Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Fashion Blog

For anyone interested in fashion as art, a new blog, Alexander's Eyes, is the place to be. Yes, the author is someone near and dear to me, but the content is interesting and the photos, um, eye-catching (check out the post about World Cup soccer models). There's even some sixteenth century influence here. Let's keep her writing, okay?

Monday, June 28, 2010


The winner of C.W. Gortner's

Marta Hoelscher


Marta, please send an email to juliannedouglas05 [at] sbcglobal [dot] net with your snail mail address and I'll have the book sent out to you.

Thanks to everyone for entering the drawing!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"L'on ne peut gouverner les enfants d'aujourdhui."

"You can't govern the children of today."

Robert Garnier (1544-1590), French playwright
Bradamante (1582), ActII, sc. 1

Sunday, June 20, 2010

16th Century Needlework

Check out the needlework in this sixteenth-century portrait featured on the blog Needleprint. The intricacy of the work is astounding! I can only imagine the hours that went into embroidering the piece, as well as the patience of the portraitist in reproducing it.

The Needleprint blog has many interesting posts on early modern textiles. There are wonderful articles on seventeenth century embroidered gloves, textile and embroidered book bindings from time of Henry VIII, and fourteenth-century Florentine quilts. It's easy to lose yourself exploring and examining the photographs.

Sixteenth century blackwork

Friday, June 18, 2010

Mary Sharratt: The Crucible of Faith, Part 2

Here is the second half of Mary Sharratt's guest post on resistance to the Reformation in northern England:


The Crucible of Faith: Reformation and Resistance in Northern England

by Mary Sharratt

[Mary Tudor's] successor was her half-sister, Elizabeth I, whose private religious convictions remain nebulous. Publicly Elizabeth had little choice but to embrace the Protestant cause. As Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the Catholic Church regarded her as illegitimate and this would have left her unfit for the throne, since her father’s many illegitimate sons would have taken precedence. A female monarch who elected not to marry and produce an heir of her own religion, Elizabeth relied on support from hardline Protestants whose views may have been far more extreme than her own. Still, at the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth appeared to tolerate Catholics as long as they attended Anglican services and kept a low profile. However, her stance became increasingly aggressive in reaction to a series of Catholic plots to dispose, and even assassinate her, and place her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, on the throne.

The Northern Rebellion of 1569, the first of several such plots, left law-abiding English Catholics in a very difficult place, especially after Pope Pius V issued his 1570 Papal Bull, which excommunicated Elizabeth and proclaimed that it was her Catholic subjects’ duty to overthrow her. The pope’s uncompromising stance made English Catholics traitors to the crown by default. Far more politically astute than her half-sister, Elizabeth used this Papal Bull as an excuse to end her policy of religious toleration. She told her subjects that they must choose between her and this foreigner. By the 1570s, being Catholic was regarded as traitorous and subversive, whether one took part in plots or not.

By the 1580s it became treason to convert to Catholicism. Recusants who refused to attend Protestant services were fined £20, a fortune in that era. It was treason for Jesuits or seminary priests to enter the country—those who knowingly provided them shelter were also guilty of treason. Those convicted of treason were punished by hanging, then being cut down and disemboweled while still alive. In some cases the beating heart was ripped out of the body. By 1593, recusants were restricted to staying within five miles of their homes.

Fearful of a Spanish invasion with local Catholic support, Elizabeth’s government kept close watch of recusant nobility, especially in the North. Lord Burghley’s Map of Lancashire depicts a bird’s eye view of all the gentry estates in the county. The properties owned by recusant families are marked with a cross. The unmarked estates belong to trusted Anglican gentry. Also marked are the beacons where loyal Anglicans could raise the alarm should there be a Catholic uprising.

This was the era of the English martyrs, such as Margaret Clitherow of York, born in 1556. After her family adopted Protestantism, she converted back to Catholicism and offered her home as a secret refuge for traveling priests. Arrested in 1586 on suspicion of harboring priests, she faced trial at the York Assizes where she refused to plead, probably fearing that her young children would be asked to testify and tortured. Margaret received the standard punishment for those who refused to plead—she was crushed to death beneath a door weighted by heavy stones. She died on Good Friday, 1586. In 1970, she was canonized as a saint.

There has been some speculation as to whether William Shakespeare, who may have lived in Hoghton Tower in Lancashire with the recusant de Hoghton family during his “lost years,” was a secret Catholic. We do know that his father was Catholic, as a testament of faith was discovered hidden in his house.

