierce.
J&H: Outside the walls of Dublin, Faolán meets the young boy Henry for the first time. (Page 169) Why was it such a risk for them to meet under such circumstances and what dangers lurked beyond the city walls? Also, what was the age of maturity for children during this period in Irish history and what role did minor children play in society?
NB: The walls of Dublin have existed since the Vikings built earthen and wooden structures to protect their settlement from invaders. Later with the Norman Invasion, the wood was replaced by stone and the walls were fortified and expanded, because the growing settlement still needed such protection against any bad element, including rebellious Irish. Although there was crime within the city walls, you might expect some protection from the guards, from your neighbors, or from the local enforcement of English law. But the English continued to expand into Ireland’s greener pastures, and more Irish were displaced. Outside of the walls you were exposed and more likely to encounter desperate refugees, petty thieves, gangs of highwaymen, or much worse.
Henry, Denisa’ son, would have been about six years old at this encounter, and likely had just ‘breeched,’ or moved from a child’s gown or robes into a man’s garments in miniature. In normal circumstances, he would begin to spend more time with his working father, instead of being at home at his mother’s skirts. Boys would go to school shortly thereafter, or if they did not, they would be expected to go to work by age 10 or 12. A girl could be wed at age 12, but a boy was expected to learn more, and might wed at age 14. In Henry’s case, he was a gifted child whose peculiar behavior frightened some people. Denisa kept him hidden, fearing someone might insist he be removed to an unsanitary and inhumane mental institution where he might be abused, chained to a wall and/or starved to death.
J&H: Elvy tells her father, Aengus, a fabulous story filled with unicorns and faeries. (Page 246) What role does storytelling have in Irish history, and why is much of it filled with fantastic creatures? What is one of your favorite Irish stories that you encountered while researching your novel?
NB: Ireland is of course famous for its storytelling, particularly through music and poetry, by bards—poets or lyricists who help to preserve tradition through oral histories. Such traditions go back thousands of years, though much of it was forced underground by invading forces and English colonization. The fantastic creatures give the stories their charm. You’ll find them in probably every society’s myths and legends, I suppose because as with any type of literature, storytellers needed to grab their audience’s attention, and because children love outrageous things.
My favorite stories of this sort come from Irish mythology. Having a soft place in my heart for dogs, I love Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes called Finn MacCool), the celebrated Irish warrior, and his two dogs Bran and Sceolan. The stories are complex and sometimes full of words hard for an American girl to read, but they are fanciful and delightful, and the dogs are so smart, sensitive and loyal, as all good dogs are.
J&H: You provide us with a wonderfully descriptive introduction to John Pym (Page 322). How did you find such vivid details about him, or about any of your characters in that regard? And what are one or two of the most memorable anecdotes you discovered while writing The Earl in Black Armor?
NB: In Pym’s case it was mostly handed to me. The research made clear what he had done in Parliament, and his relentless drive against Wentworth. Pairing that to his portrait which is easy enough to find via an Internet search, I simply told the truth as I saw it. His contemporaries did indeed call Pym ‘Ox,’ because after his wife passed away he paid little attention to his cleanliness and appearance. Granted, he was my villain, and by the time I got to describing him my opinion was certainly tainted. Add to that, I was writing from Denisa’s very strong point of view. Now that I read it again, I’m not sure where I got the ‘yellowed overbite and one rather aggressive cutting tooth,’ but I do like it!
Some striking anecdotes that did not make it into the book were about Wentworth’s friend, Christopher Wandesford, and about King Charles’s father, King James I.
Wandesford had been Wentworth’s childhood friend and accompanied him to his Ireland post in an administrative role. When Wentworth was away in London, Wandesford stepped up as Lord Deputy, but his health was failing and, when he learned Wentworth was imprisoned, it took a turn for the worse. His physicians treated him by cutting a pigeon in half and strapping one half to each foot. Apparently, this treatment failed, for Wandesford died within a few feverish days.
