Writing Elizabethan Historical Fiction

Hi everyone .. apologies for being AWOL the last two weeks. Today, I’m delighted to have Tony Riches on the blog with a fascinating post on writing Elizabethan historical fiction. If you haven’t read any of Tony’s novels, correct that problem immediately! His stories are wonderfully told, richly atmospheric and totally immersive. Now, here’s Tony.


I’ve been immersed in the strange world of the court of Queen Elizabeth Ist for the past five years, researching my Elizabethan series. It is important to me to ensure the books as historically accurate and consistent as possible, and my favourite resource is Marion E. Colthorpe’s fascinating website, ‘The Elizabethan Court Day by Day’. Based on decades of research, this is full of details that help bring the stories of the Elizabethans to life.

I decided the first three books of the series would see the complex queen through the eyes of three of her favourites, Drake, Essex, and Raleigh – each of whom knew a different side of their queen. Drake was in awe of her, and showered her with (looted) jewels, Essex was like the son she never had, and Raleigh was the captain of her guard.

These are being followed by books about three of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies. Less well known, they all had close contact with her, influence with her advisors, and the opportunity to see behind the queen’s carefully contrived façade.

I chose the Lady Penelope Devereux as the fourth book in Elizabethan series. Penelope’s great-grandmother was Queen Elizabeth I’s aunt, Mary Boleyn. Her father was Sir Walter Devereux, 1st Earl of Essex, and her mother was Lady Lettice Knollys, banished from court for her secret marriage to the queen’s great favourite, Sir Robert Dudley. 

Penelope and her sister Dorothy (Wikimedia Commons)

A famous beauty, Penelope was well educated, an accomplished dancer and musician. Fluent in Italian, French and Spanish. Penelope became a prominent figure in the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I. She was also involved in political intrigue, influencing the succession and her brother’s ill-fated Essex rebellion. 

One of the challenges in researching Elizabethan ladies is the limited number of primary sources such as letters. When I researched Penelope’s brother Robert Devereux for my book Essex – Tudor Rebel, I had Walter Bourchier Devereux’s ‘Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex’  – a two volume collection of his letters and papers, complete with detailed analysis and context. 

In Penelope’s case, it took a bit of detective work to discovered only twenty-seven letters in English, six in French and seven letters in Spanish. Interestingly, many use code words or are deliberately obscure, although analysis of them reveal an invaluable sense of Penelope’s ‘voice’, and how she related to others.

Another surprise was the inconsistent records of Penelope’s many children. Some biographers have them in the wrong order, and others ignore some entirely. The situation is not helped by the question of who their fathers were, and premature or stillbirths with no baptism. My solution was to create my own list from the best information I could find, (and I updated her Wikipedia page accordingly.) 

To avoid too many spoilers, I will not say here what I made of her brother accusing Penelope of encouraging his rebellion, or her relationship with Queen Elizabeth after he was executed for treason. Her story takes readers past the end of the Tudors with the death of Elizabeth, and her new life as a lady of the bedchamber to Queen Anne.

Lord Byron’s saying ‘Tis strange — but true; for truth is always strange; Stranger than fiction; if it could be told.’ is proven right by my research. Although historical fiction, I have only had to ‘fill in the gaps’, and believe my new book is therefore one of the most comprehensive account of Penelope’s amazing story.

Penelope – Tudor Baroness (Book Four of The Elizabethan Series) by Tony Riches

Penelope’s life is full of love and scandal. The inspiration for Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet Astrophel and Stella, she is inevitably caught up in her brother Robert’s fateful rebellion.

A complex and fascinating woman, her life is a story of love, betrayal, and tragedy. Discover how Penelope charms her way out of serious charges of treason, adultery, and forgery, and becomes one of the last truly great ladies of the Tudor court.

A maid of honour to Queen Elizabeth, Penelope outlives the end of the Tudors with the death of the old queen and the arrival of King James, becoming a favourite lady-in-waiting to the new queen, Anne of Denmark.

“This is the story of a woman who lived life on her own terms, and one that will stay with you long after you finish reading it.”

Many thanks, Tony. I’m fascinated with the notion of code words in old letters. Clearly you can add espionage to your many talents.

Tony Riches is a full-time UK author of Tudor historical fiction. He lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, West Wales and is a specialist in the lives of the early Tudors. As well as his new Elizabethan series, Tony’s historical fiction novels include the best-selling Tudor trilogy and his Brandon trilogy, (about Charles Brandon and his wives)For more information about Tony’s books please visit his website tonyriches.com and his blog, The Writing Desk and find him on  Facebook and Twitter @tonyriches.

BTW – you can read more about Tony Riches and his historical fiction in other blog posts such as:


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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Meet M.K.Tod

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2 Responses

  1. So glad to learn about this novelist working in the Elizabethan period! Drake is a character in the novel I’m working on, but he appears in his ship setting on his voyage around the world. So I’m looking forward to learning more about Tony’s work.

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