Monday, December 16, 2019

The Giving of Gifts

Gift giving is a significant part of a modern Christmas celebration, but where did it come from? The annual giving of gifts is a tradition that has evolved through the ages to bring us to our highly commercialized holiday.

For Christians, the tradition of giving gifts is often thought to have been put in place by the Magi who brought prophetic gifts to the baby Jesus. However, the early church did not immediately adopt this habit, partly to differentiate themselves from pagans, who had long been giving gifts to each other as part of the winter festival of Saturnalia.

Gift giving has always taken place to some extent, but the extensive level of gift giving that we have grown used to did not begin until the 19th century, when mass produced goods became inexpensive enough for most people to afford purchasing gifts. Even as recently as the early 20th century, practical and homemade gifts were very popular.

Culturally, the giving of gifts has often gone hand in hand with an expectation of receiving something in return. During the medieval era, gift giving was largely limited to the rich nobility. Gifts of tapestries, gold and silver plate, and other exotic items would be exchanged between those in power as they negotiated treaties and betrothals. King Henry VII gave gifts of jewels and cloth-of-gold to his queen, Elizabeth of York, and an inscribed Book of Hours to his daughter, Margaret. However, these gifts were not given on December 25th. Preferred gift giving times were New Year's Day and special occasions, such as weddings and children's baptisms.

In addition to giving to those who could reciprocate, people of the middle ages gave gifts to the church and to the poor. Some of these gifts were purely charitable, but it was also believed that gifts of this sort helped reserved one's place in heaven and reduced time spent in purgatory. Gifts to the church were also made as part of people's last will and testament . . . just in case.

Many of our most familiar Christmas traditions - decorating trees, giving gifts, and singing carols - were popularized during the Victorian era. Images of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert next to an elaborately decorated tree took this German tradition worldwide. And what could look finer surrounding such a beautiful tree than elaborately wrapped gifts?

The desk that 140 years of US Presidents have sat behind in the Oval Office was a Christmas gift from Queen Victoria. Made from timbers of the British ship the HMS Resolute, the desk is one of the many historic Christmas gifts found in the White House and National Archives. Each President has also been challenged to give gifts to foreign rulers that match the creativity and value of what is received.

And you thought it was difficult to shop for your mother-in-law.

Christmas gift giving continues to evolve. In this age of abundance, many charitable organizations urge people to donate instead of purchasing gifts for friends and family who don't really need anything. Groups come together to purchase items for families in need or to perform acts of service. And we buy LOTS of gifts. The National Retail Federation estimates that over $465 billion will be spent on Christmas gifts this year, proving that this tradition isn't going anywhere.

A gift for you!

As a small Christmas gift for my readers, I am offering the short story, Farewell to Anne. It is a snippet of Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen from King Richard III's point-of-view. Happy reading and a very blessed Christmas to you all!

Interested in more fun Christmas posts? Don't miss the Historical Writers Forum blog hop!

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Cause of Death: Radium Poisoning

On September 12, 1922, a twenty-four year old woman died in her home. The tissue of her mouth, jaw, and throat had disintegrated so thoroughly that she bled out while her horrified family helplessly looked on. For months, she had been visiting doctors and dentists, searching for a solution, or at least a diagnosis. No one could help Mollie Maggia. She deteriorated quickly and died a horrible death.

Unable to determine what had plagued her and unwilling to investigate the idea that it might have had something to do with her work as a dial painter, the coroner listed Mollie Maggia's cause of death as syphilis. Mollie's family not only had to cope with grief, but they were burdened with the blackening of Mollie's name.

Then, on June 3, 1923, Helen Quinlan died in her home. She was twenty-two and had suffered from a raging infection in her mouth, jaw, and throat.

Irene Rudolph died on July 15, 1923. She was twenty-one years old and suffered from jaw necrosis.

Each of these girls lived in Orange, New Jersey, and worked at US Radium Corporation.

During the 1920s, hundreds of products containing radium were sold. The element, recently discovered by the Curies, was considered magical. Products claimed to cure cancer, clear skin, and improve digestion. At US Radium Corporation in New Jersey, young women worked as dial painters, tracing the digits on watches and clocks with radium infused paint so that they would glow in the dark.

Since radium was believed to have health benefits, little control was exercised over the use of radium paint. The girls would paint their nails and use it like makeup. Their dresses would glow in the evening from the dust that settled on them while at work. When applying paint to the tiny watch faces, the girls would create a fine point on their brushes by placing it between their lips.

The radium consumed by the dial painters was absorbed by their bodies like calcium, where it attacked their bones and infected them with an incurable radioactivity. Women continued to die of complications of jaw necrosis. Others suffered from cancerous tumors or disintegration of the bones in their limbs and spines. Dozens suffered before radium poisoning was recognized as their cause of death.

These women's deaths began a crusade to end worker exploitation and hold employers responsible for putting employees' lives at risk. Significant changes in workers' compensation laws were made and OSHA was created. Greater caution was used in handling radioactive materials, protecting the scientists who developed nuclear weapons during World War II.

Five years after her death, Mollie Maggia's body was exhumed, glowing with radiation, and her name was cleared. Cause of death: radium poisoning. However, it was too late to save her sisters, who had counted themselves lucky to obtain high-paying jobs at US Radium Corporation alongside each other. Mollie's sister, Quinta, died of a leg sarcoma in 1929, as did another sister, Albina, in 1946.

Further Reading:
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
Deadly Glow: The Radium Dial Worker Tragedy by Ross Mullner
Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 by Claudia Clark

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Historic Places: Ottawa, Illinois

I know what you're thinking. What? Where?

Hear me out. (If you do, there's a surprise at the end!)

Ottawa is a little city that you've probably never heard of, but it boasts a hefty historical background that includes Abraham Lincoln, the I&M Canal, and the Radium Dial Corporation. Murals throughout Ottawa's downtown depict scenes like Native Americans hunting buffalo, soldiers marching to join the Civil War, turn-of-the-century children playing with marbles made in their own Peltier Glass Factory, and the centennial of the Great Debate.

