Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Irresistible Charm of the English Murder by Christina Koning

‘Extraordinary how potent cheap music is,’ says Amanda in Private Lives. The same might be said of fiction – at least of a certain sort of ‘cheap’ fiction, variously known as the thriller, the murder mystery, the detective story, and the whodunnit. To this genre – or rather to a particular sub-genre, disparagingly referred to by aficionados of the grislier sort of crime fiction as ‘cosy’ – I am, I freely confess, addicted. In the past few months, I’ve polished off twenty-eight novels by Ngaio Marsh, fifteen by Dorothy L Sayers, eight by Josephine Tey, forty-four by Agatha Christie, six by Edmund Crispin, five by Margery Allingham, two by Nicholas Blake, and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories. I include these last in the awareness that they were published around forty years before the ‘Golden Age’ of English detective fiction (roughly 1920 – 1940) which encompasses the others, but since none of these later works would have existed without Conan Doyle’s sublime creation, I feel they belong together.
Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget 1908

With his louche, but essentially ‘gentlemanly’, appearance, eccentricities of behaviour (violin-playing, cocaine addiction) and the forensic acuity of his mind, Sherlock Holmes – now enjoying a revival of interest, due to the cult success of a recent television treatment, starring Benedict Cumberbatch – is surely the pattern of the English detective, for the period leading up to and immediately following the First World War. Here he is, making his debut, in A Study in Scarlet:

In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawklike nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of an extraordinary delicacy of touch…

In this mesmerising piece of description can be seen the inspiration for a whole clutch of detectives – from Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey, with his ‘sensitive’ mouth, and eyes whose supposedly ‘foolish’ expression can turn at the drop of a stiletto to lethal sharpness, to Marsh’s tall, ascetic-looking Roderick Alleyn, whose looks are a cross between those of a ‘polite faun’ and a ‘monk’. Tey’s Allan Grant is another aesthete-turned-policeman, with his ‘dapper’ good looks and his fondness for solving historical puzzles (not least that of who really murdered the Princes in the Tower (vide: The Daughter of Time). Christie’s Hercule Poirot, too, though lacking the dashing style of Alleyn, or the aristocratic demeanour of Wimsey, has, when on the case, ‘cat-like’ green eyes, that flash with intellectual fire. Most of these men – and they are (with one notable exception: the redoubtable Miss Marple) all men – conceal their ruthless intelligence beneath a veneer of absent-mindedness or ineffectuality. Crispin’s Oxford-academic-turned-private-eye, Gervase Fen, is a case in point, with his donnish fussiness and predilection for sixteenth century poetry.

Blue-bloodedness is another factor common to several of these characters – apart from the impeccably well-connected Wimsey and Alleyn (both younger sons of lords), there is Allingham’s Albert Campion, who has a title but prefers not to use it. Though born into high society, these gentlemen detectives seem to enjoy fraternising with the demi-monde – not only that of the criminal underworld, but of the theatre (cf Marsh’s Enter a Murderer; Crispin’s The Gilded Fly) the art world (Artists in Crime), and the bohemian world inhabited by the followers of cult religions (Death in Ecstasy). This is just as well, considering that so many of the crimes they are called upon to solve take place in these milieus. Not that there is any shortage of homicidal incident in the ostensibly more respectable walks of life, such as academia (Sayers’s Gaudy Night; Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding) advertising (Murder Must Advertise) and the House of Lords (Clouds of Witness).

Then there’s the question of the women. Because whilst Holmes – apart from a passing fancy for the beautiful but untrustworthy Irene Adler (A Scandal in Bohemia) – is famously wedded to his poisons and his different types of cigar-ash, a number of his fellow detectives seem to have found time not just for the exacting science of criminal investigation, but for love, and indeed, marriage. Given that these are men who spend a great deal of time hanging around police courts, it is perhaps hardly surprising that their inamorata should often be women on trial for their lives. The splendidly arresting beginning of Sayers’s Strong Poison finds Harriet Vane in the dock:

There were crimson roses on the bench; they looked like splashes of blood. The judge was an old man; so old he seemed to have outlived time and change and death. His parrot face and his parrot voice were dry, like his old, heavily veined hands. His scarlet robe clashed harsh with the crimson of the roses…

Harriet is on trial for poisoning her lover, an egotistical poet, and the evidence looks very black against her. Fortunately, Lord Peter Wimsey is in court that day. He falls for Harriet’s ‘eyes, like dark smudges under the heavy square brows’ – and the rest, as they say, is history. Indeed Harriet, a best-selling writer of detective stories, proves a valuable asset when it comes to solving a number of Wimsey’s more intractable cases. That it takes him several books before he convinces her to marry him, only adds to the thrill, with the crime-solving, on occasion, taking second place to the romance. Inevitably, given both the author’s academic background and that of her characters, things come to a head in Oxford:

‘Tell me one thing, Peter. Will it make you desperately unhappy if I say No?’

