Interview with Scots historical fiction author Marie Macpherson

Anniversary giveaway

My blog is two years’ old this month (time flies) and to celebrate, I’m giving away a copy of Marie Macpherson’s novel “The First Blast of the Trumpet.”  

Leave a comment  on what interests you about Scottish history or a question for the author on this post by Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 8:00 p.m. US Central time to be entered into a drawing to win this book.  One person will be chosen randomly using Random.org. Please make sure to leave an e-mail address with your comment.  (US, Canada and UK entrants only.) 

THE GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED. THANKS TO ALL WHO PARTICIPATED.    

About Marie Macpherson: Born in the historic town of Musselburgh, Scotland, Marie left the Honest Toun to study for an Honours Degree in Russian language and literature. She then went on to gain a PhD, spending a year in the former Soviet Union to carry out research on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer. Though she travelled widely throughout Europe, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her passion for the culture and history of her homeland of Scotland. Now retired from academic life, she has more time to pursue her interest in creative writing. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and was named ‘Tyne & Esk Writer of the Year’ in 2011.

About Marie Macpherson: Born in the historic town of Musselburgh, Scotland, Marie left the Honest Toun to study for an Honours Degree in Russian language and literature. She then went on to gain a PhD, spending a year in the former Soviet Union to carry out research on the 19th century Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer.
Though she travelled widely throughout Europe, teaching languages and literature from Madrid to Moscow, she has never lost her passion for the culture and history of her homeland of Scotland.
Now retired from academic life, she has more time to pursue her interest in creative writing. She won the Martha Hamilton Prize for Creative Writing from Edinburgh University and was named ‘Tyne & Esk Writer of the Year’ in 2011.

Interview with Marie Macpherson

Marie Macpherson is the author of “The First Blast of the Trumpet,” her first novel and the first in a trilogy about Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox.  Her novel, reviewed here, is a refreshing take on Knox, an individual somewhat vilified by popular history.   She shared with me how John Knox chose her, what her researched revealed that surprised her and some of the best and worst advice she received while writing the book.

(If you aren’t familiar with John Knox, Marie narrates a wonderful documentary on YouTube, where you will also find a quick video synopsis of the novel.)

Q.  What inspired you to write “The First Blast of the Trumpet?”

A.  The louring figure of John Knox has cast a long shadow over Scottish history and culture, but I never thought I’d be inspired to write about him. The founding father of the Scottish Reformation is not exactly the obvious choice for the hero of a novel and so I’ve the spooky feeling he chose me. With his 500th birthday looming perhaps he needed someone to sound the fanfare. For I was doing research on the Treaty of Haddington (which betrothed Mary Queen of Scots to the Dauphin in 1548), when I became side-tracked by Haddington’s most famous son, who was then a galley slave and perhaps even rowed her to France. What a coincidence, I thought, and became curious to know how Knox had ended up imprisoned in the galleys. And what I found out could only be written as fiction. 

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy, is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. Beginning just before Flodden in 1511 it ends in 1548 after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington that sends Mary Queen of Scots to France in a galley being rowed (possibly) by her nemesis, Knox.

The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first of a trilogy, is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox. Beginning just before Flodden in 1511 it ends in 1548 after the signing of the Treaty of Haddington that sends Mary Queen of Scots to France in a galley being rowed (possibly) by her nemesis, Knox.

Q. History has not been terribly kind to John Knox, was it hard to develop his character and get beyond bias?

A.  It depends on how you regard him – superman or bogeyman. For some Knox is the champion who brought the Reformation to Scotland but in the popular imagination he’s become a caricature of himself: a cartoon Calvinist, a pulpit-thumping tyrant who hated women and banned not only Christmas but football on Sundays. Whatever his legacy, Knox will always be remembered as the author of that misogynist rant, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which attacked contemporary female rulers: Marie de Guise in Scotland, Mary I in England and Mary Queen of Scots in France. Yet Knox was only voicing what most men of the time believed – that it was ‘monstrous’ or ‘unnatural’ for a woman to wear the pants never the mind the crown – though rather loudly and more vehemently.