King James I is responsible for instilling in his son Charles his strict demand for a clean, mannerly and orderly court. James, who bathed only once a year, was rather crude having grown up in Scotland where even palace life was more rugged and wild. The story is that, as king of England, James loved to go stag hunting on horseback, but he could not be convinced to stop long enough to relieve himself. Instead he would defecate in the saddle and dismount only after a kill, at which time he would warm his hands and sometimes his feet in the blood of the animal. I’m sure he was quite a sight when he arrived back at the palace.
And so I leave you with these vivid pictures, I hope more entertained than disgusted!
ABOUT THE BOOK
LOYALTY, BETRAYAL, HONOR AND TYRANNY IN THE REIGN OF KING CHARLES IIRELAND, 1635: When the clan leader sends Faolán Burke to Dublin to spy on Thomas Wentworth, the ruthless Lord Deputy of Ireland, the future of his centuries-old clan rests upon his shoulders.
Wentworth is plotting to acquire clan lands of Connacht for an English Protestant plantation. To stop him, Faolán must discover misdeeds that could force King Charles to recall Wentworth to England. Leaving his young daughter Elvy in the care of his best friend Aengus, Faolán works as a porter in Dublin Castle, and aligns with the alluring Denisa, Wentworth’s personal assistant. She, too, spies on Wentworth, but for very personal reasons.
While Faolán knows he should hate Wentworth, he admires his prosecution of pirates and corrupt nobles who prey on Irish merchants. Supremely arrogant and cruel to his enemies, Wentworth shows loyalty, warmth and compassion for family, friends and a few select others.A common mission takes Faolán and Denisa from Dublin to London and Hampton Court; to York and Scotland; and to the highest levels of court intrigue and power. But secrets, fears, war and betrayal threaten their love—and even their lives. And as Wentworth’s power grows, so grow the deadly plans of his most treacherous and driven enemies.
Part 2, Ireland location series
Divided by a gentle curve in the great River Boyne, the town of Drogheda in County Louth is one of the oldest and largest in Ireland. This important trade and commercial center began as two walled towns that literally grew together, officially so in 1412, but archaeological evidence shows the first civilization in this area began at least 3,000 years ago.
At a point on the Boyne where St. Mary’s bridge exists today, a natural ford made Drogheda (pronounced DRAW-hee-duh) an attractive settlement and defensive location. The name Drogheda comes from the Irish Droichead Átha meaning ‘bridge of the ford.’ On behalf of King Henry II in 1172, Hugh de Lacy began constructing a wooden fort on the high ground overlooking this ford. By around 1200, the first stone bridge across the river made the settlement part of a principal north-south travel route, and its location just four miles inland from the mouth of the river confirmed its role as a trade center.
De Lacy’s fort eventually was rebuilt as a motte and bailey fort now known as Millmount—the highest and most distinctive landmark in the city (it is sometimes called the ‘cup and saucer’). In addition to Millmount and St. Mary’s Bridge, Drogheda has several more historical sites of interest, including the 13th century St. Laurence Gate, which was part of the 113-acre stone enclosure built by the Anglo-Normans, and Magdalene Tower, the remains of a 13th century monastery.
I first learned about Millmount Fort and Drogheda when researching my first novel, Sharavogue. The book begins near the end of Cromwell’s famous and brutal march of 1649, at what was then the village of Skebreen (as it was spelled by map-makers at the time, and now known as Skibbereen), in the southwest corner of County Cork. By the time Cromwell reached this part of Ireland, stories of his army’s killing and destruction had spread far and wide, causing some towns to surrender and inhabitants to flee even as he approached. And the most powerful of stories was the terrible siege of Drogheda.
Since 1641, Ireland had been in a state of rebellion. The native Irish, Old English settlers, and Catholic Irish had joined to form the Irish Catholic Confederation led by James Butler, the Marquess of Ormonde. When Cromwell’s new model army defeated King Charles’ royalist forces in England’s civil war, many royalist officers and troops fled to Ireland and joined the Confederation to continue their resistance. Among these royalists was Sir Arthur Aston, who led a garrison at Drogheda composed of about 2,550 men.