‘Desperately?… My dear, I will not insult either you or myself with a word like that. I can only tell you that if you will marry me it will give me very great happiness.’

They passed beneath the arch of the bridge and out into the pale light once more.


Ngaio Marsh in 1935 by Henry Herbert Clifford

Roderick Alleyn also goes for the intellectual woman (can it be mere co-incidence that the authors of so many of these celebrated crime novels were themselves intellectual women?). His Agatha Troy is an artist – first encountered on a voyage back to England from the Antipodes – and prickly as hell when Alleyn interrupts her painting. (‘”How long have you been there?” she demanded ungraciously…’) Back in England, it isn’t long before she, too, becomes the prime suspect for murder – although luckily, not as far as Chief Inspector Alleyn is concerned:

‘Do you think for a moment,’ said Troy, in a level voice, ‘that I might have killed this girl?’

‘Not for a moment,’ said Alleyn…

Again, it isn’t until several books – and quite a few murders – later that the independent-minded Troy consents to become Alleyn’s wife, thus consolidating one of the more durable partnerships (Holmes and Watson notwithstanding) in crime fiction.

Then of course there’s the question of murder, and why it should be such an attractive subject for writer and readers alike. It’s not a question to which I can find a ready answer. Because there’s no escaping the fact that, delightfully old-fashioned as these stories might seem, with their titled detectives and their country house settings, and seemingly unassailable hierarchies of class and wealth, they deal with the darker side of human behaviour: fraud, embezzlement, blackmail, sexual jealousy, and murder. One could argue that it isn’t the crime itself that attracts, but the intellectual puzzle involved in unravelling what has led up to it, and that this – the murder – is merely a necessary convention. Murder is, one might say, the mechanism on which the story relies, and is secondary (surely) to the pleasures of detection. Certainly, by the gruesome standards of most contemporary thrillers, which revel in describing ever more sadistic killings, the murder mysteries of the Golden Age seem like pretty tame stuff. Almost cosy, in fact.

And yet one can hardly describe as ‘cosy’ a tale in which a man dies horribly from drinking nitric acid (Artists in Crime), or one in which the murder weapon is a peal of church bells (Nine Tailors), whose combined clamour, experienced at short range, is enough to drive the victim to madness and death. People are routinely stabbed, shot, strangled, bludgeoned, drowned and – on one memorable occasion – brained with a plant pot (Busman’s Honeymoon), but the favourite method of dispatch in these homicidal tales is often poison, with all the possibilities it offers of being slipped into coffee or strong drink, or substituted for the sleeping tablets or heart medicine of the victim.

Plaque in Torre Abbey Photo credit Violetriga Creative Commons

In False Scent, a leading lady dies after spraying herself with her favourite scent, into which a lethal agent has been introduced. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, an autocratic matriarch expires as a result of drinking poisoned cocoa. Sad Cypress, another of Christie’s Poirot novels, begins with the trial of heiress Elinor Carlisle, for the murder of her rival, beautiful Mary Gerrard, whom she has allegedly poisoned with a fish-paste sandwich. Nasty. Very nasty. And yet one finds oneself reading on…

But – dashing detectives aside – what exactly is the appeal of the whodunnit? I suppose it comes down to one thing, really: the pleasure to be had from uncovering the layers of falsehood and half-truth with which the narrative has been overlaid, in order to arrive at the ‘real story’. Of course, readers of any work of fiction are to some extent playing this detective role, in as much as they’re searching out clues, as they read, about the meaning of the text; it’s just that in crime fiction the process is more overt. As George Orwell pointed out in ‘Decline of the English Murder’, nothing is so enthralling to the general public as a murder by a hitherto upstanding citizen, for whom ‘respectability – the desire to gain a secure position in life, or not to forfeit one’s social position through some scandal such as divorce – (is) one of the main reasons for committing murder.’

