Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Castle of the Week: Chenonceau: The ladies’ chateau

Welcome back to another castle of the week! This week's castle is Chenonceau (also written as Chenonceaux), in France! Enjoy!

Chenonceau: The ladies’ chateau

by McKenna Darby

 Chateau de Chenonceau as seen from Catherine de Medici's garden. It is
widely considered the most beautiful chateau in France and one of the most
beautiful in the world
Chenonceau is one of France’s smaller castles. What it lacks in size, however, Chenonceau more than makes up for in history – and in beauty. As Laure Menier, curator of Chenonceau writes in her introduction to one the chateau’s many guidebooks: “The very name of this site evokes music; the vision of it, pure enchantment. Here charm transcends beauty. The majesty and simplicity of Chenonceau touches the heart and the soul.” Poetic, yes, but Chenonceau is every bit of this and more.

The chateau is distinctive in part for being constructed in the middle of the Cher River. The river, placid as a lake on fair days, reflects the castle’s white stone and dainty turrets like a noble lady’s looking glass. Which is appropriate, for Chenonceau is popularly known as “the ladies’ chateau.” Through the centuries, six strong and memorable women built Chenonceau, maintained it, expanded it, loved it, fought over it, and made its place in history.

The first was Katherine Briçonnet. Katherine’s husband, Thomas Bohier, acquired the property from the debt-ridden Marques family in 1496, and proceeded to tear down both the medieval castle and mill that stood there. Only the Marques tower, which Katherine renovated in Renaissance style, still stands near the castle’s front entrance. On the foundations of the previous castle and mill, Katherine and Thomas built a new castle, almost perfectly square. With Thomas was away for long periods, tending to the king’s finances, Katherine supervised most of the construction. The castle’s ornate double doors and an Italian-style coffered-oak ceiling, the oldest surviving example in France, are widely attributed to Katherine’s influence.
Shortly after Thomas died, King Francis I seized the chateau as part of a lawsuit against his financiers; Chenonceau became a royal castle. Men were not destined to control the castle, however. Francis died soon after he gained control of the property, and control passed to his son, Henri II.

Henri had two important women in his life: his wife, Catherine de Medici, and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Although Catherine assumed she would control the castle, Henri awarded it to Diane instead. The decisions enraged the queen, but Catherine was 20 years younger than her rival. In keeping with her famous motto, “Hate and wait,” Catherine bided her time, expecting that Diane would soon die. Instead, the notoriously athletic and healthy Diane applied her talent for business management to develop a thriving farm at the chateau. She then used the farm’s proceeds and the estate’s rents to renovate and enlarge Chenonceau, constructing some of the most spectacular gardens of the era and adding a scenic bridge that connected the chateau to the far bank of the Cher.

When King Henri died in a tragic jousting accident, Catherine no longer had to wait. She seized Chenonceau, evicted Diane, and set about to put her own mark on the castle. On the opposite side of the chateau from Diane’s garden, Catherine built her own, complete with lemon and orange trees. She also built two galleries on top of Diane’s bridge, a project Diane had planned but never had a chance to execute.
The dowager queen also built on Diane’s other accomplishments, transforming her rival’s vineyard into one of France’s finest, importing silkworms, and launching silk production that produced a fabric so fine it was known as “the Queen’s cloth.” She then set about to stage the most elaborate parties in the history of France, including lavish entertainments, sumptuous food, and nation’s first fireworks display, given in honor of her son, the newly crowned King Francis II, and his wife Mary Stuart. For nearly 30 years, for three sons in turn (Catherine survived all but the last), she ruled France as regent from the Thomas Bonier’s Green Study at Chenonceau.

When Catherine’s third son, Henri III, was assassinated on Aug. 1, 1589, Chenonceau passed to his widow, Louise de Lorraine. She transformed Chenonceau into a tomb, painting her bedchamber black and roaming the halls in white, the color of royal mourning. With her death in 1501, Chenonceau lost its last royal resident.
The next important woman in Chenonceau’s history was Louise Dupin, who hosted the Enlightenment’s most famous thinkers, from Voltaire to Rousseau, at the chateau. When the French Revolution broke out and rioters threatened to destroy Chenonceau as a symbol of royal excess, Mme. Dupin saved the chateau by reminding the revolutionary mob of the castle’s hospitality to their Enlightenment heroes.

Early in the 20th century, Chenonceau was again touched by war. The chateau, now owned by the Menier family, a dynasty built on chocolate, became a hospital for soldiers wounded in World War I, with a 120-bed ward and a surgical facility set up in Catherine de Medici’s two galleries. The family paid all of the expenses, treating 2,254 soldiers before the war ended. Simone Menier, chief nurse, ran the hospital with her husband, George.

