Sunday, October 15, 2017

Edward Kelley: The Dangerous Life of a Necromancer

By Nancy Bilyeau

The castle of Hrad Krivoklat, built forty kilometers west of Prague in the 12th century, possessed a Gothic chapel known for its statues of the twelve apostles, gazing at worshippers from high above. Also of note was a statue of Jesus at the altar, flanked by angels with golden wings.

Hrad Krivoklat: 
In 1591, a lone Englishman of middle age and cropped ears, Edward Kelley, was confined in this castle, which began functioning as a prison in the 16th century. Kelley, held in a cell at the command of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, had decisions to make. He was no doubt forbidden to avail himself of the castle chapel while making his decisions. But if he had, those winged angels might have carried special significance to him. Perhaps they would have comforted him.

Or perhaps not.

Edward Kelly, from a 19th c drawing
After months of imprisonment, Kelly was due to be released  but for a single purpose. The emperor expected much of the man who came to Prague with the renowned John Dee in 1586. Rudolf had favored him, enriched him, spoiled him. The English commoner even held an imperial title: He was Sir Edward Kelley of Imamyi, "Baron of Bohemia," and he lived in high style in Prague.

Why did this bounty rain down on Kelly? Because Rudolf, an emotionally erratic Hapsburg obsessed with art, philosophy and magic, was convinced that Kelley possessed a secret of alchemy. There had been tantalizing glimpses of his power. However, Kelly had not come through as yet with what the emperor sought. He'd been arrested for dueling. But it was believed the true reason for his imprisonment was to force him to produce what Prague wanted to see.

While deciding what to do, Kelley reflected. This is only speculation--but might not these be the turning points that flitted through his mind:

March 1582: John Dee, scholar, astrologer, mathematician, physician, and philosopher, was in residence at his house, Mortlake, when a knock at the door produced a young man who called himself Edward Talbot, in the company of a Dee friend, Mr. Clerkson. Talbot was a name used by Edward Kelley.

John Dee
They had arrived at a prestigious address. Dee had a unique relationship with Queen Elizabeth. He was her personal astrologer--Dee selected her date of coronation--and adviser, but their meetings were discreet and their communications guarded. Courtiers at the pinnacle of her court--Robert Dudley and Christopher Hatton--also believed in Dee. But endorsement could not be open because Dee's methods skirted heresy. During the reign of Elizabeth's half-sister, Mary I, he was arrested under suspicion of casting the horoscopes of Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth with an eye to predicting the succession. This was treason. He managed to exonerate himself, and found favor with Elizabeth but she did not financially reward him to the extent that he wished. Money worries dogged Dee for his entire life.

As for "Talbot," he was born in St. Swithin's, Worcester on August 1, 1555, according to a discovered astrological chart. Kelley may or may not have attended Oxford. He always wore his hair long or donned a monk's cowl or cap with hanging flaps to conceal the fact that his ears were missing. It was said he had been pilloried for "coining" (forging or adulterating coins) and lost his ears as punishment.

Mr. Clerkson brought Kelley to Dee because he had heard that the Queen's conjurer was in need of a new "skryer," or crystal gazer.  Such men were not uncommon. "Almost every parish, and apparently several aristocratic households, boasted a 'cunning man,' who for the price of a beer or a bed would summon spirits or tell fortunes," says The Queen's Conjurer: the Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee, Adviser to Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth I, Dee's patron
Dee had lofty motives for wanting to communicate with spirits of the other world: to elevate and unite mankind in an era of religious wars, hunger and disease. He sought to understand the universe. On his next visit to Mortlake, Kelley gave him what sounds like a winning audition. After looking into one of Dee's crystals for a quarter of an hour, Kelley said he'd made contact with an angel named Uriel, "the angel of light." Uriel had a number of messages for Dee.

Kelley was hired.

1583: A boat sailed from England, carrying Dee, Kelley and their respective families. Destination: Poland. Dee had a much younger wife named Jane and small children; Kelley had recently married a widow with children.  The trip was paid for by Albert Laski, a Polish count who came to England as an envoy to Elizabeth and was introduced to Dee and Kelley by Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Laski was a known dabbler in the occult, and soon spent much of his time at Mortlake.

Dee and Kelley had been focusing a tremendous amount of time on their "conferences" with angels. Kelley acted as medium, and Dee pondered the communications, which had to be decoded. The language that the various angels--Uriel was joined by Michael as well as other celestials--used was "Enochian." These were the pure words God spoke to Adam, before the Fall.  Dee sought to decode the entire language and capture the wisdom of the angels in a book.

In recent weeks, the angels, through Kelley as medium, had begun to urge Dee to leave England, at the same time that Laski was making his offer. Dee was also worried that Elizabeth's support of his work was wavering. Rumors abounded that Dee and Kelley were practicing necromancy,  which was communication with the dead. Dee did not want to clarify to anyone that it was actually angels they spoke to. Not yet. So it was time to leave England.

