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Carol McGrath’s ‘The Woman in the Shadows’ – Review

34379160Carol McGrath’s new novel is a wonderful insight into the world of the Tudor merchant class.

Elizabeth Williams, a widow who has inherited her husband’s cloth business, meets Thomas Cromwell, at her late husband’s funeral. She remembers him as a childhood friend, and from there a sturdy marriage alliance is begun. Like most marriages of the time, it is based on sound business sense as well as affection.

‘Lizzy, Master Cromwell is my new cloth middle-man. He would like you to show him your bombazine cloth. He has admired your mourning gown.’

We get a picture of an ambitious and somewhat closed man, one with latent power, who will later rise in society to be a great player at the court of Henry VIII. But all this is to come, and The Woman in the Shadows is a book that shows us another side of Thomas Cromwell, that of husband and provider. Through Elizabeth Cromwell’s eyes the author provides us with fly-on-the-wall detail of Tudor living, and the minutiae of the common rituals associated with birth, marriage and death, all within a living context. We are privy to everything about Elizabeth’s cloth business from monastic sheep breeding  to garment, including the sumptuary laws against certain classes wearing certain colours, and the difficulties that a woman at this time faces in trade.

‘Mother and I decorously arranged our skirts over the wherry bench. Mother’s green and gold gown complimented my pink kirtle with its new embroidered sleeves.’

The book is laced with subtle tension. Elizabeth fights off dangers from rivals in the business, unfaithful servants, an unwanted suitor and an arson attack, and she almost buckles under the discovery of her husband’s affair. However, the portrait we are left with, is one of a strong and capable woman, able to deal maturely with life’s trials. At no time does Elizabeth Cromwell seem like a modern woman in Tudor clothing – she retains her religion, and her position is always subordinate to her husband. Her life is one where she does not question her husband’s authority.

McGrath shows us the world of women and their servants. After one disaster, her mother urges Elizabeth to come home, but Elizabeth is quite clear that to do that would be to abandon her duty. As well as tender observations of female domestic life, there are also wonderful descriptions of gardens, churches, and the Augustinian Friary of Austin Friars where the Cromwells lived.

Some afternoons, as I listen to them play, I wish that time would stand still for us all. I wish we were a moment captured in a painting and that the moment will last forever.’

Carol McGrath has succeeded in doing exactly that. Through her words, the life of Elizabeth Cromwell has truly been brought out of the shadows.

Carol McGrath is a reviewer for HNS, 2016 HNS conference organiser and the best-selling author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy published by Accent Press. Find her on her website here.

The Woman in the Shadows BUY UK   BUY US

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This Deceitful light by Jemahl Evans #HistFic

61-HYgY6URL._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_Having read The Last Roundhead, I didn’t think Jemahl Evans could produce a better book, but This Deceitful Light is a tour-de-force. His character Blandford ‘Sugar’ Candy sits right up there with Rose Tremain’s Merivel as one of the great creations of a seventeenth century man. Opinionated and rascally, Candy gives us his take on the chaos of the English Civil War. In the process he gives us a realistic portrait of Cromwell and his unfortunate teenage son, the state of the English Theatre, and the battle of Marston Moor.

The story revolves around a murdered actor, and so involves a chase after the perpetrator as well as English Civil War skulduggery. As with the previous book, the footnotes are fascinating but distracting. I found the best way to read this book was to temporarily ignore them, but then go back to the beginning and savour each one. They are well worth reading and emphasize the amount of scholarship and research involved in producing the novel.

Here are a couple of Candy’s opinions to give you a flavour:

Most servants are mercenary sycophants. Keep them happy, pay them well, and they will desert you when a wealthier patron appears — I do not pay mine well.

‘Torture is a peculiarly continental affectation. The Ottomans are masters of the art – as I know to my cost – but it has never much taken hold in England. We have juries and common law – they have despots.’

‘Three hundred dead; ’tis what the newsbooks proclaimed after our victory. I told Mabbot ’twas drivel – there were at least five thousand naked corpses on the field the next day. I would wager more than a thousand were ours.’

This is a true treasure for fans of the seventeenth century or the English Civil War. I have no hesitation in telling you to go and buy it!

This Deceitful Light is due for release on 20th September. You can pre-order it HERE.

