Romanticising Scotland: the impact of Historical Fiction on a Nation #historicalfiction #walterscott #outlander

Culross is a very pretty village set on the opposite of the Firth of Forth to Edinburgh and one of the locations used to film the Outlander series. Sitting in a café there I got chatting to a lovely American who was on an Outlander tour.

‘We did Edinburgh yesterday,’ she said, ‘and we’re doing the Highlands today.’

‘Wow that’s a long way in a day,’ I said.

After a rather confusing chat, I suspect for us both, I realised it was the locations used to film Outlander’s Highland scenes, rather than the actual Highlands the tour group was visiting. Having clarified we were in the Scottish Lowlands, we went on to have a good blether and agreed that Scotland was not overfull of men as bonny as Jamie.

The encounter left me thinking about perceptions of a country that are formed by reading historical fiction. There’s no question that Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series has given Scotland’s tourist industry a huge boost and all credit to her that she wanted Scottish locations used for much of the filming, however she’s not the only historical fiction writer to have had a massive impact on visitor numbers to Scotland.

I first became aware of Sir Walter Scott as a child on a rare and exciting visit to Edinburgh, when the iconic monument built by public subscription in his memory was pointed out. The tiers of sooty spikes and great height left me, even aged ten, impressed. Who was this Scotsman so famous that he had a most elaborate edifice erected in his memory (and, amongst many other accolades, Edinburgh’s Waverley Station named after his novels) and yet I’d never heard of him?

The Scott Monument, Princes Street, Edinburgh

I’d like to say I was curious enough to find out more, but I forgot all about the man, and his monument, until some years later when, as the reader in the family, I was given the complete set of Sir Walter Scott novels which had belonged to my great grandfather.

My hunger for books was vast, and mostly unrequited in those days. I started with Ivanhoe, which sounded romantic. I’d never read anything like it – dense, rich, complex, difficult – and medieval, an era I’d little knowledge of. But also frustrating…why did Ivanhoe ride off into the sunset with the vapid Rowena when Rebecca, a woman of power and strength, had saved his life. What did it matter that they were of different religions? I didn’t believe Ivanhoe loved Rowena. All credit to Scott though, for Rebecca was the first positive Jewish character I’d encountered in literature and a refreshing counterbalance to Shylock and Fagin.

Sir Walter Scott is known as the founder of the historical novel, in English literature. And not only did he create a great, and fictitious, romance about Scotland through books such as Rob Roy and his long poem The Lady of the Lake, he also influenced how Scotland appeared to the world. It has been said he ‘invented’ Scotland. Soon travellers flocked here and indeed he did for our fledging tourist industry in the nineteenth century what Diana Gabaldon has done in the twenty first century.

Some famous sayings from Scott's writing
Some famous sayings from Scott’s writing

Scott’s also responsible for a surprising number of expressions we use – see the tea towel pictured above purchased from his home at Abbotsford (which is fantastic place to stay – for more on this and Scott see my blog post

But Scott lived in the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh, not the Highlands. The Highlands has its own distinctive culture and Highlanders were often referred to as teuchters by Lowland Scots which, like sassenach, is a term of derision and contempt. Influenced by Scott, paintings of the Highlands were in demand, with the work of Landseer particularly popular. Yet it is sadly ironic that during the era Landseer and others were painting a stylized version of the Highlands, large numbers of local people were being brutally forced off the land to make way for sheep.

A Highland Landscape by Landseer

Queen Victoria read and loved Scott’s books and much ‘redesigning’ of historical buildings took place during her era, often influenced by his work. Here’s the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle. Its hammerbeam roof, completed in 1511 during the reign of James IV, is the only part which was not altered by the Victorians to fit with their vision of history.

The Great Hall, Edinburgh Castle

And what of the impact such romanticisation can have on a country and its heritage? The film Brigadoon, made in the 1950s, is about two American tourists coming upon an enchanted village while lost in the Highlands. The producer toured Scotland searching for suitable locations. Rejecting them all he returned home saying, ‘I went to Scotland but could find nothing that looked like Scotland.’ Instead he created his own vision of Brigadoon in a Hollywood set.

Tartan Clad Vending Machine, Kobe, Japan

Visiting our son and his family in Kobe, Japan last year I passed a vending machine every day which had been painted in the colours of Kobe Tartan. Scotland is famous for its tartans and yet their clan associations are a made up part of our heritage. The wearing of ‘Highland garb’ was banned after Culloden, although the Proscription Act was repealed barely thirty years later in 1782. By the time George IV came on his state visit to Edinburgh, orchestrated by Sir Walter Scott in 1822, tartan was fashionable enough for the king to appear in full Highland dress – but a much richer and more stylised version than anything that would ever have been worn in the Highlands.

Tartan as we know it is a construct of the early nineteenth century led by an opportunistic Bannockburn merchant called William Wilson who created a list of tartans by ascribing clan names arbitrarily to them. When Queen Victoria bought Balmoral Castle and be-decked it with tartan, then what the book ‘Scotland the Brand’ refers to as the Tartan Monster was born.

A wee whilie ago, I came across a guide who gives knitting tours of Scotland (love that!) She also does more standard tours which include St Andrews, the location of my first in series. The Castilians is about the siege of St Andrews Castle in 1546 and the inciting incident was the burning of a protestant  preacher.

‘I tell my tourists that story,’ the guide said, ‘and of how Cardinal Beaton stood at the tall window of the castle watching George Wishart burn with a glass of wine in his hand, his mistress by his side, smiling.’

I winced and explained there was no evidence Beaton’s mistress was there. I went on to explain that some historians believed the cardinal thought it was his duty to watch to the end and, from the research I did it appears he ordered plenty of gun powder hung around Wishart’s neck so his suffering wasn’t too prolonged.

I could see she was disappointed and suspect she may stick to her more dramatic version of this tragic event. Tour guides are there to entertain, as much as to inform, and as with writers of historical fiction, there is a balance to choose between accuracy and engagement. Walking up the Royal Mile recently I overheard a guide giving his spiel – ‘hangings in Edinburgh were attended by huge crowds,’ he said loudly so the large group clustered around him could hear. ‘And, as part of the party atmosphere, lots of alcohol was drunk which is where,’ he paused for dramatic effect, ‘the expression hung over comes from.’ His audience laughed in appreciation. Made curious I looked up hung over and, although there’s some debate as to where the expression originates, there’s no mention of it having anything to do with the after effects of over imbibing while watching a hanging.

So, if heritage, certainly in Scotland, has become a construct to bolster the tourist industry, then what about its history and the responsibility, of writers of historical fiction, to the countries we write about?

With my first book, The Castilians, I was exploring a significant event in my home town, which is also home to Scotland’s oldest university, and I felt under pressure to get the facts right. I was curious as to the broader ramifications of the siege, having only been told it from a post reformation and thus protestant perspective. Were the protestant lairds who killed the catholic cardinal really the good guys? They were not.

I believe that as a writer of historical fiction I have a responsibility to do my research thoroughly, whilst accepting I can only write from a 21st century understanding in terms of the history I retell and remembering it is about entertaining my readers too – else I’d have none. And yet, the entertainment factor is also responsible for the explosion in historical fiction set in Scotland seeking to capitalise on the Outlander phenomenon, much of which is both poorly written and researched.

