Welcome to the world of adventure, love and war. You’ve entered 17th century England. It’s a time of civil war, social upheaval, conspiracies and intrigue. In the world of historical fiction, this is gold.

Explore my blog and discover articles about 17th century Britain, creative storytelling, and my writing.

Join me in this journey. I intend to pique your interest.



Posted in Welcome | 13 Comments

An Ode to Mary Stewart


On my 16th birthday, my best friends pooled their funds and gave me a couple of books, one being Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. This book was my first introduction to Mary Stewart, and it sparked a lifelong admiration for her work. If I had to pick one author who inspired me the most as a writer, without hesitation it would be Mary Stewart.

Over the years, I collected the rest of her stories, including the remaining books of her Merlin/Arthurian series, by haunting second hand book stores and combing through yard sale bins. I have them all, including a rare volume of Wind off the Small Isles which enjoyed a very limited single print run.

For those who have read Mary Stewart, you’ll know that the majority of her work falls into a romantic suspense/mystery genre. These stories spanned decades, but they often featured a clever heroine who is embroiled in a crime while visiting strange and exotic places. One of her best known novels, The Moon-spinners, was made into a movie. To this day, her Merlin series is considered one of the best ever written of the Arthurian legend. Her publishers labelled it “fantasy” but it reads as an example of the very best of historical fiction.


My first cover and my favourite

I read the Merlin series countless times, until the binding and cover fell apart. Years went by until I realized that I missed Merlin. Unfortunately the books, at that time, were out of print and I started hunting for a copy in the places I knew best–second hand bookstores. One proprietor laughed when I asked if he had them. He never gets them, he said, as people who have a copy to sell put them straight up on eBay. But the old druids were smiling on me because not long after I had resolved to start haunting eBay, Mary Stewart’s publisher started to re-release the series! The cover wasn’t as beautiful as the original (I really wished they had kept that), but I finally got my hands on the entire set again.

One of the challenges of being a writer is that you become a critical reader. It’s hard to lose yourself in a narrative as you once did before the writing took over your brain. So there I was, finally holding a new copy of The Crystal Cave, a story I hadn’t re-read for over 25 years, and along with the giddy anticipation, I felt nervousness. What if I didn’t like it? What if it wasn’t as good as my younger self remembered? I cracked it open and started reading. I needn’t have worried. The words, her stunning descriptions, stirred tears of gratitude. The story once again came home.

Mary Stewart was born on September 17, 1916, and she would have been 101 years old today. As it was, she lived to the ripe age of 97. I was prompted to remember the day by Mary Stewart super-fan, Allison of the blog Mary Queen of Plots. Check out her website, where she posts excerpts, covers and other fascinating details of Mary Stewart’s life.

In honour of Mary Stewart’s 101th birthday, here is the opening of The Crystal Cave:

I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.

This is true of all old men, that the recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured. Even the scenes of my far childhood come back to me now sharp and high-coloured and edged with brightness, like the pattern of a fruit tree against a white wall, or banners in sunlight against a sky of storm.

The colours are brighter than they were, of that I are sure. The memories that come back to me here in the dark are seen with the new young eyes of childhood; they are so far gone from me, with their pain no longer present, that they unroll like pictures of something that happened, not to me, not to the bubble of bone that this memory used to inhabit, but to another Merlin as young and light and free of the air and spring winds as the bird she named me for.

With the later memories it is different; they come back, some of them, hot and shadowed, things seen in the fire. For this is where I gather them. This is one of the few trivial tricks–I cannot call it power–left to me now that I am old and stripped at last down to man. I can see still. . . not clearly or with the call of trumpets as I once did, but in the child’s way of dreams and pictures in the fire. I can still make the flames burn up or die; it is one of the simplest of magics, the most easily learned, the last forgotten. What I cannot recall in dream I see in the flames, the red heart of the fire or the countless mirrors of the crystal cave.

The first memory of all is dark and fireshot. It is not my own memory, but later you will understand how I know these things. You would call it not memory so much as a dream of the past, something in the blood, something recalled from him, it may be, while he still bore me in his body. I believe that such things can be. So it seems to me right that I should start with him who was before me, and who will be again when I am gone.