Cromwell arrived at Dublin with the intentions to wholly crush the rebellion, starting by seizing major port towns, thereby securing the ability to supply his forces via the sea. He marched his soldiers north to Drogheda with heavy artillery, established batteries on either side of St. Mary’s Church, and blasted two breaches in the town wall. Then he called for surrender.
In the belief that Ormonde would come to his relief with 4,000 royalist troops, Aston refused. By the rules of war at the time, refusal to surrender meant that if his garrison was taken, all in the garrison could be killed. Cromwell attacked the town and the fighting was fierce, but no reinforcements arrived and soon the royalist resistance collapsed. Some tried to flee across the river, while Aston and 200 others took refuge in Millmount Fort. Cromwell’s soldiers surged into the town and massacred about 2,000 men—and an unknown number of civilians.
Rather than attacking Millmount Fort, Cromwell offered to spare the lives of the governor and the men within if they surrendered, but within an hour of their surrender, all were put to the sword. Soldiers reportedly beat Aston to death with his own wooden leg, believing Aston concealed gold coins within it. About 30 more who hid within a church steeple were killed when Parliamentary soldiers set fire to pews they’d stacked beneath the steeple. Soldiers who were not killed were deported to work as slaves on the plantations of Barbados.
Richard Talbot, mentioned in my previous post about Malahide, was one of the few who escaped, most likely through a thinly guarded gate on the north side of the river.
In Sharavogue, the protagonist convinces the villagers of Skebreen to dismantle a bridge across the River Ilen to deny Cromwell access. The story is based upon a legend I came across in my readings, about a town somewhere in County Cork where the people did dismantle a bridge and were then forced by Cromwell to rebuild it. In the novel, the scheme also fails, and the protagonist is swept away, not to Barbados but to the island of Montserrat in the West Indies, to work as an indentured servant on an Irish-owned sugar plantation.
Drogheda’s remarkable history is much greater than the stain left by Cromwell, however. In 1849, Oscar Wilde’s father William wrote that the very history of Ireland could be traced through the monuments along the River Boyne.
A 15-minute drive from the city will get you to Newgrange, a 5000-year-old passage tomb that is famous for the precision of its structure, such that it lights up at sunrise on the summer solstice. Less than 10 minutes drive from the town center, you’ll find Oldbridge, where the famous Battle of the Boyne was fought. Even more indelible than Cromwell’s march, this battle between deposed king, James II, and William of Orange (and his wife Mary, James’s own daughter) changed the course of England’s monarchy.
If you love castles as I do, the restored Norman stronghold, Trim Castle, is about 26 miles from the city. Slane Castle, owned by the Scottish Protestant Conyngham family since 1703, is less than 10 miles from the city. Now an events venue, there are guided tours of the castle and distillery. You can learn about the archaeological heritage of the Boyne Valley at Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre, 6 miles south west of Drogheda near Donore.
There are also historic manor houses in the area, including Beaulieu House, three miles from town. In existence for more than 800 years, it is believed this house evolved from a stronghold to a fortified manor house, and is now a ‘grand mansion.’ It is considered a rare example of 17th century Irish domestic architecture.
A Detailed History by Michael Holohan, http://www.droghedaport.ie/cms/publish/printer_21.shtml
History of Drogheda
Ghosts of Drogheda (historical photos)
“A delicious read.”
TODAY BEGINS A NEW SERIES, based on sites I researched while writing my lastest historical novel, THE EARL IN BLACK ARMOR. This book takes place in the 1630s, primarily in Dublin, Ireland, but also several sites in the Southwest of Ireland, in England and in Scotland. The series features the 13 locations I visited. The first one, which happens to be very close to Dublin Airport, is Castle Malahide.
