Saturday, October 15, 2016

The Mysteries of Whitby Abbey

I have a passion for abbey ruins. Part of the reason is that I wrote a thriller trilogy set during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and through my research I've discovered fascinating things about the world inhabited by my protagonist, a Dominican novice, in Dartford. But every ruin has a story to tell, and few are as enthralling as Whitby, in north Yorkshire.

THE FOUNDING: The first religious establishment on the site sprang up during Christianity's infancy in Britain. The founding abbess was Hilda (or Hild), a princess born in 614. She was the great-niece of King Edwin of Northumbria. After her father was poisoned in a court plot, she was brought up in the royal family, baptized by Paulinus, a  Roman missionary.

Inspired by her sister, who became a nun, Hilda chose a religious life and became an abbess. When she was about 40, Hilda became the abbess at Streoneshalh, named after a Roman tower (later known as Whitby). She created a double monastery of Celtic monks and nuns, who studied the scriptures and performed good works. Her wisdom was so respected that the first synod of 664 was held there.

St Hilda
It is said that given a choice between Celtic religious laws and those of Rome, the majority voted for Rome at the synod. The Celtic influence--and the female leadership--faded at Whitby and at other monasteries in the early medieval age.

Hilda died on November 17, 680. She was made a saint and her relics were transferred to Glastonbury by a king.

For centuries, visitors have sworn that they see Hilda when they visit the abbey. Lionel Charlton, in his 1779 History of Whitby, writes:
"At a particular time of the year, in the summer months, at ten or eleven in the forenoon, the sunbeams fall in the inside of the northern part of the choir; and 'tis then that the spectators who stand on the west side of Whitby churchyard, so as just to see the most northerly part of the abbey, imagine that they perceive in one of the highest windows there the resemblance of a woman, arrayed in a shroud. Though we are certain that it is only a reflection caused by the splendor of the sun's beams, yet it is commonly believed to be an appearance of Lady Hilda, in her shroud."
More happily it is said that when sea birds fly by the abbey, they dip their wings in honor of St. Hilda.

THE ORDER:  Hilda's monastery did not last--Viking raids in the late 9th century wiped out the monks and destroyed the structure. For 200 years the place by the sea was desolate.

A soldier serving William the Conqueror named Reinfrid became a monk and discovered the crumbling monastery. William de Percy, the first of the illustrious Northern noble family, gave Reinfrid the land and enough money to create a Benedictine order of monks.

This house of monks thrived for almost 500 years. This was when the large buildings, church and cloister and library and so forth, were raised, the ruins of which can be seen today.

That way of life came to an end when Henry VIII broke with Rome and destroyed the monasteries. Whitby was surrendered to the will of the king by its abbott on December 14th, 1539, one of the last of the large abbeys to fall. Stripped of its valuables and abandoned, its annual value was estimated in the Valor Ecclesiasticus at £437 2s. 9d.

Sir Walter Scott in one of his early epic poems, Marmion, tells a romantic story that lends a lingering eeriness to Whitby. With more than his usual looseness with the facts, Scott conflated St. Hilda and the Benedictine monastery with the Celtic-tinged magic of the Isle of Lindisfarne, in a plot that is ostensibly about the battle of Flodden in 1513 but actually revolves around a lustful English lord.

Lord Marmion has a secret mistress at the "Abbey of St. Hilda", a "dishonest" nun named Constance living at "high Whitby's cloistered pile." After her lover abandons her, for her "broken vows" and "sordid soul," Constance is walled alive at the abbey:
"Yet well the luckless wretch might shriek, well might her paleness terror speak! For there were seen, in that dark wall, Two niches, narrow, deep, and tall; Who enters at such grisly door shall ne'er, I ween, find exit more...Two haggard monks stood motionless; Who, in holding high a blazing torch, Showed the grim entrance of the porch: Reflecting back the smoky beam, The dark-red walls and arches gleam. Hewn stones and cement were displayed, And building tools in order laid."
An illustration from Marmion
Grim indeed.

But Whitby was to find its greatest fame nearly a century later.

An Irish author and theatrical manager named Bram Stoker decided to set part of his 1897 novel, Dracula, in Whitby. Stoker, who had spent several holidays at the coastal town of Whitby, makes vivid atmospheric use of the abbey ruins, the churchyard, the many steps leading up to it as well as the train station and lighthouses.
Bram Stoker 

In a key section of the book, the Demeter, a ship that had set sail from the Bulgarian port of Varna, drifted into the harbor of Whitby after a ferocious storm. "A strange schooner" it was, wrote Mina in her journal, "and lashed to the helm was a corpse, with a drooping head which swung horribly to and from with each motion of the ship. No other form could be seen on deck at all." No other crew were found in the boat, just its cargo: "a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould."

The next day, Mina writes:
"Early this morning a large dog, a half-bred mastiff belonging to a coal merchant close to Tate Hill Pier, was found dead in the roadway opposite its master's yard. It had been fighting and manifestly had had a savage opponent, for its throat was torn away, and its belly was slit open as if with a savage claw." 

Of course, that was only the beginning...

THE PRESERVATION: During World War I, the abbey was damaged again. This time it was two German battlecruisers aiming for a signal post. They blasted away at the abbey for 10 minutes.

Whitby is now in the care of English Heritage, available for visits most of the year. To learn more, go here.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of Tudor suspense novels, on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Russia and the Netherlands. The last book in the trilogy, The Tapestry, was the runner-up for the Daphne du Maurier Award 2016 for Best Historical Romantic Suspense.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Gloria Vanderbilt: Writing About a Society Scandal

I'm excited to share that I will be writing for Town and Country, a wonderful magazine with a long, rich history. My focus will be Society Scandals of the past. I launched this with a story on the Gloria Vanderbilt custody case, which began on Oct. 1, 1934..

Inside the Custody Battle for 10-Year-Old Gloria Vanderbilt

The gray Rolls Royce eased to a stop at the curb of 60 Centre Street in downtown Manhattan. Out stepped Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, thin and unsmiling. Dressed in a fox fur, hat, and gloves, the 59-year-old founder of the Whitney Museum, accompanied by her lawyer Frank Crocker, silently headed up the 32 steps leading to the Corinthian-columned Supreme Court of the State of New York. Every inch of the way, she was swarmed by nearly 100 jostling newspaper reporters and photographers.

October 1, 1934: the opening court date of The Matter of Vanderbilt. A family dispute over who should have guardianship of a shy and sickly 10-year-old heiress, Gloria Vanderbilt, had escalated into a “trial of the century,” complete with media circus. The opposing parties were two sisters-in-law: Gertrude Whitney and the child’s 29-year-old mother, also named Gloria. The next six weeks would treat reporters to charges of maternal neglect, greed, and “immorality” that ranged from drinking cocktails till dawn to leafing through a book of pornography with a prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg while wearing silk pajamas.  And then there was the kissing and cuddling with female friends.