Mary Stuart’s son, James I, separated from his mother and reared as a stern Protestant, ascended to the English throne in 1603. He brought an even harsher set of laws to all Catholics. Convicted recusants who refused to receive Anglican communion were fined and their property was taken from them. They were barred from public office, had no recourse to courts of laws, and if one owed money to a Catholic, one wasn’t obliged to pay it back. Catholic resentment of James I culminated in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

By the time of the English Civil War, 65% of Royalist families in Lancashire were still Catholic. The Restoration brought no relief. In 1678, recusants were barred from Parliament, and in 1692, they incurred double land tax. In 1699, they were barred from purchasing or inheriting land.

The tide only began to turn toward the close of the 18th century. The First Catholic Relief Act of 1778 permitted Catholics to own land. The Second Relief Act of 1791allowed Catholic clergy to legally exercise ministry. For the first time since Mary Tudor’s downfall, Catholics in England were allowed public worship under license.

The new Catholic churches built at this time were designed to resemble barns and thus remain as unobtrusive as possible, as not to attract too much attention. One such “barn church” still exists today, the Church of Saint Peter and Paul in Ribchester. The crosses were only added in the 19th century and the stained glass more recently still. When first constructed, the building was meant to look secular and the Mass was conducted behind closed shutters.

The Emancipation Act of 1829 finally allowed people of the Catholic faith to hold public office and to sit in Parliament. English Catholics owe their thanks to Irishman Daniel O’Connell, who was responsible for pushing this law through in order to prevent a violent uprising in his own country.


Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more about Mary and the true history of the Pendle Witches and their connection to pre-Reformation beliefs, visit her website: www.marysharratt.com .

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Guest Post by Mary Sharratt: Reformation and Resistance in Northern England

Author Mary Sharratt has provided a wonderful two-part guest post on resistance to the Reformation in Northern England. Her articles explain the cultural, political and religious backdrop against which the events of her gripping novel, DAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHING HILL (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), unfold. Today's portion discusses the years of Henry VIII's reign and the reigns of his son Edward VI and daughter Mary Tudor; tomorrow, the focus falls on Elizabeth I and beyond. Many thanks to Mary for her immensely informative posts!


The Crucible of Faith: Reformation and Resistance in Northern England

by Mary Sharratt

[This essay is gleaned from a course I took in July 2009 at the University of Lancaster—A Crucible of Faith: the Religious Heritage of North West England. My instructors for the parts of the course dealing with the English Reformation and its aftermath were Adrian Braddon, Dr. Lisa Curry, and Jim Wadman.]

The English Reformation continues to hold an enduring fascination for a modern audience. Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award-winning masterpiece, Wolf Hall, puts forward a traditionalist view that the Reformation heralded an era of enlightenment and progress, in which humanists and forward-thinkers left the ignorance and superstition of the late medieval era behind. However, the reality is much more tangled than Mantel’s excellent fiction would have us believe.

Most of what we were taught about the English Reformation twenty to thirty years ago has been completely turned on its head. Eamon Duffy’s 1992 book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, laid out the thesis that the English clung to their traditional religion and were very reluctant to embrace the reformed faith. By now Duffy’s views have become mainstream.

Nowhere was this truer than in the Northwest of England, which is still the most Catholic region of England—Catholics comprise about 26% of the population compared to 8% in the rest of the country. About half of Liverpool is Catholic and about a quarter to a third of the residents of Preston. There are also rural villages such as Hurst Green, Crosby, and Ribchester that support both Catholic and Anglican churches. The high percentages are due in part to immigration from Ireland and Poland, but also to the survival and revival of Catholicism within the region, largely owing to the resistance of the gentry. Many important landowning families such as the Towneleys, Southworths, and Shuttleworths remained Catholic, despite Elizabeth I’s religious conformity laws.

Why were so many in Northwest England so reluctant to embrace the Reformation? Not only were they a long way from the power center in London, they were a very long way from Rome. Whereas the Catholic establishment in Italy during the Reformation period was rife with corruption, there is no evidence of major corruption or scandal in the English Catholic Church at this time. People wanted reform with a small “r” and it was happening. Henry VIII’s Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, was closing down monasteries that seemed unproductive and changing them into schools and colleges for laymen. Wolsey also reduced the power of the Church courts. Yet even after Henry VIII sacked Wolsey, stripped him of his bishopric, and appointed himself head of the Church of England, the majority of people, especially in the North, did not want radical religious change thrust upon them.