Categories
Blog Reviews Seventeenth Century Life

Five Novels of The English Civil War

last-roundhead-2My recommended read for this week is The Last Roundhead by Jemahl Evans. This is a one-off – you will read nothing else like it. Meticulously researched, this is the story of one man’s journey through the battles of the English Civil War. If you want to know what it was like at Edgehill, and experience both the ludicrousness and tragedy of the English Civil War, then look no further. Blandford (‘Sugar’) Candy is a vivid recreation of a seventeenth century man who gets caught between various allegiances and has to bludgeon, lie or bed his way out of trouble. One of the delights of this novel is the ‘voice’ of the character, now an elderly man, but re-living the fast and furious days of his youth as a soldier in Samuel Luke’s Cavalry. Bawdy, cowardly and courageous by turns, he is placed against the genuine historical characters and events of the time.

It includes copious notes and footnotes for the history buff.

So I can’t be accused of bias to Roundheads or Cavaliers, here are four more novels you might like to try – all set during the English Civil Wars, one of my favourite periods which has shaped all our English politics since.

 

royalist-rebelRoyalist Rebel by Anita Seymour.

The novel features the real-life historical figure of Elizabeth Murray, who serves as the novel’s central character.

Intelligent, witty and beautiful, Elizabeth Murray wasn’t born noble; her family’s fortunes came from her Scottish father’s boyhood friendship with King Charles. As the heir to Ham House, their mansion on the Thames near Richmond, Elizabeth was always destined for greater things.

Royalist Rebel is the story of Elizabeth’s youth during the English Civil War, of a determined and passionate young woman dedicated to Ham House, the Royalist cause and the three men in her life; her father William Murray, son of a minister who rose to become King Charles’ friend and confidant, the rich baronet Lionel Tollemache, her husband of twenty years who adored her and John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale, Charles II’s favourite.

 

traitors-bloodTraitor’s Blood by Michael Arnold.

Captain Stryker is a hardened veteran of the wars in the Low Countries, he has come home to England to seek revenge on the man who left him for dead and scarred him for life. Stryker is driven by loyalty rather than conviction to serve King Charles’s cause. He has no truck with aristocracy, preferring the company of a handful of trusted men, including sometime actor Lancelot Forreseter and his foul-mouthed sergeant, Skellen.

When the existence of a dangerous spy at the heart of the Royalist establishment is discovered, it is Stryker whom Prince Rupert chooses to capture the man before he realises the game is up.

Smell the gunpowder and hear the cannon fire, as you’re thrust into the mud and blood of the battlefields.

 

kings-manThe King’s Man by Alison Stuart. New Release!

London 1654: Kit Lovell is one of the King’s men, a disillusioned Royalist, who passes his time cheating at cards, living off his wealthy and attractive mistress and plotting the death of Oliver Cromwell.

Penniless and friendless, Thamsine Granville has lost everything.  Terrified, in pain and alone, she hurls a piece of brick at the coach of Oliver Cromwell and earns herself an immediate death sentence. Only the quick thinking of a stranger saves her.
Far from the bored, benevolent rescuer that he seems, Kit plunges Thamsine into his world of espionage and betrayal – a world that has no room for falling in love.Torn between Thamsine and loyalty to his master and King, Kit’s carefully constructed web of lies begins to unravel. He must make one last desperate gamble – the cost of which might be his life.

 

red-horseRed Horse by M.J.Logue.

1642. The King raises his standard at Nottingham, and Captain Holofernes (Hollie) Babbitt is encouraged to raise his, by the commander in chief of the Army of Parliament, the Earl of Essex.
Being Hollie – angry, miserable, hard done-to, ungovernable Lancashire boy with a shady past as a mercenary in Eurooe and a chip on his shoulder the size of Worcestershire – he won’t be told what to do by Essex. (Even if Essex does pay his wages. Which is the sort of attitude that’s got him into trouble before….)He doesn’t take kindly to Essex palming off a spy in his camp, although a less likely spy than gentle, kind, all round good egg Luce Pettitt – who happens to be a distant cousin of Essex’s first wife – you would go a long way to meet. You get a sweet, dreamy, innocent young man, and you put him in harness with a ragged, cynical mercenary. Drop him in the middle of a brutal war without an enemy, and he’s going to have to grow up fast. Find his feet. Become a competent, capable officer. Not get killed.

