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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Squire’s Hazard

Guest Post with Carolyn Hughes

Carolyn Hughes’s next book in the Meonbridge Chronicles is out now. I dived right into Squire’s Hazard and was soon absorbed in the era, the characters and the intrigue: a most enjoyable read.

Recently I met up with Carolyn to blether about her newest release, its setting, her research, her writing process and how she used herb lore as part of her story telling. Here’s what she had to say…

Squire’s Hazard is set mid 14th century. It’s refreshing to read historical fiction set in a less commonly written about era. What drew you to that particular time period?

To be honest, it was serendipitous. When I was studying for an MA in Creative Writing in 2009, I had to choose what to write as my creative piece. I wanted a change from the contemporary women’s fiction I’d been writing for the previous few years (none of which is yet published), and opted to write an historical novel. But why the fourteenth century? Well, when I was casting about for inspiration, by chance I came across a fading draft that I’d (hand)written in my twenties, about 10,000 words of a novel set in fourteenth century rural England. The novel’s plot wasn’t up to much, but I was drawn to its period and setting.

Victims of the Plague

I’d recently been reading some history of the period, specifically about what we call the Black Death. I’d been wondering how people could possibly have coped with such a calamity, when nearly half of everyone in England died. I was interested in the aftermath, the social upheaval that ensued, the difficulties, both practical and emotional, that people would have faced. Such events as these would have meant (as they do in every century) huge changes to people’s lives, at all levels of society.  It seemed an excellent subject for a novel and, a few days later, I was drafting an outline for what became Fortune’s Wheel, the first of my Meonbridge Chronicles. I’ve now written another four, with more to come, so, for me, it seems the fourteenth century was a good choice.

Knight and his Squire

Your main character Dickon is in training to be a squire to a knight and you give us some wonderful detail about what that involves (as well as intrigue). Can you give us some insight into your research process and what catches your interest?

Most of my “research” starts out online, or in one of the very many historical reference books I have acquired over the past few years. I’m mindful of the potential issues with online information, but tend to use what I read there as a starting point to finding authoritative works (books, articles, papers) that I can consult further. That is how I gleaned the information about the training of medieval squires. Sometimes, I will read a snippet that piques my interest and resolve to incorporate it somehow into my story. With the squire’s training, I think the “snippet” might have been about the way younger squires (pages) learned to thrust a lance from aboard a boy-drawn cart or wooden horse.

Lance training

I’d seen contemporary images of such carts and horses before, and found them rather delightful. Where I can, I like to find several sources that say similar (or at least not contradictory) things about whatever it is I want to know, so I can feel reasonably confident it is “true”. I rarely seek access to primary source materials for my research. Generally speaking, my characters and storylines are (almost) entirely fictional, and I haven’t so far found the need to consult such documents (though I don’t rule them out!). My concern is to ensure that the picture I paint is broadly “authentic”, and gives a convincing feel for the period in physical details, behaviour, and mind set.

There’s a fascinating plot point around the use of herbs, and especially wolfsbane. Can you tell us a wee bit about herbs and their uses during the period?

I started looking into the use of wolfsbane, as a possible “device” for havoc in my novel, even though I wasn’t initially sure how it might unfold.  As I read, I decided to include something about such plants, even though the havoc didn’t turn out quite as I expected… Herbs were of course used in cooking, to add flavour to a dish, but they were also widely used in remedies. Presumably their nefarious use was less common! I think ordinary folk – women mostly, I imagine – would have known about the use of plants for healing. In another novel, I refer to this domestic therapeutic use of herbs:

… fluffy blue heads of scabious, which Betha said was good for curing itchy skin, and a tiny white flower the old nurse used to treat sore eyes.

In Squire’s Hazard, the barber-surgeon produces his own salves and lotions using medicinal herbs. He also uses a poisonous plant for good: Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) could produce an extract known as “dwale”, used as an anaesthetic when performing surgery. However, I put a discussion of the uses and effects of wolfsbane, and other poisonous plants, into the mouth of a different sort of healer, one who might be referred to as a “wise woman”. She was sought out by ordinary folk for her beneficial herbal remedies, but also for magic charms and potions, which themselves might be used for good or ill. It was such women’s reputation for producing such “magic” that led some folk to consider them witches, and, in Squire’s Hazard, I have my healer living as an outcast, and invariably consulted in secret.

