Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Saints, Spies and Saboteurs

Our guest this month is Ann Swinfen, one of those multi-talented women who seem to be able to do anything, juggling a large family, academia, historical research and writing fiction.

Ann Swinfen (http://www.annswinfen.com) published three novels with RandomHouse, but her three latest – The Testament of Mariam, Flood and The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez – she has published herself. Loving the whole independent publishing process, she thinks it unlikely she’d ever return to conventional publishing. Short stories previously in magazines and on BBC radio are now on Kindle. She’s reissuing her backlist and continuing the Christoval series set in 16th century London, featuring a young physician coerced into becoming a code-breaker and spy in Walsingham’s secret service.

Over to you, Ann and many thanks for visiting

Sometimes a story seizes you by the throat and won’t let you go until it is told. That is what happened to me with The Testament of Mariam. For a long while there had been a vague, half-formed thought at the back of my mind – What would the real man Yeshûa have been like? The peasant from Galilee who, over the course of a few short years, changed the course of human history? Yeshûa was his original, Aramaic name, though down the years it has been transformed into Iesu, Jesu, Jesus, and many other variants. The man of blood and bone has been so buried under the accumulated detritus of doctrine and years that he is hidden from us.

I have never doubted that there was a real man, but I had never given it any serious thought until one day a question formed, without any conscious volition on my part: What would it have been like, to be the sister of such a man? To have grown up with him in that humble carpenter’s family, in an insignificant northern village, in a Roman-occupied province, where all the wealth and any surviving power was concentrated in the south of the country? At that point Mariam walked into my head and began to talk. She was elderly and ailing, living as an exile in southern Gaul, having shut away the memories of her girlhood, too painful to recall. But then a series of events occurs which brings back those times, and I – we – relive them with her.

Unusually, I did not do a lot of research before I began to write, because the story was pressing itself on me so urgently. Instead, I wrote and researched in parallel. Having been, in my time, a classicist, I already had a good grounding in the culture and history of the first century AD, so I was on familiar ground as I wrote during the day. In the evenings I read voraciously about the areas of the history that were new to me. I discovered that a great deal more was known than I had realised. Galilee was a hotbed of insurrection. Revolts against the Roman occupation, and also against the time-serving southern aristocracy, had been erupting for a couple of generations. Some of the leaders of these revolts were even called Yeshûa. Now there was food for thought! Also, I had recently read The Gospel of Judas, which caused me to rethink that whole strand of the story. In the course of my research I discovered a fascinating study on the content and poetic structures of the psalms, so when I needed a psalm, I wrote one myself, based on that research.

I had dipped into the translation of The Dead Sea Scrolls before, but now I read them from cover to cover, and the commentaries relating to them. I became convinced that Yeshûa must have spent time amongst the Essene community, where the Scrolls originated. The Essenes had ritual meals involving sacred bread and wine. Their medical practices included techniques used by Yeshûa in his ministry (and I learned that amongst his contemporaries, he was renowned above all as a healer rather than a religious leader). However, the Essenes were an exclusive, hierarchical sect, regarding the rest of mankind as sinful and doomed, and permitting only those from the priestly castes to rise to high rank amongst them. This would have been anathema to Yeshûa, given his later teaching. Therefore, I reasoned, if he had spent time amongst the Essenes, he could not have remained there.
A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls

What about women? Where would this fictional sister fit into the story? The social mores of the time meant that women and girls were kept very close to home, under the strict supervision of their fathers or husbands. Yet it is clearly documented in the New Testament that a group of women formed part of Yeshûa’s following, travelling with him about the country, living, like him, on the charity of the communities they visited. They came from many different walks of life and they were there at the end, at the crucifixion. Therefore it was perfectly reasonable that Mariam, Yeshûa’s younger sister, should be one of those women. I was writing a secular novel – it was never intended to be a religious book – and I felt that Yeshûa’s sister would be confused. She loves her charismatic brother. She fervently believes in his vision of a new dispensation, when all shall be free, the common people no longer downtrodden. But she has known him all her life, a son of the same parents. How can she accept his divinity? She constantly tries to rationalise the miracles, never quite sure…

And then, there are the saints. Saint Peter, after all, starts out as a peasant fisherman called Shim‘ôn. A blunt, practical man of his hands, nicknamed Kêphas, ‘The Rock’, a solid reliable man, on whom Yeshûa depends. Yet we know he denied his leader three times. He was human. He was frightened. He too could have been crucified. Even saints are very much like the rest of us.

Hence the strand of ‘saints’ in these musings of mine. In writing historical fiction, I have never wanted to write about kings and queens, mighty warlords or powerful politicians. What interests me are the ordinary people, the common mass of humanity, who sometimes do extraordinary things. So fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes can become saints. The other two historical novels of mine that I want to discuss involve small communities, commonly overlooked in the general scheme of things, but sometimes remarkable for all that.