Dee & Kelley, raising the dead?
March 1587: Dee and Kelley, full of dread, were summoned to appear before the papal nuncio Germanico Malaspina, bishop of San Severo, in Prague, the cosmopolitan city of Bohemia.

The last four years had been difficult ones. Laski ran out of money almost the instant they arrived in Poland, and the two men and their families wandered through Central Europe, conducting their "actions" with the angels as they sought aristocratic sponsors.

They finally were given permission to present themselves in Prague, where Emperor Rudolf held court. Although Rudolf was intensely interested in magic, his court was dominated by papal and counter-Reformation forces. It was a treacherous climate. Dee had managed to obtain an audience with the reclusive Rudolf but that didn't prevent him from falling under suspicion of necromancy again. It also didn't help that Rudolf's uncle, King Philip II, was planning to declare war on Elizabeth I and all English Protestants were anathema.

Dee acquitted himself well under questioning by Bishop Malaspina, professing himself a pious man who would never cause religious discord in Prague or traffic in the black arts. Then it was Kelley's turn to speak. What he chose to say was astounding:
"It seems to me that, if one looks for counsel or remedy that might bring about a reformation in the whole church, the following will be good and obvious. While there are some shepards and ministers of the Christian flock who, in their faith and in their works, excel all others, there are also those who seem devoid of the true faith and idle in their good works. Their life is so odious to the people and sets so pernicious an example that by their own bad life they cause more destruction in the Church of God than  they could ever repair by their most elaborate, most long and most frequent discourses. And for that reason their words do not carry the necessary conviction and are wanting in profitable authority."
The papal representative remained calm. But he said later, privately, that he had wanted to "throw Kelley from a window"--a common way to resolve conflict in Prague. For a time Kelley and Dee were able to evade arrest or formal censure. But eventually the emperor turned on them. The order came to leave Prague within six days.

Vilem Rozmberk
May 1587: Dee and Kelley found a new sponsor: the wealthy Bohemian noble Vilem Rozmberk. He had a passion for alchemy and had set up several laboratories for experiments--Dee and Kelley now had one of their own. Although Dee was less than enthusiastic, Kelley threw himself into this work. Alchemy was the quest to transform base metals into noble ones--silver and gold--through the  Philosopher's Stone, a legendary elixir.

Kelley had brought with him from England a mysterious red powder he said he'd discovered buried in the ground. As a demonstration before dignitaries visiting the laboratory, Kelley dropped a speck of it into mercury held in a crucible. To all who witnessed it, shimmering gold appeared. Soon the news spread across Prague, Europe and even back to England: Kelley had discovered the Philosopher's Stone and could produce gold.

Now the balance of power between Dee and Kelley shifted. Dee wanted Kelley to communicate with the angels and obtain the wisdom of the universe. But his skryer wanted to focus on the alchemy experiments that were earning him fame. This was the time, when the angels communicated something new and shocking: Dee and Kelley must share wives.

With great reluctance, Dee's young wife slept with Kelley. Nine months later, Theodorus Dee was born. In 1589, the Dees returned to England. Kelley would never see them again.


Emperor Rudolf II
It was not long after Dee's departure that Kelley reached his height of riches and renown. The Emperor's interest in alchemy went deeper than filling the imperial treasury. Rudolf was as unusual a ruler as Elizabeth I. He never married, recoiled from religious mania, and maintained a cautious stance among war-crazed relatives. "Wise hesitation" is what his supporters called it. His enemies found him inert and unfit to rule a Catholic empire.

One aspect of Rudolf's personality was fear of death. Alchemy's ultimate promise was immortality. He threw money, property and titles at Kelley, but there was a catch. The Englishman must deliver. He must turn base metal into gold. Despite his tantalizing experiments, Kelley could not prove his abilities to the emperor's satisfaction.

And so Kelley was imprisoned in Hrad Krivoklat. After his release, he was again given a chance to perform successful alchemic experiments. He failed. Kelley tried to flee Prague, but was captured and jailed in another imperial castle.

It is said that Edward Kelley died in 1598 after he crawled out of a Bohemian prison window and fell to the ground. Other reports say he survived to see 1600, but maintained a low profile.

He is considered a charlatan today, someone who was able to convince wise and astute people of mystical abilities ... until his tricks ran out.

