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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.

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17th Century Witchcraft by L C Tyler

WitchesAccusations

In 1664, in Bury St Edmunds, the judge Sir Matthew Hale* – great lawyer but ‘as gullible as the simplest peasant’ concerning witches – had to sit on a case of purported witchcraft. A child had become ill and was taken to a ‘cunning man’, who advised the mother to wrap child in a blanket that had previously been in the chimney and to burn any object that fell out of it. A toad fell out and was immediately thrown into fire, where it exploded. A local woman named Amy Duny was later seen with burns on the arms and body. Nobody doubted what must have happened. Amy was accused of assuming the shape of a toad and bewitching the child. Another child then complained that Amy had visited the house and given him tummy ache. Amy was put on trial. When she touched the children they began to scream, had fits and vomited pins. But observers began to suspect trickery on the part of the accusers. They blindfolded one of the children and got somebody else to touch her. The girl still screamed. It was clearly a fabrication. But Hale condemned Amy to death anyway.

The seventeenth century was a bad time to be accused of being a witch. The Middle Ages had been relatively benign – at least in England. The church had not, of course, approved of witchcraft. After all, Exodus xxii 18 stated quite clearly: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’. Nobody could say that the Bible celebrated excellence in sorcery. But in practice the punishments handed out were time in the pillory or penance. The first English statute against witchcraft was not until 1547, and that was not strictly enforced. The death penalty was introduced only in 1563.

Persecutions

That began one of the two intensive periods of persecution in England, which reached a peak around 1598-1607. The trial of the Pendle witches, hanged in Lancaster and York in 1612, is one of the best known cases from this first phase of witch persecution. The play Macbeth also dates from this time, Shakespeare pandering to the King James’s fervent belief in sorcery. James strengthened legislation against witchcraft and also wrote a book on Daemonologie, classifying demons into four groups and advocating witch hunting as a good thing.

MatthewhopkinsThe reign of Charles I saw a decline in witch trials, but a second wave of persecution occurred in the 1640s, led by Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, who cut a swathe through towns and villages in the eastern counties. Between 1644 and 1647 he and his assistants were responsible for the deaths of about 300 purported witches. It was profitable for Hopkins, who reputedly charged the communities he visited £5 per successful conviction. His methods were the tried and tested ones. On arrival he would make enquiries about who was reputed to practice witchcraft. He would then attempt to obtain a confession by a combination of interrogation, starvation, sleep deprivation (the suspects were walked up and down to keep them awake) and the identification of the Devil’s marks on their person – any strange mole or blemish would qualify. Witches were supposed to have spots where they felt no pain, so the victims would be repeatedly stuck with pins until such a spot was found (or not). Any pet animal which came when called was assumed to be a ‘familiar’ who carried messages to and from the Devil. Suspects could also be ‘swum’ – thrown in a pond, often with their hands and feet tied, to see if they floated, survival proving their guilt. This last seems to have been regarded more a form of entertainment for the village than clear and unambiguous proof. Having been worn down sufficiently to admit their guilt, and finally get some sleep, the now self-confessed witches were encouraged to inform on their neighbours so the whole process could begin again. Evidence was also taken from witnesses though the standard expected was not high. Normally two witnesses are required in court, but since witchcraft was practised in secret and often from a distance, that could not be expected. One contemporary law book stated: ‘half proofs are to be allowed and are good causes for suspicion’.

Convictions

Though most of those accused were women, men were also convicted, including John Lowes, vicar of Brandesdon in Suffolk. He had made himself unpopular with his parishioners, above all through his defence of a local resident accused of witchcraft. They had tried several times get rid of him. Hopkins presented them with another chance. The chief piece of evidence against Lowes was not untypical of that which led to other convictions – he had given a mother half a crown to pay for the treatment of a sick child and the child had subsequently died. He was hanged in 1645 and insisted on reading the Anglican burial service over himself before his execution.

Hopkins died in 1647. Legend has it that he was himself accused of witchcraft and executed for it, but that is almost certainly wishful thinking. With his death, however, persecution of witches falls away dramatically. Neither the pragmatic Cromwell nor the easy-going Charles II encouraged witch hunts. By the 1660s most judges were sceptical of the existence of witchcraft. The gullible Hales was in this respect becoming the exception. The general public took longer to convince however and often put pressure on the courts convict. Sometimes, justices would give way and hang innocent women, just for a quiet life. One judge argued that it was better for an unjust law to be administered by the courts than for it to be left to the mob. It was not until the end of the century that public opinion swung behind that of the educated elite. The last trial for witchcraft in England was in 1717. The legislation against witchcraft was repealed eighteen years later.

Inspirations

Bleak MidwinterMy novel, The Bleak Midwinter, is set in 1668, shortly after the Duny trial. The narrator, John Grey, justice of the peace and lord of the manor of a small Essex village, is firmly of the view that witches are harmless and largely self-deluded. But when ne’er-do-well George Barwell is found murdered in the woods, having been cursed a few days before by the elderly Alice Mardike, the villagers are quick to accuse Alice of consorting with the Devil to bring about his death. For Grey, called in to investigate, this is a simple case of murder, albeit that the victim’s face has been mutilated after death. A lot of people in the village had good reason to want Barwell dead, including Alice’s most vocal accusers. But there is pressure on Grey to stand up for the villagers and condemn Alice. As the innkeeper reminds him, they give him their loyalty and pay their rent to him: ‘God bless you, Master John, they don’t resent that you were born richer than they were and can dress in fine clothes and drink Canary while they dig the frozen soil and drink small beer. They accept that that’s how things are and always will be. They just want you to do right by them in return.’ And that means hanging witches. But Grey insists on sticking to the law and, thereafter, the threats to himself and his family become more ominous. He is reassured by the fact that the authorities in London will support him, but then there is a snowstorm and the village is cut off from the outside world. Either he must find the real killer by Christmas Eve or hand Alice over to mob justice. And there’s a good pond for swimming witches right there in the village. You just need to break the ice.