Ottawa's Great Debate and proudest moment in history occurred on August 21, 1858, and there is no way to visit Ottawa without learning this! Starting with a giant monument in the center of Washington Square, where the debate occurred, but also included in multiple murals, every local museum & historical society, and tourism marketing, the Lincoln-Douglas debate is a pretty big deal.

Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were debating the hot topic of the day: slavery, in a debate that was attended by a crowd of 14,000, an astounding turnout for a senatorial debate in the mid-19th century. If your brain is churning through dates right now, you will have calculated that Lincoln lost to Douglas. Otherwise, he would not have been able to be elected President in 1860. One might say that Lincoln excelled at losing the battle but winning the war.

Washington Square is also home to memorials to Ottawa soldiers in the Civil War, Spanish American War, WWI & II, Korean War, and Vietnam.

Across the road from Washington Square, Douglas supporters watched the debate from the Reddick Mansion. Ardent democrats and the wealthiest family in town, the Reddicks had finished their Italianate mansion just a month before the Big Day, so it was a great opportunity to show off the four story, 22-room beauty. When William Reddick died in 1885, he left his luxurious home to the city to be the home of the Ottawa library. It served in this capacity for almost 90 years, and since the 1970's, efforts have been made to restore the Reddick Mansion to its former glory. A few spectacular examples of workmanship have survived, such as woodwork painted to create the appearance of different species of wood and detailed trimwork.

Just east of the Reddick Mansion is a construction site. It is a future Subway - the sandwich shop, not underground trains - but some local residents have vowed never to eat there. Why? The lot used to be the address of Radium Dial, a company that left the town poisoned by radioactivity and caused the painful unnecessary deaths of many young women who worked there from WWI until they closed in 1934.

Catherine & her children, Chicago Daily Times, 1938
One of those young women was my reason for visiting Ottawa. Catherine Wolfe, later Donohue, started working at Radium Dial in 1922 when she was 19 years old. It was a dream job for a young, working class girl. Women painted watch faces with glow-in-the-dark paint, a job that was considered a step above other manual labor and paid 2-3 times as much. Little did they know that they were slowly and irreversibly poisoning themselves. The girls would dip their brushes in the radium-infused paint and then point the bristles with their lips to create the point necessary to trace the fine markings of the watch dials. They would also paint their nails & faces with the paint, just for fun, or wear their going-out dresses to work to collect the omnipresent factory dust, so that they would glow like angels when they went on their dates.

Long after experts understood the dangers of radium and long after Radium Dial understood what was happening to these girls, the girls themselves figured out that the teeth they were losing, the diseases they were suffering, the pain coursing through their bodies, and the cancers they were dying of were caused by radium poisoning. Radium Dial fought with lies, lawyers, and deep pockets to avoid paying restitution to the women and their families or making changes to the workplace.

Catherine Donohue worked at Radium Dial until 1931, when she was fired because her limp (caused by radium poisoning) was disconcerting to the other girls. When she and some of her friends brought suit against Radium Dial, they became the basis for reform in workplace safety and employer responsibility. Safety standards were finally established for radioactive materials, but it was too late for Catherine. She died in 1938, her body riddled with poison and weighing only 70 pounds. She left behind two children, aged 3 & 5. In Catherine's lead-lined, concrete encased casket, her body is still glowing.

Catherine is the reason I went to Ottawa. She will be featured in my next novel, because the story of the Radium Girls, as she and her friends became known, needs to be told. It is a story not just of worker exploitation and corporate greed, but more importantly of friendship, faith, and resilience.

I know that I am asking my readers to take a big step out of the early Tudor era and into those years between The Wars. Into the years of scientific advances that outpaced safety, years of prohibition and women's suffrage. But every era & every woman's story share timeless connections of life, love, and discovering our purpose. 

Catherine faced her calling and a fate that no one would ever ask for with courage, determination, and the deep faith of a little midwestern Catholic girl in a way that both breaks my heart and makes me want to be a better person. I hope you will enjoy her story.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Katherine - Tudor Duchess

New release from Tony Riches!

Attractive, wealthy and influential, Katherine Willoughby is one of the most unusual ladies of the Tudor court. A favourite of King Henry VIII, Katherine knows all his six wives, his daughters Mary and Elizabeth, and his son Edward. When her father dies, Katherine becomes the ward of Tudor knight, Sir Charles Brandon. Her Spanish mother, Maria de Salinas, is Queen Catherine of Aragon’s lady in waiting, so it is a challenging time for them when King Henry marries the enigmatic Anne Boleyn.

Following Anne’s dramatic downfall, Katherine marries Charles Brandon, and becomes Duchess of Suffolk at the age of fourteen. After the short reign of young Catherine Howard, and the death of Jane Seymour, Katherine and Brandon are chosen to welcome Anna of Cleves as she arrives in England.

When the royal marriage is annulled, Katherine’s good friend, Catherine Parr becomes the king’s sixth wife, and they work to promote religious reform. Katherine’s young sons are tutored with the future king, Prince Edward, and become his friends, but when Edward dies his Catholic sister Mary is crowned queen. Katherine’s Protestant faith puts her family in great danger - from which there seems no escape.

Katherine’s remarkable true story continues the epic tale of the rise of the Tudors, which began with the best-selling Tudor trilogy and concludes with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Tony Riches is the author of the best-selling Tudor Trilogy, available in eBook and paperback from Amazon UK and Amazon US. Also, find it on Goodreads.(Audiobook edition coming in 2020)

Connect with Tony

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of best-selling historical fiction. He lives in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the history of the Wars of the Roses and the lives of the early Tudors. Tony’s other published historical fiction novels include: Owen – Book One Of The Tudor Trilogy, Jasper – Book Two Of The Tudor Trilogy, Henry – Book Three Of The Tudor Trilogy, Mary – Tudor Princess and Brandon – Tudor Knight. For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website and his blog, The Writing Desk and find him on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 20, 2019

How to Determine if Your Opponent is a Nazi

The habit of comparing those we disagree with to Nazis of the 1930s & 1940s has escalated to epic proportions. Any political opponent, any group one may disagree with (strongly!), and anyone daring to base their opinion on a different worldview is called a modern day Nazi by someone. During the last presidential campaign, I saw memes and articles battling it out over whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump was the next Hitler.