This is what happened that night. I saw it, and it is a true tale.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this excerpt. It calls to mind darkness, fire, and a primal magic. Allison from the Mary Queen of Plots blog has posted selections of fans reading from Mary Stewart’s books, and if you care for a listen, you’ll hear me read the above selection. You’ll also hear a reading from Madam Will You Talk? – Chapter Nine, Wildfire At Midnight – Chapter One, and the children’s story, Ludo and the Star Horse – Chapter One. Click here for the post.

If you’re a fan of Mary Stewart, drop me a line and let me know which of her books is your favourite. I’d love to know!


Posted in Creativity, Writing | 8 Comments

Historical Perspective and the Modern Audience

Writing historical fiction requires balancing the historical sensibilities (speech, culture, customs) for the modern reader. Today, I’m a guest on Mary Tod’s award winning blog, A Writer of History, where I discuss how to do it and why it’s important.

Click here for the article.

If you’re interested in getting an insight into all aspects of historical fiction, I highly recommend Mary’s blog. There are many fascinating articles.

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The Hudson’s Bay Company: a 17th century multicultural start up

This year, when Canada recently celebrated her 150th birthday, I thought about how we became a nation and all the long line of diverse people who paved the way. Curiously enough, Canada’s early story revolves a department store—the Hudson’s Bay Company. When you think Hudson’s Bay Company, you’re probably thinking of HBC, Bay Days sales and that iconic point blanket. I think of all that, but I also see an institution with a quintessential Canadian history, that started as a multicultural startup in the 17th century.

It started with a dream. Two French Canadian trappers (coureurs de bois), Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers, were looking for the holy grail of beaver furs. They had been trading along the St. Lawrence River and making a decent living, but they had heard that the richest, thickest beaver furs could be found in the far north, and for that they needed financial backing.


Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1637-1710): By Christian Robert de Massy, illustrateur, pour la Fondation Lionel-Groulx. CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

There were rules as to where they could trap and licenses had to be secured. Radisson and Médard applied for a trading license from the governor of New France, the Marquis d’Argenson, to explore the upper Great Lakes. The governor declined their request, but that hardly stopped the two intrepid trappers. They gathered their gear and set off in 1659 to explore north of the Great Lakes to Hudson’s Bay.


Arrival of Radisson in an Indian Camp: By Charles William Jefferys – mechanical reproduction of 2D image [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

When they returned to New France, they carried with them the best quality of furs anyone had ever seen. Laden with the equivalent of a king’s ransom, they presented the governor with a sample—likely to rub his nose in the fur, quite literally. Enraged, the governor arrested them and, worse, confiscated their furs.

 When they were finally released, the two Radisson and Groseilliers were more determined to prevail. If their country would not seize on the unparalleled resource, then they would have to look elsewhere for backing. So they headed south, to the English colony of Massachusetts.

 In Boston, they met a business cartel that agreed to support the venture. A ship set out in 1663 only for it to be broken up by ice sheets. Most would have abandoned the venture, but one Englishman, Colonel George Cartwright, did not let this disaster deter him. Recognizing that they needed additional resources, Cartwright took our French trappers with him to London, where he introduced them to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the first cousin of King Charles II, and 17th century poster boy.


Prince Rupert of the Rhine: By Anonymous – CherylHingley.com [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

Prince Rupert long had the reputation of an adventurer. He had cut his baby teeth fighting in his home of Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. When that wrapped up, he arrived in England to help out his old uncle, King Charles I, who had a nasty civil war on his hand. Rupert’s cavalry prowess had nearly demoralized the Parliamentary side, but in the end, even his tactics couldn’t win this war for the King. After the King’s arrest and subsequent execution, Rupert led a squadron of ships and harassed the Parliamentarians in the Azores and the Caribbean. The moment he heard about this new venture in the New World, he was in.

Rupert introduced Radisson and Groseilliers to his cousin, King Charles II (who was also a bit of an adventurer himself, the scoundrel), and he readily agreed to supply two ships, the Nonsuch and the Eaglet. On June 5, 1668, the two ships left Deptford for Hudson’s Bay. Unfortunately, the Eaglet reached only as far as Ireland before having to turn back.