This became starkly clear during the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising of 400,000 armed men in the North who gathered under the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ to oppose Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. They very nearly won! Henry had no standing army. 400,000 was an incredible number when the entire English population at this time was around 2.2 million. But the Catholic nobility in the North intervened and, anxious of opposing the King, negotiated a truce. If they hadn’t, Henry’s reforms couldn’t have gone through. The closing of the monasteries was disastrous for the poor, who had relied on the now outlawed religious orders for charity and medical care. Apart from leaving the poor in the lurch, however, Henry’s reforms didn’t penetrate everyday religion so drastically. Most holidays were still celebrated and the churches retained their saints’ altars and religious images.

The real English Reformation didn’t begin until the reign of Edward VI, Henry VIII’s son and heir. Edward attacked the entire cultural framework of traditional English life. In his banning of the saints’ days and his orders for the destruction of religious statues, rood screens, stained glass, and holy shrines, Edward cut deeply into the lives of his people, destroying the ancient rhythms of the liturgical year and their round of village festivals. Church walls, traditionally covered in religious images to communicate the mysteries of faith to a largely illiterate population, were whitewashed over.

The picture below, of St. Wilfrid’s Church in Ribchester, shows the pre-Reformation fresco discovered beneath the whitewashing. The stained glass is modern.

Most people sincerely welcomed Mary Tudor’s arrival on the throne. Although she couldn’t undo the dissolution of the monasteries, she restored the Mass and the holidays, which provided much-needed recreation for hardworking commoners. When Mary fell from grace it wasn’t because of her religion but because of her unpopular marriage to the Spanish king which inspired fears that the English were to become a Spanish colony. Today “Bloody” Mary is most commonly remembered for burning nearly three hundred Protestant dissenters, Archbishop Cramner among them. She committed these atrocities against the advice of both her husband and her priest-confessor, who were worried that she was becoming a dangerous fanatic.


Mary Sharratt’s acclaimed new novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill, is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. To learn more about Mary and the true history of the Pendle Witches and their connection to pre-Reformation beliefs, visit her website: www.marysharratt.com .

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Hot Summer Read" For Sure!

Today my author friend Catherine Delors's new novel, FOR THE KING, was named a "hot summer read" by Kristin Contino of the Philadelphia Examiner. I heartily concur--Catherine's gripping new book, which will be released on July 8, is even better than her first critically-acclaimed novel, MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION. Be sure to look for it in stores on the 8th, or pre-order a copy so you can start your summer off with a bang (hmm, was that a firecracker or a carriage exploding on a busy Parisian street?). I'll post a review on release day, along with a special interview with Catherine.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

A Father's Love, by C. W. Gortner

Catherine de Medici shared a special relationship with her father-in-law, François I. C.W. Gortner, author of THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, tells us about it in this guest post.


A Father’s Love: Catherine de Medici and François I

by C. W. Gortner

“I had loved François as I had loved no other man; loved him for his excesses and his foibles, for his grandeur and his weakness; but most of all, I had loved him because he had loved me. But I did not cry, not a single tear. I now had a purpose, nebulous as it might be: I would be queen. I could almost hear François laughing, his spirit alive, full of mirth at what we’d contrived to achieve. I knew then that he would never truly die; it was his final gift, one that he had ensured I would carry for the rest of my days.

In me, he had bequeathed his immortal love of France.”

— Excerpt from THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI © C.W. Gortner 2010.

Among the many misconceptions about Catherine de Medici, surely one of the saddest is that she was an amoral woman without a heart, who ruthlessly eliminated anyone who stood in her way. Some even went so far as to say, she did not know how to love.

However, it is not too surprising, given her background and the unfortunate circumstances in which she rose to power. In truth, Catherine has been the target of a smear campaign that began in her lifetime; of Italian birth, she came to France while a teenager to wed King François I’s second son, who later became Henri II. She was used as a pawn in an elaborate stratagem between François and Catherine’s uncle, Pope Clement VII, each of whom sought revenge against the Hapsburg emperor, Charles V. Catherine claimed noble French blood through her mother but this was secondary to the overriding xenophobia that many Frenchmen held toward Italians. The venal corruption of Rome, coupled with France’s incessant incursions to claim Milan—a chimerical obsession that wreaked havoc on both lands—had conspired to create a court that paid outward homage to the art of Italy while privately disregarding the country as anything other than a lost possession. François himself yearned to own Italy to such an extent that most of his artistic pursuits were centered on recreating the brilliance of that country’s Renaissance in his immediate environment. He imported Italian artists, including Leonardo da Vinci; what he could not import, he bartered for, stole, or paid outrageous sums to own.