So you can imagine my surprise to find out that Knox had a genuine regard for women – an affection that was mutual. Women loved him – not the three Marys, of course – but Knox was married twice and other men’s wives left their husbands to follow him. Did he, as one chronicler, claim… use the black arts to steal men’s wives from under their noses? All this made me reconsider the character and reputation of the Calvinist Reformer. No doubt as a preacher he had great charisma and his correspondence with women – especially his mother-in-law – reveals great patience, respect and even understanding. I even think other men were jealous as one said, ‘Whenever he makes a journey he takes around with him a certain number of women whom he uses to satisfy his lusts.’ Can you imagine! This is John Knox we’re talking about!

But why was this? It struck me that there might have been a strong female influence in his upbringing. Not his mother, for she died when he was very young, so who then?

English: The statue of the Scottish church ref...

Statue of John Knox in the quadrangle of New College, Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A. I can’t say that Knox was my favourite character but he certainly provides an interesting psychological case study. You can probably tell that his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn, the real-life Prioress of St Mary’s Abbey is my favourite. While searching for clues as to who might have influenced the young Knox I was excited to come across this feisty dame, forced into the wealthy convent to protect the Hepburn family interests. Prioress Elisabeth was the aunt of Patrick, 3rd Earl of Bothwell and great-aunt to his son, James the 4th Earl, who married Mary Queen of Scots.

Patrick, the Fair Earl as he was known, is a rather despicable character. He was a real traitor – in the pay of the English for most of his life and forever changing sides depending on the highest bidder. He even divorced his wife to woo the widow queen, Marie de Guise who – clever lady that she was – kept him dangling. His treachery, I’m sure, explains his son’s decision to remain true to the Hepburn motto: Keep Tryst, which means keep trust or faith. Whatever his faults, James Hepburn was loyal to Mary Queen of Scots.

Q. How long did it take you to research the novel? 

A.  It’s difficult to say exactly how long it took to research. For many years it was a labour of love – delving in the archives of the local library, unearthing scraps of information and putting together the pieces, like a giant jigsaw – until I had enough to create a story with a dark secret at the centre!

Q.  Did your research yield any surprises in terms of historical events or illuminate a character in a particular way?  

A.  I was surprised to find out how little was known about Knox’s early life and that most of the so-called facts had all been disputed. Since historians and biographers couldn’t answer satisfactorily questions that bothered me such as: Who were his parents? How did a poor orphan lad get an expensive education? – I didn’t feel so guilty about creating a fictional life for him.

Another surprise was discovering that Sir David Lindsay played a very important part in persuading Knox to become a Protestant preacher.  But the role of the playwright of Ane Satire of the Three Estates – a scathing attack on the Roman Catholic Church – is generally overlooked.

Q.  How long did it take you to write it (first draft)?  

A.  The first draft took me ages to write, gathering information and then discarding it. I lost count of the number of rewrites. All in all, it probably took five years.

Q.  What part of the novel writing process was most difficult?  Easiest? 

A.  The most difficult part was finding my novelist’s voice. That was a struggle. Coming from an academic background, I was more inclined to preach and teach and so had to drag myself away from ‘telling’ and learn to do lots more ‘showing’. But writing fiction has given me a tremendous freedom – to speculate about facts, make leaps of the imagination and, more importantly, create an inner life for my characters.

Q.  Where did you unearth all those terrific Scots phrases, some of which are not used too often these days?  

A.  Though many may struggle with the dialect I would defend my use of Scots. Especially after one of the publisher’s readers advised ditching the dialect as it might put readers off, so I did. But then, after I’d rewritten the whole novel in Standard English, it was returned with the instruction: ‘Put all the Scots words back in! It’s lost it’s magic, it’s lost its authenticity, its uniqueness.’ In other words, I had lost my voice!

I deliberately don’t use colloquialisms such as cannae, dinnae etc., but try to pepper the narrative with Scots words and phrases to give it a strong flavour. I would also advise readers to relax and go with the flow – it’s not essential to understand the exact meaning of every word – but I hope the sense can be grasped within the context.

For authentic vocabulary I sifted through Scottish literature of the 16th century (which I love) including David Lindsay’s play Ane Satire of the Three Estates, the poetry of the makars; William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas and Robert Henryson. And tales and ballads were a great resource, too.

