Enemies and Kings

Audio Version

Having recently finished reading Hilary Mantel’s latest historical novel, The Mirror and the Light, the last book in her famous Wolf Hall trilogy, I am thinking of the comparison to a similar situation that took place in England a century later—and how history does repeat.

MirrorLightThomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex (1485 – 1540) is the protagonist in Mantel’s novel, written entirely from Cromwell’s perspective. This Cromwell (not to be confused with Oliver Cromwell who came along much later) is best remembered as the lawyer who engineered King Henry VIII’s position as head of the Church of England. This allowed the king to annul his first marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and to then marry Anne Boleyn. From there, Cromwell ascended to higher posts and became chief advisor to the king, who later signed the order for Boleyn’s execution, and would sign the same for Cromwell just a few years after.

Cromwell’s ascent and fall are similar to that of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford (1593 – 1641), best remembered as the “scourge of Ireland” by some, and by others as chief advisor to King Charles I prior to the Civil Wars. Charles signed Wentworth’s execution order as well, and both kings ultimately regretted their decisions.

I spent a great deal of time studying Wentworth as I wrote my third historical novel, The Earl in Black Armor. The comparison of the two men became quite clear, along with a recognition of the changes that would one day alter this recurring path.

ORIGINS & MENTORS

Cromwell was born a commoner, the son of a blacksmith. He literally fought his way up from poverty and the brutal streets of London to become a lawyer. Conversely, Wentworth came from one of England’s wealthiest merchant families, learned the law and served in Parliament. However, neither of the two men descended from noble blood, which meant that both would know discrimination, jealousy, hatred and betrayal from English nobleman who resented their hard-earned royal favor and resulting power and influence.

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The Earl in Black Armor, winner of four literary awards in 2020

Both men were mentored by and had close relationships with clerics, particularly those closest to the kings. Cromwell was a disciple of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey—another famous historical figure—who had advised the king in all matters of state, but fell from grace when he failed to obtain the king’s marriage annulment from the Pope. Wolsey was accused of treason but died from natural causes before he could be officially charged.

Wentworth aligned with William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, through a shared belief in the uniformity of religion and concerns over the dangers of Puritanism. Under a Puritan-controlled Parliament, Laud was accused and imprisoned for treason which could not be proved, and was then executed anyway under the Bill of Attainder.

GREAT AMBITIONS

Both Cromwell and Wentworth obtained high offices and garnered considerable wealth under the kings’ favor. Cromwell had more power than any other servant to the crown in England’s history at that time, from domestic administration to international diplomacy. Thomas Wentworth went from Lord Deputy of Ireland to become the first Earl of Strafford (obtaining his long-sought nobility), and was the king’s leading advisor in the Bishops wars. Both Cromwell and Wentworth were made Knights of the Order of the Garter, the realm’s highest honor, for chivalry.

Both men, for a time, had the ear and the trust of their sovereign to the exclusion of most if not all others. Both also, were known for their arrogance and rigid mindsets, that alienated many potential supporters.

ENEMIES

In turn, the ascendance and behavior of these men created for both the cadres of powerful enemies who opposed them. These were the people who begrudged the wealth, influence, and policies that conflicted with their own interests—often the ancient noble families who made their fortunes by means of royal favor and corruption.

For example, Cromwell oversaw the dissolution of the Catholic monasteries, in the process enriching the king and himself, but taking from others valuable lands and sources of income. Wentworth oversaw the surrender and regrant operation in Ireland, and the Commission of Defective Titles, which provided rather stealthy means to take land away from hereditary owners and give it to English plantation settlers.

These enemies eventually secured the downfall of both men.

Cromwell lost favor with Henry VIII when he arranged the king’s disliked marriage with Anne of Cleves. With his position weakened, Cromwell was betrayed by his own protégés and crushed by angry nobles. He was executed under the Bill of Attainder and the king’s consent.

Wentworth was attacked by a strong Puritan-led Parliament who saw him as the only barrier to complete control over the king. Unable to prove treason against him by law, he also was executed under the Bill of Attainder, and the signature of King Charles I.

THREATS

In Henry VIII’s time, there were two main threats to the English crown. First, the foreign countries, i.e. France and Spain, who sought to restore the Catholic faith on English soil. And second, the ancient noble families who still believed a Plantagenet descendent belonged on England’s throne, rather than a Tudor.

However, by the 17th century, the Stuart Dynasty faced far greater threats that were more difficult to fight, such as philosophy, science, literacy, and church reformation—all that managed to change the way people saw their lives and experienced their world.

The 17th century was in fact a time of great discovery, and people did change—from believing the sun revolved around the earth to vice versa, for instance, and from believing the heart’s purpose was only to heat the blood, to understanding its central function for the circulation system.

The greatest threat to King Charles’s throne was not the freedom of religion, which he fought against and lost in the Bishops Wars. It was the dwindling belief in the Divine Right of Kings—the concept long-held throughout Britain and Europe that kings are chosen by and directly instructed by God.

