In your debut novel VEIL OF LIES: A MEDIEVAL NOIR, a fallen knight named Crispin Guest is investigating the murder of a London merchant who has been found murdered inside a locked room. What made you decide to write medieval mysteries?
I wanted very much to write historical fiction. I've always been a huge fan of historical novels. I grew up with them at home as well as a glut of history books on the Middle Ages. With an Anglophile mother and a father studying to teach medieval history, it wasn't uncommon to have a discussion at the dinner table about the British monarchy or some other point of English history. So when I decided I was going to try for a career as a novelist it wasn't a great leap to choose historical fiction. With a heady background in history under my belt, I began to write, and spent ten years writing novels and trying to get published. It was a no go. This was a time when historicals were all but dead and they were a tough sell not only to editors but to agents. I did manage to land an agent and she worked hard trying to place my manuscripts. Eventually, she suggested that I try writing medieval mysteries instead as something more marketable. I really had no interest in writing mysteries, mostly because I didn't think I could! But like anything you try, you merely have to give it a bit of research to understand what needs to be done. In the end, all novels are really mysteries when you get down to it. The reader doesn't know who is important in the story and they don't know how it's going to turn out. So I learned to write a medieval mystery, giving it that added twist of going darker and edgier and coming up with what I call "Medieval Noir."
* How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
Interesting question. Crispin and his friends are fictional, but they live in a factual London. The sheriff he deals with—Simon Wynchecombe—was indeed one of the sheriffs of London in 1384 (who could make up a name like that?), and John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, was a large figure in England's politics. He was Crispin's mentor and saved his life when Crispin was convicted of treason.
And there are cases where knights were "degraded", that is, forcibly dispossessed of their knighthood, with varying degrees of nastiness. It's really about the "what if" factor. What if a man lost his knighthood? How could an intelligent and clever man make a living? What were his options? And even though there was no such thing as a medieval private eye, given the circumstances, there could have been. It's not any more implausible than a monk or a nun solving crimes. It might even be more plausible. By using real figures woven with the fictional—and using them plausibly—it makes for a more compelling story.
*Tell us something surprising about women in 14th century England.
I think many people tend to think that woman played a very subservient role in the past, and though they may not have had the same rights as men, they certainly were not helpless. They could own businesses, though usually it was the business their husband started, and if they became widowed they were allowed to continue in that occupation. Which also included blacksmithing. Women were brewsters—ale brewers. They were potters and minstrels. They were allowed a lot of latitude. They even sued and were sued in the courts.
*How is Crispin Guest different from other "detectives", so to speak, in medieval mysteries, a genre which seems to be growing by leaps and bounds?
Is it? I'm happy to hear that! Well, Crispin is a bit different. The beginning of the medieval mystery genre can be attributed to Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series and soon thereafter there were other medieval mysteries with monks and nuns as detectives. Well, Crispin is definitely no monk! Though there are a variety of other medieval detectives on the page now, Crispin is a bit different in that he is of the hard-boiled variety. It's Sam Spade meets Brother Cadfael. He's a private eye, earning his keep on the mean streets of 14th century London for sixpence a day, plus expenses. He's not called a "private eye", of course. He's called the Tracker. Since his disgrace eight years earlier when he lost his title, his lands, and his livelihood, he had to make his own way with nothing but his wits. He's great fun to write because he's a bit of tragic hero, not really belonging to the people he now must live amongst and never again allowed into the community into which he was bred. That left him with quite a chip on his shoulder, but he also has an extreme sense of honor and a code of chivalry which he will not cross. Puts him in a bit of bind, sometimes.
* How did you research VEIL OF LIES, which depicts London society in the fourteenth century?
I love London; the London of today as well as the London of yesterday. It becomes a bit of a character itself in the books. And I'm lucky in that there is a wealth of information about London. London has been continuously inhabited since Roman times, and even a bit before, though it was never the settlement the Romans made it. There is so much information through archaeology—accidental and intentional—that is learned everyday. And because this is the time of Chaucer, there is a great deal of scholarship on the fourteenth century. This was the era of the Black Death; of English coming into its own as the court language where previously it had been Norman French; tournaments and battles; courtly love; a child king who, by the end of the century, is deposed and murdered. There's a lot going on and a lot of texts written about the era, including a medieval bestseller, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's masterpiece gives us insight into everyday people, not something you usually get in the histories written by their contemporaries.
