I’m delighted to welcome Derek (D.K.) Wilson to the blog. Armed with a degree in History and Theology, Derek has been writing historical fiction and non-fiction since the mid 1970s and is the author of 70+ books. His latest novel – The Devil’s Chalice – is set in Tudor times. Today, Derek explains the inspiration for this new story.
Robert Allen – 1549 by Derek Wilson (D.K. Wilson)
In 1549 a man by the name of Robert Allen was languishing in one of the cells in the Tower of London, under suspicion of being a magician. At this time the law governing witchcraft was in a state of confusion. A parliamentary Act of 1542 had stipulated the death penalty for those convicted of ‘calking’ – i.e. summoning up spirits for the purpose of, among other things, discovering buried treasure, recovering stolen property or ‘provoking any person to unlawful love’. This was the first attempt to bring under civil law what had previously been the preserve of the ecclesiastical courts. It was one of the lesser known aspects of the extension of state control over the church that we call the Reformation. However, this Henrician statute was one of several repealed at the start of Edward VI’s reign in 1547 – only to be reinstated by Elizabeth I’s parliament in 1562. Legislators agreed that magic should be suppressed but could not agree on how to deal with it.
When I interested myself in the obscure figure of Robert Allen and worked him into the plot of The Devil’s Chalice it was to provide the reader with a way into the common psychology of the mid-Tudor age. For Allen was, by no means, an unusual feature of England in the reign of Edward VI. Another suspected ‘wise man’ or ‘wize-ard’ or ‘wizard’ told his accusers that there were at least five hundred practitioners of magic in the kingdom. But that is only part of the story. In this pre-scientific age the common understanding of the solar system was that the earth stood at the centre of concentric circles of astral bodies beyond which lay heaven and that divine and spiritual forces reached right down through the system to man and to the animal and vegetable creation. That being so, those who claimed special knowledge or power ranged from the village wise woman, who collected herbs and made simple medicines, to the scholarly magus who studied ancient religions and philosophies and used his knowledge to gain access to the higher powers. Allen, himself, claimed that ‘he knew more in the science of astronomy (what we would call astrology) than all the universities of Oxford and Cambridge’. This was the age which saw the origin of the Faust legend about the scholar who abandoned all other areas of study in favour of necromancy and sold his soul to the devil in order to enjoy limitless power. It was the age in which casting horoscopes was part of a doctor’s stock-in-trade, for, in order to be effective any prescribed potions had to be taken at the time of the lunar cycle when the relevant zodiacal planets were most ‘favourably’ aligned. Kings and statesmen consulted astrologers about the most propitious times to engage in war, sign treaties or make other important political decisions. Queen Elizabeth’s astrologer was the famous (or notorious) Doctor John Dee, whose neighbours were so frightened and suspicious of him that when he left home to travel abroad they trashed his laboratory. In addition to all these practitioners, there were the fairies and sprites of common folklore such as we encounter in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. These, to us strange, but very real and potent beliefs mingled with conventional Catholic and Protestant theology to make up the kaleidoscope of common convictions during the reign of the boy king, Edward VI.
Someone else also locked up in the Tower at that time was a gentleman by the name of William West. He was being held on suspicion of trying to murder his uncle Lord de la Warr in order to get his hands on his inheritance. These two detainees set my mind working. Suppose they were connected? Might Allen have supplied the poison West administered to his uncle?
Having formulated the germ of an idea I then looked at the background against which I might set my main characters. It was rich with possibilities, for in that summer of 1549 England was in turmoil. Bands of malcontents, angry at the behaviour of rapacious landlords, who were enclosing common fields and dispossessing tenants from their traditional holdings, were rampaging around the shires, pulling down fences and uprooting hedges. The most worrying activity of all was a Norfolk rebellion led by Thomas Kett, which seized control of Norwich, held it for fifty days and provoked panic in London where it was feared that a full-scale peasants’ revolt was brewing and that the malcontents would march on the capital.
Meanwhile, a power struggle was developing at the centre. Henry VIII had died in January 1547, leaving the guidance of his nine-year-old son in the hands of a group of councillors. Edward’s uncle, the Duke of Somerset, grabbed personal power and sidelined his colleagues. Resentments, rivalries and factions soon appeared as councillors jostled for power and sought to bring Somerset under control.
At last, I had the several strands necessary to weave a complex plot involving all levels of English society. The Devil’s Chalice is the result. It is a story, a fiction, but I believe it touches the realities of this very troubled few months. I hope readers’ reaction will be ‘We know this story is made up and didn’t actually happen – but it could have.’ As both a historian and a novelist I firmly believe that there is a place for well-researched fiction which engages the reader’s imagination and helps to create a ‘feel’ for past ages which straight history, strictly confined (quite rightly) by documentary evidence, cannot convey.
Of course, it is down to the reader to decide whether the historical novelist succeeds in his/her endeavour. I hope you will want to try The Devil’s Chalice for yourself. If you do, I shall always be pleased to hear your reactions.
Many thanks, Derek. I’m fascinated to learn of your writing process – the story behind the story – and I’m sure readers will be too. Best wishes for The Devil’s Chalice.
The Devil’s Chalice: The third book in the acclaimed series of Thomas Treviot Tudor crime thrillers – Based on REAL TUDOR CRIME RECORDS.
The Real Crime: In the steaming summer of 1549 two men languish in the Tower of London. William West is accused of attempted murder. Robert Allen is under investigation for dabbling in the Black Arts. Meanwhile, England is in the grip of rebellions against the boy king, Edward VI. The connections between these facts remains a mystery.
The Story: London goldsmith, Thomas Treviot, is sent by his patron, Archbishop Cranmer, to discover discreetly what connections West has with leading figures at court. But Thomas has problems of his own: his teenage son has gone off to Norwich to join rebels led by Robert Kett. Trying to find his son and please Cranmer, he is plunged into dangers from peasant mobs, London gangsters and political chicanery, not to mention an enemy wielding occult power…
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.