Nevertheless is it really such a bad thing to romanticise a nation? Scotland, as with any other country, is an amalgam of what happened in its past and if some of that was fabricated then that too becomes part of who we are. In endeavouring to write fiction based on sound research then we can go some way to mitigating the effects of fabrication. And if tour guides want to tell a few embellished tales so be it because, frankly, it’s fantastic people want to visit our beautiful country.

References: Scotland the Brand by David McCrone, Angela Morris and Richard Keilly, Edinburgh University Press

The Seton Chronicles Historical Fiction by V E H Masters

Click here to buy in Canada.

Click here to buy in USA

Click here to buy in Australia

Click here to buy in UK

Murder at the Palace #Historical Fiction #Mary Queen of Scots #Reformation

Sited at the other end of the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle stands Holyrood Palace, built next to what was once an Augustinian monastery, and the site of one the most terrifying events of Mary Queen of Scots life, during her brief reign.

Section of Holyrood Palace in existence when Mary Queen of Scots lived there

In the 1500s, when my characters in The Seton Chronicles were alive the palace stood outside the city walls. It has been extended and refashioned over the centuries so what was there then was considerably smaller.

In 1548 the five year old Mary was betrothed to the Dauphin and left for France. I write of her journey in my second in series, The Conversos (see below for a short extract)

It was a miracle Mary arrived in France safely for the ship was beset by storms and a voyage which would normally take five days took eighteen, with weather in August worthy of the worst of January. It was said that Scotland didn’t want to let her queen go.

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots in mourning by Francois Clouet

She had a happy life in France and her future father-in-law, King Henri II, was fond of her. She returned to Scotland in 1561, aged nineteen, dressed in white – the shade of mourning – because her husband, father-in-law and mother had all died within a year of one another. And she came from the luxury and warmth of Renaissance France to a bleak and chilly Scotland.

The chambers in Holyrood were dull, dreary and comfortless but Mary didn’t travel light. She brought with her 45 beds, 5 canopies, 20 coverings and 20 bolts of tapestry, plus paintings, jewellery and furnishings. All of which was taken south by James VI when Queen Elizabeth I died and he became King of England, Ireland and Wales, as well as Scotland.

Mary made the best of things which wasn’t easy as a Catholic in a now Protestant Scotland. She was naturally drawn to people who shared her faith and love of music. David Rizzio, an Italian became her secretary and close companion. Starved of the entertainment she’d enjoyed in France and in an austere Reformation Scotland where singing and dancing were frowned upon and the Reformer John Knox openly castigated her, indeed had her in tears for so indulging, Rizzio must have been a welcome reminder of her life in France.

He was unpopular with many of the courtiers who surrounded her, as a foreigner who had too much influence over her. One night she was having a meal in the small supper room off her bed chamber with Rizzio and a number of her ladies when a large group of men burst in, including Mary’s husband Lord Darnley.

Mary was six months pregnant at the time and there were rumours spread that Rizzio was the father of her unborn child. The men pushed past her and dragged Rizzio into the outer bedchamber where he was butchered in front of her.

Murder of David Rizzio by William Adams painted significantly later – as Mary’s dress shows – in 1833

David Rizzio was stabbed fifty four times with Lord Darnley taking a lead in the attack. His blood stains the floor still – although I suspect it may have been occasionally re-reddened over the subsequent centuries because it looked remarkably bright when I recently visited the palace.

Mary gave birth a few months later, not in Holyrood but in a small chamber in Edinburgh Castle with a number of men watching to verify the birth of the future monarch. Darnley was called to see his new son, who would become James VI, and gazed down upon him as Mary held him in her arms

“My Lord,’ she said, ‘God has given me a son begotten by none other but you.’

Darnley blushed, one would hope shamed by the accusation he’d made of Mary’s adultery, and bent to kiss his son. She never forgave Darnley for Rizzio’s murder and when Darnley was himself murdered a few months later, she was held partly responsible. He was a vile man and here’s a retelling of a quarrel he had with Mary over dinner during a stay at Traquair House shortly after their son’s birth, and as reported by its owner.

Mary, who was feeling unwell, whispered in her husband’s ear she thought she may have been pregnant again and could she be excused from the stag hunt the following day. Darnley rudely replied:
“Never mind, if we lose this one, we can make another!”
The Laird rebuked him sharply and said he did not speak like a Christian whereupon Darnley replied:
“What! Ought not we to work a mare well when she is with foal?”

Holyrood Palace fell into disuse once Mary’s son James became king of England and removed there. By the 1800s, with the popularity of Sir Walter Scott novels, Scotland became a place for those with romantic sensibilities to visit, and the story of Mary Queen of Scots especially drew visitors to Holyrood Palace.

The Ceiling in the Audience Chamber painted to celebrate Mary Queen of Scots betrothal to the Dauphin of France

In the first year it was opened to the public 67,000 people visited and they had to fence off her bed to stop people touching it. But of course it was not her actual bed and when Sir Walter Scott stage managed King George IV’s successful visit to Scotland the dilapidated bed was at least replaced by one of red damask, perpetuating the romanticism. Indeed there is nothing left of Mary’s time in Holyrood apart from the audience room ceiling which was commissioned by her mother Mary of Guise, to celebrate Mary’s alliance with France and the joining of the Scottish and French Royal Houses – and, of course, David Riccio’s blood stains.

Here’s the short extract from The Conversos describing Mary’s voyage to France aged five:

The child hangs back, tugging on the hand which is pulling her forward. The wind blows her cloak and veil in a great swirl around her small body. What are they thinking of, to bring such a precious cargo out in a rowboat on a day like this?. His shackle companion nudges Will, inquiring, in Spanish, if this is indeed the wee queen. Will thinks before responding, then shrugs. It doesn’t matter if the man knows.
Eventually courtiers, ladies-in-waiting, soldiers, and small children are all uploaded. It’s early evening, and although it won’t be dark for many hours, a decision has clearly been made to set sail in the morning. Will has nodded off over his oar when he becomes aware the bosun’s chair is being prepared again, and up comes the Dowager Queen Marie. She is a tall sturdy woman with a firm line to her mouth, indicating great determination, but the worry lines across her high plucked forehead give a sense of the cost of such determination.

A small child bursts from a forward cabin, chased by her ladies. ‘Maman, maman,’ she calls. ‘Venez-vous avec moi?’ The last is said with such hopefulness that Will feels a lump in his throat and wonders what is wrong with him to be so sentimental about a Catholic monarch, albeit a small child.

The queen mother shakes her head but gathers the child to her and disappears into the cabin.

The two ladies-in-waiting stay out on deck, and Will, whose position is nearby, catches snippets of their conversation. ‘This is not wise…. the queen was settling… now we must deal with her distress once more.’

The queen mother emerges, face impassive. ‘She’s asleep now, you may go to her.’

Logie comes, bows low over her hand and escorts her to the ship’s side. ‘I will take very good care of our queen,’ he promises. She doesn’t speak but taps his arm in acknowledgement. She’s swung out, and after a few moments Will sees her rowed over to the ship on which she arrived.

Logie comes to lean on the railing nearby. ‘It is very sad,’ he says. ‘Who knows when, or if, our dowager queen will see her only, and much loved, child again.’

He is called away before Will can reply. Will sits unmoving as the dusk falls, feeling weary with sadness. Who knows when any of us may see our loved ones again, he thinks. But still his heart is wrung with pity for the wee queen hounded from one side of her country to the other because of her marriageability.


Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser

Notes from a talk on Mary Queen of Scots Bedchamber at Holyrood Palace

Note: Rizzio is the Scots spelling of Italian pronunciation, for his name was actually spelt Riccio.

The Seton Chronicles Historical Fiction by V E H Masters

Click here to buy in Canada.

Click here to buy in USA

Click here to buy in Australia

Click here to buy in UK

What a good Editor does

Margaret Atwood describes a good copy editor as ‘the person who will save you from yourself,’ and I have to agree. I am fortunate to have Richard Sheehan as mine. After he emerged from editing my most recent in series The Familists I asked him if he would share some of his secrets in a guest post, which he generously agreed to do.

So here it is… from the editor’s pen.

The manuscript arrives in your email – where do you start?

The very first thing I do I to set up a folder structure on my computer, which includes folders for the original file, the work in progress, and the completed manuscript. I then add all my standard files for my timesheet, synopsis, character list, style sheet, and editing notes.

Then I back all these up to my online storage, which I regularly back up to several times a day when I’m working on an edit.

Then I run a set of macros on the manuscript. These give me an overview of how it’s written. They show me the numbering style, the hyphenation, capitalisation, spelling errors, and so on. I work through the results of the macros and check what’s been found with the manuscript. Then I run consistency-checking software to pick up anything the macros might have missed.

Then I begin the first of two read-throughs. Every project starts this way. But from this point on, the process can differ based on what’s required.

I hadn’t realised until I started writing that there are different types of editors – can you explain a little about that and where you fit in?

There are several types of editors, and their titles vary a little depending on location, but basically there are the following:

Developmental, Content or Substantive Editors

This form of editing looks at the big picture of the manuscript. The editor will look at it overall, chapter by chapter, particularly in areas such as the structure of the novel, characterisation, plot, pace, and point of view. The purpose of this type of edit is to develop the manuscript with the writer.


The copy-editor works with the manuscript in a raw form before it is typeset and will look at grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalisation, hyphenation, use of UK or US English, consistency, style, and accuracy. Depending on the project, the copy-editor may also address some aspects of developmental editing and fact-checking.

Note: line-editing is based at the sentence level and is sometimes referred to as separate to copy-editing. However, in the UK, I’ve found that lots of copy-editors do it as part of their work.


Proofreading is traditionally done after the book has been typeset and is concerned with accuracy, quality, and consistency. A proofreader will check for typographical errors, spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalisation, hyphenation, layout, headings, pagination, front and end matter, and anything that may not have been on the manuscript that was checked by the copy-editor.

What are the most common errors you see your authors making?

Aside from the obvious typos, punctuation, and grammar issues (and I don’t mind that, it’s my job to correct it after all), these are some of the issues I come across regularly.

Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Formatting.

Tags first. Lots of writers feel that using tags like ‘said’, ‘replied’, ‘answered’, etc. is repetitive and that readers don’t like it. As a result, they begin using tags like ‘he laughed’, ‘she smiled’, ‘he cringed’, ‘she grimaced’, ‘he hurried’, and so on. These aren’t really speech tags. They don’t describe the act of speech. People don’t ‘grimace’ words. When a lot of agents and publishers see them, they think ‘new writer!’

It’s often best to stick with the more familiar dialogue tags. There has been research done that suggests that when readers see words like ‘said’ they automatically register the dialogue and ignore the repeated use of the tags. Of course, if there are lots of short bursts of dialogue with ‘he said’, ‘she said’, this can have the opposite effect. As with lots of things in writing, it’s about judgement.

I see quite a lot of dialogue formatted incorrectly. For example, something like:

‘Hi.’ She said.

It should, of course, be:

‘Hi,’ she said.

There are plenty of websites (and style guides) that will show the correct way to format dialogue.

Timeline Errors

Writing a novel is difficult, and keeping track of everything even more so. Even the most assiduous author can have problems synchronising all the action and events in their novel. Another eye on this can be vital in avoiding stinging rebukes in those reviews.


This is when an author is using a multiple third-person perspective and switches regularly between points of view. The safe way to do this is to use a specific point of view per chapter or section. It’s possible to change point of view within scenes and do it well, but it’s very difficult and requires a lot of writing skill. When done badly, it appears to the reader as if they’re bouncing between characters’ thoughts and losing track of what’s happening.

Style Sheet compiled by Richard for The Familists – where I confuse discrete and discreet

I’m always amazed what you do find because I genuinely send off my MS thinking ‘it doesn’t need much’ – and it’s amazing how many things I’ve missed. Have you ever received a MS which in your view wasn’t yet ready for copy-editing? If so, how did you decide that and what did you do?

This happens more than people probably realise, and delicate diplomacy is needed.

I usually realise pretty quickly if a manuscript isn’t ready for editing. Over the years I’ve developed quite a good sense for this. It’s why I ask for samples from the beginning, middle, and the end of the text. Sometimes the first few chapters have been polished, so it’s worth seeing other sections.

Writing a book is incredibly difficult and takes a lot of dedication, persistence, and the opening up of your imagination and inner thoughts to strangers. Taking the step of looking for an editor is also a leap of faith, and, particularly for a first-time writer, an editor needs to be very sensitive to the author’s feelings. If I get a manuscript that isn’t ready for a copy-edit, I always try to accentuate the positive and suggest if a different form of editing (perhaps a critique or developmental work) might be better at this stage in the novel’s progress. Sometimes I might propose that a writer joins a writers’ group to get feedback that way. There are lots of resources to help these days; usually it’s just a case of being pointed in the right direction.

I struggle with keeping track of dates, as you know having had to pick me up a few times most recently with the MS of The Familists where I had characters older or younger than they could be according to the timeline. Have you got any tips on how I might manage this better?

There are two issues here. One is keeping track of the chronology, and the other is keeping a record of characters. When I’m editing, I keep spreadsheets for both of these.

The character list is fairly straightforward and includes fields for physical descriptions, relationships to other characters, personality traits, significant possessions, and anything else that might be relevant during the progression of the story.

The timeline/chronology can vary a little depending on the structure of the story. From short timelines and keeping track of things by the hour, to longer timelines and keeping track of days, weeks, months, years, whatever is required.

This gets more complicated if there are several timelines and sub-plots, but it’s even more important because it’s easier for threads to get out of sync. And if you’re working on a series of books, then you need to keep a check on how everything develops over the writing of them, so you probably need to keep records over a period of years.

I’ve found spreadsheets are the best tool for me to do this. The most straightforward way of doing it can be to have a row for each chapter and allocate the columns to each timeline/character. It can get quite complicated, but it’s a good way to see at a glance if there’s a problem.

How do you balance keeping the author’s voice with making sure the editing is robust?

Good question. Firstly, as the editor, you need to keep your own preferences out of it. It’s the author’s work, and whether you would write it the same way is irrelevant. So don’t change things just because you think it should be done differently.

Look for stylistic techniques that are used consistently. The use of commas is a biggie. It’s almost like a fingerprint. Look for how dialogue and thoughts are formatted. See how adjectives and adverbs are used. How are sentences structured? Lots of short concise phrasing, or long, winding digressions with multiple clauses? Or both?

I don’t think of rules in editing, I think of conventions. And it’s okay to break conventions. So if a writer breaks conventions but the story benefits, stick with it.

Most of all though, remember whose story it is and ‘do no harm’.

Any Final Thoughts?

