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 my current work in progress 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.

It’s possible to book a private 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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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

Streets of St Andrews

A lovely reader writes asking if I can give more detail of the locations in my books. St Andrews, where The Castilians is set, is my home town so I had a very clear picture of the streets my characters would walk and even the destruction wrought by the siege, and after, for much of it is still visible. For instance here’s the remains of Blackfriars Chapel, damaged by the Castilians, along with Greyfriars, in April 1547.

Blackfriars Chapel with the old Madras College in the background

My old school sits behind it and I walked passed this ruin every morning without a second glance. There nothing left of Greyfriars except a street name and a row of gardens. No doubt, if the gardens were excavated, some remnants of the grey friars lives might be unearthed.

However it’s unlikely a great deal of the stones used to build Greyfriars would be left for it, along with the castle and cathedral, were systematically quarried for several hundred years, which explains why these ruins are really so very tidy, with no heaps of rubble in evidence.

The good citizens of the town used the stone to build and repair houses and to build the piers at the harbour, which were made from wood – and considerably longer – in the time of the Castilians. Below is the pier today and the hill Bethia would have toiled up when she came across the grim sight of George Wishart being burned at the stake.

Harbour Hill, which would not have had the high protective wall in 1546, nor the smooth path,

St Andrews is so named because some of the bones of the apostle Saint Andrew once rested here. It was a place of pilgrimage to rival Compostela from the 1100s, with pilgrims coming from as far away as Russia. A Certificate of Pilgrimage given to a pilgrim who was undertaking the journey as part of a penance because he had murdered a man (as well as making recompense to the man’s family), was found in France a few years ago and I used this as the background for Mainard being there, although for some reason decided I wanted my character to come from Flanders and not France. A fortuitous choice since research later uncovered Antwerp was the wealthiest city in Europe at the time.

Badges worn by pilgrims to St Andrews

Pilgrims travelled in groups for safety. They arrived by sea, often at Earlsferry and would walk the last twenty or so miles to St Andrews. The townsfolk were understandably fearful of pilgrims bringing the plague to their doors and they were held in quarantine, outwith the city boundaries, until they were pronounced safe to enter its gates

Pilgrim’s gate

Although the cathedral begun in 1160 and which took 120 years to finish, was surrounded by a high wall, the town itself never was. It did however have entry gates, one of which I used to pass under every day to go to school, again without paying it the slightest of attention

West Port

These ports or gates were all about controlling trade for the guilds; the good burghers of St Andrews wanted to make sure no one could make inroads into their living. You can see the gates on the map before which I’ve also annotated to show some of the streets and locations mentioned in The Castilians.

1580 Geddy Mp of St Andrews showing sites mentioned in The Castilians, reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

The town was extended and planned as the cathedral was built and the three streets fanning out from the cathedral, then known as Southgait, Mercatgait and Northgait were deliberately broad and straight for the many religious processions, including carrying the reliquary containing Saint Andrews bones along them presumably on 30th November each year (St Andrew’s day), and the performances of the mystery plays. When Mary of Guise arrived in Scotland she was met at St Andrews by her new husband, James V, and forty days of jousts, plays and street pageant followed, which must have caused huge excitement amongst the town’s inhabitants.

A house similar to Bethia’s home on Southgait

The end of Southgait closest to the cathedral was where the wealthy merchants lived and I chose a house from the era to be Bethia’s. Increasingly wooden houses were being replaced by stone although shopkeepers often had a wooden extension to the front of their house with a hatch that could be raised to create a counter to sell from – like Elspeth’s family.

Many of the town’s poorer folk made their living from fishing. They’d been moved away from the harbour when the cathedral was built and resided in an area known as fishertoun, off Northgait. The outside stone stairs are a familiar sight in St Andrews still.

Fishwives baiting the lines, picture courtesy of Wiki commons

In Northgait was St Salvator’s the university chapel, where the then wooden tower atop was knocked down to create a flat base and cannon were hauled up for the bombardment which finally ended the siege. Northgait was also where the the siege tunnel was begun, and the entrance is below a house there still.

St Salvators, with the stone steeple which replaced the destroyed wooden one

The Smart History team at St Andrews University have created some wonderful and carefully researched video models to show what the town would have looked like in the 1550s.