So I took my cue from Chaucer's writings, certainly, but from many other sources as well. It's not just about the time period, even though I had a good background in it already. But there is also constant research in weapons, criminal law, heraldry, London itself, Westminster Palace, forensics, clothing, mores, customs, religion, relics, cult of the saints, language, landscape, histories of certain figures...the list goes on and never stops. But it's all good. Most of it never makes it to the novel but becomes backstory, background, or fodder for upcoming books. For instance, there's a lot of archery in the next Crispin book that will be released sometime next year, called SERPENT IN THE THORNS.
*In your novel THE FIRST VIAL, your protagonist, Lady Katherine, must try to survive not only the Black Death - which has devastated her village - but the machinations of a power-hungry priest who covets her lands. What drew you to this tumultuous period in history?
In high school I had a superb history teacher who stimulated my interest in the past. I belonged to a book club, from time to time ordered nonfiction books on history, and bought a fascinating book called Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph & Frances Gies. After a visit to Victoria, B.C. which included a tour of a replica of Anne Hathaway's cottage, I was hooked on the period. Gruesome but riveting contemporary drawings further enhanced my interest, giving a tremendous sense of the plague's impact on the people of the medieval period.
*In what ways is Lady Katherine typical of women in the 14th century.
Marriages were typically arranged by one's family. Katherine's marriage was no different. Paraded before prospective husbands she had but little choice in the matter. A considerable number of women owned property, in general it is thought, because men were frequently absent for war and other purposes. For Katherine to retain ownership in her dead husband's lands would be a fairly normal practice.
*How much of your novel is based on fact and how much is fiction?
The onset, virulence and results of the plague are based on fact. The actions of Edward III are based on fact. Victor's description of the battle of Crecy is based on fact. My characters and their story are fiction as are the village and castles in which they lived.
*Tell me something surprising about women in 14th century England.
There are rebels in every age and the 14th century had its share. Sometimes these rebels were women. Spectacular tournaments were arranged to celebrate the king's foundation of the Order of the Garter. (An account of the event that prompted the king to form the order is found in The First Vial). In almost every place where the tournaments were held, "a band of women would come as if to share the sport, dressed in divers and marvellous dresses of men – sometimes to the number of forty or fifty ladies, of the fairest and comeliest (though I say not, of the best) among the whole kingdom. Thither they came in party-coloured tunics, one colour or pattern on the right side and another on the left, with short hoods that had pendants like ropes wound round their necks, and belts thickly studded with gold or silver-nay, they even wore, in pouches slung across their bodies, those knives which are called daggers in the vulgar tongue; and thus they rode on choice war-horses or other splendid steeds to the place of tournament." – quoted from The Black Death by George Deaux. Apparently they caused quite a stir and there were rumors some women even went so far as to appear bare-breasted.
*How did you research THE FIRST VIAL?
My research came from a variety of sources – the public library, my book club, book stores and flea markets. Anywhere I found anything pertaining to the medieval period I snatched it up. I picked up costume books, books on building castles, books on knights, armor and jousting. I even found a terrific picture of the cross section of a castle, showing usual room layouts. Most of the descriptions of the plague were drawn from The Black Death by George Deaux. The battle scene was based on what I read in The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward. The Three Edwards by Thomas B. Costain added information about Edward III. Frances & Joseph Gies' excellent books, Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval Village, Women in the Middle Ages and Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, rounded out the balance of my research material.
Thank you Linnea! And feel free to visit Linnea Heinrichs online for more information about her latest novel The First Vial.
* DEVIL'S BROOD is the final novel in your historical trilogy on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. What was it about these two larger-than-life monarchs that fascinated you enough to write three books on them?
It is almost as if Henry and Eleanor lived their lives with the needs of historical novelists in mind. We have Eleanor, the only woman to wear the crowns of both England and France, mother of three kings and two queens. She went on Crusade, stirred up scandal, dared to take her destiny into her own hands by wedding Henry, then dared to rebel against him, only to exercise her greatest power in her twilight years after enduring sixteen years of confinement as Henry's prisoner.