The Nonsuch continued on to James Bay, the little southern dip of Hudson’s Bay. There they founded the first trading fort, calling it Charles Fort, in modern day Waskaganish in Quebec. Naturally, you name it after the monarch who sponsored the trip if you have any sense. But they didn’t leave Rupert out in the cold, for they named the river that flowed through there Rupert River.

They trapped and traded the winter of 1668 and when fall arrived the following year, the Nonsuch returned to England carrying a prized cargo of beaver furs. The value of the pelts was valued at £1,233, the equivalent (at that time) of a laborer’s lifetime wages.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was officially incorporated on May 2, 1670 by royal charter granted by King Charles II with Prince Rupert named as its first governor. The company had control of the entire area around Hudson’s Bay, known as Rupert’s Land, spanning approximately 1.5 million square miles!


Rupert’s Land: By BlankMap-USA-states-Canada-provinces.svg: Lokal_ProfilWpdms_ruperts_land.jpg: en:User:Decumanusderivative work: Themightyquill (talk) – BlankMap-USA-states-Canada-provinces.svgWpdms_ruperts_land.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Over the next two centuries, the Hudson’s Bay Company became synonymous with exploration and solidified British interests in Canada. Its founding is truly a Canadian story, only possible as a multicultural joint venture thanks to an English King, a German Prince and a pair of French trappers.

Banner image attribution:

Hudson’s Bay Point Blanket: By The original uploader was Decumanus at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Skeezix1000 using CommonsHelper., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15702930

 This article first appeared on Elaine Cougler’s blog on August 2, 2017. Elaine is a historical fiction author who writes about Canadian Loyalists during the time of the American Revolution. If you want to read more about Canadian history during this period, I can recommend Elaine’s Loyalist Trilogy series.


The Loyalist’s Wife was a finalist in the Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair’s Self-Publishing awards, and received a Chill With a Book Readers’ Award. Elaine was awarded a Discovering Diamond for both The Loyalist’s Wife and Loyalist’s Luck.

Elaine has delivered a number of talks about the Loyalists and has led writing workshops.

Connect with Elaine through  her website (elainecougler.com), on Facebook, and on YouTube.

Posted in 17th century | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

From Ostler to Eventer: Guest post by Roland Clarke + #Giveaway

I had the pleasure of virtually meeting Roland Clarke through the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog. Although his upcoming release, Spiral of Hooves, is not historical fiction, it does revolve around the world of competitive horse eventing and (bonus!) includes Canada as one of the settings. Naturally, I was intrigued.

Today, Roland discusses the progression historically from ostler to eventer. At the end of the post is an opportunity to win a signed copy of his new release.

Welcome Roland!


By Adam Albert et Drake Tom – Ecole de cavalerie, Javaud, 1864, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

The modern world of my mystery novel Spiral of Hooves, released in its second edition on August 7th, and the riveting 17th century saga of Cryssa Bazos’s Traitor’s Knot may seem centuries apart but they have a key element that links them. In opening chapters, my main character, Armand Sabatier finds his “temporary role [as a groom] meant more duties, and the horses proved soothing companions, healing for his troubled mind.” Cryssa’s character James Hart is an ostler and has “a talent that every innkeeper prized. Master and craftsman, his art was horses.”

The term ostler dates back to around 1386 for “one who tends to horses at an inn.” Down the ages, this had been a crucial role as horse transport, from single mounts to carriages, was central to a nation’s infrastructure. However, with the advent of the combustion engine and the arrival of a new form of ‘horsepower’ the traditional ostlers disappeared. But the role of grooms has merely adapted as horses moved from central to the economy to recreation and sport.

Another crucial area was the working horses on the farms, requiring sturdier draught breeds more suitable to heavy work, like the Shire, Suffolk, and Clydesdale in the UK, although some of the pony breeds had proved more than capable. Again, the combustion engine ended the era of the working horses after many centuries.