Among more than a dozen castles to be found in County Dublin, one stands out for having remained in the hands of one resilient family—the Talbots—for nearly 800 years. Malahide Castle, located nine miles north of central Dublin and about seven miles from Dublin airport, has evolved over the centuries, from a functional stone enclosure complete with moat, drawbridge, portcullis, church and central keep, to the imposing but elegant, multi-towered castle you can visit today, with its sprawling lawns and orchards.
There are various meanings of the name ‘Castle Malahide’ but it likely comes from the Irish Caisleán Mhullach Íde, meaning castle on the hill of ‘Ide’—a feminine name that likely refers to the Norman family that lived there prior to the English invasion.
The Talbot family descends from William ‘Talebot’ of Normandy. William’s grandson Richard is believed to have served at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William the Conqueror first seized the English crown. As a reward, William granted to Richard valuable estates in England. In 1174 a later descendent—also named Richard—accompanied King Henry II into Ireland to assert his rule and to tame the aggressive Strongbow (Richard de Clare). The grateful king then bestowed upon Richard Talbot the lands and harbor of Malahide.
This castle is not featured in any of my novels (so far…), however Malahide is famous for surviving through tumultuous and violent centuries, and provides a fascinating glimpse into life in an ancient fortress, and the enduring spirit of the family that lived there.
The oldest part of the castle dates from the 12th century. It was enlarged in the mid-15th century, and the cylindrical towers were an 18th century addition. On approach, the castle is quite beautiful, set in a vast green field with the ivy-covered towers, sunlight glinting off the their peaks. While the castle’s ground floor is now designed for group gatherings and exhibition, the real show begins upstairs in the Oak Room. Here the dark oak panels on the walls are intricately carved with Bible scenes. The stunning Tudor windows illuminate similarly carved cabinets and their finely turned legs. The oak armchair in the corner is said to have belonged to Robert the Bruce of Scotland.
The castle’s proximity to Dublin means it was well used by government officials over the years, and family members served in several influential positions. The sturdy walls withstood an attack during the Silken Thomas rebellion (1534-35). And in 1639, withstood a different kind of attack when the Lord Deputy of Ireland, the Earl of Strafford, Thomas Wentworth (the subject of my third novel, The Earl in Black Armor) tried but failed to acquire a portion of the Talbots’ land holdings.
When John Talbot was banished to Connacht for participation in the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the English Parliamentarian Miles Corbett took a seven-year lease on the castle and 400 acres. Corbett was later executed for regicide—having participated in the execution of King Charles I—and after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660 the castle and grounds were restored to the Talbots.
Most touching is the story of the 14 Talbot cousins who met for breakfast at the long dining table in the castle’s great hall. It was July 1, 1690, the day of the Battle of the Boyne. The Glorious Revolution was as hand. All 14 rode out at first light to defend their Catholic King James II against William of Orange. But all were assigned to the same cavalry squadron that attacked the Williamite camp. William’s troops defeated the royalists. Only one cousin returned to the castle: young Richard, the heir.
Richard the elder then faced charges of treason and fought to secure his family’s inhabitation, if not ownership, of Malahide Castle. But the Talbots were only to have most of their rights stripped away again when Richard the younger inherited the estates, by the penal laws that severely restricted the rights of Irish Catholics.
And yet the Talbots endured—as did many of the castle’s inhabitants. So much so, that at least five ghosts are known to haunt the castle. Among them is Sir Walter Hussey from the 15th century who was killed in battle on his wedding day; Lady Maud Plunket who chases her husband through the castle; Puck the jester who fell in love with a lady at the castle and was found stabbed in heart; the White Lady who escapes from her portrait in the Great Hall to wander the castle corridors; and also the executed Miles Corbett, mentioned previously.
The Talbot family fortunes improved when Richard’s grandson by the same name made an advantageous marriage. The new family alliance meant that the Marquess of Buckingham, very powerful in King George II’s court, could and would ‘revive the Talbots’ place in society,’ but Richard would first have to renounce his Catholic faith. Richard did so in 1779.
