For publication of the fourth book in the bestselling Six Tudor Queens series Alison Weir has created this special True or False quiz about Anna of Kleve.

Anna of Kleve True or False quiz

‘Alison Weir transforms Henry VIII’s much-maligned fourth wife into a woman of passion, courage and mystery’ Tracy Borman

Alison Weir, historian and author of the Sunday Times bestsellers Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession and Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, paints a spellbinding portrait of Anna of Kleve, Henry VIII’s fourth queen.

‘This six-book series looks likely to become a landmark in historical fiction’ The Times


The King is in love with Anna’s portrait, but she has none of the accomplishments he seeks in a new bride.

She prays she will please Henry, for the balance of power in Europe rests on this marriage alliance.

But Anna’s past is never far from her thoughts, and the rumours rife at court could be her downfall. Everyone knows the King won’t stand for a problem queen.


Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new evidence to conjure a startling image of Anna as you’ve never seen her before. A charming, spirited woman, she was loved by all who knew her – and even, ultimately, by the King who rejected her.

History tells us she was never crowned.
But her story does not end there.


‘Alison Weir makes history come alive as no one else’ Barbara Erskine

‘Weir is excellent on the little details that bring a world to life’ Guardian

ANNA OF KLEVE: QUEEN OF SECRETS publishes on 2nd May 2019

‘The echoes of the ghosts still whispered and sang through the cave. I turned to look back at the towering rocks. A red-orange glow danced and flickered through the crevices. The villagers said that whenever the heart of the tor was burning in the darkness it meant Ankow was riding up to the rocks on his skeleton horse, carrying the souls of those who had died. The fire would burn until dawn, and any who were awake in those parts would see the glow of those flames and tremble, afeared that, before the year was out, Ankow would drag them through that crevice into the lands of the dead.’

from A Gathering of Ghosts

One of the ancient superstitions I drew on in my latest medieval thriller, A Gathering of Ghosts, was the belief in a spectral man who was the servant or bondsman of Death. In the Celtic areas of Britain, he was known as ‘Ankow’. In Brittany and in the Channel Islands they called him ‘Ankou’, and in other parts of the British Isles, the ‘Watcher’ or the ‘Dark Rider’. Depicted as a hooded figure, he was tasked with collecting the souls of those who were destined to die. He rode a huge black or skeleton horse, sometimes with a pack of monstrous hounds at his heels. Other tales said he drove a black cart, which was never seen, but only heard rumbling through the lanes in the darkest hour of the night.

Medieval funerals were surrounded by superstition, some of which continued well into the twentieth century.  It was believed that the Devil would claim as his tithe the soul of the first creature to be buried in the graveyard. So, when a new graveyard was opened or extended, a dog or a passing vagabond was buried in the graveyard first. W. Henderson, writing in 1879, said that in the Devonshire village of Bovey Tracy, parishioners had refused to use the new graveyard until a visitor’s servant died and was buried there, after which it was deemed safe. In 1886, when the graveyard of Wainfleet All Saints was extended, the sexton was paid by one of churchwardens to bury a dead dog in the corner after it had been consecrated for burials. This superstition held sway as late as 1958, when a vicar in West Somerset said that he’d been surprised when the first burial in a new graveyard had gone ahead without protests, only to discover that a black dog from the village had disappeared before the funeral, and he heard villagers remark that ‘the sexton knew what to do.’

But if most of those buried in the graveyard were safe once the Devil had claimed his first soul, there was another curse that the living had to protect their dead from. For it was thought that the last person to be buried in a graveyard at the end of the year would become the dreaded Ankow and would be forced to guard the graveyard from evil spirits and serve Death for the coming year. It was a terrifying prospect and in some Irish villages the gravedigger would place a pipe and tobacco in a box on the grave to calm the new Ankow’s nerves, as he began his long and lonely servitude.

In winter or when there were plagues or fevers, deaths naturally increased so it was common for more than one funeral to take place on the same day. And, as the year drew to a close, unseemly scuffles often took place between the two sets of mourners as both raced to get their dead through the lych or coffin gate first, so that their relative would not become Ankow. There are accounts of the horses pulling the coffin carts being whipped to the gallop, and bearers breaking into a run, using their coffin to barge the other party aside. One woman in Aberdeenshire was even killed when she was pushed into an open grave as the two sets of mourners fought each other to prevent the other party burying their corpse first.

However, in some parts of Britain and Brittany, Ankow was ascribed a different origin.  One legend said he was a prince who had foolishly challenged Death to a contest to catch a magical stag and had lost, or that he was Cain, the son of Adam. Another said that he was a spirit created to summon humans to the grave, or guide souls to the lych-ways along which they must travel to the next world.

In some places, Ankow was thought to collect only those that Death had already marked for his own. But in Brittany and also on Dartmoor, Ankow was regarded more like Death himself for he could also choose additional victims. He could touch the hand of any lone traveller he came across, making the person shudder convulsively. If they were touched at night, they might live for another year, or two at the most. But if it was evening, then Ankow would return for their soul within weeks. One Jersey legend says that Ankow has a palace in the underworld, lit by thousands of candles, each one a human life and, when bored, he amuses himself by blowing out some of the flames at random, in readiness for his night’s work. The early morning mist that rises from the ground is the smoke from those snuffed-out candles.

So, be warned if you venture out on Dartmoor alone at night, for you might just encounter a hooded figure you do not want to meet.

Meggy spun round as the baying sounded again, closer, much closer. A cloud peeled back from the moon. A thin shaft of snow-cold light fell on the earth and the shadow on the hummock reared up. The black horse and black-clad rider seemed to be staring straight at her. She couldn’t see the man’s face – she wasn’t even sure he had a face. There was nothing beneath the hood of his cloak, save the shadow of the grave.

 ‘Ankow,’ Meggy whispered, but even as she breathed the name, the moon was swallowed again by the cloud and the figure melted back into the night. The pulsing notes of a hunting horn throbbed on the wind and at once the baying of the hounds excitedly took up the cry. Now she could see them, black streaks streaming towards her, bounding over rocks and crashing through bushes. She turned and ran down the hill, her throat afire, her breath ripping at her side. But even terror could not lend her speed enough.’

from A Gathering of Ghosts

Karen Maitland’s A GATHERING OF GHOSTS is out now in paperback

Find out more about the authors featuring in our H for History Rooftop Bookclub on 19th March, sponsored by BBC History.

Find out more about the event. Tickets available here.

This sensational evening features eight of the best historical fiction authors.

Women in History:

Hosted by Anna Mazzola:

Anna Mazzola’s first novel, THE UNSEEING, was published to critical acclaim in 2016. She is a criminal justice solicitor and lives in South East London with her husband and two children.