You have a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and a PhD. What were the benefits for you of undertaking these programmes of study?

I’d been writing, in a more or less haphazard way, for most of my adult life. I’d written lots of stories and at least a couple of novels, but felt I needed a “push” to get to the next level of possibly getting something published. I signed up for the Masters in the hope of receiving that push. And it worked, because the result was a completed novel that eventually became Fortune’s Wheel, the first book in my Meonbridge Chronicles series. I learned something about writing a novel, though I’ve learned a great deal more since! But, importantly, it put me on the path to publication.

As for the PhD, I so much enjoyed being at university again (after a break of several decades since my first degree) that I decided to go further. A PhD, of course, is a much more significant undertaking than a Masters. As well as writing another novel (another historical novel set in the fourteenth century, The Nature of Things), I had to research and write a thesis. I like the novel, though I haven’t yet had time to edit it up to publishable standard – but I’ll get there eventually. Writing the thesis, however, was really valuable. I chose to investigate how a writer makes historical fiction feel “authentic”, and finding the answers proved extremely helpful to me in writing both The Nature of Things, and the subsequent Meonbridge Chronicles. 

Squire’s Hazard is available now on Amazon UK and Amazon US

How do you overcome the loathing, lust and bitterness threatening you and your family’s honour?

It’s 1363, and in Steyning Castle, Sussex, Dickon de Bohun is enjoying life as a squire in the household of Earl Raoul de Fougère. Or he would be, if it weren’t for Edwin de Courtenay, who’s making his life a misery with his bullying, threatening to expose the truth about Dickon’s birth.

At home in Meonbridge for Christmas, Dickon notices how grown-up his childhood playmate, Libby Fletcher, has become since he last saw her and feels the stirrings of desire. Libby, seeing how different he is too, falls instantly in love. But as a servant to Dickon’s grandmother, Lady Margaret de Bohun, she could surely never be his wife.

Margery Tyler, Libby’s aunt, meeting her niece by chance, learns of her passion for young Dickon. Their conversation rekindles Margery’s long-held rancour against the de Bohuns, whom she blames for all the ills that befell her family, including her own servitude. For years she’s hidden her hunger for revenge, but she can no longer keep her hostility in check.

As the future Lord of Meonbridge, Dickon knows he must rise above de Courtenay’s loathing and intimidation, and get the better of him. And, surely, he must master his lust for Libby, so his own mother’s shocking history is not repeated? Of Margery’s bitterness, however, he has yet to learn…

Beset by the hazards triggered by such powerful and dangerous emotions, can Dickon summon up the courage and resolve to overcome them?

For more information on Carolyn’s books and writing please go to

Carolyn can also be found on Goodreads

How perilous was travelling in the Renaissance?

In my most recent book, The Apostates , my characters Bethia, Will and Mainard are forced to flee across Europe. I was curious to uncover their likely means of travel and just how perilous the journey would be.

Researching I came across a delightful book called Touring in the 1600s, and was surprised to discover that, even then, people chose to travel rather than have it forced upon them. Although the era of pilgrimage had faded – St Andrews in Scotland once a huge centre for pilgrims had seen a decline well before the Reformation – artists and a sterling few curiosity seekers did travel for pleasure, mostly to Italy.

Pilgrim Badge

But still virtually all journeys were taken out of necessity, either for business or on the orders of others. Thomas Dallam, for instance, was a master organ builder who Elizabeth I sent off to Constantinople with her gift of an organ to Mehmed III. Dallam was then required to play the instrument for the sultan which he did with great trepidation having been forewarned that to lay a finger on The Grand Turk meant instant death – and the sultan sat so close behind Dallam to watch that ‘I touched his knee with my breeches’.

Organ made by Thomas Dallam gifted to Sultan Mehmed III by Elizabeth I

Any journey, whether embarked upon willingly or not, was difficult, dirty and uncomfortable. Roads were likely to have great potholes, often dug by the local villagers for materials to repair their homes. Travellers were advised to never journey without food in their pocket, if only to throw to the dogs who attacked them, and to line their doublet with taffeta since it was lice proof.

