Robert Wilton talks the Comptrollerate-General and the English Civil Wars
As I’m a complete nut about English history in the seventeenth century, I was delighted to talk to Robert Wilton about his stunning new novel, ‘Traitor’s Field’ set during the second half of the English Civil War.
DS: The English Civil War has often been shunned by writers as difficult because it is less a single entity and more a series of conflicts. What made you choose this period and what attracted you about the events of 1648 – 1651?
RW: Curiosity. I was wondering what to explore next, in the long history of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey, and hadn’t really considered the Civil Wars. Then I saw a book about that period on my shelves, and it prompted me to wonder how an organization active in the shadows of Government – one of the guardians of stability – managed the transition from Charles I’s divine right monarchy to Cromwell’s Republic. Crucially, what kind of mental shift was necessary to come to terms with the idea that – for a time, at least – Cromwell might be a better bet for national stability? Dynasties and Governments have come and gone in the last five centuries, but the Comptrollerate-General has endured, and I wanted to see how they managed it.
Within that decade of upheaval, the earlier part – the mainly ‘English’ bit of the Civil Wars – has dominated the fiction. More people have heard about Edgehill and Naseby than Preston and Worcester, and there’s more romance and clarity to the first half of the decade. But I was intrigued by the later period, from the execution of Charles I to the defeat of Royalism and the escape of Charles II. It was a darker period; somehow more serious. Right up to the last couple of weeks before the King’s death, even during the trial, most people still assumed that the outcome would be a compromise, some continuation of royal rule in return for constitutional compromises. Then – and it’s as if the regicides surprised even themselves – the King was executed. The world had never seen this before: a King removed and killed by judicial process. I wanted to capture that moment of shock, a world that had suddenly lost all structure and certainty.
(The campaigns in Scotland and Ireland, meanwhile, give extra scope to the action and to the plotting. They’re hard to capture, though. Each time I came to write a bit about Scotland, I would spend a while reading myself back into the confused and always shifting faction politics, and then I’d be able to write something that was faithful to these without being too confused. But Ireland was just a mess: each time I tried to get the structure of the politics straight, I’d only give myself a headache, and in the end all I could do was portray that chaos. I think that was how it was seen at the time: a place that was inexplicable and dangerous.)
For those who like to read intrigue and drama in their historical fiction (and those who like to write it!), there’s so much in that later period: the increasing cynicism of Royalist attempts to recapture the Kingdom; the horrors of Cromwell’s campaign in Ireland; and, behind the battle-smoke, the manoeuvring of the spies. At the same time, I got caught up in the battle of ideas – the explosion of new thinking from people who’d never before had a voice.
DS In Traitor’s Field, lies, treachery, double-dealing and subterfuge form the texture of the times. I’m interested to know how much the depiction of the secret organisation – the Comptrollerate General for Scrutiny and Survey – is based on your experiences of organisations in the modern political arena and how much is based on documentary evidence of this particular time?
RW: The Comptrollerate-General has always adapted. Much of what’s in the book is based on the details of the historical record; readers who start googling (for Traitor’s Field, for example, about the murder of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough) might be surprised to find out just how much. And the documents from the secret archive of the Comptrollerate-General give a direct link to that past; some of them are reproduced in the novels (hidden messages in them are critical to Traitor’s Field). But I’m a product of British Government service – I’ve inhabited that bureaucracy, I’ve lurked in its shadows – and one of the things I love about writers like Len Deighton is how they show the apparently mysterious and glamorous as fundamentally banal and fallible. It’s almost invariably cock-up rather than conspiracy. So I wanted to show something of that. At the same time, I wanted to capture a bit of the politics and paranoia that seem to inform Government today.
DS: I loved the opening at the battle of Preston, in which the reader literally explores the battlefield inch by inch through the eyes of one man. It is one thing to uncover facts from documents, but did you do any particular research to set about bringing scenes such as this to life?
