There have been numerous biographies, novels, documentaries, mini-series, and films written about the Tudor period. Why do you think viewers and readers are insatiable when it comes to the Tudors?
Reasons abound, I think. This period is considered the Early Modern period and many of the problems and challenges we face now had their start back then. For example, the question of religion–for a thousand years, the Roman Catholic church governed how the majority of Europeans worshipped. Then, with the Reformation, different ideas became available through the printing press, which was really much like our internet. Suddenly, many people had access to differing ideas. This caused folks to take a look at the Church and either make changes from within or break away and begin a new approach. We still bicker over religion–just watch an American election if you don’t believe it!– and there is little consensus among denominations when religion comes into play.
Also, there was the slow move from the country to the city and the rise of the merchant class that started back then. This caused problems like overcrowding and the easy spread of disease. Going from an agrarian culture to an industrial culture brings its own set of troubles, which we continue to struggle with today. For example, what rights should workers have? Are unions (think guilds from the 16th century) helpful? Who reaps the rewards of industry?
Of course, the personal stories of the major players in the 16th century are fascinating–much the way we look at movie stars or even the Royals, today. We want to know what goes on in the lives of the larger-than-life individuals. The fact of Henry VIII’s many marriages, his growing tyranny, the change from charming, handsome, Renaissance prince to fat, murderous tyrant is something out of Shakespearian tragedy. Novelists couldn’t make this stuff up!
Your debut historical novel, At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn, has just been released. What was the inspiration behind this novel?
My obsession with Anne Boleyn began when I was a teenager and my grandmother told me we were related to her. That, along with my reading Norah Lofts’ The Concubine, created this enormous appetite for all things Tudor. I was hooked, much the same way Henry VIII was hooked, by the alluring Anne Boleyn. I wanted to be just like her–have her power over men and her confidence. To a fifteen year old girl, she seemed to be everything I was not. Then, once I really got into the era, I loved the sumptuous dresses, the jewels, the fancy foods, everything made of cloth of gold—it appeals to the senses, though not always in a good way–there were plenty of foul odors, too!
Why did you choose to write the novel through the eyes of Madge Shelton?
I had been thinking about Madge for years before I started writing about her. The idea of a young girl going to Court, being out of her element and surrounded by people who would use her to their own advantage, seems a good way to see the Court with fresh, innocent eyes. I think Madge had been waiting to come out of my head for quite some time. I thought she deserved more than a one-sentence epitaph–mistress of Henry VIII. So, I wanted to tell her story.
What do you think was and still is the lure of Anne Boleyn?
Anne Boleyn is all that is alluring, attractive and mysterious about Woman. She was smart, full of spunk, courage and she had nerves of steel. She kept Henry at bay for seven years–and kept him interested in her, desiring her, wanting to make her his queen. She was graceful, stylish, musical, well-educated–just the epitome of Renaissance queen. Of course, her swift downfall and execution seem odd, after all of Henry’s adoration. It’s sort of the case of what can happen in marriage—during courtship, all is roses and wine. Marriage is more laundry and diapers. When you think about it, Henry is the man in the mid-life crisis who dumps his old wife for a younger woman. It happens all the time, which is why the story still resonates today.
Anne Boleyn’s ghost has been seen and sensed in several locations around the UK over the years. Do you believe in the paranormal? Have you ever had anything happen to you that you find difficult to explain?
Yes! I lived in a haunted house for about ten years! One of my friends saw the figure of a woman bending over her (my friend’s) son. The woman looked so real, my friend thought it was me and called my name. The woman just vanished. I often heard my name being called, sometimes out of a deep sleep. And I felt people sitting on the bed. But my sons and husband had even more things happen. Once, my teenage sons were upstairs and I had gone to the grocery. They heard the piano playing and thought I’d returned home. They called me, but no answer. They looked and saw the car was still gone. Then, the music stopped. They ran back to their room and didn’t come out until I actually did return and called them. We found out later that one of the ladies who had lived in the house had taught piano lessons.
We had lots of doors slamming shut in the middle of the night, creaking stairs, other strange stuff. I absolutely LOVED that house!
If I ever get to England, which I hope will be as soon as possible, I hope Anne’s ghost will appear to me—I’d love to know what she really looked like.
Apart from Anne and Madge, is there any other Tudor woman that captures your imagination?
Oh, my yes! I’m writing a novel about Elizabeth, Anne’s daughter. She is one amazing woman. And, I’m writing about her relationship with another of my Shelton ancestors, this time, Lady Mary Shelton, who has the dubious claim to fame of suffering a broken finger, snapped by Elizabeth in a fit of rage when she discovered Lady Mary had married a Catholic without the royal permission. I’m telling that story!
I’m also interested in Moll Cutpurse, Anne Aske, Lady Anne Shelton, and lots more–too many to name really.
Share with us a favourite part or quote from your book.
Oh, I love the parts with Arthur Brandon, Madge’s love interest. When Madge first arrives in London, she meets Arthur:
“At that moment, the carriage jerked to a stop. The driver swore at a passerby and before Madge could drop her curtain, a young man popped his head inside the carriage.
“Who might you be, missy, riding in the king’s own coach?” The young man smiled when he saw Madge and stared boldly into her eyes.”
Arthur is a character that just appeared on the page–I had not planned for him. And he’s one of my favorites.
Do you have a favourite Holbein portrait?
I love The Ambassadors for all its symbolism and the one of Henry with his huge, ridiculous codpiece.
Writing has always been an important part of your life, what authors have been sources of inspiration for you?
Wow, there are so many. I love Fred Chappell’s work, Robert Morgan, Marilyn Robinson, Elizabeth Berg, Lee Smith, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor–so many! I also like Jean Plaidy. I love poetry and drama so Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Keats, Yeats, Poe…Hardy of course.
If you could travel back in time and witness only one event during the Tudor period, what event would you choose?
Oh, great question! I think I would choose the moment Henry VIII really fell for Anne Boleyn–the moment he realized he was in love with her and wanted to marry her. I would like to have seen his face!
Thanks so much for a great interview–I’m thrilled to be On the Tudor Trail!
Read an entertaining guest post by Anne called ‘Playing Dress-Up‘
Learn more about Anne Clinard Barnhill at her official website.