Catherine was one of his finest acquisitions. Bought along with the promise of several Italian duchies, she was never considered French; her paternal ancestry as a Medici, a banking family that had made its fortune in commerce and the papacy, branded her a parvenu. Prejudice against her because of her nationality haunted her throughout her life. Italians were despised as Machiavellian experts in intrigue and the black arts; Catherine’s natural inclination toward her fellow countrymen was thus often used against her and helped seed her black legend. And when her uncle Clement VII died without releasing the duchies promised to François in her dowry, the king was said to mutter about his then-barren daughter-in-law: “I took her naked as a babe.”

Rumor ran like wildfire that François would annul his son’s marriage to Catherine and banish her. History tells us, she herself fell to her knees before the king to implore mercy, even as she acknowledged her unworthiness. Whether or not he ever intended to rid himself of her cannot be known; what is certain is that François protected Catherine for years afterwards, until she managed to bear Henri the all-important son required of her. And in those years, she and François developed a love that mirrored that of a beloved father and his daughter, a relationship that dominated Catherine’s youth, seeing as she’d never known parental love, having lost both her parents while still a babe.

François and Catherine shared more than a mutual adoration for Italy; in Catherine, François found the personification of everything he most admired about that patchwork nation of city states which had eluded his capture. She had spirit and grace; and, if not a beauty in the traditional sense, she had more important qualities for her king: she was superbly well educated in the Italian Renaissance style, literate in several languages, with an innate passion for art. Whether it was painting, architecture, sculpture, or writing, Catherine’s fine-tuned sensibilities proved perfect fodder for François’s extravagances. He often consulted her on his plans for refurbishment of his many chateaux –– he was forever remodeling — and whenever a new artist from Italy made it to his court — and they came by the hundreds, lured by his generosity and addiction to novelty — he had Catherine greet them first. Official court documents of the time are peppered with references to an aspiring artist making his way into the king’s pocket through the ‘good graces of Madame la Dauphine.’ Indeed, with her keen appreciation for the arts and keener sense of patronage, Catherine was an ideal mechanism for obtaining royal approval to set up shop. And besides childbearing, here was one area where she could excel –– even as she battled the private specter of Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s lifelong mistress who would soon overshadow her years as queen.

François’s death in 1547 devastated Catherine. She was twenty-eight; the king only fifty-two. He’d battled illness for years, the result of a lifetime of profligate indiscretion, so his death did not come as a surprise. But he had been her champion, her guardian and mentor for sixteen years. She had worked hard to win his favor and in return he rewarded her with that singular affection and loyalty for which he is famous. While Henry VIII comes down to us as a tyrant in a perpetual bad humor, François has been enshrined as the personification of bonhomie, always with an eye for a pretty blueprint, a pretty painting, and a pretty smile.

And through him, Catherine learned an invaluable lesson that she plied, often relentlessly, throughout her life: When in doubt, throw a party. For those who eat well at your table are less likely to stab you in the back.

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To find out more about THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI, as well as special features about me and my work, please visit: www.cwgortner.com.


Thank you, Christopher, for this touching and informative post. I love the way you show how Catherine symbolized for François the Italy he coveted yet never managed to obtain. And what I wouldn't give to attend one of Catherine's parties!

Readers, be sure to enter the drawing for a copy of Christopher's wonderful new novel here before 11 pm PST on June 27.

Friday, June 11, 2010


For Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV, Paris was worth a Mass; for lovers of historical fiction interested in sixteenth century France, C. W. Gortner's new novel, THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI (Ballantine) is definitely worth a read.

Narrated in the first person by Catherine herself, the novel attempts to humanize an historical figure long vilified by partisan accounts of her role in the bloody Wars of Religion that rent France asunder during the latter decades of the century. Demonized as a ruthless regent with an unquenchable thirst for power, the historical Catherine has been accused of murdering opponents with impunity, ordering massacres of defenseless Huguenots, and sacrificing her own children in order to maintain her dominion. In contrast to this heartless monster, Gortner creates a Catherine who, though far from cuddly, nurtures a compassion born of her foreignness and her unrequited passion for a husband who spurns her. Though devoted to her children as much as a queen might be, Gortner's Catherine is willing to sacrifice their individual happiness, as well as her own, for the good of her beloved France. Threatened by enemies on all sides and watching the hopes of her house dwindle as one Valois prince after another dies, Catherine struggles to hold the imploding kingdom together through compromise, tolerance, and the dogged pursuit of a vision of religious unity. Far from the malicious "Madame Serpent" of Huguenot proproganda, Catherine becomes France's savior, preserving the tattered country from foreign domination by uniting her Catholic daughter to her Huguenot nephew and preventing the powerful, ultra-Catholic Guise clan from usurping royal powers.

