About my new novel Eliza Rose…
The Telegraph published this interview conducted by Francesca Wade, but I can’t find it online to point you to it! I hope I won’t get in trouble for reproducing it here. With my thanks to Francesca, a fellow Dorothy L. Sayers fan, for letting me have my say!
Tales of lecherous Tudors
Lucy Worsley tells Francesca Wade why her novel for children restores the reputation of a female courtier
Standing in a portrait-lined corridor in Hampton Court, Lucy Worsley is telling me about the wine fountain in the courtyard below, when a fleeting movement catches my eye. The silhouette of a woman, running in clear distress, passes across the wall. ‘That’s our ghost’, explains Worsley. The spooky shadow is a projection, but the story behind it is probably real: when King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard (dubbed his ‘rose without a thorn;) heard that she was under arrest for adultery, she dashed through this room (now known as the Haunted Gallery) towards the chapel to plead with her husband for her life. She was seized by guards before she reached the end of the corridor and was sent away to await her gruesome fate. ‘We’re not sure how old she was,’ says Worsley, ‘but she was probably a teenager’.
We’re strolling around Hampton Court so Worsley – the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and a television historian with a penchant for re-enactment (her next subject will be Henry’s wives) – can show me the settings for her latest project, a children’s book.
She started the book on her honeymoon in Barbados (halfway through filimg a series, she had been ordered by her director not to come back with a tan, and spent so much time indoors that a rumour spread her husband was married to Keira Knightley) and finished it in concentrated snatches on her daily commute to Hampton Court. Eliza Rose tells the story of Catherine Howard from the perspective of one of her ladies-in-waiting, and is a tale of lechery, power-play and intrigue at the Tudor court.
Cousins Eliza and Catherine meet at a finishing school run by an elderly duchess, where the girls – all from noble families, and thus expected to make illustrious matches – are taught to exude coquettish vulnerability. The girls’ relationship is barbed from the start, and deepens in complexity when they are sent to join the retinue of ladies in waiting to the king’s new bride, Anne of Cleves. After Anne’s deposition, Eliza and Catherine become rivals for the king’s affections. Catherine’s triumphant victory lasted just over a year: she was executed in the Tower of London on February 13 1542, having spent the night before practicing laying her head on the block. It’s a mark of how little sympathy Catherine has garnered that in the television series The Tudors she was portrayed doing this naked.
‘She’s never been taken very seriously, and it gets my goat’, says Worsley, who got into a spat with fellow historian David Starkey when he complained that historians who focused on Henry’s wives had reduced the king’s life to a ‘soap opera’. ‘People say she’s stupid, historians describe her like she’s a silly little girl, and that annoyed me. I thought, hang on, what about her side of the story? There have been historians who have described her as a slut, which I think is uncalled for, and which implies that she had the choice, which I can’t believe that you would have done as a teenage girl at the Tudor court. You’d have had an awful lot of people telling you what to do, the court itself, but also your own family, because you wouldn’t have been at court unless you were of a high-status family’.
It doesn’t take Eliza long to realize that ‘we were just pawns in the game of winning power for our families’. For the girls, the route to power lies in the king’s affections. ‘I think that’s one of the biggest differences between then and now,’ Worsley says. ‘I was brought up to follow my own hopes and dreams and desires. But in those days, you did your duty to God, to the king, to your father. There was no way out.’ Eliza Rose is aimed at girls of 11 and over, and Worsley has not sugared the spectre of sexual coercion that haunts the girls at every stage: Henry’s wandering hands, the way the girls are sized up like cattle at court, the sinister music teacher whose flirting would now be considered grooming. His character is a composite of three historical figures, two of whom were put to death with Catherine Howard, the third was a teacher who gave evidence against her at the trial. Worsley hopes that the story will give 21st century girls a warning. ‘Don’t take anything for granted, and don’t think that the past is a romantic place either.’
‘Some people have been saying to me, ‘Why have you written a children’s book? You hate children don’t you?’ because I don’t have any’, Worsley says with a chuckle. ‘But actually girls are some of the people I care about most. I want the world to be a better place for girls, and this is my little contribution’.