The truth is that neither of them are anything close to what Hitler was, and I may not know who your political opponents are but I promise they are not modern day Nazis either. (Even those actually calling themselves modern day Nazis are nothing in comparison to historical Nazis.)

It says something about how far removed we are from the events of World War II that we now sling the word Nazi around as a baseless insult. We use this word, make this comparison, with little to no thought for the actual Nazi's real and numerous victims. Do we really think that those who hold different opinions than our own are just as bad as those who perpetrated the Holocaust?!

My teenagers came home from high school on 9/11 this year and one of them mentioned that people had told some 9/11 jokes at school. "That," I told them, "is how you tell the difference between the people who watched it happen and those who have only heard about it." That is how we look when we compare anyone to Nazis.

There seems to be no bounds limiting who can be called a Nazi. Conservatives call Democrats Nazis over gun control and abortion. Democrats call Republicans Nazis for immigration policies and lack of LGBT legislation. This habit has so much become the norm that there is a name for it. Godwin's law is defined as the increasing probability that a Hitler/Nazi comparison will be made the longer an internet discussion goes on. Neither US Republicans or Democrats are defined by the same beliefs as the German Nazi party. Whatever minor parallels we do see are not comprehensive enough to make these comparisons. The fact that supposed Nazi-like policies are divided between our modern day parties should be proof of that.

But those who study history have to look for the signs that caused these events to happen. We have to be careful not to look the other way as Germans did when the Nazis came to power. These are popular justifications for making the Nazi accusations of our political opponents. Therefore, I would like to consider the situation that enabled Nazis to rise to power, keep it, and use it to violently target specific groups of people.

The German Nazi party was able to gain control during a time of economic depression and societal defeat unlike anything America has ever experienced. They did it during a time of divided politics that enabled them to rise to power with nothing close to a majority vote. They did it through fear and anger and the need to blame someone for Germany's problems. Once in place, the Nazis outlawed other parties, violently enforced their supremacy, and censored all media. So, let's take a step back. Our media ruthlessly critiques our political leaders, none of whom are calling for the mass jailing, torturing, or killing of any specific group of people. Neither of our main political parties have the power necessary to eliminate the other (for better or worse).

Comparing those we disagree with to Nazis demonstrates a lack of understanding of history and a lack of respect for those who suffered and died during Hitler's regime. Civil discourse is challenging, but without it we are no better than name-calling children. History can be used for good or evil; please use only for good.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Historic Places: Dallas, Texas

Model of  Assassination Scene
Sixth Floor Museum
I recently had the opportunity to take a quick trip to Dallas. This was primarily to watch my youngest son play basketball, but I managed to eke out a couple of hours to take in a bit of history as well. Although I know that Dallas has a much richer history than any single event, the locations that I chose to visit in my limited free time were the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza and the John F Kennedy Memorial Plaza in downtown Dallas.

This area looks much as it did on that fateful day in 1963. Cars whiz past large Xs on Elm Street that mark the points where the first and fatal shots hit our 35th president. The 6th floor Book Depository window has a view only slightly more obscured by trees than it was 56 years ago. It is eerie to look down on the street with the same view that Lee Harvey Oswald took advantage of with so little thought to the consequences of his actions.

Sixth Floor Museum
When reading The Death of a President by William Manchester, this was one point that came through loud and clear. While the country - no, the world - mourned the death of Jack Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald was one of the few people who enjoyed an untroubled night of rest. We were not given the opportunity to learn how he could commit one of the most atrocious crimes of the century and then sleep peacefully, since Oswald was himself assassinated two days later. He almost died in the same room as the president he had killed, except quick-thinking employees at Parkland Hospital diverted his gurney to Trauma Room 2, instead of 1 where it had been headed.

View from Sixth Floor Museum
What did the nation lose on November 22, 1963? We can never fully know, but quotes left behind by JFK give us some clues. Some are profound. "A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." Others are bold and courageous. "The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie--deliberate, contrived and dishonest--but the myth--persistent, persuasive and unrealistic. Too often we hold fast to the cliches of our forebears. We subject all facts to a prefabricated set of interpretations. We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." And others are downright creepy. "If anybody really wanted to shoot the President of the United States, it was not a very difficult job. All one had to do was get a high building...with a telescopic rifle." (JFK to Ken O'Donnell 11/22/63)

The Sixth Floor Museum offers a comprehensive review of Kennedy's presidency and the assassination. Conspiracy theories are summarized but not reviewed in depth. I enjoyed it, even knowing most of the information presented before visiting. My 15-year-old, who has been dragged through more historic sites than he could list, gave it his highest possible recommendation. "It was actually interesting." 😉

John F Kennedy Memorial Plaza
We also walked through the John F Kennedy Memorial Plaza nearby. I have to admit, I thought it looked more like a giant jail cell than a heartfelt memorial. According to the accompanying plaque, the artist's intent for the design was "a place of quiet refuge, an enclosed place of thought and contemplation separated from the city around, but near the sky and earth." I could see what they were going for once I read the architect's vision, but it still did not appeal to me. What do you think of it?
A simple slab with John Fitzgerald Kennedy's name on it is enough to evoke emotion within the memorial plaza structure.

"A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers."  
~ John F Kennedy, October 26, 1963

Monday, July 29, 2019

The King's Furies Blog Tour

Today, I have the great honor of participating in Stephanie Churchill's blog tour to celebrate the release of her latest novel, The King's Furies! Having been lucky enough to be an early reader of this fantastic book, I'm glad to finally share my thoughts on it. If you are not familiar with Churchill's writing, let me introduce you. The King's Furies is the conclusion to the Crowns of Destiny trilogy, which is set in a fantasy world reminiscent of late medieval Europe. Anyone who loves reading about the Wars of the Roses will perceive the fictional parallels in the world Churchill has so expertly created. It is fantasy without wizards and dragons, making it feel more like historical fiction of a country we didn't realize existed. I can highly recommend the entire series, beginning with The Scribe's Daughter, a novel that took me entirely by surprise with its depth and complexity. For today, we will focus on The King's Furies.

