Mary Fox – The Tudor Tweeter

Mary Fox, the legendary Tudor-era heroine of Mary Fox and the Broken Sword, has been tweeting her thoughts over the last few months. I thought it would be interesting to gather them all together into one blog post.

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What price historical accuracy?

supperI recently watched an interesting show on Channel 4 (UK) called Time Crashers, where a group of people were filmed living for a few days as servants in a Tudor manor house. We saw them preparing and serving a banquet, washing clothes, eating and sleeping – all in character and in the costume of the period. The emphasis was on the reality of their situation – so the correct etiquette had to be learned and observed at all times (lots of bowing), as well as the correct methods for preparing foods (sewing half a chicken and a half a pig together) and washing clothes (use urine as a detergent). The programme showed that life for an Elizabethan servant was unremitting hard work and rule-bound – and there is no doubt the people involved were taken well out of their comfort zone.

But what really interested me was the claims made by the programme about the stratification of Elizabethan staff. According to the programme, only male servants were physically allowed in the great hall, and female servants were kept to the kitchen, which was dominated by a male cook. If this is true then it meant that the research I did for my own time-travel story was wrong – I have a female cook and I have women serving food at a banquet (both are integral to the plot).

Now, you might say that my book, The Witchfinder’s Well, is a fantasy anyway, so why should it matter that there may be historical inaccuracies? But I wanted to make the historical setting as realistic as possible – putting my heroine as much out of her comfort zone as the stars of Time Crashers.

Equally, I could challenge the makers of Time Crashers – to say that surely not every great house would have had such rigid stratification, and there must have been exceptions to the rules? I can’t believe that some houses would not have had a female cook? Or had women serving the dishes at a banquet? Who can possibly say that every single great house in the land conformed to the rules?

So I shall rest easy, and continue on the path to publishing The Witchfinder’s Well – in the happy knowledge that the house, cook and servants in my fantasy could just be the exception that proved the rule.

The woman who won over the king

parr-smA couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to see Philippa Gregory give a talk on the subject of Katherine Parr – the 6th, and some might say, the most fortunate, of Henry VIII’s wives. The reason for the talk was the launch of Ms Gregory’s new book about Katherine, called The Taming of the Queen.

I have yet to read the book (I am enjoying a Shardlake mystery from C J Sansom and want to finish it first), so this post is not a critique of the new book, but more a musing on why we have recently ‘discovered’ Katherine Parr and why we find her so interesting.

I say ‘discovered’ because Katherine seems to be popping up in a fair few books right now. Not only is she the sponsor of legal detective Matthew Shardlake in my current book – Heartstone, but I have just finished Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Freemantle, which tells the story of her marriage to Henry. In fact, the premise of that book sounds remarkably similar to the new Philippa Gregory, so it will be interesting to compare how these two authors interpret her story.

And what a remarkable story it was, too. Katherine was a trailblazer of a woman. She was the first English Queen to be published as an author in her own right with her Prayers or Meditations (1545). She was also a very learned scholar and theologian – holding philosophical and religious meetings with such luminaries as the radical theologian Anne Askew and the playwright Nicholas Udall.

But more than anything, she was a survivor. In 1546 Henry lined her up for removal (which almost certainly meant execution) and had prepared her arrest warrant. Learning of the warrant, she feigned sickness in order to avoid being shunned publically by the king. Instead, Henry went to her, allowing her to play the submissive wife, massage his ego, and restore herself in his favour. It was a masterly tactic – and one that Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard would have done well to employ.

So Katherine Parr managed to outlive the erratic and almost certainly insane King Henry. This left her free to marry her true love, Thomas Seymour, and to become the only real mother that Henry’s children Elizabeth and Edward had ever known. The sad outcome of this marriage was her death following childbirth in 1548, aged only 36.

A truly remarkable woman, and I am looking forward to reading Philippa Gregory’s take on her final, turbulent years.