So perhaps it’s not just the excitement of the chase – of following up clues and unravelling a mystery – that makes detective stories so compelling. It’s their psychological complexity – the fact that they deal with the darker aspects of human nature; its hypocrisies and self-deceptions – which makes us avid to read them. Detectives, in these stories, often fulfil the role of psychiatrists, enabling those burdened with unbearable secrets to reveal them, and those guilty of terrible crimes to confess. There’s an inevitability to the narrative which somehow never seems to undermine the suspense. Even though one knows from the beginning that the murderer will be found and the crime punished, there is always the faintly subversive thought that this time it might not happen, and the forces of darkness will be allowed to triumph…

There are of course quite a few celebrated examples of murder stories in which the killer ‘gets away with it’ (Patricia Highsmith’s beguilingly nasty Mr Ripley series being amongst them), but in general, what one looks for in a good whodunit is for the agent of chaos (the murderer) to be caught, and for the social order to be restored. It’s this that draws one back, time and again, to these tales – ‘cosy’ or otherwise – of mystery and imagination. Bodies in libraries, shots ringing out, faces frozen in dreadful rictuses of terror… it’s just the kind of thing for a long winter evening, in front of the fire, or tucked up under the duvet. Who needs tiresome reality, when you can have Roderick Alleyn raising a quizzical eyebrow, as his sidekick Nigel Bathgate presents him with the latest piece of evidence? Or Jane Marple speculating about murder weapons, over the tea-table? I’m happy to say that my Kindle is currently well-stocked with several dozen pre-war thrillers, to see me through until Christmas.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Sarah Waters - Celia Rees

Last week, I went to see Sarah Waters at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. I was there purely as a punter, a fan, no magic access to the Green Room this time. Just like any other reader, I like to go and see my favourite authors and hear what they have to say about their writing. As a writer, I go to see if there are any tips I can pick up - you never know - and as a sometime performer, I like to see how other authors present themselves on the platform or stage. I've appeared at Cheltenham a few times myself and I like both the town and the Festival. One tiny gripe about the latter. I was there in the evening. Waterstone's Book Tent in full swing. I looked in vain for Children's and Y.A. titles, however. Then I noticed another, smaller tent, shut and darkened. 'The Children's Books are in there,' I was told, as if any fule should know, delivered with a look that seemed to say: why would the Children's Bookshop be open at 7:30 in the Evening? Children will be in bed, for goodness sake

That apart, it was a very rewarding evening. Sarah Waters has a quiet, unassuming way about her which readers warm to immediately but which speaks to me of enormous assurance and confidence. She is not afraid to use self deprecating humour or to admit to problems, confusions, worries and concerns about her books as they are being written. With that, she's won over the writers in the audience (well, me, anyway).  Not that I needed winning over. I've been an avid fan since I first picked up a copy of Tipping the Velvet in 1998. 

I was flying to Belfast and was looking for something to read in W.H. Smith's in Birmingham Airport, which I feared might be a fruitless task, when I saw Tipping the Velvet. I have a passing knowledge of Victorian Underworld slang and was intrigued. I'd never heard of Sarah Waters but the title was enough for me. I started reading on the plane and went on reading when I got to my hotel. I tried to slow down, to make the book last, but just couldn't stop. I recognised immediately that here was a story teller of rare power, writing about a 'hidden' history, exploring a world that seldom appears in period fiction or non fiction.  Better than that, I'd discovered a new writer and I've followed her ever since.

She said at Cheltenham that she makes 'an imaginative leap into [her characters'] perspective', and that the story comes from 'what the characters need to do and how they feel about it.' Her knowledge of her period, the period in which her characters live, is immaculate.  It is built up through intense research, using the writing of people who lived at the time: letters, diaries, novels. This seems a good model for any historical writer. It seems a simple idea. If you are going to write about people living in a particular period then that's where you need to go to find out what they thought and felt, but what they did actually think and feel is often surprising. Our ideas about what it was like to live in wartime or post war Britain, as in The Night Watch, or The Little Stranger, are often coloured by hindsight, filtered through modern pre-perceptions or the distorting glass of memory. Waters' unearths the unexpected, continually confounding lazy, cliched views of the past.