Later, broad social reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries required increased taxation of the rich, so that some of the Talbot lands were sold to cover the costs. When the 7th Baron Talbot died in 1973, his sister Rose was forced to sell the Malahide estate to meet what author S.E. Talbot calls the ‘extortionate’ death duties of that time.
Shannon Heritage now operates Castle Malahide as a popular tourist attraction.
For a podcast of this blog post, visit the author’s website.
There are many sources of information about Castle Malahide and the Talbot family. Here are three of mine:
War and Peace: The Survival of the Talbots of Malahide, 1641-1671, Joseph Byrne, Maynooth Studies in Local History.
Into the Lion’s Den: A Biographical History of the Talbots of Malahide, S.E. Talbot, 2012.
The Ancient Castles of Ireland, C.L. Adams, 1904.
The 5-star rated Earl in Black Armor is now available in hardcover, paperback and ebook from most online booksellers.
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Can you love a person and despise him at the same time? Can you admire someone for his sense of honor and his intellect, and abhor his dispassionate cruelty and greed?
Such was the conflict encountered while researching and writing about the infamous Earl of Strafford, Thomas Wentworth (1593 – 1641), for my latest novel, The Earl in Black Armor. Here was a man who stirred people’s passions to one extreme or the other. In his brightest hour, as chief advisor to King Charles I of England, he was loved by some and deeply hated by others. And yet, one is likely to feel respect for him, if not true admiration.
In my latest novel, protagonist Faolán Burke spies on Wentworth at Dublin Castle, where he meets the alluring Denisa Dumalin. Denisa, a personal assistant to Wentworth, spies on the man also, but for very private reasons. Faolán is soon likewise torn—by his allegiance to his clan, his love for Denisa, concern for his daughter’s future, and his sense of honor and admiration for Wentworth.
Born on April 13, 1593 to a wealthy, respected family in York, Thomas Wentworth became a man of ambition, responsibility and high standards, generally acknowledged by his peers as a wise and effective administrator. He became a member of the English Parliament at just 21 years of age. He soon exhibited his ideals and determination, willing to go to prison with many of his peers rather than pay to the king what he considered a forced loan. In 1628, Wentworth was one of the authors of The Petition of Right, a constitutional document to define and protect the people’s liberties against such things as forced loans and forced billeting of soldiers in people’s homes.
He made perhaps his first and worst enemies when he accepted a position at court offered by King Charles. To his fellow parliamentarians, it appeared he was betraying them and selling out to the king. But Wentworth aspired to a court position, believing in the divine right of kings. He believed he’d have greater influence to advance reforms if he worked within the king’s court, rather than outside of it.
Wentworth demonstrated his capabilities so well, that soon colleagues urged him to accept the position of Lord Deputy of Ireland, to replace Lord Falkland, whom the king had recalled. Those colleagues may have had darker motives, wanting to remove Wentworth from consideration for the more lucrative position as the king’s treasurer in London. And, there is some suggestion that King Charles admired Wentworth’s abilities but also saw him as a threat. Wentworth accepted the Ireland post in 1632, eager to please the king by filling the treasury, and perhaps to earn a coveted earldom.
Arriving in Ireland in 1633, he established himself quickly as a man of fairness and action, by stopping the piracy that strangled trade, restoring law and order, and—by his policy of “thorough”—rooting out the corruption that lined the pockets of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This policy made him rather unpopular with powerful nobles who had used their positions for personal gain.
The same and other nobles also feared Wentworth’s plans to expand the English plantation system in Ireland, displacing Irish clans, destroying traditions, and eliminating the Irish way of life—including the Catholic religion that remained strong in the western counties.
Wentworth’s demeanor did not help, for he was intimidating, quick to anger, and his occasional cruelty caused many to hate him.