But that is incorrect. Edward Kelley did perform an act of alchemy. It was on himself.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of novels set in 16th century England featuring Dominican novice Joanna Stafford: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.  The books were published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) and are on sale in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense at RWA in 2016. For more information, go to

The Chalice is priced at $3.99 for the month of October.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Secrets of Anglesey Island, the Home of the Tudors

by Nancy Bilyeau

View from a cliff on Anglesey Island [wikimedia commons, photo by Eric Jones]

After the army of  Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, an effort swung into action to make Henry seem as kingly as possible. It wasn't enough that Richard must be seen as the blackest villain ever to draw breath. Henry himself, to hold the throne, must be venerated as royal.

But that wasn't going to be easy.

Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort, was descended from the great John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, and while that gave him the right to call himself a Lancastrian heir, the Beauforts were the children of Gaunt's mistress, Katherine Swynford. True, Gaunt married her after the five children were born and Henry IV had them legitimized. Still, no less than an act of Parliament barred a Beaufort from ever succeeding to the throne. Serious obstacle, that.

Henry VII

So the Tudor propaganda machine got busy with building up the reputation of the last Lancaster king, Henry VI. In life he suffered complete nervous breakdowns, was led by his relatives and his wife, and would have been far better off as a monk than a king during the vicious family disputes later known as the War of the Roses. In 1471, defeated, he was murdered in the Tower of London by the triumphant Yorks. Some say that he was the worst king of the medieval era.

But Henry VI needed to look better that that and quickly. He was the half-brother of Edmund Tudor, father of the new King Henry VII. He was family. Some serious revision was in order.

So in the inaugural pageants of Henry VII, prominence was given to his dead uncle, the "Martir By Great Tormenting." Stories circulated of King Henry VI's miracles, such as curing the blind and saving children from fires. Strenuous efforts were made to persuade the Pope to make Henry VI a saint.

The new royal family was working with what they had. The Tudors' connection to Henry VI was not as straightforward as might seem at first glance. Henry VI's half-brother, Edmund Tudor, did not possess one drop of Plantagenet blood. Edmund's mother was Catherine of Valois--a French princess who was briefly married to Henry V and gave birth to Henry VI--and his father was Catherine's handsome Welsh servant, Owen Tudor. The legend goes that the young widow spotted Owen swimming naked in a river. Catherine secretly married Owen and they had four or five children.

Catherine of Valois marrying first husband Henry V

When he came to the throne, Henry VII's Welsh descent was honored, of course. After all, Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper (Edmund's younger brother) purposefully landed in Wales with their army and made a popular appeal for support as they marched toward England. The Welsh flocked to his cause, and his army flew the flag of the red dragon of Cadwallader,  the legendary Welsh ruler. After he won the battle, the new King Henry VII proclaimed himself as heir to the 7th century Cadwallader, a new king whose rise was foretold in the misty prophecies of Merlin.

As for the king's far more recent, undoubted Welsh background, not much was said about that. After all, when it was discovered years ago, the secret marriage was an embarrassment. Queens didn't marry their servants. Following the death of Catherine of Valois, her oldest child, Henry VI, committed the non-saintly act of sending his stepfather, Owen Tudor, to Newgate Prison (he was later pardoned and pensioned).

But the Tudor family--which did give its name to England's most memorable dynasty--should not be ignored pre-Bosworth. They were a family of genuine achievement and for centuries they lived on a remarkable island, Anglesey, off the northwest coast of Wales. It was a place of mystical power...and a spirit of ferocious independence.

The beautiful island [wikimedia commons, photo by Stephen Elwyn Roddick]

We learn of Anglesey (its Welsh name is Ynys Môn) through the writings of Roman historians.  Roman rulers feared its occupants. That's right, feared. At its height, the Roman empire controlled land lived on by 50 million people. Yet Anglesey held a special place among the strategies of the caesars.

It was because of the Druids. Anglesey was the last Druid sanctuary.

The revival of the Druid religion in the 18th century confuses our understanding of the original. We may envision robed figures dancing in the moonlight, swathed in wreaths. That's Druids 2.0. The Romans encountered something else.

Julius Caesar fought the Celts for eight years in modern-day France. The Gallic Wars gave him fame and fortune but he didn't win easily. The priestly, educated class of the Celts in France, England and Ireland were the Druids, and he was fascinated by the mysterious spiritual leaders of his adversaries.  Julius Caesar wrote:

"The Druids are in charge of all religious matters, superintending public and private sacrifices, and explaining superstitions....The whole nation of the Gauls is greatly devoted to ritual observances, and for that reason those who are smitten with the more grievous maladies and who are engaged in the perils of battle either sacrifice human victims or vow so to do, employing the druids as ministers for such sacrifices. They believe, in effect, that, unless for a man's life a man's life be paid, the majesty of the immortal gods may not be appeased; and in public, as in private life they observe an ordinance of sacrifices of the same kind. Others use figures of immense size whose limbs, woven out of twigs, they fill with living men and set on fire, and the men perish in a sheet of flame. They believe that the execution of those who have been caught in the act of theft or robbery or some crime is more pleasing to the immortal gods; but when the supply of such fails they resort to the execution even of the innocent."