Click here to watch this reconstruction from 1559

This video reconstruction of Holy Trinity as it may have appeared in 1559 is based on research into historical images and written records (including property documents) undertaken by Dr Bess Rhodes, Peryn Westerhof Nyman, and Chelsea Reutcke. The digital reconstruction was created by Sarah Kennedy.visual world.

St Rule’s Tower, built in 1120 is the oldest part of the cathedral complex. Climbing to the top gives a panoramic view of St Andrews, which I used to do so regularly at school lunch time. Unfortunately I never savoured the view since I was scared of heights and would crawl around the top rather than look over the, then, very low parapet.

St Rule’s Tower

The castle ruins sits tucked away in a corner now, but once would have been as central to the town as the cathedral. To reach the harbour from the castle is a slippery walk over reefs, at low tide only, which both Bethia and Will had to undertake on separate occasions.

Here also are the cliffs Bethia had to climb down to escape from the rubble strewn castle.

The destruction of the cathedral began at the Reformation in 1560 when crowds looted and wreaked havoc. They smashed all the stained glass windows in every church, toppled any saints from their pedestals, melted down gold plate and from then on St Andrews, which had been Scotland’s ecclesiastical centre, as well as home to the country’s first university, fell into decline. Rubbish piled high in the streets and people had to climb over it to access their front doors. The town became so rundown, there was even a proposal the university be re-sited in Perth.

Cathedral Ruins

Eventually St Andrews was re-purposed as the home of golf as well as an ancient university town. Golf was actually banned by James II in 1457 because he felt young men were playing it rather than practising their archery. The Bow Butts, a lane named for the place of archery practice, is found near the West Sands and at the side of the first tee of the Old Course.

James IV however was a keen golfer and re-instated the game fifty years later.

If you haven’t already read The Castilians it gives much more of the story of the town and the siege of 1546.

It can be bought from:

Amazon US here

Amazon UK here

The Castilians by VEH Masters

Slains Castle and Dracula

In my never-ending quest to feed my castle-visiting addiction I stumbled across Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire a few weeks ago and discovered Bram Stoker was said to have drawn inspiration from it for Dracula’s castle.

Slains Castle

Dracula, of course, was loosely based on a real prince connected with the Ottoman Empire, one period in whose history I’m currently researching for my next book. It’s always amazing how things tie up!

Inevitably Slains Castle had a long and chequered history prior to one Abraham (Bram) Stoker’s visits. The castle was owned by the Earl of Errol who reverted to Catholicism in 1587, as part of a plot supported by Spain. Not an especially wise decision since Scotland had been Protestant for nearly thirty years by then. Errol fled the country and James VI had Slains Castle destroyed. Yet when Errol returned to Protestantism in 1597, he found favour with the king and came home to rebuild his castle (although the family again shifted allegiance much later to support Bonnie Prince Charlie).

Massive windows into internal courtyard

Perched on a cliff top, with some deep gullies and long drops the remaining ruin is an atmospheric hotchpotch of towers and courtyards added at various times by various Errols over the centuries since.

Samuel Johnson and his companion James Boswell spent a night at the castle during their tour of Scotland in 1773, although Boswell had some complaints to make about his night’s sleep…

I had a most elegant room. But there was a fire in it which blazed, and the sea, to which my windows looked, roared, and the pillows were made of some sea-fowl’s feathers which had to me a disagreeable smell. So that by all these causes, I was kept awake a good time.

Drop from window to rocks below

The house was let as a summer home in early 1900s and both Lord Asquith, and Winston Churchill visited.  Bram Stoker never did stay in the castle but locally at the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel in nearby Cruden Bay. He came each summer for his annual month long holiday and this was where he started writing Dracula.

Cruden Bay

On my return home, coincidentally, the story of Vlad Dracula pops up on my video feed. It’s part of a Netflix drama documentary series called The Rise of Empires, and this season is focused on the war between the Ottoman Emperor Mehmed II and Vlad Dracula of Wallachia. My own next in series is partly set in Constantinople so I’m enjoying learning as much as I can about it, although 1462 is slightly earlier than my period. I settle down to find out more about the real Dracula.