Another excellent piece of advice was, ‘when going by coach, to avoid women, especially old women for they always want the best places.’ Although generally if you were a woman, or married, the recommendation was to avoid travelling.

A coach taking passengers to Bury Fair. Artist – John Ogborne. Engraving – Joseph Strutt

By water was the fastest means of travel, and the rivers and lakes of Europe were well supplied with boats. They were towed, or sailed, between towns with fares fixed by the local authorities, although there were complaints about drunken boatmen, who frequently landed their passengers in the water.

An account by an Italian priest en route to Amsterdam, tells how he and his fellow passengers travelled by night in an open barge unable to sit up, much less stand, because they were at risk of a severe dunt on the head from the low bridges which were invisible to the eye in the moonless night. He adds that they were forced to lie in the pouring rain, on foul straw as if they were “gentlemen from Reggio,” – a synonym for pigs. 

Travelling across lakes could be perilous too, because of storms, as this account reveals…

‘The boat was made of fir-trunks, neither sound, nor tarred, nor nailed. A storm came and the helmsman left his post and called out to all to save themselves, if they could; nothing was to be seen but rain and lake and perpendicular rock until a cave was sighted towards which all joined in an effort to row. We found a way up the rock and , at the top, an inn.’

Revelry at an Inn by Jan Steen

Yet finding an inn didn’t mean a traveller was in a place of safety. Inn keepers were often in cahoots with thieves, letting them know when those with an abundance of goods were in residence. Travellers were warned to check their chamber carefully and to look behind any large painting in particular, in case it concealed a secret door or window through which a robber might enter in the dark of night.

And as for Bethia, Will and Mainard’s journeys, they do have a tumultuous time… read The Apostates to find out more.


Dallam’s Voyage to Turkey, The Musical Times 1905

The Sultan’s organ: presents and self-presentation in Thomas Dallam’s “Diary”: article by Lawrence Danson

Touring in the 1600s by E S Bates

No Such Thing as Goodbye – Guest Post by Karmen Špiljak

Karmen and I had a great blether recently about her writing process and what made her choose Mexico as the setting for her  gripping psychological spy thriller. This is obviously delving into a different genre from my usual historical fiction but No Such Thing as Goodbye is a cracking good read, and I wanted to learn more.

You’ve set No Such Thing as Goodbye in Mexico. What drew you to that particular country?

I needed a place that would fit well with the development of the story, something far enough away to create an illusion of safety, but different from what Toni is used to (she comes from Amsterdam). One of my good friends is from Mexico and he’d often mention something that happened, or a food he liked and missed, so I decided to place the story in Mexico. Of course, this was also a good excuse to actually travel to Mexico and experience some of these things by myself, though I didn’t go quite as far in my adventures as Toni did. Luckily, the book is part of a series, so I now have a good excuse to visit Mexico more often and see if all those tacos and enchiladas still taste as good as they did a few years ago. One can’t be too thorough when doing research…

I must say I enjoyed reading a thriller which didn’t have a hard bitten detective at its centre, for a change. Your protagonist, Toni, is young and vulnerable. Can you tell us how she came into being?

Writing a spy novel is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, but I waited for the character to come and find me. Reading an account of someone who was involved in crime but came clean and angered their family lit a spark. The same day, Toni sprung to life and I barely had enough time to catch her story as it started to pour out. 

Making her young was intentional, as I knew I was writing a series, but I also wanted to leave enough space for Toni to develop and grow. Twenty-five seemed like an interesting age, with quite a few important life decisions ahead. She’s old enough to have gained some experience and insight, but still quite young and not yet properly cynical.

After writing the book, I discovered a bunch of spy-themed podcasts and found out that Toni’s age is within the age range for spy recruitment, which was a lucky coincidence on my side. I’m also looking forward to seeing how Toni will handle some of the obstacles in her way and whether her goals and desires will change as she grows older.

What was the most challenging thing about creating a psychological thriller, and the most fun part?