In World War II, Chenonceau played an important role in the French Resistance. On June 22, 1940, France lost a decisive battle that cut the country in two. The line of demarcation between Nazi-controlled France and free France ran along the Cher River. The far side of the bridge was Nazi controlled. The chateau side was free. Although German guards patrolled the river, Simone Meunier unlocked the doors to the gallery whenever the patrols were out of sight, helping hundreds of Jews and French villagers to escape.

Catherine de Medici's garden reflects her flamboyant style. To the left is
Diane's bridge, topped by Catherine's two-story gallery.

 Some of the original Delft tiles at Chenonceau. Except around the edges of
the room, the tiles are worn down to the red clay underneath. 

Chenonceau, as shown on my admission ticket. Diane de Poitiers built the
bridge over the River Cher. Diane's lifelong rival, Catherine de Medici, topped it with a double gallery when she seized the castle from her husband's mistress after the death of Catherine's husband, King Henri II. During WWII, the castle side of the bridge was free France, while the opposite sidewas Nazi occupied. Hundreds escaped Nazi control by slipping across the bridge with assistance from Simone Menier, heir to the Menier chocolatefortune, who worked with the French Resistance.
A stunning view of the Cher and a corner of Diane's garden from Catherine
de Medici's study

  Intertwined H and Cs on the ceiling in Catherine de Medici's bedroom officially stand for Henri and
Catherine, but are arranged so they also form an intertwined H and two Ds, for
Henri and his mistress Diane de Poitiers.

Ceiling in Catherine de Medici's study, from which she ruled France as
regent to her sons for almost THIRTY years. Still in its original state, it
features the crest of Thomas Bohier and his wife, Katherine Briconnet, who
demolished the fortified castle and mill that once stood on the site to

Diane's garden is far more formal than Catherine's, reflecting her strict
upbringing and formal mannerisms. The retaining wall in the distance
protects the garden from the Cher's floods.

A modern portrait of Catherine, as she looked in her later years,
displayed over a spectacular fireplace emblazoned with H for Henri and
back-to-back Cs for Catherine. It is said that Coco Chanel was inspired to
create the logo for her company after seeing Catherine's double-C symbol at

Catherine built this gallery, one of two, atop Diane's bridge, completing
her rival's project.

This elaborate cabinet was a wedding gift from Catherine and Henri to
their oldest son, Francis II, and his wife, Mary Queen of Scots. 

Diane's farm was a money-maker, a testament to her business skills. It
still grows the flowers displayed in Chenonceau's gardens and the
vegetables served in Chenonceau's restaurant.

The Cher flows directly under Diane's bridge, topped by Catherine's
gallery. Except for the foundations, the Marques tower in the foreground,
restored in the Renaissance style by Thomas Bohier and Katherine Briconnet,
is all that remains of the original castle and mill.

A romanticized portrait of Diane de Poitiers as Diana the Huntress. An
extremely athletic woman, Diane is believed to have taken swims in the Cher
on days that she was AT the castle, from a landing on one of the piers of
her bridge.

McKenna Darby writes romantic historical novels set during the French Renaissance and the American Civil War. Visit her at http://mckennadarby.com

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Video of the Week: Evolution of Mom Dancing

I adore Jimmy Fallon. And while this video may not be historical in context, it is definitely making history! Jimmy Fallon AND the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, doing the Evolution of Mom Dancing. And yes, I sooo do some of those dances! Kudos to the First Lady for breaking it down on national television and for encouraging all families to move together!


Monday, February 25, 2013


Today, I'd like to welcome the wonderful historical mystery author, Frances Brody to History Undressed! If you haven't read her book, Dying in the Wool, the first in the Kate Shakelton mystery series, you will want to pick it up, I absolutely loved it! The second book, A Medal for Murder has just released!


by Frances Brody

Dying in the Wool, my 1920s Kate Shackleton mystery novel, is set in the fictional mill village of Bridgestead, Yorkshire, based on the real life village of Cottingley. Researching my location, I took a train to Bingley, and walked to Cottingley. There, in 1917, cousins Elsie Wright, age 16, and Frances Griffiths, age 10, photographed fairies.

I crossed the old stone bridge and walked by the beck (stream) where the girls once played. Frances Griffiths arrived with her mother from South Africa in 1917. After the heat of Africa, Cottingley in spring enchanted Frances. The water murmured its song. She watched butterflies, dragonflies, and saw fairies. Such sightings were not new. Author William Riley knew the Yorkshire dales well. He talked to several people who had spotted pixies in Upper Airedale and Wharfedale.

The girls were scolded for coming home with wet feet, late for tea. In true the-dog-ate-my-homework style, Frances explained that they had stayed so long by the beck because they were watching fairies. They could prove it, too.

