MM Bennetts talks with Sandra Byrd about researching the Tudors
I had the immense pleasure of first meeting author Sandra Byrd in the autumn of 2012, when she lured me out of my habitual hermit-like shell with her requests for help researching for her next series of novels. I live in the area she was focusing in on and I offered to chauffeur her about and show her the various sites that might be of useful interest.
I have to tell you, despite the appalling weather and incessant rain, the reality was a captivating experience. Sandra is wholly engaged in her work, with a whole-hearted embrace of the ideas and events that make history so fascinating, with a questing intellect and with a devotion to getting every detail right. Nothing is too small or surprising for her notice. I regretted so much that we had so little time together.
Therefore, it was a great delight to be able to interview her about her latest historical novel, Roses Have Thorns…just to listen to her talk about these fascinating events and get her insights into the historical figures…
MMB: Your newest book, Roses Have Thorns, tells the story of a lady-in-waiting at the court of Elizabeth I, but with a difference–the lady-in-waiting is Swedish. We all have, I think, this idea that the Tudor courts of the 16th century were quite homogeneous and almost isolationist. So how did you come to have a Swedish heroine in a novel about Elizabeth? And was this normal? Were there other foreign ladies in the court?
SB: The Tudor courts were, indeed, quite homogenous, especially as the era advanced from Katherine of Aragon’s and Mary I’s Spanish influence. There were still women who had Spanish backgrounds, their mothers having married into the English peerage. Katherine Willoughby de Eresby, for example, was the daughter of Maria de Salinas, who had come to England with Katherine of Aragon, and the 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby. Katherine went on to marry Charles Brandon, boon companion of Henry VIII, and later, she became a famous reformer in her own right. But as for women who came from a foreign land to serve the queen (much as Anne Boleyn did as a young woman in France), no others, besides Helena, come immediately to mind. While researching Kateryn Parr for the second book in this series, an offhand comment allowed me to pick up the trail of William Parr, courtier extraordinaire, and his second wife, Elin von Snakenborg, or Helena, a Swedish noble woman. She offers a unique perspective into the sometimes inbred Tudor court.
We tend to think of the Elizabethan era as one of exploration, and in its later years, it was, to the extent that Elizabeth, and those around her, sponsored great voyages to new lands. The queen herself was tethered to London, however, not having travelled far from court, even on progress. Georgianna Ziegler, in her book, Elizabeth I: Then and Now, says that Elizabeth visited counties mainly in the south and midlands. “She did not venture north into Yorkshire or Northumberland, or west into Cornwall and Wales.” She lived vicariously through the travels of others, like Drake and Raleigh, and perhaps through the things Helena may have experienced and seen on her journey as well.
MMB: The journey from the Swedish court to England takes ten months in Roses Have Thorns–which is an unconscionable amount of time, and full of hardship. Is this journey based on a real journey and how did you find out about it?
SB: It is based on a real journey, and hats off, as it were, to the group of young woman who undertook it. There are two primary books which speak to the voyage, and to Helena’s life. One, Queen Elizabeth and A Swedish Princess, was written by James Bell (the original manuscript exists, I believe, in the British Museum). Bell was a student of Corpus Christi College at Oxford, later a Fellow of Trinity, a rhetoric lecturer, and a reformer. It is uncertain as to if he was along for the actual journey, but he may have been one of those who met the party as they arrived in England.
Second, a biography of Helena Snakenborg, written by Gunnar Sjogren, provides additional details on her early life, and draws from Scandinavian sources, including facts found in Danish archives. Princess Cecelia, who insisted on the journey, was a staunch admirer of and correspondent with Elizabeth Tudor. The delegation started out in hopes of reviving marriage talks between Elizabeth and King Erik of Sweden. During those 10 months they faced harrying by the Danes, with whom they were at war, overland trips in sledges, on ice, lack of food, and nearly froze to death at sea. Nothing came of the marriage negotiations, of course. When the Swedish delegation returned to Sweden in debt, angry, and disillusioned, Helena remained behind with William Parr, brother to the Henry’s last queen, and, as Marquess of Northampton, one of the highest ranking men in the land.
