Although author Nancy Blanton may not be a household name yet, after reading her intriguing novel The Earl in Black Armor we think that may very well change in the near future. As we said in our review, reading the novel “is like sitting in the best history class in college.” So of course, like any apt pupil, we had a few questions to ask. We hope you enjoy this insightful Q&A into her work. —J&H
Jathan & Heather: Thomas Wentworth wears high quality black armor to resemble the king’s own suit. As formidable as the armor is, however, it is also painful for him to wear because of his gout. (Page 44) Why was it important for him to keep it on and what treatments might he have sought for his malady back in 1635?
Nancy Blanton: In the court of King Charles I—and well before it—dress was a means of identity, a statement of wealth, power, and nobility. Wentworth’s family had great wealth, but his deepest desire was to achieve the noble title. In the absence of it, to dress like the king made him appear to be in the king’s favor, hopefully bringing greater status. In Dublin, Wentworth wanted to present himself to his troops as a man of tremendous power, commanding obedience and respect. Wentworth’s suit of armor, along with his plumed helmet, likely weighed more than 100 pounds, requiring twice the normal energy to move about and putting much greater strain on his feet and ankles. To fully impress his troops, he was willing to bear the temporary pain. He didn’t realize that in Ireland, where the troops had little more than the shirts on their backs, he succeeded in generating resentment instead.
In his day, physicians still believed in the theory passed down from Hippocrates in the fifth century, that the body was ruled by the four humours—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. (They also still believed the sun revolved around the earth.) Gout was caused, they determined, by a settling of phlegm in the joints as the result of overindulgence in food, wine and sex. The treatments varied. A century earlier, Wentworth might have been served roasted goose stuffed with “chopped kittens, lard, incense, wax and flour of rye” while the drippings were applied directly to his swollen joints. Instead, his doctors would have bled and purged him as a means to restore his humoral balance. They might have wrapped his affected areas with poultices of horseradish and ground elder. Some of Wentworth’s contemporaries preferred to take no treatment, believing gout was incompatible with other diseases and thereby kept them away, and also that it gave them greater sexual prowess because it preserved the energies they might otherwise have used in exercise.
J&H: Wentworth is heavily reliant on Denisa to manage both his household and business, in Ireland and in London. (Page 112) Was this level of responsibility typical for women of her day? If not, what made her equipped to do so? And what was it about Denisa that you found most compelling?
NB: In most cases, women of the 17 th century had only the traditional women’s jobs such as cooking,sewing, washing, spinning, butter and cheese making, child care, nursing and helping on the farms by milking cows, weeding, binding sheaves and feeding poultry and pigs. In Ireland, women contributed significantly to the economy by spinning wool and linen yarn for export. But clearly these were not jobs for a woman like Denisa. She’d had enough of a peasant’s life after she saw the village of her childhood burned gleefully by soldiers. She became a woman who would do anything to survive and to protect her child, and deal with the consequences later. She is smart and beguiling, and uses both traits to find paying positions by pretending to be what she is not.
Denisa is purely a fictional character, but quite plausible for the way she enters Wentworth’s sphere. Wentworth liked women, and liked to be seen as the masculine hero. By the time he and Denisa would have met, he had married his third wife and was carrying on a “platonic” love affair with the Countess of Carlisle in London, to whom he played the tender but powerful male protector. He assumes a similar role with Denisa, but also keeps her ‘in her place’ by using her as window dressing and entertainment during his work day, calling on her to serve wine to his guests and assist him with his infirmities, and then toying with her as he allows her to open his mail. I knew what Denisa was going to do in this book before I started the first chapter. I love her because she is fearful, but she is fierce.
J&H: Outside the walls of Dublin, Faolán meets the young boy Henry for the first time. (Page 169) Why was it such a risk for them to meet under such circumstances and what dangers lurked beyond the city walls? Also, what was the age of maturity for children during this period in Irish history and what role did minor children play in society?
NB: The walls of Dublin have existed since the Vikings built earthen and wooden structures to protect their settlement from invaders. Later with the Norman Invasion, the wood was replaced by stone and the walls were fortified and expanded, because the growing settlement still needed such protection against any bad element, including rebellious Irish. Although there was crime within the city walls, you might expect some protection from the guards, from your neighbors, or from the local enforcement of English law. But the English continued to expand into Ireland’s greener pastures, and more Irish were displaced. Outside of the walls you were exposed and more likely to encounter desperate refugees, petty thieves, gangs of highwaymen, or much worse.
