Skea’s sequel – “A House Divided” is even better than “Turn of the Tide”

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Margaret Skea’s brilliant second novel in the Munro family series.

I’ll tell the truth, shall I?  I have been a bit annoyed with some of the historical fiction I’ve read recently.  It is my fault for choosing too many books with the storyline “girl goes to court, meets [insert royal figure], chaos ensues.” This storyline seems prevalent in the Tudor/Elizabethan novels I’ve read. The cure for my malaise? Reading Scottish historical fiction.

Margaret Skea has just this month published the sequel – “A House Divided”  – to her first novel; “Turn of the Tide,” which I savored over several weeks and just finished this weekend.  I loved the first book (see review here) and this one was, I thought, even better. That makes some sense – an author learns a lot between book one and book two.  Skea has skillfully woven a gripping story set again primarily in Ayrshire about the Cunninghame-Montgomerie feud in a restless time period when superstition and witch trials were on the rise. She has done her research – knows the landscape, the history of the feud, and has given it all perfect context with the Munro’s story.

“A House Divided” continues the story of the Munro family, forced into hiding from Glencairn’s heir, the great arch-villain of the series, William Cunninghame.  In the sequel, William Cunninghame has taken possession of the Munro home at Broomelaw and is rebuilding the tower and surrounding holdings for himself. Adam Munro is in France, fighting with the Scots Garde for the French Henri IV.  Kate Munro has taken the surname Grant, and is living with her children at Braidstane – a Montgomerie stronghold.

There’s great dramatic tension from the get-go.  Kate makes a living as a “wise woman” – a cross between a herbalist and midwife.  It is a dangerous occupation in late 16th Century Scotland, where witchcraft trials have become commonplace.  The trouble begins when Kate is called to help Margaret Maxwell, the wife of a Cunninghame supporter.  It is an understatement to say that this good deed does not go unpunished, and leaves Kate and her family increasingly vulnerable to discovery.  Kate is further put at risk when her reputation spreads and she is asked to attend to Queen Anne, the wife of James VI.   Like any good healer she goes where and when she must – even with a high chance of seeing Maxwell and William Cunninghame there.

Court?! Yes, there were a few trips to Court – the Court of James VI to be exact – but the characters in the novel are not conduits who get involved in the affairs of the Court, rather the opposite – which of course saves it from my perturbation with the “girl goes to Court” theme.

I loved this book – the way the tension rose and dipped and then rose higher, dipped in brief resolution and rose again – finally to a great crescendo.  I suspected early on what was coming but that in no way diminished the grip the novel had on me.  I can’t spoil it for you. I was on tenterhooks.  I suppose I will never be sure what a novelist will do to their characters since Eddard Stark died, so I could not be sure of the ending.  I was all-in for the journey – and you will be too.

For lovers of Scotland, Scottish history, and historical fiction more broadly, this is a great read. It left me wondering what the Munro’s will do next.  That’s a good sign – ready for no. 3!

“Turn of the Tide” charts shifting currents of clan loyalties

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

Turn of The Tide by Margaret Skea, Capercaillie Books

It is hard to know where to begin, there were so many things I liked about “Turn of the Tide,”Margaret Skea’s debut novel about the feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghams set in 17th Century Scotland.   I have had this one in the queue for a wee while and was grateful for the US Labor Day weekend for uninterrupted hours of reading pleasure.Set in Ayrshire, the novel opens with main character, Munro setting plans in motion for a massacre of key members of the Montgomery clan.  He’s a loyal, albeit reluctant, member of the Cunningham clan who would rather be at home with his wife, bairns and farm.  He carries out this mission for the Earl of Glencairn with a seed of misgiving about continuing the 100-year-old feud that grows throughout the novel.

Retribution is swift for may of those involved in the massacre, but Munro has a handy alibi and escapes harm.  Still, his wife is horrified and his conscience nags him. A friendly encounter with a Montgomery makes him question further the blind loyalty to the Cunningham clan and its leader, the Earl of Glencairn.  Glencairn himself may have some reasonable qualities, but William, his son and heir is a dangerous man.

Auch, I’ll no spoil it for ye!   I will say that Munro’s conscience is the tide that turns, and the reasons behind it make for a captivating read.

I love that the novel shone a light on this feud, which ran for centuries in Ayrshire.  King James VI and his court do feature in the novel, but they are far from the main story.  It was a refreshing departure to find a 16th-17th century novel with a griping tale where royalty is on the fringe and not center stage.  That said, one of the issues in the feud was which clan leader took precedence at court.

This is an emotionally gripping story about a man caught between duty and conscience at a time in history when a man’s livelihood depended upon his loyalty to family and clan –theoretically those would be aligned.  While Skea could have chosen one incident to make Munro’s loyalties change, I’m glad she did not.  It would have had impact, but missed the nuances, the questioning and the soul-searching Munro went through.  And then of course, there was also impact (I willnae spoil it).