However, most relevant to both novels is the military angle. James Hart is a cavalry officer at the outset of Traitor’s Knot. The sport at the centre of Spiral of Hooves, eventing, has its origins in the training and testing of military chargers. Cavalry dates to pre-Iron Age and the use of chariots. As larger horses were bred, cavalry with mounted horsemen emerged and the tactics evolved, with different units appearing – including mounted archers, light cavalry, heavy cavalry, and dragoons who fought both mounted and on foot. As the English Civil War showed, firearms changed tactics profoundly.


By Sir John Gilbert – bridgemanartondemand.com, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually cavalry became obsolete as World War I demonstrated. My grandfather was a cavalry officer back then and was appalled how the horses suffered even more than the troops. Today, the cavalry regiments are armoured units, although some retain horses for ceremonial roles.

Eventing arose as a sport around the turn of the 20th century, “to create a competition in which officers and horses could be tested for any challenges that could occur on or off duty — precision, elegance, and obedience on the parade ground; stamina, versatility and courage on marches and in battle; cross-country jumping ability and endurance in traveling great distances over difficult terrain and formidable obstacles in the relaying of important dispatches; and jumping ability in the arena to prove the horse’s fitness to remain in service.”

The equestrian sport of Eventing was first introduced at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1912 under the name “The Militaire.” In continental Europe, many of the events are still called ‘The Militaire’, especially in France, a key country in Spiral of Hooves. French cavalry was decimated in the Napoleonic Wars so in 1815 a cavalry school was established at Saumur and the distinctive black uniforms of the Cadre Noir are still there, offering the best equitation training in France.

However, as the role of horses has changed, so have the teachers and the methods used. Horsemanship evolved as the requirements changed, although at the roots are still the teachings of the past, back to Xenophon’s fourth century B.C. treatise On Horsemanship.

Saumur is one of the few equitation schools that keeps alive many of the haute école (F. “high school”) cavalry-derived techniques while embracing modern methods, some more suited to recreational riding. Unlike the Spanish Riding School, the Cadre Noir began as a cavalry school and then expanded to a civilian role. Today, very few of the Cadre Noir are military, most are civilians. As well as performing the haute école movements and teaching, they also run world-class competitions, like the three-day-event that is central to Spiral of Hooves.


By Alain Laurioux (User:CDDENE) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons


Yes, readers will meet some 21st-century Cadre Noir officers, just as I did when I worked as an equestrian journalist, primarily covering eventing. My career as a journalist and event organiser, coupled with my imagination, created the horse-based mystery that is Spiral of Hooves, when I retired, wings clipped by multiple sclerosis.

I must avoid spoilers – suffice to say the Cadre Noir and Saumur are key clues along the twisting trail. However, James Hart’s counterpart in my novel might be the heroine, Carly Tanner, who is a groom working nights in an ‘inn’ and has the horsemanship skills of a cavalry officer. In fact, the first woman joined the Cadre Noir in 1984, and nowadays women in the military are more widespread. And that might be another spoiler or a ‘hareng rouge’.

If you enjoy mystery/thrillers revolving around the world of horses, horsemanship and deceptions, pick up Spiral of Hooves today.

About Spiral of Hooves:
In Canada, researcher Armand Sabatier witnesses what could be the murder of groom Odette Fedon, but traumatic images from his past smother his memory, and a snowstorm buries the evidence. Harassed by nightmares but fighting through them, Armand remembers the crime a few months later. By then he is in England, where he is dragged into a plot involving international sport horse breeding.

Suspecting everyone around him, Armand is forced to brave the past that he has kept buried. But what made Armand leave France? Where did he learn to survive and fight for justice? Why is the English rider Carly Tanner treading the same path as the first victim, Odette? Can he save Carly before he has more blood on his hands?

Spiral of Hooves is an enthralling mystery full of twists, turns, and suspense, set against the competitive equestrian world of eventing. Characters are thrown together from different countries by their ambitions, ideals and desires, and by their passion for horses. Relationships are tested and challenges surmounted as the mystery builds.

Spiral of Hooves is available from Amazon on Kindle and for the first time in
paperback. Click here to purchase your copy.