Longlisted for the 2018 Highland Book Prize

‘A wonderful combination of a thrilling mystery and a perfectly depicted period piece’ Sunday Mirror

Audrey Hart is on the Isle of Skye to collect the folk and fairy tales of the people and communities around her. It is 1857 and the Highland Clearances have left devastation and poverty, and a community riven by fear. The crofters are suspicious and hostile to a stranger, claiming they no longer know their fireside stories.

Then Audrey discovers the body of a young girl washed up on the beach and the crofters reveal that it is only a matter of weeks since another girl disappeared. They believe the girls are the victims of the restless dead: spirits who take the form of birds.

Initially, Audrey is sure the girls are being abducted, but as events accumulate she begins to wonder if something else is at work. Something which may be linked to the death of her own mother, many years before.

THE STORY KEEPER is available now

Tracy Borman:

Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997.

Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books including The Private Lives of the Tudors: Uncovering the Secrets of Britain’s Greatest Dynasty, Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad.

‘An outstanding work of historical artistry, a brilliantly woven and pacy story of the men who surrounded, influenced and sometimes plagued Henry VIII.’ Alison Weir

Henry VIII is well known for his tumultuous relationships with women, and he is often defined by his many marriages. But what do we see if we take a different look? When we see Henry through the men in his life, a new perspective on this famous king emerges…

Henry’s relationships with the men who surrounded him reveal much about his beliefs, behaviour and character. They show him to be capable of fierce, but seldom abiding loyalty; of raising men only to destroy them later. He loved to be attended and entertained by boisterous young men who shared his passion for sport, but at other times he was more diverted by men of intellect, culture and wit. Often trusting and easily led by his male attendants and advisers during the early years of his reign, he matured into a profoundly suspicious and paranoid king whose favour could be suddenly withdrawn, as many of his later servants found to their cost. His cruelty and ruthlessness would become ever more apparent as his reign progressed, but the tenderness that he displayed towards those he trusted proves that he was never the one-dimensional monster that he is often portrayed as.

In this fascinating and often surprising new biography, Tracy Borman reveals Henry’s personality in all its multi-faceted, contradictory glory.


Sonia Velton:

Sonia Velton grew up between the Bahamas and the UK. After graduating from university with a first class law degree, she qualified as a solicitor at an international law firm, later going on to specialise in discrimination law. Sonia relocated to the Middle East in 2006. Eight years and three children later she returned to the UK and now lives in Kent. Blackberry and Wild Rose, inspired by real characters and historical events, was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, was longlisted for the Mslexia novel competition, and is Sonia’s first novel.

For fans of Jessie Burton and Tracy Chevalier, a rich historical debut set among the Huguenot silk weavers of Spitalfields in the late 18th century

‘Sumptuous and moving. Velton weaves her tale with the threads of betrayal, thwarted dreams and good intentions gone awry’ Laura Purcell

‘A richly imagined and brilliantly twisty tale’ Anna Mazzola

‘A plot as finely detailed as Spitalfields silk’ Stacey Halls

WHEN ESTHER THOREL, the wife of a Huguenot silk-weaver, rescues Sara Kemp from a brothel she thinks she is doing God’s will. Sara is not convinced being a maid is better than being a whore, but the chance to escape her grasping ‘madam’ is too good to refuse.

INSIDE THE THORELS’ tall house in Spitalfields, where the strange cadence of the looms fills the attic, the two women forge an uneasy relationship. The physical intimacies of washing and dressing belie the reality: Sara despises her mistress’s blindness to the hypocrisy of her household, while Esther is too wrapped up in her own secrets to see Sara as anything more than another charitable cause.

IT IS SILK that has Esther so distracted. For years she has painted her own designs, dreaming that one day her husband will weave them into reality. When he laughs at her ambition, she unwittingly sets in motion events that will change the fate of the whole Thorel household and set the scene for a devastating day of reckoning between her and Sara.

THE PRICE OF a piece of silk may prove more than either is able to pay.

BLACKBERRY & WILD ROSE is available now

Alison Weir:

Alison Weir is the top-selling female historian (and the fifth-bestselling historian overall) in the United Kingdom, and has sold over 2.7 million books worldwide. She has published eighteen history books, including her most recent non-fiction book, Queens of the Conquest, the first in her England’s Medieval Queens quartet. Alison has also published several historical novels, including Innocent Traitor and The Lady Elizabeth.

Anna of Kleve: Queen of Secrets is Alison Weir’s ninth published novel and the fourth in the Six Tudor Queens series about the wives of Henry VIII, which was launched in 2016 to great critical acclaim. The first three books in the series – Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession and Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen were all Sunday Times bestsellers.

Alison is a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and an honorary life patron of Historic Royal Palaces.

‘Alison Weir transforms Henry VIII’s much-maligned fourth wife into a woman of passion, courage and mystery’ Tracy Borman

The King is in love with Anna’s portrait, but she has none of the accomplishments he seeks in a new bride.
She prays she will please Henry, for the balance of power in Europe rests on this marriage alliance.
But Anna’s past is never far from her thoughts, and the rumours rife at court could be her downfall. Everyone knows the King won’t stand for a problem queen.


Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir draws on new evidence to conjure a startling image of Anna as you’ve never seen her before. A charming, spirited woman, she was loved by all who knew her – and even, ultimately, by the King who rejected her.

History tells us she was never crowned. But her story does not end there.

ANNA OF KLEVE: QUEEN OF SECRETS will be published on 2nd May 2019

How Real is Your History…? 

Hosted by H.B. Lyle:

H.B. Lyle lives in South London with his partner and their twin daughters. After a career in feature film development, he took an MA in creative writing, followed by a PhD, at the University of East Anglia, an experience which led to the creation of The Irregular. He also writes screenplays and teaches undergraduates.

The thrilling follow up to The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, featuring Wiggins – an ex-soldier who was trained as a child by Sherlock Holmes.

Praise for The Irregular:
‘H.B. Lyle has found the golden thread between Bond and Holmes’ Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland

Now an agent of the newly-formed Secret Service, Wiggins is still determined to track down Peter the Painter, the murderer of his friend Bill. Meanwhile Captain Kell is under pressure to identify who is leaking vital information from the government and his wife Constance is getting dangerously close to the more militant faction of suffragettes.

When Wiggins traces one of the old Baker Street Irregulars gang to a mysterious club in Belgravia, the action follows thick and fast in another brilliantly compelling novel of betrayal and suspense.

THE RED RIBBON is available now.

