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The Last Blast of The Trumpet – Marie Macpherson – excerpt

I’m delighted to welcome Marie Macpherson to my blog today with a fascinating wintry excerpt from her novel The Last Blast of the Trumpet. First, here’s the blurb to entice you!

1564: Conflict, Chaos and Corruption in Reformation Scotland.

He wants to reform Scotland, but his enemies will stop at nothing to prevent him.

Scotland 1559: Fiery reformer John Knox returns to a Scotland on the brink of civil war. Victorious, he feels confident of his place leading the reform until the charismatic young widow, Mary Queen of Scots returns to claim her throne. She challenges his position and initiates a ferocious battle of wills as they strive to win the hearts and minds of the Scots. But the treachery and jealousy that surrounds them both as they make critical choices in their public and private lives has dangerous consequences that neither of them can imagine.

In this final instalment of the trilogy of the fiery reformer John Knox, Macpherson tells the story of a man and a queen at one of the most critical phases of Scottish history.

Publisher: Penmore Press

John Knox historical novel

The Extract:

Chapter 12 – Hogmanay

Coldingham Priory, December 1562

An ice storm at the solstice heralded the start of winter. It smoothed the muddy earth with a silver glaze, creating a winter wonderland. Frozen crystals sparkling like crushed diamonds sprinkled the bare branches of trees and turned bushes into pillars of salt. The low winter light glinted on spiders’ webs as if spinning them into delicate lace on a christening shawl.

As they left the priory chapel, Elisabeth took Lady Morham’s arm. ‘It’s slippery underfoot,’ she warned. The giddy grandmother was sliding about the ice yet refused to hand over her precious bundle to his wet nurse.

Behind them, the queen stopped on the threshold and inhaled deeply. ‘It’s heavenly to breathe fresh air. Everything here seems so pure and clean and white. Perfect for a christening.’

Confident that no one would pursue her in this treacherous weather, Mary had stolen away from Edinburgh with the four Maries and a handful of bodyguards to be godmother at the furtive Catholic baptism of Jean’s new-born son, Francis. The atmosphere at court where she was surrounded by spies and critics all too eager to cram Knox with intelligence about her. was stifling, she confessed. Everything she did was sharply censured. It was sinful to celebrate the Twelve Days of Christmas; it was wicked to shoot at the butts, to listen to music or poetry, to bring needlework to the council chamber, to play chess, to dance and be merry.

‘However much they goad you, never let the dour Calvinists quench your zest for life, madame,’ Elisabeth had said.

Now a helpless giggle escaped Mary’s lips. ‘Look at those two bairns.’

Elisabeth followed her gaze. The proud father, Lord John, and his brother, Lord Robert, were fencing with icicles they’d broken off the overhanging eaves. In the silent, falling snow they loomed like the wraiths of ancient warriors.

‘It’s a pity Bothwell couldn’t be here to stand as the bairn’s godfather,’ Elisabeth said, ‘but at least he’ll be safe in France, far from Moray’s clutches. Thanks to you, madame.’

‘And you, dear prioress. He’s been the victim of great injustice.’

Their eyes locked in mutual understanding. For over two months, Bothwell had been cooped up in the dank, dark dungeon of Edinburgh Castle in conditions worse than the caged animals in the palace menagerie. Moray had stripped his sister of her only loyal supporter and kept him in prison without a trial. Disgraced and friendless, he suffered a living death.

Unable to thole the rank injustice any longer, Elisabeth had sought clemency for Bothwell, telling Mary some stark truths. While sympathetic to his plight, the queen regretted being powerless to release him, adding that he should do the best he could. Taking this as tacit royal approval, Elisabeth had anointed the palm of a jailer to open gates for her nephew while she organised a boat from Aberlady to take him safely to France.

After the christening feast, the family huddled by the hearth to wait for midnight to bring in the new year. Like All Hallow’s Eve, Hogmanay was a magical time of the year when the auld year gave birth to the new, and Elisabeth couldn’t let it pass without telling scary stories of ghosts and bogles, roasting nuts and fortune telling.

‘You break the ice, Isabelle,’ she said. ‘Tell us the gruesome tale of St Abbe and the nuns of Coldingham.’