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Blog Seventeenth Century Life

A Seventeenth Century Quaker Character

One of the main characters in The Lady’s Slipper which has just been re-released, is Richard Wheeler.
Like all my favourite characters he is determined, strong and capable, but unlike most other heroes when the novel opens he has just become a “seeker after Truth” or a Quaker. Today we tend to view the Quakers as quite conservative, but in the 1650’s when the movement began they were seen as dangerous, radical, even insane. Through the latter half of the 17th century and beyond they were persecuted for their beliefs which were seen as challenging the stranglehold supremacy of the church. Even when they fled to what was then called the New World, the persecution continued.

Richard Wheeler was brought up as the wealthy son of a landowner, but his life changed when he followed Cromwell and his parliamentary troops in the War against the King. Richard saw this as a battle for the common man and democracy, so that ordinary people could have more control over their land and property. During The Civil War the English nation tore at its own throat and the battle of brother against brother claimed thousands of lives.
cromwell-at-siege-of-basing-house
Richard fought for Cromwell against his own ruling class, but the horrific bloodshed he witnessed made him vow never to take up arms again, and led him to join the fledgling Quaker movement which had made a pledge for peace. Quaker meetings are a “sitting in silence” – but the restless man-of-action Richard finds the silent reflection both refreshing and difficult.

Above is a painting of Basing House, which  was attacked by Parliamentary troops on three occasions. The final assault came in August 1645 when 800 men took up position around the walls. Between forty and a hundred people were killed. Parliamentary troops were given leave to pillage the house and a fire finally destroyed the building. Richard Wheeeler remembers his part in the atrocities of war and wrestles with his conscience, particularly as he finds he is attracted by Alice, his artist neighbour. Not only does she have radically different religious and political views from his own, but also she is a married woman.

Becoming a Quaker – giving up his fine things to live a simpler life – leaving behind his luxurious lifestyle and fine clothes, is not nearly as easy as Richard anticipates, but harder still for an active man is the idea of “turning the other cheek” when threatened or challenged. The seventeenth century was a violent and bloodthirsty period, a period in which hangings and burnings were commonplace entertainment, and Richard is trained as a swordsman in an era where to be manly is to be able to handle oneself well in a fight. So what happens when Richard becomes locked in a bitter battle against his former childhood friend, and worse, when the life of the woman he loves is in danger? Will Richard fight to defend her, or will he stick to his Quaker vow of non-violence?

My research for Richard Wheeler took me to fields where the Civil War was fought, to the Armouries Museum at Leeds, and to libraries where I looked at Quaker journals and George Fox’s diary. Richard Wheeler’s House was based on Townend in Troutbeck, Cumbria which was built in 1645. See the picture below. Weirdly enough, after I was almost finished with the book, and thinking of writing a follow-up, I found a real Quaker called Richard Wheeler in the 17th century archive at my local library. Moments like that are spooky, and bring the past alarmingly alive in the present.

townend-4
Inside Townend, Cumbria

This post first appeared at Historical Tapestry, why not visit them to see what’s new .

Pictures from wikicommons, unless linked.

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This Rough Ocean by Ann Swinfen

 

 Rough Ocean

 

Flood and This Rough Ocean

Two Families in the 1640s

I have written two novels set in the seventeenth century and both have their roots in true events. Like most people, I suspect, I’m heartily thankful I did not live in that tempestuous period, yet it is endlessly fascinating. Social and religious pressures had been building up over the preceding hundred years or so, and in the seventeenth century – in England as elsewhere – they exploded. Ordinary men and women were better informed, even more literate, than before. Developments in printing and the foundation of many grammar schools had contributed to educating a population which was prepared to question the traditional religious establishment and the social hierarchy. The dictatorial stance of the early Stuart monarchs, especially Charles I, was the final spark which lit this particular powder keg.

It is little wonder that the times gave rise to the revolutionary ideas of Levellers and Diggers, to confrontation between an elected Parliament and an anointed king, to clashes between Puritans and traditionalists. Opportunist land-grabbers fought with rural communities. Soldiers mutinied. Portents were observed. And innocent people – often old and poor – were sentenced to death for witchcraft.