And then we have Henry, who hired mercenaries and sailed off to England to overthrow King Stephen at the ripe age of fourteen. When he ran out of money, he had the audacity to ask Stephen to pay his way back to Normandy, and Stephen was so amazed and amused that he did! Henry then stunned their world by wedding the greatest heiress in Christendom. Eleanor had been divorced by the French king for her failure to give him a son; she gave Henry five. By twenty-one, Henry was King of England, and for the next thirty years he was the dominant figure in continental politics. When he was finally defeated, it took his own son to do it. History's verdict has been kind; Henry is judged to have been a great king. But as a father, he was grievously flawed. It was his tragedy that he loved his sons, yet he could not trust them.
Devil's Brood is really about the implosion of a family, carried out on an international stage. We have a husband and wife at war, intimate enemies who could only watch helplessly as their sons turned upon one another. And then, with an awful inevitability, the final act was played out, father against son, with one last betrayal upon Henry's deathbed, the most bitter of all. Now what writer could resist a story like that?
* How much of DEVIL'S BROOD is based on fact and how much is fiction?
As improbable as it may sound, Devil's Brood is based very much upon actual history. Obviously imagination has to play a role, but the book has a strong factual foundation. The internecine warfare between Henry and Eleanor, Henry and his sons, his sons against one another--it all happened as I relate.
What I do is fill in the blanks, proving motivation for their actions. For example, the facts indicate that Henry's son Geoffrey had a happy marriage with Constance, the Duchess of Brittany. They were almost always together once they wed, a good indication of the health of a medieval marriage. The reverse is true, too, of course, as in the marriage of Geoffrey's brother Richard and Berengaria of Navarre. So what I attempted to do in Devil's Brood was to show why Geoffrey and Constance were drawn to each other; they had common goals and were similar in temperament and ambition, determined to safeguard Brittany and their children's future.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 12th century England.
What an interesting question. I hope you don't mind if I expand the question to include Wales, for the greatest surprises are to be found in the land of the red dragon. None of this will come as a suprirse to those who've read my book Here Be Dragons. But it is bound to be startling to those who have not. A Welshwoman could not be forced into marriage against her will. Welsh law provided specific grounds for the dissolution of a marriage; this put Wales at odds with the Catholic Church, but gave Welshwomen a greater degree of independence than their sisters in England and France. A Welshwoman could divorce her husband if he contracted leprosy, if he was three times unfaithful, if he dared to bring a concubine into their house, if he was impotent, or if he had foul breath. He in turn could divorce her only if she'd claimed falsely to be a virgin on their wedding night, if her marriage portion was less than her family had promised, or if he found her in compromising circumstances with another man. And she had the right to claim custody of their children if the marriage ended, a right unknown in the rest of Christendom. The husband got the first child, the wife the second. Welsh law does not specify what happened if there were more than two children!
Returning to their less fortunate sisters in less enlightened countries, I initially found it surprsing that a widow did not have the right of guardianship of her own children. This was true mainly of the highborn, where property was at stake. The wardship of a young heir or heiress was a valuable commodity, too valuable to "waste" upon the widow when it could be used to reward a king or earl's supporters. Sometimes the woman was allowed to retain the physical custody of her children, but she had no legal say in their future.
Widows could be forced into marriage against their will, too. This happened to a character in Devil's Brood, the heiress Hawisa of Aumale, who wed Henry's close friend, the Earl of Essex. When he died suddenly soon after Richard became king, Richard "gave" Hawisa to one of his knights, for she was a great heiress in her own right. She balked at the marriage and Richard then seized her lands, holding them until she yielded. After a few years, she was widowed again and again Richard immediately married her off to one of his friends. When she was widowed for the third time in King John's reign, she paid John the vast sum of five thousand marks for the right to remain unmarried.
* In which ways did Eleanor of Aquitaine defy the conventions of her time?