Q.  How did you plan your outline — or did it evolve organically?  Did you use any of the writing tools, software out there?  

A.  I read as widely as possible for the historical background and because I can’t read my own handwriting I type out all the information I’ve gleaned.  Then I sift through my notes, looking out for pivotal points, inciting scenes, hinges of the narrative: life-changing events when decisions have to be made, challenges met, characters fall in love or fall out. Anything that will provide drama and conflict.

I try to visualise these pivotal points in a scene, like a film, and draft it like a screenplay, with each scene forming the basis of a chapter. To keep me on track, I have to give a title to each chapter e.g. Birth, Flodden, The Miracle. Then I fill in the gaps with dialogue, description, details.

I don’t have any fancy writing tools or software – just Word. I did investigate one or two but in the time it would take me to learn how to work it I could have written the novel.

Q.  If you had one piece of advice for new historical fiction writers with work in progress what would it be?

A.  Write every day. The brain is like a muscle and gets flabby if not exercised – even if it’s only half-an-hour. It’s amazing what can get done in that time.

Q.  What is the best and worst advice you got while writing?

A.  Stay true to yourself and don’t be waylaid by the naysayers.  Worst piece of advice – for me at any rate – was: Ditch the dialect!  But there won’t be as much Scots in the next volume as Knox spent most his time in England and Geneva and had to learn to speak like a southerner!

Q. When is the next book in the trilogy due to be released?

A.  The working title of the next book is ‘The Second Blast of the Trumpet’ and is planned for released in 2015.  It  will cover Knox’s life in exile from 1549 to 1559 when he returns to Scotland.

Some other posts on John Knox you might find interesting 

Compelling “what if” novel about the son Anne Boleyn might have had…

What if Anne Boleyn's son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn’s son had lived?

What if Anne Boleyn had not miscarried of her son and savior in the winter of 1536 and instead had given Henry VIII the son and heir for whom he was so desperate? Laura Andersen has written her first novel  in the Anne Boleyn Trilogy, “The Boleyn King” based on the tantalizing premise that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn had a son named William who lived to become King of England. She creates an England that will still be familiar to Tudor-era fans, one with religious divisions, pretenders to the throne, the threat of Spanish invasion and territorial ambitions in France.The heart of the novel is not Will Tudor but Minuette Wyatt, born the same hour and day as Will and raised as a ward of Dowager Queen Anne (Boleyn). The novel begins with Minuette joining the court in the household of her good friend, Princess Elizabeth. The two of them, together with Will and his best friend Dominic Courtney, are a tight-knit group; the only people they trust are each other. But the friendships are tested by war, a romantic love triangle, and a plot to overthrow Will and place his Catholic sister Mary Tudor on the throne. This was a surprising gem and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like my historical novels to be accurate, so I did not expect to like a novel that rewrites history, but it is always so hard to read Anne Boleyn’s story without wishing it had a happier ending.  Andersen has given Anne Boleyn fans the happy ending we desire, with a cast of likeable new characters like Minuette, Will, and Dominic, who blend with well-known historical figures like Elizabeth, Robert Dudley, Mary Tudor and the Norfolk family.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review.

Rich characters, great plot – Gregory’s “The White Princess” is riveting

One of Gregory's best!

One of Gregory’s best!

So good it trumps my all-time Gregory favorite, The Other Boleyn Girl!  The White Princess is Philippa Gregory’s latest novel in Cousins’ War series. Unquestionably her best book yet.  It is fantastic—full of flawed characters you love to hate, quietly heroic characters you’ll alternately cheer and mourn for, and plot twists that will keep you reading well into the night.  You won’t want to put it down.  I read it over two days and was disappointed to reach the end because I was so invested in the characters and immersed in the storyline.  I’ve said it in my other reviews of Gregory’s novels, and I’ll say it again, she excels in the “what if” that lies between the facts of historical record.  It may not always make for an 100% historically accurate novel, but damn! it does make for some juicy plots.The White Princess is, of course, Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of Edward IV.   Elizabeth of York is often portrayed as a quiet, motherly figure who lived harmoniously with Henry VII.  Gregory gives us another, deeper and richly satisfying portrayal of a young woman at the epicenter of upheaval in English history whose marital life was anything but comfortable.

