Updated: Apr 7, 2020
Tell us about yourself and what sparked your interest in Medieval Queens?
In a past life I taught English history, covering the whole span of years from medieval to modern. I had no time to write, nor had I any ambition to do so. This came when I stopped teaching and I discovered with time on my hands, that it was medieval history that interested me most and that I wished to write about them. Particularly women. Such amazing characters, but almost hidden in the distant years of history. I started to write, beginning with Anne Neville, wife of King Richard III.
What inspires you to write medieval historical novels?
This is very easy to answer. We know so little about medieval women, even those from royal families. Were there no women of interest to us before the Tudors? Their history was written by men, and so it is always from a man's point of view. The women have become are mere footnotes on the history page. Skeletons without flesh. For the most part we do not know what they are doing or thinking. Did they just sit silently at home and pray, stitch, and run the household, while their menfolk were out and about fighting battles or making treaties? I am sure they did much more than this. I am sure that they had opinions and made them known. When did a woman ever remain silent when she had an opinion? And some of these women led exciting lives. We ought to know more about them. For this reason I decided to write about them to bring them to life for the reader.
Devil's Consort is a personal favourite of mine, & it was actually the first 'historical fiction' book I have read. I have always been fascinated by Eleanor of Aquitaine & her incredible life story, what do you think makes Eleanor such a fascinating subject?
Eleanor is popular because her life-story is quite well fleshed out. She also broke the rules. She had a strong will and was not afraid of exerting it when pursuing her own path, to make her own destiny in a man's world. Sometimes it did not have a happy ending, as when she encouraged her sons to rebel against King Henry II. But it certainly makes for interesting reading.
Your most recent book release is A Tapestry of Treason, about Constance of York. Could you tell our readers more about Constance?
Meet Constance of York, Lady Despenser, and her magnificently dysfunctional family in the reign of King Henry IV. Few families have come down through history with such a questionable reputation. Not averse to swapping allegiances with unnerving frequency, plotting murder and insurrection, they were a deviously cunning bunch, worthy of a soap opera.
Tradition says that Constance equalled her family in ambition and treachery, involving herself in every twist and turn of their conspiracies. History has damned her as a 'thoroughly bad lot'. But was Constance as black as history paints her? Here we peek behind the tapestries and spy into her life more closely. No victim, she chose to live in an man's world and involve herself in her family's quest for power. That is until she fell in love, with all the possibilities of future happiness. Unless Constance threw away her chances of fulfilment. Unless her lover abandoned her.
This is tale of treachery, thwarted ambitions, and betrayed love. It highlights the influence that a woman could use, but also the limits on that influence in the medieval world. Constance is not an easy heroine, but she presents a formidable protagonist in A Tapestry of Treason.
Share with us a little about the process you undertake when researching your novels
First of all I assemble the facts that we know of my heroine in a timeline. Then I place the characters whose lives are part of hers; family, friends, enemies, with whom she interacts.
Decisions have to be made on character and motivation, based on what we know. When these are in place I start to map out the actions, the politics of the day, all the events and drama that will give the novel its depth and place my characters firmly in history.
Then I start writing.
The layers of background, costume, furnishings, come later, once the people are in place and have begun talking to each other. I write in layers, probably four altogether until I get to the final draught.
Have you visited places associated with the characters in your book?
Absolutely! It adds so much to be able to walk in the footsteps of my characters. When I am writing I can then see the buildings, the rooms, the defences, even if I then have to furnish them as they would have been in the time of my novel. Sometimes places have vibes too that make characters come alive.
I am fortunate to live in the Welsh Marches where there is an abundance of castles, churches and battlefield. I cannot visit all of them of course, so guide books and the internet come into their own. It is essential for me to be able to visualise the surroundings of my characters and paint a picture for my readers.
What are some of your favourite historic sites to visit?
The Tower of London of course is a marvellous place to visit for all royal characters. Sadly the Palace of Westminster, where most of the medieval royals lived, was destroyed by fire, as was the old St Pauls Cathedral. Westminster Abbey for its tombs is another 'must visit'. Beyond London I have thoroughly enjoyed Leeds Castle where Queen Joanna was kept prisoner, Kenilworth Castle where Katherine Swynford as mistress to John of Gaunt spent many years, and Ludlow Castle in the Welsh Marches, one of the Mortimer strongholds which appears in Queen of the North.
Who is your favourite medieval Queen and why?
Katherine de Valois, although she is far less assertive than most of the queens and royals that I write about. As a political wife in a loveless marriage with King Henry V to create an Anglo/French alliance, she made little impact on England as Queen. Young and immature, her main role was to bear a royal heir. In what manner could she possibly become an important protagonist in an historical novel? King Henry neglected Katherine, spending most of his life campaigning in France.
Widowed, her life was rigidly bound as King's Mother by the dictates of the Royal Council, but now Katherine was more than the young girl who had come to England with such high hopes. Rebelling against the restrictions, she flouted all convention to wed Owen Tudor, a Welshman of the servant class, by whom she had Tudor sons. And the rest is history …
What book are you currently reading?
In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant. This follows on from Blood and Beauty which I also enjoyed. The novels give depict a turbulent moment of history in the lives of the Borgia family; complicated, brutal, passionate and glorious. I can highly recommend them to readers who enjoy the colour and treachery of Renaissance Italy. Name three books you would recommend?
For atmosphere, accuracy and sheer drama in 16th century Scotland, France and Constantinople - and a superb if enigmatic hero - any of the six Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett. Best to start at the beginning and keep reading. They become compulsive.
Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. The history is magnificent and so is the plotting. A new novel, The Mirror and the Light, is due in March to complete the trilogy of the life of Thomas Cromwell at the Court of King Henry VIII. A final TV serial will make it even better.
The four novels by Ariana Franklin about the medieval pathologist Adelia Aguilar, the first is the Mistress of the Art of Death. For medieval flavour, excitement and great stories - and a little romance - they are written with a light touch and much humour.
What is your favourite historical tv show &/or movie?
This has to be Lion in Winter, which I imagine is the favourite of many lovers of history. And it has to be staring Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn. Their clash of wills as King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is perfect. I love finding out people's thoughts when it comes to scenario's, If you could meet one historical figure from the past who would it be and why?
It would have to be Joan, the Fair Maid, Countess of Kent. What an astonishing life she led for a woman living in the 14th century, even if she was a Plantagenet. She married three times, one of them certainly bigamous, one to a man of much lower status and against her family's wishes. She ended up as the wife of the Black Prince and mother of King Richard II. We know what she did. What we have little clear idea about is her motives in pursuing such a scandalous course of life. I would love to meet her and ask her. Did she ever marry for love? Was ambition the guiding light in her life? Was she ever satisfied? Did she ever regret the scandals she made for herself?
You have a time machine, which event or period in history would you most like to see?
I would undoubtedly visit the Court of King Edward III. What a powerful man he was. A lover of family. A builder of castles. An enthusiast for festivities with masques and entertainments with flamboyant costumes. The creator of the Order of the Garter and holder of tournaments. A soldier who challenged the French and defeated them at Crecy and Poitiers. A perfect wife in Queen Philippa, and a formidable mistress in in Alice Perrers. Altogether a vivid, colourful and exiting time in which to live. I would love to be a medieval fly on the well.
A Tapestry of Treason, now available in hardback and ebook, will be released in paperback in February 2020. It can be pre-ordered now.
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More about the author;
Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. Today she lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels about the forgotten women of history.
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