Elsie borrowed her father’s Midg quarter-plate camera. Arthur, a keen amateur photographer with his own dark room, dismissed the fairy photographs as a prank.

There are five photographs: Frances with leaping fairy; Frances with five fairies; Elsie with gnome; fairy offering a harebell to Elsie; fairy sunbath. 

In 1919, Elsie’s mother Polly, believing the photographs to be genuine, attended the Bradford Theosophical Society lecture, “Fairy Life”. She showed the photographs to the speaker. The Theosophical Society then displayed the photographs at their Annual Conference in Harrogate. Human evolution towards perfectibility was a central tenet of the Society. According to the editor of Spiritualist Magazine, the photographs showed an example of life forms which had ‘developed along some separate line of evolution.’ Among a war-weary and bereaved public, many wanted to believe that here was a corner of fairyland.

Arthur Conan Doyle supplied a camera, to ensure there was no possibility of tampering with a fresh photograph. He studied the photographs carefully, had them analysed, and pronounced them authentic.
It was too late for Elsie and Frances to admit that Elsie had traced images of fairies from a book and created cut-outs. Their ‘bit of fun’ had fooled too many clever people. They were embarrassed. In the 1980s, the cousins came clean. Elsie said, ‘Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle – well, we could only keep quiet.’

From the first, there were sceptics. Poet and essayist Maurice Hewlett wrote in John o’London’s Weekly, ‘It is easier to believe in faked photographs than in fairies.’

Frances continued to maintain that the last photograph was genuine. Frances’s daughter shares this view, as does Joe Cooper, author of “The Case of the Cottingley Fairies.”

Did I catch a glimpse of gossamer wing on my visit to Cottingley? Sadly, no. But there is a certain way of looking, from the corner of the eye, while lying very still in long grass, and feeling the earth’s energy. Maybe next time.

Meanwhile, meet the fairies: http://www.cottingleyconnect.org.uk/

For more about Frances Brody and the Kate Shackleton books, visit www.frances-brody.com

Photographs of Cottingley Town Hall,  Beckfoot Bridge and the waterfall courtesy of Margaret Krupa

A pawn-shop robbery -

It's no rest for the wicked as Kate Shackleton picks up her second professional sleuthing case. But exposing the culprit of a pawn-shop robbery turns sinister when her investigation takes her to Harrogate - and murder is only one step behind ...

A fatal stabbing -

A night at the theatre should have been just what the doctor ordered, until Kate stumbles across a body in the doorway. The knife sticking out of its chest definitely suggests a killer in the theatre's midst.

A ransom demand -

Kate likes nothing better than a mystery - and nothing better than solving them. So when a ransom note demands £1,000 for the safe return of the play's leading lady, the refined streets of Harrogate play host to Kate's skills in piecing together clues - and luring criminals out of their lairs ...

Friday, February 22, 2013

Historical Romance Review: A Most Scandalous Proposal

A Most Scandalous Proposal

by Ashlyn Macnamara
Review by Kathleen Bittner-Roth

About the Book

After watching her beloved sister Sophia pine over the ton’s Golden Boy for years, Miss Julia St. Claire has foresworn love and put herself firmly on the shelf. Unfortunately, her social-climbing mother and debt-ridden father have other ideas, and jump at the chance to marry Julia off to the newly-named Earl of Clivesden…the man of Sophia’s dreams.

Since resigning his Cavalry commission, Benedict Revelstoke has spent his time in London avoiding the marriage mart. But when he discovers that the Earl of Clivesden has set Julia in his sights, Benedict tries to protect his childhood best friend from the man’s advances—only to discover more than friendship driving his desire to defend her. He surprises them both with the force of his feelings, but when she refuses him and her father announces her betrothal, he fears he’s lost her forever—until Julia approaches him with a shocking scheme that will ruin her for all respectable society…

…and lead them into an exquisite world of forbidden pleasures.


Debut Author Ashlyn Macnamara has hit a home run her first time at bat with her Regency novel A MOST SCANDALOUS PROPOSAL. When two sisters, Julia and Sophia St. Claire, invite you into their colorful world, the detail the author injects into the characters is so captivating, you’ll have trouble putting the book down. Macnamara takes you into the heart of even the least significant of secondary characters with such graceful ease, before you realize it, you’re lost not only in a well-crafted story, but you’ll want to highlight both the clever repartee between hero and heroine, and the lovely prose so you can revisit the sisters long after you’ve turned the last page. Some have compared this story to Jane Austin’s Sense and Sensibility, but I’d wager when the reader gets to some of the hot love scenes, Austin is history.

