The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.”
— Winston Churchill.
I am so glad you’re here. If you found me through Twitter, you probably already know that I am a writer of historical fiction who loves all things British–and in particular, Scottish. If you came here from Facebook, then you probably already know thatI have written a book about Mary, Queen of Scots. And if you know me from Instagram then you know that I like to post pictures of my travels and my kids–the two-legged ones and the four-legged one.
If you know me in person, then you know that I have a huge obsession with 16th century Europe and love to read about the Reformation and what life was like in that time period. I also like to read about the kings and queens of the medieval time period. You are likely to find any number of those topics on this blog.
I hope you love history as much as I do. If you do, then perhaps you’ll hang around and chat a while. Feel free to comment on what you liked, what you didn’t, and what topics you might like for us to discuss further.
Thanks for stopping by!
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I fell in love with Ailish Sinclair’s writing when I read her first book, The Mermaid and the Bear. She has such beautiful prose and I was hooked immediately into the story which had interesting characters and an intriguing plot.
I was so excited when Ailish agreed to interview with me about her writing process and how she became an author. She lives in Scotland, surrounded by inspiration and beauty and she has taken that awe-inspiring setting and written some fantastic stories that come straight from the heart of Scotland.
Keep reading to learn more about Ailish and her history-inspired books.
Tonya: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
Ailish: When I was 7 years old I started to pen a novel called ‘The Flea Invasion’. The scope of the post-apocalyptic world I’d envisaged was beyond my ability to write, but I knew I wanted to do things like that again.
Tonya: What is your biggest inspiration for stories? Where do you get your ideas?
Ailish: The places and history all around me where I live in Northern Scotland are my greatest inspiration. So much has happened here, much of it rather dark and hidden. The Grampian region has over 150 stone circles, which are mysterious and alluring. One always makes it into my novels! There’s so much natural beauty in the forests and beaches and mountains. All these things infuse and inspire my writing.
Tonya: In your opinion, what is the hardest part about writing historical fiction?
Ailish: It’s knowing when to stop the research and just write the book. There’s always more to know about historical time periods; you could just go on and on researching for years. But the book has to be written and the story matters, so you have to wrench the history books from your own hands and get down to it!
Tonya: Which one of your book characters is your favorite? Why?
Ailish: I love the character of Bessie Thom in The Mermaid and the Bear. She’s so down to earth and wise, and works so hard to do her best for everyone around her. She’s based on a real woman who was accused of witchcraft in 1597 so I hope I’ve done justice to the person she was.
Tonya: Have you ever written a character that you absolutely disliked and if you were to meet the character in real life you know you wouldn’t like them? Which character and why are they so detestable?
Ailish: William Dunn, Dean of Guild, from The Mermaid and the Bear. He’s a villain, so obviously he’s not meant to be liked, based on a real person who made a profit from the witch hunts. I have instilled in him traits and attitudes of misogynistic and abusive people I’ve encountered in my own life and know I would physically recoil if I were to meet him.
Tonya: What is your favorite time period to read? Is that also your favorite time period to write in?
Ailish: I love to read the medieval period and also the dark ages. I have not actually written anything set exactly in those times but I would love to.
Tonya: Do you have authors that you feel have influenced your writing or inspired you?
Ailish: I’ve been reading novels by Mary Webb, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Goudge and Mary Stewart since childhood and they have all influenced my writing.
Tonya: What is the biggest obstacle in your writing process?
Ailish: Self doubt. Is it really good enough? Is it, in fact, bilge? Or nonsense? Or the worst thing that has ever been written in the whole history of the world? Like stopping the research, this is something you just have to be strict with yourself about, or decide to just write it anyway, bilge or not.
Tonya: How long did it take you to write your book? If you have more than one, which took the longest to write?
Ailish: The Mermaid and the Bear poured out of me at just over a thousand words a day, so in two months I had a short first draft, writing for about an hour a day. I then redrafted twice in the next month and sent it out. That’s the fastest I’ve ever managed. The book I’m working on just now is very different from that. I’ve literally been writing it for years!
Tonya: What are you currently working on?
