Come up with a brilliant title to win a critique by Gillian Bagwell’s agent

April 26, 2012

Gillian Bagwell’s first two novels are The Darling Strumpet (finalist for RWA RITA award for Best First Book) and The September Queen. Her agent, Kevan Lyon of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency, has offered to critique the first two chapters of whoever comes up with the winning title for her work in progress, based on the first half of the life of Bess of Hardwick, the four-times widowed Tudor dynast who is the ancestor of many of the noble families of England – and the present queen.

Post your ideas to our Historical Novel Society – North California Chapter FB page or to the society’s group Facebook page.

Gillian will be one of the stars at our Historical Novel Society London Conference 2012.


March, 1603 – At Hardwick Hall, Bess of Hardwick, age 75, has just learned of the death of her old friend Queen Elizabeth. She has summoned her master mason to hide away within the walls of her magnificent house a witch deposit – a selection of items of personal significance to her – and she reflects on her long and eventful live.

At age 12, Bess is dismayed to learn she will be sent to be a waiting gentlewoman in the household of Lady Zouche. She doesn’t want to leave home, but her mother explains it is a way out of the family’s genteel poverty. She will meet powerful people and can find a good husband. With nothing to rely on but razor-sharp wit, fetching looks, and an endearing personality, Bess goes to Lady Zouche and is introduced to the glamour and excitement of the court of Henry VIII, just as the king is about to marry Anne of Cleves.

Among Bess’s acquaintances are the king’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth, a saucy young lady-in-waiting named Catherine Howard. But there are rumors that the king is dissatisfied with his soon-to-be bride and whispers about the fate of his previous wives. With shocking speed, the king casts off Anne of Cleves and marries Cat Howard, and when she goes to the block, it seems to Bess that the fate of a wife – at least of a queen – is a chancy thing, and she swears never to marry.

Soon, though, at the age of 15, she is convinced to marry her gentle young friend Robert Barlow. When Robbie dies a year and a half later, Bess’s widow’s portion establishes her as a young woman of substance.

Bess joins the household of the Marquess and Marchioness of Dorset, and their daughter Lady Jane Grey becomes like a little sister to her. She is wooed by Sir William Cavendish, 20 years her senior, who can offer her security, and at the age of 19 she becomes Lady Cavendish, mistress of a grand estate.

Over the next ten years, William rises in power and influence and Bess bears eight children. They count among their friends the most powerful people in England – but the fall from power to disgrace and death is often dizzyingly fast. When young King Edward dies, Jane Grey is proclaimed queen, only to have her supporters vanquished by those loyal to Mary Tudor, and Bess is devastated when Jane is executed.

Bess and William build a grand home at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, a refuge from danger and a fitting seat for the great family they have begun, and manage to keep their footing through the perilous and bloody years of Mary’s reign, but William and their youngest child die even as Mary is failing, leaving Bess a grief-stricken but very wealthy widow.

Bess rejoices along with all of England when Princess Elizabeth becomes queen, and in visiting Hatfield House she meets the captain of the queen’s guard, William St. Loe, who shortly becomes her third husband.

At the age of 30, Bess is for the first time married to a man her own age and happily in love. Through Will St. Loe’s influence, she becomes a lady of the queen’s privy chamber, at the center of the excitement and intrigues of Elizabeth’s court. After only five years, Will dies, poisoned by his brother – leaving Bess quite a prize on the marriage market. Soon an old friend comes calling – George Talbot, the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, the most wealthy and powerful man in England outside the royal family.

Back at Hardwick in 1603, Bess examines each of the items that is a reminder of someone dear to her and long gone from the earth, and watches as her master mason seals them within the walls of Hardwick, making it even more a representation of her life and her very self.

Posted by Richard Lee