Simon Scarrow:

Simon Scarrow is a Sunday Times No. 1 bestselling author. His many successful books include his Eagles of the Empire novels featuring Roman soldiers Macro and Cato, most recently DAY OF THE CAESARS, INVICTUS, BRITANNIA and BROTHERS IN BLOOD, as well as HEARTS OF STONE, set in Greece during the Second World War, SWORD AND SCIMITAR, about the 1565 Siege of Malta, and a quartet about Wellington and Napoleon including the No. 1 Sunday Times bestseller THE FIELDS OF DEATH. He is the author with T. J. Andrews of the novels ARENA and INVADER.

It is AD 55. As trouble brews on the eastern fringes of the Roman Empire, Prefect Cato and Centurion Macro must prepare for war…

The wily Parthian Empire has invaded Roman-ruled Armenia, ousting King Rhadamistus. The King is ambitious and ruthless, but he is loyal to Rome. General Corbulo must restore him to power, while also readying the troops for war with Parthia. Corbulo welcomes new arrivals Cato and Macro, experienced soldiers who know how to knock into shape an undermanned unit of men ill-equipped for conflict.

But Rhadamistus’s brutality towards those who ousted him will spark an uprising which will test the bravery of the Roman army to the limit. While the enemy watches from over the border…

BLOOD OF ROME is available now and out in paperback on 21st March

S D Sykes

SD Sykes lives in Kent with her husband. She is a graduate from Manchester University and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She attended the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown where she was inspired to finish her first novel. She has also written for radio and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.

The brand new Oswald de Lacy thriller, for fans of C.J. Sansom, Minette Walters and S.J. Parris.

 Plague has returned to England – thirteen years after the devastation of The Black Death. As destruction advances towards his estate in Kent, Oswald de Lacy leads his family to the safety of a remote castle in the marshes – where his friend Godfrey is preparing a fortress to survive the coming disaster.

The rules are clear: once the de Lacys and other guests are inside the castle the portcullis will be lowered and no-one permitted to enter or leave until the Pestilence has passed.

And then a murderer strikes.

Oswald is confronted with a stark choice – leave and face the ravages of the plague, or stay and place his family at the mercy of a brutal killer.  With word of his skills as an investigator preceding him, it falls to Oswald to unmask the murderer in their midst. Host, guest, or servant – everyone is a suspect in this poisoned refuge of secrets, deceit and malice.

Suspenseful, evocative, compelling, The Bone Fire is a superb historical crime novel from the author of City of Masks.

THE BONE FIRE is coming on 25 July 2019.

Robyn Young

Robyn Young was born in Oxford and grew up in the Midlands and Devon. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Sussex and  lives and writes in Brighton full-time. Her first novel, BRETHREN, was  the bestselling hardback debut novel of 2006, with the paperback also  going straight into the top ten bestseller list. Two more bestsellers  followed, CRUSADE and REQUIEM, completing the Brethren trilogy, which has now sold over a million copies and been translated into nineteen languages.

The long-awaited standalone sequel to SONS OF THE BLOOD.

It is the dawn of a new world.

Henry Tudor has vanquished Richard III and claimed the throne of England, taking possession of a secret map.  At the glittering court of the Medici in Florence, Lorenzo the Magnificent, ruler of the republic and head of the mysterious Academy, is engaged in a dangerous game of power with the Vatican.  In Spain, the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella and Ferdinand, have declared a crusade against Islam, forcing the Moors from Granada.  Europe stands upon the brink of war, at the edge of a discovery that will change everything.

Jack Wynter is clinging to the wreckage of the life he dreamed of living, his father’s execution by Richard III destroying his hope of overcoming his status as an illegitimate son.  The map entrusted to him by his father is gone, stolen by his hated half-brother, Harry Vaughan.  Outlawed by Tudor, all Jack can do is follow his father’s last words – and seek out the man who has answers to his past that will determine his future, Lorenzo de’ Medici.  But in the serpentine politics and renaissance splendour of Florence, he finds only danger.  Lorenzo may have trusted Jack’s father, but he is now surrounded by threats and conspiracies on all sides – not least from the rising power in the city known as the Court of Wolves.

Harry, meanwhile, heads to the Spanish court on a covert mission for Tudor, who intends to deflect Queen Isabella’s interest in developing a trade route west with a sailor named Columbus.

Once again, Jack must risk all to prove himself, while his sworn enemy, Harry, finds himself fighting through Spain, seeking all the time to ingratiate himself with Tudor, and bring his brother down.

COURT OF WOLVES is available now.

Private Invesitgator Flavia Albia is back in Lindsey Davis’s next gripping and witty mystery set in Ancient Rome, A Capitol Death. Publishing in April 2019, we are delighted to share a sneak-peek extract of the first chapter:

A Capitol Death by Lindsey Davis

Rome: the Capitoline Hill,
November ad 89

Chapter 1

Domitian was back.

I state this in completely neutral language. Your slave must read it out to you with no hint of judgement. Even if  he or she is a highly educated, clever specimen, who cost you thousands (or decades of being nice to  the  horrible aunt who first owned them), restraint must be shown. We don’t want a nasty execution, do we?

Domitian was back, so everybody had to look out. For me to imply that the Senate and People of Rome felt a happy respite had ended when their emperor reappeared would be risky, as risky as trying to evaluate what Our Master actually achieved during his absence abroad. That is on record – I mean, he told us. His summer-long campaign on the Empire’s borders was so politically glorious and valorously punitive that he was to be awarded a Double Triumph. He had asked the Senate for it, so the Senate would bleat their agreement because even an implicit death threat works.

A Roman triumph is a huge public event to celebrate a military commander who has successfully completed a foreign war. He rides through the main streets in a big fancy chariot. In a ceremonial procession, the general and his troops are welcomed home with wild enthusiasm; their glittering booty is admired and their exotic captives are derided or, if the poor souls look miserable enough, even pitied. It takes a very long time, costs squillions and leaves behind vast quantities of litter, which the public slaves are too tired to deal with. People behave badly. All the temples are open but there are never enough toilets. Often more divorce follows than after a Saturnalia.

To spend a full day watching a march-past is supposedly wonderful. This is Rome. Romans love street festivity. To me, they are a simple people, who never learn from their mistakes. They call it tradition. The barmier a ritual is, the more they love it.

So, our emperor was back. A triumph always has to be over someone: it must celebrate Rome conquering barbarians, our hairy, obstreperous enemies. Rome knows how to make foreigners feel sorry they exist. This double event was meant to show the world that the warlike Domitian had brilliantly walked all over the Chatti and the Dacians. They saw it differently, but they were a long way away and wouldn’t be coming to argue.

We citizens, lucky us, were to be reminded of what a dazzling emperor we had. At least until the day it happened, Domitian was camping with his  troops  outside  Rome, as he was supposed to do. My father, ever the satirist, kept reminding us that some poor mutt in the past had had to  wait five years for his triumph, but my mother, a  realist, said Domitian would not be thwarted. He studied rulebooks, as paranoid tyrants do (omitting the rule that rulers should show kindness to their people). Being so meticulous, he would probably remain outside the city boundary until the triumph – though that put him rather too close to the Campus Martius, which contained the Saepta Julia where my family had its auction house. On the other hand, being Domitian, he might well decide to come in secretly, to listen to what people were saying about him in case it was treasonous so he could take revenge.