Ailish: I’m working on an Iron Age novel, set in Aberdeenshire again. My usual stone circle is there but, of course, the castle is not. The main character is a non-verbal autistic woman who is the spiritual leader of her community. There’s some sexy Romans and Caledonians too…
Tonya: What inspired you to write the book you are currently working on?
Ailish: I like mystery when it comes to historical events, and the battle of Mons Graupius between the Romans and the Caledonian tribes intrigued me. Where did it take place? What really happened there? What would it have been like to live through such an event? I’m enjoying exploring all those questions.
Tonya: What words of wisdom would you share with inspiring authors?
Ailish: Just keep writing. Don’t let other people tear you down and tell you you’re doing it wrong or that you should be published by now. Unless they’re actual experts who you’ve chosen to consult, the advice will undoubtedly be wrong. People have strange agendas when it comes to the writing of others. Do your own thing. Go your own way.
Ailish Sinclair spent the earlier parts of her life dancing around and encouraging others to do the same. She now lives beside a loch with her husband and two children, surrounded by castles and stone circles, where she writes and dances (yes, still) and eats cake.
Connect with Ailish at the following sites and check out her books!
Isobell needs to escape. She has to. Her life depends on it.
She has a plan and it’s a well thought-out, well observed plan, to flee her privileged life in London and the cruel man who would marry her, and ruin her, and make a fresh start in Scotland.
She dreams of faery castles, surrounded by ancient woodlands and misty lochs… and maybe even romance, in the dark and haunted eyes of a mysterious Laird.
Despite the superstitious nature of the time and place, her dreams seem to be coming true, as she finds friendship and warmth, love and safety. And the chance for a new beginning…
Until the past catches up with her.
Set in the late sixteenth century, at the height of the Scottish witchcraft accusations, The Mermaid and The Bear is a story of triumph over evil, hope through adversity, faith in humankind and – above all – love.
Elizabeth craves adventure… excitement… love…
For now though, she has to settle for a trip from her family’s castle, to the port in Aberdeen, where her father has promised she’ll be permitted to buy a horse… all of her own.
Little does she suspect this simple journey will change her life, forever. And as she dreams of riding her new mount through the forests and glens of the Manteith estate, she can have no idea that she might never see them again.
For what lies ahead is danger, unimagined… and the fearful realities of kidnap and slavery.
But even when everything seems lost, most especially the chance of ever getting home again, Elizabeth finds friendship, comfort… and that much prized love, just where she least expected it.
Set in the mid eighteenth century, Fireflies and Chocolate is a story of strength, courage and tolerance, in a time filled with far too many prejudices.
Mary Queen of Scots & Queen Elizabeth I. If only they could have been friends.
I recently came across some gorgeous photos from Harper’s Bazaar with model’s posing as the rival queen cousins, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor. This got me thinking about the turbulent relationship between the two women and I thought I’d jot a quick blog about it.
Mary looked up to her dear cousin, Elizabeth, who was nine years older than she. She wrote to her often, entreating her for guidance and trying her hardest to please Elizabeth in her choice for a second husband.
The two queens exchanged gifts with their letters and Mary also attempted to arrange a meeting with Elizabeth but it never worked out.
But as Elizabeth dithered on her choices for Mary and drug her feet after suggesting Mary marry Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, the Scottish queen decided to take matters into her own hands. Relations quickly deteriorated between the Cousin Queens when Mary exerted her right to choose her own husband. <enter Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley>
Mary tried to persuade Elizabeth many times to name her as her heir, especially the older Elizabeth got and it became apparent that she would never marry and birth a child. At one point Elizabeth even admitted that she preferred Mary over another cousin and heir-in-line, the Protestant Lady Katherine Grey. Lady Katherine was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister, Mary.
When Mary fled to England to escape the wrath of her Scottish lords, she still held out hope that she would find favor with her cousin. But it was not meant to be.
Elizabeth had Mary arrested and held her under house arrest for the next 19 years before signing Mary’s death warrant. Mary was beheaded with her cousin’s approval, at the age of 44.
Although portrayed together in paintings, movies, and photos, the two queens never met.
To see the rest of the photos in this beautiful photo shoot, click here.
The North Berwick witch trials were held to examine several people who were accused of witchcraft in Scotland starting in 1590.