MMB: Throughout the novel, there are little details, little snippets that give an insight into Elizabeth I as a private individual. I loved this which you had quoted as being written by her at the beginning of a copy of her New Testament: “I walk many times into the pleasant fields of the Holy Scriptures, where I pluck up the goodly green herbs of sentences by pruning, eat them by reading, chew them by musing, and lay them up at length in the seed of memory by gathering them together so that having tasted Thy Sweetness, I may less perceive the bitterness of this miserable life.”
And I loved that quotation, because it placed her as a woman of her time–it reminded me of other contemplative writers from the Renaissance, like Giles of Viterbo or Francis Bacon, and we rarely see that contemplative, erudite, devout side of her. So my question is, how did you access that? How did you get inside the heart of this queen who we’ve seen throwing her shoe at councillors and changing wigs and doing the volta and verbally jousting with men, but never like this before?
SB: The first thing to do, of course, is to read the writing of the woman herself. There is a delightful book, Elizabeth I: Collected Works, edited by Marcus, Mueller, and Rose, which compiles many of Elizabeth’s letters, poems, written prayers, verses, and speeches. Her elegant, unwavering speeches are often reviewed for understanding and insight into her statesmanship, but if you read her prayers, poems, letters, and verse you can peer into the heart of the woman, not only the mind of the queen.
In them, she repeatedly refers to herself as a handmaiden of God, speaks humbly, shows that she has concern or questions or bewilderment about what path she might take. She prays for wisdom, Solomon-like, and for the wellbeing of her nation, as a mother would ask for her child. Letters to her friends and councillors begin with the typical salutation of “Trusty and Well Beloved,” but the affections conveyed after the business of the day reflect her concern for their well being, happiness, and health. Her poetry displays both her tender affection for her friends, such as Raleigh, and her pluck. “Much suspected by me, Nothing proved can be. Quod Elizabeth the prisoner.”
The quote you mention above was drawn from that fantastic Ziegler book. While Elizabeth credits Augustine for the original quote, she seems to have adopted it as a motto for herself, inscribing it thusly in her New Testament. She was truly a Renaissance queen: her translation subjects were known to have included Seneca, Boethius, Petrach and, of course, Kateryn Parr. When she lent her name to a group of players in 1583, acting, and theater, became socially acceptable. Ziegler tells us that nearly 200 books were printed in England each year during her reign. Sir Thomas Gresham founded the Royal Exchange, the financial center in the City of London, under Elizabeth’s auspices and it was opened by her; Gresham College, seeded with his wealth, still offers free education on a variety of topics for the betterment of all. I think Elizabeth and her era were much deeper than what is most often portrayed – the rare fit of temper.
MMB: One theme–or perhaps a sub-theme–in the book is the isolation and loneliness an immigrant, however rich or privileged or assimilated, and the reserve that seems to be standard practice by the English towards the foreigners in their midst–the little distrusts, the coolness which you mention several times…was that deliberate or did that just evolve as you write the character of Elin?
SB: I wrote that in deliberately, because I do believe it exists, and did so, then, too. Remember, Mary I had married a Spaniard who was seen as dragging England into his war with the French, losing Calais. After this, particularly, the English were very keen on remaining English. It’s something Elizabeth herself parlayed into further popularity – one pamphleteer described Elizabeth as “a prince of no mingled blood, of Spaniard or stranger, but born mere English here amongst us.” This is one reason why marriage would be difficult for her – no Protestant in England had a high enough rank, and her realm wanted no foreign princes.
I don’t think it’s particular to the English that they are most at home in the company of peers, many, if not most, people feel that way. It’s just that the geography of the country allowed it to remain free of integration for quite a while, in contrast to the continent. Elizabeth told King Erik of Sweden, “Do not tell secrets to those whose faith and loyalty you have not already tested.” English nobles were a known quantity, foreigners, not so much. My own country is made up of immigrants and their many generations of offspring for the most part, but the president is required to be natural born. It takes time to prove one’s loyalty, then and now.
