I always look forward to the Chalke Valley History Festival, but this year will be even more special because I will be talking about The King’s Witch, my debut novel, which is set just a stone’s throw away at Longford Castle.
Situated on the banks of the River Avon close to Salisbury, Longford is one of the finest examples of the Elizabethan prodigy houses. It was built by Sir Thomas Gorges and his wife Helena, a favourite of the Virgin Queen, and was the inspiration for Philip Sidney’s ‘Castle of Amphialeus’ in his famous work, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia. Thomas and Helena were very happily married and had eight children. It is the third of these, Frances, who is the heroine of my novel.
Little is known about the real Frances, which in many respects makes her an ideal subject for a novel. Her life spanned one of the most dramatic periods in our history: from the glory days of Elizabeth I to the execution of Charles I. No wonder I needed three books to tell it! The King’s Witch is the first in the trilogy and begins with Elizabeth’s death before exploring the turbulent early years of James I’s reign, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
This was a dangerous time to be alive. The new Stuart king was cut from a very different cloth to his Tudor predecessor. Intolerant and dogmatic, he had no intention of upholding Elizabeth’s policy of not ‘making windows into men’s souls’. It was soon obvious that he was going to stamp his extreme brand of Protestantism onto the English people, which spelt danger for any subject who still clung to the old Catholic faith.
James also brought with him the violent persecution of suspected witches that had seen thousands of innocent women put to the flames in Scotland. A woman had only to be unmarried, poor, or be practised at healing to be under suspicion, and an accusation alone was enough to bring her to trial – as Frances, a skilled healer, discovers to her cost.
For all the king’s puritanical views, however, the court over which he presided was shockingly decadent. In place of the cultural vibrancy and strict morality that had defined the Elizabethan court was drunkenness, depravity and excess in every form. Little wonder that James’s new subjects soon harked back to the ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabeth and began nurturing a dangerous resentment against their new king.
As a dark campaign to destroy both King and Parliament gathers pace, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Frances is surrounded by danger, finding happiness only with the king’s precocious young daughter, and with Tom Wintour, the one courtier she feels she can trust. But is he all that he seems?
The novel was inspired by the research I carried out for my non-fiction book, Witches, an account of James I and the English witch hunts. It has taken several years to craft my initial sketch of a story into the finished novel that will be published this June, and I learned a huge amount along the way. Although it is still history, writing a novel is a very different discipline to non-fiction. I had to learn to ‘show not tell’, to interweave period details into dialogue, rather than writing them verbatim as I would in a non-fiction account. Given that so much of Frances’s history is unknown to us, I also had to employ a great deal of imagination – and straying from the facts is not something that comes naturally to a historian!
But I hope the result brings one of the most turbulent events in British history to life, and – though this is tantamount to treason – to entice us to look beyond the Tudor period. I cannot wait to tell the Chalke Valley audience all about it on 27 June.
Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997. She is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. She is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.
Tickets to Tracy’s talk at CVHF on Wednesday 27th June are available here.