After many false starts, astrology became a focus for my first work of historical fiction – State of Treason. William Constable is a scholar and competent in all three areas listed in the title of this post. I should declare now that, unlike our hero, I hold no faith in astrology.

Astrology had a significant influence as a way of explaining and controlling the life of Elizabethans. Natal astrology was used to examine and predict events based on a birth chart. Medical astrology was used to determine an individual’s weakness, diagnose illness, and prescribe cures. It was a prerequisite to healing and taught in every major university. It was not always clearly distinguished from astronomy, which described the motion of the stars and their influence on tides, weather and navigation.

Expertise in astrology is the declared reason for William’s summons to Sir Francis Walsingham. He also has a reputation as a mathematician, surveyor of the movement of the stars and their use in the navigation of ships. He uses the latter skill as an excuse to meet with a group of men who plan an ambitious adventure to the New Lands and raids on Spanish treasure ships. He does this as an unwilling investigator into a conspiracy that threatens the state.

The art of navigation developed rapidly in the sixteenth century in response to explorers who needed to find their positions without landmarks. Instruments were used to determine latitude, but longitude required accurate timepieces and these were not yet available. A cross staff was in common use in the mid sixteenth century to calculate latitude. The major problem with this was that the observer had to look in two directions at once – along the bottom of the transom to the horizon and along the top of the transom to the sun or the star. A more advanced instrument was the Davis Quadrant or backstaff. One of the major advantages of the backstaff over the cross-staff was that the navigator had to look in only one direction to take the sight – through the slit in the horizon vane to the horizon while simultaneously aligning the shadow of the shadow vane with the slit in the horizon vane. The shadow staff in the book, invented by William, is an imagined forerunner of the backstaff.

Enough of the background – now to the writing. Weaving real characters and events into the plot was the first challenge. Walsingham was always going to play a part as Elizabeth’s spymaster. John Dee was a fascinating character whose expertise in astrology and mathematics made him a natural, if unseen, foil for William as his estranged mentor. I took particular delight in incorporating John Foxe as a character who forms an unlikely friendship with William. A renowned Puritan and author of Book of Martyrs (a bestseller at the time), Foxe was also thought to have a kindly and forgiving manner. I came to John Hawkins and Humphrey Gilbert, famous privateers and explorers, later in plot development to complement William’s invention of a navigation instrument for ships. Hawkins was rewarded for his aid in uncovering the ‘Ridolfi Plot’ against Elizabeth. Some questions remain about the true nature of his part in this affair and his continued friendship with the Spanish Ambassador.

A recent blog post by Annie Whitehead considered how to write convincing dialogue for her novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. ( She makes a convincing case for a compromise between true Old English and modern understanding. So it was with State of Treason. I wanted to create prose and dialogue, which captures the essence of authentic Elizabethan life without disturbing the reader’s flow and the need for a glossary. After a few experiments I found that this came most naturally by writing first person in the historic present. Time, readership and feedback will tell if I have succeeded in the attempt.

Leave a Reply