Henry, Denisa’ son, would have been about six years old at this encounter, and likely had just ‘breeched,’ or moved from a child’s gown or robes into a man’s garments in miniature. In normal circumstances, he would begin to spend more time with his working father, instead of being at home at his mother’s skirts. Boys would go to school shortly thereafter, or if they did not, they would be expected to go to work by age 10 or 12. A girl could be wed at age 12, but a boy was expected to learn more, and might wed at age 14. In Henry’s case, he was a gifted child whose peculiar behavior frightened some people. Denisa kept him hidden, fearing someone might insist he be removed to an unsanitary and inhumane mental institution where he might be abused, chained to a wall and/or starved to death.
J&H: Elvy tells her father, Aengus, a fabulous story filled with unicorns and faeries. (Page 246) What role does storytelling have in Irish history, and why is much of it filled with fantastic creatures? What is one of your favorite Irish stories that you encountered while researching your novel?
NB: Ireland is of course famous for its storytelling, particularly through music and poetry, by bards—poets or lyricists who help to preserve tradition through oral histories. Such traditions go back thousands of years, though much of it was forced underground by invading forces and English colonization. The fantastic creatures give the stories their charm. You’ll find them in probably every society’s myths and legends, I suppose because as with any type of literature, storytellers needed to grab their audience’s attention, and because children love outrageous things.
My favorite stories of this sort come from Irish mythology. Having a soft place in my heart for dogs, I love Fionn mac Cumhaill (sometimes called Finn MacCool), the celebrated Irish warrior, and his two dogs Bran and Sceolan. The stories are complex and sometimes full of words hard for an American girl to read, but they are fanciful and delightful, and the dogs are so smart, sensitive and loyal, as all good dogs are.
J&H: You provide us with a wonderfully descriptive introduction to John Pym (Page 322). How did you find such vivid details about him, or about any of your characters in that regard? And what are one or two of the most memorable anecdotes you discovered while writing The Earl in Black Armor?
NB: In Pym’s case it was mostly handed to me. The research made clear what he had done in Parliament, and his relentless drive against Wentworth. Pairing that to his portrait which is easy enough to find via an Internet search, I simply told the truth as I saw it. His contemporaries did indeed call Pym ‘Ox,’ because after his wife passed away he paid little attention to his cleanliness and appearance. Granted, he was my villain, and by the time I got to describing him my opinion was certainly tainted. Add to that, I was writing from Denisa’s very strong point of view. Now that I read it again, I’m not sure where I got the ‘yellowed overbite and one rather aggressive cutting tooth,’ but I do like it!
Some striking anecdotes that did not make it into the book were about Wentworth’s friend, Christopher Wandesford, and about King Charles’s father, King James I.
Wandesford had been Wentworth’s childhood friend and accompanied him to his Ireland post in an administrative role. When Wentworth was away in London, Wandesford stepped up as Lord Deputy, but his health was failing and, when he learned Wentworth was imprisoned, it took a turn for the worse. His physicians treated him by cutting a pigeon in half and strapping one half to each foot. Apparently, this treatment failed, for Wandesford died within a few feverish days.
King James I is responsible for instilling in his son Charles his strict demand for a clean, mannerly and orderly court. James, who bathed only once a year, was rather crude having grown up in Scotland where even palace life was more rugged and wild. The story is that, as king of England, James loved to go stag hunting on horseback, but he could not be convinced to stop long enough to relieve himself. Instead he would defecate in the saddle and dismount only after a kill, at which time he would warm his hands and sometimes his feet in the blood of the animal. I’m sure he was quite a sight when he arrived back at the palace.
And so I leave you with these vivid pictures, I hope more entertained than disgusted!
ABOUT THE BOOK
LOYALTY, BETRAYAL, HONOR AND TYRANNY IN THE REIGN OF KING CHARLES IIRELAND, 1635: When the clan leader sends Faolán Burke to Dublin to spy on Thomas Wentworth, the ruthless Lord Deputy of Ireland, the future of his centuries-old clan rests upon his shoulders.
Wentworth is plotting to acquire clan lands of Connacht for an English Protestant plantation. To stop him, Faolán must discover misdeeds that could force King Charles to recall Wentworth to England. Leaving his young daughter Elvy in the care of his best friend Aengus, Faolán works as a porter in Dublin Castle, and aligns with the alluring Denisa, Wentworth’s personal assistant. She, too, spies on Wentworth, but for very personal reasons.
While Faolán knows he should hate Wentworth, he admires his prosecution of pirates and corrupt nobles who prey on Irish merchants. Supremely arrogant and cruel to his enemies, Wentworth shows loyalty, warmth and compassion for family, friends and a few select others.A common mission takes Faolán and Denisa from Dublin to London and Hampton Court; to York and Scotland; and to the highest levels of court intrigue and power. But secrets, fears, war and betrayal threaten their love—and even their lives. And as Wentworth’s power grows, so grow the deadly plans of his most treacherous and driven enemies.