LAG: I am intrigued that you are a British historian. Can you tell us a bit about your background? What was your primary research focus? What intrigued you about the Tudor Dynasty?
JF: How far back do you want me to go? I grew up with history, surrounded by antiques that gave me a direct connection with the last two hundred years and a surname that gave me a direct connection with the last 900 years. As you probably know, ‘Mortimer’ is one of the most important names of medieval English history. So there was never any doubt in my mind I would write things that connect with the past. But for me traditional history is not enough. I do have the full set of academic qualifications, including two doctorates; but it is understanding humanity over periods of time that really excites me. Being able to look back across the centuries and see all Mankind marching on, struggling, joyous, clever, cruel, intriguing, defiant…
The idea behind Sacred Treason was inspired by a document in the British Library. It is the charred remains of the chronicle of Henry Machyn, who was born about 1497 and taught himself to read and write, and wrote a London-based chronicle that covered the last thirteen years of his life (he died in 1563, the year in which Sacred Treason is set). In the course of researching Henry Machyn for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography I came across a reference to an Elizabethan secret society – and that was where I started to invent the story. The main character, William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, is loosely based on the herald William Hervey, to whom the real Henry Machyn gave his chronicle when he died.
LAG: I have always wanted to time travel to Medieval England and love the title of your non-fiction handbook The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England. Can you give us a brief synopsis of the book?
JF: The idea is simple. If you really could travel to the past, where will you stay? What will you wear? What will you eat? It goes further, however, touching on such subjects as the different standards of cleanliness and the high degrees of cruelty in society. You could call it a biography of the whole of a society. Or you could just call it a guidebook to another time. I sometimes describe it as a plotless novel in which nothing is made up - everything is based on evidence.
LAG: Why did you decide to turn to writing historical fiction?
JF: Because there are things I wanted to say about life – and especially about loyalty and about betrayal – that one cannot say in non-fiction. If I were to write a history book about the 16th century I could only really describe what really happened. To my mind, the Elizabethan period is far too interesting just to tell stories that happened. Think of yourself there, and the betrayals you might commit – against your spouse, your religion and the kingdom. You could be flogged publicly for adultery, hanged for treason and burnt for heresy. That makes the whole social landscape far more dangerous, far more interesting.
LAG: Catholic versus Protestant - how do you think people survived in the Tudor times when religion seemed to change day by day?
JF: Very cautiously, by keeping their heads down. Many Catholics survived by using their wealth and connections. Lesser men just accepted things. Of course many people did NOT survive…
LAG: What do you like most about your character, William Harley? What do you like least?
JF: I call him ‘Clarenceux’ (his heraldic title) throughout the novel. I like the name. I also like his loyalty and his sincerity. I like his compassion and his courage. Downsides – I wish he had a sense of humour and was not so religious. But in the 16th century religious zeal was the norm, not the exception.
LAG: What do you think made Queen Elizabeth an effective ruler?
JF: A sense of being apart from normal people. It empowered her to make decisions that normal women could not have made. But also she was just so clever and self-controlled. She was able to play people off against each other very effectively. And of all the Tudors, she was the greatest exponent of their greatest art: visual self-promotion. The image we have of her today is almost entirely one of her own careful construction. No subsequent female ruler does not owe her something.
LAG: What is next for you? Any teasers about book two of this trilogy?
JF: Both the subsequent books are now out in the UK. Book Two, The Roots of Betrayal, involves a charismatic pirate called Raw Carew – think along Captain Jack Sparrow lines and you'll get the picture – who is an atheistic foil to Clarenceux and inadvertently gets caught up in a quest with him. Book Three, The Final Sacrament, begins with Elizabeth I being told by Walsingham that Clarenceux is dead, consumed in a great fire. But that of course is just the start of things...
Thanks for your questions
LAG: Thank-you for the excellent answers.
Sacred Treason Description (From Sourcebooks):
London, December 1563. England is a troubled nation. Catholic plots against the young Queen Elizabeth spring up all over the country. At his house in the parish of St Bride, the herald William Harvey – known to everyone as Clarenceux - receives a book from his friend and fellow Catholic, Henry Machyn. But Machyn is in fear of his life, claiming that the book is deadly... What secret can it hold? And then Clarenceux is visited by the State in the form of Francis Walsingham and his ruthless enforcers, who will stop at nothing to gain possession of it. If Clarenceux and his family are to survive the terror of Walsingham, and to plead with the queen’s Secretary of State Sir William Cecil for their lives, Clarenceux must solve the clues contained in the book to unlock its dangerous secrets before it’s too late. And when he does, he realises that it's not only his life and the lives of those most dear to him that are at stake...
Author Description (From Goodreads):
James Forrester was born in Petts Wood (Kent) in 1967. He was educated at Eastbourne College, the University of Exeter and University College London. He is a historian by profession, publishing medieval and early modern non-fiction under his first and last names Ian Mortimer (his full name being Ian James Forrester Mortimer). He lives in Devon with his wife and three children, on the northeast edge of Dartmoor.
Sacred Treason is his first novel, inspired by contemporary documents in the National Archives and the British Library discovered in the course of his scholarly research.
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