King James VI of Scotland married Anne of Denmark in a proxy marriage ceremony in 1589. But when it came time for Anne to sail to Scotland to meet her new husband, that is when the real trouble began.
Anne’s ship was delayed by storms for so many months that James decided to sail to Norway, where she was stuck, and retrieve her. He too, had issues with the storms, but they finally reached Scotland in 1590.
Portrait title: James VI and I, 1566 – 1625. King of Scotland 1567 – 1625. King of England and Ireland 1603 – 1625. Artist unknown but attributed to Adrian Vanson.
Portrait title: Portrait of Anne of Denmark(1574-1619) by Unknown Artist.
It was during this turbulent time that it was first brought to James’ attention that witches might be responsible for the storms that caused the delay in Anne’s travels (and also caused the death of one her maids). Witchcraft and the hunting of witches was very popular in other parts of Europe at the time and James began to make serious inquiries into the possibilities. Eventually a woman name Geillis Duncan who lived in the town of Tranent, was arrested. She went on to accuse several more people of being witches and a true witch hunt began.
Not All Accused Witches Were Women
At least three of the names that Geillis Duncan gave her accusers were men. One of these men was a schoolmaster from Prestonpans by the name of Doctor Fian, who went by the alias, John Cunningham. It was said he was the witches’ register, and that there was not one man who could come to the devil’s readings but only he.
Once he was arrested, Doctor Fian had his head thrawed, whereby a rope would be wrapped around the head and squeezed. This did not have the effect his accusers had hoped, and he confessed nothing. He was also put in the “boot” which was a wooden or metal device into which wedges were hammered thus crushing the feet and lower legs. Yet, he still would not confess. The other accused witches urged his accusers to search his tongue, whereby two pins were found underneath, pressing up into his tongue. The witches claimed that the charmed pins were the reason Doctor Fian could not confess. He was immediately released from the boots and brought before the king where his confession was taken, written in his own hand.
Along with his admittance of recording the witches’ confessions of service and true oath to the Devil, he would write whatever the Devil commanded him. Doctor Fian also admitted to bewitching another man in town who had an interest in the same young woman that Doctor Fian did. He caused the man to fall into a state of lunacy for the span of one hour, every 24 hours. This young man was brought before King James to testify and it was witnessed that he did indeed fall into madness, bending himself and capering directly up, so high that his head would touch the ceiling. It took several men to subdue the man and once he was bound hand and foot, he was left to lie still until his fury had passed. Once the bewitchment was over, the man had no recollection of the events.
Doctor Fian was also accused of trying to bewitch the young woman that he was in love with. Having enlisted the help of one of his students, who happened to be the brother of the woman he was in love with, he attempted to obtain “three hairs of his sister’s privities”. Doctor Fian gave the young man a piece of paper to wrap the hairs in to be brought safely back to him. The young man pestered his sister so much that she brought it to her mother’s attention.
Her mother (who was said to also be a witch), began to inquire of the brother what he was trying to do. She finally beat a confession out of him and he told her all that Doctor Fian had asked him to do. Wanting to give the schoolmaster a taste of his own medicine, she then proceeded to snip three hairs from the utter of a heifer and wrapped them in the paper that Doctor Fian had given to her son.
When Fian used the hairs in an attempt to cast his love spell, you might imagine what happened next! According to contemporary accounts, he had no sooner done his intent to them, that the heifer appeared at the door of the church where the schoolmaster was. The cow came through the doors of the church and made toward him “leaping and dancing”, and followed him out of the church and wherever he went.
According to the writer of Newes from Scotland, this was witnessed by many of the townspeople who recognized that such acts could never have been sufficiently effected without the help of the Devil. It became such an ordeal that Doctor Fian came to be known amongst the people of Scotland as a notable conjurer.
An Apparent Change of Heart
Doctor Fian eventually recanted his allegiance to the Devil and renewed his confession of Christ. He pledged to live a godly life and eschew all that the Devil had asked of him. But the morning following his confession, Fian revealed that the Devil had visited him in the night and demanded that he continue his faithful service. The Devil had appeared to him dressed all in black with a white wand in his hand. Doctor Fian claims he rebuked the Devil, telling him that he would no longer take part in that lifestyle. He also claimed that the Devil then told him “once ere thou die, thou shalt be mine”. The Devil then broke the white wand and immediately vanished.