Eleanor always saw herself, first and foremost, as the Duchess of Aquitaine, and marriage to the kings of France and England did not change her outlook. While on Crusade to the Holy Land with Louis, the French king, she objected to her husband's refusal to come to the aid of Edessa. When he insisted his crusader's vow obligated him to continue on to Jerusalem, she announced that she and all of her vassals would remain in Antioch. Louis was stunned by her defiance, by her meddling in those matters best left to men, and his advisers convinced him that she had been bewitched and/or seduced by her uncle Raymond, the Prince of Antioch, who had urgently argued that the crusaders must go to the rescue of Edessa. They could understand Eleanor's actions only if they were the result of adultery and incest, for to medieval men, Woman was above all a sexual being, a daughter of Eve, weak and easily led astray, led into sin. The result was that Eleanor was taken from Antioch by force. This scandal was to shadow her for the rest of her life; more than forty years later, an English chronicler was to interrupt his lavish praise of Eleanor's intelligence and energy with a snide, "Many of us know what I wish none of us did know. This same queen was in Jerusalem...Not another word, please...Hush!"
This was not the first time that Eleanor would pay a high price for defying convention. But she continued to blaze her own path. When her marriage to the French king ended, she shocked all of Christendom by quietly and quickly wedding Henry Fitz Empress, the nineteen year old Duke of Normandy, an act of open defiance to the man who was her liege lord as well as her former husband. She would later cause an even greater scandal by joining her sons in rebellion against Henry. History was rife with rebellious sons, but never a rebel queen, and while Henry forgave their sons--repeatedly--he never forgave Eleanor.
After Henry's death, Eleanor then acted as Richard's mainstay. Crossing the Alps in the dead of winter, she brought Richard's bride to him in Italy. She did what she could to keep her faithless son John from heeding the siren songs of the French king, taking military action against John's castles in Richard's absence. When Richard was taken prisoner on his way home from Crusade, she assumed responsibility for collecting the vast ransom demanded and personally brought it to Germany to secure his release. When Richard's captor, the duplicitous Holy Roman Emperor, pulled an eleventh-hour double-cross and demanded that Richard do homage to him in order to gain his freedom, Eleanor was the one who pragmatically and cynically advised her son to do so. And she played a major role in gaining the English crown for her youngest son, John, after Richard's death.
You notice that I've made no mention of Eleanor as Queen of the Courts of Love. This is one of the many myths that sprang up around Eleanor in the centuries after her death. Another is the legend that she confronted Henry's mistress, Fair Rosamund, in the maze at Woodstock and gave the unfortunate girl the choice of poison or a dagger. When Rosamund died in 1176, having piously retired to the nunnery at Godstow in her final illness, Eleanor was Henry's prisoner and had been his prisoner for the past three years.
Eleanor was a patron of the troubadors, just as her husband, her sons Richard and Geoffrey, and her daughters were. But she was never a disciple of Courtly Love. She was a political being, a duchess, a queen, a woman who enjoyed the exercise of power no less than either of her royal husbands did, and she played the game of statecraft with a sure hand, especially in the last fifteen years of her life, for unlike Henry, she'd learned from her mistakes. I think she would be very pleased that her fame has lasted for almost nine hundred years, not as the Queen of England or France, but as Eleanor of Aquitaine.
* What are you working on next?
I am going to miss Henry very much; after all, he was my houseguest for more than fifteen years. But I wasn't ready to turn the page. I wanted to continue the Angevin saga and I am happy to report that my publisher and editor agreed with me. So my next book will be Lionheart, continuing the story of Eleanor and her sons Richard and John and the daughter most like her celebrated mother, Joanna, Queen of Sicily.
Thank you Sharon! And feel free to visit Sharon Kay Penman online for more information about her latest novel Devil's Brood.
* In your latest novel MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN, you explore a period in Anne Boleyn's life that no other historical fiction writer has delved into very deeply. What fascinated you about Anne's early life and education?
