Tracking the Prince: Kanturk Castle

Tracking the Prince: Kanturk Castle

Today I begin a series featuring sites I visited in Ireland while researching my second novel, The Prince of Glencurragh. This book takes place in mid-17th century Ireland, when castle towers are losing their significance and the order of the day for the rich and powerful is a grand, fortified manor house that demonstrates their wealth and importance.

I had mapped out 15 locations prior to my trip, so the series will cover each of these. Readers of The Prince can follow along using the map included in the book. I ended up using nearly all of the locations in some way, whether as an actual location for a scene in the story, or to inform something else.

img_1337Kanturk Castle was my first stop after arriving in Shannon. The structure inspired my vision for Castle Glencurragh, a fictitious castle near Skibbereen, County Cork, which is the dream and ambition of the protagonist.

Kanturk Castle is situated in north County Cork, just off the N72 about nine miles west of Mallow, along the Dalua river, a tributary of the Blackwater. It is named for the nearby market village Kanturk that existed centuries before the castle. While the name sounds exotic and mysterious, it actually means “the boar’s head” (from the Gaelic Ceann Tuirc).

img_1366To me, the remarkable thing about this enormous and beautiful fortified manor house, and why I felt compelled to see it, is that it was the envy of all who saw it during construction, and yet it was never completed.

Built by Dermot McDonagh MacCarthy starting around 1609, it is rectangular with corner towers standing five stories high. It is filled with magnificent fireplaces on each floor, large mullioned windows, arched doorways and a striking main entrance with Ionic columns on each side.

img_1338(For a very detailed account of the castle with far better photos than mine, please see The Irish Aesthete.)

One legend about the castle is that all the stonemasons happened to be named John, and so originally the castle was known as Carrig-na-Shane-Saor (the Rock of John the Mason). Another story I came across was that during construction, MacCarthy needed free labor, so he and his men snagged travelers passing by, put them to work as slaves, and would not release them until they had worked on the castle for a year.

Why the castle was never completed remains something of a mystery. Some accounts claim that English settlers were concerned that the size and fortification of the castle signaled more rebellion from the Irish, and the Privy Council of England halted construction. MacCarthy was so incensed, he had the blue tiles on the castle roof torn away and thrown into a stream. Other accounts hold that MacCarthy simply ran out of money to continue.

When MacCarthy’s son, Dermot Oge, succeeded him, Kanturk and the lands around it were heavily mortgaged. Dermot and his own son were killed during a Cromwellian battle in 1652, and at the end of the confederate war Kanturk Manor was awarded to Sir Phillip Perceval, an English Protestant. Sir Phillip’s descendant, Sir John Perceval, was a successful parliamentarian, named Baron of Burton, County Cork, in 1715, Viscount Perceval of Kanturk in 1722, and Earl of Egmont in 1733.

And this brings me to a very personal connection to the story.

In 1932, Kanturk was donated to the National Trust by Lucy, Countess of Egmont, the widow of the 7th Earl of Egmont who was killed in a car crash in England. Her conditions were that the castle be kept as a ruin, as it was at time of hand-over. It is designated as a national monument.

When I visited, I saw a lovely, well-kept place where the locals walk their dogs, just as I often walk my dogs along a beautiful street with a beautiful name: Countess of Egmont—on an island more than 4,000 miles away.

NPG D2382; Catherine Perceval (nÈe Compton), Countess of Egmont; Charles George Perceval, 2nd Baron Arden by James Macardell, after  Thomas Hudson

It turns out that Sir John Perceval, the 5th Baronet of Kanturk and the 2nd Earl of Egmont, obtained a king’s grant for properties in northeast Florida during a brief period around the 1770s, when Spain ceded the lands to Britain in an exchange for lands elsewhere. Amelia Island was then called Egmont Island, where the Earl and Lady Egmont owned a large indigo plantation. The island was later renamed Amelia in honor of the daughter of King George II of England.

The portrait:
Catherine Perceval (née Compton), Countess of Egmont; with Charles George Perceval, 2nd Baron Arden; by James Macardell, after Thomas Hudson, mezzotint, published 1765, NPG D2382 

Thanks to: History from Mr. Patrick O’Sullivan’s summary on Historic Kanturk website (Kanturk District And Community Council); Britain-Ireland-Castles.com; The Irish Aesthete; and the Amelia Island Museum of History.

jack6.140x9.210.inddAn heiress, a castle, a fortune: what could go wrong?

