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
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