Whether or not Druids oversaw human sacrifice is hotly debated. Historians long dismissed it as Roman gossip, but recent findings suggest otherwise. "Lindow Man," found in the peat bog of Cheshire, was a young Celtic of high status who was strangled and then had his throat cut, during the first century AD.

What cannot be disputed is that when the Romans struggled to conquer Britain, they targeted the Druids as those who fomented rebellion.  They were 1st Century freedom fighters. The Romans could not subdue the people for long; frustrated, they decided to wipe out the Druids to break the people's spirit. To do that, they must march on Anglesey, the Druid stronghold.

What do we know about the lives of the Druids? Very little. The Druids left no written records. Researchers believe it took twenty years for a student to become a Druid. They honored the winter and summer solstices. The conjecture is that the Druids believed in the immortality of the soul and that after death it found a new body. According to the Museum of Wales, between 300 BC and 100 AD, chariots, weapons, tools and decorated metalwork were cast into a lake at the site of Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey.

Whatever the Druids were doing, the Romans set themselves to wipe it out. Tacitus wrote vividly of the slaughter of Druids on Anglesey, some of them women, led by Roman commander Suetonius Paulinus in 61 AD:
"On the beach stood the adverse array, a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. In the style of Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle that, as though their limbs were paralysed, they exposed their bodies to wounds without an attempt at movement. Then, reassured by their general, and inciting each other never to flinch before a band of females and fanatics, they charged behind the standards, cut down all who met them, and enveloped the enemy in his own flames."
Menai Straits, where the Romans crossed
[wikimedia commons, photo by Mark Chambers]

Little more is heard of the Druids. Rome did its horrific job. Moreover, as Wales accepted Christianity, the Druids as a priestly class were bound to become extinct, probably by the 7th century.

But for the people who remained on the island, the defiant spirit of Anglesey was not broken. After Rome fell, waves of invasion by Saxons and Vikings took their toll across England. Wales for the most part stayed true to its Celtic origins. (Anglesey was taken by Irish warlords for a time, before throwing them off.) The "Kingdom of Gwynedd" rose in Wales, its rulers declaring themselves "Kings of the Britons," and for several centuries the town of Aberffraw, on Anglesey Island, was this kingdom's power base.

Then came Edward I. 

As far as Anglesey was concerned, the kings of England, first Norman and then Plantagenet, weren't English at all. They spoke French, for starters. The Welsh maintained their independence throughout the rules of families based in far-away London, until Edward I launched war, using strategies nearly as horrific as the Romans. When the last king of Wales, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, died in battle in 1282, Edward I sent his severed head to London to be displayed, mockingly, with a crown of ivy and then mounted over the gate of the Tower of London. 

It's during this turbulent time that the Tudor name first appears in historical record. For four centuries, the Tudor family served the independent Welsh kings of Gwynedd in high positions, resisted English attempts at subjugation and, even after Edward I's brutalizing wars, continued to support revolt.  Henry Tudor's known ancestor was Edynyfed Fychan ap Cynwrig, a seneschal of Llywelyn the Great in the early 13th century. The Tudor seat on Anglesey was the village of Penmynydd, which means top of the mountain in Welsh. They were undoubtedly a leading family.

The rocky coastline [wikimedia commons, photo by Lesbardd]

So how did Owen Tudor end up working as a servant for a widowed English queen? By the time of his birth, the island of Anglesey was worn down by generations of fighting the English. The Tudors were on the front lines of the latest struggle. Owen's father, Maredudd ap Tudor, and uncles were key combatants in the Glyndŵr Rising, also known as the Last War of Independence. The Tudors were fierce guerrilla fighters during that long revolt, and were left impoverished at its end in 1415. The victorious English crown fined the defeated rebels and seized their land. Seeing no choice, Owen's father took his family off the island.

There is some speculation Owen Tudor fought under Henry V as a soldier at Agincourt and won royal notice that way. After the death of the wife they shared, Catherine of Valois, Owen supported the rights of Henry VI. He was descended from men who rebelled against the English kings for decades. Now he was the stepfather of such a king.

Owen was fighting in the army of his own son, Jasper, when the Lancasters lost to the future Edward IV at the Battle of Mortimer's Cross and he was captured. The Yorkists decided to execute Owen immediately. Shortly before he was beheaded on February 2, 1461, Owen Tudor said, "That hede shalle ly on the stocke that wass wonte to ly on Quene Catheryn's lappe."

When, more than a century later, Queen Elizabeth defied Spain and roused England to defend itself from the Armada, historians see the character of her parents, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, in the Queen's courage and eloquence.