The Prince of Glencurragh is available in ebook, soft cover and hard cover from online booksellers.

https://books2read.com/u/4N1Rj6

http://www.amazon.com/Prince-Glencurragh-Novel-Ireland-ebook/dp/B01GQPYQDY/

Stories of Death by Construction

Have you ever heard a story of construction workers who died on the job being buried as part of the structure they were building? One of the first stories I heard was of men entombed within the Brooklyn Bridge. Apparently this is a myth, because a decaying body embedded in a concrete structure would then make that structure unstable. However, author David McCullough estimates 27 people were killed in various accidents or safety issues during the bridge construction.

Image of a walled town from the Cork City Library

Image of a walled town from the Cork City Library

I became curious about these myths after I happened across one story recently while researching the upcoming prequel to my historical novel Sharavogue. Call it serendipity, it was one of those magical, unexpected discoveries that make researching history fun, while providing genuine detail to spice up a novel. Centuries ago during construction of the enclosing walls for the town of Bandon, County Cork, Ireland, a young man was killed when a fellow mason working on a scaffold above him accidentally dropped his pickaxe. In the 1800s, the site was being excavated to build a summerhouse. When the workers found a large flagstone that gave a hollow sound when struck, they thought (hoped) they might have discovered an ancient stash of gold coins. Instead they found the skeleton of the poor mason, the pickaxe still under his skull, and his hammer and trowel by his side. In his pocket was a silver coin from the reign of Edward VI.

Little remains of this wall today, but stories live on, right?

Such as the Hoover Dam, where somewhere between 96 and 112 workers were killed between 1931-36. The myth has it that it was too costly to halt construction when a man was killed and so the concrete pour continued. But if this was true, the structure would not have been able to withstand the pressure of all that water over the years.

With the body of water that would become Lake Mead already beginning to swell behind the dam, the final block of concrete was poured and topped off at 726 feet above the canyon floor in 1935. On September 30, a crowd of 20,000 people watched President Franklin Roosevelt commemorate the magnificent structure’s completion. Approximately 5 million barrels of cement and 45 million pounds of reinforcement steel had gone into what was then the tallest dam in the world, its 6.6 million tons of concrete enough to pave a road from San Francisco to New York City. Altogether, some 21,000 workers contributed to its construction.

One story where site burials are not a myth is that of the Fort Peck dam site in Montana. Eight workers were caught in a slide there in 1938, but only two bodies were recovered.

My curiosity produced many stories of human sacrifice during constructions projects, as well as immurement. One from Germany concerned a mother who sold her son to be interred in the foundations of a castle, and then–feeling rather guilty–she threw herself off a cliff.

And a fascinating yet horrifying story is that of the Mole in Algiers, a massive breakwater started in the 16th century by the pirate-king Barbarossa. This structure was intended to provide defense against the Spanish, but the work was constant and relentless, requiring more than 30,000 Christian slaves for labor, and costing the lives of 4,000 slaves, or about five lives per foot of structure.

These days, thanks to safety requirements, construction deaths are fewer, workers are paid, and as far as I know are well cared for in case of accidents or deaths. In the US, private industry construction deaths per year are in the hundreds, not thousands. The leading causes of construction deaths are falls, being struck by an object, electrocution, or being caught between things.

I’ll be visiting Bandon later this year for a little on-the-ground research, and will say a prayer for that poor mason who died there. Until then, keep it safe out there, and follow this blog for stories about my travels in Ireland starting in June, and for notices of when the new book will be out.

SharavogueCoverAnd in the meantime, embark on an adventure in Irish history! Sharavogue is the award-winning story of a peasant girl who vows to destroy Oliver Cromwell during his march of destruction across Ireland in the 17th century, and her struggle for survival on a West Indies sugar plantation.

 

Historical accuracy: It’s good to be right

Last year when I started promoting my historical novel Sharavogue, I got several wonderful and very positive reviews on amazon.com, but was looking to spread the news to other readers. I requested a review from another place my book was listed, Indiebound.com. Great people there, but unfortunately I was matched up with an anonymous reviewer who I can only believe is a bitter and lonely individual. I say that not just because I received a bad review, which I did, but because it was unreasonably bad.