It’s hard to think of editing as a job sometimes, because I feel so fortunate to be reading other people’s writing and getting paid for it. So it’s a great privilege, and I see my prime purpose as trying to bring the very best out of the writing I’m working on. Sometimes I just look at a piece of writing and realise that I can’t do anything, it’s wonderful as it is, but that’s okay too – don’t mess with something that’s good.


I started editing after a twenty-year career in IT. I’d been writing for a few years and was looking for a change of career. I spent over a year completing courses run by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading) and The Publishing Centre, and qualified as a copy-editor and proofreader. I then started working freelance with publishers, authors and businesses, and I’ve continued doing so for the past twelve years, working on over 350 books in that time.

Richard can be contacted as follows:



Twitter: @RichardMSheehan




The Seton Chronicles Historical Fiction by V E H Masters

Click here to buy in Canada.

Click here to buy in USA

Click here to buy in Australia

Click here to buy in UK

Researching Constantinople of 1555

A visit to Istanbul yielded a rich seam of research for my most recent in series The Familists. Here’s some highlights.

Mehmet II besieged and conquered Constantinople in 1453 and simply moved into what the Byzantines had vacated, re-purposing and repairing as he went. The stunning Hagia Sofia, built nine hundred years earlier in 537 , as the principle church of the Byzantine Empire, became a mosque

Ceiling of the Hagia Sofia Mosque

and the church within the Topkapi Palace grounds was used as an arsenal.

Hagia Eirene, a church in grounds of the Palace

My characters find themselves in Constantinople barely a hundred years later, or more accurately, living across the Golden Horn in an area known as Galata where the many Conversos (Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity) fleeing across Europe finally settled .

Map of Galata 1500s

Conversos were originally expelled from Spain and spoke a Judeo Spanish known as Ladino (the Greek Jews of Constantinople who’d been there long before the Spanish Jews arrived spoke a Judeo-Greek known as Romaniote). I was very interested to see a child’s Ladino textbook in the museum of Turkish Jews in Galata

Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) Text Book

Galata is dominated still by its watch tower built by the Genoese when they captured Galata in the 1300s.

Galata Tower built by Genoese

The area was famous for its fish market even then, which is well worth a visit.

Famous Fish Market of Galata

I had debated whether a trip to Istanbul was necessary since I had already done a lot of research for The Familists and of course it would have changed dramatically since 1555. But I’m glad we made the trip for, apart from being a magnificent city, there were at the very least the vistas which cannot be captured in the same way through looking at images. The view Bethia would have seen whenever she crossed the Golden Horn to take goods to the harem in the Topkapi Palace or visit the Grand Bazaar would have included the Süleymaniye Mosque rising behind the city walls.

Suleymaniye Mosque built 1550-7

The Grand Bazaar established during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II between 1451 and 1481, is one of the largest and oldest covered markets still in existence, with about four thousand shops.

One of the Entrances to the Grand Bazaar

What I could never have captured from research alone was the sheer noise of the place as voices of traders haggling with customers echoed off its high arched roofs – and we were there in the evening shortly before it closed. I can’t begin to imagine how loud it must be in the middle of the day.

I am a lover of castles as those who read my newsletter will know from its regular slot covering ‘Great Castles to Visit in Scotland’ but the Topkapi Palace is beyond any castle I’ve ever visited. We were there for five hours and I barely touched the sides. Above is husband pictured at the beginning of our visit …and below after five hours. In my defence he did spend the last hour sitting reading the book on his phone.

Most fascinating of all was the tour of the harem. My character Bethia ends up running a business selling goods to the concubines who, of course, could not leave its confines. The mostly Jewish women who provided this service, were known as kiras. The harem is inevitably a more confined area than the rest of the spacious palace, with a view only of the sky from its narrow courtyards.

Within the Harem

Even the Valide Sultan (the sultan’s mother) reception room was surprisingly small.

Valide Sultan’s Audience Room

The eunuchs quarters are attached to the harem and also a dormitory. Indeed there were lots of dormitories within the palace for both janissaries and all the administrators who worked and lived there – around three thousand people in all during the time of Suleiman.

Dormitory with sleeping patforms – one of the many

There were men who brought the women of the harem their food from the palace kitchens and went out onto the hillsides to chop wood for the fires – making them a strange combination of servers and loggers. These young men wore their fringes very long so their hair covered their eyes. They were never permitted in the harem proper and any young woman who found herself in the area where they left the trays of food would be in trouble, along with the server. The Chief Eunnuch held great power and controlled the finances of the harem, so the kira were paid by them.

Eunuch guarding the entrance to the Harem

There were lots of museums within the walls of the palace, including those displaying jewels (too long a queue to wait in), armoury, kitchen equipment as well as the courtyard where Suleiman liked to watch his menagerie of lions in action. The museum I found most fascinating was that displaying the clothes the sultans wore.

Kaftan worn by Suleiman circa 1550

The garments were found when the palace was restored in 1924 and remarkably both Mehmet II and Suleiman’s clothes had survived for over five hundred years because of the way they’d been stored. The undershirts were especially intricate with the text from the Koran painted on in the most tiny handwriting.

Clothes worn by the Princes circa 1500s

It was upsetting to look at the clothes on display once worn by the sultan’s children and know that only the son who succeeded would survive after the sultan’s death – virtually the first action taken by a new sultan on succession was to order his siblings strangled.

Delightful display ofTurkish Delight

A grim note to end upon, so I shall leave you with a picture of the amazing Turkish Delight to be found in Istanbul’s many, many confectionary shops.

Click here to buy in Canada.

Click here to buy in USA

Click here to buy in Australia

Click here to buy in UK

My monthly newsletter offers subscribers updates on research and my writing as well as a couple of free short stories (available to subscribers only) and tales of my latest castle visit.

Subscribe here – you can unsubscribe with ease at any time.

Venice: Secrets of the Doge’s Palace and Other Tales

Visiting Venice last year I had the opportunity to delve into aspects of city life in the 1550s, all helpful research for the then work in progress, The Apostates. For instance, the current Rialto bridge wasn’t in existence when my characters were living there, in fact there was no bridge at all at the time since it had collapsed under the weight of a crowd rushing to watch a wedding.

Rialto Bridge designed by Antonio da Ponte, construction began in 1588 and was completed in 1591

The city fathers were determined to replace previous wooden bridges with a stone built one that would last (see the painting below by Carpaccio of an earlier bridge made of wood) and asked Michelangelo, amongst others, to submit a design. When the Rialto Bridge was finally erected, many assumed it too would collapse from the weight of the marble, especially since it had no central supporting pillar. The gondoliers no doubt were very happy that it took thirty odd years before the new bridge was constructed since they provided the only means of crossing the Grand Canal.

Segment from Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge, 1496.

In writing The Apostates it would’ve been all too easy to assume the current Rialto Bridge, finished in 1591, would’ve been in existence. It’s those small details which can really catch a writer of historical fiction out – or this one anyway.

My research is never particularly well planned, more a stumbling on curious facts and following my curiosity. For example, cities in Europe during the era were invariably bounded by high city walls, very necessary for their defence, and yet Venice has no such defences, apart from the Fort of San’Andrea. However the canals themselves formed a line of defence. There were markers in the very shallow water within the lagoon to guide ships and boats, which could, at need, be removed making any attacker likely to run aground.