The story jumps off the page in the first two paragraphs with the Earl of Clivesden placing a wager for Julia’s hand. He’s a gorgeous but deceitful person, one her sister, Sophia, thinks is the only man for her. By the end of the chapter, you’ll be so engrossed in the story, you’ll be hoping Clivesden meets with a rather unfortunate accident so the two sisters can get on with meeting the loves of their lives.

Here’s an author who’ll be on my “must read” list for a very long time. I suspect she’ll be on yours as well. A MOST SCANDALOUS PROPOSAL is available February 26th.  Her sequel A MOST DEVLISH ROGUE IS due in August.  Check out her website for a couple of hot book covers and an even hotter book trailer:  http://ashlynmacnamara.net/

Well done, Ashlyn Macnamara.

Weekend Recommended Read! -- It Stings so Sweet by Stephanie Draven

Happy Friday history lovers! My weekend recommended read (a new feature), is a bit on the naughty side! It's a 1920's erotic novel, by Stephanie Draven, that I thoroughly devoured. The 1920's is a fascinating time period that I feel we don't see enough of in novels. Kudos to Ms. Draven for bringing the times to life!

*Warning, this book may scandalize you!*

They vibrated with incendiary Jazz. They teemed with sexual abandon. The Twenties were roaring and the women–young, open, rebellious, and willing–set the pace and pushed the limits with every man they met…

In the aftermath of a wild, liquor-soaked party, three women from very different social classes are about to live out their forbidden desires.

Society girl, Nora Richardson’s passionate nature has always been a challenge to her ever-patient husband. Now he wants out of the marriage and she has just this one night to win him back. The catch? He wants to punish her for her bad behavior. Nora is offended by her husband’s increasingly depraved demands, but as the night unfolds, she discovers her own true nature and that the line between pain and pleasure is very thin indeed.

Meanwhile, Clara Cartwright, sultry siren of the silent screen, is introduced to a mysterious WWI Flying Ace. If Clara, darling of the scandal sheets, knows anything, it’s men. And she’s known plenty. But none of them push her boundaries like the aviator, who lures her into a ménage with a stranger in a darkened cinema then steals her jaded heart.

Working class girl Sophie O’Brien has more important things on her mind than pleasures of the flesh. But when her playboy boss, the wealthy heir to the Aster family fortune, confronts her with her diary of secret sex fantasies, she could die of shame. To her surprise, he doesn’t fire her; instead, he dares her to re-enact her boldest fantasies and Sophie is utterly seduced.

One party serves as a catalyst of sexual awakening. And in an age when anything goes, three women discover that anything is possible…

“Nuanced, complex characters who are both strikingly modern and very much of their time…The balance of sin and sweetness is as perfect as a Prohibition cocktail.” – RTBookReviews, Top Pick!

Read it!

Available in print and ebook (print copies are available in your local B&N stores)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Video of the Week: Downton Abbey Performs One Direction

*Holds hands up and looks shame-faced at the floor*

My husband and I -- according to my grandmother -- are the last people on earth to begin watching Downton Abbey. Yes, we've just begun the very first season, and yes we totally love the show. And Downton Abbey is the inspiration behind this week's video. I love One Direction's song, What Makes You Beautiful, so when someone put this video together... I LOVED IT!


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Castle of the Week: Cardiff Castle

Welcome back to another castle of the week! I admit this is one of my favorite days because I get to visit or revisit so many interesting castles! Today we travel to...

Cardiff Castle

by Evonne Wareham

The castle has a strategic position on the South Wales coast, beside the River Taff, but the development of Cardiff around it has now put it well within the city, at the end of the two main shopping streets. There are Roman remains on the site and a twelve sided, stone built Shell Keep, with a water filled moat, that began its evolution as a Norman construction, probably made of wood, but Cardiff Castle is best known as an outstanding example of Victorian Gothic. The meeting in 1865 of the Third Marquess of Bute, then the wealthiest man in the world, with architect/designer William Burges, formed a partnership that lasted for years. Lord Bute was rich. Burges was dedicated, some might say obsessive, over detail and consequently very expensive. They were both captivated by the Middle Ages. Serendipity at its finest.

The Butes were a Scottish family who used the Castle as a summer home. Under Burges’s direction it was transformed into a Medieval fairy tale – towers, and turrets, stained glass, stonework, carpentry and painting on themes from legends, chivalry, history, the zodiac, the elements, animals, fruit and flowers, insects and birds, hieroglyphics, runes …

Many rooms have themes – the Arab Room, with a golden ceiling, the Winter Smoking Room equipped with all the ‘boys’ toys’ of the day, the Nursery, with tiled murals of children’s stories. The result is amazing, or abominable, depending on your taste! As you can guess, I am a fan. The photographs barely give a flavor of the effect. The interior shots, taken without flash, for conservation reasons, can only give an impression of the colors and craftsmanship. The full impact, ‘in the flesh’ is quite stunning and a little overwhelming. The closest thing I can use for comparison are the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, who were interested in similar themes and use of color. Outside a new Clock Tower was created, decorated with figures depicting the planets. And then there is the Animal Wall, with stone statues that gaze or glare down at pedestrians going about their business in the street below. It’s a fantastic creation.