He would not camp out any longer than he had to. He   was famously impatient. He would be nagging the planners to move faster. He would also want to keep close personal track of all the arrangements. Our podgy overlord liked to control every detail. He hand-picked army officers and was prone to dismissing freedmen suddenly from the palace secretariats, simply because in his view they had been around too long to be trusted. He took everything to heart. Any fault in the ceremonial would be seen as a deliberate insult to him; any omission or failure would be fatal. My husband, who was a magistrate that year, had been involved for weeks in preparations; like so many in Rome, he was now depressed and anxious. He regularly came home moaning it was all a nightmare. Pressure on the official organisers probably caused what happened one evening on the Capitol.

It began with a man falling to his death off the Tarpeian Rock. It looked like suicide. Unfortunately for those who tried to hush things up, an old woman saw him drop. With no idea of tact, she kept insisting loudly that someone had been up there with him.

She made this claim to everyone she met in the street, her neighbours, their visiting relatives, barmen, stallholders, the teacher at the infant school at the corner of her road,   and some feral cats she fed. A busybody took her to the vigiles to report what she had seen. That might not have mattered since the vigiles know all about discretion, which avoids having to write reports for their prefect, but she found other outlets: because of the Triumph, Praetorian guards were crawling everywhere ‘for security’, so when the daft crone spotted one making himself unpleasant in a bar where she sometimes had a tipple, she rushed up and parked herself there to regale him with her tale.

The guards don’t bother with discretion. Any word longer than two syllables sounds intellectual to them, and intellectuals are bad people. The big idiot would have listened to her anyway, wondering if this was a plot. Praetorian cohorts are taught that it is their noble role to deal with anything  that could be embarrassing to their emperor. The one whose tunic sleeve had been grabbed by the witness’s skinny fingers went back to camp, muttering. Some loon on the commissariat thought, Ho! Dealing with stuff is what we lads do, so let us bravely deal with this . . . But a crazy old lady,   who actually admitted her eyesight wasn’t brilliant, was too hard to interrogate. They soon passed on the story to a civilian committee.

In a superstitious city, such an unnatural death could be seen as an omen. A bad one. In any case, if some heart- broken soul found his life too much to bear and jumped to oblivion, Domitian would be furious that a sad man with mental troubles had spoiled his day. He might even feel that having mental troubles was his own prerogative. Either way, he was unable to punish the victim, who had so selfishly   put himself out of reach by dying, but he would lash out. Somebody would cop it.

The first committee shunted the problem on to another. Every group connected with the Triumph looked for a way out, which they hoped someone else would process. Time passed, as usual in bureaucracy, but this difficult agenda item would not go away.

The scene of crime, if it ever was a crime, was their big problem. The Tarpeian Rock is an execution place, starting in mythical history with a get-rich-quick wench called Tarpeia, who tried to betray Rome to a besieging army for    a reward. Instead, she was crushed under a heap of shields and thrown off the Arx, the citadel. At the heart of Rome, this outcrop of rock is somewhat prominent. Not only is it an important part of the Capitol but the Capitol is where      a triumph traditionally ends. Sacrifices to Jupiter and other rites occur up there, as the honoured general formally completes his task, hands back the symbols of his military power and sighs with relief that he can now go home for supper.

Nobody wanted Capitol Hill to be defiled. At the time, it was awash with workmen and temple assistants, preparing for what would be a very religious day. Jumping off the rock was the wrong kind of sacrifice.

Then things got worse. The dead man was identified.

Oh dear. He was named as a project manager involved in the Triumph. This could still have been downplayed with the right wording, except that he was in charge of transport. So not only had he been assembling a multitude of carts to amaze the crowds by carrying loot and other wonders – but his remit included the chariot. That chariot. The big beast   at the climax of the procession. The specially designed chariot in which our emperor, valiant suppressor of the Chatti and Dacians, was to ride.

If someone who was meant to be buffing this fancy quadriga had killed himself before the Triumph, it was sad enough. Any suggestion that he had been murdered was a ghastly taint on the occasion. All the gods would be attending Domitian’s party: you don’t want gods to notice that your transport manager has topped himself, or been topped.

Well, all right. Maybe the gods can be paid off with a few wheaten cakes but, Hades, you don’t want Domitian to find out. He would be standing in that chariot all day, continually brooding about why the man who prepared it for him had not cared enough about his Triumph to stay around and watch.

Men on committees despaired; some succumbed to heart attacks, or said they had, before they rushed to hide in country villas. After the usual period of faffing, just long enough to lose any useful evidence, of course, someone finally applied a fix. It was solemnly decreed that they had better find out what had really happened. One of the committees dumped the problem on the aediles.

There are four of these magistrates. By definition they are among the most practical officials in Rome, though they have a big staff of experienced slaves to help them. Each man looks after a quarter of the city. The aedile who managed the Capitol swiftly claimed he already had too much to do, what with keeping top temples tidy for Domitian’s big day. He inveigled a colleague into helping out. He knew one of the others was a soft touch. This was Tiberius Manlius Faustus. My husband.

Of course, I knew what he was intending from the moment he came home and sheepishly admitted he had let himself be commandeered. I am Flavia Albia, a private informer. I specialise in domestic situations that require investigative skills. I know what husbands are like. But I had married this man on the understanding that ours would be a sharing partnership. So, Tiberius, the sly rat, passed his task to me.

A Capitol Death will be published in hardback and eBook on 4th April 2019 and is availble to pre-order now.

The Gown is an enthralling historical novel about one of the most famous wedding dresses of the twentieth century – Queen Elizabeth’s wedding gown – and the fascinating women who made it.

In February 2017 Jennifer Robson, the author  had the good fortune to interview Mrs. Betty Foster, one of the four seamstresses who helped to create Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown in 1947.

“The following passages are only a brief sample of our hours-long conversation, which took place at her home in the south of England; transcribed in its entirety, my interview with Mrs. Foster stretches to dozens of pages.”

Q: When did you begin work at Hartnell?
A: It was 1942, during the war but after the Blitz, although there was still a blackout and some air raids going on. I’d turned fourteen in May and finished school, and in August I started at Hartnell. I think I was the last apprentice to go into this workroom, because all the others after me came from the college. Miss Holliday, who trained me, she preferred apprentices, because when they went to college they were taught a certain way, weren’t they? Whereas I didn’t know anything. I knew nothing about dressmaking. I wanted to be a dress designer! And I ended up with Miss Holliday, who was Mr. Hartnell’s senior seamstress. She’d been with him forever.

