Memoirs from the Tower of London – Elizabeth St. John

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Today Elizabeth St. John, author of The Lady of the Tower and By Love Divided, gives us Memoirs from the Tower of London.

“All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made (the prisoners) broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.” Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson – Lucy Hutchinson, the daughter of Lucy St.John, wrote the memoir and told of her mother’s life.

Gazing from the parlor window of the Queen’s House within the walls of the Tower of London, I could see the chapel of St. Peter, the iconic White Tower…and the site of the executioner’s block. Knowing that I shared this view with my ancestress, Lucy St.John, who occupied this house four hundred years earlier, made me shiver with excitement.

Lucy St.John lived in the Tower of London for thirteen years from 1617 to 1630; not as a prisoner, but as Mistress of the Tower.  I stumbled upon the above-quoted biographical fragment from Lucy Hutchinson’s notebook in Nottingham Castle, and I knew I must find out more about her mother. The Memoirs give tantalizing glimpses of Lucy St.John’s life, and further research on the position of Lieutenant of the Tower, Lucy’s husband, Sir Allen Apsley, revealed much more. A book was starting to take shape.

The Lieutenant’s Lodging

Growing up in England within a family that celebrated history and spent more time researching dead ancestors than talking to living relatives, it was crucial that my fiction writing be informed by fact. I also wanted my readers to feel the same thrill of connecting with the past that I do, and to meet and understand my family and their lives as if the centuries did not separate us.

When I decided that Lucy would be the subject of my novel, The Lady of the Tower, I contacted Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces (HRP) and asked if I could possibly visit some of the private locations within the Tower. The Queen’s House is the family home of the Governor, just as it was for Lucy when she moved there in 1617. They readily gave their permission and kindly offered a Yeoman Warder as a guide.

View of Tower Green from Lucy’s Parlour

I was excited to arrive early one winter’s morning, before the crowds, and walk along the old quay by Traitor’s Gate. Peeking over the massive stone walls were the gabled roofs of Lucy’s home – a curious juxtaposition of domesticity and fortress. I used that view and sensation to set the opening scene of my novel, for I could only imagine Lucy’s trepidation upon entering the Tower, and seeing her future home.

As I met my Beefeater, we quickly found a common love of history, and together we entered the Queen’s House. What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window – just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.

The house was used for administrative offices too, and as I explored the warren of rooms (the plans to which, alas, are missing), I came across a small corridor. Just a few feet from Lucy’s front hall, great blocks of stone took over from the domesticity of plaster, and in another pace or two, I was standing within the twelfth century Bell Tower. The ambiance was mournful, and it was not at all difficult to think of Thomas More, John Fisher, and the young Princess Elizabeth imprisoned in this bleak chamber. Their view from the narrow slit windows was the same as Lucy’s from her parlor – the execution block.

The Queen’s House from the River Thames

My inspiration from the Tower continued as I walked outside. Lucy was a great herbalist, and her medicinals no doubt eased the lives of many of the prisoners she nursed. In another part of the memoirs, her daughter refers to Lucy’s generosity with her hen-house – she allowed Sir Walter Raleigh to make free use of it to conduct his alchemy experiments when he was under her care and lodging in the Bloody Tower. Needless to say, this took me in another whole research direction.

The Victorians built over Lucy’s garden, but it is still easy to see the old levels of where her gardens were, and how she would access them from her home. She grew up in country houses where it would have been her responsibility to learn simple herbal cures and recipes, and I had a wonderful time researching recipes and including them within my novel. I was even more fortunate that another family member, her niece Johanna, collated a vast collection of remedies in a book that is now in the Wellcome Library in London. Recipes were precious, and freely exchanged between friends and family, so it was no stretch to think that Johanna sourced some of her remedies from her aunt. I liberally borrowed from those recipes to embellish The Lady of the Tower.

Raleigh, of course, was also a great gardener. I couldn’t resist some interactions between him and Lucy involving some “Virginia Potatoes” as they were known. That is the joy of writing historical fiction – we can have these flights of fancy, as long as they are based in a foundation of solid research.

Lucy’s husband is buried within the Tower at St. Peter ad Vincula, and as I explored the chapel, and saw the stone commemorating Anne Boleyn’s burial, so many emotions flooded my thoughts. Although the Tower is a world tourist attraction, and millions of people walk through its environs every year, I feel such a personal connection, knowing that my family lived and worked within its walls. A small votive to Sir Thomas Moore is still kept burning in the Yeoman’s private chapel, and that was an important detail for me to include in my book.

In Lucy’s time, the Liberty of the Tower housed over a thousand families, all of which came under her husband’s jurisdiction. It really was its own small city, for it lay outside of the laws of the City of London (which caused some friction on many occasions). I like to think of Lucy ministering to the citizens of the Tower as well as the prisoners, walking not just in the areas where her aristocratic prisoners were lodged, but among the houses and gardens of the residents who all helped this important institution run smoothly.

The Tower of London played a crucial role in inspiring my first novel, which has become a best-seller in both the US and the UK. One of the most exciting achievements was the day Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces asked if they could stock The Lady of the Tower in the Tower’s gift shop. Two years later, we are still on sale within the White Tower. In her own special way, Lucy has returned home.

Many thanks, Liz for sharing your inspiration and some of your fascinating family history.

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London to inspire her writing. Although her ancestors sold a few mansions and country homes along the way (it’s hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them – in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint.