RW: I had the idea of that scene – the man exploring the carnage, looking for one man among so many corpses – in mind as an opening before the rest of the book had taken shape. To write that kind of scene, I really need to see the film playing in my head: I need some idea of the terrain, of the development of the battle, of a few details of uniform or weaponry (I’m not an expert on such things – certainly not as much as many of my readers); and I need a strong idea of the narrative rhythm and flow for the scene. What’s the pace? What’s the objective? When I put that solitary man on the death-blasted moor, I need to know what he sees if he looks left or right, and I need to know what I’m trying to achieve for the story as he moves: the horror of war which is going to be the backdrop for the whole book, and the encounter at the climax of the scene which will set the whole book in motion.
There were similar calculations when I came to write the massacre at Drogheda. I wanted to have some suggestion of the campaign in Ireland to show the different dimensions of the political and military manoeuvring. But Drogheda is different: in the history of that war – in the history of the English in Ireland – it is uniquely notorious; infamous. I wanted to make the reader feel the horror, but I also wanted to show how Cromwell came to take the decision he did. So, reading it, we start off among the sweating scared Roundhead troopers racing madly into the carnage; then we see it through Cromwell’s eyes – the strategic calculations, and the emotion; then, paradoxically, the best way I could think of to capture the massacre was to step back to an objective distance, and from there consider coldly the brutality necessary to kill a man.
DS: The episodic nature of the narrative where the reader is bounced from the side of the Royalists to the side of the Parliamentarians is one which works brilliantly. The impression it gives is that we are being randomly fed snippets of real letters, experiences and memoirs which miraculously tell us exactly what we need to know when we need to know it. Of course I am aware this must have taken an incredible amount of organisation, to fit the fiction into the historical records which are in themselves extraordinary. How did you decide on this structure for the novel, and once you’d begun, how on earth did you organise the material into a seamless whole?
RW: I want a reader to inhabit the world of the Comptrollerate-General; to explore it. That means some suggestion of the wider world; of the different perspectives; of the pervasive strangeness of an existence where nothing is certain. That means giving the reader the raw material, and letting them make of it what they want. I have the suspicion that readers, when they’re being entertained, don’t always want to park their brains at the cover. Gradually, out of the mosaic, the plot and the truth become increasingly and more powerfully clear.
In Treason’s Tide, set in 1805 when Napoleon was on the brink of invading Britain, there’s an underlying assumption about who the goodies and the baddies are. In Traitor’s Field that’s not the case. One of the reasons I got more interested in writing this period was a growing sense that I wasn’t sure which side I’d have chosen. There’s a romance and a nobility in the Royalist fight to preserve their world. There’s an inspiration in those fighting to create a new, freer world. I want the reader to be able to decide for themself.
The organization of the books is always a bit of a nightmare. I’ve got all these bits of perspective and action to knit together, and they’ve got to fit into a dynamic narrative, and show credible developments of character, and at the same time – this is always the snag – be chronologically consistent. I have a chart plotting the main characters and narrative strands over time, and this helps keep the plot feasible and ensure a balance of the characters. But there’s always a few shockers, when I realize that I’ve got basically nothing happening in the whole of 1650, or that a character who was wounded in a highland skirmish at dawn has somehow turned up in a vital London rendezvous at teatime. Then I have to go away and cry for a bit, and take a long walk.
DS: Traitor’s Field explores the difficulty of how the old England might emerge from the conflict to become something new, by including, amongst other things, the idea of a secret Royalist agreement with the Levellers. How important do you think these alternative and unlikely undercurrents were as a sign of the times?
RW: This is a key question, I think. As I was writing, I found the period more and more exciting exactly because of the way that it unleashed such a frenzy of ideas. Previously, there was a simple orthodoxy about who ruled: you accepted it, or you were a traitor. Likewise, there was a simple orthodoxy about religion: you accepted it, or you were a heretic. In a relatively short space of time, thanks to politics and thanks also to printing, that certainty exploded. People began to explore new ideas about how you ruled a country, and how you worshipped. The Levellers, who wanted more political freedom, are in the great tradition of English radicalism; they were pushing concepts that wouldn’t be realized for two hundred years or more. The Diggers were pushing concepts of how we should live in harmony with our planet that we still haven’t properly learned; I developed a soft spot for the Diggers.
