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Review: The Bleak Midwinter by L C Tyler

Bleak Midwinter

The fifth John Grey historical mystery

1668.

John Grey is now a Justice of the Peace and lives in the manor house he has inherited on his mother’s death with his new wife, Aminta.

As the village is cut off from the rest of the world by a heavy snowfall, George Barwell is discovered dead in the woods. Grey is called to examine the horribly disfigured body amidst the rumours that the attack has been the work of the Devil as the victim had been cursed by reputed witch Alice Mardike just days before his violent death.

As Barwell’s father-in-law leads the villagers into kidnapping Alice and throwing her into the millpond to see if she floats as a witch or drowns as an innocent woman, Grey agrees to investigate the murder: his main suspect is the very man leading the witch hunt.

But if Grey can’t solve the mystery of George Barwell’s death within a week, Mardike will be tried for witchcraft – and the sentence has already been decided . . .

My thoughts. . .

I love these John Grey Historical Mysteries. Not only are they set in an unusual period – the 17th Century, but they are also riddled with wry humour. This is a difficult balancing act to achieve – both historical veracity and laughs, but this book has both, along with an exciting plot that keeps you guessing until the end.

The theme of this one is that John Grey is trying to uncover who murdered a man in the snow, and won’t give up even when the villagers are convinced it is the result of a curse by local witch Alice Mardike. They are adamant she is to blame and, not content with a ducking, are keen to subject her to the witch’s usual fate. Grey has to prevent them and ensure justice prevails.

There is a lovely sense of hierarchy in the novel between the rich and poor, the upper and lower classes, and between women and men. This is delightfully turned on its head by Grey’s wife Aminta who comes up with the best leads.

Altogether highly recommended, especially for Christmas.

 

Bonus! Here’s the video of King’s College Choir singing the hymn.

If you are interested in the 17th Century, you might also like my posts this week on

Animals in the Great Fire of 1666

The First Women in the Theatre

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17th Century Witchcraft by L C Tyler

WitchesAccusations

In 1664, in Bury St Edmunds, the judge Sir Matthew Hale* – great lawyer but ‘as gullible as the simplest peasant’ concerning witches – had to sit on a case of purported witchcraft. A child had become ill and was taken to a ‘cunning man’, who advised the mother to wrap child in a blanket that had previously been in the chimney and to burn any object that fell out of it. A toad fell out and was immediately thrown into fire, where it exploded. A local woman named Amy Duny was later seen with burns on the arms and body. Nobody doubted what must have happened. Amy was accused of assuming the shape of a toad and bewitching the child. Another child then complained that Amy had visited the house and given him tummy ache. Amy was put on trial. When she touched the children they began to scream, had fits and vomited pins. But observers began to suspect trickery on the part of the accusers. They blindfolded one of the children and got somebody else to touch her. The girl still screamed. It was clearly a fabrication. But Hale condemned Amy to death anyway.

The seventeenth century was a bad time to be accused of being a witch. The Middle Ages had been relatively benign – at least in England. The church had not, of course, approved of witchcraft. After all, Exodus xxii 18 stated quite clearly: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Nobody could say that the Bible celebrated excellence in sorcery. But in practice the punishments handed out were time in the pillory or penance. The first English statute against witchcraft was not until 1547, and that was not strictly enforced. The death penalty was introduced only in 1563.

Persecutions

That began one of the two intensive periods of persecution in England, which reached a peak around 1598-1607. The trial of the Pendle witches, hanged in Lancaster and York in 1612, is one of the best known cases from this first phase of witch persecution. The play Macbeth also dates from this time, Shakespeare pandering to the King James’s fervent belief in sorcery. James strengthened legislation against witchcraft and also wrote a book on Daemonologie, classifying demons into four groups and advocating witch hunting as a good thing.