MMB: Another element that I’ve really enjoyed is the presence of the songbirds, which you have in Elizabeth loving songbirds. Now that is a very Renaissance thing–her father’s tutor, John Skelton wrote several famous poems about birds: Speke Parrot and Phillip Sparrowe, being two. English Renaissance poetry and prose has a whole series of metaphors and imagery based on birds but mostly it’s a forgotten genre…please talk about it because it gave so much life–and by that I mean sound and reality–to the novel?
SB: Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth, in particular, were known to have been very fond of songbirds; both loved music, so it’s easy to see why birdsong would enchant. Lewis Einsten, in his book, Tudor Ideals, muses that “Before the Renaissance spiritual life remained little developed outside the walls of religion” but that with the Renaissance the dovetailing, if I may make a pun, of spirituality and nature began to be understood as well. Relative peace and affluence afforded the luxury of appreciating nature for more than what it could provide – flesh and fruit to eat, weather to shelter from, land from which to collect rents. Animals became pets – lots of Spaniels running around with the ladies – and birds were appreciated for their beauty and voices.
I think, too, in many ways the royals were kind of caged birds themselves. Elizabeth could not board a ship for the New World, nor travel domestically without a huge retinue. She could not ride, hunt, or sleep alone. In 1575, when Leicester began his final wooing of the queen, he had a great aviary decorated with painted gems to please her. I’m sure it must have, but she still did not marry him. Like the caged bird, she did not have the freedom to fly where she wished.
MMB: Another snippet that fascinated me was the reference to Elizabeth as a Nicodemite–that is one who practiced her Protestant faith in secret during her sister’s reign. Where on earth did you find out about this and can you talk about it? I guess I’m asking because we hear so much about the big clashes of religion such as the Dissolution of the Monasteries and Mary’s burning of the Protestants, but nothing about the quiet folks who survived all the extremes.
SB: That particular reference comes from Susan Doran’s book, Queen Elizabeth I. Doran says, “In reality, as Mary had surmised, Elizabeth and her household were firmly Protestant. In offering to conform Elizabeth had no intention of giving up her faith, but was adopting a stance known as Nicodemism. In the Bible, Nicodemus had visited Christ only by night as he had feared for his life, and many Protestants during Mary’s reign— including Elizabeth’s ex-tutor Ascham and future minister William Cecil — … conformed outwardly and awaited better times.”
All throughout the Tudor era there were those who had to hide their true faith, whether Protestant or Catholic. Henry VIII, for example, regularly executed both when they didn’t toe his exact theological line. In Mary I’s era, Protestants were in particular jeopardy. Many prominent Protestants fled the country, including Katherine Carey Knollys, beloved cousin to Elizabeth (Lady Knollys’ mother was Mary Boleyn) and her family. They were called Marian Exiles. I think what many may have found so egregious about the executions in Mary’s reign, as opposed to the others, is that many of those killed were merely lowborn worshippers who could have had no treasonous influence.
Once she took the throne, Elizabeth had intended to remain open toward Catholics worshipping according to their consciences. She said she did not wish to open windows into men’s souls. She also said, “My first care was to set in order those things which did concern the Church of God, and this religion in which I was born, in which I was bred, and in which I trust to die, not being ignorant how dangerous a thing it was to work in a kingdom a sudden alteration of religion.”
However, biographer Anne Somerset tells us that “in 1570 Pope Pius V issued the Bull Regnans in Excelsis, depriving ‘Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England, the servant of wickedness’ of her throne, and declaring that henceforth her subjects were absolved of their allegiance to her.” Author Robert Lacey continues, saying, “He (the Pope) called on all Catholics to rise up, depose, and, if necessary, murder the ‘heretic Queen.'”
This, as one might imagine, provoked a sharp response. Catholic worship went underground, and from those years we get priest holes in many households, in which visiting priests were hidden if officials came calling. This time, it was the Catholics who were Nicodemites. Still, for those she knew and trusted, Elizabeth turned a blind eye. She retained quietly practicing Catholics among her closest friends and associates, from her Lord Admiral cousin (Howard) to court composers (Tallis and Byrd).
MMB: You write both for the adult market but also for the Young Adult market. How does this work for you? Does the one give you opportunities that the other doesn’t and vice versa? And are there elements of either genre that you particularly dislike or particularly enjoy?