This is her story, told from her point of view. Elizabeth’s world is full of conflicts and complications.  On the one hand, Henry VII gains the throne, restores her legitimacy and offers marriage.  On the other hand, he’s killed her Uncle, lover and King Richard III, treats her as no better than a tavern whore as the spoils of war and whatever legitimacy she recovers comes behind his all-seeing, all-plotting mother Margaret Beaufort.   The novel opens with Elizabeth mourning Richard in her heart, but outwardly appearing happy and content with the new regime.  This is a tough act to carry out and Elizabeth of York displays the rigid self-control that carries her through the novel, even on the day Edward of Warwick and her brother Richard are executed.   At times, her self-control fails her and sparks fly between her and Henry VII behind the bedchamber door, which shows how raw and real her emotions truly are.   (I though about the late Diana, Princess of Wales as I wrote this.  She was another princess who always looked happy and glamorous to the public but in private had a tempestuous marriage and life.)

Margaret Beaufort is a fabulous villain, a religious fanatic obsessed with carrying out her interpretation of God’s Will.  But she is well-matched in plotting by Elizabeth’s mother, the former White Queen Elizabeth Woodville, who hope a new son of York will rise to challenge Henry and supports several plots to overthrown the Tudor regime.  I loved this Elizabeth Woodville even more than I did in Gregory’s novel about her – The White Queen.  Admittedly I read it a long time ago now, but I feel like this Elizabeth is even Machiavellian.

Henry VII was not a wildly popular king and there were several challenge to his throne from the York camp, the most significant of which was from someone claiming to be Richard, Duke of York.  Gregory poignantly portrays the conflicting emotions Elizabeth would have felt, hoping her brother was alive, wanting to support York – but having to support her husband’s cause because her children are Tudors.  To tell you more would be to spoil it.  Gregory has now spent years with the Plantagenets and it shows in up in tight plots, and characters so vivid, so real and convincing that I carried them with me after I reached the end of the book.

Loved, loved this book.  Am now eagerly awaiting “The White Queen” TV series, which begins airing in the US on 10 August (Starz).

Here my reviews of other novels in the series:

The Queen’s Vow brings dimension to Isabella of Castile

I am delighted today to be part of the virtual book tour for The Queen’s Vow. This was the first novel I’d read by CW Gortner, and I’m happy to have found a great new (to me) author.

(Link to Tour Schedule: http://hfvirtualbooktours.com/thequeensvowvirtualtour/)

The Queen's Vow PB Tour Banner FINALUntil reading The Queen’s Vow I knew four things about Isabella of Castile.  First, she reigned Castile in her own right. Second, she married her neighbor, Ferdinand of Aragon – an unusual love match.  Third, she had the intellectual curiosity, or good luck, to fund Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas.   She was the mother of Catherine of Aragon, who married Henry VIII.   That was the sum total of my knowledge.  It turns out I have missed a great woman, mighty queen and fascinating character — and so probably have you.

Publication Date: July 2, 2013 Ballantine Books Paperback; 416p ISBN-13: 9780345523976

Publication Date: July 2, 2013
Ballantine Books
Paperback; 416p
ISBN-13: 9780345523976

I luxuriated in the plot, characters and detail in The Queen’s Vow,  and  finished it with a deeper appreciation and admiration for this formidable queen.  Gortner brought Isabella alive, weaving a richly detailed story of her tempestuous life. The novel begins with her exile from the court of her half-brother Enrique and follows her ascension to the throne of Castile, her struggles to unite the Castilian grandees, to create Catholic unity and to defeat the Moors.

The novel spans more than fifty years of tumultuous Spanish history, which I imagine was a monumental research effort. Gortner does a masterful job of keeping the pace moving while explaining the complicated politics of the era and Isabella’s changing role within Castile.  Her life from an early age was awash with intrigue and danger and Gortner deftly gives you the “why” without pausing the action. (Thank you!)

Gortner’s Isabella is honest, loyal and devout – possibly to a fault.  She holds the people around her to high standards, but not higher than she holds herself as the last member of the Trastamara family.   Isabella can be a bit arrogant, self-righteous, a little vain, all of which as a reader I could forgive because she shouldered such a heavy burden.  Gortner does a particularly fine job of portraying Isabella’s religious devotion – too often in novels this can overwhelm a character almost to the point of one-dimensionality, but Gortner gets the balance just right between a devout woman and a flawed character.  Isabella of Castile was a mighty queen and makes for a fascinating main character.

