“The Stripping of the Altars” by Eamon Duffy

First he rebuilds for us the way the English Medieval churches worked, packed tight with altars, figures of saints, rich reliquaries (caskets) for alleged saints’ bones and teeth, elaborate roodscreens to hide the high altar, paintings and jewelled and embroidered banners. Churches must have looked like the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts!

Each of the astonishing number of sacred things had its use and meaning, its symbolism and its story, now mostly forgotten. Many of them were “apotropaic” – a word I had to look up which means “supposedly having the power to avert evil influences or bad luck.” [Oxford dictionary].

As literacy increased with the beginning of the 16th century, innumerable manuscript and later printed primers helped people to navigate the sacred, with their Paternosters (Our Father), Aves (Hail Mary), Credos (Creed) and Offices and their saints’ stories. The rubrics explained exactly how many days or years you, or the dead person you were praying for, would be let off from Purgatory if you prayed the Fifteen Oes or the Little Office of the Virgin. But you didn’t have to be able to read to understand it all because everything was actually designed to make the stories accessible to the illiterate.

There were multiple priests saying masses in the churches most days. Attached to each parish were many laypeople’s gilds that took responsibility for buying wax candles for the altars, to put around the saints’ statues, to light the dead. The gilds acted out mystery plays so that the illiterate ordinary folk would know the vital stories, collected money to buy handsome black velvet vestments for requiem masses and to send members on pilgrimage to holy places like Canterbury and Walsingham.

Every Medieval church was the centre of a busy social and economic world available to and involving the rich, middling and poor of every village, town and city. For example, most places had a Maidens Gild of young unmarried women who bought candles for the Lady altar. It was a world that gave everyone a defence against the Devil in holy water, sacred images and prayers.

Of course, 90% of it had no foundation at all in the Bible, and some of the saints had started as pagan gods and goddesses. Famously there were enough relics of Splinters of the True Cross in Medieval Europe to build a fleet of ships.

Then along came the English Reformation and, in less than thirty years, swept it all away: the saints, the altars, the banners, replacing them with… The Word. Unadorned English words, a communion table, a Bible.

Iconoclasm and greed destroyed the saints and paintings, the banners and vestments, the gold chalices and patens and pyxes, and disbanded the lay associations that had kept it all running. The reformers were seldom happy because their swingeing reforms never went far enough for them. They simply could not understand why people would hide statues of saints in their attics and baptismal fonts in their fields.

The ordinary people probably weren’t happy either, deprived of their exciting processions and calming rosaries, but nobody asked them. Now they had to stand and listen to endless words of English scripture and homilies, in churches stripped of everything that made them friendly and beautiful. Only a few candles were left on the communion table and all the music was obsolete.

Of course, rationally I can understand the reformers’ urge to get rid of the thousand years of superstitious accretion around the Bible, though I wonder if they realised just how radical and revolutionary the newly available New Testament was.

Speaking irrationally, like Eamon Duffy, I too can remember when the Catholic church also fell prey to reformers after the Second Vatican Council, who changed the Mass from Latin to ugly bad English and stripped out many saints and festivals while failing to reform the church’s attitude to women, for example. At least, unlike the 16th century reformers, they didn’t indulge in self-righteous destruction and wholesale theft

But to lose so many stories and the familiar Latin Mass was an emotional shock that I still remember. In fact, as I read the closing words of Duffy’s masterly account, I had tears in my eyes.

Talking about Sir Robert Carey

My book GUNS IN THE NORTH is out now – a triple helping of Sir Robert Carey, with the first three books of the series in a handsome omnibus edition (Head of Zeus).

That’s A FAMINE OF HORSES (Sir Robert Carey arrives at Carlisle and wonders why there are so few horses available.)