The first is the Marrano community in late Tudor England. Most history books will assert that there were no Jews in England from the time of their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I (who owed them a great deal of money) until Cromwell did a deal with Menasseh ben Israel in 1655-6, keen to lure wealthy and experienced Jewish merchants to London at a time when the country was in dire financial straits after the Civil War.

However, there were Jews in England during the intervening 365 years. There are occasional references to Jewish merchants in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but the real influx began as a result of the Inquisition in Spain and later in Portugal (after an aggressive Spain under Philip II invaded and seized control of the latter). Ironically, when a large part of the Iberian peninsula was under Arab control, both Christians and Jews were tolerated, even if they did not have full citizen rights. Once the Spanish had driven out the Moors, an inflexible Spanish Catholic Church turned on anyone outside its confines, which meant anyone with suspiciously Protestant leanings and above all, the Jews. Spanish and Portuguese Jews, if they were to avoid death, were forced to convert to Christianity, becoming the conversos, or novos cristãos, or New Christians. They were also known as Marranos, which is, in fact, a term of insult.

Despite their conversion, the New Christians continued to be regarded with suspicion by the Catholic Church. They were regularly rounded up by the Inquisition and tortured. Those who did not give satisfactory answers were killed in the mass public executions called autos-da-fé. (It was considered beneficial for local people to attend these edifying spectacles – it would chalk up advantages for them in the afterlife.) Those New Christians who were deemed to have shown true penance were paraded through the streets half naked, while they were scourged. Their property was confiscated and they were driven from their occupations. As many of them were wealthy merchants or distinguished scholars, this was no minor affair, and Iberia lost many men of great talent.

Auto da Fe
One recourse for those who had the means of escape was to take passage on one of the merchant ships trading with the Protestant countries of northern Europe, in particular England and those parts of the Low Countries which were not under Spanish control. Although some of the Portuguese Marrano immigrants who settled in London were poor, earning their living as pawnbrokers or by trading in secondhand clothes, a large number were from the professional classes. The merchants dealt in exotic goods – spices and silk and gems – sending their ships along the new routes to the near East, the Indian subcontinent and the East Indies. The physicians, some of whom had been university professors, brought with them their advanced knowledge of Arab medicine.

So it was that the two leaders of the Marrano community in late Elizabethan England were Dunstan Añez, merchant and Purveyor of Groceries and Spices to Her Majesty the Queen, and Hector Nuñez, merchant and physician to (amongst others) Lord Burghley. The most famous of them all was Roderigo Lopez, who rose from a position as physician in St Bartholomew’s Hospital for the poor of London to personal physician to the Queen herself.

Into this established community of Marrano London comes twelve-year-old Christoval Alvarez. Baltasar Alvarez, New Christian professor of medicine at Coimbra university, fleeing the Inquisition, has brought Christoval (Kit) to London, where he assumes a post as physician at St Bartholomew’s. At the point when my novel The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez opens, Kit is sixteen and working as an assistant physician at the same hospital.

I was drawn to this story by this little-known community living discreetly but quite successfully in Shakespeare’s London. And although they took care not attract attention to themselves, they were not entirely free from danger even here, for there was a good deal of racism and anti-semitism in Elizabethan London, where there were substantial foreign groups, mostly escaping persecution on continental Europe. As well as the Marranos fleeing the Inquisition there were Hollanders persecuted by the Spanish overlords of parts of the Low Countries and those French Huguenots who had managed to survive the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day and who now plied their silk-weaving trade in Petty France. There were, however, bad winters, unemployment and periods of famine at the time, and it took little enough to set loose the bands of armed apprentices on the streets of London, crying, ‘Clubs! Clubs!’ and looking for easy victims. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare drew on this vein of racism and anti-semitism in The Jew of Malta and The Merchant of Venice.