CHANGE OF MIND

Scholars say what truly distinguishes man from beast is the ability to think, learn, and change our beliefs over time. Two specific changes would alter the path of history taken by Cromwell and Wentworth. First, a new belief was now dawning that kings are as fallible as any other human being, and that every person has access to God through prayer. This change undermined the power of the monarchy, and opened the doors to rebellion, revolution, and collective, represented decision-making.

The second change has taken a good while longer. That is, the demise of the Bill of Attainder, which allowed authorities to legally arrest and punish a person for a crime without any real proof or trial. The bill was last used officially in 1798 to arrest Lord Edward Fitzgerald for leading the Irish rebellion of that year. He died not from execution but from wounds obtained in resisting his arrest. Sources say the bill was abolished in Britain by the Forfeiture Act of 1870. But another source says Winston Churchill had intended to use it against Nazi war criminals, and only backed down under political pressure.

Today, England and the U.S. each have a constitution and bill of rights that protect citizens from such unfair and inhumane practices. But we do still have political conflicts, and though they generally don’t result in executions, those who rise high and then fall from favor have experienced what we call character assassination, and then those people tend to disappear from the public eye. So perhaps in its own way, history does, in fact, repeat.

THE EARL IN BLACK ARMOR

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What IS this thing about history?

[podcast version]

Recently when I opened my Facebook account, an unexpected memory awaited. It was this picture, taken in 2001 to promote a new book that was a long time in coming, and a source of pride for these three co-authors, Terry Nosho, David G. Gordon, and yeah, that’s me in the middle.

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Time has altered our faces, but not the joy and passion for that book…that book…

One day, about a year and a half before this picture was taken, a young man in jeans, mud boots and a rumpled shirt came into my office. He plopped down on our worktable a most magnificent thing: a scrapbook of enormous proportions, with a kelly-green cover nearly the size of my refrigerator door, and spiral-bound pages stacking three inches high.

“My grandfather’s an oyster grower. He’s been keeping this thing for years, sticking this and that in it,” the man said. “Newspaper articles, pictures, restaurant menus, napkins, all sorts of things. He wants to know if you can do something with it. Anyway, it’s yours now.”

Well, not mine, exactly, but the grant program for which I worked, housed with the School of Fisheries and Oceanography at the University of Washington. Our offices were repurposed student housing, a stone’s throw from Montlake cut between Lake Washington and Lake Union where the University’s famed rowing team practiced.

Our program’s educational and research support for the oyster industry, led by Terry Nosho, was well regarded as perhaps the only positive attention paid by anyone to the health and survival of oyster farming.

The whump of the scrapbook on the table was enough to draw my team from their desks: David first, being most curious; then Robyn, the graphic designer; then Susan, the webmaster. We turned the first page. I can’t speak for the rest of them but I was immediately spellbound. Those pages contained a world: not just the history of Washington state’s oyster resource, but of the farming and consumption of oysters, of their culture, and the culture of the families that made a living from them, can labels, matchbook covers, cartoons, and so much more. What could we do with such treasure?

And to me it truly was treasure, as I considered the thoughts and hands and eyes of the person who had compiled this book faithfully and consistently over the decades, the stories this book told and the stories that were never told.

On David’s thoughtful lead —he was already a published author several times over— we perused that scrapbook for different threads that we could weave into a historical look at the world of Washington oysters, complete with recipes and gorgeous photography of Washington’s iconic coast. The result was Heaven on the Half Shell, the Story of the Pacific Northwest’s Love Affair with the Oyster.

It was a powerful experience. It became an opportunity to capture its essence in an idea, grow the idea into a viable project, and then produce a book that not only encapsulates time, but also stands the test of it.

A new door had opened. The love of history and adventure ran in my veins—my favorite book as a child was Robinson Crusoe—and now I learned how to research things, what to look for, how to turn history and discovery into story, and turn story into a touchable, colorful, ink-scented book for anyone to enjoy.

It wouldn’t be long before my own history came knocking; before passion, experience and heritage merged, and I had to find out. I had to know. What happened in the lives of my ancestors? Did they actually live in…castles?  Did they suffer? Did they fight? Did they rise? The truth eludes me. The facts are veiled or nonexistent. There is conjecture. Mystery. Hearsay and propaganda.

I search through the documents, books and biographies available, and fill in the blanks as I best I can. It’s a little like prying open an oyster shell, but not as sharp. And four books later I begin again, wondering still why I love it so, this thing with history?

Last month at the Amelia Island Book Festival in Florida, I received another gift: the opportunity to chat with New York Times best-selling author Margo Lee Shetterly. If you do not recognize the name, you’ll recognize her book: Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race.

Not historical fiction, but classified as narrative non-fiction, her book required a great deal of research, and when I told her that the former journalist in me greatly admired the work she had done to create that book, we connected on the love of research.