The Lady of the Tower, Elizabeth’s first novel, a Discovered Diamond and a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner, is on sale on Amazon, and at the Tower of London. Elizabeth’s award-winning second book, By Love Divided, is also an Amazon best-seller and follows the lives of Lucy and her children during the English Civil War. Currently working on the third in The Lydiard Chronicles series, Elizabeth is also releasing the audio book of The Lady of the Tower in May, 2018. You can reach Elizabeth at her website on Amazon, Twitter @ElizStJohn and Facebook

Photos: © Elizabeth St.John 2018

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Two cultures, three languages and one big conflict

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Chrystyna LUCYK-BERGER is an award-winning writer whose Reschen Valley series released this past January. Today she gives us an intriguing look at how the series came about.

Imagine driving south over an alpine pass, crossing from Austria into Italy. You might expect Italian restaurants, Italian signs, and Italian architecture. But that’s not what happens. It still looks like the Austrian Tyrol with a few Italian names but the German language is still everywhere.

Keep driving, because here it comes: spread out before you, an unbelievably beautiful reservoir some 4 miles long and nestled into the horizon. The sight of that aquamarine water takes your breath away. You pass the first town and quickly come upon the next one called Graun / Curon Venosta. And then there it is. Off to the right, some 50 feet from the lakeshore, is a fully intact medieval church tower rising straight out of the water. This is the setting of my series, Reschen Valley.

That haunting sight! I saw it for the first time in 2000 and I wanted to know what had happened. Immediately. However, I didn’t know enough German or Italian to understand the local’s explanations. I passed that scene for five years before pieces of the story began to fall into place.

My German had improved. I was directed to a museum located above the fire department where I discovered what devastation and destruction lay below the surface of the water. I wanted to know more. I found information about the secret Treaty of London, signed by Italy in 1915 as negotiated with them by France, England and Russia. I researched Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points, then his biography. I read the Hungarian Ambassador’s book from 1964. I found a professor in Innsbruck whose work had been translated into English. But overall, almost nobody I talked to knew the details of how South Tyrol became Italian.

More so, the deeper I went, in all directions, the more mysterious and thrilling the story was becoming. Especially in regard to how the reservoir was built. I was making two or three trips a year, spending a lot of time in South Tyrol and getting to know two cultures: the Austrian Tyrolean one and the northern Italian one.

By the time I visited the Reschen Lake reservoir for the tenth time, a whole slew of characters had risen above its surface: a young farmer woman, a sassy innkeeper, an Italian engineer, a German carpenter, a dog. A colonel and a Fascist. They clambered into my Fiat and never let go.

Here’s how the story begins: The Great War is over but a new conflict has just begun. The Austrian Tyrol is cut in two, its southern half handed over to Italy leaving an entire population severed from its countrymen. Katharina Thaler, a Tyrolean farmer, is out hunting when she stumbles on an Italian veteran who’s been stabbed on her mountain. Terrified that one of her own people has committed the crime, she must choose to save him or leave him to die. Her decision thrusts her into a labyrinth of corruption, greed and prejudice as Katharina is caught between the Tyroleans who are trying to stop the annexation to Italy and the growing Fascist powers that need their land to produce electricity; electricity required to prepare for the next war.

The journey in writing what will be five novels spanning 3.5 decades, required steering around many a conundrum. First, how far beneath the strata of my two cultures must I go before I can feel confident about creating an entire world from them and do the cultures justice? I could never presume to know or understand enough than that which lays beneath the first few layers. I will always be an outsider writing from an outsider’s perspective. And I feel that has its advantages.

Further, I’m writing the books in English with characters who would normally speak German and/or Italian. It’s thrilling to have this much fodder for conflict between my characters: cultural clashes, misunderstandings, plays on words. I am also, however, acutely and painfully aware that my ability to play on those in depth are limited if my audience is an English-speaking or English-reading audience. This has caused me to experiment for years with the use of foreign phrases, and creating a world that is universally understandable. My concern has been to make sure that I had enough of both cultural aspects and unique language that, should these novels ever be translated into German or Italian, they would not feel watered down to the native population. This was a huge obstacle to overcome.

And then there was the question of taking sides in the conflict. I made the decision to explore all aspects of this story, all its arguments and objectives. It is not my job to illustrate who is right and who is wrong in this conflict and I don’t think it’s realistic anyhow. Once again, I made conscious decisions to create three-dimensional characters with all their flaws and strengths, with all their motivations to do good or evil. I did not want to make this conflict my conflict.

In the end, I set out to write a story as well as uncover one of the least known histories in western Europe. In the process, I also discovered that there is a warning in those pages that we, today, must also heed.

Chrystyna’s first two books in the Reschen Valley series, No Man’s Land and The Breach, are available on Amazon. Her novella, The Smuggler of Reschen Pass is a prequel to No Man’s Landand on preorder now on Amazon. It releases May 15th. Bolzano,Part 3, will release in September this year.

No Man’s Land by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger – She wants her home. He wants control. The Fascist regime wants both.

1920, former Austrian Tyrol. Katharina Thaler faces becoming the first woman to ever own a farm in the Reschen Valley. The end of the Great War has taken more than her beloved family, it has robbed the province of its autonomy and severed it in half. As her countrymen fight to prevent the annexation to Italy, Katharina finds a wounded Italian engineer on her mountain. Her decision to save Angelo Grimani’s life, however, thrusts both into the midst of a new world order—a labyrinth of corruption, prejudice and greed.

Transported – what does it mean?

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Transported in time and place. What thoughts come to mind? I checked the handy site thesaurus.com and found all sorts of synonyms, particularly for the notion of transported meaning captivated or delighted.

So many possibilities. The list adds context to what I hope to focus on and what I and other fiction authors hope their novels do for readers.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.