The Vanderbilt case was a pop-up into the lives of the ultra-rich for Depression-stricken America. Of all the principals involved in a “trial of the century —and there have been, truth be told, a string of them—no one was more horrified by the accompanying publicity than the deeply private Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Her life was the 1934 equivalent of clickbait. ...

For the rest, go here

Monday, September 26, 2016

Interview With Historian & Novelist Dominic Selwood

By Nancy Bilyeau

I discovered Dominic Selwood's writing on twitter when I saw a link to a story he wrote for The Telegraph headlined "
How the Tudor Spin Machine Hid the Brutal Truth About the Reformation." How refreshing to read fearless, well-argued insights into what actually took place in the 16th century! Dominic, a historian, novelist and lawyer, has written similarly fascinating essays about controversies from history, ranging from the ancient world to the 20th century. They've been gathered in the new book Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers: The History You Weren't Taught in School.  

I read the entire book, enthralled, and put these questions to Dominic:

When it comes to these categories, spies, sorcerers and sadists, which is the most fun when it comes to research--digging up the unknown story?

I am intrigued by all of them, but my favourite is definitely sorcerers! Whether it’s the Knights Templar, the Malleus Maleficarum, the early-modern witch craze, the Word War Two witch trials in London, remnants of pagan religions in our modern world, or any of the other stories in this category, I am fascinated by exploring magical beliefs and seeing how they tap into universal ways of thinking. Our digital world has not stopped people being captivated by the Harry Potter stories, celebrating Halloween, or remaining anxious about that thump in the middle of the night. As a historian, I never get tired of finding out about attitudes and responses over the centuries to magic and the supernatural. And that’s probably also why I write ghost stories, too!

Why AREN'T most of these stories told in school?

Sometimes there is straightforward manipulation of what is taught – like in Nazi Germany or Communist China – but I’m not really talking about that here. What I’m looking at is something that affects everyone. Take the history of World War Two. Schools in the USA, the UK, Germany, Russia, and Japan all teach it – but they don’t tell the same stories. It’s no surprise, really, because the task of teaching history has always been selective. In many ways that’s a good thing. Not everything is relevant for everyone. But selectivity brings problems about what should be left out, and the danger is that we end up retelling the version of history that suits us best. For example, take the following three statements. (1) Winston Churchill could be stubborn, and at times made disastrous military decisions that needlessly cost many thousands of lives. (2) Sir Isaac Newton was an early scientist, but he also spent a great deal of time on alchemy and what we would call ‘magic’. (3) President Andrew Jackson called American Indians ‘savage dogs’ and boasted that he kept trophy scalps of those he killed. Now. There will be people who feel upset or angry at one or more of these statements. Maybe they just flat out disagree. Or perhaps they justify it with a, “Yes, that’s true, but … .” However, regardless of our emotional response, all three statements are provable from original documents. Given that history is selective, and these statements are not what people want to hear, eventually, over time, they stop just being taught. 

So, to answer your question, I think a lot of history is not taught in school because it doesn’t agree with the clear-cut image we have of a person or an event, and it’s simpler to ignore complexity and present events as black and white, especially when its suits our traditional cultural view of things. I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious process by schools or teachers. It’s inevitable really. But it does make room for a book like Spies, Sadists, and Sorcerers to dig out some of the stories that might surprise us the most.

You often occupy a revisionist school of thought or at least a contrary perspective. When do you first remember realizing that you are an independent thinker on matters of history?

When I was at junior school, my history teacher was a World War Two fanatic. He had been an RAF instructor in the war, and had dozens of World War Two model aircraft hanging from his ceiling. In lessons he told us endless stories of the larger than life people involved in the amazing dramas of World War Two. I loved it. But when I moved to senior school, history quickly became a subject I loathed. The first book I was told to read was about an eighteenth-century Austrian diplomat called von Metternich. The book set out with elaborate tedium his successes and failures in backroom negotiations. I mean, seriously? How many 13-year-olds are going to care one way or the other whether some Austrian prince brokered a détente with some other country or joined the War of the Sixth Coalition? I tuned out completely. I ended up training as a lawyer. I only became a historian later, when I became fascinated by the Knights Templar, and was lucky enough to get to research them for a doctorate. But by then I was able to decide what interested me – and it comes down to two things. I want to learn about amazing people and their stories. And I want to learn about things that I can share with people and they’ll say. “I just did not know that.” Both of these come through in Spies, Sadists, and Sorcerers, because almost every chapter is told through the eyes of someone, which lets me go into the extraordinary things they did in a personal way. Looking back, I thank the history teacher who tried to get me to read about von Metternich’s diplomacy. One day I might really get into 18th century Austrian politics. But until then, whenever I write something, in my head I compare it to that von Metternich book. If I find I am straying into that kind of territory, the pages go straight into the bin.

In your thriller, The Sword of Moses, which I really enjoyed, you have elements taken from history: holy relics, the Knights Templar, and other mysteries. Did you know most of this history before you plotted the novel, or did you learn some of it while specifically researching your thriller?

Fortunately, a bit of both! Some of the subjects have fascinated me for years, and I’ve studied them a lot. For example, I’ve been reading and thinking about the Knights Templar for 20 years, so I didn’t really have to do much research about them. Other things did need work, though. For instance, I grew up listening to a lot of 1980s heavy metal music and watching horror films. So I had some sense of where I wanted to go with the black magic angle to the story, but I did need to put in quite a lot of time reading about it all. However, I find that the research is often just as much fun as the writing, and it’s great to have an excuse to go off and become really immersed in all sorts of really oddball subjects!

You are the first person I've come across to say that the Knights Templar, while horrifically wiped out because of a plot by the French king, were in fact up to something very bizarre and possibly heretical. How did you discover this, and is there any hope of someday learning the truth?

This is such a great question – and it comes back to what we were saying earlier. History moves in great waves of consensus. For the last fifty years every serious historian has said that the Templars were completely innocent, and were sacrificed on the pyre of the king of France’s greed (he wanted their money) and ambition (he wanted to take the pope down a peg or two). That’s all true, and I agree with it. But the king of France did it intelligently. He heard that the Templars had a curious moment in their initiation ceremonies in which the new knight was asked to spit or urinate on a crucifix. We still don’t really know why they did this. One theory is that it was part of a psychological test to see how the knights would react if captured and asked to renounce their faith. Anyway. The king of France was canny enough to use this ceremony to whip up a hysteria that would allow him to invent all sorts of other things that people would then be more likely to believe. So, the Templars were innocent of most of what the king of France accused them of. But they were not innocent of it all. I think you’re right to ask, ‘when will we know the truth?’ One thing that keeps me very excited about research is that every year something new and amazing crops up. For instance, moving forward to World War Two, who would have thought that this year archivists would find more of Himmler’s diaries? It’s in the nature of archives, really. Things get misfiled or misplaced, and then some lucky researcher stumbles across something fascinating and unexpected. So I’m sure that we will learn more about the Templars. Their story has not been fully unearthed yet!

