Launch: Elizabeth St. John’s The Godmother’s Secret
INTERVIEW BY M.N. STROH
Brought up in England, Elizabeth St. John was perfectly situated to unearth the research needed to enrich her critically acclaimed novels. Each book tells the true stories of her ancestors. One such extraordinary woman is revealed in her most recent release, The Godmother’s Secret, and Elizabeth graciously joined us to share about this individual and the process of unveiling her story.
How would you describe your book’s premise in two sentences?
You know the fate of the Princes in the Tower. Do you tell, or forever keep the secret?
Speculation on the fate of the “Princes in the Tower” has abounded. What led you to create your own take on this intriguing story?
When I was researching for a previous novel, The Lady of the Tower, I came across a fascinating description of the finding of the “princes’ bones” in the Tower in 1674. The well-written paper disputed the provenance of the remains, and when I discussed this with Tower of London archivists, they concurred there was not solid proof. After returning to Westminster Abbey and seeing the urn that supposedly contained their bones, I thought it would be interesting to write the 17th-century story and the reason Charles II created the memorial, and I began that novel.
I then discovered that my ancestress, Elizabeth St. John, was in fact Lady Elysabeth Scrope, the godmother of Edward V, the eldest prince, and was present at his birth in Westminster Sanctuary. I was suddenly confronted with the princes again—only this time, alive and living in the 15th century. In medieval times, a godmother was considered a “relative of the blood” and I felt that telling the story of the princes from Elysabeth’s perspective, rather than that of the more famous characters that have always been linked with their disappearance (or accused of their murder) would be fascinating. It also gave me more opportunity to weave in family details and create a compelling fictionalised narrative.
Were the connections of your ancestry to historical figures something your family always knew about or was it a serendipitous discovery?
Well, we’re all rather eccentric history-lovers, and I grew up exploring ruined castles and overgrown churchyards and “St. John-hunting” for ancestors. Fortunately, our family has a very well-researched family tree and a robust archive to house the family history (www.TheLydiardArchives.org.uk). But I hadn’t connected Elizabeth St. John—who was also half-sister to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII—with Lady Elysabeth Scrope, the godmother to Edward V. A couple of historians have mentioned Elysabeth in their work, notably, Sharon Kay Penman, who referred to her as Isabel Scrope in The Sunne in Splendor, and Alison Weir, who includes Elizabeth Scrope in her Princes in the Tower non-fiction book. I began to join the dots.
Finding Elizabeth was completely serendipitous—I was looking for inspiration for a new story and entered my own name into our genealogy database. Half a dozen “Elizabeth St. Johns” popped up—and after dismissing ones from the Georgian and Tudor times, my eye was caught by dates in the late 15th century. When I discovered her place in the family, I had my story—or rather, Elysabeth’s.
What first inspired you to write historical fiction?
Historical fiction has always been my favourite genre, and some of my early reading of authors such as Anya Seton and Jean Plaidy put me well on the path to eventually writing my books. Later, I have to say the late Hilary Mantel blew me away with her Cromwell trilogy, inspiring me to go deeper than factual biographical historical fiction, and have the courage to write with a creative heart.
Did you travel to any of the locations that feature in your novel? If so, how did the experience enrich your story?
Absolutely. I’m really fortunate that I am able to spend time in England with family and we combine our time together with more “St. John-hunting” for my research. For The Godmother’s Secret, there were several locations that impacted me tremendously. One was Bolton Castle in Yorkshire, Elysabeth Scrope’s home, where my daughter and I participated in a medieval festival and spent several days of joyful merrymaking and exploring the area. The second was the Sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, and the Abbey itself. On both occasions I was there alone and was able to walk in Elysabeth’s footsteps with no people around, no tourists, and no interruptions. For me, those moments of total immersion and silent contemplation, when I can escape the present, is where I connect most with the characters and my work.
Was there a particular item or historical tidbit discovered in research that made a special appearance in The Godmother’s Secret?
Discovering the original order from Henry VI from 1470, commanding Elysabeth to Elizabeth Woodville’s confinement and paying her the sum of ten pounds, was astonishing. To have a document so clear and important set the tone for the relationship between Elysabeth and the Queen, and allowed me to bring in Margaret Beaufort, too. It’s a classic historical fiction writer’s dream—you find an extant document, you transcribe it and verify its validity, and then you give yourself permission to create the fictional elements to support its existence.
Considering this novel from conception to publication, what was your favourite part of the writing journey?
This was a challenging novel to write, because of the nuances of giving a 15th century woman a voice in what was essentially a hostile environment. Elysabeth did not have authority, but she did have influence. After many false starts, when I returned home from Bolton Castle and Westminster Abbey, something had changed in my approach, and I could now connect with her. Writing her emergence as a character, bringing this woman out from the shadows and into the centre of her world and my novel was incredibly rewarding.
What is the last great book you read?
Wonderworks by Angus Fletcher.
You can sign up for a book giveaway on Elizabeth St. John’s website.