The clock tower
Outer wall and Tower

The Keep
The Tower - Burges figures of the Planets

Main building

Stained glass

Detail from the banqueting hall
Fireplace in the banqueting hall

Detail of the lavish decorations

Monkeys - a favorite motiff

The Library





Evonne is a Welsh author of contemporary romantic suspense who lives just outside Cardiff. Her award winning first novel Never Coming Home will be available in paperback in the US in March, to be followed by Out of Sight Out of Mind, a paranormal romantic thriller, in May. Evonne will be attending the RT Booklovers Convention in Kansas City in May 2013.


The Castle buildings are within extensive grounds, surrounded by a high stone wall. Once through the entrance gate the Keep is straight ahead. The main building – the family residence – is off to the left. Within the building, the Banqueting Hall is the largest room. The Animal Wall is outside the Castle walls and the Clock Tower is visible from the street.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Holly Bush Virtual Book Tour -- Giveaway!

Romancing Olive

Publication Date: November 1, 2011 | BookBaby | 205p

In 1891, spinster librarian, Olive Wilkins, is shocked to learn of her brother’s violent death at a saloon gaming table and her sister-in-law’s subsequent murder, traveling far from her staid life to rescue her niece and nephew, now orphans. She arrives to find the circumstances of her brother’s life deplorable and her long held beliefs of family and tradition, shaken.

Accustomed to the sophistication of Philadelphia, Olive arrives in Spencer, Ohio, a rough and tumble world she is not familiar with, facing two traumatized children. Her niece and nephew, Mary and John, have been living with a neighboring farmer, widower Jacob Butler, the father of three young children of his own and a man still in pain from the recent loss of his wife.

Real danger threatens Olive and Mary and John while Jacob and his own brood battle the day-to-day struggles for survival. Will Olive and Jacob find the strength to fight their battles alone or together? Will love conquer the bitterness of loss and broken dreams?

Reconstructing Jackson

Publication Date: September 25, 2012 | BookBaby | 191p

1867 . . . Southern lawyer and Civil War veteran, Reed Jackson, returns to his family’s plantation in a wheelchair. His father deems him unfit, and deeds the Jackson holdings, including his intended bride, to a younger brother. Angry and bitter, Reed moves west to Fenton, Missouri, home to a cousin with a successful business, intending to start over.

Belle Richards, a dirt poor farm girl aching to learn how to read, cleans, cooks and holds together her family’s meager property. A violent brother and a drunken father plot to marry her off, and gain a new horse in the bargain. But Belle’s got other plans, and risks her life to reach them.

Reed is captivated by Belle from their first meeting, but wheelchair bound, is unable to protect her from violence. Bleak times will challenge Reed and Belle's courage and dreams as they forge a new beginning from the ashes of war and ignorance.

About the Author

Holly Bush was born in western Pennsylvania to two avid readers. There was not a room in her home that did not hold a full bookcase. She worked in the hospitality industry, owning a restaurant for twenty years and recently worked as the sales and marketing director in the hospitality/tourism industry and is credited with building traffic to capacity for a local farm tour, bringing guests from twenty-two states, booked two years out.  Holly has been a marketing consultant to start-up businesses and has done public speaking on the subject.

Holly has been writing all of her life and is a voracious reader of a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction, particularly political and historical works. She has written four romance novels, all set in the U.S. West in the mid 1800’s. She frequently attends writing conferences, and has always been a member of a writer’s group.

Holly is a gardener, a news junkie, has been an active member of her local library board and loves to spend time near the ocean. She is the proud mother of two daughters and the wife of a man more than a few years her junior.

Leave a comment w/your email address for your chance to win one eBook of either title (winner's choice).  The eBook files available are PDF, mobi & ePub. Open to international readers!

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Blythe Gifford – In which we create a Happy Ending (+Giveaway!)

Welcome back to History Undressed, guest author Blythe Gifford! She writes wonderful historical romance novels, and has a fascinating piece for us today! Enjoy! (Leave a comment with your email address for your chance to win!)

Blythe Gifford – In which we create a Happy Ending

On February 19, TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL, the final book in The Brunson Clan trilogy, hits the shelves.  And with its publication, I’ll achieve my goal in writing the series:  To give Johnnie Armstrong a happy ending.

Let me explain.

