Thursday, July 13, 2017

Who Inspired George R R Martin in "Game of Thrones?"


I'm a Game of Thrones fan, and nothing could give me more pleasure that speculating on the historical people who might have inspired George RR Martin.

As the Town & Country headline says: "The real life stories of bastard kings, faceless assassins, and incestuous royal families." Yep, the gang's all here!





To read the story that just went live on Town and Country, go here!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Happy 4th of July with a Trip to Nathan's Hotdogs on Coney Island

On the Fourth of July, I wanted to share my story on Nathan's Hotdogs, which started in 1916 with a nickel and a dream.


My story for The Vintage News:

On the Fourth of July, the corner of Stillwell and Surf avenues in Brooklyn, New York, is transformed into a media circus, with ESPN broadcasting live an event that for at least an hour puts baseball, America’s favorite summer sport, deep in the shade. Tens of thousands of people crowd close, breathing in the odor of fried food mixed with salt air, stepping over thick television cables, hearing the screams of seagulls overhead, to witness it: Nathan’s Famous International Hotdog Eating Contest.

Boosted by the popularity of competitive eating, the 4th of July contest is “Major League Eating’s Super Bowl, so to speak,” says sportswriter Mark J. Burns in a Forbes column. It’s a Super Bowl with stars, no less. Joey Chestnut, 33, the defending champion, downed 70 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes in 2016, to set an all-time record. Former construction manager Chestnut is believed to earn upwards of $200,000 a year on the competitive eating circuit.

One wonders what the man who started it all—Nathan Handwerker—would make of this feat today. In 1916, he launched what became a hot dog empire with a small stand on the same corner. A near-illiterate shoemaker’s son accustomed to 18-hour workdays, at 19 he had left Poland and a family that hovered on the brink of starvation to follow his dream. “We were seven brothers and six sisters and we didn’t have a lot to eat,” says Handwerker in the excellent 2015 documentary Famous Nathan.

That Nathan Handwerker should end up a beloved fixture of Coney Island is perhaps not so surprising, for this stretch of beach in southwest Brooklyn drew the most audacious of all dreamers for decades


To read the rest, please go here.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Interview with Adrienne Dillard on Jane Boleyn


One of the reasons I'm so captivated by the 16th century is the complexity of the people who lived then. Among the real-life characters of the Tudor court who I find endlessly fascinating is Jane Boleyn, born Jane Parker and for much of her life called Lady Rochford. She has for years been depicted as quite a villainess, a woman who supposedly testified against her husband George Boleyn after his arrest in the treason conspiracy launched against his sister Queen Anne, and who was later executed for her part in the adultery conspiracy of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII.

But in recent years, there has been a backlash against the negative view of Jane Boleyn, one that claims there is no evidence of her being the one to testify against her husband, and to substantiate the shocking charges of incest with the queen. Has Jane been defamed by history, by historians, novelists and screenwriters?



I have the good fortune to interview Adrienne Dillard, the author of the new novel The Raven's Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn. I enjoyed this historical novel very much. Adrienne created nuanced portrayals of all the members of the Boleyn family, and put me inside the court of Henry VIII. I am rethinking a lot of my perceptions!

We're both lovers of Tudor history. I've found there's always a spark that leads us there. For me it was watching "The Six Wives of Henry VIII." What triggered your interest in the Tudors?

I've always been a huge fan of all eras of history, but I came to the Tudors as an adult. After my step-father died in January 2008, I tried to get my mom out of the house as much as possible. She must have been really desperate to get out one afternoon when I convinced her to go see The Other Boleyn Girl in the theatre...It's definitely not her normal cinema fare! Throughout the movie, I just kept thinking that there was something off about it, but I didn't know enough about the period to nitpick. That night I picked up Eric Ives' brilliant biography and I was off and running.


Was Jane Boleyn the most compelling member of the Boleyn family to you from the beginning?

No, not at all. I really had no connection to her. I was lucky enough to find Julia Fox's biography very early on so I wasn't indoctrinated with the "nasty Lady Rochford" perspective, but she didn't really pique my interest until after I wrote my first novel. Thanks to TOBG, I was always really drawn to Mary and her children. It wasn't until I made the difficult decision to have a surgery that ended my ability to have children that Jane really came into my consciousness. The surgery happened right around the anniversary of her execution so her story was all over my social media while I was laying around at home feeling sorry for myself. Here, I had a healthy son, but she died utterly childless in a time and place where that was practically unacceptable. How would she have felt about that? That was when I really connected with her.


How did you arrive at your conclusions about her character that led to your depiction of her in the novel?