Here are a few other posts you might find interesting 

An accurate portrayal at the expense of empathy? The Forgotten Queen by D. L. Bogdan

The Forgotten QueenI was keen to read a novel about Margaret Tudor, the feisty grandmother of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Unfortunately, I liked Margaret Tudor less at the end of the book than I did at the beginning.

I’ve read a fair bit of history on Margaret and Mary, the sisters of Henry VIII – enough to know that D. L. Bogdan’s The Forgotten Queen is a fairly historically accurate, if fictionalized, account of the life and times of Margaret Tudor, Queen Consort of Scotland’s James IV.   It is a well-written chronological telling of Margaret’s life, from her childhood at Sheen to her three marriages in Scotland finally her last role as mother of James V.

Early in the novel, Bogdan does a good job of setting the stage for the later enmity Henry VIII had for his sister.  Keep in mind Henry VIII left Margaret and her heirs out of his will and out of the English succession.  Scotland and England were constantly on the brink of war–there were many Border skirmishes and several outright heartbreaking bloody battles, such as Flodden where James IV died.  Against this reality, Margaret struggled with where her loyalty lay – to England as a Tudor Princess, or to Scotland as a Stewart Queen and mother of the heir.  Bogdan captures this tension well.  Bogdan also does a great job evoking Scotland and its palaces – places I visited last year like Linlithgow, Holyrood, and Falkland.

But I’ll just say it.  As the main character in a novel, this Margaret Tudor left me cold.  I wanted to warm to her, but she was vain, greedy, petty and a bit of a narcissist.  Now perhaps she really was all those things, but it did not make me like her, or really want to read about her.  She was utterly lacking in humility.  (She might have been a bit like her brother Henry).  Ultimately, her negative character traits were not offset by enough positive traits.   It may have been an accurate portrayal of Margaret, but it could have used some empathy.  Perhaps that was hard given some of Margaret’s decisions.

This was my first D. L. Bogdan novel.  Despite my feelings for this Margaret Tudor, I would definitely read another.

So if you like all things Tudor, it is worth a read. And if you didn’t have much passion for Margaret Tudor before, you may not upon finishing the book.  I’d be interested to hear what you think.  Below I’ve linked to another review of The Forgotten Queen.

Quest for the origins of supernormal species tantalizes in “A Discovery of Witches”

Discoveryofwitches

A Discovery of Witchesis clever, interesting, well-written fiction that is so good I read it twice.  I almost never do that. It is one of the most engrossing, entertaining novels I’ve read in a long, long time.  I picked it up on the recommendation of a friend for a light romantic read, and while there was romance, there was so much more.  It had me hooked from the first page and I did not speak anyone for three days while I read it and its sequel “Shadow of Night.”  I’m just sorry I have to wait for the third volume in the trilogy…and the film.

In the world created by author Deborah Harkness witches, vampires and daemons live alongside us ordinary humans.  In this supernormal world we meet Diana Bishop, American descendant of Salem witch Rebecca Bishop. Diana’s is at England’s prestigious Oxford University as a visiting history of science professor reading 16th century manuscripts.  During her research Diana comes across an enchanted book on alchemy that immediately stirs up the vampires, witches and daemons.  The book–Ashmole 782–is thought to be a magical “Origin of the Species,” and each faction wants it for its own purposes but none has been unable to access it.  Diana has a unique ability to attract and open the book, and the supernormals are quite willing to threaten Diana’s life to gain access.  But Diana’s a witch who has turned her back on magic, and has no idea what she did or why the book responded to her alone.  Neither does the Congregation, the governing body of supernatural beings, whose attention is now as riveted on Diana and the powers she may possess as it is on Ashmole 782.

Also interested in Ashmole 782 is devastatingly handsome 1500 year old vampire Mathew Clairmont (I picture Eric Bana in this role, Hollywood hear me!).  He wants the book as much as the other supernormals, but with a slightly different purpose. He is a geneticist and has discovered that each supernormal species is showing early signs of extinction.  He believes the book may explain how the four species developed from one, and how to save them.