The trilogy is set on the Scottish Borders during the early Tudor era.  Constant war, along with a bleak, hilly terrain ill-suited to settled agriculture, and inheritance laws that split land into smaller and smaller parcels all combined to make it difficult to keep body and soul together. 

This was the land of the Border Reivers.  To survive, the Reivers, a term applicable to both English and Scottish families, “made a living” by stealing from one another, or, alternately, by collecting “blackmail” from those who could pay to be left alone. Whether there was a formal war or an uneasy peace, the Borders were, in effect, a war zone for 300 years. 

The “war” was only marginally between Scotland and England.  More often, it was among the various families on either side of the dividing line.  Loyal to family above king, these folks had feuds that rivaled the famous Hatfields and McCoys  They were beyond the law of either government, and usually even beyond the reach of the special Border Laws that were developed in a joint Anglo-Scots effort to bring order from the chaos.

Amidst all this brutality, however, the Borders produced songs that we still remember, thanks in large measure to Sir Walter Scott.  As A.L. Lloyd said in FOLK SONG IN ENGLAND, the Reivers “prized a poem almost as much as plunder, and produced such an impressive assembly of local narrative songs that some people used to label all our greater folk poems as 'Border ballads'."

“The Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong,” the story of an execution of a famous Border Reiver, was one of these.

Now Johnnie Armstrong, or Johnnie of Gilnocke, as he was also called, was one of the most notorious Reivers on the Borders.  Finally, King James V of Scotland rode into the land himself in a desperate attempt to restore order to the most lawless ground on the island.  (Some suggest he did it because he had something to prove to his uncle, King Henry VIII of England.)  At the top of King James’ list was Johnnie Armstrong, also called the “King of the Borders.”

Of course, history is written, or rewritten, by the storytellers.  To the king and the people he preyed on, Johnnie Armstrong might be a despicable man.  But to the songwriter who penned the “Ballad of Johnnie Armstrong,” his hero was a gallant thief, protecting Scotland from the English, and just trying to make his way in the world. 
According to the balladeer, Johnnie was not lawfully tried and convicted, but basely murdered when he was lured to a meeting with the king by a “loving letter” that insisted he come unarmed.

He did exactly that, along with forty retainers, dressed in their finest splendor to honor the king, expecting to be welcomed with open arms and royal hospitality.

Instead, he and his crew were seized by the king’s men labeled traitors, and fitted with hanging nooses.  Armstrong bargained for his life, and that of his men, with everything he could think of. 

He offered the king all manner of gifts, including “four and twenty milk white steeds” if he were spared.  His final offer was that the king should receive yearly rent, more accurately, the “blackmail” from all dwellers in the area of the Borders where Johnnie held sway, from “Gilnockie to Newcastleton.”

The king had no sympathy and was not open to a bribe. 

Facing death, Johnnie made an impassioned speech, claiming he had never harmed a Scot, but only the English.  The truth of this claim might be open to dispute.  To the local people he had preyed upon, Johnnie’s death might have been a welcome relief. 
But it is also hard to summon sympathy for the king as he is portrayed in the ballad, so deceitful that he tricks his subject into a trap.  The song also suggests the king was jealous of Johnnie’s fine clothes, another less than admirable trait, and perhaps even his title of “King of the Border.” 

Finally, as he realizes he is to die, Johnnie says (according to the ballad) “I have asked grace at a graceless face, but there is none for my men and me.”

So poor Johnnie and his men were hanged and lived no more.  Neither, legend has it, did the trees from which they swung.

Well, that didn’t seem right.  So began the story of the Brunson Clan.  Oh, my Brunsons are NOT the Armstrongs.  Indeed, finding the “real story” behind the ballad proved that the stories live longer than the truth.  So I told it my way, which mean changing virtually everything.  But finally, at the end of TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL, the king appears, ready to punish the Brunsons and…

Well, let’s just say no trees die at the end of the book except those that provided the paper.

So, are you a sucker for a happy ending?

A lucky reader who comments on today’s blog will be randomly selected to win a signed copy of (your choice) RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR (Book 1), CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD (Book 2), or TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL (Book 3).  US and Canadian addresses only, please.


Book Three of the Brunson Clan Trilogy

As leader of his clan, Black Rob Brunson has earned every dark syllable of his name. But, having taken hostage his enemy’s daughter in a fierce act of rebellion, he is tormented by feelings of guilt and torn apart with the growing need to protect her—and seduce her!

Stella Storwick feels Rob’s disdain from the first. Then slowly she starts to see behind his eyes to a man in turmoil. Something he has no words for, something that can only be captured in a heart-wrenching kiss....