Part of the excitement was a growing freedom of expression. Before, there had been a very simple structure of truth: it came from your King, or your Priest, or your father. No-one else counted. Suddenly, more and more people are able to express their ideas – some of them are even women – and some of these ideas are extraordinary. Rather than one truth that you accept or defy, there’s now a parade of alternative truths; competing truths. And this, I realized, was a wonderful atmosphere for spies – those who dealt in misleading truths. There’s a variety of documents in Traitor’s Field; and the reader has to decide how much to trust them. The contest of lies.
DS: One of your Royalist characters, Sir Mortimer Shay, is older and rather world weary, and his adversary on Cromwell’s side is younger, reflecting the bigger picture of the old and new regimes. Can you tell us a little bit more about them and what made them interesting to write?
RW: Sir Mortimer Shay was great fun to write: an attractive, amoral, ruthless veteran of decades of war and intrigue, starting to come to terms with the passing of his own years and the passing of his world, but determined to go out fighting – and murdering, and intriguing, and flirting with anything in a skirt. John Thurloe is an excellent representative of the new world: a man rising on his merit; a man with some principles, even ideals, and also moral enough to see the contradictions and brutalities of his own side. It’s clear from the historical record that by the later 1650s John Thurloe was the power behind Cromwell, the sole master of politics and espionage; Traitor’s Field shows the younger Thurloe, and it shows him learning some of the most important lessons for his future greatness. I always felt fond of him when I was writing him: a young man starting to understand just how strange his world is, and grappling it with doggedness and brilliance.
Shay and Thurloe are rivals, and their skills make them crucial figures for their respective sides; each of them, at one time or another, has the fate of their cause depending on them. Gradually, too, they become aware of each other, and the story is increasingly the contest between the two men. Caught between them is Rachel Astbury, a young woman trying to find a place for herself in a world in turmoil. Each of the two men, representatives of the two sides, offers her a model of what the world could be; she’s left to choose.
DS: This is the second book in a series, and both include the shadowy Comptrollerate General for Scrutiny and Survey even though the other book, Treason’s Tide is set in 1805. Can you tell us where this idea came from, and why it is able operate over such different periods?
RW: I wanted to write a series of books. My own interest – the things I’ve enjoyed writing in the past – made an historical aspect almost certain. I wanted there to be a strong interweaving of real historical events. But no one period or character appealed. I wasn’t expert enough or interested enough in any particular bit of military history to attempt the equivalent of a Sharpe or an Aubrey. Each time I tried to conjure a character who would remain engaging and who would prove repeatedly crucial in his interactions with the most interesting bits of his period, I found the face of Flashman grinning at me pityingly: a concept that has been done too brilliantly to be easily repeated. Eventually I wondered whether, if I could somehow get away from a single character, it might be possible to move between the various bits of British history that interested me. And it was then that I happened on the Comptrollerate-General, and the secret archive that reveals the activities of this remarkable organization, in the shadows behind every crisis of several centuries of history.
DS: (Hopefully) Will there be a third Comptrollerate General novel?
RW: Oh yes. The new novel reveals the organization’s role in the weeks leading up to the first world war. I’ve just sent a first draft to the Editor, and the book will be out next year – on the centenary of the events it describes. History’s always with us…
Robert Wilton is a novelist, diplomat, and charity founder who divides his time between Cornwall and the Balkans. The Emperor’s Gold, now out in paperback as Treason’s Tide, won the 2012 Historical Writers’ Association/Goldsboro Crown for best historical debut. Traitor’s Field has been described as setting ‘a new benchmark for the literary historical thriller… an utterly absorbing, edge-of-the-seat thriller, exhilarating, passionate, inspiring and literate’.
Find out more at www.robertwilton.com, and on Twitter @ComptrollerGen.