Upon reading it, my hands began to shake. I had spent years carefully researching the time, the characters from that time, and all the details. It was the details this reviewer zeroed in on, questioning in a rather nasty tone the book’s title, whether a certain kind of tree was present at the time, and so on, including the basic opening sequence in the book in which Oliver Cromwell arrives in Skibbereen, County Cork, Ireland. The reviewer claimed Cromwell had never traveled that far.

Cromwell in Ireland, a history of Cromwell's Irish Campaign ... with map, plans and illustrations

From Cromwell in Ireland, digitized for the British Library (public domain)

Now, since this is historical fiction, and it was at least plausible that Cromwell had visited the village in question, it does not really matter whether he actually did or not as long as I am clear in my author’s note about the places where I have stretched the facts in support of the story. But I had studied Cromwell and found that he did in fact visit Skibbereen. I made two mistakes here.

First, I had found an historical map (above) that actually tracked Cromwell’s progress in 1649, going through and past Skibbereen in southwest Cork. It gave me a premise to work from but, not realizing I might need it later I did not file a copy. If I’d had that copy I could have submitted it to the reviewer to request a revision in the review.

Which leads to my second mistake: engaging with the reviewer. Upon reading the erroneous review I sent back a message to Indiebound pointing out the errors in it based on my research. They sent my message to the reviewer for a response, and the result was a longer and even more erroneous and spiteful version of the original review. Indiebound passed it off as just a difference in opinion.

Happily for me anyway, while researching my new book I came across the map again, from the British Library no less, and saved it in my files.

Readers of historical fiction love a good story intertwined with fact, so that they can learn about historical  lives and times as they are entertained. I know, I am an avid historical novel reader myself. But as they used to say, tongue in cheek, when I was in journalism, don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. Do be as accurate as possible because you will have to defend some of the details. Don’t sweat a minor detail if it helps move the story forward or it doesn’t really matter. And don’t follow my example — keep copies of or document everything you find that might be useful to your story. You never know when it might come in handy. I won’t be sending this map to the reviewer at this late date, but I feel vindicated anyway. And that’s why I say…it’s good to be right!

SharavogueCover2Get a copy of Sharavogue to learn about Cromwell’s march in Ireland. When he gets to Skibbereen, the village is called “Skebreen” — a shortcut the locals used. Cromwell is real, his march is real, and Skibbereen is real. The protagonist and her companions are fiction. The bridge in question is fictionalized based on undocumented legend, and a good story for sure!

Roads into the past

KillarneyART162687Roads have always been important to civilizations, from narrow dirt pathways leading to water and food supply, to major super highways that support international trade and industry. In researching the past, knowing the roadways is key to understanding the way communities lived and operated. That’s why I was thrilled recently to discover the Down Survey Project online.

This is an amazing effort called the The Down Survey of Ireland Project, funded by the Irish Research Council under its Research Fellowship Scheme. The 17-month project was completed in March 2013. In short, the project combines digitized versions of surviving maps of Ireland from the 17th century (barony, parish and county level) with historical GIS (including various census and deposition sources) and georeferencing them with 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps, Google Maps and satellite imagery. Got that? Simple, right?

Well, no matter. If you have any interest at all in the history of Ireland, you will be amazed as I was to see the incredible public resource that this project has established.

Just as an example, for my book which begins in 1649, I can look up what landholders were in the area of my research, see exactly where their properties were located and what roads were in existence at the time. The old roads are represented as straight lines in the version I was able to bring up, and I doubt there were too many straight lines back then, but it does give me a general idea of locations and directions for ingress and egress. I’d say, for historical fiction it is a far better information source than my imagination.

Many thanks to the project team Micheál Ó Siochrú, David Brown and Eoin Bailey for creating this remarkable website. And thanks to Micheál Ó Siochrú also for his book God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland — another valuable resource to me.

For England’s roadways, historical novelist and blogger Patricia Bracewell has produced a four-part series on early English roads, featuring Watling Street, Ermine Street, the Fosse Way, and the Icknield Way. The series includes old maps and photos of present-day trails, and is featured on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog site.

Do you know of similar resources that might be helpful to authors? I’d love to know about them. Please comment.

SharavogueCover2Meantime: There are just three days left for my great giveaway of copies of Sharavogue on Goodreads. Sign up here!