March 2013
Harlequin HistoricalsTM

“Each story in the series becomes more powerful than the one before, as readers become invested in the characters and their struggle to remain sovereign. The historical backdrop enhances this captive/captor romance that is at once emotionally powerful, tender and exciting.”  4-Stars, RT Book Reviews
Blythe Gifford has been known for medieval romances featuring characters born on the wrong side of the royal blanket. Now, she’s launched a Harlequin Historical trilogy set on the turbulent Scottish Borders of the early Tudor era:  RETURN OF THE BORDER WARRIOR, November 2012; CAPTIVE OF THE BORDER LORD, January 2013; and TAKEN BY THE BORDER REBEL , March 2013.  The Chicago Tribune has called her work "the perfect balance between history and romance."  Visit her at www.blythegifford.com, www.facebook.com/BlytheGifford, www.twitter.com/BlytheGiffordor www.pinterest.com/BlytheGifford

Cover art and copy text © 2013 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited; Cover art & copy text used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited; ® and are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.  Author photo by Jennifer Girard.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Castle of the Week: Blyth Castle by J Tullos Hennig

'Tis Wednesday! And that means that we have another castle of the week for you here on History Undressed! Today's castle is presented to us by historical author, J Tullos Hennig. Her new book Greenwode looks very interesting!

BLYTH CASTLE: The Perfect Fit
J Tullos Hennig

Needed: a castle for a young, ballad-inspired nobleman in the late 12th century.  A place with just enough recorded history to set its significance in that specific timeframe—while, at the same time, be not so overdrawn and exposed that its history would have to be twisted past all recognition and to the chagrin of historically-minded readers...  (Yes, you know who you are... and I'm one of you.)

Tickhill Castle, also known as Blyth (or Blythe), filled the need.

After all, when you're trying to breath new life into an old warhorse of a myth—the Robin Hood legend—you can't be altogether satisfied with same ol'-same old'.  Familiarity is comforting, but it can certainly breed the proverbial contempt.  So, while choosing the commonly-used 12th century connection was not a difficult call for someone whose favourite movie is The Lion in Winter, there were many other options to explore.  I don't really have a big killer dog in any fight about Who Robyn Actually Was, but I do have a long-held personal conviction that when "Robyn Hode in Grenwode stode", it was likely not just in Sherwood Forest but also in the Peak, in Barnsdale, in Loxley Chase.  Yes, 'my' Robyn is a Yorkshireman.  But not a nobleman.  So why would he need a castle?

Enter another lad, also inspired by legend and one who, unlike Robyn, is unquestionably a nobleman:  Gamelyn Boundys.  For his evolution into Robyn's (and Marion's) friend and, eventually, lover, Gamelyn needed a background against which the conflicts between peasant and noble could be seriously explored.  Moreover, he needed a place to live!

So.  Blyth Castle.  It was well established by the 12th century, erected by one of William the Conqueror's favourites, Roger de Busli.  De Busli did well out of the Norman Conquest.  He was no minor nobleman, holding over 200 manors in not only Yorkshire, but Nottinghamshire.  From his Yorkshire estates--those bordered by the Pennines to the west, the Humber marshes to the east, and Sherwood Forest sprawling south--de Busli raised a keep on one of the only (smallish) hillocks in the area.  It was not a naturally defensible place.  A full two-thirds of the earthen hill upon which the keep would stand had to be brought in, by the cartloads.  (In itself quite a statement of power and wealth, particularly if one knows how much fill dirt can cost even when aided by modern equipment!)  It was platted in the standard of the time, motte and bailey construction; from the air it would have resembled a figure eight, with the motte at its head and the larger loop of the bailey spreading below.  It was, in every sense, a boundary castle.  But it wasn't on a boundary, not really, not like Scotland or Wales or the frontiers of Normandy.  Why go to so much trouble to cobble together a defense between two shires?

Well, that sort of comes back around to those Yorkshire folk.  They were some of the hardest nuts Willy Bastard had to crack.  They were tenacious about their land and their ways; the blood of Vikings and fierce Brigantes ran in their blood.  The Conqueror responded to this with... well... more conquering.  He employed not only scorched earth policies, but encouraged the raising of Norman forts wherever possible to quell rebellion.  So it makes sense that Blyth Castle was likely one of those forts, placed so the Normans could attempt to exert some control over the unruly, stubbornly-independent denizens of Yorkshire.  Being the midpoint in any journey along the Great North Road to York certainly was another advantage for Blyth.  Location, location, location—it was no less important in medieval times than nowadays.

There's also the delicious fact that Blyth itself was the centre of not just one, but several outbreaks of rebellion.  The first of them came when Robert de Belesme, who likely fortified Blyth with her circular foundations, (like to nearby Conisbrough and a change from the squared-off early Norman standard) and held Blyth against Henry I.  It was also a stronghold later in the century for supporters of Prince John's bid for his absent brother's throne.  Those supporters held not only Blyth but also Nottingham against Richard's armies when Richard returned to England, fresh from captivity, to reclaim his kingdom.