She never allows her research to overburden the text. She uses it to make her period come alive to the modern reader and to give validity to her characters as they move through it. Her extensive reading of contemporary sources imbues her writing with a feeling of the times she is describing, not pastiche, more authenticity, and her plots work with the precision of a swiss watch. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, the subject of her talk at Cheltenham, is just as clever, accomplished and absorbing as the others, a kind of Suspicions of Mr Whicher from the inside out.  

I'm just left thinking, 'How does she do that?'

Celia Rees

Friday, 17 October 2014


A couple of weeks ago, away in Llangollen, I came across an interesting answer to one of those questions that sits in the back of your mind: 

“How exactly did they do that, then?”

I was at Plas Newydd, the home of the famous Ladies of Langollen: Miss Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler. 

The Ladies were a pair of aristocratic women who rejected the expectations of high society in Regency Dublin.  Rejecting the trials of society marriage, or the low status of spinsterhood, the friends eloped together.  Twice. 

The second time, they were successful, although they had to rely on friends as well as family to live.

Inspired by romantic ideals, the Ladies left Ireland, crossed to Anglesey and travelled on rough, unmade roads through Wales.

In 1780, the Ladies settled, “retiring” to a cottage in the beautiful Dee valley

Close by were the picturesque ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey and the hill fort settlement and broken walls of Castell Dinas Bran were visible from the site. 

With Mary Carrell as their formidable housekeeper, the Ladies lived a quiet and cultured life. They decorated their home in the Gothic style, with strange wood carvings broken from old furniture, fragments of old stained glass and the many curiosities brought to them by their many visitors. Later, under General Yorke, the wood carvings were increased and darkened and the place took on its distinctive black and white look.

Plas Newyydd had brought "retirement from society" but not seclusion and the Ladies, with their scandalous and romantic tale, became celebrities. Over the years, visitors included Southey, Shelley, Byron, Caroline Lamb and Wordsworth as well as the Duke of Wellington and many more. The Ladies were involved in local culture and music and the Welsh harpist Jonathan Hughes often played in their drawing room.

Back now to the start. The eighteenth century was still an era of wigs, pomades, hairpieces and hair-powder. This French fashion had been popularised by Charles II back in the seventeenth century, when “big hair” was linked to the display of health and wealth, to the comfort of hair easily de-loused and to concealing the ravages of hair loss and diseases. Men were the main wig-wearers, but women included a variety of hair pieces as part of “natural” hair-styles.

Hair-powders, coloured or white, helped with these fashions. The powders absorbed natural oils at a time when hair was not frequently washed as well as the grease of pomades, the styling gels of the period. 

Such powder, made of some form of starch, was applied with bellows and brushes by a maid or servant, and was useful for blending both false and natural hair together.  

The gentle-person's garments needed to be protected by arrangements of capes or coverings. Plas Newyydd offers what may be a more ingenious everyday idea. The Guest Bedroom still has a true “powder room”. It is a small walk-in cupboard off the bedroom, a place where one could attend to one’s personal toilette.   

The wooden door has a large round hole cut into it. Although this could just be for daylight, the current National Trust Visitors Notes suggest that the servant stood inside, with the bowl of powder at the ready. 

The gentleman or lady, remaining in the bedroom, stuck their head of hairs, various, through the hole and were duly be-powdered, thus protecting their garments - and the room - from an untidy scattering of dust. I do not know if this “invention” was common at the time -  or even if this is just historic supposition – but what a simple and practical device it appears. And what a fascinating scene that would be to write! 


The picture of the elderly Ladies above shows them in rural hunting dress. Other portraits show the pair with fairly short hair, cut in the style of their youth, but probably still lightly powdered.

"Powder” however, was already disappearing. With revolution in France and riots and unrest in Britain, society people were less eager to display grand hairstyles. William Pitt’s 1795 Duty on Hair Powder Act, raised to fund the war against the French, finally killed off such powder rooms, except for the coy use of the term in occasional modern hotels.

Penny Dolan
Author of A BOY CALLED M.O.U.S.E  (Bloomsbury)

Thursday, 16 October 2014

The Alhambra: by Sue Purkiss

Last month I wrote about our trip to the Alpujarra, in southern Spain. You can read about it here. The Alpujarra is a region of the Sierra Nevada, and by the nature of mountainous regions, it's not easy to get to or get out of. Places that look close on a map are not in reality. But there was one place we all agreed we must go to: the Alhambra in Granada.