Doctor Fian told these events to his accusers the next morning and remained in solitary confinement throughout the day. He appeared to ponder the care of his own soul and would call upon God indicating a penitent heart. However, that very same night, Fian was able to apprehend a key to the cell in which he was kept and escaped the prison.
The king immediately issued public proclamations throughout the land in an effort to apprehend Doctor Fian. According to Newes from Scotland, a hot and hard pursuit ensued, and he was eventually recaptured.
Although the schoolmaster had confessed his sins in his own handwriting, he denied now that he had ever had such a pact with the Devil. The king, perceiving that Fian had renewed his allegiance to the Devil during his absence from prison, commanded he be searched again for a mark indicating his new pact. He was thoroughly searched, but no mark could ever be found. More torture was ordered and it was done in this manner:
All his fingernails were split with an instrument called a Turkas (pincers) and two needles were pushed up under each nail up to the heads. The Doctor felt nothing and confessed to nothing from this torture.
He was then put to the boot again. He remained in the boots for a long time, enduring many blows insomuch that his legs were “crushed and beaten together as small as might be, and the bones and flesh so bruised, that the blood and marrow spouted forth in great abundance, whereby they were made unserviceable forever.” For more information about how the boot was used as a torture device check out this website here.
Yet, he still would not confess.
His accusers claimed that the Devil had entered his heart so deeply that he utterly denied all that he had previously confessed. Doctor Fian claimed that he had only made such confessions for fear of pains which he had endured.
After great consideration by the king and His Majesty’s council, in the name of justice and “also for example’s sake”, Doctor Fian was soon condemned to death.
According to Newes from Scotland, he was strangled, carried in a cart to Castle Hill of Edinburgh and put into a great fire and burned.
Doctor Fian was the first accused witch executed in the North Berwick witch trials. There would be many more.
I have been fascinated with Books of Hours for a long time. I finally found this beautiful replica on Amazon and wanted to share with you what it looks like on the inside and a little bit of information about it. I am by no means on expert of these types of books, nor manuscripts for that matter and welcome any input from others who know more about it than me.
The Book of Hours
A Book of Hours is a devotional book that was popular with Christians in the Middle Ages. A typical Book of Hours contained the following:
A Calendar of Church Feasts
Excerpts from the four Biblical New Testament Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John
The Hours of the Virgin (a devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary)
The Litany of Saints (a formal prayer of the Catholic Church)
The Office of the Dead (a prayer cycle for the Canonical Hours, said for the repose of the soul of a descendent.)
The Hours of the Cross (not sure about this one, but I believe it is prayers and hymns said at matins)
Who was Mary of Burgundy?
The Book of Hours that I have is titled, The Master of Mary of Burgundy. However this book did not belong to Mary of Burgundy. It is named after an illuminator that created works for her.
Mary of Burgundy was the only child of the Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold and his second wife, Isabella of Bourbon. When the duke died at the Battle of Nancy in 1477, Mary inherited all her father’s Burgundian lands, making her the richest woman in Europe. She married Maximilian of Hapsburg who eventually became the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I after Mary’s death.
Mary was the mother of Philip the Fair, who was the husband of Joanna of Castile, daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. She also had a daughter, Margaret, Duchess of Savoy.
Mary was killed in a riding accident during a falcon hunt when she was 25 years old.
Who was the Master of Mary of Burgundy?
The Master of Mary of Burgundy was a Flemish illuminator and painter that was very successful in the late 15th century. His real name is not known. Rather, he is known by what is called a Notname, a name given to an artist whose identity has been lost. The name of the Master of Mary of Burgundy comes from two of his most popular works: two Books of Hours created for Mary of Burgundy.
Who owned the Master of Mary of Burgundy Book of Hours?
This book of hours was created for a man named Engelbert of Nassau. Engelbert was Count of Nassau and Vianden and Lord of Breda, Lek, Diest, Roosendaal, Nispen, and Wouw. He was a knight and a leader of the Privy council of the Duchy of Burgundy.