A SEASON OF KNIVES (Sir Robert’s servant Barnabus is accused of murder)

A SURFEIT OF GUNS (Sir Robert travels to Dumfries to meet King James VI of Scotland where he gets into a lot of trouble)

So I’m going to be at Waterstones Kew, London UK, on Wednesday 26th July at 6.30 pm talking about it. I’m hoping the trains to Carlisle will be running the next day (27th July), because I’ll be at Waterstones Carlisle, UK, at 6.30 pm, talking about Sir Robert Carey’s adventures and the awfulness of the Border reivers.

Now I really enjoy doing these events – and I’ve been doing them since I was 18 which is (mumble mumble) years ago. A long time anyway. And if you’re called Armstrong, Graham or Fenwick or any other Border name, I’ve got some interesting news about your 16th century ancestors.

However this blog is really all about me having proudly made a little video about my events this week and trying to work out how to put it in my blog. It seems to take ages to  upload videos so I’ll try a Youtube link.

Good god, it seems to have worked. Amazing!

I’ll see you at Waterstones.

Diana Gabaldon’s lovely review of A CLASH OF SPHERES

To say I’m happy about this review from Diana Gabaldon is like saying that “War and Peace” is about fighting or that a blue whale is quite big. I’m beaming. Thank you so much, Diana! (this comes from my US publishers’ website at Poisoned Pen Press.)

The following essay is by New York Times best-selling author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon.

This is one of the most entertaining, elegant and deeply emotional books I’ve read in years. (I’m tempted just to write “EEEEEEEEE!” to sum up my response to it, but that seems inadequate, if heartfelt.)

I’ve loved the Robert Carey series since the first book (A Famine of Horses), and every one thereafter has had all the elements that made the first so engaging: a fascinating look at little-known parts of Elizabethan history, wonderfully immersive details, hilarious dialogue, adventurous situations, and—above all—characters drawn with a deftness that catches the essence of a soul in a few words.

Sir Robert is the center of it all, of course, but the story certainly doesn’t stop with him. He’s surrounded by a constantly evolving (and revolving) constellation of courtiers, reivers, Borderers (often synonymous with reivers), Sergeant Dodd (his surly, dour, stubborn, honorable sidekick), scholars, assassins, spies, royalty, and (to be sure) women. One woman in particular; the unattainable Elizabeth Widdrington, unhappily married to a cruel older husband and much too honorable to take Robert Carey as her lover, much as she wants to.

This one’s not an ordinary historical novel

All of this would be more than enough for your ordinary historical novel…but this one’s not an ordinary historical novel: it’s an orrery—you’ve doubtless seen one, even if you didn’t know what it’s called—it’s a mechanical model of the solar system. And those you’ve seen have undoubtedly been designed to fit the Copernican theory of astronomy: to wit, with the sun in the center and the various planets orbiting it at varying distances. But it was not always thus…

Back in Sir Robert’s day—i.e., the late sixteenth century—there were competing views of the stars and their movements, and scholars who espoused the Ptolemaic system, in which the planets and the Sun all (naturally) circled the Earth, were more popular than the upstart (and obviously deluded) Copernicans. Only in a P.F. Chisholm novel will you have a delayed-fuse plot that centers (you should pardon the expression) on a formal scientific disputation regarding the position of the Sun in the solar system, held at the Royal Court of Scotland, between the King and an itinerant Jewish healer.

Not that there aren’t plenty of other plots orbiting that one: religious persecution, murder in several shades, rejected lovers of all stripes and persuasions, and the head-butting politics of the constantly feuding Border surnames.

Passing without touching

The novel is an orrery, though; the underlying structure of the book reflects all the intricacies with which people orbit each other, mostly passing without touching, turning a light face or a dark as they travel through their personal space, their orbits influenced by love, jealousy, ambition, greed, insecurity, fear, revenge, longing, frustration, friendship and its loss—and the soul-wrenching effects of being responsible for other people.

And at the center of it all is a tenderly human compassion that sheds its light through this system of moving bodies, for everyone from the King of Scotland to Sergeant Dodd’s horse.

I finished reading the book, and immediately read it again. Been a long time since that’s happened.

Diana Gabaldon (2017)

To learn more, read an excerpt, or to purchase, visit: A Clash of Spheres.