She lamented that several of the people she’d hoped to interview for her next book had already passed away. The same was true when we were researching the oyster book. People had either passed away or were too distrusting of “government” to speak with us. I replied that, writing about the 17th century meant all my people had passed away, but fortunately in those days they wrote letters. What will happen, we wondered, when such detailed written documentation of emotion and experience is lost?

I believe we will find it still, in blog posts and videos, in personal journals, in the work of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists who will always dig for the truth.

If history infiltrates your other thoughts, usurps other interests, occupies every bookshelf, makes you the geek at parties, and so on—then it is both gift and responsibility. The study of history becomes a joyful treasure hunt that not everyone seeks or understands, but the responsibility is to give attention and meaning to a particular time and people who lived it.

With the help of inspiration, you get to share these discoveries in a way that engages other people so they get those same messages. One of my favorite responses when someone reads one of my novels is, “My God, I had no idea!”

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Happy after my first novel won gold at Florida Writers Association

Nancy Blanton is author of three 17th century historical novels, a fourth in process, and one historical non-fiction book. Visit her at www.nancyblanton.com or purchase her books on Amazon or your favorite online bookseller.

How a storm churned up a writer’s solution

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.

While Dorian dallied, confused the forecasters, and battered the Bahamas, my husband and I struggled with indecision. Should we hunker down at home, or should we evacuate? We live on a barrier island that is susceptible to flooding, loss of electricity and significant wind damage in high storm conditions. Evacuation might seem like an obvious choice.

But the forecasters tend to over-state, and it takes a great deal of effort to evacuate a home even for a few days. The to-do list is three pages long: pack valuables, clothing, food and pets, money; store outside furniture and secure the house; find a decent dog-friendly hotel, inform relatives, etc. My reluctance to leave was high, but for safety’s sake we headed west. Thankfully, Dorian passed causing very little damage to our island.

Likewise, my inner storm—after much twisting and turning—resolved without too much injury.

Years ago, I set a goal for myself to complete a series of novels that illuminate the history of 17th century Ireland. I’m three books into that goal, covering the years 1634 to 1658. But there’s a gap in there that haunts me, starting with a great Irish rebellion of 1641—a brave stand against the English that started as a bloodless coup and ended in brutality, execution and massacre.

This was a complex and bloody era, without a doubt. It falls in the middle of the early modern period in history, 1534 – 1691—a time known for five major wars between the Irish and English, allegedly resulting in atrocities—rapes, murders, infant killings, massacres, starvation, genocide, and more—terrible acts of cruelty I have no wish to envision or describe. I’ve studied much about the rebellion, including the depositions taken afterward describing crimes so cold and horrendous one must question the existence of God.

 

 

Remembering first and foremost that the victors write the history, I know what was recorded as fact during that time was quite often inflated to make more useful propaganda. The English wanted to invade Ireland, and the rebellion simply gave the English Parliament—gorged with power after executing the king’s top advisor—a means by which they might justify and ignite hatred of the Irish and recruit men and support for the military invasion.

Somewhere within or perhaps between those same histories and depositions lies the truth. Modern historians are digging deeper for an honest evaluation of these incidents. Through their work I’ll find a vein of accuracy and follow it with some trepidation, knowing it could verify much of the atrocity. While some authors revel in the opportunity to shock and alarm readers with this dark realm of human history, it’s not my thing. The story, passion and purpose must always come first. I may be in the minority on this, but I still believe the author’s job is to get the reader to feel and care, not to give them deranged nightmares.

The truth must be told, I agree, often and honestly and in terms vivid enough that it will be remembered. As with the holocaust, such inhumanity must be imprinted at a global level. Memory, such that it is, provides the only insurance we have against such things happening again.

But explicit blood and gore of an incident isn’t necessary to understand unacceptable violence. Morbid detail elevates the violence to a spectacle that usurps the reader’s attention and separates him or her from the emotion driving the act. What are the causes? What’s the effect? How does it propel the story?

And there’s my inner dilemma: how do I write the truth honorably and effectively but not too graphically? The answer comes in the form of scale, the camera-lens ability to zoom in and out at will. Cruelties of man against man can be woven as truthfully as possible into a tapestry backdrop for a profound experience on an individual level.

Now then, what’s the individual experience that will serve, and whose eyes will reveal it?

As the storm raged, my research became both documentation and treasure hunt. I stumbled upon a singular event that has now become the foundation for the novel’s structure: a castle siege involving all the right bits of conflict to tell the full story in microcosm.

Within the castle are the English Protestants, holding out against those wild and savage Irish. Outside the castle walls are the Catholic native Irish, whose castle and lands were stolen by the greedy, invading English. Within that setup lies a love story: forbidden love in war time, the struggle to maintain tradition and lifestyle amid a sea of hatred, the spirit to restore and renew what was lost, and the eternal fight to survive.

There is quite a bit of violence involved, too, but observing it through the limited perspective of the characters makes it more manageable.