The first of my novels set in this period, Flood, arose from my reading about how unscrupulous speculators seized the communally-held lands of East Anglia and undertook illegal drainage schemes with often disastrous results. The local people fought back, and amongst their leaders were many women. To compound the horrors of the situation, this was also the time of ‘licensed’ iconoclasts who smashed up parish churches, and of the monstrous career of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, whose fanatical search for victims ranged over the same area. I chose as my protagonist in Flood the daughter of a yeoman farmer who becomes one of the leaders of the fenlanders, fighting for her family and village, trying to save their lands and livelihood.

So how did I come across the account of this struggle in the first place? It was during my research into events in England in the mid seventeenth century for quite a different book. As part of the general research, it never became an element in that book but remained filed away in my memory, to emerge again later as the story of Flood

And what was the other book? This Rough Ocean.

I suppose I’m like most writers: some ideas come swiftly and are written at once, others stay with you for a long time, quietly maturing, like a fine wine.

We need to backtrack many years here. My father-in-law had done some research into the Swinfen family of Swinfen in Staffordshire, partly spurred on by another descendent who worked for Burke’s Peerage. It emerged that the family was very well documented. A Norman knight, shortly after the Conquest, had married the heiress to the Swinfen estates and taken the name Swinfen in place of his own (de Auste). As landed gentry, they were well covered in the historical record and early genealogies. Like most families of their class, they carried out their duties as substantial landowners over the centuries – not aristocracy but holding an important position in their own shire.

Also like other gentry families, they began to rise under the Tudors and came to real prominence in the seventeenth century. An interesting link with my own Christoval Alvarez series of novels is John Swinfen (c.1560s-1632), grandfather of one of the protagonists of This Rough Ocean. When Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason in 1601, his widow, Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham (Christoval’s employer), was deprived of her lands and her son of his inheritance. John Swinfen helped her to recover them from James I. He also christened one of his sons Deveroxe just after Essex’s execution, which must have taken some courage.

However, it was this John’s grandson, John Swinfen or Swynfen (1613-1694) who is the most interesting. He attended Cambridge and Grey’s Inn, then became a Member of Parliament at a young age. He was therefore at the centre of the most dramatic events of the seventeenth century – born while Shakespeare was still alive, he lived through the reigns of James I, Charles I, the Protectorate, Charles II, James II and William and Mary, and also through the Plague and Fire of London. He was caught up in the struggles between Parliament and the king. He was imprisoned twice – once by Cromwell for opposing the killing of the king, once by James II on a trumped-up accusation of being involved in Monmouth’s rebellion. Ah, the dangers of being a Moderate! Both extremes hate you! He lived long enough to be one of the founders of the Whig (Liberal) Party.

I found this entire career fascinating, and my husband plans to write the definitive biography, but I wanted to capture some of this rich life in a novel. Clearly the whole life was far too large a subject, so I decided to concentrate on the period immediately following Pride’s Purge. John and his Moderate colleagues had persuaded Parliament to vote to treat with the king on the basis of an agreement whereby most of the powers of government would be handed over from the king to Parliament. The Moderates rejoiced. An end to the Civil War at last, on terms favourable to Parliament.

The next morning, all those MPs who had supported the treaty were driven away from Parliament by armed soldiers of Cromwell’s army. The most important, including John, were imprisoned. The remaining MPs were believed to be favourable to Cromwell and his supporters, but many soon followed their consciences and withdrew, leaving the mockery of the ‘Rump Parliament’.

My novel, This Rough Ocean, tells the story of the imprisoned John and his wife Anne, who makes a dangerous winter journey home to Staffordshire with her young children. Once there she finds the estate and its people on the brink of collapse into ruin and starvation. She alone must take on her husband’s role, running the large estate and averting disaster. The two stories are intertwined, as husband and wife each fight for survival.

I have always been intrigued by the lives of ordinary people in the past. We hear much about great rulers and men of power, but dig a little deeper and there is a great deal to be discovered about everyone else, the poor, the quiet farmers, the craftsmen, the minor players in the large events. In Flood and This Rough Ocean I’ve sought to tell two stories of those turbulent years of the seventeenth century, about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

Buy the Books:  This Rough Ocean  US   UK    Flood   US    UK

 

Find out more  from Ann’s website  
Would you like to post on Royalty Free Fiction? I feature Historical Fiction about extraordinary people with extraordinary stories, but no Kings and Queens. Contact me at authordeborahswift at gmail dot com
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