Mary’s birth in 1515, by Rosalind K. Marshall

On this day was born Mary Queen of Scots’ mother, who had all the political finesse and sensitivity that her daughter needed!

Marie de Guise-Lorraine 1515-2015

The 500th birthday of Marie of Lorraine or Mary of Guise approaches. As opening of this special event follows an extract of a book written in 1977 that has pulled Marie out of oblivion. By publishing Mary’s first biography, its author, historian and art historian Rosalind K. Marshall, has restored the life and historical importance of a woman born in November 1515 in the duchy of Bar, a little girl who was to become a courageous and intelligent woman, and a queen and queen regent of Scotland.

On 20 November 1515 in the Castle of Bar-le-Duc, perched high on its rock above the river Ornain, the young Countess of Guise gave birth to a daughter. The baby was her first, and she lay in her great bed watching her women bustling around the child, Antoinette was well content. The dangers of the last few months were now past…

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Loch Leven Castle

Very enjoyable post from The Hazel Tree about Loch Leven Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned after her abdication. She escaped – in one of her more daring feats – and roused her supporters. You can’t rewrite history, but you have to wonder what would have happened had she not crossed the Solway into England.

The Hazel Tree

Loch Leven Castle (Colin) 81It was May Day, 1568, and most of the guests at Loch Leven Castle had had far too much to drink.   The young Willie Douglas, disguised as the Abbot of Unreason, had made sure of that.   In fact, he had a deep and very dangerous reason for doing so, one which would land him in serious trouble if he were found out.

The Queen, although appearing to enjoy the evening’s celebrations, was on tenterhooks, aware that her chance to escape was tantalisingly close.   One of her pearl earrings, given to Willie as a secret token, had been mysteriously returned to her a few days before.  She knew that this was a signal.

As Willie plied the revellers with more alcohol, she muttered something about feeling unwell and slipped upstairs to her room at the top of the tower.  There, aided by her maid, she quickly changed into…

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Wonderful Thrilling Debut Novel, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Brilliant Tudor-era novel by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau’s debut novel, The Crown leapt to the top of my reading list for purely selfish reasons.  I was writing about life in a 16th century priory in Poissy, France and stumbled upon a link between Poissy and Dartford Priory in Kent. Founded by royalty (Edward III) with nuns from Poissy in the 14th Century, Dartford Priory was a prestigious religious institution. I was curious to read an historical fiction account of life there—especially since I have not found an account of life at Poissy. I’m glad I did. The Crown is a thrilling read.

Bilyeau’s Dartford Priory is a religious establishment in turmoil, perhaps reflecting the time. Anne Boleyn is dead; Jane Seymour is Queen, and the Dissolution of the Monasteries is underway.  The novel begins in the aftermath of the Pilgrimage of Grace as its leaders are sentenced to die.

Against this backdrop, we meet Joanna Stafford, a young novice at Dartford Priory who has run off to witness to the burning of her cousin, Margaret Bulmer, to provide her with support and prayers at the time of her death.  It’s an horrific opening, one that makes the reader confront the brutality and inhumanity of Henry VIII’s reign, and setting the tone for the high stakes to come.

Her cousin Margaret is not the only relative to run afoul of Henry VIII, who executed her Uncle Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham—Margaret’s father.  With this history, Stafford is not a popular name with Henry VIII who is disinclined to leniency when Joanna’s father Richard Stafford intervenes to ease Margaret’s suffering.  Worse – Joanna’s mother was one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting and Joanna herself was with Katherine until she died.  They are sent to the Tower along with Geoffrey Scovill, a sheriff’s deputy and love interest for Joanna (yet how can this be when she is almost a nun… read and find out!).

Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester finally grants her release from the Tower on the condition that Joanna return to Dartford Priory and spy for him. He keeps Joanna’s father in the Tower to guarantee her cooperation. She must find the Athlestan Crown….the crown of the first King to unite Britain, the crown that has magic, perhaps cursed properties in the wrong hands.

Joanna returns to the Priory accompanied by two monks, where dramatic events are already in progress. From here, its murder and a bit of violence as Joanna finds the Crown.   Bilyeau crafts wonderful plots, subplots and terrific characters, weaving in fascinating details about Dartford, its tapestries, herbology, and the chaos of England at the tipping point of Reformation.

I liked Joanna Stafford, who is nicely balanced.  She is spiritual yet not too virtuous, independent yet not so much so that it stood out as remarkable for the 16th Century.  Her quest for the crown and its secret leads her out of the Priory and into the real world in the company of men, but not in a way that felt contrived.  Most of all, I loved that this was not a book about court intrigue.

The book is an excellent, fast-paced read. It felt more like a thriller than most historical fiction books, which I liked.  I will definitely read more from Nancy Bilyeau. (And yes, reading it helped with my Poissy research.)

Love to know your thoughts on this book!