It is believed that Engelbert passed the Book of Hours on to Philip the Fair, son of Mary of Burgundy, as a gift. Philip’s coat of arms was added to the book after he took possession.
The Master of Mary of Burgundy Book of Hours has gold-gilded pages and is printed on heavy, glossy paper. The printed version of each picture looks as if it were painted in real gold, giving you a little idea of what the original would have looked like. It is very colorful, as you can see from the above pictures.
Get your copy of The Master of Mary of Burgundy Book of Hours here.
Just a quick plug to let you know that The Queen’s Almoner will be available for FREE download from Amazon now until February 4th.
Here is a sneak peak from The Queen’s Almoner:
Even on this winter morning, the sun stretched forth its dull fingers and lit the ample room with its bleak radiation. Mary sat, writing her daily correspondence. She usually performed this task in the sanctuary of her antechamber, and used this room for reading instead, but this morning she sat at the dark mahogany desk, with her head bent, yet her back stiffened in perfect posture. David Rizzio sat at another table close by, also writing correspondence and performing the tasks that Mary found too tedious to do herself.
I cleared my throat so as not to startle them before stepping into the room.
“Good morning, Thomas. I didn’t see you at supper last night, nor breakfast this morning. I do hope all is well. Are you ill?”
“No. I am fine. Just a little trouble sleeping last night. That is all.”
“Indeed! I know what you mean. I had a little trouble myself,” she said with a ruffled look.
“Yes. About that….I saw Chastelard being brought back to the palace this morning.”
She snuck a glance at Rizzio then proceeded. “I’ve already been scolded on that account, Thomas. No need to repeat the reprimand.”
“Nay. Not a reprimand. Just curiosity. The man did sneak into your bedchamber with who-knows-what intentions.”
“I admit, I was a little put off by his wanton behavior….”
“A little?” I scoffed.
“All right then, I was very put off by his behavior,” she acquiesced. “But, then I realized that I might have been partially to blame. I am much too familiar with him and must have led him to believe that there was more between us than just a mutual appreciation of poetry.”
I stared at her. Had we not just had this conversation a fortnight ago? I tried to warn her, to convince her to tell him outright that she had no feelings for him and to send him away. Then again, maybe there were feelings there. Feelings she did not…could not admit to. I glanced at Rizzio who was busy trying to look occupied with his work, but his hand had stopped, and a blob of ink had congealed on the page beneath the spot where his quill had come to a halt. It felt like someone had stuffed my mouth with a linen rag. My tongue grew thick and my mouth dry. I licked my lips and then swallowed hard before continuing.
“Are you quite certain there isn’t more there than you want to admit?” I was out of line, I knew it, and her eyes narrowed toward me in confirmation of my offense. “Mary, I cannot tell you how to conduct yourself. Please understand that my only concern is for your safety and reputation. It is at my highest recommendation that you rid yourself of this rogue once and for all. Put a stop to this, I beg you, before it’s too late.”
In one instantaneous moment I saw hurt and choler flash in those striking green eyes. The gold flecks of fire that lied dormant on her melancholy days ignited and set her eyes aflame with defensive daggers. “Thomas, I know that you feel obligated to look out for my welfare as a brother would look after a sister. But I am not a child. I am free to make my own decisions, and I feel that I am quite capable of determining when my reputation is in danger.”
By this time color had flushed her cheeks and she was standing in an effort to level her eye contact with mine. A quick glance at Rizzio showed that he was hastily gathering his materials in order to make a swift exit from the room.
It was my turn to be wroth, and I did not wait for Rizzio to leave the room before speaking. “I don’t think you are. I am sorry that you are offended at my concern. But I have heard the rumors that fly about you while you are oblivious to their threats. You asked me to stay on here—to serve you. I gave up my living—a valued and highly sought-after position in service to God Almighty, to serve you. You wanted my advice, my insight. Mary, you do not think like a Scot. Your head is so full of French frivolities that you have crowded out all reason and good sense. You underestimate the power and control of the Lords of the Congregation. Any misstep, no matter how insignificant, could cost you everything.”
“Here you are. You and I are now alone in this room. Will not people chatter?”
“I am not under your bed and you in your night clothes!”
“But I am the queen.”