You've done substantial academic research into the Crusades. Do you think the Crusaders are getting hopelessly caught up in political correctness?

The human brain has remained largely unchanged since homo sapiens began to walk the earth about 200,000 years ago. But what has changed many times – and will continue to change – is how different groups of humans see the world. For example, in medieval times, it was possible for children under the age of 10 to marry. These days that would be abhorrent. As a historian, it’s really easy to assume that people in a previous age saw things the same way we do – especially if it’s something that we now think is fundamental. We may forget that people did not always think a certain way. The Crusades are a great example. Nowadays some will say that that the Crusades were an unforgivable barbarian invasion by bloodthirsty and bigoted religion-crazed Europeans. Others will say they were a noble response by European chivalry to counter centuries of Islamic aggression in the Mediterranean. I don’t really have much sympathy with either of these views, as they’re both loaded with modern value judgements. The Crusades can only be understood in medieval terms. So, yes, I do get frustrated when political correctness stops us peeling back the centuries and understanding a historical event on its own terms.

I was shocked to read in this book that you believe that it was NOT Richard III they dug up in Leicester. Are these doubts widely shared, and who do you think they are re-burying?

I know it sounds sort of barmy to say it, but there is actually a definite debate about whose bones they are! Ultimately, it all comes down to the question: how certain do we want to be? The team in charge of the reburying said that they were 99.999% certain the skeleton was Richard. I have to say that I struggle with that statement. On the one hand, the skeleton’s female line DNA is the correct group for Richard. That looks promising. But there are several serious problems. (1) Richard died in 1485, but the carbon dating on the skeleton gave dates of 1412–1449 and 1430–1460. (2) The skeleton’s male line DNA shows the wrong group for Richard. (3) The skeleton’s DNA is for blond hair and blue eyes, whereas Richard is thought to have had black hair and brown eyes. (4) There is no evidence from Richard’s lifetime of a deformed spine. So, being blunt, the only really solid connection with Richard is the female DNA group. However, this type of DNA – called mitochondrial DNA – is passed from a mother to her daughters and sons (and then passed on by her daughters to her daughters and sons, etc.), so it is a huge pool that runs down the ages. 

If you’ll allow me to be a lawyer for a moment, in England the courts use two different thresholds to prove something. In most cases something needs to be proved ‘on the balance of probabilities’. In other words, is it more likely than not, i.e., 51% to 49%. On that test, I’d say the skeleton probably is Richard’s. Some of the problems could be explainable. For example, the male line DNA might be wrong because of an infidelity somewhere in the Plantagenet line. However, there’s a higher test that’s used in criminal cases, when something has to be proved ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. There’s no official percentage number to go with it, but it’s somewhere in the high 90s. On that basis I wouldn’t be confident saying the skeleton was Richard’s. And I absolutely cannot agree with the 99.999% certainty figure. There are too many ifs, maybes, and unanswered questions. The fifteenth-century Plantagenet nobility was drawn from a very intermarried pool. It’s entirely possible that the bones belong to someone else. And, no, I am not alone in this view. Fortunately a number of other people said the same thing at the time!

I discovered your writing when on twitter I came across a link to the article "How the Tudor Spin Machine Hid the Brutal Truth About the Reformation," included in your book. I felt so happy to discover I wasn't alone! Do you think other people are beginning to doubt the "official" story of the dawn of the Reformation?

Many people have contacted me about this piece. Lots of them were quite angry, which did not surprise me. We were talking at the beginning about how people get used to a certain comfortable version of history. Well, in Britain, we’ve all grown up with a very strong image of the Tudors. We were taught that the Tudors made us great. King Henry VIII was ‘Bluff King Hal’ and Queen Elizabeth I was ‘Gloriana’. We are bombarded with affirmations of the idea that their religious reforms were popular and freed England from a moribund and superstitious religion. We are taught that the vision of the Tudors enabled us to become a free trading nation that would go on to found a mighty empire and spearhead the industrial revolution. The problem is that this sort of patriotic history is far too simplistic. In reality the Tudors had to bulldoze through their reforms against the entrenched wishes of the English people. The process was a sustained, brutal, and violent act of state terror that took three monarchs and half a century. There was real opposition, and they had to wipe it out with violence. But – of course – no one wants to hear that. 

Yet the facts are there for anyone who reads the original documents. The Tudor regime was totalitarian. They crushed dissent. Opponents were beheaded, burned, and hung-drawn-and-quartered. But to get back to your question, I was delighted that a lot of other responses I got were from people who were really interested to learn the other side of the story. So, yes. I think there’s a growing awareness of the untold side of the Tudors. Academics are now working really hard in this area, and their new research on the widespread English resistance to the Tudor’s religious reforms is becoming more widely known. I am sure the story taught in schools will gradually change over the next 50 years.

I did see some public push-back to the anti-Catholicism in Wolf Hall. Is this a beginning?

Wolf Hall has got new audiences talking and thinking about the Tudors, which is excellent! The Tudors were an immensely important dynasty in European history, and such a lot changed during their reign. Really, it’s hard to understand modern Europe without an appreciation of the huge impact of the decisions they made. However, I think it’s a real shame that the story in Wolf Hall is so historically inaccurate. The author took real people from the court of King Henry VIII and invented make-believe personalities for them. The overall effect is historical nonsense, and purposefully perpetuates myths that many academics are working hard to explode. But you’re right. There’s been a lot of criticism of Wolf Hall’s blatant falsification of history. This was especially true when the television version came out, as it took the story to an even wider audience. Now that we all learn so much history from the television, something like Wolf Hall makes me want to try even harder to tell the other side. What happened in the Tudor period is too important for it to be misunderstood.

While many of the chapters in your book provoked an emotional response, it was the story of Fritz Haber that actually gave me nightmares. How did you discover this ghastly German scientist?

I was actually surfing around the Nobel prize website, and I saw the entry for him. I had vaguely heard of the Haber-Bosch process, so I had a look. The website explains what an amazing chemist he was, and how the Haber-Bosch process completely revolutionized twentieth-century agriculture to feed the world. Then I saw that it said, ‘he was appointed a consultant to the German War Office and organised gas attacks’. That struck me as a bit odd for someone awarded a Nobel prize for his services to humanity. So I went and read about him, and was absolutely horrified. He pretty much invented chemical warfare in World War One. He went to the front to supervise the gas attacks himself, and seemed totally unmoved by the suicide of his wife (also a chemist) in protest at his work. Yet he obsessively continued. His son later committed suicide in shame. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1918, many people stayed away from the ceremony in protest. Years later, he lost his job in Nazi Germany under the anti-Jewish laws, but not before he had invented Zyklon B, which was the chemical used by the Nazis in the gas chambers, where some of his own relatives were murdered.