Q: Can you describe an ordinary working day at Hartnell?
A: I’d go in early, because if you got the train before seven it was cheaper. So I’d get to Hartnell’s quite early, about eight o’clock, and
we didn’t start until half past eight. So I used to go to the Lyons Corner House nearby—there used to be one near the station on Bond Street—and I’d go in there and have a cup of tea and a bun. And then I’d make my way down to Bruton Place. That’s where we went in—through the mews behind Bruton Street. We’d work through the morning, with a half-hour break at some point, although often it wasn’t even that, and we had a very short lunch, too. And then we left at five. There was a canteen downstairs, so that’s where we’d eat.

Q: How did you find out you’d be working on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress?
A: Mr. Hartnell came to our table, Miss Holliday’s table, with the sketch that the princess had chosen, and that’s when he asked if Miss Holliday would make the dress. Would you believe she was hesitant? She made all the important dresses for him, and she was the oldest of his seamstresses, and had been there the longest. But she did hesitate, because it was such a big responsibility. And we said, “Oh, please, Miss Holliday!” So she gave in, but she made us promise to behave ourselves!

Q: Were you nervous when you worked on the gown?
A: Would you believe I wasn’t? We didn’t have much time but I don’t remember feeling rushed. Of course we were used to having film stars ordering dresses for premieres and things like that, and often at the last minute. But I don’t remember being a bundle of nerves. We always made the queen’s dresses—the queen mum, you know—and we were used to working on important things.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about how the dress was made?
A: The princess had two fittings with a toile before the dress was embroidered, and then the pieces were sent to the embroidery room, and only then did it come back to the workroom where it
was all put together. Before it was made up I had the task of making the buttons. I sewed all twenty-two buttonholes on the back and I also made the sleeves. Because I’d never made a buttonhole before, I had to practice on scrap bits of fabric. Only then was I allowed to work on the already meticulously embroidered dress. I remember sitting at my table and Miss Holliday telling all the other girls that no one was allowed to talk to me whilst I was practising. After the dress had its final fitting, the seams were re-embroidered, because they couldn’t do the embroidery until it had been properly fitted. That’s when the embroiderers went back over the seams and filled in the empty spaces. I remember, too, how when everything was done, Miss Holliday let the other girls do a stitch or two, just so they could say they had worked on the wedding dress. And then, just before it was delivered to Buckingham Palace, we all got to see it, and the bridesmaids’ dresses, too, because we hadn’t seen them before—they’d been made up in another of the workrooms.

Q: What was Mr. Hartnell like?
A: You know, he wasn’t at all proud or snobbish. He was really lovely, a friendly, friendly man. Just a wonderful person.

Q: Did you ever meet the queen?
A: Not then, although I was one of the guests at her Diamond Wedding celebration at Westminster Abbey. After she was married, we made up some clothes for her. I think she was going on a tour
somewhere. We had to check to make sure they fitted properly, so I got to go to the Palace. Mam’selle—Germaine Davide, who was Mr. Hartnell’s chief fitter—and Miss Holliday and I got in a taxi,
and when we got to the palace we just went through the gates, because I think the policeman recognized Mam’selle. I remember we went in through the basement, where the kitchens are, and it
was very cold and not very nice. There was a lift at the end, and we went upstairs. It was just us—we didn’t see any servants. And we walked along this beautiful corridor, with all sorts of displays and cabinets and settees, and we walked past all the different apartments for different members of the royal family. And we got to her door and there was a plaque that said “Her Royal Highness Princess Elizabeth.” Mam’selle knocked on the door and said, “Coo-ee,” and we went in. Mam’selle went on ahead and left me and Miss Holliday in the dressing room, I suppose it was. And I looked out the window and I could see all the cars going down the Mall. And you know, when I’ve stood outside the palace since then I always look up and wonder which of those windows I looked out of that day.

Q: And did you meet Princess Elizabeth that day?
A: I didn’t! The clothes all fit, so we didn’t have to do any alterations. I did get to meet the Queen Mum once. It was during the war and we’d made her a beautiful gown, and the queen said, “Would the girls who worked on my dress like to see me wearing it?” I was chosen, and Miss Holliday, and somebody from the embroidery room. Miss Yvonne, the queen’s saleslady, she introduced me. She said, “This is Betty, who helped to make your beautiful dress,” and the queen said, “Oh, thank you so much. I do love it when they sparkle!” She was so lovely, and friendly, and standing on the other side were all the servants, seeing her already dressed. There was a big banquet at the palace that night, and the king was there, too.

Q: Can you tell me about the time the royal ladies visited when you were working on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown?
A: Oh, yes. They wanted to see where the dress was being made, and when we learned they were coming we practiced our curtseys. I remember how they walked through the doors and we all did our curtseys, except we all bobbled up and down at different times. Mr. Hartnell brought the group over to our table, and he said, this is where the dress is being made, and then he explained how some Americans had hired the flat opposite—to see if they could get a glimpse of the wedding dress—and when he said that to Queen Mary, and explained how we’d had to cover the windows, she said, “What a bore!” in that very deep voice of hers.

Q: What do you think of the gown?
A: I thought it was beautiful. And you know, really, the embroidery made it. It absolutely made the dress. No one else could do embroidery like that, and it was so lovely. So romantic—like something out of a fairy tale. That’s how I remember it.

The Gown is out now

Lunar new year is upon us, and I’m almost ready. That is, if one can prepare for several days of non-stop eating and visiting relatives. This year’s lunar new year falls on February 5, which is uncomfortably close to the excesses of Christmas and New Year’s, when I told myself sternly that I must stop drinking bubble tea and do more push ups.

“You could just do things in moderation,” my husband pointed out mildly. Clearly he had no idea of the true crazy scope of this festival. The lunar new year is the most important event in the Chinese calendar. All over the world, millions of Chinese close businesses that are never shut on any other day of the year and empty out cities in order to rush home. In China, there are massive traffic jams sparked by the new year’s rush, when hordes of people pack themselves into flights, buses, and trains. In Singapore and Malaysia, where there’s a large overseas Chinese population, people have been known to set off at 3am in the morning in order to avoid the crazy lines at the causeway.

All of this trekking is to get home for the big reunion dinner on New Year’s eve, when family members unite to set off firecrackers, play mahjong all night, and eat. And eat. Food and love and filial piety combine to reach dizzy heights of guilt and delight, together with once-yearly treats like pineapple tarts, nian gao, and red packets crinkling with the promise of pocket money.