In this period, siege was a fairly common warfare strategy, and economical for those who lacked cannons and other artillery and could live off the enemy’s captured livestock. Some famous sieges in Ireland include the Siege of Smerwick, 1580; Siege of Kinsale, 1601; Siege of Drogheda, 1649; Siege of Derry, 1689; Siege of Athlone, 1690; and the Siege of Limerick, 1691.

 

SEIGE & BATTLE OF KINSALE, 1601 (PACATA HIBERNIA 1633)

A siege has similarities to a hurricane. Sometimes you must board up the windows against the enemy, and hope you have enough food, water and candles to see you through until the storm does its damage or passes by.

In a 17th century siege, there might not have been time to secure supplies. The external forces might make a surprise attack. If repelled by the castle forces, they wouldn’t necessarily try to break down the walls—especially not if their goal was to preserve and hold the castle. Instead they would take the sheep and cattle, corn, hay, and other stores they could find outside the castle, so that those within the castle could not feed themselves or their livestock within the castle. From the outside they might easily contaminate the castle’s water supply as well.

The siege could last much longer than a few days. The inhabitants could hold out for weeks or months, hoping for help to arrive. The longest siege in world history lasted 21 years! But in most cases, without military relief, the only choice was to surrender the castle to the siege force, or die by starvation and disease. Things tended to end badly. One inescapable atrocity of the time was that even those who peacefully surrendered were sometimes, as they say, put to the sword.

A Five-Question Interview

Today I’m reblogging an interview with Jathan and Heather that was part of a virtual tour designed by Amy Bruno. The questions were thoughtful and probing, and I hope you’ll find the results interesting.

 

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?

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Charles I 

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.

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john Speed, about 1610

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?

 

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John Pym

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!

 

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ABOUT THE BOOK

Blanton_Nancy_CoverLOYALTY, 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.

 

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Love and Hate with the Earl of Strafford

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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?

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Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, after Anthony Van Dyck. National Portrait Gallery

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.

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King Charles I (1600 – 1649) after Anthony van Dyck. Wikimedia

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.

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View of Dublin Castle, 1828

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.

Blanton_Nancy_CoverThe Earl in Black Armor is available now in paperback, hard cover, and e-book formats.

For more info, visit the author’s website:

https://www.nancyblanton.com

 

Cover Reveal: The Earl in Black Armor

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.

 

TEBA_PROMO_COVER_Resize copy

“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,

Fact in Fiction

Why writers in every genre need accuracy

As a journalism student in college it was drilled into me that any facts I intended to include in a story had to be confirmed by at least three sources. Otherwise I risked damaging the credibility not only of myself as a writer, but also of the institutions I worked for. Now that I’m an author of historical fiction and I work for myself, my personal credibility is paramount.

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Randall MacDonnell, 2nd Earl of Antrim, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

I always strive for accuracy, but my first lesson in going the extra mile was when a reader questioned a tree mentioned in my first novel, Sharavogue. It was a minor detail, and I had confirmed that the tree was native to Ireland. But I hadn’t gone far enough. When trying to defend my tree, I found in another source that it was considered native, but it didn’t exist in Ireland until 50 years after the period I was writing about. Score one for the reader, black eye for me.

More recently I was writing in my third novel about an important historical figure, the Earl of Antrim, in the year 1639. His earldom was inherited upon the death of his father in 1656, according to one historical journal. But wait, a biography I had read put the event at 1636. If I called him an earl before his time, undoubtedly a reader would contest it and, if I were wrong, I would lose that reader and potentially others.

I checked three more trusted sources—two scholarly history books and Encyclopedia Britannica—that all put the inheritance at 1636. Two things happened: I now gained confidence in calling the earl an Earl, and I lost confidence in the historical journal, even though I realized it was probably just a typo.

Every genre at risk

My friend Linda Reynolds, an award-winning thriller author, has similar concerns about accuracy. She carefully researches specific locations used in her story that may be familiar to readers, but also uses those details make her scenes more real.

“The town of Marblehead is so well-known to New Englanders, the yachting community, and lovers of early American history, that any deviation from fact would probably generate a firestorm of protest and derision. Thus, describing the locale accurately was important. In one scene, the main character pilots a small Boston Whaler across the water between Beverly and the west shore area of Marblehead, in the middle of January! People have asked me if I spoke from the experience of actually having done that. (Absolutely not!) But it underscores how such passages can make readers feel that they are living the experience.

“Marblehead is an old, historic town that has not changed much in the last few decades, so I can use Google Street View and Satellite View to refresh my memory and help with details. I do take liberties when I think it is appropriate to do so. One character lives on an actual Marblehead street, but the house is not identified or described in any detail. Another home, destroyed by an explosion and fire in the novel, sits on a fictitious street and does not resemble the house that inspired it. I write fiction, after all, so literary license is allowed.”