 Like you, I find his story really shocking. Although the story in the book that upset me the most is the one about Noor Khan, the gentle children’s book writer who volunteered to help the French resistance, but who was betrayed the day before she was due to fly out of France to safety, and ended up being murdered in the Dachau Concentration Camp. Her story is not so much about correcting history that has been distorted, but more about telling the amazing and tragic story of a real-life hero that people have probably never heard of. 
I was really delighted to find when researching her that there is now a statue to her in a park in London.

Dominic's novels are page-turners that pull in fascinating facts from history. His new thriller, The Apocalypse Fire, comes out in October. To find out about Dominic's fiction and nonfiction, go to his website.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

An Event at the College of St Elizabeth

On Wednesday I was the guest of honor at a lunch held for the College of St. Elizabeth, a small, private liberal arts school in Morristown. The alumni met at Shadowbrook, a lovely historic building not too far from the Atlantic Ocean. I was invited by alumni Patricia King, who writes wonderful historical mysteries under the pen name Annamaria Alfieri.

With the roses given by the college, and my friend Patricia King.

I enjoyed the Q&A the most. It's always so interesting to learn what people are curious about. My opinion on Henry VIII's Reformation, how I consulted with a Dominican nun in fact checking my books, and whether I feel "Wolf Hall" is fair--those were the topics of discussion.

The warm and friendly alumni

And I was very pleased and grateful to see the books selling briskly at the table staffed by BookTowne, an independant shop in Manasquan. The Crown sold out! :)

My books on sale!

Friday, August 5, 2016

Five Myths About the Man Who Died With Cromwell

by Nancy Bilyeau

The fall of Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell was swift, deeply cynical and brutal to the point of savagery. And yet the worst part of it may have been that Cromwell saw it coming--and could not save himself.

Months before his arrest, Cromwell gathered his many servants and told them "what a slippery state he stood and required them to look diligently and circumspectly into their order and actions, lest, through their default, any occasion might arise against them."

Thomas Cromwell

Just as the nobility hated Cromwell's humbly born patron, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, they loathed and envied the self-made man whom the king relied on through the 1530s, the man who had risen from blacksmith's son and mercenary soldier to Lord Privy Seal and Earl of Essex. Joining nobles such as Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, in their hatred of Cromwell were the religious conservatives, led by Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Wolsey fell because he could not extricate Henry VIII from his marriage to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. And once it became clear that the King wanted out of his marriage to fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, and Cromwell was not hastening to do so, the pack of enemies smelled blood.

Cromwell was arrested on June 10, 1540, in a way meant to cause as much humiliation as possible. The Duke of Norfolk ripped the Order of St. George from around Cromwell's neck while the Earl of Southampton tore the Order of the Garter insignia from his gown. "Traitors must not wear the garter," shouted Norfolk. Cromwell was then hustled directly to the Tower of London; within two hours, the treasurer of the royal household had emptied Cromwell's house of valuables while others ransacked his papers.

There was no trial. Cromwell was condemned of treason and "abominable heresies" and executed on July 28, 1540.

An execution on Tower Hill in the 1550s

But Cromwell did not die alone.

Following Thomas Cromwell to the scaffold erected on Tower Hill (not Tyburn, as some historians have written) was Sir Walter Hungerford. The decision to behead two men that day was unusual, though not unprecedented. Two noblemen that Cromwell had targeted for destruction--Henry Pole, Lord Montague, and Henry Courtenay, Marquess of Exeter--died together in late 1538. But those two men, condemned without trial for treason, were lifelong friends, distantly related, and requested a joint execution.

Why was Sir Walter Hungerford chosen for this ghastly honour? Cromwell was the author of the Reformation, a brilliant and ruthless statesman. His enemies sent Hungerford on the same path, from Tower of London cell to scaffold. It's a mystery that still swirls around that hot, pitiless day. In this post, I examine the myths, the theories and evidence.

True or False: Hungerford Was a Nobody

One theory is that Sir Walter Hungerford was an obscure and debauched criminal, so despicable that it would taint Cromwell to share a scaffold with such a creature.

Hungerford was a man of dark secrets, it would seem. But he was not a nobody.

Although some followers of Tudor history may not have heard of Hungerford, his family was a distinguished one with generations of service to the royal family. Sir Thomas Hungerford was steward to John of Gaunt in the 14th century and built the grand Farleigh Hungerford Castle in Somerset.

A reconstruction of Farleigh Hungerford Castle in its heyday

His son, Sir Walter, fought at Agincourt, served as an admiral and became Speaker of the House of Commons. The Hungerfords sided with the Lancastrians in the Wars of the Roses and accumulated much wealth, establishing a London house on the Thames near Westminster Abbey. Nonetheless, the family had an unpleasant reputation: "..their record for dishonesty, vice and violence seems to have been exceptional even in the unsqueamish age in which they flourished," reports one chronicler.

The Sir Walter Hungerford of our tale was born in 1503 and served as a squire of the body to Henry VIII. In May 1536, he was a member of the jury that heard the case of the accused lovers of Anne Boleyn--Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, Francis Weston, and William Brereton. The King and Cromwell made it clear what verdict they expected to hear, and Sir Walter Hungerford delivered. Guilty, on all counts.

Anne Boleyn

On June 8, 1536 he was summoned to Parliament as Lord Hungerford of Heytesbury. By this time Hungerford owned estates all over Wiltshire, especially in Heytesbury parish. He was a man on the rise.

True or False: Hungerford an Important Cromwell Ally

Sir Walter married three times (more on his unhappy marriages later). In 1532, his father-in-law, Sir John Hussey, wrote to Cromwell, saying that Sir Walter "much desired" an introduction. To make the best possible impression, Hungerford sent Cromwell "a patent of five marks a year." In other words, he bribed him. Through serving on the jury condemning Anne Boleyn's lovers and paying his patent of marks, Hungerford must have pursued his goal in just the right way, for soon after, Hungerford became Sheriff of Wiltshire, an important position. By all accounts, he then dedicated himself to enforcing the law and rounding up traitors to the King.

So yes, Hungerford was known to be a Cromwell client and ally, but there were many other men who fulfilled more important roles in the kingdom. Hungerford's influence did not extend beyond Wiltshire. He was by no means a principal supporter, nor was he a royal councilor. So why kill him with Cromwell?

True or False: Hungerford was a Dangerous Traitor

One of the most striking things about Sir Walter Hungerford was how marital unhappiness, if not violence, surrounded him. Either his stepmother, Agnes, or one of his wives was found guilty of murder and hanged.  His marriage to Elizabeth, daughter of John, Lord Hussey of Sleaford, suffered when his father-in-law rebelled against Henry VIII in the religious rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. One of the aims of the pilgrimage was the removal of Cromwell. The rebellion failed; Hussey was executed. At around the same time, according to Elizabeth, her husband, Lord Hungerford, imprisoned her in the family castle and tried to do away with her.