Roland Clarke is a retired equestrian journalist, photographer, and event organiser. Sadly, Multiple Sclerosis clipped his wings, and he was unable to meet deadlines or get to equestrian events easily. Recently, his wife Juanita and he moved with their two dogs, Quetzal & Treeky to Boise, Idaho having lived in Harlech, North Wales for over two years.

For more information about Spiral Hooves, including interviews and pictures, click here. Connect with Roland through his website rolandclarke.com, through Twitter (@rrclarke53), and Facebook.

Special offer!

To celebrate the re-launch of Spiral of Hooves, Roland is giving away a signed paperback copy of the book. For a chance to win, leave a comment below. The contest closes Midnight (EST) on August 21st. Good luck!

Posted in Author Spotlights | Tagged , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Combining words, art, and a book launch

The Traitor’s Knot book launch was held on July 27th at Whitby’s Station Gallery. Family, friends and friends of friends came out to help me celebrate my debut novel. I’m still overwhelmed by the support of those who came out. Thank you!

It was a very special evening held an incredibly creative venue. Station Gallery is a community gallery in Whitby, Ontario situated in the historic Whitby’s Grand Trunk Railroad station. Station Gallery has operated as a community visual arts centre for 45 years.

The exhibit running at that time showcased the work of David Wysotski, a local artist who explored the fleeting ownership of vintage hand tools through a series of paintings. Wysotski depicted these tools with affection and respect, and did not try to make something more of them than what they were–utilitarian, honest, and traditional. They harken back to a time when being a craftsman was a respected calling, and people took pride in their work.

It was serendipitous to hold the launch at Station Gallery at the same time as the exhibit, for Traitor’s Knot mirrored many of the same themes found in Wysotski’s work.

Not only did the paintings bring forward the past, perfect for a historical fiction novel, but they called to mind elements of one of my main characters, James Hart. Though he was a commoner, he made a difference for his king. He came from a modest yeoman background, and while he tried to make more of a name for himself, life conspired to bring him back to his roots.

“James finally returned to Warwick’s Chequer and Crowne Inn just before midnight. He avoided the front of the building, with its waning lights and fading laughter and proceeded to the stables. The courtyard was silent. They didn’t expect another coach until the morning.

Inside, the familiar smell of horses greeted him. Tin buckets hung from the posts, and a pitchfork rested prongs down in a reduced bale of hay. Halters in various sizes draped over iron pegs.

As the Chequer’s ostler, this was James’s domain. NO one, including the landlord, Henry Grant, dared suggest otherwise, for James had a talent that every innkeeper prized. Master and craftsman, his art was horses.”  ~ Traitor’s Knot.

Thank you to author A.B Funkhauser for being my emcee and coming up with thought-provoking questions for the Q&A, and thank you Station Gallery for making the evening perfect.

Here is a selection of pictures from the launch, courtesy of Station Gallery.

Photo credit (paint brushes in banner): See-ming Lee 李思明 SML via Visualhunt / CC BY-SA

Posted in News, Traitor's Knot | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Because it happened: How not to write historical fiction


When I started writing the first dirty draft of Traitor’s Knot, I was so focused on the details of the events, that I often neglected the human reaction to the drama. It’s understandable given that there is so much pressure to get the historical facts nailed. Historical fiction writers have the advantage of knowing what happened to their subjects, but sometimes that knowledge blunts the suspense.

This doesn’t seem to be a problem for other genres, with perhaps the exception of memoire. Science fiction and fantasy–your imagination defines what or what doesn’t happen. Contemporary or romance, ditto. Thrillers? You guys are the boss for keeping us guessing! But historical fiction writers are slaves to the set-in-stone historical record and too often we concentrate more on the facts.

I’ll give you an example of this from that first raw draft. The historical facts: Following the Battle of Worcester, King Charles II escaped from the city and spent the next six weeks wandering the countryside looking for passage to the Continent. On September 22nd, a fugitive Charles arrived in Charmouth and waited at the Queen’s Arms Inn to meet a Captain Limbry, who had agreed to take him across to France. Charles waited, and waited, and…well, you get the gist. Captain Limbry was a no-show. What did Charles do? Having decided that it would be foolish to remain there, he left and travelled to Bridport, where he made discreet enquiries.