The most fun part is definitely writing the first draft, which I did during NaNoWriMo. At the time, I thought I was just writing a spy thriller, but after getting some feedback from advanced readers, it became clear the story had a strong psychological aspect. I really enjoy the freedom of this genre, to be able to make up stuff and build tension from within. Toni’s relationship with her two brothers plays an important part, too, and I love creating drama by pulling those relationship strings between the characters.

The most difficult part was revising and cleaning up. As this is my first crime fiction novel, I’ve had to learn quite a few things. The book went through several drafts and I had to do a lot of cleaning up afterwards, which was quite tedious, but also rewarding.

Karmen’s books are available to purchase at … , on Amazon or from any good bookshop.

More information about Karmen and her books can be found here:





Do animals have souls?

In my current book The Apostates (due out early November), the reformer John Calvin features. My character Will is very happy to be learning at the feet of the great man, his sister Bethia, a Catholic, less so and her sister in law, who is determined to return to the faith of her ancestors, Judaism, even less so.

I was curious to learn about Calvin, a Frenchman who had a big influence on the Scottish Reformation, even though he never visited Scotland.

John Calvin

In the very early 1500s Geneva had a name as the dirtiest city in Europe. Calvin closed the gambling houses and brothels, introduced education for all, including girls and generally cleaned up the city.

Inevitably this didn’t make him popular with everyone, especially if they’d previously enjoyed gambling or made their living from manufacturing playing cards. Some Genevans derided Calvin, claiming they were being taken over by a Frenchman, and making his life difficult in many ways including: misnaming him Cain; ringing handbells beneath his window at night; playing skittles outside the church while he was preaching; and naming their pets after him.

The mention of pets named Calvin or otherwise left me wondering. Did people keep pets in the 1500s? Of course I knew they kept working animals, and we see enough of them in portraits: the hounds, hawks, horses and so on. But what about lap dogs or cats (other than those used as mousers or for their soft pelts)?

Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine

And it seems they did, although small dogs were considered the province of women and clergy For a non-celibate man to keep a pet indicated a lack of manliness and Henri III of France’s strong attachment to his lap dogs was derided as a sign of weakness unsuitable in a king.

King Henri III of France, and dog lover

However, putting King Henri’s affection for his dogs to one side, one of the main purposes of keeping pets (and an animal becomes a pet at the whim of its owner, i.e. is kept indoors, is not eaten and is given a name) was to reinforce status. Only the wealthy could so indulge themselves. Their pets were fed the best quality food and were allowed into spaces where servants were forbidden or constrained. Indeed animals are often present in paintings of childbirth. Some medical texts of the period even recommend that those suffering pain of the belly should press their pet dog to their chest to ward the pains off.

Increasingly too, scholars kept a pet as their muse, to lie quietly at their feet while they worked and to provide a welcome distraction from study … much as the internet is a constant distraction for me, I should imagine.

When the animal died elegies were written, often in Latin, in their memory, as well as epitaphs on their tombstone. Here’s Robert Hendrick (1591-1674) ode to his deceased spaniel.

Now thou art dead, not eye shall ever see,
For shape and service, Spaniell like to thee,
This shall my love doe, give thy sad death one
Teare, that deserves of me a million.

Although it became common for bereaved pet-owners to erect tombstones and pen elegies, not everyone agreed that this was appropriate, indeed some considered it blasphemy. Others, like Aldina, the Dutch philosopher, talked of his dog’s little soul crossing into the underworld. And soon a debate arose as to whether animals did have souls.

St Augustine, and Dog, by Carpaccio

In the late 1500s Montaigne wrote that not only were animals moral and rational, they were more moral and rational than humans. He considered that, because they live in accordance with the dictates of nature, beasts possessed reason, affection, jealousy, hate, joy and grief and that those passions arise out of knowledge.

Followers of Aristotle disagreed, saying that animals have only a sensitive soul while humans have a rational soul. Descartes waded in denying that animals have the ability to reason and, although they have passions, they are no more than bodily functions. Beasts die because the body decays, humans die because the soul leaves the body.

Tug of War

So the jury is out on whether animals have souls but I’ll leave you with a photo of my neighbour’s collies playing tug of war – a very determined, if not soulful, pursuit.

Ps The Apostates will be released on 15 November.