Setting yourself apart for readers

Part 9 in the “How I found my snow path to Dingle” series

Picking up where I left off on my series about my writing process for Sharavogue, today I am focusing on “What makes your book different from other books like it?” This is a question that might come during a media interview or from an anyone who is considering reading your book. To answer, I had to do my homework. When I selected the time period for my story, I searched for books in the Cromwellian years, the Interregnum, and on the bookends of that period during the reigns of Charles I and Charles II, the Restoration.

SharavogueCover2Specifically during Cromwell’s time there were very few historical novels – I found only two, in fact — that take place in this turbulent period. I have since found several more but I think I am safe to say I have written of a time often overlooked by other authors. So, for readers like me who also like to learn about history as they read, it might be a good choice.  Sharavogue (the title of my novel but also the name of the plantation where the protagonist was indentured) also illuminates what life was like for slaves and indentured servants on the sugar plantations of the 17th century. These plantations were a boon to England’s economy but could not have been profitable without slave labor.

An intriguing  and distinguishing fact is that a colony of Irish planters developed on the island of Montserrat, and they too had to own slaves. The focus is on an Irish colony and perspective rather than an English one.

My style of writing is also quite different. I have used devices and structure to keep the book light, exciting and fast paced, but still packed with story, action and historical information — just enough, and interwoven as best I could so the story did not become a history lesson. My page count is under 300, not the tome of some historical novels. This required quite a bit of brutal editing, but I knew the costs of printing would make a larger book a difficult sell for an unknown author. Some people like this style — the book keeps them engaged so that they read it all the way through in a day or two. (One reader laughingly complained that it was my fault she did not get her Easter cooking done). But others have told me they would have liked more time for contemplation by the characters.

My hope was always that after finishing the book my readers would come away satisfied, entertained and informed. I also hoped to tell a good story about the Irish, who have held my imagination since childhood. A recent reviewer captured the gist of the story just as I had hoped:

“The Irish were no different, after all, than the English. Cruelty reigned. We were without justice, without recourse. We were without hope.” Fifteen-year-old Elvy Burke only wants to live up to her destiny. As the daughter of a great warrior, she dreams of being a leader of her people and a defender of her country. But Oliver Cromwell and his brutal army change her destiny. After cursing Cromwell to his face, she flees her village determined to find a way to kill Cromwell and free her land. She thinks that only Cromwell is brutal, but she discovers the hard way as she becomes an indentured servant in the West Indies, that the English do not have a monopoly on brutality. Elvy learns to survive and she finds kindness in unexpected places. She uncovers her own strengths as she fights her way back to her home in Ireland.

via Amazon.com: Customer Reviews: Sharavogue : A Novel.

This will be my last post in this series, unless any readers have additional questions that I will be most happy to answer. I look forward to any comments or suggestions for future posts. Best wishes and happy writing!

Meet My Villains

Part 6 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

I once dated both a Roger and an Osborne, and neither proved to be very good dating material, but they did not reach the villainous status of this guy: Roger Osborne. Straight out of history, I did not need to invent him as the bad guy in Sharavogue. He showed up on his own.

But more about him in a moment. This is a post about the characters in the story, and particularly the villains who actually drive the action. In Sharavogue there are three villains. The first one we meet is Oliver Cromwell himself. Cromwell and his New Model Army have just defeated the Royalists in a bloody civil war. Cromwell has emerged as England’s new leader and has beheaded King Charles I in London. Now he comes to Ireland to cut down the Irish rebelling against English plantation on their soil.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Our heroine Elvy Burke confronts this powerful figure when he marches on her village. Cromwell had facial warts which helps add to his villainous image. It is Elvy’s hatred and vow to kill Cromwell that drives her forward and commands her decision making.

Through a series of events Elvy soon confronts the second villain of sorts, Sharavogue itself. The word Sharavogue comes from the Irish meaning “bitter place,” and it is the name given to a sugar plantation on the Island of Montserrat in the West Indies. The plantation system of the time depends on slave labor, and Elvy becomes an indentured servant struggling to survive against the customs, hard labor and the disease-ridden environment.