After Cromwell's arrest, among all the letters found, was the one by Elizabeth accusing Lord Hungerford:
Here I have been for three or four years past, without comfort of any creature, and under custody of my lord's chaplain, which hath once or twice poisoned me, as he will not deny under examination. He hath promised my lord that he 'would soon rid him of me,' and I am sure he intendeth to keep his promise.
In the same letter, she said she refused to eat or drink anything the chaplain brought her, claiming that food donated by "poor women" was "brought to my window in the night."

Was the letter genuine? It's hard to know--after her husband's death, Elizabeth married the courtier Sir Robert Throckmorton and gave birth to four daughters.

The treason charges against Sir Walter Hungerford are also mixed up with the Pilgrimage of Grace. According to his indictment, in October 1536, Hungerford pretended to arrest a vicar sympathetic to the rebels, William Bird. Instead, he employed him as chaplain for "several months." (This was not the same chaplain as the man who supposedly imprisoned his wife; Hungerford had a large household.)

But even if true, was this enough to condemn a man to death?

True or False: Hungerford was a Witch

The second crime that Hungerford was accused of was witchcraft.

A 17th century witch

Supposedly, on March 22, 1537, at Farleigh Castle, Hungerford called upon two men, Sir Hugh Wood and Dr. Maudlin, to use magic to predict how long Henry VIII would live. The spring of 1537 was a dangerous time. The Pilgrimage of Grace was suppressed, but it had been a frightening struggle for Henry VIII and Cromwell. Their enemies were being rounded up and executed.

At that time, Prince Edward had not yet been born; Henry VIII had no male heir. It wouldn't have been surprising if some people had questions about the future of the kingdom. But using prophecy to forecast the length of the life of the sovereign was high treason. This was the same charge that brought down Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham in 1521, also for supposedly employing minor religious figures to gaze into the King's future in his private castle. The similarity of the charges is striking--and suspicious.

True or False: Hungerford was a Moral Criminal

The third crime Hungerford was accused of was "the abominable and detestable vice and sin of buggery" with several servants. The Buggery Act was an act of Parliament passed in 1533, sponsored by none other than Thomas Cromwell. It was thought that he meant to use it to confiscate the property of monks accused of the crime.

Despite being married several times and fathering four children, was Hungerford gay? It's possible. Hungerford was the only person to be executed for the accused crime in the entire Tudor period. (Let me emphasize that being gay is not a crime at all!)

Another possibility exists. It's believed that in 1536, Anne Boleyn was charged with incest with her brother George as a shock tactic, the crime concocted to make it easier to condemn her on the shakier charges. Hungerford's enemies--whoever they were--might have tried the same thing in 1540.

July 28, 1540

A great many soldiers appeared on Tower Hill the day of the execution, in case of some last-minute defense of Cromwell. The chronicler Edward Hall said he was greatly mourned by the "common people." But there was no outcry on his behalf that day. Sir William Kingston, who listened to Anne Boleyn's terrified rambling while she was imprisoned, was still the constable. Perhaps it was Kingston who led Hungerford and Cromwell out to the hill and formally handed them over to the jurisdiction of the city of London for execution.

Eyewitnesses agree that Hungerford panicked before the crowd. Some modern historians refer to Sir Walter as well known for insanity. But the pragmatic letters he wrote to Cromwell just a couple of years earlier attest to Hungerford's being well able to function in society. It is likely that, during his weeks of interrogation and with the knowledge he would soon die on the block, Hungerford had a nervous breakdown, like Jane Boleyn would in late 1541.

Hungerford "seemed so unquiet that many judged him rather in a frenzy than otherwise," said one observer. Cromwell, who was about to make his final remarks to the crowd, took aside Sir Walter and said to him:
There is no cause for you to fear. If you repent and be heartily sorry for what you have done, there is for you mercy enough for the Lord, who for Christ's sake will forgive you. Therefore be not dismayed, and though the breakfast we are going to be sharp, yet, trusting in the mercy of the Lord, we shall have a joyous dinner.
Cromwell was the first to die, in a bungled beheading infamous for its ghastliness. Hungerford followed. Both bodies were carted to the nearby Church of St. Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower walls. Their graves are a few feet from Anne Boleyn's. As Macaulay wrote, "In truth there is no sadder spot on earth than that little cemetery."

Because he was a traitor, Hungerford's estates and homes were claimed by the crown. Henry VIII gave Farleigh Hungerford Castle to his brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Seymour. It was not a small acquisition. Which is perhaps as good a reason as any for the destruction of Sir Walter Hungerford.

The ruins of Farleigh Hungerford Castle today


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award-winning historical trilogy The CrownThe Chalice and The Tapestry, published by the Touchstone imprint of Simon & Schuster. The protagonist is Sister Joanna Stafford, a Dominican novice. The Crown was an Oprah pick; The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense for 2016. To learn more, go to

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Dee, Nostradamus, Agrippa: The Secrets of the 16th Century Magicians

By Nancy Bilyeau

On January 12, 1559, Elizabeth Tudor entered the Tower of London to prepare for her coronation as Queen of England. Her half-sister, Mary I, had died on November 17th and Elizabeth seized the reins of power immediately, but the all-important coronation was not set to take place until nearly two months later.

The date when Elizabeth would ride through the city of London to Westminster Abbey was January 15th. At the suggestion of Robert Dudley, Elizabeth consulted Dr. John Dee, the astrologist and scholar who later served as Shakespeare's inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest. Dee chose the date as most favorable to a successful reign.

Elizabeth's years of reliance on Dee puzzles some people today. How could the Tudor queen, educated, enlightened and brilliant, known for saying, "I would not open windows into men's souls," make decisions based on an astrologer? But to wonder that misreads the importance of men like John Dee in the 16th century. The more well versed in the Renaissance the ruler was, the more he or she favored the educated seers and wizards.

The career of Dee echoes that of Nostradamus in France and Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in Germany. By looking at them together, the life of a seer comes into focus.


Of all the mystics who exerted influence in the 16th century, Nostradamus is the most notorious today. He has been the subject of hundreds of books and several recent television documentaries and is even portrayed by Rossif Sutherland (Donald's son) in a key role in the popular TV series Reign.

Catherine de Medici advised by Nostradamus (Sutherland) in Reign

Historians believe that Michel de Nostredame came from a family of Provence forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. After years of censure, taxation and increasing acts of violence against Jews in both Spain and France, King Louis XII ordered the exile of all Jews from Provence in an edict published in 1500. The Gassonet family did not leave; they had already converted to Christianity, with their name changing from Gassonet to Nostredame, arguably one of the most Catholic names imaginable. Michel was born on December 14th in Saint-Remy-de-Provence.