Fox's biography played a huge role in how I saw Jane and really changed the way I looked at the historical record. She planted a seed of the idea that scribes have biases...and you can see that play out even now. Look at all the books that have come out about the recent election we just had in the US. They all offer behind the scenes "facts" about the events and the politicians involved, but each one has its own slant based upon the writer's ideologies. This is nothing new, it's been going on since the first recordings of history. With that perspective in mind, I went back to the primary documents and began reconsidering their sources. The Jane that emerged was far more complex. She wasn't a saint by any means, but she was humanly flawed. She made decisions that make you want to scream, "No! Why would you do that?!" But having gone through the tragedy of my mother's widowhood, I could identify many of her more irrational choices as symptomatic of someone dealing with terrible grief.

What is the "fact" about Jane that frustrates you the most, the thing you consider untrue but most people believe?

I think it's the "fact" that Jane hated her husband or was jealous of Anne. There really is no proof of that. In fact, I would argue that the sources show just the opposite. 


What do you think she looked like?

Oooh, that is a good question. I wish I knew! I would imagine that she was probably unremarkable in appearance or else there would have been some commentary on it. If she looked like her father, she may have had striking eyebrows and a distinctive nose; a long, slender neck and high cheekbones. I hope that maybe, one day, a portrait will be unearthed that we can say is conclusively her.


How did you come to the conclusion you did about her procreative situation? (Trying not to do spoilers)

To put it simply: the values of the time. Even if Jane had the most miserable marriage on record (doubtful), there is no way that they were not trying for children. As Anne got closer to the throne, the Boleyn's wealth and influence was growing. George was the sole heir to an Earl. It was imperative that he procreate. The fact that they cohabitated for at least a decade without issue led me to believe that either one, or both, struggled with infertility.

Lady Rochford in "The Six Wives of Henry VIII"


Actresses usually play her as a villain. How do you feel about that?

Well, annoyed for sure, but also BORED with it. It's such a lazy way out and so cookie-cutter. It's far more difficult to play someone who operates in a grey area, capable of both good and folly.


There were other maids who helped Catherine Howard with her secret meetings with Culpeper. And no maid of honor or lady in waiting was arrested in the case of Anne Boleyn. Why was Jane singled out?

I think her involvement really infuriated the king. Here, he and Cromwell (who was very connected to Jane's father) had "saved" her from the Boleyns, helped her get her jointure, gave her a place at court, and this was how she repaid him. What impertinence! She had to be punished. Better yet, one last reminder of his Howard wives out of the picture. In Henry's eyes, she had to go. 


How did you come up with the structure of two timelines for the novel? I liked that!

Thank you! My goal in writing this story was to show the affects of grief. In many cases, the person you were before a tragedy is vastly different than the person you are after the tragedy. I wanted to show Pre-1536 Jane and Post-1536 Jane side-by-side so you could see the differences clearly...and maybe, perhaps, come away with an explanation for her involvement with Katherine Howard. We are who we are because of our life experiences; in this structure, you could immediately see those connections.


I also liked your depiction of day to day court life for Jane and her husband . How did you research that?
Henry's household records are a treasure trove! His inventories for food and masques, gambling and travel all painted a pretty detailed picture of what the court was doing from day-to-day. Another excellent resource is the Lisle Letters. They are jam-packed with information and gossip about the goings-on at court. Plus you get a very intimate look at all the requirements for maids during the sections that deal with Anne Bassett's court career.

To learn more about Adrienne's novel go here.



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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of a trilogy of Tudor mysteries: The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, sold in North America, the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Russia, and several other countries,

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The New York Times, Richard Price, and Me

I was fortunate indeed to interview Kevin Flynn, an editor and investigative reporter for The New York Times who was part of the team that won the Pulitzer for its coverage of 9/11. Flynn edited the anthology The Book of Crime:

I began the interview for website The Crime Report curious about what role investigative journalism and crime reporting can play in today's changing media landscape and he gave a thoughtful reply. I'm sharing here the beginning of my story:


 

The Crime Report: Looking at the breadth of these crime stories, the tremendous variety, it’s hard not to think about the state of the media today. How do you see crime coverage at the big urban dailies evolving in a time of staff cutbacks and digital disruption?
Kevin Flynn: I don’t know that I’ve read enough into the coverage of folks outside New York to be much of a national expert, but I don’t think there is any question that here in New York City there has been a move toward lesser coverage of smaller crimes by the dailies. To some extent, that has been offset by the work of websites like DNAInfo, which has done a good job of covering local crime. And to some extent, the proliferation of social media tools like Twitter has made everyone a local crime reporter.In situations like a bombing or a bomb scare, dozens of largely reliable people now have the ability to report their first-person perspectives on what happened. It’s a tool we have to be careful in relying on, but for the most part people provide accurate accounts of what they think they see, and the volume and redundancy of what they report usually gives me confidence in them. That said, the average person is not in position to tweet about crippling shortfalls in a police budget or gaps in a disciplinary procedure for officers. I think it’s important that, as we manage staff reductions at newspapers, we make sure that essential reporting on police departments as institutions never falls through the cracks.