Readers love to immerse themselves in a story, and authors can generate a sense of realism through the selective use of fact and description. It becomes more difficult, whether you are looking at the 17th century or 20th century, when the landscape has changed. Google is no help and you must search for alternative sources. For me, paintings, portraits and letters provide a helpful window to the past.

To accurately construct scenes that took place in Tehran in 1978-1979 during the Iranian revolution, Linda had to dig deeper also, but fortunately had personal experience to rely on.

“The city has changed in the intervening years and streets have been renamed (to eliminate any reference to the Shah), so current maps and photos were of little value. With a lot of digging, I was able to find old photos, maps, and websites that helped fill in some of the gaps. But if I had not traveled to Tehran around the time of the revolution, it would have been exceedingly difficult to reconstruct the sense of the place for readers.”

Nobody’s perfect

As with my tree episode, Linda found that even her best efforts did not prevent her from an unfortunate error.

“The only time that I have been called out was when I referred to the ‘ropes’ on a boat rather than calling them ‘lines.’ Admittedly, I’m not an avid sailor. But the passages were read by a highly-experienced and well-respected yachtsman, and he did not catch it. I can hold my head up because I go to great lengths to ensure my stories realistically reflect the time and setting of the events taking place. If I make a mistake it only proves that I am human, as are we all.”

Even fantasy authors must contend with accuracy. Though the word “fantasy” may seem as if they can just make things up as they go, these authors are bound by the laws of nature and/or whatever constructs they may establish to build their alternate reality. If they are not somehow grounded in a believable way, and consistent to those constructs throughout their work, these authors also risk credibility.

E.J. Wenstrom, award-winning author of fantasy and science fiction, says, “I have to confess that I got into fantasy writing because of the freedom to make it all up, but when I started writing book two in my series, I quickly learned how very important accuracy is even in this genre. In fact I would go so far as to say that accuracy in your fantasy world’s details is the key difference between a world that jumps off the page and one that never connects. Those details are what make your world feel real to readers.”

I’ve seen the look of dismay in some writers’ eyes when they realize writing will not be all fun and games. Frankly, the attention to accuracy in details is what marks the difference between the hobbyist and the professional. And some of us actually enjoy the research. If you are writing to be read, there are no shortcuts. Linda sums it up:

“Accurate reconstruction is an important concept, because there is always someone who will have more knowledge than I about a particular location or era. But if I am accurate in painting the setting, they can swallow and appreciate the fiction of the tale. If I am inaccurate, they will dismiss me as not credible and I will have lost them as a reader.”

 

TPOG_Cover2017Nancy Blanton is the award-winning author of novels set in 17th century Ireland, and the non-fiction book, Brand Yourself Royally in 8 Simple Steps. Find out more at nancyblanton.com

The Power of 41

As children we learn how to connect the dots to reveal a complete picture. That skill stays with us and can apply in some unexpected ways. Recently while watching a documentary about Hitler, I heard the narrator say that in 1941, certain events revealed weaknesses in his regime that helped encourage the United States to join the fight and ultimately help crush the Nazis.

The “41” arrested my attention because I am researching events in 1641 that led to the Great Irish Rebellion, when the Irish rose up against the English settlers who displaced them from their traditional clan properties. This rebellion started out to be a bloodless coup, but ended up a bloody and terrible defeat.

No matter the outcome, the rebellion stands for me as one of many examples when the human spirit rises for liberty against formidable if not impossible odds. And as we all know, the Irish never gave up. In 1919, the Irish Republic was declared.

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Birth of the Irish Republic, Wikimedia Commons

But what else happened in a ’41 year? Is there a traceable pattern? Going back as far as the 13th century, history does indeed suggest ’41 as a year for freedom-seekers.

1241:
At the Battle of Cameirge in Ulster, the Milesian Irish—a Gaelic tribe from the Iberian Peninsula—defeats the ancient Tuatha De Danann. Whether this clash is reality or myth, a new history begins: the O’Neill dynasty is established in Ireland.

1341:
The Byzantine civil war breaks out, with the lower and middle classes fighting against the aristocracy. The war rages for seven years, ultimately devastating Byzantium and reducing its power and territories.

1441:
At Lagos in the south of Portugal, the first black African slaves are brought to Europe, setting the stage for oppression and rebellion to last for centuries.

1541:
John Calvin returns from exile to Geneva to reform the church doctrine. Calvinism brings new freedoms, aims to protect the rights of ordinary citizens, and supports democracy versus absolutism.

irish rebellion

1641:
The Irish Catholic gentry attempt a coup d’état at Dublin Castle to force the Protestant English administration to make concessions for Catholics. The coup is betrayed, violence erupts, and the conflict evolves into the Irish Confederate Wars—the Irish Catholics vs. the English and Scottish Protestants.

1741:
Slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York plot the Conspiracy of 1741, to revolt and level New York City with a series of fires. Some 200 are arrested and tried, 100 are hanged, burned or exiled.