Birthplace of Nostradamus in Saint-Remy
Michel definitely showed academic promise, learning Greek, Latin, Hebrew, logic and mathematics as well as medicine. At the age of 15 he entered the University of Avignon. But he was also drawn to the study of astrology, a respected practice in the 16th century, and herbal medicine. In his 20s, he achieved fame as a physician whose patients survived the plague more than average. In a time when medicine hurt more than it helped, Michel believed in fresh air, clean water and hygiene for patients--most unusual concepts--and prescribed a pill made of crushed rose petals. But after his own wife and children died of the plague despite his efforts to save them, he seems to have moved away from medicine and toward the arts of the occult. He wandered through Europe for years, and unfortunately became of interest to the Inquisition, who persecuted both conversos and those who dabbled in heresy. Somehow he managed to survive his Inquisitors, and subsequently became more--not less--interested in prophecy and mysticism. He Latinised his name to "Nostradamus."

In 1555, the first of Nostradmus's collections of prophecies foretelling the history of the world were published. The Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, who has gone down in history as a conniver and a poisoner, was also a passionate supporter of the arts, particularly architecture, and like other Renaissance patrons, was intrigued by prophecy. Many 16th century seers studied the philosophy of the ancient Greeks (as well as the Kabbalah and Arabic texts). The Queen summoned Nostradamus to the French court, and he advised her, on and off, until his death in 1566.

In the 16th century the most famous Nostradamus prophecy was a published quatrain:
"The young lion will overcome the old,
In a warlike field, in single combat,
In a cage of gold, he will pierce his eyes;
Two wounds being one he then dies a cruel death."
Based on contemporary sketch
In 1561, France's King Henry II died after being injured in a tournament joust. He was struck in the face, through his visor, by an opponent whose coat of arms included a lion. The lance drove into his brain just above his eye and he died days later, in agony. (In recent years, this chilling prediction has come under fire, as some say the quatrain came to light after the death of the Valois king, not before.)

Many of Nostradamus' prophecies seem to have been drawn from ancient end-of-world writings by Livy and Plutarch, among others, with astrological twists. Believers credit him with predicting everything from the French Revolution and American Civil War to the assassination of John F. Kennedy and World Trade Center attacks ("earth-shaking flames from the world's center roar"). But critics say his writings were vague enough to allow for just about any interpretation. Whether Nostradamus obscured his sincerely-meant prophecies to protect himself from the Inquisition or because they were cynically concocted wholesale inventions, we can never know.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

In 1818's Frankenstein, Mary Shelley writes of an impressionable young medical student's fateful moment of discovery:
"In this house I chanced to find a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with antipathy; the theory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which he relates soon changed this feeling into great enthusiasm. A new light seemed to dawn upon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery..."
And so Victor Frankenstein was lost to his obsession--the creation of life.

Frankenstein: The man and his creation

The name Agrippa was not a fictional one but belonged to Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a 16th century German theologian, alchemist, philosopher and magician. Shelley's use of Agrippa's beliefs to fuel her tale is not as strange as it may seem at first glance. He also played an important part in a nonfiction book written by her journalist-philosopher father, William Godwin: Lives of the Necromancers. It's clear that this group of mystical thinkers--Godwin's list includes  not only Agrippa and Nostradamus but also Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon,  and a dozen others--proved fascinating to the poets and philosophers of the Enlightenment.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Godwin wrote of Agrippa:
"He was one of the most celebrated men of his time.... It is more than probable that Agrippa was willing by a general silence and mystery to give encouragement to the wonder of the vulgar mind. He was flattered by the terror and awe which his appearance inspired. He did not wish to come down to the ordinary level." 
Like Nostradamus, Agrippa was a precocious student. Born in Cologne in 1486, he mastered six languages and studied medicine and law as well as the work of the Humanists. Alchemy was his passion rather than astrology, and he believed "magic comprises the most profound contemplation of the most secret things, their nature, power, quality, substance and virtues." He published De Occulta Philosophia, three volumes on magic, an influential collection still in print.

Page from Agrippa's book

Contradictions abound in the life of Agrippa. He served the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian in various capacities--as secretary, soldier and perhaps spy--and dedicated a book to the Hapsburg Emperor's respected sister, Margaret of Austria. Eustace Chapuys, the erudite Imperial Ambassador to Henry VIII, was Agrippa's student, friend and correspondent.

And yet the aura of the black arts clung to Agrippa. Godwin repeats the oft-told tale that a black dog accompanying Agrippa on all his travels was "a devil attendant." And it is in Lives of the Necromancers that a bizarre story is told, of Agrippa meeting Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in Germany and showing him, in a "magic glass," the image of his far-away mistress. For other noblemen, Agrippa summoned up the images of Ovid and "the whole destruction of Troy in a dream."

Despite his writings on magic and being a vocal critic of witchcraft trials, Agrippa was never persecuted for his beliefs, perhaps because he was protected by the Hapsburgs. He died in Grenoble in 1535.

Dr. John Dee

If Agrippa is tainted with black magic, Dr. John Dee is associated with white magic--angels, to be specific. He spent years of his life trying to decipher the language of the angels.

Of all of his mystic contemporaries, Dee was perhaps the most brilliant. Along with his spiritual studies, he is believed to have coined the phrase "British Empire" and urged both Tudor queens to create a national library (they both said no, so Dee built up the finest private library in England, if not all of Europe).

Born on July 13, 1527, Dee attended Cambridge and studied mathematics and the sciences as well as astrology and alchemy. In his twenties, he worked as a tutor and advisor for the Herbert and then the Dudley families, two powerful Protestant clans in the reign of the boy King, Edward VI.

But on the death of Edward and accession of Queen Mary, the power structure turned inside out, and Dee received a chilling lesson in loyalty. He was arrested in 1555, charged with casting the horoscopes of Queen Mary, her new husband, Philip of Spain, and Mary's half-sister Elizabeth. To look into the future of the royals, forecasting their deaths, was treason, and people had perished for such acts in the reign of Henry VIII. Moreover, Dee, a Protestant, was suspected of sympathy with the Princess Elizabeth, held in prison for her possible involvement in the Wyatt Rebellion.

Elizabeth Tudor

Informers were found who said Dee "endeavored through enchantments to destroy Queen Mary." He was interrogated, found wanting, and referred to the Star Chamber. Though he defended himself well, Dee was then charged with heresy and delivered to the Bishop of London, Edmund Bonner, one of the most diligent persecutors of heretics, later dubbed "bloody Bonner" by John Foxe.

Edmund Bonner, bishop of London

Things couldn't have looked bleaker for John Dee. Yet somehow he survived, not only convincing Bonner of his innocence and becoming a Catholic chaplain but even assisting Bonner in some of his interrogations of other Protestants. (He took on the "Dr." honorific because he was ordained by Bonner.) When Elizabeth took the throne, Dee rapidly switched back to the Protestant side, becoming Elizabeth's cherished special advisor, while Bonner, holding fast to his Catholic beliefs, ended up dying in prison.