Book Review of The King's Furies

Let me begin by saying that I love reading classic novels. Two of my favorites are Villette by Charlotte Bronte and A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. What does this have to do with Stephanie Churchill? Her writing creates the feeling that I am reading classic literature. It is intelligent and sophisticated in a way that much modern fiction is not. The settings are so magically described, one would swear that the author has actually visited the fictional lands. The characters are deep, realistic, and surrounded by intrigue. No facet of good storytelling is neglected.

The previous books in this trilogy have focused on sisters Kassia and Irisa, but in The King's Furies we see Casmir's perspective. He just may be my favorite. Casmir is no stereotypical storybook hero. He is confident but deeply troubled by the darker side of his character and born to rule but uncertain how to establish himself as a better king than his father. Casmir is a man with the kingdom at his feet but without the power to protect his own family. We see him helpless and angry, sometimes even arrogant and cruel, but always as human and a man striving to do his best. He is flawed, as we all are, but not unforgivably or irredeemably.

Irisa is the perfect wife to balance Casmir's fiery impetuousness. I appreciate their relationship even more knowing it is partially based upon the marriage of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. Like the first Tudor couple, Casmir and Irisa struggle with unifying their families and bringing peace to their kingdom. It's not always as simple as we think it should be. Of course slavery should be abolished, but what should be done with those displaced and bankrupted by this change? This is just one of many difficulties that Casmir and Irisa face together - and it's nowhere near their biggest problem! Through it all, Irisa has her own quieter thoughts, disappointments, and achievements. I almost accidentally called her Elizabeth.

I don't know if this book is better than the first two - because they are great! - or if I just like seeing everything satisfactorily concluded, because this was my favorite of the trilogy. Don't misunderstand me and think this is a 'happily ever after' story. It's not. It is suspenseful, action-packed, and sometimes I wanted to give Casmir a firm slap! (Or at least advise Irisa to administer one.) That's the great thing about this novel. The reader feels connected to the characters, experiences their pain and rejoices in their victories. In a world filled with fictional fluff, these characters will stay with you long after you've finished their story.

Long live, King Casmir!

All three books in the Crowns of Destiny trilogy are available on Kindle or in paperback.

The Scribe's Daughter
The King's Daughter
The King's Furies

Connect with Stephanie Churchill on her blog, Twitter, or Facebook.

Enjoy more stops on The King's Furies blog tour!


Especially make sure to stop by the blog of author extraordinaire Sharon Kay Penman, where you have the chance to win BOTH of the first two books in the Crowns of Destiny trilogy!

Monday, July 15, 2019

An Interview with Munro #HWFbloghop

If you haven't been following the Historical Writers' Forum "Interview my Character" Blog Hop, you have been missing out, but never fear! You can catch up on all the fun insight into your favorite characters by visiting the blogs listed here, or by following this Facebook page.

Today, I am excited to have my turn hosting the blog hop, and I am honored to be paired with the marvelous Margaret Skea. Not only has Margaret written a fabulous novel about Katharina Luther (!), but she has also written a series on the feud between the Scottish Cunninghame and Montgomerie clans.

Munro is the main character in the series, beginning with the novel Turn of the Tide. I enjoyed both reading this novel and having the chance to interview the thoughtful and devoted Munro. I know you will want to read Turn of the Tide too, and you can find an excerpt here or purchase the novel on Amazon. Caution: you WILL be hooked on Skea's writing. Alright, you've been warned. On with the interview! Welcome, Munro!


How do you believe the feud began between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries?

The feud? Some folk say one thing and some another, but to be truthful the origins go back so far that no one can truly be sure. My opinion, though maybe not the wisest to voice, is that much of the blame lies with the monarchy. Not our current king of course, but his great-grandfather, James IV, who gave control of the bailiiewick of Cunninghame to a Montgomerie. Memories last long in our county, as do old grievances, and that was an affront that couldn’t be easily forgotten. Money’s at the centre of it, of course, as it usually is, for control of the bailliewick means the right to collect customs. Worth a tidy sum, I can tell you.

Did your father also follow Cunninghame leaders in violence against the Montgomeries?

Of course, and my grandfather before him. What choice do we have? Our tower is built on Cunninghame land, and to refuse to do Glencairn’s bidding would be to risk our home and our livelihood, forbye our safety. Lives have been forfeit for less.

Why did you feel compelled to follow Glencairn, even despite Kate’s anger?

I did it for her and for the children, to keep them safe, though she couldn’t be brought to see it that way. And though Kate is a fine woman in many ways, she makes judgements based on moral grounds, while I was more practical. At the beginning at least.

Why do you think William hates you and your brother so much?

William thinks a lot of himself and his status as the heir to the earldom of Glencairn, and it has always irked him that my father died when I was young enough to enjoy my lairdship and a home of my own, while his father shows no likelihood of dying any time soon. Master of Glencairn sounds impressive, but in reality he is his father’s pawn and his lack of power is a constant aggravation to him. Maybe that’s why he tries to throw his weight around. As for Archie, he had the misfortune to be my brother and that was enough to irritate William. Of course there was the issue of Sybilla, but I’d best not speak of that.

Do you think Archie was naïve?

He was young and ambitious and thought the Renfrew ‘pond’ rather restricting. The lure of living in an earl’s household proved too tempting for him and by the time he had the true measure of William, it was a mite late to change his mind. More’s the pity, for I truly believe he would have grown up into a decent man had circumstances been different.

Edinburgh Castle as seen today (author's photo)
How did you prepare for the travel and ceremony of Queen Anne’s Coronation?