Elizabeth said to her soldiers:

"Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust."
And maybe, just maybe, we can hear in her words an echo of the spirit of the many freedom fighters of Anglesey Island.

Island of Anglesey [wikimedia commons; photo by Lesbardd]

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of novels set in 16th century England featuring Dominican novice Joanna Stafford: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry.  The books were published by Touchstone (Simon & Schuster) and are on sale in nine countries. The Crown was an Oprah pick. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Romantic Suspense at RWA in 2016. For more information, go to

The Chalice is priced at $3.99 for the month of October.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

My Story on Medieval Chic in the "Wall Street Journal"

It isn't often I'm able to fuse my medieval passion with my fashion-writing interest and yet here it happened, in the Saturday "Off Duty" section of the Wall Street Journal! "Club Medieval" is about the latest "throwback trend," but it's not another tired 1970s dive--all the way back to the 14th century with gorgeous pieces from Joseph Altuzarra, Dolce & Gabbana and Gucci.

My story in the Wall Street Journal, along with my medievalesque mug and my Eamon Duffy!

To read the story, go here.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Solving the Mysteries in the Vatican Secret Archives

As the U.S. editor of The Vintage News, I edit stories and write them. It's rewarding to see the reach of the history-news website--there are as many as 6 million readers a month!

A favorite story of mine is a feature I wrote on a scientific breakthrough in medieval manuscripts.

Breakthrough discovery on 13th century parchment kept in Vatican Secret Archives created a new mystery

The appearance of purple dots on manuscripts written in the Middle Ages has long been a frustrating problem. The dots grow and grow until they obscure the writing on a scroll or book page, making it impossible for us to read the words today. Keeping the manuscripts in a controlled environment, such as the air-conditioned, low-light sanctum of the Vatican Secret Archives, can only do so much. The spread of the purple dots has destroyed documents that historians are desperate to learn from.

But this year a team of researchers led by an eco-toxicologist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata–using as their sample a 16-foot-long, 1244 parchment roll asking that a man named Laurentius Loricatus be made a saint–discovered what created the purple dots. It was salt-loving marine microbes, according to a paper released September 7 in the journal Scientific Reports.

At first, the results just didn’t seem right. “When my students came to me, saying, ‘Luciana, we found marine bacteria,’ I told them, ‘Repeat, please; there is a mistake. There must be a mistake,’ ” Dr. Luciana Migliore told Live Science.

To read the rest of the story, go here.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The OTHER Anne Boleyn

By Nancy Bilyeau

Anne, queen of England

In September 1534, Hatfield House radiated incredible tension. The handsome manor, built forty years earlier by a cardinal, housed an army of servants and two Tudor princesses: one-year-old Elizabeth, the cherished heir to Henry VIII's throne and the daughter of Anne Boleyn, and 18-year-old Mary, daughter of Catherine of Aragon and former heir to the throne, now very much in disgrace. She had been forced to join her half-sister's household and lived there as an inferior. Turning her into a quasi-servant was part of King Henry's campaign to break Mary's spirit because his daughter would not acknowledge his second marriage as lawful.

This particular day, Mary lay in bed, seriously ill. Her sickness was a matter of international incident, as rumors of poison swept through courts and filled ambassadorial letters. Thanks to her mother, she was a first cousin of the Emperor Charles V, and his vigilant and suspicious ambassador in England, Eustace Chapuys, told many people he feared for her life.

Hatfield House today 

Elsewhere in Hatfield another woman, much older, was distraught, even, according to contemporary accounts, prey to fits of weeping.  If Mary died, she would be blamed and the repercussions were terrifying. Her name was Anne Boleyn.

No, not that Anne Boleyn. The other one.

The woman in charge of Hatfield was born Anne Boleyn, the sister of Thomas Boleyn. She long ago made a good marriage to Sir John Shelton and raised eight children in Norfolk. That all changed when her niece became queen of England and she was thrust into a prestigious position that progressed from stressful to impossible.

Looking at the interactions between the two Anne's is enlightening.

The senior Anne was born in 1475, the daughter of Sir William Boleyn and Margaret Butler, daughter of the earl of Ormond. Anne grew up in comfort at the Boleyn seat of Blickling Hall, in Norfolk. * There are no authenticated portraits of her, but based on the much-admired beauty of two of her daughters and her Boleyn nieces, we can assume she, too, was attractive. A stained-glass window image of her shows a woman with a trace of fair hair, unlike her famously brunette niece.

A stained-glass image in Norfolk identified as Lady Anne Shelton

Her husband, Sir John Shelton, was from an important land-holding family. Around the time they married, he was made high sheriff of Norfolk. He attended the coronation of Henry VIII in 1509 and attended Queen Catherine of Aragon at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520 but the couple were not inner-circle royal courtiers like Thomas Boleyn. The Shelton base was in Norfolk--until her niece Anne became a force to be reckoned with.