When Matthew meets Diana sparks fly, passion simmers and they are inexplicably drawn to each other.  But their love defies long-established rules of species segregation and brings them into further conflict with those seeking the magical book.They find shelter with their families, overcoming established prejudices, as they seek to understand Diana’s power as a witch, her reluctance to use it and how she, and she alone, could call Ashmole 782.  Villains materialize, good conquers evil–for the moment–but the stakes are high.

And I can’t tell you more.  I’d spoil it.  you have to read it.  Then we can talk about it.

I’m not a huge vampire-witch fan, and definitely no Twi-Hard, so the fact I loved this book comes as a surprise.  The mix of history and magic pulled me in along with some great characters.  Harkness draws her characters very well – there’s lots of conflict, large and small, and plenty of room for character growth, change.   The themes are fundamental and universal: where do we come from? How do we fit in? Why can’t we love where we choose?  The stakes–survival of each species–could not be higher.

I loved the settings–Upstate New York, rural France and (sigh) Oxford, England.  The production company will have an easy time with location shoots.  Harkness did a particularly great job of describing life in Oxford.  Once upon a time I lived there, so I relished the descriptions of the river, the colleges and the surround area. (Sigh. I must go watch some Morse or Inspector Lewis, just for a fix.)

If the Oxford setting drew me in, what kept me going was the history of  science that permeates the novel.  It kept the book fresh, and different.  From discussing the works of early alchemists in the context of the development of modern scientific enquiry, to framing the Origins of the Species and work on extinction as one of the driving forces behind Matthew Clairmont.  Brilliant!

Loved, loved it. Deb Harkness please hurry with the last book in the trilogy!

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Mary Queen of Scots executed Chastelard 450 years ago today. Why?

Mary Stuart and Chastelard by Linton, Sir James Dromgole (1840-1916); Private Collection; (add.info.: Mary Stuart and Chastelard. Illustration for Mary Queen of Scots edited by W Shaw Sparrow (Hodder & Stoughton, c 1910).); © Look and Learn; English,  out of copyright

Mary Stuart and Chastelard by Linton, Sir James Dromgole (1840-1916); Private Collection http://www.bridemanart.com #460699

Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1529-1563) was famous for nothing until he surprised Mary, Queen of Scots in her bedchamber (twice) and she had him hanged.  It is a fascinating story to tell on this, the 450th anniversary of his execution (reported as either 20 or 22 February, 1563) at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews.

Pierre was born about 1529 to Jeanne de Bayard and Francois Bocosel in Dauphiné, in southeastern France.  The family name had prestige, Pierre was the grandson of the famous Chevalier de Bayard known as “the knight without fear and beyond reproach” who symbolized the values of the French knighthood at the end of the Middle Ages.  He was the third of five children, at least two of whom eventually took Holy Orders and rose to run their respective religious houses.  As the middle son, he would have been expected to seek his fortune by carving out a career at court, or in the military.

Pierre chose a life at court, and became a page in the service of Constable Montmorency at the court of Henri II.   Lady Antonia Fraser recounts in Mary Queen of Scots that he was ” well-born, charming-looking, and gallant.”  He tapped into his chivalric ancestry by writing courtly love poems.  He had some talent and achieved recognition as a fringe member of the Pléaiade, a group of 16th-century French Renaissance poets whose principal members were Pierre de RonsardJoachim du Bellay and Jean-Antoine de Baïf.

His good looks and way with words may account for how a mere page fell into the orbit of Mary, Queen of Scots, and thus avoided obscurity.  Mary was in residence at the French Court from 1547 until 1561, during her betrothal and marriage to the son of Henri II, Francis and their reign as King and Queen of France.

Pierre fell in love with Mary, who is said to have encouraged his passion.  It is not clear during what time period this flirtation occurred, but most likely it was after the death of Mary’s husband in December 1560.  At any rate, Pierre was in the party escorting Mary back to Scotland in August 1561 with Montmorency’s son.

The story goes that he wrote poems to her–and she wrote back in kind. John Guy writes in his magnificent biography  The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots that Mary responded to Chastelard’s poems in the spirit of courtly love, nothing more.