As children, our main roles appeared to be to consume the food that appeared, like magic, at all hours of the day. “Have you eaten?” was the constant outcry from the adults. Treats were stuffed in hands, laden on plates, and tucked into pockets. For my grandparents, who had survived WW2 and the Japanese occupation of Malaya, nothing gave more joy than the sight of a well-fed child. There were no dietary rules in their house—only large tins filled with homemade biscuits.

My grandparents lived in a long narrow Chinese shophouse on the main street of a little town in Malaysia. Going back was a must, never mind that our car, windows rolled down in the sweltering tropical heat to prevent overheating, inched forward on jam-packed roads. Part way there, we’d make a stop at Bidor, a small town known principally as a purveyor of delicious duck noodles. Around new year’s, the open fronted food stalls would be festooned with lime green globes of giant pomelos. Each steaming bowl of dark aromatic broth came with a meltingly tender piece of duck pillowed on springy noodles.

When we finally pushed back the metal grill door of my grandparents’ shophouse, we were hot, tired, and bearing gifts (food of course). Heong beng, the flaky biscuits made with lard and filled with caramelized sugar, pork floss, and other delicacies my mum had stuffed into bulging shopping bags. Not to be outdone, my grandmother would amass crispy fried keropok, prawn crackers, and other traditional sweets like the delicate curled biscuits called love letters, in ancient Jacob’s Cream Cracker tins. Just in case anyone had fainted from hunger on the way.

Lined up on the cool cement floor of the courtyard was a queue of fat nian gao or new year’s cakes. Made of glutinous rice and sugar, this sticky paste was ladled into banana leaf wrappings, steamed to a rich caramelized brown, and then left to dry in the sun until it hardened. On New Year’s day, my mum would slice the nian gao into half inch thick slices, dip each into beaten egg, and fry them till they were crisp on the outside and satisfyingly gooey on the inside. Traditionally, a little bit of sticky-sweet nian gao would be smeared on the picture of the kitchen god so that he would have nothing but sweet things to report when his picture was burned to send him back to Heaven.

Before the family reunion dinner could be eaten, the gods must be served first. My grandmother followed her own particular mixture of Buddhist and folk beliefs: no washing your hair on new year’s day, or sweeping the floor or throwing the garbage, since that was equivalent to bad luck. Neither was complaining or saying unlucky phrases. The food for the gods had to be prepared just so: a whole steamed chicken that my grandmother had reared in the back kitchen courtyard, dishes of meat and a fresh green lettuce (sang choy, a homophone for fortune) were put on a tray with chopsticks and bowl and offered at the altar. No one was to touch them before the gods had partaken. Even the prayer had an order. First she prayed to the god of Heaven, next the god of Earth, then for the ancestors, and the kitchen god. Finally, there was a prayer to the small god in the bedroom who kept the children safe, known as the godmother of children.

Once the food had been ritually offered and accepted, it was consumed by the family. The whole steamed chicken, rubbed with fragrant sesame oil, was expertly chopped into bite size pieces and served with a dipping sauce of ginger, soy sauce, shallot oil, and green onions. Accompanying it were stir-fried greens with garlic, succulent pork belly slow cooked with fermented bean paste and wine, and noodles for long life. Every family cooked its favourite dishes for the new year. Some made dumplings and wontons shaped like fat purses of gold, others steamed a whole fish in a gloss of shallot oil and soy sauce. For dessert, we nibbled on juicy peeled segments of pomelo and ate tang yuen, mochi dumplings served in a sweet soup. Whatever stomach space was left was devoted to an unending parade of toasted watermelon seeds, crystallized sugary pieces of winter melon, and peanuts.

Now that I’m middle-aged, all this feasting which traditionally continued for the fifteen days of lunar new year seems a bit daunting. Not least because I’m no longer able to digest vast amounts of carbohydrates, but also because I live a continent away from my extended family, who would noisily cook and partake of these new year excesses. Every year, I think my kids are missing out by not being forced to stand over a hot wok, laboriously caramelizing pineapple jam. The freshly made jam, redolent with cloves and sugar, was used to fill divinely buttery, golden pineapple tarts. Maybe this year, even if we can’t manage the rest of the menu, we’ll actually make them.

The Night Tiger is available to pre-order now:

Hi, my name is Jodi Taylor and I’m an author. I’m also a chocoholic, easily confused, clumsy and with the attention span of a – what was I saying?

People ask me how and why I started to write. The short answer is – I was bored. After long, long years in local government, I retired to Turkey – as you do. Typically, after many years hard work for a pitifully small remuneration, no sooner could I legitimately sit in the sun with a glass of something in one hand, and a paperback in the other, than I began to get urges. To write, I mean, before anyone gets the wrong idea.

I’ve always been fascinated by History. I loved the Ancient Greeks, Ancient Egypt, the Romans, the Tudors, Agincourt, Thermopylae, the curse of Tutankhamun, Edward II and his probably fictional red-hot poker, the War of Jenkins’s Ear, and so on. And then, sadly, puberty clashed with O Levels and puberty won. Ladies and gentlemen, in the red corner – sex, drugs and rock & roll. In the blue corner – animal husbandry, Chartists and the Poor Laws.

What were they thinking? It’s as if the education authorities sat down and said, ‘Right, never mind all the good stuff about battles and executions and smuggling babies in warming pans – we’ll give them Jethro Tull, the Spinning Jenny and as many Reform Acts as we can manage. That should ensure we lay the foundations for a lifelong aversion to History.’

Good job, guys.

One of the many things I’ve enjoyed when writing the Chronicles of St Mary’s series is the number of people who’ve written to say they hadn’t realised History could be so interesting and they themselves have been inspired to go off and research some of the events mentioned in my books.

It’s just dawned on me that as usual I’ve gone racing off without explaining anything properly, so start again, Taylor.

Hi, my name is Jodi Taylor and I write the Chronicles of St Mary’s, the stories of a bunch of time travelling historians who investigate major historical events in contemporary time. Do NOT call it time travel. They work at the Institute of Historical Research at St Mary’s Priory, located just outside the fictional town of Rushford.

A rising sense of power over my characters has enabled me to entangle them in some really exciting events: Persepolis; the Gates of Grief; Bosworth; the Court of Mary, Queen of Scots; the Valley of the Kings – where they all nearly drowned half way up a mountain in a country enjoying less than an inch of rainfall a year; catching the plague; getting themselves trapped in the Great Fire of London; and many other minor inconveniences. Because, as they themselves would be the first to say, who wouldn’t want ‘eaten by dinosaurs’ on their death certificate?

The inhabitants of St Mary’s – frequently described as ‘a bunch of tea-sodden disaster magnets’, are a mixed bunch. The heroine, Max, is a short, dumpy redhead happily bouncing from crisis to catastrophe and back again. For is it not written – where historians go disaster is sure to follow?