“It doesn’t matter. You are a foreigner in the eyes of the Scottish people, a woman, and a Catholic. For these you are already condemned.”
Her face showed injury and indignation concurrently. “But I am the queen!” she repeated.
I raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “Not for long,” I countered, adding, “not if you continue in this vein of reckless behavior.”
She moved toward the door, but instead of walking out she shut it.
“Are you telling me that I am not capable of controlling this land?” She stepped closer to me, her face so close I could feel the warmth of her sweet breath, a mixture of honey and spice.
“I’m confused. How did this conversation turn into a discussion about your ability to rule?” I stepped toward her, bracing myself for the ensuing battle of wits.
Her eyes still flaming and her cheeks still flushed enhanced her beauty so profoundly that I found myself swaying under her power to entice. She felt it too, for I watched the amulet that hung from a platinum chain around her neck, rise and fall in swift, jerky movements as the air moved in and out of her lungs in quick, short breaths. Her lips, soft and round drew my attention away from the bobbing amulet, its unearthly force attempting to pull me down into its devilish snare.
“You are intoxicating,” I whispered.
The color of her eyes changed from a striking green to soft amber with only traces of the earthy green substance remaining. Before I could say anything more, the dragon inside her subsided and she was the gentle queen again. She wrapped her arms around me and buried her face into my chest like a lost child, repeating over and over again how sorry she was for getting so angry. Had she heard what I said? Or had I merely thought the words? I had not received the response that I had hoped for, yet I took advantage of the proximity of her nearness anyway. I kissed her lightly on the head, drinking in the aroma of lavender and rosemary that so lightly bathed her hair.
Time Period: Early 17th Century-The end of James VI & I reign/Beginning of Charles I reign
Reading historical fiction has many perks. First, it’s the ability to escape to a time when women wore beautiful, fancy dresses and men dressed as impeccably as the women (I can’t resist a man in a lace-ruffled tunic and knee-length damask coat, can you?). I also love the chivalrous knights and damsel in distress stories. But it also opens many doors for learning about people in history that I either know little about or have never heard of before. The Lady of the Tower hit all of these points for me, and in my opinion, that’s what makes this such a great read.
Author Elizabeth St. John does a marvelous job at portraying the intrigue that surrounded the court of King James VI & I as he took the throne of England after Elizabeth I’s death. This first book in the Lydiard Chronicles, follows the life of Lucy St. John as she tries to avoid the politics of court in an effort to live a quiet, unassuming life. Caught up in her family’s desire for riches, prestige, and titles, we watch as Lucy struggles to distance herself from court and make her way in the world without the royal trappings that the rest of her family longs for.
The Lady of the Tower, is rich in historic narrative, immersing the reader into a time of great political transition in England. From the English countryside to the royal palace and the Tower of London, I loved the glimpses into everyday English life, and really felt as if I were a part of the story. I particularly enjoyed reading about Lucy’s time spent as jailor in the Tower of London. For, although many stories have been written about the people who have spent time within these walls, we rarely get a feel for what life might have actually been like for those unfortunate enough to spend any amount of time there.
Tumultuous times lie ahead for the country of England, as the Lydiard Chronicles continue with the next generation of St. Johns in the second book in the series, By Love Divided. I’m confident that readers will not be disappointed.
Book Title: A Murder by Any Name: An Elizabethan Spy Mystery
Author: Suzanne M. Wolfe
Time Period: Late 16th Century
Setting: London, during the reign of Elizabeth I
I loved everything about this book. Starting with the cover…which I admit is THE thing that caught my attention in the first place, to the colorful 16th century language of not only the court royals but the common folk as well. The main character, Nick Holt, is extremely likable. What makes his likability so unusual is that, although he is of noble blood and is a spy for Queen Elizabeth, he also has a compassionate nature and can make even the lowest servant feel at ease. And although he himself has shady dealings as a tavern owner who frequently visits women of less-than-stellar reputations, he’s not a complete rake.
Of course, I can’t speak of characters without mentioning Nick’s sidekick and true star of the show, Hector, Nick’s Irish Wolfhound. I always love when authors not only include animals in their stories (after all, they are so much a part of our world) but give them real personality and a human connection that pet owners can truly relate to.