Nevertheless I found it curious that the Ottomans had never attacked – if they could take Constantinople then Venice wouldn’t have posed much of a problem. Although at times they were at loggerheads, the two regimes kept ambassadors permanently in one another courts. Cyprus for instance, was under Venetian rule and in 1570 Famagusta was besieged by the Turks yet it never erupted into open warfare between the two states. The Venetians eventually surrendered Famagusta in 1571 but the Turkish commander, furious that he’d lost over 50,000 men, breached the terms of the surrender and murdered all the Christians left in the city then flayed alive the Venetian commander.

In response the Venetians, in an unusual alliance with Spain and the Pope, won the sea battle of Lepanto and displayed the heads of the Ottoman commanders on their ships (which I cover in the most recent in series, The Familists). But these territorial skirmishes never resulted in an open declaration of war between the Doge and the Sultan. The smooth flow of trade, it seems, was more important than territory.

Da Vinci’s design for a canal dredger

The islands of Venice sit within a tidal lagoon and the waters rise and fall by several feet each day. Even in the 1400s there was a concern about how to maintain the depth of the canals, which were the receptacles for all the sewage, detritus and general rubbish of the day. Leonardo’s design for a dredger was never actually built but it shows the pre-occupation with depth.

We booked a tour of the secret rooms and hidden passageways of the Doge’s Palace. Here’s the torture chamber where a prisoner could watch, from the small square window high on the right, his fellow inmate being tortured knowing it would be his turn next.

Torture chamber within the Doge’s Palace

The cells in the basement of the Doge’s Palace flooded when the tide came in so prisoners would find themselves waist deep in water every twelve hours. The wealthier prisoners were held in the attics, which had the benefit of being dry but they either baked in the summer or froze in the winter beneath the lead roof.

Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro in Piazza San Marco

The two pillars in St Mark’s Square, one with a winged lion and the other with the figure of St Theodore patron saint of Venice atop, were a gift from the Byzantine Emperor in the 12th century. Brought from Constantinople, there was a third column but it fell off the ship into the sea. In the era in which my books are set any member of the aristocracy sentenced to death would be hung between the two pillars and his body left swinging there for several days as a warning to others.

Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

Visiting Venice was incredibly helpful to get a sense of the sheer scale of the buildings and the opulence my character Bethia, a wee lassie from St Andrews in Scotland, would have been exposed to. In the first in series The Castilians, Bethia’s mother is obsessed with having a painted ceiling but it would’ve been much diminished next to the grandeur of Venetian painted ceilings such as the one pictured above.

The Scuola Grande was an organisation of merchants and others who did charitable works – a precursor of the Rotary Club perhaps – but they clearly needed a grand setting in which to meet and chat about those good works.

The mosaic marble floors too would have been stunning, and so smooth underfoot for a Scottish lass.

15th century Venetian floor reminiscent of the Dutch artist Escher

Venice is a city of light and water and flowers. But windows then still had opaque glass. Here’s one from Ferrara that has survived for five hundred years – not great for letting in the light but very beautiful to look upon.

Window of House in Ferrara dating from 1500s

My third in series, The Apostates, is set partly in Venice.

The Apostates by VEH Masters

To purchase in UK click here

To purchase in USA click here

To purchase in Canada click here

To purchase in Australia click here

How do you dig a Siege Tunnel?

If you’ve ever been to St Andrews you’ll know it’s not only the home of golf and site of Scotland’s oldest university but the town itself is steeped in history. Once a great centre of pilgrimage, the cathedral was left in ruins after the Scottish Reformation in 1560. Although I grew up in St Andrews the ruins were simply part of the backdrop of daily life. I was twelve years old before our history teacher, Miss Grubb, took us to visit what was left of the cathedral. 

Ruins of St Andrews Cathedral

We also visited the castle where there is there is the most remarkable siege tunnel, dug in 1546 and the best surviving example of siege tunnelling in Europe from the era.

St Andrews Castle

You enter it from the side of the dry moat via a steep and uneven few steps. Almost immediately you’re bent double and for anyone who is at all claustrophobic a quick retreat is in order. 

Entrance to Siege Tunnel

Creeping down the central trench, at constant risk of scraping your back on the rough stone above, you come to a fork which leads to a dead end. You retreat and continue along the main tunnel, the sense of being squeezed growing ever greater until you can barely draw breath. Then suddenly the narrow passage ends. There’s a wall of rock before you and nowhere to go. Yet looking down you spy a narrow entrance. 

Dare you squash yourself throughand descend the metal ladder to find out what’s below? Down you tentatively go and the space opens out. 
The tunnel is a tale of two halves and this part is broad and high with steps leading to the sealed off entrance beneath a house in North Street. There’s also a grating visible, which my brother and his friends entertained themselves during school lunchbreaks by howling down from the street above, to terrify (or perhaps create atmosphere for) the tourists beneath. 

From the moment I first went down the siege tunnel at St Andrews Castle I was utterly entranced. And when I learned the men who had taken the castle early one morning by stealth, murdered its cardinal in revenge for the burning of a Protestant preacher, and held it against all comers for the next fourteen months called themselves ‘the castilians’ I felt a shiver of foreknowledge. What a perfect title for a book, I thought… I didn’t know then how very long it would take me to write it!

I did however always wonder what the point of tunnelling in was. Surely as soon as the besiegers popped their head up out of the tunnel it would likely be knocked off? When I came to do the research for The Castilians I finally understood.

The information is in the name – I have so far referred to this long underground passage as a siege tunnel and was confused as a schoolgirl why it was called the mine and counter mine.

It was never the intention of Mary Queen of Scots forces (we are in the period of regency and Mary is only 3 years old) to tunnel into the castle, capture the Protestants holding it and thus break the siege. The purpose of digging was to undermine the curtain wall, set explosives beneath it, bring it down and then storm the castle.

This is why, when you go down the tunnel/mine it’s a tale of two halves. The first part is low and narrow and clearly dug at great speed. Once you climb down the iron ladder into the second part it’s wide and high.

The besiegers began to dig in what was then known as Northgait, now North Street, at the back of a house, and hidden from those patrolling the castle walls. The aim was to dig secretly and deep until they gauged they were beneath the curtain wall. They’d then support the roof of the mine with wooden props, set explosives around the props, light fires and run fast as they could out the tunnel before it blew. The explosion would bring down part of the wall, the troops would charge and the castle would be re-taken. 

But…this is the great era of siege warfare and those who are holding the castle are well aware their besiegers will likely try to get them out by undermining the walls. One of the ways those inside the castle could ascertain if mining was happening was to set up bowls of water around the courtyard and see if the water was rippling – a sign of underground activity.

False Start

In the case of the siege of St Andrews Castle those within were fairly certain the besiegers were tunnelling in. The aim then was to counter mine out as fast as they could and intercept the mine before the besiegers got beneath the curtain wall. 

The challenge was to work out where the besiegers were actually digging if they were to intercept them and inside the castle there are a couple of very deep holes to be found – false starts. Eventually they found the right spot… here’s an exert from The Castilians

They hear sounds of alarm; it seems they are discovered. Any attempt to stay quiet is given up and they excavate as hard and fast as they can. Someone has fetched Richard Lee and he pushes past Will, directing them to attack the ground beneath, and not before them.

‘We must be quick,’ he hisses, ‘else they’ll have time to set explosives and blow us into eternity.’