MatthewhopkinsThe reign of Charles I saw a decline in witch trials, but a second wave of persecution occurred in the 1640s, led by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, who cut a swathe through towns and villages in the eastern counties. Between 1644 and 1647 he and his assistants were responsible for the deaths of about 300 purported witches. It was profitable for Hopkins, who reputedly charged the communities he visited £5 per successful conviction. His methods were the tried and tested ones. On arrival he would make enquiries about who was reputed to practice witchcraft. He would then attempt to obtain a confession by a combination of interrogation, starvation, sleep deprivation (the suspects were walked up and down to keep them awake) and the identification of the Devil’s marks on their person – any strange mole or blemish would qualify. Witches were supposed to have spots where they felt no pain, so the victims would be repeatedly stuck with pins until such a spot was found (or not). Any pet animal which came when called was assumed to be a ‘familiar’ who carried messages to and from the Devil. Suspects could also be ‘swum’ – thrown in a pond, often with their hands and feet tied, to see if they floated, survival proving their guilt. This last seems to have been regarded more a form of entertainment for the village than clear and unambiguous proof. Having been worn down sufficiently to admit their guilt, and finally get some sleep, the now self-confessed witches were encouraged to inform on their neighbours so the whole process could begin again. Evidence was also taken from witnesses though the standard expected was not high. Normally two witnesses are required in court, but since witchcraft was practised in secret and often from a distance, that could not be expected. One contemporary law book stated: ‘half proofs are to be allowed and are good causes for suspicion’.

Convictions

Though most of those accused were women, men were also convicted, including John Lowes, vicar of Brandesdon in Suffolk. He had made himself unpopular with his parishioners, above all through his defence of a local resident accused of witchcraft. They had tried several times get rid of him. Hopkins presented them with another chance. The chief piece of evidence against Lowes was not untypical of that which led to other convictions – he had given a mother half a crown to pay for the treatment of a sick child and the child had subsequently died. He was hanged in 1645 and insisted on reading the Anglican burial service over himself before his execution.

Hopkins died in 1647. Legend has it that he was himself accused of witchcraft and executed for it, but that is almost certainly wishful thinking. With his death, however, persecution of witches falls away dramatically. Neither the pragmatic Cromwell nor the easy-going Charles II encouraged witch hunts. By the 1660s most judges were sceptical of the existence of witchcraft. The gullible Hales was in this respect becoming the exception. The general public took longer to convince however and often put pressure on the courts convict. Sometimes, justices would give way and hang innocent women, just for a quiet life. One judge argued that it was better for an unjust law to be administered by the courts than for it to be left to the mob. It was not until the end of the century that public opinion swung behind that of the educated elite. The last trial for witchcraft in England was in 1717. The legislation against witchcraft was repealed eighteen years later.

Inspirations

Bleak MidwinterMy novel, The Bleak Midwinter, is set in 1668, shortly after the Duny trial. The narrator, John Grey, justice of the peace and lord of the manor of a small Essex village, is firmly of the view that witches are harmless and largely self-deluded. But when ne’er-do-well George Barwell is found murdered in the woods, having been cursed a few days before by the elderly Alice Mardike, the villagers are quick to accuse Alice of consorting with the Devil to bring about his death. For Grey, called in to investigate, this is a simple case of murder, albeit that the victim’s face has been mutilated after death. A lot of people in the village had good reason to want Barwell dead, including Alice’s most vocal accusers. But there is pressure on Grey to stand up for the villagers and condemn Alice. As the innkeeper reminds him, they give him their loyalty and pay their rent to him: ‘God bless you, Master John, they don’t resent that you were born richer than they were and can dress in fine clothes and drink Canary while they dig the frozen soil and drink small beer. They accept that that’s how things are and always will be. They just want you to do right by them in return.’ And that means hanging witches. But Grey insists on sticking to the law and, thereafter, the threats to himself and his family become more ominous. He is reassured by the fact that the authorities in London will support him, but then there is a snowstorm and the village is cut off from the outside world. Either he must find the real killer by Christmas Eve or hand Alice over to mob justice. And there’s a good pond for swimming witches right there in the village. You just need to break the ice.

As I note in the book, what made the persecution of witches so easy, at least for a while, was the willingness to set aside the normal rules for prosecution; the desire to believe the victims at all cost, however weak the evidence; the danger of speaking out against the accusers and the willingness of the authorities to go along with the prejudices of the mob. Once the juggernaut had been set rolling, the only safe thing to do was to travel in the same direction until, as all these things do, it lost momentum and ground to a halt.

But the fact that all things will pass should make us no less angry at the time – then or now.

*No relation of Supreme Court judge Lady Hale – or not that I know of.

BUY The Bleak Midwinter (UK)

BUY The Bleak Midwinter (US)

Len’s website 

Note from Deborah: I am thoroughly enjoying this witty mystery, review coming soon!