Mehmed II from Netflix Series

The first thing is the name is not pronounced Dracula with the emphasis on the first syllable but Dracula, emphasis on the second syllable. Wallachia, a Christian country, was part of present day Romania, which was then expected to pay a tribute to the Ottoman Empire, who controlled it as a buffer zone between them and Hungary.

Ottoman Empire and showing Wallachia almost in the centre

As a boy Vlad Dracula and his brother Radu were held as hostages and surety of their father’s loyalty at the Ottoman court. They were educated alongside the future Mehmed II which meant Mehmed and Vlad knew one another’s strengths and weaknesses very well. Vlad and Radu would also have studied the Koran as part of their education, but only Radu converted to Islam.

In 1453 Mehmed took Constantinople bringing an end to the Byzantine Empire. His intention was to advance as far west as Alexander went east, and he adopted the title of Caesar of the Roman Empire. A remarkable tactician and a gifted engineer, Mehmed was a cunning man with a web of spies throughout Europe.

Vlad Dracula from Netflix Series

When Prince Vlad reclaimed the throne of Wallachia he resented paying the tithe Mehmed demanded and nailed Mehmed’s ambassadors’ turbans to their heads leaving Mehmed in no doubt of his intentions. Vlad tried to negotiate the support of his Hungarian neighbour to free him of the Ottoman yoke but Sultana Marija, Mehmed’s wily stepmother who was a former princess of Hungary and an Orthodox Christian, visited the Hungarian Court and used her influence to persuade the Hungarian king to prevaricate.

Sultana Marija from the Netflix Series

Mehmed was not a man to show weakness, and he crossed the Danube with a vast force determined to subdue Vlad. Outnumbered, yet very cunning, Vlad ran a campaign of guerrilla warfare and night attacks leaving a trail of death, destruction and scorched earth behind him. He even infiltrated lepers and sufferers of tuberculosis and the plague into Mehmed’s camp – a kind of germ warfare.

He was trying to free his country from the tyranny of the Turks however, even by medieval standards, Vlad Dracula was exceptionally cruel. The moniker impaler was ascribed for his particular skill, and fondness, for shoving a stake into his enemy and hammering it with a mallet until the point came out the other end. He was especially adept at  avoiding the vital organs which meant death was prolonged – and he had both women and men impaled.

Forest of Death

The terror culminated in The Forest of Death where 24,000 Moslems and Turkish soldiers were impaled and arrayed like a forest: a most gruesome art form.

Vlad came close to murdering Mehmed but in the end Mehmed’s superior numbers prevailed.  Vlad escaped and spent the rest of his life on the run.

Vlad’s younger brother Radu, known variously as Radu the Beautiful and Radu the Coward, remained loyal to Mehmed. There is some evidence he was sexually abused by Mehmed as a boy and ended up as Mehmed’s male concubine, although this isn’t directly referred to in the Netflix series.

Mehmed replaced Vlad with Radu. Those loyal to Vlad soon came over to Radu who was considerably less bloodthirsty and known for his quiet intelligence.

The series is beautifully shot. Although primarily a drama, the action is paused every so often while historians give us detail of the background story, the key players, the clever tactics and an insight into motivation. Well worth the watching.

And as for Slains Castle, it’s a most stunning walk along the old carriageway and then down to gorgeous Cruden Bay. Well worth the visit.

Paddling at Cruden Bay

References: The Historical Dracula: Monster or Machiavellian Prince? by John Akeroyd
Netflix Series: Rise of Empires Season 2
and lots of Wikipedia entries

Cruden Bay

Catholic or Protestant?

The Impact of frequent changes of religion in Tudor England – Guest Post by Jonathan Posner.

As a writer of historical fiction set in Tudor England, I recognise that religion was the key driver of almost every part of life – and therefore every story – set in the period. Belief in God was fundamental to how society operated, which meant that the doctrinal divisions of Protestant versus Catholic were themselves the primary source of conflict. So it has been very important for me to research and understand these divisions as the background to my action adventure stories.

Why? Because setting my stories in the reign of Elizabeth I allowed me to position a Catholic as an easy enemy. But is that simply too one-dimensional? While it is convenient to demonise the Catholics of the period, I believe it is also necessary to understand their background and motives.

