Q & A with Susan Higginbotham

What sparked your interest in 15th century England?

I would say that it was reading Shakespeare’s history plays years ago that got me interested in this period, although it was only recently that I began to research the era in depth. Some years back, the English Shakespeare Company (not to be confused with the Royal Shakespeare Company) did an adaptation of the plays, which toured to Stamford, Connecticut, and that only increased my fascination with the period. It was great theatre.

Your latest novel, ‘The Queen of Last Hopes’, is about Margaret of Anjou. What inspired you to tell her story?

When I started to research the period in earnest, I realized how many myths had attached themselves to the women of this period—Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret of Anjou in particular, both of whom have been portrayed very negatively in historical fiction and popular history. As I learned more about the historical Margaret of Anjou, as opposed to the stereotypical one of fiction, I came greatly to admire her fortitude and her courage against hopeless odds. She’s often reduced to a stage villainess by novelists, and I wanted to counterbalance that portrayal of her.

You have researched the lives of many people who played a role in the Wars of the Roses. Do you have a favourite personality?

There are so many! Margaret, of course, is one of my favourites, as is Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who is a major character in “The Queen of Last Hopes.” My favourite story about him is when he jousted wearing “a sorry hat of straw” for a helm.

One of my other favourites is John de Vere, the thirteenth Earl of Oxford, who doggedly fought against the Yorkists until he finally was imprisoned in Hammes Castle near Calais. He had every prospect of dying there until 1484, when his jailer, who had apparently become disaffected with the reign of Richard III, walked off his post and took Oxford with him. They joined Henry Tudor in exile and shared his victory at the Battle of Bosworth. Oxford returned to his estates in England and lived to a ripe old age. The Countess of Surrey, whose husband was imprisoned following Bosworth, wrote that she had found him “singuler very goode and kynde.” Oxford himself had seen his own womenfolk treated far less generously while he was exiled and imprisoned—his widowed mother had been bullied into handing over her lands to the young Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Oxford’s wife had been living in penury—so Oxford’s chivalry stands out all the better.

I also find Thomas Vaughan, chamberlain to the future Edward V, an appealing, and tragic, figure. He went over to the Yorkist party in 1459 and served Richard, Duke of York, Edward IV, and the future Edward V faithfully until April 1483, when Richard, Duke of Gloucester arrested him on what were probably trumped-up charges and executed him either without a trial or with only a show trial, depending on which chronicler you believe. He had devoted most of his adult life to the House of York and had probably been looking forward to spending his last years serving the twelve-year-old Edward V, his new king. Instead, he was one of the first casualties of the future Richard III’s ambitions. It was a sad end for an aged man who had been a Yorkist almost before it was fashionable to be a Yorkist.

Your novels have been described as ‘beautifully written, compelling and well researched’. Could you share with us a little about the process of researching your books?

I usually start off reading a good secondary source about a person or period, and use the sources cited in the bibliography and notes as jumping-off points for further research. From there, it just balloons until I finally reach the point where I have a good enough sense of my characters to start writing. I try to read (or at least skim) as many journal articles as I can, because there are often nuggets of information there that don’t make it into books. I also read primary sources—contemporary chronicles, letters, wills, land grants, household inventories, and so forth. Novelists doing research now are tremendously lucky because so many of these materials have been made available on the Internet.

In your research into Medieval England have you come across any customs, rituals or traditions that you’ve found particularly interesting or peculiar?

One of the most charming customs was one observed by both Edward I and Edward II, who paid “ransoms” to ladies of the queen’s household who caught them in bed on Easter Monday—I was able to work that into my first novel.

It’s probably pretty well known to readers of this blog that gifts in medieval and Tudor England were given on New Year’s Day, not Christmas. I love to read the lists of New Year’s gifts that were given by the various royals—Margaret of Anjou gave a gold tablet to Our Lady of Walsingham on January 1, 1453. The gift must have done the trick, because that was the year she gave birth!

Have you visited places associated with the characters in your books? If so, do you have a favourite location?

I don’t get to travel abroad nearly as often as I would like to, but I have been to London and other parts of England. One of my favourite sites is Tewkesbury Abbey, which figures in all of my novels. Eleanor de Clare, the heroine of my first novel, “The Traitor’s Wife,” commissioned the fine stained-glass windows that can still be seen there today, and she, her husband, and her eldest son and his wife are all buried there. Tewkesbury Abbey is also the resting place of Margaret of Anjou’s son, and it’s where the defeated Lancastrians sought refuge after the Battle of Tewkesbury. Ghosts leave me alone, but if they ever visited me, I suspect that would be the place where they’d most likely find me, because there’s so much of a sense of the past there.

Describe for us a day in your life when you are writing. Do you follow any rituals?

I have a full-time job, so I have to do most of my writing late at night when everyone’s asleep. I don’t follow any ritual—what I should do is turn off the Internet when I start to write, because it’s too easy when I hit a slow spot to click on Facebook or another site and see what’s going on.

Does the Tudor period interest you? If so, do you have a favourite Tudor personality?

It certainly does! I find Henry VII to be an intriguing and curiously neglected figure—he gets overshadowed by his son and grandchildren. I think that a new biography of him, one that digs deeper than the existing ones, is sorely needed. I also find Henry VII’s uncle Jasper Tudor to be a fascinating figure, as well as Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. I do sense that there’s more of an interest in the early Tudors than there used to be.

These days, I’m spending a lot of time reading about John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and his family. He was a complex personality, by no means the cardboard villain that he’s often made out to be. He’s probably my favourite Tudor at the moment. (It’s neat, by the way, the way this Word document keeps changing my American spelling to British spelling—it’s almost like travelling!)

Are you presently working on any books?

I’m working on one set in Tudor England, during the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I. I’m not allowed to say much more about it, but if you look at the paragraph above there’s a hint about one of its main characters . . .

I enjoy hearing from people of the past in their own words. Letters reveal so much about the writer and the time in which they lived. Do you have a favourite historical quote?

Yes, from Sforza de’ Bettini of Florence, Milanese Ambassador at the French Court, who was trying to sort out the state of affairs in England in 1471. He wrote on May 5, 1471, to the Duke of Milan: “I wish the country and the people were plunged deep in the sea, because of their lack of stability, for I feel like one going to the torture when I write about them, and no one ever hears twice alike about English affairs.” I feel that way too sometimes when I’m writing!

To learn more about Susan Higginbotham visit her Official Website.

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