Their curiosity aroused, the eager listeners hunched forward, and Isabelle began, her voice a low whisper. ‘A long time ago, in the time of the king of Alba, a raiding party of frenzied Norsemen landed at the coast near Coldingham abbey and went berserk. Terrified the heathens would violate their virginity, the abbess urged the sisters to maim themselves. They slashed their noses and lips, hoping to slake the lust of the marauding pagans and keep their vow of chastity.’

‘What happened to them? Were they saved?’ Mary asked, wide-eyed.

‘Nay,’ Isabelle replied. ‘They were all murdered but went to their deaths singing like angels.’

‘Rejoicing for losing their maidenheads, I wager,’ Lord John sniggered. ‘Virgins no longer.’

Scowling, Isabelle snapped back, ‘But martyrs in the eyes of God.’

Mary bent forward, leaning her chin on her hand. ‘Womankind are always at risk. I wish I were a soldier. In the highlands, I envied their freedom. I never felt more alive than when I slept on a bed of heather, wrapped in a woollen plaid. The spice of danger, the nearness of death is exhilarating.’ Her pale face glowed in the firelight. ‘Yet I’ve no stomach for bloodshed: it gars me grue.’ She rubbed her hands and held them out to the flames. ‘My ghastly tale took place in the highlands not so long ago. Doubtless you’ll have heard about the Gordons’ treasonable conspiracies to abduct me and how we had to daunt them at Corrichie.’

‘And how the Cock o’ the North suddenly fell off his horse, stone dead,’ Lord John said.

‘His son John’s execution was even more grisly. It will torture me to my dying day.’ Mary wrung her hands in agitation. ‘My brother forced me to witness it. Before he put his head on the block, the condemned man cried out that he loved me and would marry me.’ Her hands flew to her face. ‘The ham-fisted headsman was clumsy at his task. He took several strokes, hacking at his neck, sawing through the bone. Thon rasping sound echoes in my nightmares.’ She caressed her neck. ‘It wasn’t an execution but butchery. I broke down in a fit of sobbing and then fell into a swoon.’

‘Did he die for love of you, madame?’ Jean asked.

‘Love!’ Elisabeth spluttered. ‘How could he love her? John Gordon never knew her. He was in love with the idea of becoming a royal consort, if not king.’

As most men vying for the queen’s hand would be. Moray had successfully cut down a potential rival. Under the cloak of law and order and piety, he was carrying out personal feuds against the Huntlys and the Hepburns to carve a path to the throne.

‘Sometimes I think James is testing my mettle against his,’ Mary said quietly.

‘Forgive me for being plain-spoken, madame,’ Elisabeth said, ‘but your brother is doing his utmost to destroy the power of Roman Catholics in Scotland.’

‘Knox is Auld Clootie and Moray is his familiar,’ Lord John piped up. ‘Perched in his crow’s nest pulpit, the hooded cleric croaks and squawks six feet above criticism and contradiction.’ Standing on a chair he waved his arms up and down to give a comical impersonation of the ranting preacher.

Though she chuckled, something tore in Elisabeth’s heart. Despite everything, Knox was still her son. Nevertheless, she rued the day she’d breathed life into those heretical lungs.


FIND Marie on her website

Twitter @MGMacpherson


This Rough Ocean by Ann Swinfen


 Rough Ocean


Flood and This Rough Ocean

Two Families in the 1640s

I have written two novels set in the seventeenth century and both have their roots in true events. Like most people, I suspect, I’m heartily thankful I did not live in that tempestuous period, yet it is endlessly fascinating. Social and religious pressures had been building up over the preceding hundred years or so, and in the seventeenth century – in England as elsewhere – they exploded. Ordinary men and women were better informed, even more literate, than before. Developments in printing and the foundation of many grammar schools had contributed to educating a population which was prepared to question the traditional religious establishment and the social hierarchy. The dictatorial stance of the early Stuart monarchs, especially Charles I, was the final spark which lit this particular powder keg.

It is little wonder that the times gave rise to the revolutionary ideas of Levellers and Diggers, to confrontation between an elected Parliament and an anointed king, to clashes between Puritans and traditionalists. Opportunist land-grabbers fought with rural communities. Soldiers mutinied. Portents were observed. And innocent people – often old and poor – were sentenced to death for witchcraft.