I faithfully recaptured that scene, as well as the ones leading up to and after it. I described the inn and the human traffic coming in for an afternoon rest. And that was it. The scene ended. A good friend of mine challenged me on why I included this scene.

“Because it happened,” I answered, eager to show that I had all my juicy historical facts straight.

“Not good enough,” she responded.

This floored me. Didn’t she realize that I needed to be true to the historical facts? How could I not include this in my story? It actually happened. Really, it did. If I didn’t capture this moment, people who knew their history would think that I didn’t know mine! I’ve heard historical fiction authors say this on more than one occassion.

After I stopped whining and thought more about what she meant, I understood that just because it happened, it didn’t mean that the scene was strong enough to include in the story. It was a non-event. Charles arrived in an inn, drank a few pints, then left. If I wanted to dramatize this moment, I needed to, well, to dramatize it.


How did I miss this blatant example of Writing 101? The fact that I, as the author, knew what was going to happen (that Charles didn’t get caught at that point) blunted my perspective. I missed heightening the tension because I knew that he wouldn’t get caught. You know how I mentioned that this isn’t a problem for other genres except perhaps memoire? Scratch that. It is a problem for all genres, even if the scene you’re writing have been cooked up in your mind.

Going back to my example, a more compelling scene would have been to use the uncertainty of where the captain was to heighten the stakes. Here we have our disguised king hanging out in a crowded inn, surrounded by people who would have won the lottery had they turned him in for the reward. This was high risk stakes. What was Charles thinking as he waited, watching the door as every second melted away? What doubts did he have about the captain keeping his mouth shut? Could someone have shaken a confession out of the captain? At any moment a troop of dragoons would rush through the door and snatch the royal prize.

You see how this changes the scene? If I was in that situation, a million dire things would be going through my head. I’d be torn between the safety of leaving the place before I was found and the fear that I would be turning my back on my only escape from England. Was it probable that all these things were going through Charles’s head? I’d be very surprised if they weren’t. The expectation of something about to happen with the fear and worry about why it isn’t happening, can be a powerful moment of tension. And I missed it because I was focused on what actually happened.

In the end, this scene ended up on the cutting floor because I had to pick and choose what mattered to my characters and their story. But the idea of the scene did not go to waste. That scene inspired another one which did make it into the published version. My friend’s advice on the other hand stays with me in every scene I have since written.

If you want to read more about Charles and his escape, check out my Fugitive King series, starting with Part 1.

Have you read Traitor’s Knot? Can you guess which scene was inspired by this revelation?

For more on this subject, and delivered by a master historical fiction story teller, give a listen to Dame Hilary Mantel’s Can These Bones Live? where she discusses how historical fiction can make the past come alive. This talk has been included in the Reith Lectures. It’s an absolute delight and highly recommended. She puts forward similar points in a far more eloquent and compelling manner than I can ever dream of doing. If you’re wondering, I wrote the above blog post before listening to Dame Mantel’s lecture. As you can imagine, the muscles of my neck are sore with all the head nodding I did over the length of the talk. You don’t want to miss this one. Click here to access Can These Bones Live?

Dame Mantel



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The Countess of Carlisle

This article was originally posted on the English Historical Fiction Authors (EHFA) site on May 4th, 2017. For more in-depth articles on British history, visit the EHFA. You won’t be disappointed.


Photo credit: xelaba via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

One of the most intriguing characters in historical fiction is Milady de Winter of the Three Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas depicted her as a lethal spy whose loyalties were sold to the highest bidder, notably the Cardinal Richelieu.

The inspiration for Milady was a socialite and renowned beauty of her day, Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle. Though Lucy was not an agent of Cardinal Richelieu, she held court at a time of social upheaval when men were drawing battle lines against King Charles I. The real woman was even more fascinating than the fictional one.


Lucy Percy, by Anthony van Deck [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Lucy Hay was born Lucy Percy in 1599 to Lady Dorothy Devereux and Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland. Lady Devereux was the daughter of the Earl of Essex and Lettice Knollys whose second husband, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, had once been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, that is until he and Lettice married without the Queen’s permission. Through her maternal line, Lucy was the great, great granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, sister to Anne Boleyn.