Then there’s the indestructible Markham, quietly nursing a secret, and home to every parasite known to man and many that aren’t.

Dear old Mr Swanson, half-blind and in charge of the Poisons Cabinet.

Or the rainbow-haired Miss Lingoss in R&D.

Or Bitchface Barclay – out for everything she can get.

Or Kalinda Black, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, looks like a Disney princess and drinks the blood of trainee historians to keep herself young.

Or Clive Ronan, renegade historian, leaving a trail of dark destruction in his wake.

Or enigmatic Leon Farrell, the still small voice of calm in the mayhem of St Mary’s.

And many more. I’ve created a whole cast of eccentric weirdos for no better reason than I’m the author and I’m in charge. Which actually is something I discovered to be completely untrue about half way through the second paragraph of the first chapter in the first book.

Having set up all these characters, I’m afraid people do die – and sometimes quite horribly – because History rarely takes prisoners. One mistake and you’re deader than a very dead thing. I really didn’t want to create a core of characters to whom nothing ever happens. Who manage to escape unscathed every time. I wanted my readers to know that when my characters are in peril there is a very good chance they won’t all make it out alive.

St Mary’s itself is a very British establishment. It’s shabby and battered – a bit like its inhabitants. Funding is always a problem. Nothing works properly. For instance, there’s an R&D department that one day will kill them all. R&D investigate Practical History. How long to pull someone’s brains out through their nostrils? How does a Roman chariot handle? What is Fuchsprellen? How does a trebuchet work? Exactly how far can you fling a dead cow?

Then there’s the Security Section whose main duties appear to be eating ham sandwiches and falling into the lake but who frequently appear at the right place and the right time and make a troubled situation considerably worse.

And the Technical Section, engaged in a constant battle to keep things working and fending off historians whose main purpose is to wreck everything around them. The phrase, ‘It came off in my hand – sorry,’ is often uttered.

I have to say; the books are enormous fun to write. I can make my characters as outrageous as I feel I can get away with. I can swing scenes from farce to tragedy and back again in a single paragraph. Oh, the power!

I suppose what I wanted to do was make History interesting. Because it is. It’s not just dates – History is all about people and why they did what they did. Why their actions led to this event or that event. Why their failure to act was such a catastrophe and the implications of that failure. Because, as my historians frequently tell each other, ‘Nothing happens in isolation. Everything is connected to everything else.’ Which is perfectly true. Hundreds of millions of events – big and small – all combined to put us exactly where we are today. Whether that’s a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, of course, we often don’t know because we’re in the middle of the wood and can’t see the trees. I often wonder what future historians will make of us.


PS – This is St Mary’s – where history is always History. To be treated with respect. Because one wrong move and History will strike back.


JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER is the first in The Chronicles of St Mary’s series.

HOPE FOR THE BEST, the tenth, comes out in April and is available to pre-order now. 


This January marks the centenary of the outbreak of the Irish War of Independence. One hundred years ago, this month, the Irish formed a government, and declared independence from British rule. That declaration led to war.

My book, A River In The Trees, is set in 1919 and 2019. It’s the story of two women, a hundred years apart, but bound together by a secret. Hannah, in 1919, becomes caught up in the struggle for a free Ireland. She’s trying to forge an identity for herself, to break free from the circumstances that bind her, and in many ways her particular experience echoes the national one. What happens to Hannah can almost be read as an allegory of what’s happening to Ireland. She is possessed (by her family, then by a revolutionary soldier, and finally by a pregnancy she doesn’t want), without agency, her fate determined by others, and ultimately has to choose violence to win her freedom. In traditional Irish texts, Ireland has long been imagined as a feminine character (most notably, perhaps, in the Mother Ireland trope), and I used that idea as I created the character of Hannah. Hannah has to establish herself in opposition to the forces that seek to define her, and in choosing freedom over confinement, at the book’s close, is subjected to loss, and separation.

I chose to set the historical part of my book in 1919 because it is a crucial and crucially interesting year in Irish history. In April 1916, Irish Republican forces had risen up against British forces and staged a revolution in Dublin. The revolution was quickly put down, but the British response was widely perceived as heavy-handed, and this led to a significant shift in the national mood. Support began to grow for independence. The revolutionaries were encouraged to seek war.  Growing republican violence and reprisals led to British counter-reprisals, and, eventually, to the War of Independence. The revolutionaries were not well enough equipped or trained to take on the British forces in conventional warfare, and so they had to rely on guerilla tactics (ambushing British forces, burning down police stations, capturing weapons), which they excelled at.  Guerilla warfare suited the Irish. They could rely on the support of the indigenous population for networks of spies, safe houses, and gun running; commanders were locally based, and intimately familiar with the terrain.

To counter the success of the guerilla war, the British, panicked, sent recruits from Britain, ex-soldiers demobilized after World War I who were lawless, badly disciplined, and given to barbaric attacks on the civilian population. They became known, and widely reviled, as the Black and Tans.

1919 was a fearsome year in Ireland, but it provided the perfect setting and cast for my book. O’Riada, for example, is a soldier of the revolution, made ruthless by his history and desperate by his circumstances. The Black and Tans bring violent action and danger to the plot. Hannah’s family home is a safe house, with all that that implies. In war, characters – people – are driven to extreme responses; the rules of convention are suspended. And Hannah, with all her bravery and foolhardiness, is a product of her time, and absolutely representative of it. 1919 and Hannah are right for each other.

By 1920, the war had escalated, and martial law was declared in Ireland. Most of the fighting took place in Munster – the centre of Cork city was burned down in 1920 – and more than three-quarters of conflict deaths took place there.  My book is set in West Cork, where some of the most significant events of the war took place (in 1921, for example, Tom Barry’s West Cork unit of one hundred men defeated one thousand British soldiers in the infamous Crossbarry Ambush.)

A ceasefire was declared in July 1921, and under the terms of the resulting Anglo-Irish Treaty, Ireland was partitioned, and Northern Ireland created. Subsequent disagreement over the Treaty led to the Irish Civil War. Michael Collins, arguably the most important figure of the War of Independence, was killed in an ambush by anti-Treaty forces in West Cork in 1922: thereafter, Ireland was divided against itself.

The War of Independence was a singular moment in Irish history. It’s essential to see the war in a broader historical context: Europe was breaking up after World War I; the old regimes were collapsing. The War of Independence put Ireland on the global political map. It marked the beginning of the modern Irish political era, and the birth, ultimately, of modern Ireland.

A River in the Trees is out now!

History buffs, get excited. Sonia Velton, author of Blackberry and Wild Roseis about to take you on a tour of Eighteenth Century Spitalfields and the Huguenot silk weavers who lived there…

Take a walk through the streets of Spitalfields and you can still see and feel the presence of the Huguenot silk weavers.  They are there in the wooden spools hanging from the weavers’ houses, they are there in the shadows of the eighteenth century sundial on what was once La Neuve Église, and they echo through the street names; Fleur de Lis and Fournier Street.