It's unlikely that the two Anne's were close. While the younger one was also born at Blickling Hall, she spent much of her youth outside England. In 1513, Anne Boleyn was sent to Europe to serve Regent Margaret of the Netherlands, followed by the French Queen Claude. She returned in 1522 and spent much of her time at court or at Hever, in Kent. But once she married the king, Anne Boleyn--hated by Catherine of Aragon loyalists and unpopular in the country at large--desperately needed supporters, and that meant recruiting members of her extended family.

The first Shelton to be plucked from Norfolk was the Sheltons' teenage daughter Margaret, called "Madge." She attended Queen Anne in spring 1533 and in January 1535 records show she received a royal gift. That same year she had a colorful--if not notorious--role to play at court, but more on that later.

When Princess Elizabeth was born in September 1533, her parents set her up in a separate royal household twenty miles away at Hatfield, to emphasize her prestige. It's often emphasized that this had nothing to do with lack of love for their daughter (born in place of the prayed-for son), and was a normal thing for royalty to do. To do so with a three-month-old was a bit unusual. Catherine of Aragon had kept the infant Mary Tudor close by. Mary received her first lady governess, Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury (and a Yorkist noble), at age four and she was not sent away to Wales with her own extensive staff until she was nine.

With Elizabeth, it was extremely important that her position be as exalted as possible as soon as possible.  Anne Boleyn was involved with all the details of her daughter's care and wardrobe and setting up her household and visited when she could. Elizabeth had a wet nurse and many servants. The woman who spent the most time with the red-haired baby was Lady Margaret Bryan, also a trusted relation of the Boleyn family.

Lady Margaret Bryan

Lady Anne Shelton and her husband, both of them in their late 50s, were the ones officially put in charge of the princess's household.  Perhaps it was because they'd succeeded in raising a large, thriving brood. More likely, it was because they would do what the Boleyn family needed done.

Before the end of 1533, Hatfield had that other, most unwilling member: Mary Tudor. Catherine of Aragon, in exile but insisting she was queen, hadn't been allowed to see her daughter for a while but sent her a stream of letters urging resistance to King Henry. Mary complied without hesitation. She refused to acknowledge the annulment of her parents' marriage. She was the true princess, she insisted. She said she would not address Elizabeth as princess but as "sister," just as she addressed the illegitimate Henry Fitzroy as "brother."

This news sent Queen Anne into a rage. In one of her many letters to her aunt, she wrote that if Mary insisted on being called a princess, she was to have her ears boxed as a "cursed bastard." It was a priority to curb her "proud Spanish blood."

                                             Mary Tudor as a young woman

The next several years of Mary Tudor's life were so traumatic they are believed to have damaged her physically and psychologically. In her teens she was often described as pretty, accomplished in music and a dedicated scholar, as well as a faithful friend. Praise was more muted in her twenties.

But the truth is, this period was horrible for Anne Shelton as well. She was under orders from the king and queen of England to break Mary down. The elder Tudor daughter had a strong will and seethed with hurt and anger. She was fully prepared to contest every single point of etiquette and household business with Anne Shelton. On one side was the Sheltons' niece, the Queen, calling for ear boxing. But on the other side was Ambassador Chapuys, representing the most powerful monarch in all of Europe, the Emperor Charles. He made it known to Anne Shelton that any forceful actions against Mary could have consequences for her.  A year earlier, Lady Shelton was managing her husband's estates in Norfolk and seeing her first grandchildren born. Now she was in the sights of one of the most brilliant and resourceful ambassadors of the century. (What disturbed Chapuys most were reports that the queen was making wild threats about Mary, including vowing to have her killed if Henry VIII ever left the kingdom. She famously said "I am her death and she is mine.")

For Mary, outwardly petite and delicate, it was simple. War. Mary would not eat with the rest of the Hatfield household; she stayed in her room most of the time; she demanded unsupervised access to exercise; she refused medicine offered when she felt poorly; she would not answer unless addressed as Princess. She also attempted to send and receive secret letters, which the Sheltons did their utmost to prevent.

Anne Shelton did not box her charge's ears. She issued orders, she meted out consequences. She did plead with Mary to cooperate, and when Mary refused she is known to have taken her by the arms and shaken her. Harsh words were said. The household had to move from Hatfield at one point, but Mary wouldn't leave the manor house unless she was treated as a princess. Eventually, Anne Shelton ordered servants to pick up Mary and carry her bodily out of the building.

It would be logical to assume Anne Shelton hated Mary. But despite the frequent quarrels, she didn't.

Her nephew, George Boleyn, and the Duke of Norfolk chastised Anne Shelton for behaving to Mary "with too much respect and kindness, saying that she ought only to be treated as a bastard." Her bold response: "Even if the Princess were only the bastard of a poor gentleman, she deserved honour and good treatment for her goodness and virtues."