It was a dangerous place, late Tudor England. And one of the greatest threats came from the constant – almost innumerable – plots against Elizabeth and the English State. Elizabeth had been excommunicated by the Pope and his blessing had been given to any man who tried to assassinate her. There were plenty willing to make the attempt. Some plots were simple affairs, involving just one or two men, but the most dangerous were backed with money and troops by the Duke of Guise, cousin of Mary Queen of Scots, who wanted to see her on the English throne and Protestantism wiped out. Philip II of Spain – always an expansionist – also had his eye on the throne. While he was married to Mary Tudor he styled himself King of England. Had the Armada succeeded, he would have reclaimed the title.
Sr Francis Walsingham
Into this morass of traitors and plots stepped Sir Francis Walsingham, who formed England’s first secret service of spies, intelligencers and code-breakers. His network extended over the whole of Europe and reached even into the Ottoman Empire, often making use of the channels of communication provided by the Marrano merchants. The amount of work accomplished by his service (and financed by him personally) was phenomenal, and kept the country safe for years. His chief code-breaker was Thomas Phelippes, who survived him and had a colourful subsequent career. One of his agents was Robert Poley, a slippery, ambiguous character, probably a double agent, possibly a traitor, certainly an agent provocateur, and a thoroughly nasty piece of work. It is not without significance that he was one of the three unsavoury characters present when Marlowe was ‘accidentally’ stabbed to death.
An encrypted letter
Through the connivance of Robert Poley, Christoval Alvarez, who is mathematically gifted, is coerced into becoming a code-breaker and later an agent in Walsingham’s service. Kit has a secret which Poley has uncovered and which could lead to burning at the stake. The only way to ensure Poley’s silence is to comply.

Although Christoval is a fictional character, the secret service and its activities are factual, and amazing some of those activities are. I was drawn both to the history of the Marrano community and to Walsingham’s organisation. It seemed fitting to make a young Marrano one of Walsingham’s agents. The first book in the Christoval series covers the year 1586 and the foiling of the Babington plot, while the next will cover the period up to, including and after the Armada, 1587-8. The Counter Armada of 1589 is rarely spoken about, for it was a total disaster. Undertaken to avenge Spain’s attack on England, its alleged purpose was to put the pretender, Dom Antonio (himself half Jewish), on the Portuguese throne, but through incompetence, arrogance and greed it deteriorated into a catastrophe which cost thousands of lives. Subsequently, it has been swept under the carpet of history, and it has not been allowed to tarnish the fame of the hero Drake, who was largely responsible for what happened. It will be the subject of the third book in the series. The whole history of espionage, plots and counter-plots, the rivalries of men and the battles of nations is so rich it will carry Kit forward into the next century and the next reign.

Saints, spies and . . . saboteurs. Another of those neglected corners of history concerns the Fenland Riots of the seventeenth century. I stumbled across them while pursuing a different piece of research and was immediately intrigued. The enclosure of the common lands of England is one of the more disreputable parts of our history, when all over the country men of wealth and power seized land which had been held ‘in common’ by villagers, ‘enclosed’ it – thus shutting out its rightful owners – and exploited it for their own ends. In many parts of the country, the land was turned over to sheep, an outcome foretold in Jim Crace’s recent novel Harvest. In the East Anglian Fens, it was rather different. This strange, remote, marshy country had its own mode of farming the land, which went back generations, at least to Roman times and almost certainly earlier. Every winter the rains washed alluvial soil from the inland wolds down on to the flat fenland fields. When these winter floods drained away into the marshes – the Fens – the arable fields were left covered with some of the best soil in the country. The whole area, from Cambridgeshire through Suffolk and Norfolk to Lincolnshire, was a patchwork of these field and marshes, interspersed with natural waterways and other channels which had been constructed over the centuries by local people who understood their land and its peculiarities. There was an abundance of fish and waterfowl, the peat bogs supplied fuel, and the thickets of willow and rushes provided material for thatch, baskets, hurdles and eel traps. It was a rich and varied landscape. The people worked hard, but the land yielded a good living.

When ‘adventurers’ turned their greedy eyes on the Fens in the seventeenth century, they claimed that the land was useless and their enclosures and drainage would turn the area into a pot of gold for investors. They were, in fact, a sort of prototype of today’s venture capitalists. Once the land was drained, it would be rented out to immigrant peasant farmers, still coming in (as they had been in Christoval’s time) from France and Holland. The rents paid by these farmers to the investors would return their investment a hundredfold.

The first wave of drainers arrived in the early part of the century and the capital came primarily from the nobility and even the king. Francis Russell, fourth Earl of Bedford, was notorious for his appalling treatment of local people and their rights. However, unlike most other areas where enclosure took place, the fenlanders fought back. This was the start of the Fenland Riots and is reckoned to be one of the underlying causes of the English Civil War. Women as well as men fought against the drainers. When their cases were dismissed in court, often through corrupt and unscrupulous practices, they took up their scythes and pitchforks and attacked the men digging the new drains, who were protected by armed guards. In massive and persistent acts of sabotage, they tore down pumping mills, smashed sluice gates and set fire to the immigrant farmers’ hastily built houses. A number of them were killed or seriously wounded in the counter-attacks.