Haven’t we all experienced, or at least known of, such a person? A few modern examples come to mind. The beloved storyteller Walt Disney, for example, became the king of animation. He was greatly admired for his creativity and vision, and yet he was known to be an obsessive perfectionist and tyrant. The same might be said of Steve Jobs, a king of the microcomputer revolution, who was brilliant but also ruthlessness and cruel on a personal level. Anna Wintour, on whom the movie The Devil Wears Prada was likely based, became queen of the fashion industry, and yet was feared by her staff, made impossible demands, and gained a reputation of being rude to almost everyone.
In their defense, however, they managed under enormous pressures to help build major industries that employed millions of people—people who stayed with them because of their vision and power to succeed.
Wentworth succeeded on several levels to improve conditions in Ireland while earning the king’s favor. He made dozens of enemies along the way including the Earl of Cork, who was featured in my previous book, The Prince of Glencurragh. In time, Wentworth received his earldom, and much more. But King Charles was not the stalwart figure one hopes for in a monarch. Though Wentworth was the king’s chief advisor during the Bishops Wars, his advice often was not taken, and some of his recommendations may have been misconstrued. Did he, or did he not, suggest the king should use the Irish Army against his own people?
Faolán’s objective as a spy is fulfilled when the wars end at Newburn in 1640, but now he faces fierce inner conflicts and realizations about his own past that threaten to destroy him, just as the Earl of Strafford faces a bitter fight for his life.
As the author, I felt equally plagued by inner conflicts, influenced by historical writers on whose research I depended. I used several sources to study Wentworth and the events from 1633 to 1641, including C.V. Wedgwood, Elizabeth Cooper, Hugh Kearney, and more. Wedgwood and Cooper in particular exhibited mixed feelings about Wentworth. Wedgwood first wrote Wentworth’s biography when she was 25, then depicting him as a brave and able man. However, when new sources became available 30 years later, she revised it to produce “A Revaluation,” recognizing Wentworth’s greediness and tendency to apply laws to others but not to himself.
But Wentworth was not alone in this, and was probably not the worst of them in a time when corruption and the king’s favor were the best, if not the only paths to advancement. Wentworth is remembered as a tyrant and a statesman, but his contemporaries in Parliament have much worse to answer for.
This post was originally published on the award-winning UK blog, Myths, Legends, Books and Coffee Pots.
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When writing about historical figures in my novels, it’s an honor and privilege to use actual portraits of them for book covers, especially when the portraits are the work of Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641).
For the cover of my upcoming novel, The Earl in Black Armor, I licensed the portrait of the Earl of Strafford, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Thomas Wentworth, from the National Portrait Gallery. In this portrait, Wentworth wears full armor blackened by a special heating process, a style that was popular among the wealthy nobles of the time and worn by King Charles I of England.
Wentworth arrived as Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1633, and was later named Earl of Strafford and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. His administration in Ireland and the events leading up to his demise in London provide the timeline and historical backbone of my story, inspired in part by the portrait. In the face and in the eyes, Van Dyck managed to capture the man’s resolve as well a his fear. Once you know Strafford’s Icarus story you can recognize it all, but the artist perceived it and revealed it with his brush, particularly in his subject’s eyes.
“No portraits painted by Van Dyck in England more brilliantly demonstrate his penetrating powers of perception than those of Charles I and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, two sharply contrasting personalities.”
~ Judy Egerton, Anthony van Dyck, 1599 – 1641
At the time this portrait was painted, probably 1636, Van Dyck had been knighted by King Charles and enjoyed the lucrative business of painting many of the highest-ranking nobles in England. During a plague outbreak in the city—when most of the nobles fled to their country houses—Wentworth took advantage of reduced rates for a full size portrait.
Wentworth would soon rise to become the king’s chief advisor. He could not have known what would befall him, but he certainly knew he had many enemies, and that Charles I’s court was a most treacherous place. He had left his post in Dublin to see the king and restore the favor that had been damaged by his London-based detractors.
The 19th century essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay described Wentworth’s portrait: “…that fixed look, so full of severity, of mournful anxiety, of deep thought, of dauntless resolution, which seems at once to forebode and defy a terrible fate, as it lowers on us from the living canvass of Vandyke.”