Sketch_of_Douglass,_1845-crop

Frederick Douglass sketch

1841:
The principality of Guria revolts against the Russian Empire over duties and taxes on peasants. In United States v. The Amistad the Supreme Court rules that the Africans who seized control of the ship had been taken into slavery illegally. Frederick Douglass speaks at an Anti-Slavery Convention in Nantucket, Massachusetts.

1941:
The occupied Netherlands starts the “February strike” against German deportation of Jews in Amsterdam. In Yugoslavia the anti-axis army exiles pro-Hitler Prince Paul and elevates 17-year-old King Peter II. At the Acropolis in Athens, two young men tear down the Nazi swastika and replace it with the Greek flag. Prominent Nazi Rudolph Hess flies solo into Scotland.

Just out of curiosity, I did a quick Internet search to find the numerological meaning of the number 41, and it confirms the freedom idea:

“The numerology number 41 is a number that tends to express its innate sense of personal freedom with building a secure foundation for the future. The number 41 is conscientious. The number 41’s sense of personal freedom generally leads it to focus on establishing financial, physical, and emotional security.” (affinitynumerology.com)

And going a step further with that idea, I found the dominant Biblical meaning of 41 is “separation,” as in Israel’s separation from Egypt.

While the struggle for freedom is a prominent theme throughout all human history, the number 41 offers a focused lens that allows us to see the hammering drum of its repetition over the centuries.

I wonder if one could find similar threads of other topics by choosing any year and following it through the centuries. It is fascinating to consider, and also could provide the basis for a saga for an ambitious author, or provoke ideas about what might happen in 2041. A fan of George Orwell’s might use the author’s approach to his novel 1984, by looking at conditions in 2014, and then mirroring them in a dark and imaginative way in a novel entitled 2041.

Wishing everyone a happy 2018!

TPOG_Cover2017

For more information about my books and events, and to sign up for my quarterly newsletter, please visit nancyblanton.com

Christmas in 17th Century Ireland

(Reblogged from my guest post on Mary Anne Yarde’s Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots)

Could it be possible that anyone would actually cancel Christmas, the most wonderful time of the year? Considering the tumultuous nature of the 17th century, perhaps it’s no surprise that the celebration of Christmas would also have its ups and downs—so much so that at one point Christmas truly was banned.

file1661263317004In Ireland, Christmas first began as a pagan celebration around the time of the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest day of the year and the beginning of a new cycle. From these ancient times came the custom of decorating homes with holly, with its evergreen leaves suggesting the magical power to protect against the winter.

Another pre-Christian ritual that survives is the Wren Boys Procession. You can perhaps still see this event on the Dingle Peninsula and other towns on Ireland’s west coast. Taking place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, obviously it has taken on some Christian significance. Boys and young men dress, perhaps birdlike, in full suits and conical hats specifically made of oat straw. Historically, it was a day to hunt the wren, a bird of omen to the Druids, and blamed as well for the betrayal of Christian martyr St. Stephen. The killed birds were bound to the end of sticks and carried from house to house, where the carriers demanded money with the chant, “Give us a penny to bury the ‘wran’”. The money was then used for the celebration. (Read more about the wren and its mythology here.)

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King Henry II, public domain image

The English king, Henry II, is credited with bringing the first Christian Christmas to Ireland in 1171. He hosted celebrations in a palace built specifically for him the year after Dermot MacMurrough and Strongbow(Richard de Burgo) took control of Leinster and most of Ireland’s east coast. Here Henry entertained Ireland’s leaders in high royal fashion:

“The feast of Christmas was drawing near, very many of the princes of the land repaired to Dublin to visit the King’s court, and were much astonished at the sumptuousness of his entertainments and the splendour of his household; and having places assigned to them at the tables in the hall, by the King’s command, they learnt to eat cranes which were served up, a food they before loathed.”
~ Giraldus Cambrensis, Welsh Chronicler

The Christmas season would have followed the Catholic liturgical calendar starting with the 40 days of Advent, then Christmas Eve on December 24, and ending January 6th, the feast of the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night. Some believe the December 25th date for Christmas came from the Romans who used that date for the solstice festival. The date also falls nine months from the Annunciation, the Christian celebration of the day the angels told Mary she would conceive and give birth to Jesus. It is a topic of great controversy with many other dates suggested as being more likely.

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King Henry VI, public domain image

King Henry VI proclaimed Christmas a public holiday in 1448, and the feasting, festivals, nativity plays, caroling and gift giving became solid traditions in both England and Ireland. But some thought Ireland took the feasting to an extraordinary level. Fynes Moryson was a propagandist traveling in Ireland during the early 17th century when it was useful for refined English nobles to think of the Irish as no better than savages. His description, to be taken with a healthy dose of salt, feeds that notion:

Yea, the wild Irish in time of greatest peace impute covetousness and base birth to him that hath any corn after Christmas, as it were a point of nobility to consume all within those festival days. They willingly eat the herb shamrock, being of a sharp taste, which, as they run and are chased to and fro, they snatch like beasts out of the ditches.”