Mary may not have harbored any romantic feelings for Chastelard but her behavior gave rise to plenty of gossip.  Who says Mary’s friendship with Chastelard was anything but innocent?  Thomas Randolph, the English Ambassador to Scotland, Brantome, a notoriously unreliable French source and Mary’s nemesis, John Knox all suggest theirs was much more than a friendship.  Note that at this time Mary was busy looking for a new husband from powerful Catholic countries.  If true, why risk the stain on her honour?

In Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley, author Alison Weir recounts Randolph’s claim “that she permitted too great a degree of familiarity with ‘so unworthy a creature and abject a varlet.'”  Weir reports that John Knox also had plenty to say about how “Chastelard was so familiar in the Queen’s cabinet that scarcely could any of the nobility have access to her.”  She “would lie upon Chastelard’s shoulder and sometimes she would privily kiss his neck.”  What? What was Mary thinking—by this time she had been back in Scotland long enough to know that what might pass without comment at the French Court would cause a stir at the Scottish Court.   But is it true? And if it is, does it mean anything than Mary was a bit foolish, a bit lonely?

Could Chastelard’s infatuation have cloaked more sinister intentions?  There is some suggestion that Chastelard was a spy for the English–in particular for Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir William Cecil–but history is inconclusive.  What we do know is that he left Scotland for some time between September 1561 and returned in the autumn of 1562 having traveled through London making noise about returning to his lady-love in Scotland.  He could have picked up an assignment.  Weir reports that after Chastelard’s death William Maitland, Mary’s Secretary of State, told the Spanish Ambassador De Quadra that Chastelard confessed to being sent by Huguenots in France to ruin Mary’s reputation and foil her marriage plans with the Spanish heir, Don Carlos.

On his return to Scotland, Mary was glad to see him.  She gave him the gift of a horse that her brother had given her (re-gifting…), and some money to buy new clothes and danced with him during New Year’s celebrations.  Still, none of these actions was out of keeping with her behavior to other favorites.

Rossend Castle, shades of former glory.  Here in February 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots found Chastelard hiding under her bed.

Rossend Castle, shades of former glory. Here in February 1563 Mary, Queen of Scots found Chastelard hiding under her bed.

If he was just an obsessed, love-sick swain, he was also unlucky.  On his return, he displayed the poor judgment, or luck, to get caught in Mary’s bedchamber not once, but twice.  The first time, he hid under Mary’s bed at Holyrood Palace but discovered during a routine security search.  Mary banished him from Scotland.   Two days later in a move of epic stupidity, he followed Mary to Fife surprised her at Rossend Castle in Burntisland (which I visited last year) and caught her in the middle of disrobing. Chastelard had a dagger and/or sword with him.  Her shouts brought her brother, James Stewart, Earl of Moray to her aid.  Mary was so rattled that her chief lady-in-waiting, Mary Fleming, slept at the foot of her bed thereafter.

Whatever Mary’s true feelings for Pierre, she did not have much choice but to hang him for the attempted assassination after refusing several pleas for a pardon. At worst, he threatened Queen Mary’s life; at best, he threatened her good name either through his stupidity or on purpose as a spy.  After a week in the dungeons at St. Andrews, Pierre was hanged at the Mercat Cross in St. Andrews on February 20, 1563.  Chastelard made a dramatic exit, reciting Ronsard’s poem “Hymn of Death” and reportedly saying “”Adieu, most lovely and cruel of princesses!” This cannot have helped Mary’s reputation with the Reformists like John Knox.

Algernon Charles Swinburne, a 19th century intellectual and author, wrote Chastelard: A Tragedy  about his relationship with Mary Stuart and one of her ladies-in-waiting, Mary Beaton.  In the story, the three are caught in a tragic triangle that ends with his execution.  I do not believe there is any historical accuracy behind the concept of the love triangle, but it is a compelling idea.

Chastelard’s relationship with Mary intrigues me.  Was he obsessed but unrequited in love?  Or was he an infatuation of Mary’s, the inappropriate predecessor to the inappropriate Darnley and Bothwell?  As a writer, the what-if’s in this story fascinate me.  I wonder what the CW’s Reign will make of this?  (I know what I’m doing with this plot line!)