Historical Curve Balls: Changes in the Historical Record…After Your Book’s Gone to Print

Joanna Hickson

Pembroke Castle, alleged birthplace of Henry VII

What is a historical curve ball? Well, when history suddenly takes a swerve just after your intensely researched manuscript has been sent to the printers, threatening your novel with an own goal – that!

For centuries Shakespeare’s depiction of Richard III was accepted as accurate, but now those of us who wish to chart the rise of the Tudors encounter messianic support for a ‘betrayed’ Richard, particularly from the United States where his opponent seems to have become a pariah by default. Even here in England and particularly in Leicester where, in 2015, Richard’s body was reinterred in the cathedral after being famously discovered under a local car park, he has almost reached the status of sainthood. His marble tomb has certainly become a must-visit destination. So these days, for those of us trying to tell the story of the Tudor rise to power, encounters with fanatical Ricardians can be a curve ball challenge.

Historical curve balls are sometimes encountered when fresh archaeology or academic research changes the ‘facts’ of history. At Pembroke Castle in West Wales, for instance, visitors are informed that King Henry VII was born in a certain chamber in a certain tower, and they are shown a tableau of the swaddled baby in the arms of a nurse and his mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, seated beside the cradle at the fireside. All very cosy, you might think, but at the same time an icy wind is howling through the unshuttered windows and slamming the doors that give access to the wall-walk along the battlements. This was a tower built to give structural support to the castle’s curtain wall and a vantage point to the soldiers of the garrison, not for accommodating the birth of a child to a vulnerable thirteen-year-old mother.

By the time I returned to my writing desk after my research trip, I had decided that in my novel Henry Tudor would not be born in that chamber – but where to set such a historically important event? By abandoning tradition I could face ridicule, particularly if I set the scene somewhere that later proved to be completely inaccurate.

It would be spoiling readers’ enjoyment to reveal the location I chose, but I will say that some news came out of Pembroke Castle very recently, well after First of the Tudors had gone to print, which gratifyingly justifies the choice I made. So one historical curve ball kicked into touch – phew!

The switch from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar is a constant curve ball since, in 1752, it removed 11 days from the calendar of the United Kingdom. I have tended not to fret too much about exactitudes in this matter, but I have been hauled over the critical coals for failing to take those vital days into account! However, mould was not a hazard I had expected to encounter when I was trying to establish the correct date and cause of death of Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, in 1456. It is generally accepted that he died in early November in Carmarthen Castle in South Wales, but the documents and records for that particular period are unavailable, owing to the fact that they have been stored in a damp cellar and restoration will now take two years. I decided to swerve around these details and take my own view of that tragic death, which took place roughly three months before Henry Tudor’s birth. Mould being a pernicious enemy of parchment, it seems unlikely that we will ever know the exact date or cause of Edmund Tudor’s demise, so I felt at liberty to take my pick. This mouldy curve ball is one I may live to find has caused me an own goal!

About the contributor: After a career at the BBC, Joanna Hickson now writes novels about the Tudors, before they were famous. The latest is First of the Tudors (HarperCollins, 2016).


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 79, February 2017

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