The Alhambra is a supremely beautiful mediaeval Arab palace; yet, ironically, it was founded (in the 13th century) as the power of the Moors was declining. It is set on a hill above the city, and although the landscape around it is sandy and arid, the citadel itself is surrounded by woods and gardens; you are never far from a fountain. The gardens are irrigated by water from the Sierra Nevada, carried by a series of cunningly contrived channels: in my previous post, I wrote about how cleverly the meltwater from the mountains is conserved and distributed, and that the foundation of the system was laid by the Moors, and perhaps even before them by the Romans.

We were only able to be there for a few hours. It wasn't nearly long enough to take in all that there was to see, and I hope one day I'll go back. The Nasrid Palace, which is the jewel in the crown of the Alhambra, is a curious combination of simplicity and extreme complexity: the rooms have no furniture, so there is nothing to stop one's gaze being drawn to the meticulous, intricate, exuberant patterning on every surface.

I know really nothing about the origins of the patterns, the history of the decoration. So I'm just going to put up some pictures, so that you can take a virtual tour, and think, not only about the long-ago kings who commanded the building of the palace, but about all the craftsmen who must have laboured so long and with such care to create it.

The Ambassadors' Hall

The Court of the Myrtles

Orange trees!

The Lions' Court

A view over Granada from the Alhambra

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Childhood in the Past by Marie-Louise Jensen

A few things have made me reflect on the concept of childhood in the last few days, so I thought I'd muse a little here.

I'm aware that childhood in its present form in Western industrialised society is a modern construct. The idea that childhood should be protected, a time for learning and development is recent. And sadly it's not the case for many children world-wide.
In the past, of course, even in Europe, things were very different. Take the age of 15. Thinking specifically of girls, in many eras in the past they would be married or at least thinking of marriage if they were well off. If they were poor they would have been working for years.

When I wrote Daughter of Fire and Ice, my first Viking novel, I discovered that many girls of standing were married off very young indeed. Some were so young, it was considered normal that they took their toys with them to their new home. I found that rather heartbreaking. Although I didn't use that particular information in the book, it helped shape my understanding of how my 15-year-old protagonist would have seen life.

It's especially interesting given that wives of householders in the Viking age were in charge of the store cupboard. They decided how much food could be taken for household use and when and held the key. This was an incredibly responsible job in a world without shops or regular markets - if you misjudged, the whole household could starve before spring; something that does nearly happen in my story.

Wives were also left in charge of the farmstead when the husband was away trading or raiding - sometimes for a season, sometimes for years. What a responsibility for a young wife.

Throughout the ages girls have shouldered responsibilities very young; managing long working hours, providing competent labour, running households, caring for children. In war years, women and girls stepped up and did men's work while they were away fighting. Particularly on the land, girls would often do a full day's heavy work from a very young age.
This is perhaps one of the things that makes teen historical fiction so very different from the other genres. In the past, only the very wealthy would have been able to indulge in the kind of stroppy, sassy, self-indulgent behaviour that is portrayed in some contemporary teen fiction.

When a historical novelist writes about the girl of the same age, the weight of adulthood is already resting firmly on her shoulders in the way that perhaps only child-carers face in contemporary Europe. It's a very different proposition to write about such girls and make it possible for today's teens to relate to their place in the world, their concerns and their ambitions. But so important, I feel, for today's girls to be aware of how much things have changed.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Bodleian Ballads Online Catherine Johnson

This post really is just a puff for the wonderful Bodleian Broadside Ballad collection. My site of the month. It's here, go on waste all morning. There's stuff here from the sixteenth century to the twentieth.

Bodleian Library Creative Commons.

There's something about old Broadside Ballads. A sort of hard wiring into street culture of the past. Although it is hard to imagine some kind of future me imagining I could glean any kind of knowledge from  'You're insecure, don't know what for'
Actually having written that snippet from the ouevre of modern big haired popstrels One Direction I think it says quite a lot about teenage girls in the early 21st Century.
Bodleian Library Creative Commons

Anyway. I had to squeeze out a story fairly quickly last month, and when you're in the middle of a million other things finding a clean and empty space inside your head can sometimes prove hard.

I started faffing and wrote ten beginnings ranging from useless to 'ok but what the hell is this about then?' Then I remembered the lovely Bodleian Library Ballad collection, the place that gave me the title of the Mary Seacole story I wrote for  Daughters of Time.

