Saturday, 30 January 2010

Execution of Charles I

360 years ago today, Charles I stepped out of the Banqueting House on a bitterly cold day onto a hastily constructed wooden scaffold erected between Whitehall Gate and the Gate leading into the gallery from St. James's.

Accompanied by Dr. Juxon, Col. Thomlinson and other officers appointed to attend him, plus a private armed guard of musketeers, Charles I faced a massive crowd of curious Londoners.

Legend says he put on two shirts – in case the frigid January air meant the crowd mistook his shivering for fear – He apparently asked for the block to be made higher, but the executior told him this was not possible.

His trial was held at Westminster Hall, established by a bill passed by the Long Parliament, after 'Pride's Purge' in December 1648. The bill nominated 3 judges and 150 commissioners who were empowered to try the King. John Bradshaw was president of the trial, with John Cooke as prosecutor. Charles refused to enter a plea, and refused to answer any of the charges, declaring:

'I would know by what power I am called hither, by what lawful authority…?'

Charles spent the morning of 30 January in prayer while Parliament hurriedly passed an ordinance making it treason to declare a successor. He was then led out to the scaffold outside the Banqueting House at about 2pm. In his final speech he called himself “the martyr of the people” and reminded the audience that “a subject and a sovereign are clear different things”. He then declared:

'I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.'

After forgiving his executioner, he placed his head on the block, and gave the signal for him to proceed. His head was severed in one blow and when held up for the crown to see, many women fainted, despite that public exections were considered a leisure activity in the 1600's.

The identity of the executioner was never revealed, because he wore a mask. However the following were put forward as candidates:

* Richard Brandon, the common Hangman of London: he reportedly refused, but is said by some to have confessed to the execution on his deathbed.
* William Hewlett, who was convicted for his part in signing the death warrant at Charles II’s restoration.
* Two men, “Dayborne and Bickerstaffe”, who were arrested but never charged.
* Henry Walker, a former ironmonger turned writer and journalist, who covered the trial in his newsbooks.

Even in death, Charles found no dignity. Spectators were allowed to go up to the scaffold and, after paying, dip handkerchiefs in his blood. It was felt that the blood of a king when wiped onto a wound, or held by a sick person would act as a cure.

On the 6th February, 1649, the monarchy was abolished. Parliament stated that:

'the office of the king in this nation is unnecessary, burdensome and dangerous to the liberty, society and public interest of the people.'

Sunday, 24 January 2010

On making the 17th Century Book Video

An increasing number of authors are creating video trailers to promote their books. Historical fiction gives an added depth and flavour to the process, a chance to show off your period garb or highlight the elements of history that your book draws out.

I was very fortunate that my publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, arranged for me to create such a trailer for my forthcoming novel, Daughters of the Witching Hill. The history of the Pendle Witches is so rich in its own right, it's just crying out to be filmed.

My marketing director arranged for me to work with London filmmaker Callum Macrae of Outsider Television. Callum is a seasoned veteran who has filmed in war zones, done documentaries, and worked for programmes such as Panorama. He has also recently started doing "Lit Vids"--literary videos. Here is a link to the trailer he did for Tom Levenson's nonfiction book, Newton and the Counterfeiter.

First, Callum and I worked out a draft script by email. Callum had many brilliant ideas. What we ended up aiming for was something quite ambitious--more like a mini-docudrama than the typical promotional video.

Callum drove up on a Thursday with his assistant camera woman, the beautiful and brilliant Livvy Haydock. The first day we discussed the script while driving around various locations in the Pendle region. The rugged landscape proved to be as indispensible for the filming as it was for the actual storytelling. You could just picture the characters emerging from the misty moorland.

We shot on location at my stables with scenes of me on horseback since riding my horse around the Pendle region was such an instrumental part of my creative process. I had considered riding in costume, but, alas, I never learned to ride side-saddle. Callum actually thought it was better that I just ride as Mary in the twenty-first-century, and so that's what I did, less-than-flattering-riding-helmet and all. Booshka, my Welsh Section D mare, was impeccably well-behaved, even though she couldn't understand why we wanted her to keep walking back and forth over and over again in front of the camera for over half an hour.

I had never realised how many "takes" you need to get a scene just right.

After Miss Boo got her treats and was turned out to play in the field with her friends, we drove on to Malkin Tower Farm, where the owners, Rachel and Andrew Turner, gave us a warm welcome and showed us what are believed to be the ruined foundations of what was once Malkin Tower, home to my protagonist Mother Demdike and three generations of her family.

Malkin Tower Farm has a number of lovely, inviting holiday cottages in an area of outstanding natural beauty. If you ever visit Pendle, it's the perfect place to stay. They welcome walkers and cyclists, and have two very friendly and engaging dogs.

I crouched down near the stones, explaining their significance to the camera, while camera assistant Livvy donned historical costume and did a sequence in the background, walking down the steep slope around the ruins, as Mother Demdike's granddaughter, Alizon Device. Callum filmed another sequence of Livvy as Alizon walking through gnarled winter trees. With her long blond hair and porcelain skin (she wore no make up for the filming), Livvy was hauntingly perfect as Alizon.

Since we were so pressed for time, having to do all the filming on one day in the fleeting winter daylight, we put the historical costumes on over our modern clothes. So, in the costume sequences, I was wearing a long skirt over my riding breeches and tall boots. In the non-costume sequences, I wore my 17th century bodice and chemise-like blouse and corset under my winter jacket. I spent the entire day in my corset, rode my horse in my corset, even mucked out in my corset. How is that for historical authenticity?