Throughout his long, colorful, often controversial career, Dee would need to show nimble survivor tactics time and again, though perhaps none quite so extreme as this. Nonetheless, Dee, despite his partnership with necromancer Edward Kelley (see below), is a benevolent figure in today's pantheon of seers. In fact, it is his tall, thin, white-bearded visage and scholarly, mentorish demeanor that seems to have inspired the wizards created by J.R.R. Tolkein and J.K. Rowling.

John Dee

It is a legacy that, one feels, John Dee would have entirely approved of.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Is There Historical Basis for the Forbidden Love on 'Game of Thrones'?

By Nancy Bilyeau

“The man looked over at the woman. ‘The things I do for love,’ he said with loathing. He gave Bran a shove. Screaming, Bran went backward out the window into open air.”

It was one of the most shocking moments of the first season of the HBO series Game of Thrones. The child was Bran Stark, caught peeping through a castle window when he heard voices during one of his climbs up the outer walls. The “man” was Jaime Lannister, and the "woman" his twin sister, Cersei Lannister, married to the king of the Seven Kingdoms, Robert Baratheon. What Bran saw was brother and sister making love, and for that, Jamie tried to silence the boy through murder, for Cersei’s children were not fathered by the king and that was a secret the twins would kill to conceal.

Jaimie and Cersei Lannister

In the current season of Game of Thrones, the forbidden love between Cersei and Jaimie rages stronger than ever. When threatening Lord Edmure Tully, Jaimie, heading up the Lannister army, says:

I love Cersei. You can laugh at that if you want; you can sneer, it doesn't matter. She needs me. And to get back to her, I have to take Riverrun. I'll send for your baby boy, and I'll launch him into Riverrun with a catapult. Because you don't matter to me, Lord Edmure. Your son doesn't matter to me. The people in the castle don't matter to me. Only Cersei. And if I have to slaughter every Tully who ever lived to get back to her, that's what I'll do.”

There is no denying that Game of Thrones is submerged in incest. Whether it’s a dynastic predilection, a forbidden love affair or a source of horrific abuse, incestuous couplings serve as both world-building foundation and crucial plot devices in the books and the series. While Game of Thrones is a fantasy, filled with dragons and “White Walkers” and “the Long Winter,” it draws some of its overarching plots from the medieval period—and the ancient one. Where do the precedents for rampant incest come from? Let’s examine the clues.

George R.R. Martin created a complex and ornately imagined world of seven kingdoms in his series. At the start of the first book, Cersei Lannister is married to Robert Baratheon, but his rule was established through a coup. Robert overthrew the “mad king,” Aerys II Targaryen, the last of three centuries’ worth of rulers of that family. Martin clearly establishes that House Targaryen is built on brother-sister royal unions. He wrote, “For centuries the Targaryens had married brother to sister, since Aegon the Conqueror had taken his sister to bride. The line must be kept pure, Viserys had told her a thousand times; theirs was the kingsblood, the golden blood of Old Valyria, the blood of the dragon.” 

In the television series, this is rarely referred to, although there is no indication that the show runners have changed the family history. Daenerys Targaryen, the product of generations of incest, is a major character of the show, and a sympathetic point of view for the audience, and it’s possible the script writers do not want to weaken the fans’ liking for Daenerys.

Martin most likely modeled the brother-sister Targaryen unions on the Ancient Egyptian royal families that practiced incestuous marriages. The famous Queen Cleopatra was the daughter of a Ptolemy XII and his sister or half-sister. At Ptolemy’s death in 51 BC, 18-year-old Cleopatra ascended, married to her 10-year-old brother (whom she of course had killed). Such marriages were not a peculiarity of the House of Ptolemy. King Tutankhamen, who took the throne in 1332 BC, was the son of a brother-sister marriage. Egypt was then a world power, and the young Tutankhamen worshipped as a god during his short life.

Coffin of King Tut

Scientific analyses recently confirmed that “King Tut” was the offspring of siblings. Moreover, he suffered a bone disease connected to inbreeding and was physically frail, walking with a cane. 

Martin does depict the psychological damage caused by incest in his books and the force often used, particularly in the horrific storyline of the character Craster. The undeniable genetic problems in incestuous families are not addressed, but, interestingly, mental instability often shows up in children of incest in the books. And no character was more unstable than the “Mad King.”

Martin has never said in interviews whether he based the brother-sister love affair of Jaime and Cersei Lannister on either real characters from history or literary characters. He has confirmed that, overall, in Game of Thrones, the depiction of the civil war that breaks out at the death of King Robert Baratheon, leading to so many battles and betrayals, clings “closest” to England’s Wars of the Roses in the 15th century, the struggle for the throne between the houses of York and Lancaster. 

Lancastrian Siege of London, 1471

The kings, princes and lords who fought over the English throne were ruthless and duplicitous—but there was never a hint, in fact or rumor, of incestuous. In fact, royal marriages were arranged with an almost obsessive attention to the partners’ being too closely related by blood or in-law precedents. The medieval popes essentially held control over these monarchies because only a Holy Father could issue a papal dispensation allowing couples within forbidden degree of “affinity” to marry. Since there were centuries of dynastic intermarriage to contend with, these rulings became essential. 

It was a pope’s refusal to reverse an earlier pope’s dispensation for a marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon that famously led to King Henry’s break with Rome. Henry VIII and Catherine were distantly related, but the dispensation was needed because she was first married to his older brother, Arthur. That was considered an incestuous connection, a sin before God, and Henry VIII claimed he had no sons in his first marriage because he was punished by the Almighty. There are many other, lesser-known examples of fears of “affinity.” The king’s parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, had to get a papal dispensation to marry because they were distant cousins.

If fears over the sin caused by distant cousins marrying was this prevalent, it would lead to the assumption that incest was rare in medieval Europe. The answer to this is…yes and no.

Incest was an abomination, a mortal sin, the darkest part of lechery in the Seven Deadly Sins. It was a direct path to damnation of the soul, which men and women feared above all. It wasn’t just kings and queens who were subject to scrutiny. Bishops investigated charges of incest. On the parish level, priests were expected to be on the lookout, asking probing questions and making sure that relatives did not marry. If caught, those who had sex with blood kin were punished by the church. Penance was proscribed, and sometimes the guilty were forced into monastic life. (Incest remained a matter of canon law in England until 1908!) The definition of incest was incredibly broad, too. It extended beyond immediate family and second cousins to distant relations. In-laws and godchildren were included. In the 12th century, marriages were forbidden between any couple related by blood or “affinity” to the seventh degree.