Because of her vow, Elvy cannot rest until she finds a way back to Cromwell to assassinate him. Thus, she seeks out the governor of Montserrat for assistance, and he is none other than Roger Osborne. In the 1650s, Osborne became governor of Montserrat when the original governor, Anthony Briskett, died. Briskett was revered for his vision and ability to engage and encourage fellow settlers and plantaton owners, and build a prosperous economy for the tiny island based primarily on tobacco crops. Briskett owned the best plantation on the island, married Osborne’s sister Elizabeth, and they had one son. Roger owned the adjacent plantation, but thought the grass was greener on Briskett’s side of the fence.

When Briskett died, Osborne’s palms must have itched to get his hands on Briskett’s plantation, but Elizabeth still wanted a husband and father for her young son. She married a Dutch planter and gentleman by the name of Samuel Waad.

What happens next is infamous for this period of history, and author Richard S. Dunn (Sugar and Slaves) lays it out like a play, listing all the characters by role. Picture Osborne, a massive spider, waiting for the perfect opportunity to weave his web and capture the fly.

Waad is a wealthy merchant and a bit of a dandy, but also very steeped in the rules of honor. When Osborne has Waad’s house guest arrested for beating a local tailor with his cane (what was the tailor’s offense, I wonder?), Waad is embarrassed and insulted. He writes a letter to Osborne that not only complains against the arrest, but goes on to call out Osborne’s corruption and whoring.

Waad is now ensnared in Osborne’s trap. Osborne is head of the militia, and calls the letter treason. Waad is arrested and, because it is a weekend, Osborne is able to call together only his cronies (and not the full militia) to determine Waad’s fate. The action is swift. Waad is executed by firing squad. Osborne takes over his estate and management on behalf of his nephew, who is Waad’s heir.

This story is true. I only wish I’d been able to find an image of Osborne to see if his countenance shows his personality. His interactions with Elvy are imagined and highly likely, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

Choosing a place in time

Part 3 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

pirate ship1670As noted in my last post, my research was leading me to believe I had a book on my hands, or at least I hoped so. I had already finished my first novel but it was lengthy and meandering, and though dear to my heart because it was written as a tribute to my father, I knew it was not marketable as it was and could not see a clear way to fix it. I had already started attending writers’ conferences to learn, and found them both helpful and destructive.

In particular, I loved the Surrey International Writers Conference in British Columbia, where I met Diana Gabaldon (I’ve attended several times), and the Historical Novel Society where I met Margaret George, among others. I did not care for the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in Seattle, where the speakers’ attitudes seemed to be “we’re published, you’re not and never will be.” When I sat down for lunch and realized everyone at my table had the same impression, I knew I’d never go back to that one. The Algonkian Writers Confererence at Half Moon Bay was limited to 15 people who had achieved a certain level of proficiency. I found it intimate, individualized, bonding, positive and instructive.

Among the things I learned was that as a new writer, you need to keep your word count down, because publishers are less likely to make an expensive investment in a new writer, and thick books are costly to print. The recommendation was between 120,000 and 150,000 words. It is tricky with historical fiction, because there is more to explain and describe, but it can be done. (As an example, Sharavogue comes in at just over 117,000 words and the printed book is 292 pages.)

I also learned, as we all know already, you must hook the reader with your first line, your first paragraph, your first page. There are certainly books I’ve read that did not hit this mark, but I think unless you have a friend in the publishing industry or something else up your sleeve, it’s something to strive for. Think of an agent or editor sitting at a desk surrounded by stacks of manuscripts. He or she will be looking for a reason to eliminate some. Don’t give them one. I rewrote my openings countless times. (How do you know when it is done? As another author said recently, you just have to write from the heart and hope for the best.)

At these conferences, editors and agents often speak on panels or you can learn what they are looking for during 10-minute one-on-one sessions booked in advance. I remember hearing one agent say enough already with the Tudor period. I saw that comment repeated on another agent’s website. So in part that’s the reason I decided to look for a time different than Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn or Elizabeth I. I decided to choose a time not often covered in books (the road less traveled, if you will); a time very important in Irish history that spoke to my own Irish heritage. And, one of my goals would be to help illuminate this new time period, because I believed readers of historical fiction wanted, just as I do, to learn about history as they read a good story. From Diana Gabaldon, while falling in love with Jamie I also learned about the battle at Culloden and the Scottish rebellion against English rule.

Of course, the danger in choosing a different time period is the agents and editors also don’t know it, so they don’t know how to sell it. I deeply admire Hilary Mantel who, with her brilliant books Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, found a way to approach the Tudor period from a completely different viewpoint: that of the infamous Thomas Cromwell.