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Historical Fiction – Halloween winter reads #HistFic

The Dark Side of Magic

Sunday morning, and outside there is what my mother used to call a ‘mizzle’, which is a cross between rain and mist. Autumn is already here and after a hectic time launching Pleasing Mr Pepys, I’ve finally got the time to write reviews for some of the books I’ve read, including one I actually read in the summer. But it seemed appropriate just before Hallowe’en to feature two books which show the darker side of magic. In Anna Belfrage’s book the magic travels through time, through the Inquisition, to 17th century Scotland and even to modern times. In Pamela Mann’s book the magic is anchored in the Elizabethan world – it could be superstition or it could be magic – and Pamela leaves the reader to decide.

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A Rip in The Veil – Anna Belfrage

This one had been on my kindle for ages and came highly recommended, but I’m not really a fan of timeslip novels so I had kept putting it to one side. I think I always find that the actual time shift moment stretches my disbelief a little too much – the moment when someone falls through a picture, or gets sucked into a vortex. However Anna Belfrage is an expert at making the most of that moment, so I need not have feared it was going to be ‘too cheesy’. Instead we are treated to a moment which tingles all the senses, and allows us to feel what such a moment might really be like.

Of course being transported back into the 17th century gives Anna Belfrage a chance to refect on society both then and now. There is what you would expect – the repression of women, the narrowness of society, but also an understanding of just how violent society was before our modern judicial system, the importance of agriculture and land, and the lack of material possessions, all things that Alex Lind has to come to grips with in her new life in a new century.

More than just a romance, this will please readers who like accurate history, but also appreciate a passionate relationship that is realistically portrayed. I appreciated all the minor chracters in the book too, such as Matthew’s bitter and vengeful brother, and Alex’s traumatised husband, as they each have a story to tell. Multi-layered and exciting, this is romantic fiction at its best.

READ MORE

Birth of GossipThe Birth of Gossip – Pamela Mann

I met Pamela Mann at the Historical Novel Conference where she first told me of this novel which sounded interesting, and an unusual way to approach an Elizabethan story. Midwife Margory has never lost a child, but becomes the subject of malicious gossip by two other midwives who are jealous of her success. Things take a darker turn, when Margory is invited to attend at the birth of one of Lady Winchester’s children and things do not quite go to plan.

Through the book we learn Margory’s backstory, how she met her husband Arthur, and became a well-respected wife in a big house, and then how her fortunes fell. Of course it is also a story about witchcraft and about rumour and the deliberate blackening of another’s name, not to mention the responsibility of midwifery in an age before anaesthetic, caesarians, or edpidurals.

It is also a story in which the narrator may not be all she seems, and Pamela Mann skilfully uses this twist at the end to untether the reader’s presumptions. Told in the first person, we are privy to all of Margory’s thoughts, and her changes in status, and she shows a strength, even a stubbornness, which is very convincing. The cover, in my opinion, does not do the book justice, as it conveys none of the colourful atmosphere and detail of the times which are present in the actual story. Pamela Mann’s descriptions of the Manor and how much Margory regrets the loss of its heyday, are very atmospheric. All in all, this is an immensely engaging read which rattles along at a good pace.

READ MORE 

 

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Witchrise by Victoria Lamb – Historical Fiction Highlight


I have been interested in historical fiction for teenagers and young adults for quite a few years, and love to feature it on my blog,

Today I highlight Victoria Lamb’s latest novel for Young Adults, WITCHRISE, the third in her trilogy of books about Meg Lytton the witch.

I asked Victoria on twitter about how she enjoyed writing it:

‘There’s a scary scene in WITCHRISE where Meg tells the future using a homunculus made from a mandrake root; I loved writing it! I found that scene really quite frightening to write, and got the chills afterwards. Very spooky!’

Back cover blurb: 

Meg Lytton was born with a powerful gift for magic, as her mother and aunt were before her. But practising witchcraft in Tudor England is a dangerous business – as is hiding her secret betrothal to the handsome young priest, Alejandro de Castillo. Meg is called back into the service of Princess Elizabeth, who has fallen passionately in love with Robert Dudley – a married man. When Meg cannot foretell a happy future for Elizabeth and Dudley, the furious, tempestuous princess turns on Meg. Even more perilous, Meg learns that her enemy, the cruel witchfinder Marcus Dent, has joined forces with none other than the dark and ruthless priests of the Spanish Inquisition. She is in greater danger than ever – and her future with Alejandro hangs in the balance.

Find out more on Victoria’s website.