We have no way of knowing how accurately Van Dyck’s painting depicts Wentworth. The artist was known to improve the looks of some of his subjects, painting them in their best light—no doubt to keep the customers happy. But I did stumble across the following quote in my research, which casts a shadow of doubt.
“Van Dyck’s handsome portraits had given me so fine an idea of the beauty of all English ladies, that I was surprised to find that the Queen, who looked so fine in painting, was a small woman raised up on her chair, with long skinny arms and teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth…”
~ Sophia, later Electoress of Hanover, 1641
The Earl in Black Armor will be available through online retailers by mid-February 2019. If you are a reviewer and subscriber on NetGalley you may download it now:
Thanks to the National Portrait Gallery of London for use of the portrait image,
Just before the turn of the 17th century in 1593, Thomas Wentworth was born in London, into fortune, property and prestige. Queen Elizabeth I still reigned, and the bloody Nine Years War raged on in Ireland.
By 1614 when his father died, Wentworth inherited the great Wentworth Woodhouse of Yorkshire—by the 18th century the largest of England’s country houses—plus two other estates and vast business holdings to keep things running. In addition to income, such land ownership commanded power and respect. Truly, Wentworth already had everything and more than most people might desire in life.
But he sought more than anything what he did not have: a royal title. An earldom. It would come at the greatest cost.
His ambition led him to politics. He started law school in 1607, and in 1611 he was knighted. He married an earl’s daughter. As a principal landowner he quickly became Yorkshire’s representative in the English Parliament.
In 1625, Charles I ascended to the throne. The following year Wentworth became High Sheriff of Yorkshire, and in 1628 he returned to Parliament to become one of the most vocal supporters of the Petition of Right, which attempted to curb Charles’s non-Parliamentary taxation, forced billeting of soldiers in people’s homes, imprisonment without cause, and the use of martial law.
Wentworth showed himself to be smart, reasoning and persuasive, with strong leadership abilities. He became President of the Council of the North. He joined Parliament’s dispute with King Charles I over subsidies to support the Thirty Years War effort, and stood against the king even to the point of imprisonment for refusing to pay his “forced loans.”
But here is where he made his first dangerous turn. The king invited Wentworth to join the Privy Council: to sit at the king’s table with titled courtiers and advise the king on decisions to run the commonwealth. It fed Wentworth’s deepest ambition. It was an offer he could not refuse. But it branded him as a turncoat to his fellow Parliamentary members. He had been seduced by power.
Wentworth turned from fighting the king’s arbitrary use of power to being a staunch supporter of the Divine Right of Kings. Charles had picked up his father King James I’s torch for this the long-held belief that monarchs were chosen by God, had a direct connection to God’s word, and therefore should always be trusted to do God’s will and make decisions for the highest good, guided by God’s hand.
At this time in history, however, people had seen many rulers supposed to be God’s designees on Earth who made very poor decisions. They had recognized greater access to their own religion through Calvinism and could read the Bible themselves. The printing press, nearly 200 years old, was demonstrating the considerable powers of mass communication. And the Divine Right was under fire.
By 1629, Charles grew tired of arguing with Parliament for what he wanted, and having to ask for his subsidies. He decided he no longer needed Parliament at all. He adopted “self rule,” which became known later as the Eleven Years’ Tyranny.
In 1632, the king appointed Thomas Wentworth to be the new Lord Deputy of Ireland. Although distant from the king’s court, it was a very powerful position in a time of sweeping change.
Ireland had been settled by the Anglo-Normans since the time of King Henry II in the 12th century, and from that time great and powerful clans had developed and intermarried with the Irish, such that they became accepted “Irish” clans. Until the time of Henry VIII, they ruled their realms autonomously.