That was all mother’s doing. I’m not a great one for ceremony, nor for kow-towing to royalty, but mother thought it would do Kate good to be away, especially in the light of our recent tragedy, and I was ready to do anything to make up for what had happened, for it was my fault. It was fortunate mother had money and to spare, for the expense of the thing was considerable. I should perhaps have anticipated how much it would cost to rent a house in Edinburgh at such a time, but it was my first time in the capital, and I don’t much care if I never return. I didn’t buy new clothes, for I thought there was plenty of life in my old ones, despite Kate’s protests to the contrary, but mother saw that Kate had a new gown and I was proud of how she looked in it.

Could James have done something more to bring peace between warring factions?

You must understand that James became king as an infant, as his mother and grandfather had before him. The nobles were used to having their own way and had done so for far too long. As soon as James could he set out to subdue them, handing out cautions and fines, making them sign letters of affirmation and demanding the public foreswearing of enmity. Raising up minor lairds, such as Hugh Montgomerie was a clever strategy and a way of ensuring loyalty that he could depend on. I don’t think he could have done much more.

Were you surprised to find that you enjoyed the company of those who were supposed to be your enemies?

That was a surprise, yes, for I’d been brought up to believe the only good Montgomerie was a dead one. When I met Patrick and then Hugh and Elizabeth, it was a revelation, and I don’t mind admitting an uncomfortable one, for I well knew the dangers of friendship in the enemy camp. The irony was that Kate, who believes ill of nobody unless she has evidence of it, was more reluctant than me to make their acquaintance.

Have these events affected your loyalty to your country? Your faith?

I may not always have been greatly interested in royalty, but I have always been loyal to my country - I don’t know why you would suggest otherwise. However, I must admit, that now that I’ve had some dealings with him, I think more highly of King James than perhaps I once did. I understand the pressures on him a little better and recognise the fine line he is treading to try and leave a country at peace when he comes into his own and takes the English crown.

As for faith, though I cannot claim to have found a strong faith for myself yet, I have seen the evidence of it in others, my mother included, and I would like to experience their certainty. I will say this, I have thought more on God in these last years, and that’s likely a good thing.

What can you tell us of the aftermath?

Violence begets violence, a cycle that James is determined to break, and he has the right of it. We will all sleep safer in our beds if he can succeed in outlawing the old enmities and the world will be a better place. The aftermath of Annock has taught me that, and I may never be able to completely forgive myself for my part in the massacre that sparked it. Kate would say that God forgives anyone who repents of their evil deeds. I hope she’s right.


Thank you, Munro! This special insight into Turn of the Tide makes me eager to carry on with the next book, A House Divided. If you are interested in learning more about Margaret Skea and her novels, you can find her website here.

Don't miss the rest of the blog hop! You can find the interview with one of my characters, Countess Margaret Pole, here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

SIX: Henry's Wives on Stage

When I saw that the musical Six was making its North American premiere in Chicago, a mere 90 minutes from my home, I was quick to get in line for tickets. For those who haven't heard of it, Six is a musical blend of history (ahem, herstory), pop music, and comedy featuring Henry VIII's wives. I had listened to the soundtrack before attending but was still surprised by some of what we saw on stage at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

As you can see from the show poster, the costumes are not precisely accurate to the 16th century. Think Tudor meets the 80s, and you've probably got it pictured quite well. Other than a hint of Greensleeves, the music is also more reminiscent of Brittany Spears than Thomas Tallis. So, yeah, anachronisms abound, but wow is it FUN!

Six is no Les Mis, but there are some surprisingly touching moments. Who doesn't feel sympathy for Katherine of Aragon when she is in kneeling before a cross begging Henry to tell her one thing she did wrong? Or wish for another option for Katherine Parr when she tells Thomas Seymour that she has to marry the king instead, claiming "I don't need your love"? Those moments I expected. I was not prepared for Katherine Howard to break down sobbing after her song started with, "I think we can all agree, I'm the 10 amongst these 3s!" It began fun & flirty, but ended with her feeling used and abused, and, of course, headed to the scaffold.

Henry's wives break as many modern rules of theatre as they did 16th century marriage rules. The audience is invited to participate and cheer for the wife they believe got the shortest end of the stick from Henry. (Does beheading trump abandonment after 24 years? AB & KH think so.) The music is a bit shallow but includes loads of historical puns and jokes for those who catch them. Sometimes, it's a titch too silly. (I'm looking at you "Haus of Holbein.") At the end, the wives decide to tell their own stories, or what they wish they had been. Only Jane dreams of a home full of little Tudor babies with her beloved Henry.

Some won't appreciate the way Anne Boleyn is portrayed as more of a teenage floozy than an early feminist when she sings, "Sorry, not sorry, bout what I said. I'm just trying to have some fun. Don't worry, don't worry. Don't lose your head. I didn't mean to hurt anyone." Her costume has an ironic Catholic schoolgirl look to it. She's irreverent and hilarious.

Most pleasantly surprising was Anna of Cleves, who is bold, confident, and forced to admit that there's no way she can win the worst treated wife competition. Her "Get Down" where she brags about her sweet annulment settlement was probably my favorite part of the show. "I look more rad than Lutheranism. Dance so hard that I'm causin a sensation. Okay ladies, let's get in reformation." Yes, I said it. Anna of Cleves was the best part of the show. Who knew? (Well, Anna did.)

Six may be trying to be the UK's answer to Hamilton, but, much as I loved the show, it is not quite there. Hamilton packs a greater emotional and musical punch, but I highly recommend Six as well. And, hey, the tickets are MUCH cheaper.

My 17-year-old daughter and I loved it. My husband said he almost leaned over to ask if we were at the right show, so you'll have to make your own judgement. At the end of the show, the audience was encouraged - yes, encouraged(!) - to take pictures and video, so here's a little sampler for you from the Chicago cast.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Blessed Margaret Pole

Born on August 14, 1473, Margaret was the daughter of George of Clarence and Isabel Neville. Her prospects were bright and future secure. Her father was brother to King Edward IV, who had successfully won the English crown for York.

Margaret's life did not go as her parents had likely imagined. Instead of the pampered life of a princess, Margaret survived much trial and tribulation. While Margaret was young, Isabel died in childbirth and George was executed by his royal brother for treason. These were the first in a long line of deaths and disappointments that would define Margaret's life.