Times and traditions were soon to change.

In the 16th and early 17th centuries, Ireland was predominantly of Catholic faith, but the plantation of Munster and Ulster under Queen Elizabeth and James I, new Protestant settlers, Protestant government officials, and the implementation of anti-Catholic laws altered that demographic.

The king of England was also the king of Ireland and supreme head of the Church of England, after all. Anyone who did not attend Protestant church services was fined as a recusant. In extreme cases, to celebrate Catholic Mass was an act of treason for which people could be arrested, fined, and imprisoned or executed. To devout Catholics in Ireland, it seemed equally risky to denounce their faith and face excommunication and damnation.

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King Charles I, public domain image

Meanwhile, Puritanism was marching to a powerful majority. King Charles I began to press his own form of Protestantism, leading to the Bishops Wars with Scotland. Then came the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641, and the English Civil War of 1642. Finding the lavish celebrations for Christmas and other holidays vulgar and imprudent, in 1644 the Puritans made sure that Christmas was banned entirely. By 1650, soldiers were sent from house to house to enforce this ban and arrest any revelers.

And yet, people would not give up their beloved religious celebrations. Catholic households willing to host secret Mass would place a candle in their window just before it was to start, as a signal and call to other Catholics. To people not in the know, the candles seemed like nothing more than a modest decoration.

Ultimately, the English Parliament executed King Charles. Oliver Cromwell crushed the Irish rebellion with excessive cruelty. Protestants took possession of properties confiscated from Irish Catholics, and the religious majority shifted. Cromwell ascended as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, the uncrowned Puritan king of England. By the time he died in 1658, English subjects were eager to restore the monarchy.

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King Charles II, public domain image

 

King Charles II did indeed bring back Christmas celebrations in 1660 as part of the Restoration, and he became known as “the merry monarch.”

Today, Christmas celebrations in Ireland are similar to those of the U.S. and other countries, with decorated trees, shopping and gifting, caroling, dancing and feasting. You may still see the holly wreaths on doors and windows, and the welcoming candles in the windows. Each symbol has its history.

Irish Christmas traditions

In closing, here are some continuing Irish Christmas traditions to adopt for your own:

  • Put up your Christmas tree after December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. And go shopping on this day, with all the family along.
  • Place candles in your windows, a sign of welcome and safety.
  • Make Christmas pudding the traditional way, a rich fruit mixture with animal fat, wrapped in muslin and steamed.
  • Celebrate “First Footing” on New Years Day, when visitors to the homes of friends and family bring a bag holding a lump of coal, a piece of cake and a coin, with the wish that the family may never be cold, never be hungry, and always be prosperous.
  • And on Twelfth Night, January 6, celebrate Mother’s Day Off, traditionally the only day of the year when mothers were freed of their responsibilities. Thank goodness that has changed!

__________

Buy someone a PRINCE for Christmas this year!

TPOG_Cover2017The Prince of Glencurragh is a four-time award winner, set in 1634 prior to the great rebellion of 1641. Read more about this and my other books at nancyblanton.com, Or purchase now on Amazon, B&N or your favorite online bookseller.

Have a great holiday season!

 

 

Romeo Butler & Juliet Preston

Romeo Butler & Juliet Preston

A match made in Ireland

Shakespeare’s tragedy of Romeo and Juliet finds a happy ending in the 17th century story of James Butler and Elizabeth Preston. These two members of feuding Anglo-Irish families were actually cousins, and made an unlikely couple until events shifted, ultimately allowing a marriage of choice rather than arrangement.

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King Charles I, public domain

During the reign of King Charles I (1625-1649), normal practice in society required parental control over a marriage arrangement. It was nothing more than family discipline, considered the best guarantee of public order, and in King Charles’s court, order was paramount.

From the time that a child was born, parents began calculating potential marriage matches that would improve the family’s bloodline, elevate their social status, increase their wealth, solidify a mutually beneficial business alliance, consolidate or expand real estate holdings, and preferably all of the above. Both the bride and the groom were expected to bring something to the table.

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Wikimedia Commons

In the 17th century, land ownership was power. Historically, the Butler family held the Earldom of Ormonde, controlling a huge tract of land in Ireland, basically from Waterford to Limerick. The FitzGeralds (known as the Geraldines) held even more land, with two branches bordering on each side of Ormonde: the Earldom of Desmond, roughly including the modern-day counties of Cork and part of Kerry, and the Earldom of Kildare, on the east side of Ormonde and adjacent to the Pale, the area surrounding Dublin.

Disputes over property lines and ownership waxed and waned at least from the 14th century, the two neighboring earldoms fighting one another in skirmishes and outright battles. Many schemes attempted to heal the feud, from the famous handshake through a hole in a door at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1492, to the marriage of Joan, the widowed Countess of Ormonde, to Gerald Fitzgerald, the 15th Earl of Desmond, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. But the feud roared up again when Gerald had a dispute with Joan’s son, Thomas, the 10th Earl of Ormonde.