First, that despite so many historical novels about Anne that have been written, none had touched on her education at the French court, which became so vital to the person she became. It was there she learned how to be the sophisticated young lady of many graces -- dancing, singing, playing the lute -- being the ultimate coquette. But she received an extremely progressive religious education from King Francois' sister, Duchess Marguerite, that set her apart from every other English girl when she returned to Henry VIII's court. While everyone else was an unquestioning Catholic and beholden to priests for all spiritual guidance, Anne was already conversant with Lutheran ideas and reading the bible herself in the French language. Later, of course, she was an important player in bringing the Protestant Reformation to England. As the duchess, as well as Francois' mother, were his closest political counselors, Anne also realized that a woman could be something more than a quiet, meek little plaything or brood mare to her husband. Besides that, Anne's early years in Francois' inner circle as a bright, very well-thought-of young woman, held her in good stead with Francois, who later became the only European monarch who supported Anne's marriage to Henry. She was witness to what was considered the most licentious court in all of Europe, and watched as her sister Mary was passed around from King to courtier to courtier, receiving the nickname "The English Mare," since all the men had "ridden" her. Finally, the fact that Anne was so precocious at such a young age intrigued me. She learned French so young (at eight, during a one-year stint in the Burgundian court) -- that she was used as a translator between the French and English ladies by age nine. This was one extremely accomplished female. It's no wonder that Henry was obsessed by her and moved mountains to have her.
* How much of MADEMOISELLE BOLEYN is fact and how much is fiction?
Strangely, this book may be the most fact-based of all my books, except perhaps its sequel (published in 1997) The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn. Where I played with "the holes in history" the most were around Anne's association with Leonardo Da Vinci. There is no doubt that they were both part of Francois' small "inner circle" during the time I wrote about, and most certainly knew each other, but it was my imagination that had Leonardo befriending Anne and becoming her mentor. The French king's deep friendship with Da Vinci was a fact, as was the secret tunnel between the royal residence of Amboise and Leonardo's manor house called Cloux. That the king took his nearest and dearest through that tunnel on a "magical mystery tour" was a scene I imagined, but it is something that I believe probably happened (though not documented in any history book). Her wonderful relationships with Queen Claude and Duchess Marguerite were well known. That Anne was present at the "Field of Cloth of Gold" is probable, but not provable. I believe she was there, and I wrote a long and important set-piece that takes place at that celebration attended by the entire French court and the English Court on a plain just inland from the coast of Calais.
* Tell us something surprising about women in 16th century France.
They bathed. I had always heard that the French, like most Europeans, never bathed and were quite filthy. But the wealthier folks not only took baths, but took them communally. They had bath attendants and used flowers and herbs and oils in the tub and even ate on special trays while gossiping the day away in the hot water. I thought it was so interesting that I put scene in the book that takes place during one of these soaks.
* In your next historical novel, you will be writing on the mother of Leonardo Da Vinci. Again, this is a subject that no other historical fiction writer has touched (I believe). In what ways was Da Vinci's mother an extraordinary woman?
The truth about Leonardo's mother, Caterina, is that we know almost nothing about her. There are stories that she was a middle-eastern slave girl, a servant, and a woman "of good blood." Some say she was from Vinci, some from another town. The age she was supposed to have given birth to Leonardo was anywhere from 15-25. All agree that Leonardo's father, Piero -- a well-to-do and quite ambitious Notary of the Republic -- did not choose to marry her, and that the infant was taken from Caterina the day after he was born, to be brought up in Piero's father's household.
Of all my historical novels, this had had the largest "hole" to fill (with regard to my main character). I had to use extrapolation to a very great degree. But my thinking was, Leonardo's father was a petty bureaucrat who gave his son no love (leaving nothing to him in his will) and didn't appear to have a creative bone in his body. The genius of Leonardo had to come from somewhere, and it wasn't a difficult leap to believe it sprang from his mother.
Some historians suggest that despite being separated from her son and her lover Piero (who married another girl nine months after Leonardo's birth), that Caterina became his wetnurse and very well might have continued seeing him even after she'd been married off to another local man. This gave me the idea (spoken of in history books) that this mother deeply loved her bastard son and went to great lengths to be close to him. Imagine how humiliating it would have been for this girl who bore Piero's child and was not considered "good enough" to marry, going to work as a servant -- wetnurse in that household -- and having to watch her lover marry another young woman. It was a fact like this that gave me the idea that Caterina loved Leonardo so much that she would actually follow him into Florence where he was apprenticed at thirteen, in order to watch over him as he grew to manhood.
Thank you Robin! And feel free to visit Robin Maxwell online for more information about her latest novel Mademoiselle Boleyn and her upcoming book Signora Da Vinci.