After the death of her father and mother, Margaret and her
brother, Edward of Warwick, were left orphans in a volatile court. Following his brother in death five years later, Edward IV had not put much effort into the raising of George's children. When Edward's youngest brother Richard took the throne, 10-year-old Margaret was floating in a churning political sea.

Two cousins, The Princes in the Tower, were lost to Margaret at this time, but she was housed with their sisters, the daughters of Edward IV. Included in this household was Elizabeth of York, who Margaret would go on to serve as a lady-in-waiting when Elizabeth married Henry Tudor. Margaret was quickly married off by Henry VII to a firm supporter, Richard Pole.

Margaret was about 14 when this wedding took place. Marriage to Richard brought stability and happiness to Margaret's life. This happiness was relatively brief. Richard died in 1504, leaving Margaret with five children, the last possibly having been born after his father's death.

Margaret's life under Henry VII was calm but destitute, but his son, Henry VIII, decided to raise her up. Made Countess of Salisbury in 1512, Margaret was shown the respect and awarded the riches that recognized her noble birth. Her sons carefully presented themselves at court as loyal to their king and not rivals to the throne, and the Poles enjoyed Henry's favor.

Margaret was named as governess to the Princess Mary, and stood firmly by her and her mother Queen Katherine of Aragon when Henry decided that it was time for a new wife to give him his longed for son. As Henry grew obsessed with his desire for a male heir, the York blood alive and well in Margaret's sons became a threat. By 1538, Margaret saw many members of her extended family arrested, including her firstborn, Henry Lord Montegue. He was executed, along with his noble cousins Exeter and Neville. Margaret and her youngest son, Geoffrey, continued to languish in prison.

As Henry's marital woes and declining health caused ever increasing cruelty and mood swings, he saw threats to his power where none existed. On May 27, 1541, Margaret was informed that she would die that day.

Tower of London Memorial
She had no warning. She had no trial. She was 67 years old and cousin to the king.

Yet, she bravely endured this final injustice as she had the previous trials in her life, with dignity and faith.

Few witnessed the rushed and quietly carried out execution. An apocryphal story has Margaret running circles around the axeman and attempting to evade her execution. It is difficult to imagine Margaret behaving in such a way, and the report does not come from an eye witness. Final words of protest were found on the wall of her Tower cell,where she had been imprisoned for more than a year.

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thou Mercy, save Thou me!

In King Henry VIII's rush to clear the Tower of traitors, he had not been able to locate a very skilled executioner. Witnesses cringed as Margaret's head, neck, and torso endured many strikes rather than a quick, clean beheading. I only pray that God, in his mercy, had already taken the poor woman to heaven before her body was mangled. There, she had many loved ones to reunite with.

In 1886, Margaret was beatified by the Catholic Church and became Blessed Margaret Pole.

This post is the final entry commemorating this great lady in my 10 Days of Margaret Pole celebration. If you have missed a day, the articles can be found here:

Day 1: A Tale of Two Cousins
Day 2: Long Live the King!
Day 3: Who Was Richard Pole?
Day 4: Another Stillborn Birth for Katherine
Day 5: Margaret Loses Governess Post
Day 6: The Not-So-Illustrious Marriages of the Pole Children
Day 7: Geoffrey Pole is Taken to the Tower
Day 8: The Execution of Henry Pole
Day 9: Reginald Pole Learns of His Mother's Death


If you enjoyed this 10 Days of Margaret Pole and are interested in more of her story, you might like Faithful Traitor, my novel of her life as a Plantagenet heiress living under the rule of Tudor kings.

Faithful Traitor is available worldwide on Amazon in paperback and on Kindle. It is also free with Kindle Unlimited. If you have enjoyed this novel, I would love to read your review! Please post a link in the comments below.

You can also join me on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Unicorns and Their Priceless Horns with Toni Mount

My guest today is a well-regarded historian who also happens to write some of my favorite historical fiction! Toni Mount's Foxley series is the ideal blend of carefully crafted historic setting and complex character development - and each book features a fascinating mystery. In celebration of the release of The Colour of Lies, it is my great pleasure to welcome Toni to my blog today with an interesting look at unicorns and what our medieval forefathers thought of these mythical beasts. 

Be sure to get your copy of The Colour of Lies, available now on Amazon. I've already downloaded mine!

Welcome, Toni!

~ Samantha


Guest Post by Toni Mount: Fabulous Unicorns and their Priceless Horns

In my latest Seb Foxley medieval murder mystery, The Colour of Lies, set in London in the 1470s, the trouble begins with the theft of three exceptionally valuable items: unicorn horns. In the Middle Ages, nobody doubted that creatures with a single horn existed somewhere in the world but they were so illusive and descriptions of them so variable, it was unsurprising that they proved difficult to locate and impossible to identify, yet their horns were real enough, if rare indeed. A unicorn horn could be worth twenty times its weight in gold and a large one could weigh 14 pounds. Even in small pieces or powdered – a form used medicinally to treat any and every ailment, from plague to piles – it was worth ten times the value of gold.

Here is an entry from a bestiary book – a medieval book about creatures, whether real or mythological – from the first half of the thirteenth century, explaining about the unicorn:
    The unicorn, which is also called rhinoceros in Greek, has this nature: it is a little beast, not unlike a young goat, and extraordinarily swift. It has a horn in the middle of its brow and no hunter can catch it. But it can be caught in the following fashion: a maiden who is a virgin is led to the place where it dwells and is left there alone in the forest. As soon as the unicorn sees her, it leaps into her lap and embraces her and goes to sleep there; then the hunters capture it and display it in the king’s palace.
    Our Lord Jesus Christ is the spiritual unicorn of whom it is said: ‘My beloved is like the son of the unicorns’ [Song of Songs ch.2, v.9]; and in the Psalms: ‘My horn shalt thou exalt like the horn of an unicorn [ch.92, v.10]. ...
The unicorn often fights elephants; it wounds them in the stomach and kills them. (1)

A ‘unicorn’ horn – image from the Science Museum
Since there were references made to unicorns in the Bible – seven in all – these confirmed their existence beyond question and, besides, there was tangible evidence in the form of unicorn horns, sometimes known as ‘alicorn’ or simply ‘the horn’. These were not the horns of rhinoceros, which aren’t made of horn anyway but of consolidated hair, nor of goats. Whereas the appearance of the creature varied from something goat-like of the size of a small dog to an ass the size of a great ox, from c.1200 the horn is consistently described as a tapering ivory spiral 6-9 feet long [2-2.5 metres]. This made a dog-sized unicorn most unlikely so a large, cloven-hoofed horse-like animal, usually white with a goat’s beard and fleet of foot, became a more common image of the fabulous beast in order to balance the length of horn.

