My mother was a member of the Richard III Society and never tired of telling our family he was really a ‘good king’ and the antithesis of Shakespeare’s monster. The contemporary portrait of Richard in the National Portrait Gallery presents a thoughtful, intelligent face and it is not difficult to imagine him as a more sympathetic character than the one trashed by the Tudors.
That was the start of my fascination with history and historical fiction. After decades as a reader of the genre, I resolved to try my hand as a writer. ‘If nothing else – you’ll enjoy the research,’ was the encouragement received from my wife. She was wrong. After a few months, I was impatient to get writing. I had picked a date in Elizabeth’s reign, mid-point between major plots and rebellions – 1578. Tolerance of those adhering to the old religion was fast disappearing and Walsingham’s network of intelligencers were industrious in securing Her Majesty’s state. In the end, my research stretched to three times the length of the writing, but I suppose that is a common finding of historical fiction authors.
My first book in a planned series of Elizabethan spy thrillers is State of Treason, published by Sharpe Books in June 2019. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, is clearly a key figure in 1578, but my main character is a fictitious scholar, William Constable. The story is told from William’s viewpoint allowing freedom in the plot, largely within the confines of recorded events, and his assessment of historical figures. He is competent in astrology, mathematics and medicine with a modest reputation in Elizabethan London.
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.
Astrology is the declared reason for William’s summons to Sir Francis Walsingham. He also uses his skill in mathematics and surveyor of the stars 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.
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. A highly intelligent and learned man with one of the finest libraries in England, he was a trusted advisor to Elizabeth early in her reign. In later years, his interests turned to the supernatural and communication with angels. It was thought that he came under the influence of a dubious figure, Edward Kelley. Some claim that Kelley manipulated Dee and even persuade him that angels instructed him to lay with his young wife. Kelley and Dee’s second wife, Jane, both appear in the book, although I have been liberal with the dates of Kelley’s involvement with Dee.
I took particular delight in incorporating John Foxe as a character who forms an unlikely friendship with William. A renowned advocate of Protestantism and author of a work commonly known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (a bestseller at the time), it details the persecution and gruesome ends of protestant martyrs with special emphasis on England and Scotland. Foxe was also thought to have a benign and forgiving manner; unusual for the age. An examination of his likeness in this engraving suggests a gentle and compassionate man, at least to my eyes.
Little is known about the character of Francis Mylles, who is William’s main contact in Walsingham’s service. Notebooks and letters in the British Library indicate Puritan leanings and by 1580 he was one of Walsingham’s most important servants, controlling a network of informers. I portray him as a loyal and ambitious follower of Walsingham who may be helpful to William, but also a dangerous rival.
The navigation of ships is a central theme in State of Treason and its sequel. The art of navigation developed rapidly in the sixteenth century in response to explorers who needed to find their positions without landmarks. 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 backstaff. A major advantage of the backstaff 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, whose invention is generally attributed to the 1580’s, but was probably in use before that date.
I came to John Hawkins and Humphrey Gilbert, famous privateers and explorers, later in plot development of State of Treason. They are major players in my follow-up book (untitled and due for publication later in 2019), which follows preparations for a venture to the New Lands from West Country ports. Hawkins was rewarded for his aid in uncovering the ‘Ridolfi Plot’ against Elizabeth and in 1578 was appointed Treasurer of the Royal Navy. Some questions remain about the true nature of his part in the Ridolfi affair and his continued friendship with the Spanish Ambassador.
Both these men had a reputation for bravery and daring, but could also be cruel, hard and unforgiving. Gilbert advocated the killing of non-combatant women and children in military campaigns in Ireland and Hawkins is well-known as one of the first slave traders across the Atlantic. How does William get on with these two figures? Does he admire or despise them? You’ll have to read the books to find out more.