The scope of the novel is broad, covering Catherine's life from the age of ten to the moment of her death in 1589. Gortner handles this span of nearly sixty years with aplomb. He takes us through the tumult of Catherine's childhood in Florence as the lone scion of the now-hated Medicis; her strained marriage with Henri II of France, during which she is forced to share the king with his aging mistress Diane de Poitiers, governess to the royal children; the short reign of Catherine's first son François, during which the Huguenots first march against a crown caught in the unyielding grip of the Catholic Guises; the reign of her son Charles, during which she acts as regent and promotes tolerance towards the heretics even as she fights to keep France free of Spanish domination; and finally the reign of her son Henri III, whose failure to produce an heir brings an end to the Valois line. The task of condensing the life of complex figure who lived during a complicated era is a daunting one but well executed by the author. In order to keep the pace moving, he necessarily condenses and streamlines, but never strays far from the historical record. The events of Catherine's life coincide with important moments in the life of the country; in following Catherine's personal story, the reader comes away with a good understanding of the main trajectory of French history during these critical years.

Gortner keeps the emotional tension high. I felt a keen connection with Catherine, especially during pivotal scenes. Her horror, as the dreadful events of the Eve of Saint Bartholomew spiral out of control, is palpable. Gortner strives to provide an emotional substratum for Catherine's policy decisions. In an interesting and, as far as I can ascertain, historically fanciful twist, he attributes Catherine's lengthy efforts to establish a peaceful coexistence of Catholics and Huguenots to a brief yet intense love affair she has with the leader of the Huguenot cause, Gaspard de Coligny. For too long, Catherine's feelings for Coligny prevent her from recognizing the treachery of his actions and taking adequate precautions against him; as for Coligny, he devotes himself fanatically to his cause once he becomes convinced he has lost Catherine for good. Whether or not this relationship actually occurred between the historical figures, the affair works very well within the economy of the novel. We see Catherine, long repudiated by her husband, validated as a woman by a man who loves her, while the overarching conflict of religious philosophies moves from the realm of the abstract onto an intensely personal and engaging level.

Gortner treats the historical Catherine's purported fluency in the black arts with admirable circumscription. Although she possesses a few amulets and dolls and even a vial or two of poison, she never resorts to using them. She depends on her astrologer Ruggieri solely to determine propitious dates and draw charts for her children; her few meetings with Nostredamus result in his delivery of verses whose import she only understands after the events they describe occur. Rather than determining the course of events through spells and poisonings, Catherine simply receives glimpses of the future, unbidden and often terrifying. When she can, she uses these visions to guide her; when she cannot, they serve to remind the reader that Catherine was as much a pawn of fate as the molder of her own--and her country's--destiny.

THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI is a worthy successor to Gortner's well-received debut, THE LAST QUEEN. I was thrilled to find the world of sixteenth-century France brought to life with such verve and finesse. Readers new to the era will find this an intriguing and accessible introduction, while those cognizant of the history will find in the vivid characterizations and narrative arc much food for thought. I thank Christopher not only for inviting me to read and review his engrossing novel, but for opening up a difficult yet immensely fascinating era to countless eager readers.


I'm pleased to be able to give away a copy of THE CONFESSIONS OF CATHERINE DE MEDICI to a reader who has made it to the end of this long review! If you would like to enter the random drawing, please comment below with your email address before 11 pm PST on Sunday, June 27. The publisher restricts this contest to readers in the United States and Canada only. The winner's name will be posted by noon on Monday, June 28th. Good luck!

If you would like to learn more about C.W. Gornter's books, please visit his website or his blog, Historical Boys. You can follow the stops on his blog tour at Pump Up Your Book Promotion. Be sure to return here tomorrow to read a wonderful guest post by the author on the relationship between Catherine de Medici and her father-in-law François I.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sixteenth Century Quote of the Week

"D'être content sans vouloir davantage,
C'est un trésor qu'on ne peut estimer."

"Being happy without wanting more
Is an incalculable treasure."

Clément Marot (1496-1544), French poet
Rondeau XXVII (1540)

[Translation mine]