Then the Civil War came, and the balance of power shifted in the country. Oliver Cromwell, who himself came from East Anglia and had promised support for the fenlanders, seized control of the government, expelling all members of Parliament who disagreed with him (including John Swinfen, but that’s another story!). The fenlanders thought their homes and livelihood were safe. There came the lull between the two phases of the Civil War, and with this temporary peace came a new wave of speculators, led by the new men risen to power, among them Cromwell himself. My novel Flood is set at this time, when the fenlanders found they must fight again, against both speculators and an ever more corrupt judicial system, which often fined and imprisoned those who brought court cases against the speculators.

My central character, Mercy Bennington, daughter of a yeoman farmer, is one of those courageous women who were prepared to go out and fight alongside their men. Some of them were accused of being witches, on account of their unwomanly behaviour. For this was also the time of Matthew Hopkins, self-styled Witch-Finder General, who roamed East Anglia accusing and condemning to death hundreds of innocent men and women. It was also the time of the licensed Puritan iconoclasts, who were commissioned to go out and destroy any remnants of Anglican worship in local churches, smashing up mediaeval stained-glass windows, making bonfires of altars and altar rails, and beating up any clergymen who continued to use the Elizabethan prayer book.

All the atrocities which occur in my novel actually took place – the soldiers urinating in a church font, the mock baptism of a trooper’s horse, the forcing of a village girl to become an army whore, the vicious attacks on clergymen and villagers who supported their traditional way of life, the torture and ‘swimming’ of witches. Everything was fully documented at the time. And what of the actual drainage works? Now here’s the irony of it all. Because the engineers brought in by the speculators did not understand the local terrain, they pumped water out of the Fens into drainage channels for the purpose of turning them into agricultural land. But from time immemorial the Fens had acted as sponges, absorbing the excess water when the winter rains came. The result was that the new channels filled up and overflowed, flooding villages and homes, and drowning those who could not escape. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that water engineers were able to design a form of efficient drainage, but this turned the peat bogs of the Fens into shrunken, dried-up areas lying below the level of the local rivers, a precarious situation.
"Swimming" a witch
The fenlanders of the seventeenth century were persistent and courageous, but only succeeded in saving small areas of the Fens. Several people have commented on the fact that my novel Flood was published just at the time when the country was, once again, suffering from disastrous floods, many of them due to the ignorance and even arrogance of those who have ignored the lessons of history. Property speculators have built on flood plains. The ancient functions of water meadows and marshes have been ignored. The gradual dispersal of water in the uplands to avoid greater volumes downstream has been forgotten. One sign of returning sanity can be found along the coast of the Fens themselves, where some farmlands lying along the sea are being allowed to revert to salt marsh, a natural sponge to absorb flood water from the North Sea, as the Fens once absorbed the flood waters inland. Perhaps someday sense will prevail and historians will be able to point the way to the sound methods of our ancestors.

One story famous throughout the world, and two neglected corners of history. Saints, spies and saboteurs – all of them people of little account amongst their contemporaries – but in their various ways fighting for what they believed to be right. Rich territory for any novelist.


Gerry McCullough said...

Your books all sound marvellous, Ann. I love historical fiction, and in my teens devoured Geoffrey Trease – a strangely neglected writer now. And of course I've continued to read the genre ever since. I certainly intend to buy all three of your books to date, and others as they emerge. Thanks for posting this.

Ann Swinfen said...

Thank you, Gerry! I remember Geoffrey Trease. And Rosemary Sutcliff was an enormous influence on me. I think many children come to a love of history through reading historical fiction, which we then carry through into adulthood. I've embarked on the second Christoval novel and hope to finish it before the end of the year.

Katherine Roberts said...

I love the sound of the first book 'The Testament of Mariam'. (I'm writing a Biblical-themed YA story at the moment, so tuned straight into that one!) Off now to investigate...

Ann Swinfen said...

I wrote The Testament of Mariam very fast - once the idea came to me it just flowed. I was afraid some people would be offended by the book, but to my astonishment, even men of the cloth have been writing to me to praise it, saying that my version of the Judas story makes sense of something which has always troubled them. I was quite humbled!

Kit said...

Wow, so much fascinating history all in one post! I'm going to have to look out for Christoval - you touched on themes that came up in several of my favourite books - again Geoffrey Trease and also A Traveller in Time, which was about the Babington plot. I'd love to see how they all interlink... and of course Kit has been a favourite name for a character, as I never met any real life ones, but know several in fiction!

Peterlane Photography said...
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Bev Newman said...

Your post is really interesting. I have an interest in the history of the wool industry from sheep to finished cloth and this has given me further ideas to research. I am also looking forward to reading your novels.

Bev Newman said...

Your post is really interesting. I have an interest in the history of the wool industry from sheep to finished cloth and this has given me further ideas to research. I am also looking forward to reading your novels.