The unhappy household struggled on. In the fall of 1534 Mary, whose health was never strong, fell ill "with a disease of the head and the stomach." Ambassador Chapuys asked King Henry if Mary could be reunited with her mother or her former governess, the Countess of Salisbury, to be nursed. Henry VIII"s reply: "He replied that the Countess was a fool, of no experience, and that if his daughter had been under her care during this illness she would have died, for she would not have known what to do, whereas her present governess [Lady Shelton] is an expert lady even in such female complaints."

Chapuys then made it crystal clear to Anne Shelton the stakes: "I warned her by a third hand of the mischief which might arise to her if anything happened to the said Princess, and I also took care to get the King's physician to tell her that of late there was a common report in London that she had poisoned the said Princess."

Ambassador Chapuys

When a worried Anne Shelton brought in an apothecary to give Mary some pills, she became worse. The apothecary dissolved into panic. As for Anne Shelton, Chapuys reported triumphantly that she was "in terrible fear, so that she can do nothing but weep when she sees the Princess so ill."

Mary recovered, to the deep relief of all at Hatfield.

The year 1536 brought about many changes to all parties, most of them brutal. The death of Catherine of Aragon devastated Mary. Queen Anne attempted a conciliation with Mary, facilitated by Anne Shelton. If Mary would acknowledge her as queen, she'd be a "second mother" to her and expect only "minimal courtesies." But the girl rejected this overture with great rudeness.

In May, Anne herself was arrested. All too soon the status of Princess Elizabeth would be plunged into uncertainty, bordering on penury.

But first, Anne Shelton had one more important part to play in the life of her niece. When Queen Anne was imprisoned in the Tower of London, Lady Shelton was definitely one of her six attendants, appointed by Thomas Cromwell. The queen bitterly complained about her female attendants, saying she "never loved" any of them and they were spies.

This seems strange, after the service Lady Shelton did in raising Elizabeth and controlling Mary. Some historians have speculated that their relationship strained to the breaking point because of what happened to Margaret Shelton, "Madge," while she served the queen.

According to court gossip, Henry VIII had an affair with Madge.  The king was taking mistresses during this time. Chapuys wrote: "The young lady who was lately in the King's favour is no longer. There has succeeded to her place a cousin of the Concubine [Queen Anne], daughter of the present governess of the Princess [Mary]."

An even more sordid theory was that the queen connived to put Madge in her husband's bed so that he wouldn't fall in love with a woman from a family hostile to the Boleyns and so undo her. (Which is exactly what happened with Jane Seymour later.)

After her brief affair with the king, Madge Shelton was engaged to courtier Henry Norris but they never married. He was charged with adultery with Queen Anne and beheaded. Also the queen once accused Sir Francis Weston, who was married, with flirting with Madge, according to her own ramblings in the Tower. He told Queen Anne he came to her chambers not for Madge for her "herself." Weston, too, ended up accused of sleeping with the queen and lost his life. It was a complicated, appalling situation, and certainly not the dream of any mother. *

Was Anne Shelton at the side of her niece when she, too, was executed? We don't have these women's names and there were conflicting reports. One eyewitness said the queen's handful of attendants were "young," and Anne Shelton was pushing 60. The queen's ladies wept that day. It's not hard to imagine that Lady Shelton would cry at this frightening scene, no matter the women's differences.

The Tower of London chapel where Queen Anne is believed to be buried

There are two more points to be made. After the death of Anne Boleyn, Lady Anne Shelton remained on good terms with her two charges, Elizabeth and Mary Tudor, even though both soon passed from her hands. When Mary Tudor's right to the throne was contested in 1553, Anne Shelton's oldest son, Sir John, rushed to Kenninghall to support her and not Lady Jane Grey. Mary took into her household several of the Shelton children when she became queen of England. As for Elizabeth, she considered the Sheltons as much her family as the Careys, another branch of the Boleyn tree. When the half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth quarreled, Elizabeth sometimes fled to the Sheltons' homes, for comfort.

When Elizabeth in turn succeeded to the throne, Shelton women were some of her favorite ladies-in-waiting. Anne Shelton's granddaughter, Audrey, was a devoted lady of the bedchamber and walked in Queen Elizabeth's funeral procession in 1603.

Mary Shelton, later Hevingham, by Holbein

Finally, one of Anne's Shelton's other daughters, Mary, made quite an impression on the men of the Tudor court, including the poets Thomas Wyatt, who sighed after her in verse, and Henry Howard, earl of Surrey. She was mentioned in passing in an ambassador's letter as drawing the interest of Henry VIII after the death of Jane Seymour. Well, we know he had a predilection for sisters! Mary Shelton possessed talent in her own right, contributing to the Devonshire Manuscript, a collection of 185 poems. She married Sir Anthony Hevingham in 1546. One of their children, Arthur Hevingham, is believed to be the ancestor of Diana Spencer.

