Q & A with Maggie Secara

You have written ‘A Compendium of Common Knowledge: 1558-1603’ about life in 16th century England. What inspired you to write about this period?

This book began as a project for the Queen’s Court (St George’s Guild) of the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Southern California, probably about 1986 or ‘87. I had noticed during rehearsals that new people especially were missing some of the details that had been common knowledge in the group just a few years earlier. As “old timers” leave a group, this is probably inevitable, but hard to fix.

Also, in my own research, I began to find that some of the things “everybody knows” were wrong or at least questionable. Well anyway, I put some of my notes together—pretty much in the type of format you see today—and I passed out about 10 pages as a handout called A Compendium of Common Knowledge. A couple weeks later, I had added a few more, and so on throughout the pre-faire rehearsal season.

This went on for a couple of years. Any time I learned something new, or when someone asked a question that sent me looking for answers, new pages appeared. Eventually it grew to about 35 pages, and the Compendium: The Next Generation appeared, this time with pictures. I was also doing a monthly newsletter that used some of this information, which eventually got collected into later handouts.

You also run the website Renaissance: The Elizabethan World. What do you hope to achieve through your site?

Exactly the same thing as the original purpose: to provide a base-line of easily accessible Elizabethan details that people can build on, whether for creating a persona, building background for a novel, or just for fun. From our email, a lot of students and teachers use it as well. The website gives that information the broadest possible audience.

Readers are insatiable when it comes to the Tudor period, what do you think is its lure?

I’ve wondered that myself. The nineteenth century, while very popular as well for re-enactors, is closer to our own, and philosophically closer as well. The Tudors are farther away, which makes it more exotic and, well, romantic .  And there’s the whole bawdy side as well. To many people, it looks like a wilder, merrier, more frivolous time. Of course, as with any era, the more you know, the less frivolous it appears.

Who do you believe played the most important role in shaping the character of Elizabeth I?

Life is seldom so neatly packaged that we can point to one person and say “that’s the biggest influence”. She was subjected to so many forces through her life, especially in her youth when she had no control over anything.  But if I have to pick just one, after her father , sister, and brother, I’d say her nurse, Kat Ashley.  In spite of all the big political forces swirling around her, the moral compass was probably provided most strongly by Mistress Ashley, who was with her from a very early age. I wouldn’t like to say that it was always for the best. Ashley had her weaknesses, certainly, and made some significant mistakes.  But she was also as near to a stable relationship as Elizabeth had in her early life. The exact nature of her influence is hard to pin down, but you know it’s there.

Apart from Elizabeth I, who are your other favourite Tudor personalities?

William Shakespeare (more Jacobean, really than Tudor) and Mary Browne, Countess of Southampton—the character I portrayed at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire for 12 years. Francis Drake.

Otherwise, really, there are just so many. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the ladies of the Court, and found many wonderful women: Elizabeth Countess of Shrewsbury (“Bess of Hardwick”) who married well, and still better, and better still. Bridget countess of Bedford, who was a force in the reform of religion along with each of her husbands, and saw to her children’s marriages with extraordinary skill.

I read that you have taken part in many re-enactments. Could you tell us a little bit about what this involves?

Tudor and Elizabethan re-enactment is mainly a feature of Renaissance faires, of which I’m really only familiar with those in California. I spent many years in the Court, where we planned and created personalities and conversations such people might have had, using historical preparation and theatrical improvisation. This included everything from catty gossip to “spontaneous” madrigal singing, to sessions of the Queen’s Privy Council discussing political issues of the day. All of which, even the politics, could hold and entertain an audience. The goal was, as Phyllis Patterson used to say, “to trick into learning with a laugh.” Our patrons come for the entertainment, the turkey legs, and the wenches and many walk away with a slightly better understanding of a world long past.

You have undertaken a lot of research into the court of Elizabeth I. Have you come across any activities, customs or traditions that you’ve found particularly interesting or peculiar?

Oh gosh, well, y’know, everything that made its way into the Compendium was something I found especially interesting. But particularly for the court: New Years gifts. Gifts were exchanged on January 1 instead of December 25, basically the mid point of the Twelve Days of Christmas. At court, there was no opening of presents or personal gift exchange. You sent a servant with your gift, often money in a jeweled and embroidered purse, to one of the ladies of the Bedchamber or directly to the Jewel House or Office of the Wardrobe. They were carefully recorded, and your servant was most likely given a voucher for a silver covered cup of a particular weight and value, or something of that kind. Very little in the way of thoughtful, personal gifts.

Also, I think the relationship of people to their servants is something that came as a surprise. Most of what we Americans know about having/being servants comes from Victorian sources and movies. Another case of what “everyone knows” being not quite true for the Elizabethans. And a particular place to remember that the past is not all the same place.

Have you visited any historical locations associated with the Tudors? If so, what is your favourite Tudor location in England?

Sadly, last time I was there, I knew very little and had no focus. So no, no favourites really. If I get a chance to return, the place I really want to go is the ruins of Cowdray House in Sussex, the house my lady Southampton grew up in. Among other things, because I have never been able to find a portrait of her husband, I’d really like to see the funeral monument that has his figure on it!

Are you currently writing or researching any books?

I’m always researching new pages for the Compendium. This year, I’m hoping to add material on pirates/privateers, explorers, early childhood, Dr John Dee, and probably a couple others. Mostly I’ve been writing a lot of fiction over the last year—faerie crossed with historical fantasy. So far the first of a series is finished and making the rounds, and two others are in the works. IN each, the main characters have to spend at least a little time in Elizabethan England, which has sent me back to the books. Some of that research has already found its way into new Compendium pages, too!

I am sure that you have read many books in your life that have inspired you. Do you have a favourite?

Probably too many to list, but a short list would have to include J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,  T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Mary Renault’s The King Must Die, (do we see a trend forming here?) and Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset.

What is your favourite Elizabeth moment or quote?

Really, my very favourite moment was in 1988, the 400th anniversary of the Armada year, when Luisa Puig as Queen Elizabeth recited the edited Golden speech for the “Queen’s Show” audience. The speech, and the roar that followed still gives me chills to think about. I’ve always thought that’s just what it must have been like, being there on that beach at Tilbury.

And for sheer, spontaneous Tudor bravado: “If I were turned out of my realm in my petticoat, I would prosper anywhere in Christendom.”

Visit Maggie’s site Renaissance – The Elizabethan World.

Learn more about Maggie at The Independent Author Network.

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Comments

  1. Robert Parry says:

    Wish I’d had access to Maggie’s Compendium 10 years ago! But the paperback is certainly going to the top of my TBR list now.

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