The Tudor era was a period of massive change and upheaval in the religious life of England. Until this time Catholicism had largely been the unchallenged doctrine, with the Pope in Rome as the head of the Church (I say ‘largely’ because the Protestant movement did not start with Martin Luther in 1517 – philosophers like John Wycliffe had challenged the precepts of Catholicism as early as the 14th Century).

But by 1603 everything had changed. The state-sanctioned doctrine was Protestantism, the head of the Church was the monarch, and Catholicism was seen as both heretical and traitorous.

It had not simply been a linear change; there had been a number of reversals along the way – all of which must have been both deeply challenging and destabilising for the majority of men and women of the time.

Let’s take an example. Meet ‘John’. He’s an educated land-owning Englishman, born in 1500 and therefore baptised a Catholic. By the time of his death at the age of 75, he would have seen his faith state-approved, then de-legitimised, then restored, then completely outlawed. So what caused these changes, and what would it have been like for him?

We start with the period leading up to the English Reformation, which was when Henry VIII broke away from Rome in order to marry his second wife, Anne Boleyn. John would, like everyone else, have been secure in his Catholic faith. As a young man he might have heard of the ‘heretical’ teachings of Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Switzerland – but he would have been fairly well insulated from these. His religion came from the priest, who took it from a Latin bible and interpreted it for John and his family in church. The Mass was heard in Latin and the principle was that salvation (from eternal damnation in hell) came from following the Catholic teachings and doing good works. The doctrine of Transubstantiation was also fundamental – that the bread and wine of the Eucharist became the actual body and blood of Christ.

The English Reformation, when viewed through the lens of history and the subsequent rise of Protestantism, could be thought of as changing these services and the practice of faith. But the truth is that very little changed for John and men like him. The Reformation was simply a political and administrative change at the top, replacing the Pope with the King as the head of the Church. England remained Catholic in practice, and Henry ultimately opposed the Bible in English, as he shared the Catholic concern that the common man shouldn’t read it for himself, in case this caused dissent.

But I think it is fair to say that by creating the Church of England, Henry opened the door to the eventual introduction of Protestantism. Luther and Calvin’s teachings were becoming more widely disseminated across Europe. They had also reached England, where they were taken up by many intellectuals, such as leading thinkers like Katherine Parr, Henry’s sixth wife.

She was instrumental in bringing up Henry’s son and heir Edward according to the new doctrine, and Edward also had a fiercely anti-Catholic tutor called Richard Cox. So when Edward ascended the throne in 1547, even as a boy of nine, he was staunchly Protestant. His regents – first his uncle the Duke of Somerset, then the Duke of Northumberland – both supported his Protestant faith. And when Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, mandated the English Bible and introduced a new English Book of Common Prayer, Protestantism was truly established.

So our John – now in his late 40s with a wife and children – found that he was expected to reject all he had known and fully accept the new Protestantism. Not only was he told that simply believing in Jesus was enough to ensure his salvation, but he was also expected to have an English Bible and read it to his family. He now had to hear the Mass in English, and to reject the doctrine of Transubstantiation. The reason? In the Protestant doctrine, the bread and wine were now only ‘metaphorical representations’ of the body and blood of Christ.

Imagine how difficult all this would have been for John. Not only did he have to embrace a whole new way of thinking, but there was also a potentially terrifying question to face: what would rejection of his Catholic beliefs do to his immortal soul after death? Would he have to face eternal damnation in hell?

So I am sure that when Edward died in 1553 and his sister Mary I took the throne, John would have been relieved that his Catholicism was to be restored in the Counter Reformation. Mary was determined to reverse the reforms, and had Cranmer and other leading Protestants like Latimer and Ridley burned to death. However, she found many of the changes were harder to undo. The ecclesiastical properties confiscated or sold by Henry were now in the hands of powerful private landowners. These men therefore had a vested interest in preserving the new status quo and opposing any return of their lands, and by association, any return to Catholicism.

Another factor was the appeal of Protestantism to the wider population, with its accessible services and English Bible. While I have assumed our man John remained a Catholic at heart, many of his fellow Englishmen had fully embraced the new faith, and were supported by extensive printed propaganda produced by a strong underground reform movement.