As I note in the book, what made the persecution of witches so easy, at least for a while, was the willingness to set aside the normal rules for prosecution; the desire to believe the victims at all cost, however weak the evidence; the danger of speaking out against the accusers and the willingness of the authorities to go along with the prejudices of the mob. Once the juggernaut had been set rolling, the only safe thing to do was to travel in the same direction until, as all these things do, it lost momentum and ground to a halt.

But the fact that all things will pass should make us no less angry at the time – then or now.

*No relation of Supreme Court judge Lady Hale – or not that I know of.

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Note from Deborah: I am thoroughly enjoying this witty mystery, review coming soon!

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Young Adult Historical Fiction – an adult’s view

I was recently asked to give a talk at a conference about Teen and Young Adult historical fiction, and time being short, we didn’t get onto one of the most pertinent discussions about Young Adult historical fiction, which is, what exactly is a young adult? And when do you cease to become a ‘teen’ and become a ‘young adult’? I have long-maintained that a person’s maturity cannot be measured in years. There are some children who are eminently grown-up, and some grown-ups who are stuck in childhood. Some adults are still exploring their role in relationships, and can indeed have been married and divorced before they have a chance to think deeply about their ‘coming of age’. Moreover, some aspects of a personality can be mature whilst others remain under-developed. So young adult fiction, and particularly historical fiction, has much to offer all readers, whatever their age.

Readers’ lives can be expanded to include unusual experiences or life-changing events through fiction. And these experiences will enable the reader to think through aspects of their life that might have been missing, or to enjoy playing a role that might never be open to them. Historical fiction for young adults is interesting because up until the 20th century, there was no such thing as a young adult or teenager. Adult roles, including procreation, were taken on for the most part as soon as you were physically able to perform them. As such it is a wonderful genre to explore situations which would be unthinkable in contemporary fiction.

Also, it is interesting that most media portrayals of teens and young adults are by actors who are actually much older than their years, but behaving in a much younger way, leading to a confusing message about what is/is not adult behaviour. However, fiction looks at life from the inside, enabling the situation and character to resonate with the reader whatever the actual age of the reader, and although the publishing world would like to divide us into neatly categorised boxes, fortunately, mostly we refuse to fit.

The two historical novels I’ve chosen to review today are aimed at teen or young adult readers, but are well-worth anybody’s time and money. Both hinge around the vexed question of; what is a woman, and how does a child become one? Not only that, but how does a woman fit inside a man’s world, or a world where women are belittled or disenfranchised? And of course by reflection, the novels also consider what it is to be a patriarch, or a man in that world.

lie-treeThe Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

This is a dark tale of lies, deception, and what it takes to be a woman in a man’s world. It is a story touched with the fantastical, in which after her father’s mysterious death, fourteen year year old Faith inherits a ‘Lie Tree’, a strange plant that has the power to reveal the truth but needs someone to lie in order to thrive and reveal its secrets. Of course the truth is not always comfortable, and Faith soon finds she is both attracted and repelled by the tree.

Part fable, part detective novel, the combination is compelling. There are echoes here of Eve’s fall, and the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and this Biblical slant is used to good effect, to highlight the Victorian difficulty with evolution and man’s place in God’s world. There is much symbolism in the book, which adds to the depth of the narrative. Also impressive is the way the novel twists at the end to reveal that people can be subversive despite their perceived role in society.

As a novel it gave me plenty to think about. In fact I’d rather have a slightly uncomfortable read, which leaves me thinking, than a comfortable read with no substance. A good book should move you from where you are to a different place, even if only temporarily. If you like Victoriana, dark fairy tales, and something to challenge your way of thinking, this is highly recommended.

hazel-hearnHazel by Julie Hearn
From the moment Hazel Louise Mull-Dare witnesses Emily Davison the Sufragette being knocked down by a horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913, she starts to question a woman’s role in society. Her eyes are opened to the things she had taken for granted, and her comfortable life changes as she gets more involved with the Sufragette cause. Her new found independence, and mixing with ‘the wrong sort of people’ soon leads her into trouble however, and she is sent half-way across the world to her grandparents who live in the Carribean. There she’s exposed to the contrasts between the white lifestyle and the slavery on the sugar plantation.

Although this sounds a little too unlikely in this review, Hearn handles the plot transition easily, and the story easily carries the reader along. A delight of this novel is the contrast in dialogue between all the different classes, and the way Hearn conjures a country in a few brushstrokes.

Hazel’s own development mirrors the larger social and political concerns of the day, linking the personal to a wider context. Through her experiences, Hazel’s eyes are gradually opened to the injustices of the world. From tea at Fortnum and Mason, to witnessing the tin shack in which other people are supposed to make a life. At the end of the book we see a woman who has matured beyound the maturity of her parents, whose eyes are still deliberately and firmly shut, and this is moving to see.