Skea clearly knows Ayrshire well, and writes with beautiful detail about the landscape, whether it is describing the miserable rain that can chill you to the bone, or the aconite flowers in a valley.   The dialect adds richness to the characters and is judiciously used.  Helpfully, there’s a glossary in the book so you can look up words like “wabbit” (no, not rabbit).

The Feud of Glencairn and Eglinton

Clan Cunningham (US)

Clan Montgomery (Electric Scotland)

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 

Marie MacPherson’s debut novel makes John Knox likable

FirstblastThe First Blast of the Trumpet” is the first of three novels about the life and times of Scottish Reformation preacher John Knox, brilliantly told by Marie MacPherson. The novel begins in pre-Reformation Scotland under James IV, a period of relative stability in the country in which three young girls, including Elisabeth Hepburn, the daughter of the Earl of Bothwell, are coming of age. Elisabeth’s hopes for marriage to David Lindsay are thwarted when she is commanded by her family to enter a convent. It soon becomes clear that Elisabeth is the thread that ties together a diverse cast of characters, from John Knox and Marie of Guise to Cardinal David Beaton and Mary, Queen of Scots. Elisabeth’s family and friends become divided over the need to curtail some of the excesses of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

The author deftly tackles a very complicated, emotionally charged subject and brings it to life with historical and emotional accuracy. John Knox is not, to my mind, a particularly sympathetic figure in Scotland’s history, and yet in the young Knox Marie MacPherson creates a very likeable, though flawed character. I quite liked Knox and felt keenly his struggle to keep faith with his past but follow his calling. I also enjoyed the characterizations of Elisabeth, Davie Lindsay and George Wishart; their troubles tugged at the heartstrings. There is fantastic Scots dialect throughout the book, which as a Scot I enjoyed, but others may wish to have had a glossary in the back of the book.

This review was first published by the Historical Novel Society in the Historical Novel Review August 2013.  

Mary Queen of Scots, CW’s “Reign”, historical accuracy and why I’ll watch anyway

Reign

Cast of Reign, premiering on the CW Network 17 October 2013

Pity the poor writers and producers of CW’s “Reign.” It has not yet hit TV screens in the US, yet the network is already defending the dramatic license they have taken with the series. (“Reign’ boss defends show’s relaxed approach to historical accuracy“).  The CW team, defending the series, keeps saying that they are “not the History Channel.”No really?   They need to come up with a response that has a bit more credibility. “We’re not the History Channel, so we can make up whatever we like” is not a real defense.  “We’re meeting a market need for a teenage, historical fiction drama and we chose to create a series about Mary Queen of Scots because  a) b) c) …”  might get them less flak and enable them to take their tin hats off.

I’ve already posted a couple of times my surprise that the CW would take huge license with the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.  Her life is replete with all the drama and scandal a series could wish for when told with detailed accuracy.  From the day she  escaped from the approaching English army and hid at Inchmahome Priory on Lake Menteith, Mary’s life was a rollercoaster of dazzling highs (crowned Queen of France) and humiliating lows (abdicating her throne; eventually being beheaded by her cousin Elizabeth I).  Who needs to make s*** up?  I could have given the CW years of great storylines on Mary and her posse (I’m still available for the asking, btw).  Skillfully handled, her story is amazing and heartbreaking.

I love the true life story of Mary Stuart.  I still have a copy of from the early 1970s of Lady Antonia Fraser‘s wonderful non-fiction biography of her, which I read when I was just eleven years old (and very precocious with it!) and captivated me.  I hate that her life is being brought to the small screen with less than great attention to detail and the real drama that was her life.  It is my hope that the creators of Reign have color just a little outside the historical lines, and not disregarded them completely.

But I get it,  I watch the CW from time to time.  OK.  Week to week.  I confess I have a wee addiction to the CW’s ‘Vampire Diaries‘ and have always thought that Ian Somerhalder would make the perfect Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (here’s my blog post on that sensational story).   I know, I’m probably the oldest CW viewer (it’s sad really).   There is absolutely nothing real about the Vampire Diaries, nothing at all and yet I love it.  Similarly, I watched Starz’s ‘DaVinci’s Demons‘ which, I’m guessing, bears not much more than a passing nod to reality, but I enjoyed it anyway.  Ditto both  The Tudors and The Borgias TV series.  In the CW’s defense,  its target market is probably the 18-24 year-old crowd who want fast-paced, slightly steamy entertainment (I’m guessing here, but I was in that age bracket once) and that target audience are not too worried about what is true and what is not.  The CW is great at marketing to its target audience, and I have to believe they know what it wants.

So if writers and producers make free with historical fact, but create really entertaining drama, should we complain?  Is the CW getting an undeserved kicking before the show even airs?  Perhaps.  For me, I have to see how far they’ve taken their creative license.  I mean, if teenage Mary Stuart starts having it away with, say Nostradamus (who I understand is cast as a young big of al’right played by Rossif Sutherland) I might complain.  But if they are making more of the relationship between Mary and the Dauphin Francis, her betrothed, then I could be OK with it.

One way or another I’ll be watching the series end-to-end when it premiers in October.   For one thing, I can’t imagine Megan Fellows as Henry II’s wife, Catherine de Medici.  It will take some great acting to make me see her as anyone other than Anne of Green Gables!  (Megan, I’m rooting for you.)