The murder of a young noblewoman is at the heart of this story, and I’ll admit I was stumped the whole way through the story, trying to figure out who the culprit was. Ms. Wolfe does an amazing job at weaving an intriguing story that keeps you guessing and mixing it with historical tidbits and facts that don’t feel like a historical information dump.
Well researched and artistically written, A Murder by Any Name is a great start to this Elizabethan Spy Mystery Series. It will be interesting to see where Nick and Hector go from here.
Purchase your copy of A Murder by Any Name: An Elizabethan Spy Mystery by Suzanne M. Wolfe here.
In the very early hours of February 8, 1587, Mary Queen of Scots penned the last letter that she would ever write. She addressed her brother in law, Henry III, King of France, in hopes that he might be able to settle some of her financial affairs after she was gone.
In her letter, she speaks of her “papers” being confiscated and that she was unable to get them returned to her in order that she might take care of some of her personal matters. She requests that Henry pay her servants the money that is due them out of the good Christian charity in his own heart.
Mary also complained that her chaplain (almoner) had been taken away from her and he was unable to hear her confession or give her the Last Sacrament. She does not waiver in her confession of the Catholic faith and maintains her innocence in the two points on which she is charged: her Catholic faith, and her God-given right to the English throne. She points out that, even if she were a subject of English law, she would not be guilty of any crime.
Mary had requested that her body be conveyed to France, where she wished to be buried. She laments to Henry that her request was denied (by Elizabeth). She was initially buried five months after her execution in Peterborough Cathedral but was moved to Westminster Abbey in 1612, nine years after her son took the English throne.
Below is the English translation of Mary’s last letter, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.
Queen of Scotland 8 Feb. 1587
Sire, my brother-in-law, having by God’s will, for my sins I think, thrown myself into the power of the Queen my cousin, at whose hands I have suffered much for almost twenty years, I have finally been condemned to death by her and her Estates. I have asked for my papers, which they have taken away, in order that I might make my will, but I have been unable to recover anything of use to me, or even get leave either to make my will freely or to have my body conveyed after my death, as I would wish, to your kingdom where I had the honour to be queen, your sister and old ally.
Tonight, after dinner, I have been advised of my sentence: I am to be executed like a criminal at eight in the morning. I have not had time to give you a full account of everything that has happened, but if you will listen to my doctor and my other unfortunate servants, you will learn the truth, and how, thanks be to God, I scorn death and vow that I meet it innocent of any crime, even if I were their subject. The Catholic faith and the assertion of my God-given right to the English crown are the two issues on which I am condemned, and yet I am not allowed to say that it is for the Catholic religion that I die, but for fear of interference with theirs. The proof of this is that they have taken away my chaplain, and although he is in the building, I have not been able to get permission for him to come and hear my confession and give me the Last Sacrament, while they have been most insistent that I receive the consolation and instruction of their minister, brought here for that purpose. The bearer of this letter and his companions, most of them your subjects, will testify to my conduct at my last hour. It remains for me to beg Your Most Christian Majesty, my brother-in-law and old ally, who have always protested your love for me, to give proof now of your goodness on all these points: firstly by charity, in paying my unfortunate servants the wages due them – this is a burden on my conscience that only you can relieve: further, by having prayers offered to God for a queen who has borne the title Most Christian, and who dies a Catholic, stripped of all her possessions. As for my son, I commend him to you in so far as he deserves, for I cannot answer for him. I have taken the liberty of sending you two precious stones, talismans against illness, trusting that you will enjoy good health and a long and happy life. Accept them from your loving sister-in-law, who, as she dies, bears witness of her warm feeling for you. Again I commend my servants to you. Give instructions, if it please you, that for my soul’s sake part of what you owe me should be paid, and that for the sake of Jesus Christ, to whom I shall pray for you tomorrow as I die, I be left enough to found a memorial mass and give the customary alms.
This Wednesday, two hours after midnight. Your very loving and most true sister, Mary R
Setting: Scotland, during the reign of King James VI
Before I go any further, I just have to say, this is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Yes, it is written in one of my favorite time periods, and yes it takes place in one of my favorite places in all the world, but when you combine that with the almost poetic style of Sinclair’s writing—sigh!