On Lucy’s father’s side, the Percys were an old and respected bloodline having first arrived with William the Conqueror, and later, descendants of King Henry III. The family stood for centuries as the bulwark against Scottish and Welsh invasion of England. Given Lucy’s stellar connections, she was well poised to be a courtly influence.

Unfortunately, her early years were marked by notoriety and not the favourable kind. When Lucy had been six years old, her father had been implicated in the Gunpowder Plot (to blow up Parliament and murder King James I) due to his kinship with one of the leading conspirators, Thomas Percy. For the next seventeen years, Lucy’s father was a prisoner of the Tower of London (along with famous prisoner Sir Walter Raleigh) and during this time Percy indulged his interest in alchemy and chemistry. He was committed to his experiments (even lost the hearing of one ear) and everyone called him the “Wizard Earl.”

While Henry languished in the Tower, Lucy’s mother tried to secure her husband’s release. She appealed to her friend Queen Anne, who put in a good word with her husband, King James I, but unfortunately the King levied a crippling fine that the Percys couldn’t afford and they found their estates seized. This was Lucy’s early introduction to the influence women could yield in politics as well as the fickleness of royal prerogative [1].

Sometime around 1617, Lucy Percy caught the eye of James Hay, who would become the 1st Earl of Carlisle. At the time he was a baron and a widower. Her father was furious. His imprisonment put him at a disadvantage to squelch his daughter’s choice, particularly since his wife favoured the match. Henry Percy did not have a high opinion of the Scottish faction at court, the courtiers who had followed King James to England upon his ascension of the English throne, and James Hay was one of the King’s more extravagent favourites. Henry Percy had been reputed to say, “I am a Percy and I cannot endure that my daughter should dance any Scottish jig.”


James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle, by Unknown National Portrait Gallery: NPG 5210 [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

James Hay was not considered a handsome man, but he was suave, charismatic and knew how to entertain in style. He introduced Lucy to a sophisticated set, lavished her with courtly masques, fine music and theatre. For an ambitious woman like Lucy, James Hay was irresistible. More importantly, he pulled her from the shadow of her father’s disgrace straight into the royal limelight.

In November 1617, Lucy became James Hay’s second wife. Her wedding was attended by the fashionable and the powerful, including Charles, Prince of Wales and George Villiers (later the Duke of Buckingham).

In the early days of Lucy’s marriage, her husband served as a Privy Councillor and a Groom of the Stool. Between 1618 and 1622, Hay travelled to foreign courts on behalf of the King, counselled the King on the growing troubles in Germany and recommended England’s support for the Protestants in Bohemia and the Palatinate. He was a voice for the Huguenots in France though not a successful one. In 1622, the King made him the 1st Earl of Carlisle and Lucy became a Countess.

Lucy flourished in the years to come, greatly celebrated for her  beauty and accomplishments. She had a gift for politics and intrigues, enjoyed poetry and theatre, and cultivated admirers by the score. In later years when she contracted small pox, the entire court feared that she would be disfigured. For a time, she wore masks to hide her healing face and managed to turn them into a fashion statement. Fortunately for Lucy, the disease did not leave lasting scars.

Men waxed poetic over Lucy’s charms. One admirer, John Suckling, wrote a risqué poem about the bewitching Countess of Carlisle in the form of a dialogue between himself and another admirer of hers, Thomas Carew. The poem was entitled, Upon My Lady Carlisle’s Walking in Hampton Court Gardens. Here is one of the stanzas:

“Twas well for thee she left the place;
There is great danger in that face.
But hadst thou viewed her leg and thigh,
And upon that discovery
Searched after parts that are more dear”

Lucy and James Hay’s star continued to rise after the ascension of the new king, Charles I, and the growing influence of his favourite, George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Lucy was rumoured to have been Buckingham’s mistress, and through Buckingham’s influence, she was appointed Lady of Queen Henrietta’s Bedchamber, while her husband received a similar honour for the King.