Late Medieval Pet Keeping: Gender, Status and Emotions by Kathleen Fiona Walker-Meikle

The Virtues of Animals in Seventeenth-Century Thought by Peter Harrison

What would it be like to find yourself suddenly living in Tudor England? … Guest Post by Jonathan Posner

Delighted to have a blether with author of The Witchfinder’s Well Series, radio presenter, playwright and lyricist, Jonathan Posner, about his books, the setting and writing generally.

Your books are set in the Tudor period. What draws you to that era?

My original idea was to create a time-travel story with a modern-day traveller going back to the Puritan 17th century and being accused of witchcraft. But my concern was that she would be isolated in such an era, with everyone being too afraid of witchfinders to be on her side. As a story it would be less interesting, as she would have few, if any, allies to help her. So I decided to go back a few more years to Tudor times, where accusations of witchcraft were treated more even-handedly and there were those who were sceptical about such things. This would give my time-traveller potential allies – adding greater interest to the story. The 16th century was also a more colourful, flamboyant and interesting period than that of the Puritans, and is also when a more recognisably modern society started to emerge out of the medieval past.

Your Witchfinder Series shifts in time between now and the Tudors. How do you go about writing a time slip novel and what are the challenges of this genre?

The time shift is when my heroine Justine falls through a worm-hole caused by an electrical storm. Once she arrives in Tudor England, she soon realises that this is a freak event and will never happen again – and certainly not in reverse. So she has to reconcile herself to the fact that she is stuck in Tudor England with no way back for the rest of her life. The challenge was then to make her transition from a modern-day girl to a fully-functioning Elizabethan believable – showing how she learns to cast-off her modern ways and embrace her position in Elizabethan society.

Another challenge was to make the Elizabethan world itself seem real. This meant a number of things had to work – the language had to seem authentic without being clichéd (or so accurate that it’s impossible to follow); the lifestyles needed to be historically accurate yet still understandable to the reader, and the plot needed to flow from Elizabethan character – such as Hopkirk being driven by the religious fervour of the period, Melrose by the injustice of land enclosure and Lady de Beauvais by the need to marry her son off to the right girl.

What do you enjoy about being a writer and how do you keep yourself motivated?

I love the process of creating a story. I work from a broad outline, then build the early part of the book by opening up a number of possible plotlines. Then I explore which of these I am going to develop further, and follow them through to the climax of the story. I love it when little plot or character devices that I set up in the early part of the book come together and resolve themselves by the end – I find that very satisfying!

I keep motivated by getting feedback – good or bad – as it shows me how people engage with my work. Something I write when sitting on my own seems real to me, but only truly becomes real when other people read it and react to it. I remember once directing a play I had written, and explaining the meaning of a line to a couple of actors. I was amazed when they disagreed with my interpretation! It made me realise that even as the writer, mine is only one possible interpretation of the text – not the exclusively ‘correct’ one.

First in series The Witchfinder Well is on offer until Monday. It’s an exciting read… ‘when a girl in 2015 falls through a time-travelling worm-hole she finds herself in 1565. Accused of being a witch, she has to use her wits, her cunning and her ingenuity to survive. The trilogy then takes her –and readers of all ages –into a dark world of assassins, subterfuge and plots, involving Queen Elizabeth, Francis Walsingham and Mary Queen of Scots.

You can find out more about Jonathan at and he also produces a regular and fun 5 minute break quick read.

Jonathan can be found at …





What did it mean to be ‘worth your salt’?

In my saga The Seton Chronicles the family make their money through trade. I spent a fair amount of time trying to unpack just what Scotland would be trading across the North Sea (which was known as the German Ocean until just after WW1 ). In the 1500s hides, wool and fish were the main exports but increasingly salt became important too.

National Library of Scotland – An illustration by William Brownrigg showing 18th Century salt making

The production of one ton of salt required six tons of coal to keep the fire beneath the iron pans, which contained the sea water, burning over several days until the water evaporated. Several villages dotted around the Forth Estuary in the east of Scotland had the perfect combination of sea and coal seams needed.