The main problem for Mary was that she only reigned for five years. Even though Protestantism was still new and therefore may have rested on shaky foundations, she didn’t have enough time to turn it around (or even to restore Papal Supremacy).

Then, in 1558, Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth I came to power. As a Protestant, she was determined to undo all Mary’s Catholic changes. Elizabeth had two key reasons for being a Protestant; her mother Anne Boleyn had been a reformist, and Elizabeth had also been brought up by Katherine Parr. So the new Queen set out to restore her late brother’s reforms.

It was fairly straightforward for Elizabeth to implement the Religious Settlement that reinstated Protestantism; between 1559 and 1663 she introduced a number of changes – such as the Thirty Nine Articles that codified the doctrines of the Church of England and the Act of Uniformity that restored Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer. Together these meant that the Reformation, started by her father and advanced by her brother, had effectively been completed.

What, then, of John? Now in his early 60s, he had a choice to make. Should he continue as a Catholic, but in secret and at risk to himself and his family? Or should he embrace the reformed faith and stay within the Elizabethan state and ecclesiastical laws? And whatever his choice, what would be the risk to his immortal soul?

It would have been a difficult decision, and I do understand if he opted to remain a Catholic. Initially this would not have been too risky, as Elizabeth took a tolerant position. She is understood to have said ‘I will not make windows into men’s souls’. While she professed to be against the practice of Catholicism, she supported her Catholic subjects, provided that they made no trouble.

But in 1570 everything changed. Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull called Regnans in Excelcis; a proclamation which declared Elizabeth to be a heretic and usurper.

Pope Pius made it every Catholic’s duty not only to disobey Elizabeth, but actively to seek her death. Not surprisingly for Elizabeth, this turned every Catholic into a potential traitor, and encouraged a succession of Catholic plots to put her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. All of these plots were foiled by Elizabeth’s chief spymaster Francis Walsingham, and Mary was eventually executed in 1587.

Would the Papal Bull have been the final straw for John? For the last five years of his life, would he have decided to give in, and embrace the Protestant faith outwardly in public? And who knows, maybe also inwardly in his heart?

Either way, this would have been the final time he had to choose which faith to follow in a long life of such difficult choices.

Jonathan’s latest book The Lawyer’s Legacy is available now for pre-order on Amazon and on Amazon uk.

It’s 1535, and young Robert Wychwoode has his life all planned out – he’s going to become a successful lawyer, fighting for truth and justice. And when he falls for a beautiful young girl, he naturally amends his plans to include her as well. But together they are caught up in a violent plot to overthrow the King and Robert has to decide if he is prepared to compromise his ideals if he’s going to foil the plot – and save the life of the girl he loves.

How maps changed the world

Columbus, despite being unusually learned about cartography when he set sail for the Americas, was convinced he would arrive in Asia. And even after he’d made landfall in the Caribbean he still believed he was near India.

Statue of Christopher Columbus, Rhode Island , courtesy of Wikicommons

‘Ten journeys away is the river Ganges,’ he wrote in 1503 when he was in what is now known as Guatemala. And when he reached Cuba soon after he believed they were almost upon Cathay.

World Map by Waldseemuller 1507, courtesy of Wikicommons

Barely fifty years later the great era of map making was at its zenith and in 1570 the most successful book of the century Theatre of the countries of the world was published in the then most powerful city of the western world, Antwerp. The world’s first ever atlas went through numerous printings (including a pocket edition) and was translated into several languages.

World Map 1570 from Theatrum of the countries of the world, courtesy of Wikicommons

Ortelius, the creator of the first atlas, started out as a map colourist, a profession which I have my character Mainard eager to follow in The Conversos. To become a colourist required not only training but acceptance into the appropriate guild, in this case the Guild of St Luke which admitted sculptors, engravers and printers as well as painters.

What Ortelius did, in creating his Theatrum, was to bring together the work of a number of cartographers with careful attention to making sure their work was as accurate as possible and based on the best sources available. He made several visits to Italy (Venice and Rome were great centres of mapmaking) and attended the Book Fairs in Frankfurt (whose famous fairs began in 1445 and were unsurpassed even then) to source the work.