I chose Oliver Cromwell, distantly related in the next century whose name still stirs hate among the Irish and admiration among some English, but definitely controversy among all. And I did choose this period, the Irish rebellion of 1641 through Cromwell’s march of 1649, but it also chose me. Once I focused, books and articles came to me that I had not really searched for, and then because of those I was drawn to other resources that I sought relentlessly for months. Pieces began to come together like I big, messy jigsaw puzzle.

All good stories must have a beginning, a middle and an end. Fairly early on, I knew the beginning of my book, and then I knew how it would have to end. I really had no idea what would happen in the middle. It took years of research and discovery, but slowly the middle began to take shape and fill in. On that day when I realized the two ends would actually meet, the elation was magnificent!

A King’s Demise

Bust of King Charles I in the British Museum, London

Bust of King Charles I in the British Museum, London

Three hundred and sixty-four years ago this month, England’s King Charles I was beheaded by direction of Parliament, with General Oliver Cromwell leading the formalities. King Charles was charged with treason, having just lost a bloody civil war and continuing to plot with is pesky royalist friends.

Charles I was considered a bad king. He signed away business monopolies to his favorites without regard to the consequences, taxed greedily and without consent of Parliament, and spent lavishly on his grand art collection. He thought he had the right: the God-given King’s Prerogative, to which Parliament did not subscribe. Plus, his wife was Catholic when the country most definitely had gone Protestant and Puritan.

In her book, Rebels and Traitors, Lindsey Davis does a nice job of describing the dramatic scene:

The King knelt before the block. He spoke a few words to himself, with his eyes uplifted. Stooping down, he laid his head upon the block, with the executioner again tidying his hair. Thinking the man was about to strike, Charles warned, ‘Stay for the sign!’

‘Yes, I will,’ returned the executioner, still patient. ‘And it please Your Majesty.’

There was a short pause. The King stretched out his hands. With one blow of the axe the executioner cut off the King’s head.

The assistant held up the head by its hair, show the people, exclaiming the traditional words: ‘Here is the head of a traitor!’ The body was hurriedly removed and laid in a velvet-lined coffin indoors. As was normal at executions, the public were allowed to aproach the scaffold and, on paying a fee, to soak handkerchiefs in the dripping blood, either as trophies of their enemy, or in superstition that the King’s blood would heal illness.

Kings had been killed before, of course, but most typically in battle by an opposing army, or they were murdered by some ursurper using a blade or a poison. But this was the first time a nation’s government had executed a king. Would God allow that? Apparently so, and it sent a shockwave throughout Europe’s monarchies.

It also freed Oliver Cromwell to begin the episode for which he is most hated and remembered — especially by the Irish. A rebellion against the English plantation of Ireland had begun eight years earlier. With the civil war won and the king dead, Cromwell was now free to descend with Parliament’s army upon Ireland to crush the rebels. And that he did. This is where the term “decimated” comes from: It refers to Cromwell’s order for his soldiers to execute every 10th Irish rebel, and the rest were shipped to the West Indies to work as slaves or die. This is where my story begins, in Sharavogue.

Assassins, Miles Sindercombe, and fiddling things

Miles Sindercombe was a fascinating surprise to me as I researched my book, Sharavogue. I was looking for any assassination attempts on the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in the mid-17th Century, because my protatonist would be attempting to do exactly that. Being American, I had never heard of Sindercombe, so I wonder if he is better known in the UK. He tried twice and failed to kill this uncrowned king.

Wikipedia gives a pretty good history of assassination that’s worth the read, tracing it back to 1080 and the Order of Assassins founded around the time of the Crusades. In Cromwell’s case the attempt must have come as no surprise, at least to his security crew, considering Cromwell had won a bloody civil war and then beheaded the king, Charles I. He also had led a brutal march across Ireland to put down a rebellion. The man did not lack for enemies and controversy over him continues to this day.

What’s interesting is that Sindercombe seems to be an unlikely and tragic figure. I was unable to turn up an illustration of him, but it seems he was a thin, mild-mannered sort who went by the name of “Fish.” A former soldier, apprentice to a surgeon, he aligned with others he met in taverns (i.e. Edward Sexby) who had fought against the Royalists but had fallen out with Cromwell’s policies.