The Desmond Rebellions of the 16th century began when Henry named himself king of Ireland, and tried to exert his authority over all the clans, starting first with plantations in fertile Munster. They ended with Irish defeat just before Elizabeth I died in 1603. Several clan leaders remained loyal to the king, yet Ireland remained resistant and challenging to oppressive English rule. To English adventurers, Ireland seemed like a plum that waited to be picked.
If Wentworth’s appointment to Ireland had been orchestrated by other courtiers eager to get him out of the running for the lucrative job as the king’s treasurer, no matter. Wentworth saw great opportunity, and planned to be the most effective viceroy the king had ever seen.
At this point his first and second wives had died. Wentworth had secretly married the 18-year-old daughter of a Yorkshire neighbor, and sent her ahead to Ireland to start preparing their home. Meanwhile he studied and learned, preparing for a long-term and “thorough” effort to make Ireland a profitable venture for the king. He did not set foot on Irish soil himself until July of 1633, with a huge retinue including 30 coaches of six.
And the first task on his list, after losing to pirates the £500 worth of wardrobe that he had shipped ahead, was to get control of the Irish Sea and secure Ireland for trade.
More than half of the king’s subjects made their livings from the sea, whether collecting fish, oysters, pearls, eels, gulls—anything they could eat or sell—or operating small craft and large merchant ships for moving passengers and goods. At the same time, Algerian pirates were notorious for robbing ships of their cargo, and robbing or abducting passengers and crew for ransom or to sell as slaves. Wentworth quickly took control by installing trusted captains to patrol the Irish Sea, and by rooting out corrupt officials who took bribes from the pirates and pocketed money intended for their crew’s provisions.
Once installed in Dublin Castle, Wentworth began a mission of “thorough,” intending not only to establish law and order for common people, but to root out corruption among the nobles, such as the Great Earl of Cork who’d been enjoying a healthy portion of the tithes from the church at Youghal. He would support the growth of Protestant religion while limiting the political power of Catholics. He would invest in new industries like the wine trade, linen and tobacco. And he would continue in the king’s interest the spread of English plantations.
Wentworth saw plantation as a benefit to Ireland, believing native Irish did not understand how to wring the greatest productivity from their lands, and more industrious English (Protestant) settlers would demonstrate the most efficient and lucrative practices. But it was met with great resistance, and the underlying goal was far from altruistic.
Wentworth devised a plan by which, instead of the crown just taking lands, the existing landowners would happily surrender their lands to the king in order to have them returned with clear and legal titles—minus, of course, the 25 percent of the best lands that Charles would keep for himself. The goal was to shift, over time, the majority of land ownership from Catholic to Protestant. The result of this process was considerable unrest, as the nobles lost income and Irish families were turned out of traditional homelands.
Over several ensuing years, Wentworth methodically and relentlessly carried out his plans, implementing the king’s divine right, arrogantly establishing absolute rule, and enriching himself along the way. His tactics and lack of political finesse made him many powerful enemies in all corners of his life. By the time of the Bishops Wars (1639-40) against Scotland—the king’s attempt to enforce his own religious practices upon the Puritan Scots—Wentworth became the king’s primary advisor and received his coveted earldom. He was named Earl of Strafford in 1640.
And then, when the wars were lost, he became the king’s scapegoat.
Parliament was called because money was needed to pay the Scots army under terms of the treaty. Parliament then impeached Wentworth—fueled by his enemies in Ireland. And when, angered over the country’s bankruptcy, the members were unable to prove treason against him, they dusted off an ancient, unused but still available tool, the Bill of Attainder, which required no need of proof to execute a man accused of high treason. King Charles, in his classic, two-faced, self-serving behavior, signed the death warrant for his most loyal servant.
Wentworth, having achieved his goal and reached his zenith of wealth and power, was beheaded by Parliament in May of 1641.
Nancy Blanton writes award-winning novels set primarily in 17th century Ireland. Her third book, The Earl in Black Armor, set in the time of Thomas Wentworth, is scheduled for publication in late 2018. Visit her at nancyblanton.com