Another qualification: Blyth lies within reasonable distance of Loxley (a favoured place for Robyn Hood's birth), about 15 miles.  Near enough for the castle to perhaps wield some authority over the inhabitants, but not so near that the authority was immediate, or that visiting could be done on a whim.  Not only that, but Blyth gets a nod in the Robin Hood legend.  It is actually in A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, one of the oldest surviving tales.  The first of several mentions is here:

"I graunte," he sayde, "with you to wende,
My bretherne, all in fere;
My purpos was to have dyned to day
At Blith or Dancastere."

Whereas lies another point of interest.  Blyth, much like legendary outlaws, is rather its own conundrum.  The name of Blyth is, without warning and in many older texts, used interchangeably with that of Tickhill.  The towns of Blyth and Tickhill proper are some four miles apart, not a terrible distance by any means, but a small stretch of the legs by medieval standards.  Blyth is a castle.  Or perhaps merely a monastery.  Blyth had a amazing tournament field.  Or perhaps that was Tickhill.  Perhaps the tourney field was between Tickhill and Blyth.  Perhaps it was at Tickhill, also called Blyth.  Tickhill was in Nottinghamshire... or was it?  There is good evidence to suggest that Tickhill bided in Yorkshire at one time.  The shire borders of Norman England were notoriously fluid, depending on what lord decided what land was his at what time.

So, as we all must do when we sift through those biased reports of conquerors also known as History, I improvised.  A depth and understanding of history is very important, even in a Historical Fantasy where pagan magic curls from around the corners, but if documentation bogs down and gets in the way of a good story then no one wins, author or reader.  I sifted through accounts, recent photos and old lithographs (some of which I'll share here), built a history, a family's place and personal markers atop the facts.  There was enough to me that suggested Tickhill was known as Blyth, that Blyth could easily have been the antiquarian term for the castle proper, as well as the surrounding Honour/Manor around a sixty-foot sandstone redoubt known as Tickhill—'t' wick hill', in common parlance.  There were hints, here and there, that the castle had changed guardians more than once after its construction.  Enough to people it with fictional inhabitants and make them—and it—more real to one another.  It was a boundary castle, which neatly fell into the meaning of Gamelyn's last name, Boundys, which by most sources is understood to mean 'boundary lord'.  It would have been a prime assignment to any nobleman, and no little honour for an older man: a well-settled plum of a fiefdom in which he could semi-retire and oversee his sons to defend his holding.

Blyth had by the mid-1100s become a popular stop-off for travellers, which boded well for the ones supporting and supported by the castle, garnering market revenues, trade and news.  When Richard I brought back the tournaments that his father had banned, Blyth was one of the approved sites—indeed, the lands of Blyth and Tickhill were the only tournament grounds allowed for within the whole of England north of the River Trent.  Which meant more visitors, more revenue, more goods traded and sold.

And by the end of the 12th century, Blyth was fated to become a hotbed of siege and intrigue.  Which leaves a rich field yet to be mined.

What's not to like?  Blyth definitely was my castle of choice for a duology of Robyn Hood.

(Some of the most important references consulted for this article were The Castles and Abbeys of Yorkshire, by William Grainge,  Power, Community, & Fortification in Medieval England  by O.H. Creighton, The reign of William Rufus and the accession of Henry I, Vol. 2 by Edward Augustus Freeman.  And, of course, the ballads A Lyttel Geste of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne, and A Tale of Gamelyn.)

GREENWODE    by J Tullos Hennig
This new perspective on the legend of Robin Hood  brings a startling new twist to a timeless tale of fantasy, history, and romance, of myth, magic and ancient ballad.

The Hooded One.  The one to breath the dark and light and dusk between...
When an old druid foresees this harbinger of chaos, he also sees whom it will claim:  young Rob of Loxley. Rob and his sister Marion have been raised beneath a solemn duty: to take their parents’ places in the Old Religion, manifestations of the Horned Lord and the Lady Huntress.  But when Gamelyn Boundys, son of a powerful nobleman and devout Catholic, is injured in the forest, he, Rob and Marion begin a friendship that challenges both duty and ideology. The old druid has foreseen that Gamelyn is the one destined as Rob's sworn enemy—to fight in blood sacrifice for the greenwode's Maiden.
In a risky bid for happiness, Rob dares the Horned Lord to reinterpret the ancient rites—allow Rob to take Gamelyn as lover instead of rival. But in the eyes of Gamelyn’s church, lust is a sin—and sodomy is unthinkable.


Author Website: www.jtulloshennig.net