And so when Prince William succeeds to the throne, a descendant of Anne Boleyn will reign at last. But it will be the other Anne Boleyn.

* More information on Blickling Hall and the homes of the early Boleyns can be found in the book In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, by Natalie Grueninger and Sarah Morris. Their new book is In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII. Review here.

* An excellent historical novel on Madge Shelton, At the Mercy of a Queen, was written by Anne Barnhill. Interview with Anne here.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of historical novels set in Tudor England: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. The Crown was an Oprah pick of 2012 and The Chalice won the Best Historical Mystery Award from Romantic Times Reviewers. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Suspense in 2016.

The Chalice is discounted for the month of October at $2.99: go here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Book Editor

I didn't know much about Jackie Kennedy's career as a book editor, but in a vague way assumed that she was no more than a dilettante in publishing. After stumbling on a book about her life early this year, I read an intriguing chapter about how much she put into being a book editor. She acquired nearly 100 books over a long and steady career. As a lifelong editor myself, newspapers and magazines, I wanted to know more.

I pitched a story on her book career to Town & Country, a regular home for my work, and they gave me the greenlight. I researched the First Lady's life in this period very thoroughly, sticking to her professional life and not diving into the gossip. I came away from it with respect for Jackie.

The eventual story seems to have pleased my own editor at Town & Country, and I'm happy to share it here:

How Jackie Kennedy Became a Powerful Book Editor After Leaving the White House

With little experience in the publishing world, she went from being First Lady to making just $200 a week

By Nancy Bilyeau

Early one September morning in 1975, a 46-year-old woman busied herself preparing to go in for the first day of a brand-new job. She boiled an egg, saw her teenage son out the door to Collegiate School, donned a conservative gray shirt dress, and caught a taxi outside her 1040 Fifth Avenue apartment for midtown Manhattan.

When that cab pulled up outside 625 Madison Avenue, it looked like a riot was erupting. Every reporter and photographer in town was jostling for advantage outside the office building’s entrance, joined by a crowd for whom curiosity had edged into fixation. The woman calmly got out of the taxi and made her way into the building, which housed the New York editorial office of Viking Press.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was reporting for her first day of paying work since 1953, when she was an unmarried “inquiring camera girl” for the Washington Times-Herald...
Jackie Kennedy Onassis. David Mcgough, from Town & Country


To read the whole story, go here.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Writing about New York City crime

I write thrillers and I have a part-time job as the deputy editor of The Crime Report, a website of the Center for Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College, so I guess you could say crime is already my "thing."

As the U.S. editor for the website The Vintage News, I edit a wide variety of stories, from the Golden Age of Hollywood to the wonder of flapper shoes to crimes of the past. I've edited stories on Lizzie Borden and Victorian poisoners. For today, I wrote a story set in my city, NYC, and a famous mafia hit: the shooting of "Big Paul" Castellano outside Sparks Steak House

Why ordering a hit on “Big Paul” Castellano at Sparks Steak House was John Gotti’s big mistake

New York City is famous for its steakhouses, and since opening its doors at 201 East 46th Street in 1977, Sparks has been a carnivore crowd favorite. The essential components of a steakhouse are as follows: tables covered nearly to the floor with spotless tablecloths, set in dark, wood-paneled rooms; middle-aged men serving as waiters, their flawless manners stopping short of obsequiousness and their Brooklyn, Bronx, or Queens accents proudly on display; really good booze, like a Macallan single-malt whisky or a $100 bottle of Bordeaux; and of course the food itself: large, succulent meat portions, accompanied by baked potato heaped with butter, chives, and sour cream.

Since steakhouses haven’t changed much since their Mad Men heyday, you can assume that specific entrées found on a Sparks menu today—prime sirloin, filet mignon, and sliced steak with bordelaise sauce—were also on the menu in the 1980s.

It was the prospect of a dinner plate graced by the third cut of a prime rib of beef that drew a 70-year-old man named Paul Castellano to Sparks on the evening of December 16, 1985.

“Big Paul” Castellano was highly knowledgeable about meat, and not just because his father was a Brooklyn butcher. Since his friend, cousin, and brother-in-law Carlo “the Godfather” Gambino died of a heart attack in 1976, Castellano had been the boss of the Gambino family, considered the most powerful of the five families of the New York City mafia and worth an estimated $500 million a year. Aside from the usual racketeering, extortion, loansharking and control of certain unions, the Gambino group had a stranglehold on the concrete business and the supply of poultry and meat to much of the city.

To read the rest of the story, go here.