Will shovels the rubble behind him to keep the area clear for the miners to work – there’s no time to scuttle back up the passageway with it now. A hole has appeared in the floor of the tunnel. Lee has a man shield the candles, whispering that he needs it dark to see if there’s torchlight shining through from below.

Will, Lee and the two miners huddled together in the cramped space nudge one another, there is a light. They enlarge the hole, cries from below growing loud, then fading. Lee kneels at the edge, and sticks his head through. Will can feel Lee’s body tense, ready to pull his head back. He is a brave man. They wait.

Lee lifts his head out and smiles. ‘It could not be more perfect.’

I still wonder at the amazing feat to dig, and dig so fast. There’s little reference to it in the papers of the time. The French ambassador to the English Court mentions the mine and counter-mine in his letters of November 1546, but by December it’s over and the attempt to break the siege has failed again…

St Andrews Castle

If you’re ever in St Andrews Castle, don’t forget to go down the mine and counter-mine. The entrance is not obvious to find, sited as it in the side of the dry moat. It’s one of the most atmospheric places you’ll ever visit. 

And in answer to the question, how do you dig a siege tunnel…by cunning, subterfuge, courage, determination and punishingly hard work.

The Castilians, the first in series of The Seton Chronicles is available as an ebook, print and audio book.

To purchase in UK click here

To purchase in USA click here

To purchase in Canada click here

To purchase in Australia click here


Venice: A Sense of Place

My second book came out during the second year of lockdown. The Conversos is mainly set in Antwerp and there was no possibility of visiting the city in 2021 when all travel was forbidden. Several reviewers asked if I’d been to Antwerp for research, to the point I felt quite defensive. As it happened I had been there in 2018 but had no notion then of writing a book set in what was, albeit briefly in the 1500s, the most powerful city in the Western World. So I did have a general sense of the place, but not much more.

Arrival of the Spanish Merchants to Antwerp in 1560. Look and Learn

Most cities have, of course, changed dramatically since the sixteenth century and much of what a visitor or researcher can explore are museums, ruins and the occasional castle or house which is still habitable. The traffic, the clean streets, the smells, the sheer number of people, the building restrictions – for instance we’re no longer permitted to keep adding more stories to the top of our houses so they lean out over the street until they’re nearly touching the houses opposite – mean often a more accurate picture of life in the period can be culled from books, paintings and maps of the era than I would ever get visiting the place in the current day.

Here’s a drawing of Geneva from 1559, which I referred to constantly when writing the third in series The Apostates which is set in 1549-53. Calvinist Geneva was an austere place: dancing and plays were forbidden; murals whitewashed over; the manufacture of playing cards forbidden; brothels shut down. Yet before Calvin it was also known as the dirtiest city in Europe and he insisted girls should have the opportunity to attend school too. All this I learned from research and, having been in Switzerland although not Geneva, considered it sufficient to achieve a sense of place.

View of Geneva from an original drawing by Claude Chastillon (1559-1616) reproduced by kind permission of the Bibliotheque de Geneve

The Apostates is set mostly in Venice so I had the perfect excuse to go there, just as the world was opening up again, masks on and vaccination certificates in hand, and it wasn’t as crazy busy as usual..

Canal in Venice

Visiting the ghetto (the word originated in Venice and referred to the area where Jews were required to live) and especially walking through the same gateway which was locked each night to keep them in, was atmospheric. Seeing the tall houses with windows facing inwards and peering in to see where rooms had been spilt horizontally to cram in another family was fascinating.

The Ghetto in Venice where the houses were built high and crammed together

But I’d already researched this before I ever set foot in Venice.

Canal in Venice

So, did I really need to go there?

Venice, a city without cars, has not changed as dramatically as most places have in the past five hundred years and wouldn’t have looked so very different to my characters.

Torre dell’Orologio, St Mark’s Square Venice

Seeing the Torre dell’Orologio, the amazing clock tower in St Mark’s Square gave me an idea for a plot point – I hadn’t really registered up until then that astrology and the movement of the stars was found on clock faces of the era and much studied in the Renaissance. So yes, it was useful to visit.

But sometimes too much familiarity with a place can get in the way. For instance my first book, The Castilians, is the story of the siege of St Andrews Castle, Scotland, in 1546. There are a number of buildings in St Andrews still standing from that era, albeit many in ruins.

St Andrews Cathedral, destroyed during the Scottish Reformation 1559

I grew up in St Andrews and feel a visceral connection to its streets and of course I knew all about its weather – the haars that blanket the town in chill mists; the times when the east wind blows straight from Siberia; waves breaking onto the long stretch of the West Sands on a sparkling day.

It was easy to portray the setting, almost too easy with a place I was so familiar with for of course it had changed significantly in nearly five hundred years. For instance the harbour in 1546 had quays built from wood, which were actually longer than the current piers – and these were built from the stone pillaged from the cathedral and castle, destroyed during the Scottish Reformation. Doing the research was important!

Stone Pier at St Andrews, Scotland, the old wooden ones were longer

Some settings are impossible to experience, thankfully. I found a heart wrenching memoir about life as a galley slave by a French Protestant, written in 1713 but somehow I doubted things would have changed much from 1547 when my character is enslaved on one. As one lovely Goodreads reviewer wrote of The Conversos, ‘Grand characters and thrilling story. The place descriptions are unforgettable, and I will never forget the horrors of being a galley slave.’

Each place I’m writing about is very different and conveying the richness of setting and the world inhabited then certainly has me stretched. Three of my main characters are Scots and I could sense how stunned they’d be to come from the relatively small confines of St Andrews, albeit one of the richest cities in Scotland of the time to Antwerp, which had a population of around eighty thousand, then on to austere Protestant Geneva and from there to the opulence of Venice.

The Familists by V E H Masters

My current work in progress The Familists is primarily set in Constantinople and a trip to Istanbul is already planned. I’ve done loads of research but it’s not enough. This setting is just too unfamiliar to write about without a visit!

A series which never fails to get better and always leaves me wanting more.’ Esther Mendelssohn

To purchase in UK click here

To purchase in USA click here

To purchase in Canada click here

To purchase in Australia click here

Seven Ages of Man, Three Ages of Woman

Writing historical fiction set in the early modern period in Europe ( characterised as roughly from the beginnings of the Renaissance and the invention of printing to the French Revolution and early Industrial Revolution), I have been endlessly curious about what it would be like to be a woman in those times. My books cover events early in the period so specifically I was interested in what was it like to go through the changes that happen for a woman in the 1550s.

I began by thinking about how men were described.

Seven Ages of Man

The seven ages of man, outlined in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, was not original to the playwright and reference to these stages of a man’s life can be found in Ancient Greek Literature as well as in the writings of Horace. William Vaughan (1571- 1641) in his Naturall and artificial directions for health deriued from the best philosophers, as well moderne as ancient, wrote of each age being ruled by a planet, from infancy by the moon to the final stage, ruled by Saturn.

Woman is generally not referred to in these seven stages, except as an adjunct to man. Instead we are more commonly seen as having three stages – Maiden, Mother, Crone.

Gustav Klint, The Three Ages of Women. Wikicommons

In the early modern period the body was generally understood to be ruled by four humours… phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, blood … otherwise described as melancholic, sanguine, choleric and phlegmatic. Any imbalance in the humours would lead to sickness.

The Humours were also used to describe the physical and behavioural changes that occur during aging. People were born naturally warm and wet and, over the course of their life, this dissipated so that by old age they had become cold and dry. Since women began life with a colder constitution than men they were characterised as drying out more quickly.