Culross Palace home of Sir George Bruce, a salt entrepreneur of the 1500s

In Culross, the coal was mined from beneath the sea, always a dangerous process but even more so in the 16th century. The owner of both mine and salt pans, Sir George Bruce, invented a horse drawn bucket and chain system that continually drained the seawater from his underground mine allowing the coal to be extracted. It was such a curiosity that visitors, including King James VI, came to Culross especially to see it.

Sir George Bruce of Carnock

Culross has become part of the Outlander tour circuit since scenes from the series were filmed there, so welcomes quite different visitors from the time of Sir George’s invention. Although the geographical information being given to Outlander tour groups seems a little hazy; visiting Culross the other day I came across a lovely American who was under the impression that she was in the Highlands.

Inevitably the salter serfs, who worked the salt pans had a hard life. The 1606 Act placed both salters and colliers in permanent bondage to their employers and anyone who absconded was to be punished as a thief – which could mean anything from having their ears chopped off to a hanging. Not only were they bound to their place of work for life, but any children they had were too. They were paid in salt and if you visit Culross palace you will see the small window they reached their cupped hands through to receive their ‘handful of salt’.

However to be worth your salt is an expression that pre-dates the poor salter serfs of Culross. It goes back to Roman times when their soldiers were paid in salt, and buying salt was seen as a shrewd investment. The origin of the word salary harks back to then. Sal was the Latin for salt, the soldiers month payment was called a salarium, which in French became salaire and then in English, salary.

Ornate Salt Cellar 1660

To sit below the salt refers to your lowly status. As a valuable commodity, the salt cellar was placed on the high table of the Lord of the Manor and was readily available to him and his high ranking guests. And salt cellars were often very ornate underpinning the value of the commodity and the status of its owner.

The first mention of status defined by the salt cellar is credited to Bishop Joseph Hall, in verses he penned in 1597 …

A gentle Squire would gladly entertaine
Into his House some trencher-chapelaine,
Some willing man that might instruct his Sons,
And that could stand to good Conditions:
First that He lie vpon the Truckle-bed,
Whiles his yong maister lieth ore his hed;
Second that he do, on no default,
Euer presume to sit aboue the salt.

But writing satire was a risky business as the good bishop discovered when, in 1641, his levity led to a charge of high treason and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.


The Scottish People 1490-1625 by Maureen M Meikle

The Salt Industry and its Trade in Fife and Tayside c1570 to 1850 by C A Whatley

What is a comma splice

Comma Splice

… and how have I remained in happy ignorance

of them for all these years? I’m sure Miss Redford never mentioned splicing when she was teaching us how to parse sentences in P6. But then the memory fades – I’ve just had to look up how to parse a sentence. And Miss Redford would certainly have never countenanced beginning a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’.

And there’s another thing the dash – well that’s what I always knew it as, but it would appear that we have an abundance of dashes and using the wrong one in the wrong way brings down the punctuation police. I understand, I really do. If you know your grammar it must be annoying to see lazy, arbitrary slap-dashing (and get in the way of the story, which is certainly not what a writer wants). Actually overusing brackets gets in the reader’s way too, must remember that! And the horrible overuse of exclamation marks these days has spoilt it for when they are appropriate.

Where was I …

So to clarify on the dash … there are three types (she writes using an ellipsis – I never knew that dot, dot, dot were called an ellipsis until recently, and I think I prefer saying dot, dot dot anyway) oops brackets again. And I’ve only just discovered that ellipsis have a specific use and should not be scattered arbitrarily and liberally like confetti throughout my books … yet another bad, and wrong, habit to correct.

Back to the dash – so we have:

The hyphen – the wee shortie
The en dash – little bit longer
The em dash — the stretchy one

But it’s easy really. The em dash is described by some as an Americanism so this British writer can discard it, the hyphen is for linking two words together and the en dash is for any other dashing required. See I can do grammar.

Now back to the comma splice, I don’t fully understand it.

And the sentence above is an example of a comma splice which happens, I am reliably advised, when two independent clauses are joined together by the incorrect application of a comma. One solution is to make them into two sentences, another is to bring in a joining word – which is a correct application for and or but. Yet another is to make use of colons … but I’ll leave it to another day to get to grips with them.

If you’d like to test yourself on recognising a comma splice click here.

Ps The above is how I make sense of grammar, I’m no expert. (Oops just spliced another comma )