In 1303, King Edward I of England had his unicorn horn stolen from the treasury at Westminster but it proved too big to hide and impossible to sell and was discovered underneath the bed of one of the thieves. John of Hesse visited the Holy Land in 1389 and saw a unicorn dip its horn into a river to purify the water for the other animals to drink. It was this magical property of neutralising poisons and rendering unclean substances palatable that made the horn such a precious gift or possession of kings who went in fear of assassination by poisoning. In 1553, the pope gave the King of France a horn inlaid with gold, valued at £20,000. Such wonders were said to have come from India or maybe Abyssinia [Ethiopia], from the court of Prester John – himself a mythical monarch supposed to have ruled a Christian kingdom in Africa for 500 years. A visitor to Abyssinia in 1535, said the unicorns were like large horses and very fierce. The Elizabethan traveller, Edward Webbe, was more informative and saw quite different, amiable creatures:

I have seen in a place like a park adjoining unto Prester John’s Court, three score and seventeen [77] unicorns and elephants all alive at one time and they were so tame that I have played with them as one would play with young lambs. (2)
In 1577, the English naval captain and explorer, Martin Frobisher, presented Queen Elizabeth I with a unicorn horn from a very different source. It became known as the Horn of Windsor, valued at the incredible sum of £100,000, despite lacking any gold decoration. Frobisher had found it on the shore of Baffin Island, Canada, attached to a ‘great dead fish’. Here at last is a definitive clue to the kind of creature that could produce such an exquisite and solitary spiral of ivory: not a fish but a mammal, yet neither goat nor horse – it is the narwhal.

A Narwhal swimming in Arctic waters
Narwhals (Monodon monoceros) are medium sized members of the family of toothed whales. They have just two canine teeth, one of which grows out beyond the lip of the male and, less frequently, of the female, creating a spiralled tusk. What seems to be a strange quirk of evolution is only now beginning to be understood. The tusk would appear to be a formidable weapon: a perfect spear, yet it is full of sensitive nerve-endings and any damage would be extremely painful – a nine-foot-long toothache is something to be avoided. Since males have the tusk more often than females, could it be a visual indicator of strength and virility, rather than for use in combat? What is now known is that in the whale family, renowned for their sonar capabilities, narwhals are probably the best and their tusks act as efficient echo-location receivers, which doesn’t explain why fewer females are similarly equipped. Two years ago, a team of scientists in the Canadian Arctic were using drones to film a pod of narwhals and saw them putting their tusks to use in catching prey, tapping codfish on the head to stun them, making them an easy meal.(3) But the narwhal’s tusk remains a bit of a mystery – which is probably fitting for an object so long mythologised.

Detail of a medieval tapestry showing a unicorn
This explains the true origin of unicorn horns but how did biological specimens from the Canadian Arctic appear in Europe centuries before Europeans knew that the American continent existed? Although today, narwhals are found in the icy waters between Greenland and Canada, they were more widespread in the medieval period, from northern Scandinavia, east into the Russian Arctic and west to Iceland, occasionally, being washed as far south as Britain and Denmark. (4) Germans, Danes, Norwegians, Scots and Englishmen all traded with Iceland in the North Atlantic, exchanging grain, salt, honey, copper pots and textiles – things the Icelanders lacked – for dried herring, salted cod, fish-skin leather, shark-skin for use as emery paper and ‘unicorn horns’. Trade was conducted by barter system: so much woollen cloth for so many barrels of herring, since Iceland had no use for coinage. The foreign ships would also take their own supplies of wood and a cooper to make the barrels to hold the fish on the return voyage, because Iceland had so few trees and no wood to spare. On the journey to Iceland, the ship’s hold would be full of goods for sale and flat staves, rather than ready-constructed barrels, took up less cargo space.

In my latest Seb Foxley novel, The Colour of Lies, traders have come to London from across Europe and beyond for the St Bartholomew Fayre, held every August, the largest trade-fair in medieval England. The Bristol merchant, Richard Ameryck, has three unicorn horns for sale and expects to make a hefty profit from their sale. But they are stolen one night and – human nature being what it is – are used as both weapons and medicinal remedies. Can Seb Foxley uncover the culprit and retrieve the priceless unicorn horns, bring the murderer to justice and see that the innocent go free? It seems that unicorns are troublesome creatures and always hard to pin down.


(1) Barber, Richard, Bestiary, [Boydell, 1999], pp.36-37.
(2) Hathaway, Nancy, The Unicorn, [Penguin Books, 1980], p.129].
(3) You can view this video clip at [accessed 23.4.2019]
(4) Lavers, Chris, The Natural History of Unicorns, [Granta, 2010], pp.98-99.
Readers might also be interested in Cherry, John, Mythical Beasts, [British Museum Press, 1995]. This book has a great chapter on Unicorns, pp.44-71 with excellent illustrations.

Connect with Toni

Toni is a history teacher, a writer, and an experienced public speaker - and describes herself as an enthusiastic life-long-learner; she is a member of the Richard III Society Research Committee and a library volunteer, where she leads the creative writing group.

Toni attended Gravesend Grammar School and originally studied chemistry at college. She worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry before stopping work to have her family. Inspired by Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour Toni decided she too wanted to write a Richard III novel, which she did, but back in the 1980s was told there was no market for more historic novels and it remains unpublished.