To read the rest of the interview, go here

Novelist and screenwriter Richard Prince contributed a foreword to the book, and he agreed to my request for an excerpt. It was a true privilege editing the words of Price! To read what he has to say about the different types of crime reporting, go here.



Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Enduring Myth of Anastasia

I'm proud to share a story I wrote for Town & Country on Grand Duchess Anastasia. Why, a century later, do we still want to believe the Bolshevik slaughter of the Romanov royal family in 1918? I dug into the history, reading a great many books and looking up newspaper stories. I visited a Russian cathedral on the Upper East side of Manhattan, talking to a "White Russian," and interviewed the lyricist who wrote songs for the musical on Anastasia that opened yesterday.

Read the entire story here.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hans Holbein and the Politics of Art

By Nancy Bilyeau

Just two years into the reign of James I, a Dutch painter and poet named Karel van Mander toured Whitehall Palace and came upon something truly memorable: a large wall mural of two generations of Tudors. Dominating the nine foot by twelve foot mural was the long-dead Henry VIII. At his side was his third wife, Jane Seymour; above the couple were his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

Whitehall mural, a 17th century painting reproduction

Van Mander was stunned. He wrote that Henry VIII "stood there, majestic in his splendor...so lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence."

Lifelike. This was the supreme achievement of the mural's creator, Hans Holbein. then and now. Peter Ackroyd has written, "He illustrates his sitters in the light of some sudden but characteristic emotion, as if he had caught their thought on the wing."

Hans Holbein the Younger

It is in part because of Holbein that we feel we know the Tudor personalities, from Henry VIII and Jane Seymour to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to a baby Prince Edward. But do we really know Holbein?

It seems to us now as if Hans Holbein the Younger was always there, the favorite, the prize artist of the king. But in fact his artistic reign was fairly brief. He did not become "court painter" until shortly before painting that famous mural. It had taken years to win the trust of Henry VIII and secure royal commissions. Just three years after the Whitehall mural, he was under a cloud because of his painting of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Three years after that, he was dead.

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Hans Holbein was born in 1497 in Augsburg, now the third largest city in Bavaria, Germany. Then it was a "free Imperial city" within the Holy Roman Empire, faithful to emperor and pope. Hans Holbein the Elder came from a family of talented artists and made sure to teach his son everything he knew. The father painted mostly altarpieces, church windows and other religious works--in the late medieval age, this was where artists found their majority of paying work.

Martin Luther transformed Germany--and then the rest of Christendom--when he challenged papal authority in 1517, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenerg. Two years earlier, Hans and his older brother Ambrosius had moved to the thriving Swiss city of Basel to work as journeyman painters. He created portraits and murals and designed woodcuts for printers. But soon enough Hans Holbein was engulfed in Luther's revolution.

Dance of Death, the Abbot

Holbein's cover of the Luther bible

It is in his woodcuts that Hans Holbein the Younger gives some indication of his religious beliefs. He designed the title page of Martin Luther's bible. And he created woodcuts for The Dance of Death, an eerie series of drawings showing a skeleton reaching for people across every level of society: merchant, king, abbess, old woman---and pope. Death came to everyone, high or low, was the message.

But in the first of several ironies, when Holbein came to England, his sponsor was Sir Thomas More, known for his hatred of Luther and determination to destroy the books written by those who wanted to reform the church.

Holbein departed from Basel in 1526, leaving a wife and children behind. Religious commissions had dried up as Lutheranism ignited. No one wanted altarpieces anymore. To earn enough money to live--and to, hopefully, find fame--he'd need to establish himself in a foreign court. He tried France first, but nothing happened. The famous Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, whom Holbein had painted at least twice, gave him a letter of recommendation to be given to Sir Thomas More, a fellow Humanist and one of the most valued councilors of Henry VIII.

Sir Thomas More

Holbein may have lived in More's Chelsea home for a time. What is known for certain is that he painted a famous portrait of Sir Thomas as well as many of his family members. More raved about the artist's abilities in a letter to Erasmus. If he knew about Holbein's belief in religious reform, he'd decided to overlook it.

 In 1529 Sir Thomas More became chancellor of England. It would seem that Holbein couldn't have picked a better patron.