After Malkin Tower Farm, we drove on to the old quarry outside the village in Newchurch in Pendle. It was while walking past this quarry at daylight gate--twilight in the local dialect--that Mother Demdike, called Bess in my novel, first met Tibb, her familiar spirit. In traditional English folk magic, no cunning woman could work her spells without a familiar, or otherworldly ally. So the day she met Tibb was really the turning point of her life, when she first came into her powers. A fanciful Victorian stonemason carved a man's head on the quarry stone to commemorate the legends of Tibb.

In the quarry I discussed all this for the camera before changing into costume and reciting an excerpt from the novel, in character as Mother Demdike, describing the moment when she first met her familiar spirit, who appeared to her in the guise of a beautiful young man. Callum wanting me speaking, not reading, so I had to learn all the passages by heart.

The light in the quarry kept changing dramatically. At once point we were enveloped in dense fog before it lifted to dazzling evening sunlight. Then, off down the valley, mist lifted off the damp green fields like plumes of rising smoke.

By the time we finished the filming, daylight gate was closing. It was getting dark and we'd finished filming all the outdoor sequences just in the nick of time.

We drove back to the stable where we turned an empty stall into a witch's cottage with dried herbs hanging on the wall, an old fashioned willow broom, candles, and even sheep skulls for ambiance. Callum also had a smoke machine going to create an eerie atmosphere.

Our props included facsimile editions of the two historical books my novel draws on as primary sources, The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witchcraft in the Countie of Lancaster, by Thomas Potts, the official transcripts of the 1612 Pendle Witch Trial, and Daemonologie, written by King James I, a witch-hunter's handbook that his magistrates were expected to read. I found jpegs of the original, historical title pages of these documents on the internet and then Callum printed them out at home and treated them with tea stains and coffee grounds until they resembled yellowing, crumbling old manuscript pages.

In our "witch's cottage," I discussed the significance of the historical documents and then recited some more passages from the novel, in costume and in character as Mother Demdike. My chosen excerpt was from the opening of the novel, when Mother Demdike, her daughter Liza, and granddaughter Alizon confront churchwarden Richard Baldwin who has refused to pay Liza for the work she's done carding wool for him. According to the primary sources, Baldwin tried to drive the women away with a horse whip, calling them whores and witches. He is recorded as saying, "I will burn the one of you and hang the other."

To punctuate these scenes of conflict between Mother Demdike and the authorities, we used a braided leather whip, purchased from a London joke shop. Callum cracked the whip on the floor while Livvy filmed close up shots.

I was worried that the noise might spook the horse in the next stall, so I went out to check. The horse in question merely nuzzled my pockets for treats, so he didn't seem too traumatised.

A dog club was meeting at the stable grounds that night, so our audio takes had the odd bark and howl in the background which added to the aura of mystery.

We weren't finished at the stable until nearly 9:00 at night, by which time the fog outside was so thick, it made the smoke machine redundant.

Back at my home, we finished the voiceover takes.

I can hardly wait to see the finished product, which Callum and Livvy will edit. After the publisher has approved it, the short film should go live on sites like and Watch this space.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Did Pocahontas Save John Smith?

From John Smith's The generall historie of Virginia: "...two great stones were brought before Powhatan: then as many as could layd hands on him, dragged him to them, and thereon laid his head, and being ready with their clubs, to beate out his braines, Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death..."

This passage was written in 1624 for an event that Smith claimed to have taken place in 1607. Over the centuries, a general disagreement has rippled throughout the historical community whether he actually spoke the truth. Apparently, Smith's first claim of the now famous rescue was referenced in a letter to Queen Anne in 1617, which would have been before Powhatan's and Pocahontas's deaths.

In the mid-nineteenth century, historians began to question the validity of his report based on the length of time that had passed between the event and Smith's documentation. Later in the century, another historian claimed Smith had lied about his eastern European travels based on Hungarian resources.

Since then, scholars have argued back and forth whether Smith spoke the truth about the Pocahontas rescue. In the 1990s, historian J.A. Leo Lemay wrote that Smith was generally considered to be an honest man and had no reason to lie. This statement is very interesting when Pocahontas, then Rebecca Rolfe, met Smith for the last time in 1617 just before her death. She was upset with him because she had been told that he had died many years before and went on to say "because your countrymen will lie."

While her statement doesn't specifically say that Smith was the one to tell his comrades to fabricate his death, he frequently lied to the Powhatan people during his time in Virginia. True, he was a military person and some would argue his misstatements were necessary for strategy.

Interestingly enough, Smith had more than his fair share of romantic adventures. When fighting the Turks in Hungary, he was captured and sold into slavery. Smith claimed "the beauteous Lady Tragabigzanda" had fallen in love with him and helped him escape. Lady Callamata gave him "succor" after his flight from captivity, and Lady Chanoyes "bountifully assisted" him when he had escaped pirates and was driven ashore in France.

Some historians say Smith may have told the truth about Pocahontas, but believe it may have been a ritual that he misunderstood. Anthropologist Helen Rountree, one of the leading scholars on Powhatan culture, gives credible arguments that Pocahontas, a girl of approximately eleven, was never at the event where Smith alleged she rescued him as it was an adult affair. She contends that Smith's life was never in danger. The Mattaponi, Pocahontas's tribe, also claim through their oral history that Pocahontas was never present for the same reasons.

Since there will never be any way to prove or disprove the argument (barring time travel), each person will have to arrive at his/her own conclusion. I think it's quite obvious which side of the argument I believe.

Kim Murphy