The first plan against Cromwell was to shoot up his carriage as it slowed to go through a narrow pass on the way to Hampton Court. But, Cromwell decided to go by boat so the plot failed. The second attempt was to shoot Cromwell from the window above the side exit from Westminster Abbey where Cromwell would pass after hearing a sermon. But Crowell was surrounded by crowds, they could not get a good shot, and the plot was discovered. Sindercombe and his accomplices were arrested. Sexby was questioned by Cromwell himself, was sent to prison and soon died of a fever. He was the lucky one. Sindercombe was sentenced to a traitor’s death (the whole hideous bit, with the hanging, disembowelling while still alive, and body parts on pikes for display). To help him avoid this, friends sent him letters coated with arsenic which he rubbed on his face and neck, poisoning himself to death the night before his planned execution. His body was buried beneath the highway where no one could mourn him.

Cromwell made light of the whole thing, calling such attemps on his life “little fiddling things,” so as not to encourage the Royalist-spread rumor that he so feared assassination he was drinking himself to death. My recent visit to the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon confirms the rumor of his fear, if not the drinking. A display shows an inlaid cabinet of perfumes, ointments and soaps–a gift from the Grand Duke of Tuscany–that he never used, most likely fearing a poison. Cromwell’s doctor is quoted as saying “He is possibly afraid that they will be bitter, being fearful of his own shadow, so to speak, and living in constant apprehension of everything for he trusts no one.”

History has Cromwell dying of natural causes in 1658, but after his death his own doctor, secretly (or suddenly?) a Royalist, was rumored to have poisoned him in favor of the return to monarchy.

Following the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was not so fortunate. His life is revisited in the new movie, Lincoln, just out this week. His assassin John Wilkes Booth was trapped in a burning barn and shot by a US cavalry officer, and died from the wound hours later. It is an unforgettable episode in our history, unfortunately repeated several times.

 

Tale of Two Cromwells

When I talk to people about the setting of my book Sharavogue, and mention the name Cromwell, I get confused looks: cognitive dissonance. Most people have heard of Cromwell, but I am writing about the 17th century, and the man they tend to think of by that name lived in the 16th century, serving the court of King Henry VIII. After Cardinal Woolsey fell from favor by failing to produce this king’s annulment from Queen Catherine of Aragon, his protege Thomas Cromwell took up the work. It was Thomas who orchestrated the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who dissolved and destroyed the country’s monasteries and churches to fill the king’s coffers with their riches. By 1540, Thomas himself fell from favor and was executed for treason, though good Henry later regretted it.

More than a century later, Oliver Cromwell gained prominence through the Parliamentary army’s victory in the English civil war. And for anyone with a drop of Irish blood in their veins, it is this Cromwell who makes that blood run cold. Oliver shook the foundations of Europe’s monarchies when he beheaded King Charles I for treason in 1649, and later became Lord Protector (rather than king) of the English Commonwealth. But between those two historic events, he marched his army across Ireland to massacre the Irish people and crush a rebellion. If you’ve ever heard the term “decimation,” it comes directly from his practice of killing every tenth man among his captives, and shipping the rest to the West Indies to work until they died.

Cromwell by Antonia Fraser

Cromwell, by Antonia Fraser, including my bookmarks and sticky notes

Ironically, Oliver Cromwell wasn’t really a Cromwell at all. He was a Williams. As Antonia Fraser deftly explains in her definitive biography, Cromwell, Oliver descended from Thomas Cromwell’s sister Katherine, who married Morgan Williams. Their son Richard adopted the “more celebrated” Cromwell name and this continued to be used by Richard’s descendents. Apparently it was not uncommon during this time for families to adopt the name of a famous relative in hopes of benefitting from that prominence.

But wait, the ironies continue. The true descendents of Thomas Cromwell became Earls of Ardglass, and this family supported the Royalist side, opposing Parliament when Oliver led that army to victory.  And though Richard Williams took the name Cromwell as a means to elevate his family, eventually it backfired as the two Cromwells became one in the modern mindset, and in addition to the brutal killings in Ireland, Oliver Cromwell also takes the blame for the hated archtectural destruction perpetrated by Thomas.

Oliver does retain his fan base, however. Though hated for his violence and brutality in Ireland and his Puritan oppression of the English court, he is revered by some for his military prowess and for introducing the idea of a commonwealth for England.