The first of my novels set in this period, Flood, arose from my reading about how unscrupulous speculators seized the communally-held lands of East Anglia and undertook illegal drainage schemes with often disastrous results. The local people fought back, and amongst their leaders were many women. To compound the horrors of the situation, this was also the time of ‘licensed’ iconoclasts who smashed up parish churches, and of the monstrous career of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, whose fanatical search for victims ranged over the same area. I chose as my protagonist in Flood the daughter of a yeoman farmer who becomes one of the leaders of the fenlanders, fighting for her family and village, trying to save their lands and livelihood.

So how did I come across the account of this struggle in the first place? It was during my research into events in England in the mid seventeenth century for quite a different book. As part of the general research, it never became an element in that book but remained filed away in my memory, to emerge again later as the story of Flood

And what was the other book? This Rough Ocean.

I suppose I’m like most writers: some ideas come swiftly and are written at once, others stay with you for a long time, quietly maturing, like a fine wine.

We need to backtrack many years here. My father-in-law had done some research into the Swinfen family of Swinfen in Staffordshire, partly spurred on by another descendent who worked for Burke’s Peerage. It emerged that the family was very well documented. A Norman knight, shortly after the Conquest, had married the heiress to the Swinfen estates and taken the name Swinfen in place of his own (de Auste). As landed gentry, they were well covered in the historical record and early genealogies. Like most families of their class, they carried out their duties as substantial landowners over the centuries – not aristocracy but holding an important position in their own shire.

Also like other gentry families, they began to rise under the Tudors and came to real prominence in the seventeenth century. An interesting link with my own Christoval Alvarez series of novels is John Swinfen (c.1560s-1632), grandfather of one of the protagonists of This Rough Ocean. When Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason in 1601, his widow, Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham (Christoval’s employer), was deprived of her lands and her son of his inheritance. John Swinfen helped her to recover them from James I. He also christened one of his sons Deveroxe just after Essex’s execution, which must have taken some courage.

However, it was this John’s grandson, John Swinfen or Swynfen (1613-1694) who is the most interesting. He attended Cambridge and Grey’s Inn, then became a Member of Parliament at a young age. He was therefore at the centre of the most dramatic events of the seventeenth century – born while Shakespeare was still alive, he lived through the reigns of James I, Charles I, the Protectorate, Charles II, James II and William and Mary, and also through the Plague and Fire of London. He was caught up in the struggles between Parliament and the king. He was imprisoned twice – once by Cromwell for opposing the killing of the king, once by James II on a trumped-up accusation of being involved in Monmouth’s rebellion. Ah, the dangers of being a Moderate! Both extremes hate you! He lived long enough to be one of the founders of the Whig (Liberal) Party.

I found this entire career fascinating, and my husband plans to write the definitive biography, but I wanted to capture some of this rich life in a novel. Clearly the whole life was far too large a subject, so I decided to concentrate on the period immediately following Pride’s Purge. John and his Moderate colleagues had persuaded Parliament to vote to treat with the king on the basis of an agreement whereby most of the powers of government would be handed over from the king to Parliament. The Moderates rejoiced. An end to the Civil War at last, on terms favourable to Parliament.

The next morning, all those MPs who had supported the treaty were driven away from Parliament by armed soldiers of Cromwell’s army. The most important, including John, were imprisoned. The remaining MPs were believed to be favourable to Cromwell and his supporters, but many soon followed their consciences and withdrew, leaving the mockery of the ‘Rump Parliament’.

My novel, This Rough Ocean, tells the story of the imprisoned John and his wife Anne, who makes a dangerous winter journey home to Staffordshire with her young children. Once there she finds the estate and its people on the brink of collapse into ruin and starvation. She alone must take on her husband’s role, running the large estate and averting disaster. The two stories are intertwined, as husband and wife each fight for survival.

I have always been intrigued by the lives of ordinary people in the past. We hear much about great rulers and men of power, but dig a little deeper and there is a great deal to be discovered about everyone else, the poor, the quiet farmers, the craftsmen, the minor players in the large events. In Flood and This Rough Ocean I’ve sought to tell two stories of those turbulent years of the seventeenth century, about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

Buy the Books:  This Rough Ocean  US   UK    Flood   US    UK


Find out more  from Ann’s website  
Would you like to post on Royalty Free Fiction? I feature Historical Fiction about extraordinary people with extraordinary stories, but no Kings and Queens. Contact me at authordeborahswift at gmail dot com
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