This level of medieval policing may seem extreme to us but it followed the lead of Roman law. In the year 295 AD incest was explicitly forbidden by Imperial edict. Before then, rules were most definitely broken—at the top. The Emperor Caligula is believed to have had sex with all three of his sisters. His uncle, who became Emperor Claudius, changed the laws to accommodate himself when he wanted to marry his niece, Agrippina (who, years later, is thought to have had sex with her son, Nero.) Both Caligula and Nero were mentally unstable. It’s possible that this first-century storm of debauchery inspired George R.R. Martin, who has written several characters that, once they achieve power, become mentally unhinged and sexually uncontrollable. 

Lucrezia Borgia

There are two rumored cases of royal brother-sister incest outside of the Plantagenet Wars of the Roses that may have inspired Martin. Gossips say that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, children of the 15th century Pope Alexander, were lovers. The charge was first heard when the Borgia family pushed through Lucrezia’s divorce from her first husband, Giovanni Sforza. It was a purely political marriage that teenage Lucrezia seems to have had no problem ending. The grounds for divorce were nonconsummation, which Sforza denied, hitting back with Borgia brother-sister incest accusations. Adding to the rumor-mill was the withdrawal of Lucrezia from public life around this time, followed by the birth of a child:
 Giovanni Borgia,"infans Romanus." Historians have long debated the parentage of this Borgia. The mother could have been Lucrezia. Was the father Cesare, brilliant and murderous? Or was the child fathered by Cesare (or his father) with another woman? No one knows for certain.

Anne Boleyn

Less than a century later, Queen Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, was accused of incest with her brother George, along with adultery with four men. Thomas Boleyn, the father of the queen and her brother, was an extremely ambitious man, obsessed with titles and money. Anne and George are talented, witty and attractive. In George Boleyn’s trial, evidence was produced that they acted “contrary to all human laws.” Anne had allegedly "tempted her brother with her tongue in the said George's mouth and the said George's tongue in hers." Also heard was that the siblings had mocked the king’s poetry and his sexual prowess. George is supposed to have repeated Anne’s claim that Henry VIII "was not able to satisfy a woman and he had neither capacity nor virility." Even more seriously, the Boleyns were supposed to have plotted the king’s death. The vast majority of historians do not believe that Anne and George Boleyn committed incest. It was part of Thomas Cromwell’s campaign to blacken her reputation and condemn the queen, freeing Henry VIII to marry again.

With both the Borgia’s and the Boleyn’s, this is key: blackening their names. No one questions that Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia and Anne and George Boleyn were fond of each other. But incest? These were two families that vaulted to power, with members who were ambitious and attractive. They had many enemies. Even a ruler who was feared and revered could face defamation. Charlemagne’s reputation is dogged by the rumors that he had sex with one of his sisters and had feelings other than fatherly for his daughters. When the powerful family in question is more of a parvenu, the sexual-misconduct rumors ran wild indeed.

Let’s take a closer look at the Lannister pair. There are echoes of Borgia and Boleyn in Martin’s creations. The Lannisters are a powerful family, envied and disliked by many others. There is a cold, strong father—Tywin Lannister—controlling a ruthless family. Cersei and Jaime are gorgeous specimens: the queen is famously beautiful and Jaime Lannister has “hair as bright as beaten gold.” Cersei Lannister is ordered to marry young for political reasons. The marriage is very unhappy. Jaime is his sister’s companion and defender, and in secret, her lover. The queen’s three children are fathered by Jaime, although they go to great efforts to create the impression they are Robert Baratheon’s, including trying to murder innocent Bran.

Another source of inspiration for George R.R. Martin could be medieval poetry and storytelling. There is a lot to choose from. “Medieval incest stories are so numerous that it is impossible even to mention them all, let alone to discuss them all in detail,” writes Elizabeth Archibald, author of Incest and the Medieval Imagination. Many functioned as cautionary tales, to warn the faithful of sin. But it’s possible the tales also served as prurient entertainment.

Two classical myths clearly influenced medieval stories: Oedipus, who unknowingly married his mother and killed his father, and Apollonius of Tyre, who uncovered King Antiochus’s rape of his daughter (this story became material for Chaucer, Gower and Shakespeare). Less well known is the Greek myth of the twins Caunus and Bibylis. In Ovid, Bibylis falls in love with her brother but when he learns of it, Caunus runs away. She follows him, heartbroken and still obsessed. She eventually goes mad and dies. Because of her constant weeping, the gods turn her into a spring.

Bibylis and Caunus

A very interesting story can be found in Richard Wagner’s opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), based, in part, on late 13th century Icelandic prose. In one cycle, the hero Siegmund seeks shelter at the house of the warrior Hunding. He meets Sieglinde, Hunding's unhappy wife, and they are drawn to each other. In the course of their conversation, Siegmund tells her that long ago, while he was hunting with his father, his mother was killed and his twin sister abducted. She is, of course, that sister. They flee together, committing adultery and incest, cursed by some and protected by others. Siegmund is killed, despite wielding his magic sword, drawn from a tree. Sieglinde dies giving birth to their son, Siegfried, the hero of further adventures filled with battles, quests, a ring and a sword, and even dragons.

Siegmund and Sieglinde

Perhaps the most famous medieval story of incest can be found in Le Morte d’Arthur. In Sir Thomas Malory’s version, published in 1485, the same year as the Battle of Bosworth that ended the Wars of the Roses, King Arthur has a child with his half-sister, Morgana. Arthur may not have realized when they had sex that she was his sister, or been somehow tricked. The son is Mordred, a traitor whose destiny is to kill Arthur.

In John Boorman’s enthralling 1981 film of the Arthur legend, Excalibur, the character of Mordred is turned from traitor into full-out murderous sociopath. “Come father, let us embrace at last,” sneers Mordred on the final battlefield, as he prepares to spear Arthur. Throughout the film, German music can be heard, most of it composed by Wagner. When young Arthur pulls the sword Excalibur from the stone, we hear Siegfried’s funeral music from Götterdämmerung, the final segment from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. Intriguing choices by Boorman.

Joffrey in Game of Thrones

Mordred in Excalibur

It’s impossible not to wonder if George R.R. Martin was influenced by this mixture of sources when you consider Prince Joffrey, the oldest child of Cersei and Jaime Lannister who everyone is fooled into believing is the son and heir to Robert Baratheon. Joffrey is cruel and violent, “a monster,” in the words of Sansa Stark, the sister of Bran Stark, once betrothed to Joffrey. The blond actor who plays Joffrey bears an eerie resemblance to the one who portrayed Mordred in Excalibur.

In Game of Thrones, Joffrey, the child of incest, is poisoned at his own wedding feast, surrounded by those who fear and loathe him. And it is his mother, Cersei, who kneels by his side, screaming and sobbing as he dies.


This post is adapted from the original article running in the April 2016 issue of Medieval magazine.