I remember the first time I paused outside a terrace of Georgian townhouses and looked up to see the ‘long lights’, huge windows built into the attics.  When I began to research the area and discovered that they were silk weaver’s lofts, it was the beginning of my fascination with the Huguenot silk weavers of eighteenth century Spitalfields. I kept imagining these tall and gracious buildings alive with the clack-clack-boom of the drawlooms.  The whole of Spitalfields would have thrummed with their sound, and everywhere, from the market to the modest weavers’ cottages, would have played a part in an industry which came to produce some of the most exquisite silks ever made.  It was this world of immigrant French silk weavers, their lives and loves, and of course their spellbinding silks, that formed the setting for my novel, Blackberry and Wild Rose.

On one of my many Sunday trips to Spitalfields market (I lived a stone’s throw away in Bethnal Green) I noticed a blue plaque on the corner of Princelet Street; ‘Anna Maria Garthwaite 1690-1763 Designer of Spitalfields Silks lived and worked here’. A woman! I was hooked. From Princelet Street, then, to the Victoria & Albert Museum.  It can be hard to pinpoint the moment an interest becomes an obsession, but that day, viewing Garthwaite’s original water colour designs and the incredible silks themselves, still as delicately luminous as they were almost three hundred years before, was probably that moment for me.

I was as interested in Anna Maria herself as I was in the hundreds of beautifully painted silk patterns that made her one of the foremost silk designers of the eighteenth century.  How did this daughter of a clergyman from Leicestershire use her talent as an artist, and passion for painting flowers, to become a pre-eminent silk designer?  How did she learn the necessary technical skills to prepare the mise-en-carte for the drawloom with mathematical precision?  After all, many silk designers were already weavers or master weavers themselves.

Unfortunately this kind of detail about her life has not been recorded, but we do know that she was a life-long spinster, never marrying and living with her sister and their female ward. She was already in her early forties when she first moved to Spitalfields and began to send out her work to master weavers signed only A. M. Garthwaite. An unlikely heroine for a book, perhaps?

Of course, the personal life of Anna Maria Garthwaite bears no resemblance to Esther Thorel’s, the protagonist of Blackberry and Wild Rose. However, when I created Esther’s character, I did so in the certain knowledge that there was historical precedent for a woman succeeding in the male-dominated world of the Spitalfields’ silk industry by sheer force of talent and determination, with no formal training and without a male patron.

As I began to research my novel, it became clear that the beauty of the Spitalfields’ silks belied the grim reality of life as a journeyman silk weaver. The industry was beset by industrial conflict. At the time, I was a solicitor specialising in discrimination law and acting mainly for individuals and trade union clients.  When I discovered that the militant journeyman were among the first pioneers of the trade union movement, forming illegal ‘combinations’ which met in secret, it resonated with the employment lawyer in me.  The stock response of the eighteenth century mob was to riot, and the Cutter’s Riots of the 1760s provided the perfect troubled setting in which to drop the fictional Thorel household.

Blackberry and Wild Rose is a book of contrasts: the ethereal beauty of figured silk, and the finger-numbing hours of repetitive pulling on ‘lashes’ and ‘simples’ endured by the drawboys; the apparent piety of a religious household and the flawed reality of marriage; the strict moral code of the Huguenot community and the chillingly expeditious way eighteenth century justice was dispensed; the tasteful privilege of Esther Thorel’s existence, and the life of her new lady’s maid, Sara Kemp, full of chamber pots, brick dust and relentless drudgery.

Our perceptions of the eighteenth century are shaped by the moral art of William Hogarth.  If Industry and Idleness speaks of the journeymen weavers, it is the first plate of A Harlot’s Progress which introduces Sara Kemp as Esther Thorel’s dual narrator.  The classic cautionary tale of the naive young country girl arriving in London under the watchful gaze of a notorious madam. Sara allows us to peer beyond the elegant parlours and ochre-coloured walls of the Thorel household and glimpse the East End’s dark underbelly.

This novel, in its various drafts, had many titles but none was quite right.  Looking for inspiration, I turned to my original notes, made the day I had visited the V&A.  I had been captivated by one particular silk pattern.  It’s most likely that it was one of Garthwaite’s own as almost all the patterns I looked at were, but it could also have belonged to another designer as I did not write down its artist, just its enchanting name, scrawled messily right across my page:  Blackberry and Wild Rose.

It appears likely that there was some kind of scandal in Jane Seymour’s family before she came to court. By 1519, her brother Edward had married an heiress called Catherine Fillol. She bore two sons, John in 1527 and Edward in 1529, then seems to have retired to a convent. Mysteriously, her father, Sir William Fillol, in his will of 1527, directed that ‘for many diverse causes and considerations’, neither Catherine ‘nor her heirs of her body, nor Sir Edward Seymour her husband in any wise’ were to inherit ‘any part or parcel’ of his lands; and he left her forty pounds – about £17,600 now – ‘as long as she shall live virtuously and abide in some house of religion of women’. He died in July 1527, but, as Catherine gave birth to her second son in 1529, she evidently did not immediately observe her father’s condition.

Possibly a scandal then came to light, and she was repudiated by Edward Seymour. Left destitute, she probably had to seek refuge in a nunnery so that she could claim her inheritance. She had died by early 1535, whereupon Edward Seymour immediately married the formidable Anne Stanhope, a lady whose pride would become notorious.

There is some later evidence that Catherine had had an affair with her father-in-law, Sir John Seymour. A marginal note in a seventeenth-century baronage in the College of Arms states that Edward repudiated Catherine ‘because she was known by his father after the nuptials’. The only other evidence comes from the historian and theologian Peter Heylin, who, in 1674, claimed that a magician had conjured a ‘magical perspective’ for Edward, enabling him ‘to behold a gentleman of his acquaintance in a more familiar posture with his wife than was agreeable to the honour of either party. To which diabolical illusion he is said to have given so much credit, that he did not only estrange himself from her society at his coming home, but furnished his next wife with an excellent opportunity for pressing him to the disinheriting of his former children.’ It seems that Edward did have suspicions about the paternity of his sons by Catherine, for he disinherited them both, at Anne Stanhope’s instigation, in 1540.

If an incestuous liaison was involved, there was all the more reason for secrecy and the affair being hushed up, but we should remember that Sir William Fillol disinherited Edward as well as Catherine, for reasons that are not clear.

JANE SEYMOUR: THE HAUNTED QUEEN – the third in Alison Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series is out now in paperback, ebook and audio

For more on Alison’s Six Tudor Queens series visit the website