SB: Although I have written quite a few books for the YA market, I do not write YA books any longer, and don’t expect that I will again. When I first began writing, I was drawn to write for young adults because that is where my love of reading first rooted, and I believe that is true for many lifelong readers. I wanted to pay forward what had been provided for me: books to capture their minds and hearts, encouraging them to want to read more and more. People sometimes wonder if those of us who write for children first “graduate” to writing for adults, but that is not true. It’s much easier to say something in 85,000 words than it is in 25,000 words, and using a more limited vocabulary.
I love to hear from YA readers because they are open and honest and yet still kind in their reviews, for the most part. They are free with their praise, “This is the BEST book I have ever read” and “You are my FAVORITE author.” It’s the nature of a child to move onto another best book the next week and a new favorite author the next month, but their joy and enthusiasm is a balm for what is an increasingly blistering and uncivil world.
MMB: Last autumn I had the opportunity to see you in full research mode, as it were, so I have a fair idea of the lengths you’ll go to. So what were the places you visited and what were the particular delights you discovered that just opened out this Elizabethan period for you?
SB: I stayed at the Royal Horseguards Hotel, just a few steps away from what remains of Whitehall Palace, and that certainly made me feel like I walked where she walked, etc. I have felt the awe and wonder of approaching Hampton Court Palace, I ran my hands over the walls at Hever Castle and thought of all in England which would spring from that small home. I try to eat some of what they ate (sweetmeats can be bought at Fortnum and Mason, eels from a shop) and smell what they smelled (herbs, pomanders). I have yet to blow a smoke ring, as Elizabeth was famously said to have done upon Raleigh’s return, but I tried snuff while researching the current book! I commission historians with real credentials to take me on walking tours, or beg and borrow persons like yourself to share bits of your nation with me. It works!
MMB: And following on from that, which elements of the historical research that you did was the hardest? Was it accessing the private person, the political and personal relationships in her court, the rivalries, what?
SB: It’s always hardest to get to the private person, because before the last twenty years or so, people didn’t feel the need to share their deepest darkest thoughts or even their highest highs. It was considered vulgar and, if recorded at all, would remain in diaries (which were often blacked out later). In the Tudor era, even during Elizabeth’s years, the lives of women weren’t expected to be as noteworthy as those of men, so much less was documented. That’s where reading their personal writing helps. And it helps, I think, to be an armchair psychologist. While each person is certainly an individual, there truly is nothing new under the sun.
MMB: I know that you’re already hard at work on your next novel which is set in another era. Do you find it like switching gears to write about two divergent epochs, and is that a gear change with a bad transmission or the gear shift of a Jaguar?
SB: Depends on how well I’ve maintained the works under the hood; right now I’m perhaps in the middle with a MiniCooper (which I drive)! I try to do all of the blogs for a given era just after I’ve written the book, so the material is fresh. And it’s not as if I’m abandoning England, which I love, or history altogether. But still, yes, it’s a challenge to make sure that the language, the outlook, the society, the fashion, etc., for a new era doesn’t veer back into the old. I care very much about getting the details right, and that’s more challenging when changing eras. However, the material is fresh to me, and hopefully that makes for a vibrant, full-blooded book.
MMB: And finally, is this your last word on the Tudors, or do you think you might return to write more about them?
SB: I read somewhere between 15 and 30 books for each novel, plus articles and other materials, so after three novels, I think I am fairly satiated with the Tudors. And who could follow Elizabeth? I’d never say never, but I think I might say, not soon!
MM: Thank you so much, Sandra. And I truly hope that readers will be piqued by these unexpected insights into Elizabeth I’s court. She’s an individual that possibly because of all the films and television series about her, we think we know. But I have to say, having now seen her through Sandra’s eyes, I now feel I know and appreciate her so much more.
M.M. Bennetts, who lives in England, is a specialist in early 19th century European history and the Napoleonic Wars and has written two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, set in the period. Formerly a long-time book critic for Pulitzer Prize-winning Christian Science Monitor, Bennetts is now working on a third novel set during the final years of the Napoleonic era. She’s also a keen cross-country and dressage rider as well as an accomplished pianist.
Posted by Richard Lee