The Four Humours Wikicommons

What food you ate affected your humour. Here’s a description of the impact of consuming garlic from Lazare Riviere, The Universal Body of Physick, 1657.

Garlick is hot and dry almost in the fourth degree, for outwardly it exulcerates the skin, but it is weaker being boyled than raw, and moves urine, excites the flowres [menses], begets wind, and hurts the eyes; it helps the concoction of the stomack. It opens the obstructions of the bowels, cuts thick and clammy humours, and cleanses them; it purifies the lungs, and makes the voice clear; it kills worms, and resists poyson, so that it is called the Countryman’s Treacle.

Here’s how women were advised to eat during pregnancy to balance the humours and protect the foetus

All meats too cold, too hot, and too moist, are to be avoided, as also the use of Salads and Spiced meats, and the too much use of salt meats are also forbidden, which will make the child to be born without nails, a sign of short life. Her meats ought to be Pigions, Turtles, Pheasants, Larks, Partridge, Veal, and Mutton. For herbs, she may use Lettice, Endive, Bugloss, and Burrage, abstaining from raw Salads: for her last course, she may be permitted to eat Pears, Marmalade, as also Cherries and Damsins; she must avoid all meats that provoke urine, or the terms; and such meats as are windy, as Pease, and Bean. The Compleat Midwife’s Practice, 1698.

Menstruation was said to occur because women lacked heat to purge superfluities whereas men could do so through their facial hair and because they sweated more. Excess or corrupt humours could also stop the menses by bearing sway in the blood.

Maidens and mothers were useful to men, crones much less so. But for women menopause freed them from being sexual prospects and an endless cycle of painful and often dangerous child bearing. This gave older women a modicum of independence which was by no means popular in a time when women were considered adjuncts of men.

A woman’s appearance was seen to be important, and more important than a man’s physical appearance, and thus the depictions of aging women are harsher. Women were said to age more quickly and within the descriptions of the seven ages of man, men have two to three stages within old age (only becoming toothless at the very end) whereas woman jumps straight from mother to crone.

The Old Hag by Jan de Bisshop Wikicommons

Here’s how Spencer in the Faerie Queen describes one old woman:

A loathy, wrinkled hag, ill favoured, old…
Her Teeth out of her rotten Gums were fell’d,
And her sowre breath abhominably smeld;
Her drieds dugs, lyke bladders lacking wind,
Hong downe, and filthy matter from them weld;
Her wrizled skin as rough, as maple rind.

Another way to characterise the Crone is as a Wise Woman but the perils of being such in the early modern era was to be labelled as a witch – much safer to be a Crone.

Diet in pregnancy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Michael Kaye Eshleman

The Medicalisation of Menopause in Early Modern English Medical and Popular Literature by Anne Graham

The Seton Chronicles are set in Europe of the 1550s.

For more information in USA click here
For more information in UK click here
For more information in Canada click here
For more information in Australia click here

Magnificent Pageant

A coronation is one way of royals putting on great pageant to keep their subjects entertained and conscious of their king or queen’s magnificence, as we are fully aware of in the UK currently. Yet during their reign monarchs needed to remind their subjects periodically of the king’s overarching importance and power. In the 1500s, the period in which my books are set, the kings of France and Charles of Hapsburg regularly went on royal tours, officially known as ‘A Joyous Entry’.

Joyous Entry of the Duke of Anjou in Antwerp on 19 February 1582

These were pageants beyond what we could even begin to imagine where towns endeavoured to host the most remarkable royal entry the king had ever experienced and also subtly sent reminders to their monarch of why the town’s burghers, merchants and dignitaries needed to be kept onside.

In 1549 the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles of Hapsburg went on tour with his son Philip of Spain. This extract below from their itinerary shows just how busy the programme was. They spent 20 months travelling across their territories in Italy, the Low Countries and Germany.

Extract from the itinerary of Charles and Philip Oct 1548 to June 1550

Philip was born in Castile and knew little about the lands he was to inherit, nor any of their languages, so the good burghers were at pains to ingratiate themselves, with each town determined to outdo their neighbour.

City Stage, Joyous Entry Antwerp: Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1550

They reached Antwerp in September 1549 and I used their Joyous Entry to that city as a plot point in my second in series The Conversos . It was a rich seam to research the preparations and symbolism for the royal visit, with some wonderful titbits of detail. For instance the merchants of Florence got into a fight with the Genoese over which group should get precedence in the parade as Papa tells…

‘The Genoese claim they had precedence in both Granada in 1526 and then at Charles’s coronation in Bologna in 1530. The Florentines counterclaim that Florence was not present at either Granada nor Bologna and therefore the Genoese claims are an irrelevance – and refer to events nigh on a quarter of a century ago. The world has changed much since then.’

And how was it to be resolved?

‘We have reached an impasse. All that can be done is for the two delegations to lay their case before the emperor and let him decide. My advice to both would be not to do such a thing. It will only incur his displeasure, and this is a time to seek favour.’

Wise advice from Papa which unfortunately wasn’t followed for, when presented with the case, Charles of Hapsburg, who was nobody’s fool, declined to make the decision and ordered both parties to withdraw from the event. It’s interesting to note there are rumours at the moment of our current king in the UK having to resolve disputes – almost inevitable, I suppose.

Here’s a little more from The Conversos on the preparations…

There are men working even though the sun is long set. The curfew has been relaxed, for the city must work night and day to complete the preparations in time. Many have stripped to the waist, and the torchlight plays across their skin. There’s something otherworldly about watching them swarming over the structures like large fiery devils. The designer, moves anxiously among them, regularly calling out for them to take care.
‘And this is only one of many that van Aelst is overseeing,’ Mainard says. ‘Come, I would take you to the gate through which Charles and Philip will enter.’

They pass beneath a triumphal arch and Bethia stands in its centre looking up. ‘It’s like a temple.’

Mainard nods enthusiastically. ‘Good, it is indeed – the design is inspired by the Temple of Janus. And see how they have used the colossi to look as though they are supporting the whole structure. It’s the story of Antwerp; our wealth and industry is a foundation for the emperor’s greatness. But I want to show you the German arch.’

Bethia stands before it, amazed. The white marble of the double arch glows ghostly in the night. Beneath the arch, tall niches have been carved. She points. ‘What is to go here?’

‘Golden statutes, one of Charles and one of Philip, will be lowered into place closer to the day, for they will need guarding.

Bethia stares up at the inscriptions already carved above the niches. Mainard borrows a torch from a sconce, ignoring the men at work who grumble at the withdrawal of their light.

‘Immortalis fama,’ she reads. ‘I suppose that refers to the emperor and his son. Their fame will never die.’

‘And Disciplina,’ says Mainard, waving his hand to the other inscription. ‘Learning and Immortal Fame – the perfect combination.’

Triumphal Arch depicting Charles of Hapsburg and Philip of Spain carrying the world – Antwerp Joyous Entry 1549

But not everyone is happy and there is much grumbling about the money being spent. When the event is disrupted by a thunderstorm it’s seen as an ill omen and a sign that God also disapproved of the excessive nature of the celebrations.