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My grandmother and novel-writing in my teens

The weird thing is, I’ve always told stories. One of my earliest memories is talking to my little brother who had just been moved from our parents’ room into ‘my’ room – so I was probably about three or four. I was telling him he was NOT to interrupt when I told stories and talked to invisible people –  or else. Another memory I can date is when I was in hospital to have my tonsils out at the age of 5. A nurse came into my room to find out why I was shouting – she thought I was having a bad dream. “I’m telling a story about a naughty hamster,” I informed her coldly. She told me to be quiet so I stuck my head under the blankets and went on with the naughty hamster story.

By the time I was seven I was writing several pages when we had to write compositions at school. It’s true that I usually left it until Sunday evening before I admitted I had to write something and my parents often had to shut me in the dining room which was full of encyclopedias and books so I’d get on with my homework. It was a waste of time sending me to my room because they knew I’d just read one of my many books. So I’d storm and yell that it wasn’t fair and then eventually settle down and start writing something.

This is when I got the story feeling – the feeling that something much larger than me that was also me was leaning down and pouring the story through my fingers and out through my pen. I always wrote a rough draft because I often had trouble keeping up with the story and so the first version was full of mistakes and words that turned into a scribble because I knew what they were. It was a wonderful feeling, a magical feeling and it’s still the reason why I write. Poetry made the story feeling as well and the sense that a poem was there, waiting to be written though I didn’t know what it was yet, was so exciting I couldn’t sit still and paced up and down for hours. I used to get a peculiar ache in the palm of my hand, around my thumb which was always the harbinger of a story and that still happens too.

When I was 12 I demanded a typewriter for my birthday. I got my grandmother’s old one and learned to touch type when I was 15 (I taught myself). I needed the typewriter, I explained, because I couldn’t keep up with the words otherwise. Sometimes I’d sit at the typewriter, full of the story feeling but not knowing what to write; sometimes I’d be writing and writing late into the night, gripped by what I was reading as my fingers typed it.

Around then, when I was 12, my grandmother decided to take a hand. She had been a Hungarian novelist before WWII and what she gave me when I went to visit her on Tuesdays was essentially a writing apprenticeship.

Most of the time she just asked me to write a story or another chapter of a novel and then critiqued it very carefully, usually in writing. She was only a bit harsh with one story which was about a cat and which she thought was twee. I’m still trying to write the cat book in a non-twee way.

I kept on going to her until I was seventeen when she had another stroke that put her in a care home. At least she saw my book in draft form, and said she liked it. She helped me with some of the situations in the story which were too far out of my experience. She knew that my book would be published but I don’t think she saw it as an actual book. I visited her a couple of times – the nurses put my Hungarian grandmother next to an Italian lady so they’d have something in common! – but she couldn’t really talk any more. She died a couple of years later, after my second book was published. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I stopped writing fiction for about five years then because… well, because my grandmother wouldn’t be reading it. I did freelance journalism instead.

Firedrake’s Eye was the first thing I wrote after I realised this and came out of the dry period. I wrote it on my grandmother’s old typewriter in a garden shed while I was pregnant with my first child.