But More was devoted to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and although he tried hard to avoid it, he got caught up in the Great Matter of the king's divorce. More did not have a high opinion of Anne Boleyn, who would eventually become Henry's second queen, and could not swear an oath of supremacy to king over pope. In 1532 he resigned as chancellor, in anguish, claiming illness.

Holbein was not damaged by his patron's fall from power because he'd returned to Basel, to his family and his circle of artist friends. But this was no place for an artist. The pendulum had swung so far in Basel that religious reformers were destroying statues and works of art in churches. It is believed that some of Holbein's paintings were burned in the rages of iconoclasm. Holbein decided to go  back to England. Before he left, he painted his wife, looking undeniably sad.

Holbein's wife and two of their children

There was a whole new group running the Tudor court in 1533, and Holbein headed for the top. His new patron? The stylish Anne Boleyn. He designed decorations for her coronation; pieces of jewelry; and several silver cups. It is believed that he painted Queen Anne's portrait, but after her fall, Henry VIII had many images of his second wife destroyed. One that survives is a sketch of Anne signed by Holbein.

The Ambassadors

Perhaps the greatest contribution Anne made to the legacy of Holbein was sponsoring his painting The Ambassadors, considered his master work. The strongest clue that Anne commissioned the work is that on a table between the two Frenchmen is a wooden cylinder used to determine dates. Visible is April 11, the day that the court was officially told that Anne Boleyn would be awarded royal honors.

Holbein's sketch of Anne Boleyn

Anne's execution in May 1536 could have led to Holbein's downfall. Instead, he shifted again, becoming the favored painter of Henry VIII himself and Thomas Cromwell, who many believe concocted the charges against Anne of adultery and incest.

Henry VIII, the year Anne Boleyn was executed

Holbein painted Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn's prim-looking replacement as queen, and the family mural in Whitehall. He received the all-important commissions to paint the king himself and his heir, Prince Edward. He painted Cromwell. This was when Holbein's status at court became official and he earned an annual salary of thirty pounds.

Jane Seymour died the same year that the mural was painted. Henry VIII was reluctant to marry a foreign princess without having any idea of what she looked like. So Holbein was sent to various courts to paint the candidates: France, Flanders, Germany.

Anne of Cleves

In Cleves, he painted Anne, the older sister of Duke William, and Henry was charmed by her appearance. Yet from almost the moment he set eyes on her when she arrived, days before their wedding, he loathed Anne of Cleves. "I like her not," the king declared.

Did Holbein, the artist celebrated for his lifelike images, over-flatter Anne of Cleves in his painting? Did he feel pressure from Cromwell, who supported the marriage alliance to a German power, to make her look more attractive than she was? Cromwell was arrested and then executed in 1540, and one of the reasons for his shocking fall from power was that Henry felt his minister had bungled his fourth marriage. "I am not well handled," the king said, menacingly.

Thomas Cromwell

Did Holbein handle his part well? Others have said that Anne of Cleves' painting must have been accurate because, unlike Cromwell, Holbein was not punished in the fallout of the Cleves divorce. Which is strictly true. But Hans Holbein did not receive any more high profile royal commissions. He concentrated on private commissions, such as miniatures of various members of the nobility, like Katherine Willoughby, the young wife of the Duke of Suffolk.

In late 1543 at the age of 45, Hans Holbein died, perhaps of the plague, in London. He left a will, written in haste. His debts were settled and some of his monies went to the care of the children in Basel he had left behind. His grave is unmarked.

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Sources:

Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Thurley, Simon, Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1690

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court

Wolf, Norbert, Hans Holbein the Younger, the German Raphael

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical thrillers set in the time of Henry VIII. The protagonist is a Dominican novice. Her trilogy, The CrownThe Chalice, and The Tapestry, is on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, Spain, Russia, and Germany.



* This blog post originally ran on English Historical Fiction Authors.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Truth About Elizabeth of York

"The White Princess" brings Elizabeth of York center stage. For Town of Country I wrote about what the Starz miniseries gets right about the real Elizabeth of York and Henry VII--and what it gets wrong.





There's an interesting interplay going on between this series and Game of Thrones. The marriage of Elizabeth of York and Henry Tudor ended the Wars of the Roses, the long, bloody medieval conflict that many believe George R. R. Martin used as his basis for the fantasy series. Now, with "The White Princess," you can see the influence of Game of Thrones. Not just with casting: Michelle Fairley, the beloved Catelyn Stark, plays Henry's mother, Margaret Beaufort. But even the visuals of the shows evoke Game of Thrones, as you can see here:

The White Princess


Game of Thrones
 
 

Read my story for Town & Country on Elizabeth of York here.