It suited Buckingham to install Lucy as a companion to Queen Henrietta Maria, in order to be informed of the Queen’s visitors and activities. The Queen was passionately against Lucy’s appointment. After all, Lucy was beautiful, witty and entirely Buckingham’s creature, and as her duties brought her in close contact with the King, Henrietta feared that Buckingham worked to install Lucy as the King’s mistress. Charles was not so easily led astray and resisted Lucy’s charms; he even refused the Queen’s petition to get rid of her. Over time, Lucy overcame the Henrietta’s suspicions and became a close confident to her. Through her proximity to the Queen, Lucy became the centre of fashionable society, gathering poets and politicians within her circle.


George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham By Michiel van Mierevelt [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

It was around this time when the story of the French Queen’s diamonds surfaced, made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers. A 17th century French diarist, Francois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (Prince de Marcillac) wrote in his memoirs that Lucy stole the diamond studs that Anne of Austria, Queen of France, had given to her admirer Buckingham. Lucy’s motives were reputed to be revenge for having been jilted by Buckingham by his obsession with the Queen. Dumas borrowed heavily from Rochefoucauld’s memoirs and created the  character of Milady de Winter in Lucy’s image.

James Hay meanwhile continued his diplomatic service for Charles I, engaging in intrigues against Cardinal Richelieu of France and was even named Governor of the Caribbees. Eventually his health failed, and he died in 1636.

Now Lucy found herself a wealthy widow, and it gave her a degree of freedom that she had never previously enjoyed before. Though she would not be shy of male companionship, she never remarried and so maintained her independence. During this chapter of her life, she fell in love with Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. Intense, serious and ambitious, Strafford was the exact opposite of Lucy’s late husband.

Strafford had at one point been a vocal supporter for the rights of Parliament against royal prerogative, but he eventually switched sides to become one of the King’s most ardent supporters. As discontent against the King grew and the country headed toward civil war, Strafford became a scapegoat for the country’s ills, and Parliament called for his impeachment. The impeachment failed but a bill of attainder was passed against him, and Charles I had no choice than to sign the attainder and seal Strafford’s death. To read more about Strafford’s trial, see Strafford Must Die by Annie Whitehead.

Politically astute, Lucy managed to distance herself from Strafford so she was not brought low by his ruin. Lucy Hay was a survivor, after all. She switched sides and started passing information to one of Parliament’s most ardent advocates, John Pym. Some even said she became his mistress. Perhaps one of the most important pieces of information that she passed to Pym, and which was credited with igniting the spark of civil war, was a warning that the King was planning to arrest Pym and four of his companions. Pym managed to escape, and a week later, he returned triumphant to Parliament to resume his crusade against the King.

When the English Civil War broke out in 1642, Lucy favoured Parliament, though she took care to not entirely burn her bridges on the other side. She had a growing aversion to royal prerogative. Lucy favoured moderation, where the nobility retained their privilege instead of being irrelevant by the whims of the king. By the end of the 1st civil war, when it became apparent that Parliament was being circumvented by a fanatic Puritan faction, moderate Lucy switched sides to help spy for the Royalists.

During the second civil war (1647-1648), Lucy raised funds for the king and acted as a go-between the Royalists in the north and Queen Henrietta. In the end, all her efforts were for naught. The King was captured and in January 1649, executed.

Two months later, Parliament arrested Lucy and sent her to the Tower of London for questioning. They threatened her with torture but could not break her. Lucy remained in the Tower for eighteen months, ironically not far from where her father had been kept all those years. Eventually she was paroled and released.

In the final years of Cromwell’s Protectorate, Lucy became a Royalist agent, joining others who worked to restore Charles II to his father’s throne. A few short months after the Restoration, on November 5, 1660, Lucy Hay, Countess of Carlisle quietly passed away.

Femme fatale, informant, spy, Lucy Hay was a fascinating character. Alexandre Dumas obviously agreed.

Further reading:

Court Lady and Country Wife: Royal Privilege and Civil War (Two Noble Sisters in 17th century England), by Lita-Rose Betcherman.

[1] The English Civil War: A People’s History, by Diane Purkiss

Poem of the week: Upon My Lady Carlisle’s Walking in Hampton Court Gardens by John Suckling.


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