Ortelius met the geographer Gerard Mercator while they were both attending the Frankfurt Book Fair of 1554 and they became great friends. Mercator did not live in Antwerp, which would perhaps have been expected since it was the centre of printing, but in a small town in Germany. He had previously lived within the Hapsburg realm but, after being arrested for the foul crime of “Luthery” (being a follower of Luther), he fled from the Catholic country as soon as he was released. Those arrested with him were not so fortunate: one man was decapitated; two were burned at the stake; and two women were buried alive.

Mercator and Ortelius by Joseph Bellemans, courtesy of Wikicommons

‘How we see the world depends on what we believe it to be,’ writes Paul Binding of Ortelius, and others, in his book about the making of the first atlas, Imagined Corners. The great “discovery” of the Americas tested Christian Europe – for how could such sophisticated societies as the Aztecs have flourished without knowledge of, and belief in, God. Mercator rationalised it by deciding that biblical writers knew all about these lands and Ortelius decorated his Theatrum with many classical references to Pliny, Plato etc… who ‘got their measurements of the world right.’

The great non Christian cultures of the “New World” were accorded no respect for their achievements in mathematics and astronomy, their genius in urban planning and engineering nor their art and music and were destroyed by a Europe in which, as Binding writes… ‘in their brutal actions against it can one not read an emotional resentment born of so radical a challenge to their identity?’

Geddy Map of St Andrews 1588, by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland

In the later 1500s it became fashionable for the well-to-do to display large scale maps on their walls and the demand for cartography of each city grew. Not only do the maps produced of St Andrews, Antwerp and Venice make beautiful covers for my three books The Castilians, The Conversos and The Apostates, they have also helped me better understand the world my characters inhabit.

For example, in St Andrews the only high walls encircle the grounds of its cathedral (and still do). The city gates are much more about controlling trade than protecting its citizenry from attack, for the guilds were very powerful.

Antwerp, on the other hand, has massive fortifications and the canals encircling it were more about protection than easy movement of goods.

Map of Antwerp by Hieronymous Cock 1557 courtesy of Look and Learn

Here’s a map of Lyon from the same era which shows how building in the bend of the river created a defensive barrier on three sides of the city. In The Apostates Bethia and Will find themselves enticed to Lyon where Bethia has an encounter with astrologer, physician and seer, Nostradamus.

Map of Lyon from 1500s, courtesy of LyonMap360

And of course we have Venice where The Apostates is in part set, which is again all about trade and easy access for the many galleasses and other smaller craft.

My most recent in series The Apostates is out now and, I’m delighted to say, selling well. Here’s a lovely review from bestselling author, Mercedes Rochelle

‘Beautifully illustrates the religious strife of the period
In this volume, we continue the travels of Bethia and Mainard (and their growing family). It’s beginning to look like there isn’t a safe place in Europe for these religious outcasts. Neither Catholic nor Jewish, the Conversos are rejected by both, and Bethia is tainted by association with her new family…

Poor Bethia’s world seems to constrict all around her, though she initially finds solace in Venice, which still leans toward veneration of the Virgin Mary, giving her comfort. But before long, the old persecutions are rearing their ugly heads in Venice as well. The author depicts the fears and frustrations of the Conversos very effectively. I was easily able to identify with their paranoia:

Then one day da Molina came to warn Mainard that the family were under suspicion. Katheline’s activities were not so secret after all. And there were questions about Papa’s burial. Neighbours had reported the unnatural speed with which he was interred and even worse that the corpse was wrapped in white linen – a most foreign and unchristian act. The sense of being constantly watched grew until Bethia was glancing all around whenever she left home.

At the same time, Bethia’s brother Will has gone back to Calvin and trains to be a preacher, himself. So now she has something else to worry about. The Protestants are beset with internal fighting between Calvin and the heretic Servetus, and although this is all in the background, it serves to illustrate even more religious strife in the period. There is no safe place for Bethia to raise her family, and it’s a wonder she is able to hold body and soul together. As a character she is amazingly resilient, and provides the anchor for the reader to hang onto.

The Apostates is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US , and other Amazon sites.

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