I am very excited to welcome C.W. Gortner to A Bookish Affair today.
A Conversation with C.W. Gortner about THE TUDOR CONSPIRACY
What was the inspiration for The Tudor Conspiracy and its hero, Brendan Prescott?
After writing the first Spymaster novel The Tudor Secret, I realized I had set the bar high for Brendan. He’d discovered his painful past, safeguarded Elizabeth, for the moment, and made a lifelong enemy of the Dudleys, including his former master, Lord Robert, now imprisoned in the Tower. While planning this second book, reading further into the history, I realized that the time following Mary Tudor’s accession was ripe with possibilities. The first woman to become a sovereign of England after hundreds of years, Mary is known today mostly as a vengeful queen who burned Protestants, Bloody Mary. However, she began her reign with popular support, the daughter of Henry VIII and his Spanish wife, Catherine of Aragon, whom many common folk still revered. So, how did Mary progress in such a short span from popularity to deeply dividing and persecuting her people? And how did she develop such hatred for her half-sister Elizabeth, whom she helped raise? We tend to see these characters in broad strokes, with the benefits of hindsight, but people usually change in increments, propelled by circumstances. Some, like Elizabeth, learn to be pliant. Others, like Mary, resist. Likewise, Mary’s betrothal to Prince Philip of Spain set the stage for the Wyatt revolt, an often overlooked yet dramatic event that created havoc. I knew Brendan had an adventure here, in this crevice of history, when Mary’s Catholicism takes a decidedly lethal bent, alarming many Protestant nobles, whose actions put Elizabeth in peril. This timeframe also allowed me the opportunity to reconnect with characters whose fates hung in the balance at the conclusion of the first novel and to further develop Brendan’s trajectory as a reluctant but uniquely able champion for Elizabeth.
To what extent did you stick to facts in writing The Tudor Conspiracy?
In this book, I weave separate threads into the plotline: The first involves Mary’s betrothal to Philip of Spain and subsequent unrest among her Protestant subjects. I have not so much altered facts in this thread as re-interpreted them from another perspective, conjecturing how some major players, like Edward Courtenay, might have been involved. In the second thread, I speculate on what Elizabeth’s role may have been in the plot to depose her sister. Historians remain divided on how much she knew and if she was an active participant; I sought to look at her actions through the prism of how she might have felt at the time. We tend to forget that while Elizabeth was Mary’s heir by their father’s Act of Succession, it was by no means certain she would ever inherit the throne. Mary was arguably still young enough to produce a child that could supplant her; the queen’s decision to wed a foreign Catholic prince must therefore have deeply disturbed the princess. The pressures brought to bear upon her by Mary, as well, to convert to Catholicism, coupled with what amounted to close captivity at court, may have produced extreme caution in her behavior. Or, it could have stretched her to the breaking point. Again, the facts are unknown. Elizabeth paid a high price for the Wyatt revolt, as did Jane Grey and others, but she never elucidated her position in the years to come. I do not alter what is known about Elizabeth’s character but I did work out my own analysis of her motivations. In the third thread, I create a fictional plotline that intersects with the above, involving Brendan, who must return to court to help Elizabeth and there, finds himself acting as double-agent charged by the Imperial ambassador to find evidence that will condemn the princess. While nothing in The Tudor Conspiracy contradicts what happened in the winter of 1554, I do give these events my own unique spin to reveal what might have transpired behind the history.
Can you tell us more about this fascinating rivalry between Mary and Elizabeth?
There is something innately fascinating and disturbing about family members who turn on one another. The Tudors are no exception. This was a relatively small family unit; Henry VIII did not sire many children, considering how often he wed, and it is surprising because of this to see how very different his daughters were. Mary was his first surviving heir, who went from a childhood of being adored and pampered to a horrifying adolescence in which she was declared a bastard, saw her beloved mother Catherine of Aragon supplanted and exiled by Anne Boleyn, and found herself humiliated and relegated to the status of a servant in Elizabeth’s household. The scars of Mary’s teenage years cannot be underestimated. She clung to her faith out of obstinacy and genuine belief that to surrender would imperil her soul; her capitulation after her mother’s death must have traumatized her even further.
Elizabeth, on the other hand, had far less time to enjoy indulgence. She was barely three when her mother was beheaded and she was made illegitimate. A famous quip from this time has been attributed to her when informed of her new status: “How is that yesterday I was Princess Elizabeth and today only Lady Elizabeth?” Young as she was, she had a keen grasp of her situation. She grew into womanhood surrounded by danger and became adept at the games of survival, aware that one misstep could lead to her doom, her mother’s example always before her.
Both sisters understood the perils intrinsic to life at court, but while Elizabeth learned quickly to play the cards dealt to her, Mary remained steadfast in her innate right to stand above the crowd. They both shared courage as issue of Henry VIII and two formidable, if antithetical mothers, but their life experiences were disparate, and ultimately, their differences were too formidable to overcome.
Why do you think readers are so drawn to the Tudors?
Well, we have these larger-than-life characters, straddling a relatively brief dynasty in an era of tumultuous change. The 16th century in of itself is endlessly fascinating, when sovereign powers clashed, religion was challenged and recast; and the rapine of a new world fed enthusiasm and competitiveness. The Tudors are also considered by some to be usurpers who overthrew the last Plantagenet in an act of war to seize the throne. We have a cunning father who consolidates his hold on a broken kingdom by marrying the daughter of the very family he has overthrown, followed by the glamorous, tragic, and ultimately monstrous reign of his son, Henry VIII, whose marital foibles would be unbelievable if they were not true. But I believe what most draws us to the Tudors are their women, for in this family we find many iron-willed, capable and deeply passionate women, both behind and in front of the throne. Disarming in their strengths and devastating in their weaknesses, the Tudor women —both by blood and those who married into the family— offer us an endless fount of inspiration and drama. We all have our favorites and they continue to live because we breathe life into them through our imagination.
Are you currently working on another book in this series?
Yes. I’m currently working on the third book, in which Brendan must contend with an unexpected secret and assassination plot on the eve of Elizabeth I’s coronation.
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