Here’s a link to a preview.  (Someone tell me why Mary, Queen of Scots, has an English accent? — People! The actress is Australian, surely they could’ve coached her?)

The Beginning of the End – Rizzio’s Murder at Holyrood

English: The Murder of David Rizzio, oil on pa...

English: The Murder of David Rizzio, oil on panel, Depicts the killing of David Rizzio, secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots, by a group of nobles including Lord Darnley (the Queen’s husband), Lord Ruthven and the Earl of Morton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today marks the 447th anniversary of David Rizzio’s murder in Mary Queen of Scots’ chamber at Holyrood Palace.  Rizzio’s gruesome murder on March 9, 1566 marked a watershed in Mary Stuart’s reign in Scotland.  One could call it the beginning of the end.  Rizzio himself was not all that important except as a focal point for the Protestant Scottish nobles, led by Patrick, Lord Ruthven and aided and abetted by Mary’s husband Henry, Lord Darnley.   The pact that sealed Rizzio’s death also sealed Darnley’s, though he could not have known it at the time.  Rizzio’s death was the first in a series of incidents that destabilized Mary’s reign.  Eighteen months later Mary was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James.

David Riccio di Pancalieri was born about 1533 to a well-known Piedmontese family somewhere near Turin, Italy.  He was employed by the Duke of Savoy as a valet and musician and traveled with the Duke’s ambassador, Signor di Moretta to Scotland in 1561.  He left the Duke’s employ to become one of Mary’s musicians – she needed a bass singer!  This was not a particular sign of favor, according to John Guy in The True Life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots Mary “always” had musicians and minstrels on her payroll including five viol players, three lute players, several pipers and a shawm (early oboe) player.  Most contemporary sources agree that David “Davy” Rizzio was ugly.  Lady Fraser, author of Mary, Queen of Scots reports he “extremely ugly by the standards of the time, his face being considered ill-favored and his stature small and hunched.

How did Rizzio go from a singer in a “band” to Mary’s private secretary?   Prior to 1564 Mary’s French secretary was Raulett, a cipherer who was also a retainer of the Guise family, her relations on her mother’s side.  He was the only person beside Mary who had the key to the black box that contained her secret papers.  In the run up to Mary’s marriage to Darnley, something must have happened to precipitate Raulett’s dismissal.  She replaced him with David Rizzio – a move that seems odd in that he does not, on the face of it, appear to have been qualified.

Not long after Rizzio took over Mary’s French correspondence, she took a shine to her cousin Henry, Lord Darnley—the great-grandson of Henry VII through his daughter Margaret.  By April 1565 she was crazy in love with Darnley, so much that the English Ambassador Randolph said she “whom ever before I esteemed so worthy, so wise, so honorable in all her doings” was now altered “to the utter contempt of her best subjects.”   But as Darnley rose in Mary’s opinion he was falling out of favor with the Scots nobles who thought him arrogant and unpleasant.

Rizzio was riding high in favor of both Mary and Darnley in 1565.  John Guy flat out says the two men were found in bed together.  Clearly no one mentioned this to Mary, but Lady Fraser suggests the Four Maries and the majority of Scots nobles were against the match. Fraser notes that Rizzio was the only person who really supported her marriage to Darnley.

Mary’s marriage to Darnley was a disaster.  It provoked the Scots nobles, notably Mary’s brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray into a rebellion, ostensibly because they feared the return of Catholicism to Scotland.  Darnley was a member of the Lennox Stewart clan and there was a not unreasonable fear that clan’s power would overwhelm the others—in particular Moray and others who were de facto ousted from their closeness to Mary.  Moray fled to England where he continued to stir the nobles.

Darnley expected to become King Henry by receiving the crown matrimonial.  Even before the bloom was off their marriage, which didn’t take long, Mary shied from granting him that power.  When Darnley took out his frustrations on Rizzio, who he began to feel had undue influence on Mary.   It was not difficult for dissatisfied Protestant Lords to convince Darnley they could kill Rizzio and put him on the throne.   They convinced Darnley that Mary was committing adultery with Rizzio and further suggested he was a spy for the Pope. (No evidence exists to suggest he was anything on than a singer who gained the trust of a sovereign.)

More than a dozen Scottish nobles conspired to kill Rizzio in the Queen’s presence.  They ambushed Rizzio’s in Mary’s supper chamber – a small narrow room (I’ve seen it, amazingly tiny)—at Holyrood and demanded Mary hand him over.  She refused and in response had a gun pointed at her — Mary was seven month’s pregnant at the time.  They stabbed Rizzio more than 50 times before throwing him down the staircase, stripped of his jewels and clothes.  He was buried within a few hours of his death somewhere in the grounds at Holyrood.

It is not clear to me how much real power and influence Rizzio had with Mary.  He certainly died with a large sum of money (over £2,000, which is a lot for a man who made just £80/year), so perhaps he was taking bribes and peddling influence.  It is clear he rose high, had few friends and far too many enemies.

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.