There are so many wonderful story nuggets gleaned from just looking at the pictures - from just looking at the printers addresses.

From the Bodleian Library Creative Commons

The Bodleian is a fantastic resource. If you have a spare hour (or two or three). There are songs about everything and some marvellous illustrations.

But I was in a hurry. And I couldn't find a tune I knew the name of but was there at the back of my head. Thank heavens for Wikepedia. I thought I found it in the The Child's Ballads. A collection of English and Scottish folk songs. But I had misremembered the ballad of the Nut Brown Maid was about women, but not exactly what I needed.

However noodling around the Child Ballads I found one with a lovely and intriguing title  - The Wife Wrapt in a Wether's Skin - a wether is a sheep and I recognised some of the lines she wouldna wash, she wouldna spin.  From a song from my childhood The Wee Cooper From Fife.

 However the song original ballad is one of domestic abuse, a 'how to'  beat your wife. It's about a working man who marries a high born woman  who won't lower herself to do any work. He threatens her, she says if you mark me my family will know. So he wraps her in a sheep skin and blithely beats her happy in the knowledge no one will know.

She soon knuckles down. It sort of ruined the White Heather Club for me.

But it does sort of bring us back to modern pop songs. How many of them, while not actually advocating physical abuse (let's forget He Hit Me and It Felt Like a Kiss by The Crystals) do make romantic love seem like something close to masochism.

Just say Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo.

Catherine's latest book is Sawbones, a murder mystery set in 18th century London, it won the 2014 Young Quills award for historical fiction.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Being Heard: From Pamphleteers to Twitter Trolls – Elizabeth Fremantle

Twitter Trolls are a twenty-first century phenomenon and one that exposes the darkness that lurks beneath the surface of society. I am always shocked to hear of the venomous attacks launched on people who find themselves in the public eye by those hidden behind the veil of anonymity that social media offers. Such practices have once more come to light with the recent news of Brenda Leyland's presumed suicide in the wake of allegations that she was behind a Twitter smear campaign against the McCanns, a couple who have not only suffered the loss of their daughter but also had to bear a tirade of abuse and accusation, mostly based on poor reporting and misinformation. It seems people are determined to have their say, no matter what the cost.

But though the platforms that allow such anonymous personal outpourings are a recent innovation, the desire to have one's opinions heard, however unpalatable or inaccurate, is nothing new and can be traced back to the rise of the pamphlet in the sixteenth century. Pamphlets originated in the wake of the invention of the printing press, with the Reformation, and were used to spread the new religious ideas that were taking hold across northern Europe. But before long pamphleteers, who were often anonymous or hidden behind pseudonyms, were spreading scandal as much as politics and religion; and the pamphlets themselves were much like today's social media in that they were ephemeral and not designed to endure.

The heroine of my novel Queen's Gambit, Katherine Parr, widow of Henry VIII, fell foul of the scurrilous pamphleteers when she married her fourth husband Thomas Seymour with what was considered indecent haste in the wake of Henry's death. The scandal mongers had a field-day, loudly citing her hasty marriage as evidence of her wantonness and the insatiable nature of womankind. London's watering holes reverberated with lewd jokes about the Dowager Queen and her untrammelled sexual desire, so much so that Seymour tried to suppress the crude tirade with an act of parliament.

By the middle of Elizabeth I's reign pamphlets had superseded ballads as a means of imparting news and scandal to the public and were increasingly used in attempts to topple unpopular powerful figures such as the Queen's favourite The Earl of Leicester. A long pamphlet titled Leicester's Commonwealth was published with the sub-heading: 'Conceived, spoken and published with most earnest protestation of dutiful good-will and affection towards the realm.' It was actually a character assassination of the earl and filled with accusations of all kinds of wicked behaviour directed at him, suggesting that he was behind the murder of his first wife Amy Robsart, a scandal I write about in my novel Sisters of Treason, and also that he had a hand in the death of Lettice Knollys first husband, to pave the way for his own marriage to Lettice. 'No man's wife' the anonymous author stated, 'can be free from him, whom his fiery lust he liketh to abuse.' The Queen, however, was unswayed by the pamphleteer's scurrilous accusations and Leicester remained her favourite until his death.

Find out more about Elizabeth Fremantle and her Tudor novels on 


Pamphlets and Pamphleteers in Early Modern England – Joad Raymond

Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr – Linda Porter