Having enjoyed history as a child she joined an adult history class and ultimately started teaching classes herself. Her BA (with First-class Honours), her Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing and Diploma in European Humanities are from the Open University. Toni’s Certificate in Education (in Post-Compulsory Education and Training) is from the University of Greenwich. She earned her Masters degree from the University of Kent in 2009 by the study of a medieval medical manuscript at the Wellcome Library.

After submitting an idea for her first book, about the lives of ordinary people in the middle-ages, Everyday Life in Medieval London was published in 2014 by Amberley Publishing – the first print run sold out quickly and it was voted ‘Best history book of the year’ at Christmas 2014 on The Medieval Housewife was published in November 2014 and Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark, the mysteries of medieval medicine (later renamed in paperback as Medieval Medicine its mysteries and science) was first released in May 2015. A Year in The life of Medieval England, a diary of everyday incidents through an entire year, was published in 2016.

Having taught history to adults recruited her to create a range of online history courses for, but she still wanted to write a medieval novel: The Colour of Poison the first Sebastian Foxley murder mystery was the result, published by madeglobal in 2016.

Shortly before publication Tim at madeglobal asked if this was going to be a series – although nothing else was planned, Toni said “yes” and now The Colour of Lies (published in April 2019) is the seventh book in that series.

Toni is married with two grown up children and lives with her husband in Kent, England. When she is not writing, teaching or speaking to history groups - or volunteering - she reads endlessly, with several books on the go at any one time. She is currently working on The Colour of Shadows the next Sebastian Foxley murder mystery and The World of Isaac Newton, her next non-fiction.

Her websites include:

You can follow Toni on social media at:

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

What Elizabeth Learned from Mary

Queen Elizabeth I
Mention the name of Elizabeth I and visions of a glorious queen with red-gold hair immediately come to mind. She shepherds her people and stands firm against the Spanish Armada. Her devotion to her subjects is so complete that she cannot even bring herself to find a spouse. Long after her death, Queen Elizabeth I is adored, almost certainly more so than she was during her lifetime.

In contrast, her older sister, Queen Mary I, is remembered as ‘Bloody Mary’ when she is remembered at all. The sisters shared the auburn hair that they inherited from their father, Henry VIII, but that is not all they had in common. A closer look reveals that Elizabeth learned much about ruling as queen regnant from the example of her sister.

The role modelling that Mary provided for Elizabeth began long before either of them became queen. The girls were often part of the same household when Elizabeth was young, beginning with Mary’s forced servitude in the infant Elizabeth’s household as part of Henry’s striving to emphasize that it was Elizabeth who, at that time, was princess while Mary was a bastard. By the time both girls were brought to court by stepmother Katherine Parr, both were bastardized princesses.

Queen Mary I
Mary’s early roles in Elizabeth’s life would have demonstrated how to be pious and submissive in the face of adversity. Elizabeth would get a different view of what positions a woman could fulfill when her father went to war in France, leaving Katherine as regent with Mary at her side. Katherine Parr was an important person in the lives of these motherless girls. She showed that a woman could order a kingdom just as well as a household, and both girls took note.

Both Katherine and Mary offered Elizabeth examples on the effects that the wrong marriage could have on a woman’s life. If she were not haunted by the fact that her mother had been executed by her father, Elizabeth need look no further than Katherine and Mary for further reasons to remain single. Thomas Seymour, Katherine’s fourth husband, gave Elizabeth an early lesson in flirtation, if not more, and was executed for treason shortly after Katherine’s death in childbirth. Mary’s marriage to Prince Philip caused an uproar of rebellion as the efforts to restore Catholicism became fused with England’s marriage to Spain in the minds of Englishmen.

However, Elizabeth took note of the finer details of Mary’s reign and used them to her advantage when her turn came. While the lack of a husband caused its own problems, not the least of which was the end of her family’s dynasty, Elizabeth had learned from her father’s marital scandals and the repercussions of her sister’s choice that it was safer to remain alone. Elizabeth is famous for stating, “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.” What is not so widely remembered, is that Mary said almost the same thing.

Wyatt's Rebellion
In 1554, with Wyatt’s Rebellion underway, Mary decided to address the people of London and encourage them to rise up in her defense. She said, in part, “What I am loving subjects, ye know your Queen, to whom, at my coronation, ye promised allegiance and obedience, I was then wedded to the realm, and to the laws of the same, the spousal ring whereof I wear here on my finger, and it never has and never shall be left off. . . . I cannot tell how naturally a mother loveth her children, for I never had any, but if the subjects may be loved as a mother doth her child, then assure yourselves that I, your sovereign lady and your Queen, do earnestly love and favour you. I cannot but think you love me in return.”

Elizabeth was a clever woman, better at reading political situations than Mary ever was. She was quick to use language and strategies that had worked for her sister, but also eager to put distance between herself and the memory of the aged, childless queen and learn from Mary’s mistakes.

Hanging, drawing, & quartering
Where Mary had seen herself as the spiritual leader of her people, Elizabeth understood that changing times made Head of the Church of England a difficult title to bear. Mary had believed that it was her duty to reconcile her kingdom to Rome and her people to God, but Elizabeth was careful to keep her faith more private than any previous ruler of England had. She saw, as few monarchs of her day did, that religion was becoming an issue that people were no longer united in. She cleverly executed Catholic priests for treason rather than heresy.

Elizabeth used this difference between herself and her sister to bolster her position. In turn, Mary’s name was blackened. The harsh sobriquet ‘Bloody Mary’ was never applied to the devout queen during her lifetime, but the sister who benefited from her example also found that she appeared more glorious if her predecessor seemed evil in comparison. Instead of receiving credit for demonstrating that a woman could reign, Mary became the enemy whom Elizabeth triumphed over. Yet, Elizabeth would not have been the success that she was without the sister who paved the way for her.

Additional Reading

Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock

The First Queen of England by Linda Porter

The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

This post originally appeared on the blog of author Judith Arnopp in April 2017.