Ok, I know it sounds like I’m gushing, and maybe I am, but deservedly so. Sinclair’s development of characters is charming, making you love the characters she loves and hate the characters that she hates. Or, if she doesn’t hate them, she sure does a good job at making me do it for her.
Isobell is an English girl trying to escape the prospects of an abusive marriage to a wicked man. She comes up with a plan to escape to Scotland, leaving her privileged life behind to serve as a kitchen maid on the estate of the young Laird, Thomas Manteith. Isobell finds solace in the beautiful and spiritual countryside of Scotland and I loved viewing her world and experiencing it all over again through her eyes. From the flowering trees, the birds and other wildlife to the ancient stone circles and rocky cliffs of this magical land, Sinclair’s writing is a treat for the senses.
The storyline is beautiful too. The love Isobell shared with her “light of the world and salt of the earth” as she called him, was well written, leaving no room for doubt of the love they shared for each other, yet without some of the awkward details that other stories offer. And while I enjoyed experiencing all the wonderful sights (and feels!) with Isobell, I was always waiting for the proverbial “other shoe to drop”, and Sinclair did not disappoint!
I have read several books having to do with witch trials, from the North Berwick witch trials in Scotland, to the Salem witch trials in America. All have been well written, but Sinclair’s description of not only the treatment of the accused witches and the bodily harm that they endured, but the spiritual, mental and emotional trauma that these accused women (and men, at times) must have endured, is brilliant.
I also enjoyed Isobell’s exploration of Celtic spiritualism, Catholic rites and Reformed practices as she sought for her own truth. It is an excellent example of Scotland’s own spiritual journey throughout history.
I will read this book again. Now that I know there is a beautiful end for Isobell (admittedly not the end I was expecting!), I will read it for the pure enjoyment of meandering the deeply moving countryside of Scotland once more.
If you would like to see more of Ailish Sinclair’s writings or see her beautiful pictures of Scotland, visit her on her blog at https://ailishsinclair.com/
To purchase a copy of The Mermaid and the Bear click here.
Alyce Bradley is practically past her prime in terms of making a good match. When she is faced with marriage to a man that repulses her, the offer of marriage from another man, though rumored to be a womanizer and a pirate, almost appeals to her.
Alyce makes her choice, and has to live with it. And slowly she is making it work. But when jealousy and bad blood cause Alyce to be accused of damnable deeds, she will face the most difficult trial of her life.
She is not the perfect, beautiful protagonist that you see quite often in fictional stories, which is one thing that makes this story unique. Alyce has a sharp tongue, is quite practical and solemn, and has a hard time showing her affection. But she has likable qualities, and the one I found to be most admirable was her ability to bite her tongue when those around her were being rude to her. I found myself quite often thinking of all the things I would have said in response to the characters that verbally mistreated her, had I been in her shoes! (Yeah, I probably would have been accused of witchcraft for being insolent, incorrigible, or whatever other bad qualities that get attached to women who aren’t demure and meek. LOL)
Meyrick gives you a wonderful insight into the everyday life of a late 16th century English household and the workings of a manor house. Her attention to detail concerning the court systems, jails and commerce of the time period are wonderfully described making you feel as if you are experiencing it for yourself. She demonstrates perfectly how tittle-tattle, jealousy, and revenge played a large part in the witchcraft accusations in the 16th century, and it is easy to see how one might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, just because a neighbor (or worse-a friend or relative) had it out for them.
Alyce had so much stress in her life. From a husband whom she was trying to get to know and understand in the small snatches of time they were allotted together, to a jealous sister, and a delusional former suitor. I fretted throughout the story as to how she was going to get out of her predicament. Meyrick really knows how to build the tension and keep you guessing as to what is going to happen next. I worried myself to find out how all the loose ends were going to come together to resolve the conflict in poor Alyce’s life. I am a sucker for a knight in shining armor and I tend to lean toward the whole rescued damsel in distress trope. Alyce’s husband tries to be that for her but can’t. And I’m ok with that. I was still pleased to see the author give Alyce the happy ending that she deserved!
This was my first exposure to reading books from this author. I do plan on reading more of her wonderfully detailed works.