A famous quote is attributed to Gerald after being wounded on the field in the Battle of Affane in 1565. While being carried from the field on the shoulders of Ormonde soldiers, an Ormonde commander triumphantly asked, “Where is now the great Lord Desmond?” And Desmond is said to have given his quick reply, “Where but in his proper place, on the necks of the Butlers?”

After the Desmond Rebellions, which by 1603 had left all of Gerald’s male heirs either dead or attainted, the Desmond earldom was extinguished. But it was not the end of the story.

Thomas, the 10th Earl of Ormonde, a great uncle of James, sought a suitable marriage for his only daughter Elizabeth. Rejecting a suit by the second son of the fourth Earl of Thomond, he brokered a more lucrative match with Richard Preston, a Scot and a court favorite with King James I. When Thomas died in 1614, the king saw it as an opportunity to settle the long-term feuding and so, when they married he named Preston the first Earl of Desmond, third creation, and awarded most of the Ormonde estate to Elizabeth. Since properties belonged to the husband upon marriage, thereby he combined the estates of Desmond and Ormonde.

But that only produced another problem, because Thomas had no surviving sons, and had named his nephew Walter, James’s grandfather, to inherit the Ormonde earldom and estate. Walter began a series of complaints and legal actions to regain the land he believed was rightfully his, and the proper inheritance for his own son Thomas, who should have been the next earl of Ormonde. Walter’s disputes annoyed the king and landed him in prison for eight years.

About the same time, Walter’s son Thomas had married and James was born, but this Thomas drowned in a shipwreck on the Skerries, a series of rocky islets off the shore of Wales (and also off Northern Ireland), when James was quite young. The titles that should have gone to Thomas would now pass to James.

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Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, by Daniël Mijtens, Public Domain

A few years after James was born, Richard and Elizabeth Preston had their first child, a daughter also named Elizabeth. Richard betrothed her to a nephew of another court favorite, the powerful and wealthy Duke of Buckingham. But, by strange coincidence she was also orphaned in 1628 when her father drowned in a shipwreck on his way from Dublin to England (probably also on the Skerries), and in the same year Buckingham was assassinated. The king placed young Elizabeth in wardship with the Earl of Holland.

Her father’s death meant that Elizabeth was now an heiress who could choose her own husband. However, she was just fourteen years old. Lord Holland got busy trying to arrange a lucrative match for Elizabeth that also would benefit him – one of the happy consequences of having a royal wardship.

Elizabeth first met her cousin James at London court when he was studying the Irish language and living with his aged grandfather who’d been released from prison. James was 18 years old and, according to all accounts, immediately fell in love with her. The affection was returned, but Lord Holland stood in the way.

Somewhat in the role of Shakespeare’s Friar Lawrence, Scottish kinsman Patrick Wemyss, who managed Elizabeth’s estates, arranged secret meetings for James and Elizabeth in her home or in London churches, where James arrived disguised as a peddler.

In order to court her openly, James, now known as Viscount Thurles—a courtesy title that had been his father’s—had to clear his way with a bribe of £15,000 to Lord Holland.

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James Butler, 12th Duke of Ormonde, National Portrait Gallery

The couple wed with the king’s consent in 1629, and all of the Ormonde ancestral lands were returned to the Ormonde earldom. Their union put an end to the long-term feud by creating a strong family alliance. When Walter, the 11th earl, died in 1633, James became the 12th earl of Ormonde.

Instead of drinking a death-simulation potion like Romeo and Juliet, they must have found instead a love potion, for they had 10 children, five of whom survived to adulthood. They also became a very powerful couple. James the Earl became leader of the Confederate forces against the Parliamentary army after the Great Irish Rebellion of 1641.

After Parliament executed King Charles I in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell ascended to power, Ormonde lived in exile in France, in service of King Charles II and his family until the monarchy was restored in 1660. It was Elizabeth, however, who returned to Ireland to save the Ormonde family estates.

For his loyalty and service to Charles II, the king named James Butler as the first Duke of Ormonde in 1680. Both highly respected and revered, Elizabeth died in 1684, and James in 1688.

The portrait of James Butler graces the cover of my second novel, The Prince of Glencurragh, as a symbol of the 17th century ideal, a man of honor, grace, wealth and nobility, and a true statesman.

Note: There are numerous and conflicting accounts of this story, with possibly some confusion arising from the two Elizabeths and two Thomases. I’ve made every effort for accuracy but if you see something that seems incorrect, please comment with source information. Thank you!

TPOG_Cover2017The Prince of Glencurragh is an award-winning novel of hope during the sweeping change preceding Ireland’s Great Rebellion of 1641. Available on amazon, B&N, and other online retailers.

For other books and more information please visit my website at nancyblanton.com, and while you are there please sign up for my newsletter to receive notification of my upcoming book, The Earl in Black Armor.