Proofs, proofs, proofs

Back in the Dark Ages, before word processing programs and emails, you sent your vast wad of paper off to the publishers and if it didn’t get lost in the post, they would send back a list of edits. And then you’d do the edits and eventually you would get a much vaster wad of paper, A3 size, called page-proofs which had in fact been printed off the physical typesetting. The first thing you would see when you looked at them was always an embarrassing mistake which you corrected immediately with a terrific sense of relief.
You would have two weeks to do all your corrections in, usually coinciding with the Easter holidays or, I think on one occasion, moving house and you had to use special very precise typesetters’ marks which I still use because… well, because I can.
Despite what the publishers told you about only correcting mistakes, you would take the opportunity to make as many corrections as you could. Mostly they let you unless it got outrageous at which point they would charge you for them.
Some time later you would get your bound proofs, which looked terribly smart because they actually looked like a book. You could still make corrections so long as they were small, and sure enough, the first thing you would see when you opened your very own book was always an embarrassing (and different) mistake you hadn’t spotted at the page-proof stage.
You’d get pulls of the cover which I have to say, I always found a terrific let-down in those far off days. Cover design has got several orders of magnitude better than it was when my first book A SHADOW OF GULLS came out.
Then you’d get your first copy of the actual bound hardback book. And it was always a thrill and a joy because there were the words you’d written, made actually official by print. You’d hug it and show it to your mum and dance around the sitting room.
Then, of course, you’d spot the hideously obvious and crashingly embarrassing mistake in the first few pages which you hadn’t spotted before and was now uncorrectable.
This happens with all books no matter how careful you are and I’m now hardened to it, but it still makes me wince.
I’m going through my nice bound proofs of A CHORUS OF INNOCENTS at the moment, going backwards and reading it aloud in the effort to find every single typo and mistake and I know I’ll miss something.
But I still love getting my bound proofs!

A bit behind with things…

Really, this blog is about excuses. First I am being plagued by a gremlin: I lost my beloved battered Hungarian/English dictionary on the bus on Saturday morning, just left it on the seat and waltzed off and didn’t remember it until too late. Then the power cable for my laptop went missing: I still have a couple of places to look but I’m mystified as to where it went because I’m usually hypercareful about things like that.

And then on Saturday afternoon a glass of water was spilled All. Over. The. Keyboard. Of. My. Laptop.

It was an accident and at least partly my fault for allowing any container of any liquid to be on the same surface as the laptop because you know, and I know, and the Computer Gods know that eventually liquid and laptop will meet.

So we tipped it on its side and switched it off and patted it with paper towels and dried it with a hairdryer and I didn’t start it up again until I could get it to the Computer Guys on Monday morning. It seems OK. The laptop needed to see the Computer Guys anyway.

Plus I’m being plagued by a nasty cold and chest infection that seems to be clearing up but veeerrrryyy slooooowly. I spent the whole of Sunday in bed with a pile of snotty tissues and a brilliant book by Alice Hogge called “God’s Secret Agents” and dozing off in the hope my chest would have stopped making strange creaking noises when I woke up.

So this is it, I’m afraid. I had sort of plans to publish a taster of my peculiar SF story featuring a futuristic Robin Carey and Henry Dodd, but I haven’t got round to anything like that. Maybe next week.

Why I love \”A Girl Called Jack\”!

A girl called Jack – Jack Monroe. She proudly calls herself a leftie liberal lezzer. She\’s a poverty campaigner, thanks to her own experience of the real thing. Richard Littlejohn of the Daily Mail takes a nasty underhand swing at her and she fights back, point by point, and wins loads more followers in the process.

She takes the piss out of him for NOT knowing she\’s a lesbian and failing to attack her on that point, which was at least true, as opposed to all the other points he did attack her on, which weren\’t.

She is doing her best to manage her fame in a responsible and honest way, and seems to be making a better fist of it, so far, than Jamie Oliver. I have to say that I\’ve never successfully cooked a Jamie Oliver recipe, although I\’ve cooked many from Nigella and even Gordon Ramsay. The fault is almost certainly mine because he expects you to be as skillful as he is. This may make me prejudiced.

Normally I\’m also prejudiced against leftie liberals because I grew up in the 70s in a school (grammar, selective, single sex and in a very expensive part of London) that was absolutely infested with ardent Socialist Workers Party girlies and painfully sincere Trotskyites. The only possible option was to become a staunch Tory. Eighteen years of Tory rule then turned me into a dangerous leftie, such that I even voted Labour for the first time ever in 1996, helping to inflict Blair on the lot of us. (I\’m sorry. I really am. Please forgive me.) I have now officially joined, and am the first member of, the APOBYH party (a plague on both your houses).

Her account of her experience of Really Not Having Any Money At All \”Hunger Hurts\” has apparently had 20 million hits and deserves it. It\’s powerful writing that reminds me uncomfortably of some bad times in my own life, though I was luckily never in as much trouble as she was.