Henri II of France’s Grand Entry to Rouen 1550

In the current work-in-progress my character Will gets caught up in the siege of Rouen. Doing some research I came across a wonderful description of King Henri II’s royal entry to Rouen as part of his Grand Tour in 1550. ‘Its citizens were determined that in case mythology and symbolism had lost their pristine charms, an absolutely novel entertainment should be given to the King on this occasion. So on the fields between the Couvent des Emmurées and the left bank of the Seine a great sham fight was arranged between a number of Norman sailors and fifty of the newly discovered tribe of Tupinambas from Brazil (where the sailors had been trading) , clad only in their own skins and a few stripes of paint.’

Apparently the novel entertainment was well received by the ladies of the party which included Henri II’s wife, Catherine de Médici and his mistress Diane de Poitiers. The king displayed Diane’s crescent throughout and one cannot but sympathise with Catherine de Medici for the endless public humiliations she had to impassively endure.

Mary Queen of Scots and her mother Mary of Guise, Dowager Queen of Scotland

The king was also accompanied at Rouen by Marie of Guise, Queen-Dowager of Scotland, who was on a short visit to France to be with her daughter the future Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary was only eight years old and hadn’t seen her mother since she was sent to France aged five (the treacherous journey is described in The Conversos) to escape from England’s Rough Wooing. This visit was the last time she would ever see her mother, who died shortly before Mary returned to Scotland ten years later.


Mark A. Meadow, “Met geschickter ordenen”: The Rhetoric of Place in Philip II’s 1549 Antwerp “Blijde Incompst”

Christophe Schellekens, The Antwerp Joyous Entry of 1549 The Florentine-Genoese conflict as a window on the role of a trading nation in political cultural transfers

USA: here

Canada: here

UK: here

Hidden Christians and Japan

My sister, who is the family genealogist, tells we have an ancestor who came to Kobe, Japan as a missionary from 1907 to 1920. Mostly our ancestors have been a rather dull lot – no marriage to a duke or duchess, Highland robber nor great inventor; only the odd child born the wrong side of the blanket (such a horrible expression, note to self not to use again) to add a frisson of interest.

Vista of Kobe from the Herb Garden Ropeway

But a missionary in Kobe is of particular note because our eldest has lived there for the past eighteen years. And, as an inveterate reader of all the Anne of Green Gables books, it reminds me of something which puzzled me greatly aged eleven. In Anne of the Island, I think, Aunt Jamesina goes off to visit her daughter who is a missionary in Japan, despite her fear of snakes. Why, I wondered, would missionaries go to Japan?

Sorakuen Garden in the centre of Kobe

Why indeed. Yuval Noah Harari writes in Sapiens that Buddhism, Islam and Christianity are all examples of religions which actively seek new members – whereas Judaism and Hinduism, for instance, do not.

Mary Taylor, my great grandfather’s cousin, was not part of the first wave of missionaries to Japan, which happened much earlier. In 1549, which is the point at which the Reformation is gathering speed in Europe, Francis Xavier, a Portuguese missionary, steps foot on Japanese soil.

Francis Xavier, first missionary to Japan 1549

The Shogun tolerated the mission hoping it would improve trade but soon grew suspicious of this foreign influence especially when rumours spread this was how these foreigners infiltrated a country; first by sending missionaries who scoped the land and then following it up by military conquest. And indeed the Jesuits were involved in the trade and the supply of guns in Japan – which is why the Shoguns withdrew their permission to proselytising missions.

Many foreign missionaries were killed along with their converts. Most well known are the twenty six martyrs of Japan –  four Franciscan missionaries from Spain, one from Portugal and Mexico, respectively, three Japanese Jesuits and seventeen Japanese members of the Third Order of St Francis  including three young altar boys. In 1597 they were tortured, mutilated, and paraded through villages across Japan, before being crucified where they were impaled with lances while tied to crosses… shades of Vlad the Impaler a hundred years earlier in Europe (see my post here for more info)

Still in 1614 a samurai, Hasekura Tsunenaga, along with over a hundred Japanese and twenty other sumurai travelled, via Mexico which was then known as New Spain, stopped off in old Spain where he was baptised and given a Christian name, to Rome where he met the Pope. The purpose of the journey was however more about brokering trade deals than embracing a new religion.

Samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga who travelled from Japan to Rome in 1619

By the time he returned to Japan in 1620, Christianity was officially outlawed and he had to renounce his new religion. All Japanese Christians were forced to convert much as Jews were in Spain and Portugal – the impact of which is a theme in my novel The Conversos.

From then on Christianity was hidden and the numbers dwindled. Still it was secretly practised and concealed much as the Jewish Conversos did, as well as French Huguenots, during the Reformation.

These groups in Japan were known as Hidden Christians and secreted christian symbols in shrines, lanterns and within buildings. In Himeji Castle a christian cross was found carved in one of its seventeenth century roof tiles.

Himeji Castle where a Christian Cross was found on one of its roof tiles

Martin Scorsese’s film Silence, based on the novel by Shusako Endo, is a powerful telling of the story of Hidden Christians and determined missionaries. But of course christian missionaries, certainly by the time my ancestor popped up in Japan, didn’t only bring faith they also thought it vital to ‘civilise’ which included having a ‘christian’ name, dressing ‘appropriately’ and following christian rituals.

The first Protestant mission to Japan came in 1859, soon after the United States negotiated a trade deal in 1853, and a Japanese translation of the bible was quickly made available.

On a recent visit to Kobe we walked daily through the Kitano area, now a much visited cultural curiosity, but once the part of Kobe where the foreign merchants and diplomats lived in large Western style homes. Many were built around 1907, and no doubt my ancestor strolled past them too.

German House in Kitano, Kobe

There’s even an English house with a Sherlock Holmes room, and the opportunity to dress up as the great detective which, judging by the queues, is popular.

Queuing for the English House with its Sherlock Holmes experience

Another place of curiosity on our daily walk between our apartment and our son and daughter-in-law’s home was the Center for Overseas Migration and Cultural Integration.

Center for Overseas and Cultural Migration, Kobe

Wandering inside I discovered an exhibition about emigration, mainly to Brazil – over a quarter of a million people went there from Kobe alone. Kobe was the port of embarkation for Japan and the exhibition focuses on shipboard life but says little of the hardships immigrants endured once they arrived.

Journey to Brazil

In a period of famines Japanese people looked to go overseas, make some money and bring it home. The United States and Australia had policies limiting ‘non European’ immigration but other countries needed cheap labour especially Brazil. The coffee plantation owners wanted to ensure immigrants would stay so they only took families, and once there they were trapped as it was almost impossible for the family to save enough money for them all to return.

Japanese people in Brazil remained apart, schooled their children separately and inter-married.

Work on the coffee plantations

As for my missionary ancestor, who left Japan finally in 1920, it seems she did not resettle in Scotland for she died in Canada in the 1940s. I wonder what she made of her time in Japan and if she felt her attempt to bring Protestantism to it worthwhile. There are Evangelical Missions here still, mainly from North America and having a white wedding is popular – but without the christian ceremony.

We were visiting Kobe soon after the birth of our youngest grandchild and were fortunate to attend his naming ceremony in a Buddhist Temple. Wonder what Cousin Mary would’ve had to say to that…

Naming Ceremony at Buddhist Temple

My books are available on kindle unlimited and can be ordered from here…



as well as in bookshops and all Amazon online stores. None set in Japan yet, but who knows!


Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
Isikawa Akito, A Little Faith: Christianity and the Japanese
A. C. Palfreeman, Non-White Immigration to Australia
Wikipedia – inevitably