And she makes the point well: yes, it\’s a middle class point, but so what? We\’re all middle class, really. The point is that in the UK in 2014, it is UNNECESSARY for anyone to go through what she did. With her, as it is for many thousands of people, it was the punitive, disorganised and stupid meanness of the benefits system. With other people it\’s crushing debt or the loss of their house or mental illness or whatever. In my case it was because if you\’re married to a self-employed barrister who\’s ill, and you\’re self-employed yourself, you can\’t get any kind of benefits until they\’ve finally diagnosed the lung cancer (which took about five months during which time I ran a family of five on my autistic middle son\’s Disabled Living Allowance until a charity stepped in).  Thank God, so far, despite Cameron\’s efforts, medical bills aren\’t in that list – as they so often are in the USA.

Despite the recession (six years and counting), despite the dangerous widening gap between the super-rich and the rest of us, Britain is still a wealthy country. Much of the hunger in this country is an artificial creation by bureaucracy. This annoys me not just because it\’s wrong, but because it\’s monumentally stupid even from the point of view of the people causing it. Children who grow up watching their parents not eat supper because they\’re giving it to their kids do not forget. Do you think that any of them will vote Conservative? Ever?

Jack Monroe has also written an excellent recipe book on feeding two people on £10 per week, full of useful stuff and great ideas, which I meant to review here but got carried away. My only quarrel with her is that the laws of supply and demand will mean that baked beans will go up in price (who\’d a thunk that you could wash off that nasty orange stuff and just use them as, well, beans) and so will tinned mandarin slices.

Hooray! Hooray! “An Air of Treason” by P F Chisholm is out now!

I could do sock-puppetting and tell you that P F Chisholm is a wonderful writer and you should all go and buy this book… If you’re American or want Kindle – buy it here. If you’re British, buy it here.


But I won’t.


I’ll just bashfully tell you about the sixth in my series of Elizabethan crime novels under the pen-name P F Chisholm. “An Air of Treason”, starring that dour Borderer, Sergeant Henry Dodd and the dashing courtier and man-of-action Sir Robert Carey. Published by Poisoned Pen Press, is OUT NOW in treebook and ebook.


What’s in it? Well, Dodd’s in big trouble on the way from London to Oxford and Carey’s tracked down the Queen at last – but she’s ordered him to investigate the most dangerous cold-case of the Elizabethan era. Meanwhile someone wants to poison him.


Once you’ve bought it and read it – please write a review on Amazon (especially if you liked it). And if you can get at least two of your friends to buy the book too, you’ll ultimately make me a very happy author.


And then you can read the five earlier books: “A Famine of Horses”, “A Season of Knives”, “A Surfeit of Guns”, “A Plague of Angels”, “A Murder of Crows.” – you can find them here.


And then you can read my Elizabethan noir ebook about the ambiguous lawyer James Enys in “Do We Not Bleed” – published on Kindle by Climbing Tree Books Ltd – plus a number of other books by me.


Including a contemporary love-story set in Cornwall in the 1990s which I’d forgotten about until the Publisher insisted on putting it out there. It’s called “Love without Shadows” – it’s not historical but try it anyway. You might like it!


There are five more historical novels in my backlist which Climbing Tree Books will be bringing out in ebook formats over the next year or so.


And then there are the very silly stories about Jack the Dog – “I, Jack” and “Jack and Rebel the Police Dog” – all written in Doglish. For those you’ll have to pester HarperCollins, but a new ebook in the series “Jack and the Ghosts” is also available from Climbing Tree Books.


And then you can find my Facebook Author Page and Patricia Finney’s Renaissance Facebook Group (someone will ask you about my books to stop spammers).


Once you’ve done all that, I might have finished the next Enys story – possibly even the next Carey. Climbing Tree Books might have even more weird and wonderful things to read by me and others.



Why I want to learn Hungarian

I\’m planning to go to Hungary for a year or two so I can learn the language. Before any Magyars among you leap to tell me how difficult it is and how it isn\’t related to Indo-European and why am I doing it anyway – I know all that.


My reasons are long and complicated but boil down to the stories that my mother used to tell me about her childhood in Hungary before the Second World War  – and what happened to her and her parents during the war. She was incredibly lucky but her hair-raising adventures became my bedtime stories, about walking through minefields – and only realising what they were because the dead bodies hadn\’t been looted or buried – about the wreckage of Budapest, about friends of hers who ran the wrong way and got taken off by Russian soldiers to \”peel potatoes\” and were never seen again.


Needless to say, I\’ve planned a book about it for years but I\’ve found that I really need to understand the language and be able to read it as well. My mother\’s stories came from the point of view of the child she was at the time – and I need an adult\’s perspective as well.


So in January 2014  I\’m going back to Hungary (I spent a month learning as much as I could this August) and I\’m hoping that I can finish what my mother never really started – she wanted her children to be completely English as many refugees did.


In the meantime, I\’ve got at least one book to write in the Sir Robert Carey series – the sixth is coming out in spring 2014 and called \”An Air of Treason\” (under the name P F Chisholm) and I\’m also planning something connected with my ebook \”Writeritis: the novel-writing bug\” which I\’ll blog about later. This blog has become more difficult to access as I don\’t have broadband where I\’m living at the moment so please forgive the long gaps between posts.


You can find me on my Author Page on Facebook for up to date posts about my writing.


That Man in Red Again

I logged on for a very erudite discussion at the beginning of this week on Google+ – Art Talks: Who is the Man in Red? It was great because I could soak up all sorts of detail about Henry VIII\’s court and clothes and jewels and painting. The curators of the In Fine Style exhibition quoted my suggestion at the end – as I may have mentioned, I think I\’ve got the Man in Red nailed.


I think it was Carey\’s father as a young man – Henry Carey, Baron Hunsdon and I\’ll keep saying so until somebody finds the account entry or the connection that proves it – or (OK, it\’s possible) definite evidence that it isn\’t him.


Henry Carey was the first son and second child of Mary Boleyn (The Other Boleyn Girl) who had been married to Sir William Carey after her affair with Henry VIII finished. He was born on the 4th March 1526. Historians are sceptical about him being an illegitimate son of the King but it\’s certainly possible that he was.
Although the accounts show that Henry Fitzroy, Henry\’s acknowledged illegitimate son, had a red gown, doublet and hose, the Man in Red is clearly not him because from his miniature, Henry Fitzroy had very little chin whereas the Man in Red has quite a long chin. Also Henry Fitzroy died in 1536 which is a little early for the portrait and style of the clothes. If you look at the portrait of Baron Hunsdon by Steven van Herwijck, painted 1561-63
I think you\’ll see that there\’s a considerable resemblance there, especially (yes) about the chin. Henry Carey too had blue eyes.
I believe it\’s possible that the portrait of a Man in Red was painted in 1545, perhaps for the occasion of Henry Carey\’s marriage to Anne Morgan on 21st May 1545 and he may even have been wearing Fitzroy\’s old outfit refashioned, seeing how expensive it was. The clothing is very much of that later Henrician style (as several experts agree). This would have been 2 years before Henry VIII\’s death and so must have been with the King\’s permission – perhaps as a way of tidying up the succession around Edward VI.
How to prove it? Well the ideal would be an entry in a the domus providenciae accounts for a portrait of Henry Carey wearing red or perhaps in his own household accounts (I\’m not sure if he was in the King\’s household or his mother\’s). Maybe the cap badge could help? It\’s a very distinctive one of a man in armour next to a large Tudor rose (significant because Hunsdon\’s coat of arms bore three silver roses on a bend). Has anybody seen that anywhere? Hunsdon and Elizabeth always got along very well and he later became the Captain of her Guard and later still her Lord Chamberlain. Did the cap badge display his devotion to the Tudor Rose – Elizabeth?