25 April 2017

Memoirs from the Tower of London

my guest today - Elizabeth St. John

“All the time she dwelt in the Tower, if any were sick she made (the prisoners) broths and restoratives with her own hands, visited and took care of them, and provided them all necessaries; if any were afflicted she comforted them, so that they felt not the inconvenience of a prison who were in that place.”
Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson
Lucy Hutchinson, 1620-1681
(Recounting the life of her mother, Lucy St.John)
Gazing from the parlor window of the Queen’s House within the walls of the Tower of London, I could see the chapel of St. Peter, the iconic White Tower…and the executioner’s block. Knowing that I shared this view with my ancestress, Lucy St.John, who occupied this house four hundred years earlier, made me shiver with awe.

The Queen’s House from the River Thames,
with the White Tower in the background.
Lucy St.John lived in the Tower of London for thirteen years from 1617 to 1630; not as a prisoner, but as Mistress of the Tower. I stumbled upon the quoted biographical fragment from Lucy Hutchinson’s notebook in Nottingham Castle, and I knew I must find out more about her mother. The Memoirs give tantalizing glimpses of Lucy St.John’s life, and further research on the position of Lieutenant of the Tower, Lucy’s husband, Sir Allen Apsley, revealed much more.

When I decided that Lucy would be the subject of my novel, The Lady of the Tower, I contacted Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces (HRP) and asked if I could possibly visit some of the private locations within the Tower. The Queen’s House is the family home of the Governor, just as it was for Lucy when she moved there in 1617. They readily gave their permission and kindly offered a Yeoman Warder as a guide.

I was excited to arrive early one winter’s morning, before the crowds, and walk along the old quay by Traitor’s Gate. Peeking over the massive stone walls were the gabled roofs of Lucy’s home – a curious juxtaposition of domesticity and fortress. I used that view and sensation to set the opening scene of my novel, for I could only imagine Lucy’s trepidation upon entering the Tower, and seeing her future home.

The Queen’s House, Tower of London
As I met my Beefeater, we quickly found a common love of history, and together we entered the Queen’s House.  What I didn’t anticipate was the visceral reaction of walking through Lucy’s rooms, standing in her kitchen, looking through her parlor window – just as she had done. The emotional response to treading in her footsteps inspired so much of my work within The Lady of the Tower, and so many small details found their way into my writing.

The house was used for administrative offices too, and as I explored the warren of rooms (the plans to which, alas, are missing), I came across a small corridor. Just a few feet from Lucy’s front hall, great blocks of stone took over from the domesticity of plaster, and in another pace or two, I was standing within the twelfth century Bell Tower. The ambiance was mournful, and it was not at all difficult to think of Thomas More, John Fisher, and the young Princess Elizabeth imprisoned in this bleak chamber. Their view from the narrow slit windows was the same as Lucy’s from her parlor – the execution block.

View from The Queen’s House toward 
the execution block, and the Chapel 
of St. Peter ad Vincula.
My inspiration from the Tower continued as I walked outside. Lucy was a great herbalist, and her medicinals no doubt eased the lives of many of the prisoners she nursed. In another part of the memoirs, her daughter refers to Lucy’s generosity with her hen-house – she allowed Sir Walter Raleigh to make free use of it to conduct his alchemy experiments when he was under her care and lodging in the Bloody Tower. Needless to say, this took me in another whole research direction.

The Victorians built over Lucy’s garden, but it is still easy to see the old levels of where her gardens were, and how she would access them from her home. She grew up in country houses where it would have been her responsibility to learn simple herbal cures and recipes, and I had a wonderful time researching recipes and including those within my novel. I was even more fortunate that another family member, her great-niece Johanna, collated a vast collection of remedies in a book that is now in the Wellcome Library in London. I liberally borrowed from those recipes to give examples within The Lady of the Tower.

Raleigh, of course, was also a great gardener. I couldn’t resist some interactions between him and Lucy involving some “Virginia Potatoes” as they were known. That is the joy of writing historical fiction – we can have these flights of fancy, as long as they are based in a foundation of solid research.

Sir Walter Raleigh
Attributed to William Segar
Lucy’s husband is buried within the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, and as I explored the chapel, and saw the stone commemorating Anne Boleyn’s burial, so many emotions flooded my thoughts. Although the Tower is a world tourist attraction, and millions of people walk through its environs every year, I feel such a personal connection, knowing that my family lived and worked within its walls. A small votive to Sir Thomas Moore is still kept burning in the Yeoman’s private chapel, and that was an important detail for me to include in my book.

In Lucy’s time, the Liberty of the Tower housed over a thousand families, all of which came under her husband’s jurisdiction. It really was its own small city, for it lay outside of the laws of the City of London (which caused some friction on many occasions). I like to think of Lucy ministering to the residents as well as the prisoners, walking not just only in the areas where her aristocratic prisoners were lodged, but among the houses and gardens of the residents who all helped this important institution run smoothly.

The Tower of London played a crucial role in inspiring my first novel, which has become a best-seller in both the US and the UK. One of the most exciting achievements was the day Her Majesty’s Royal Palaces asked if they could stock The Lady of the Tower in the Tower’s gift shop, and we are now on the third re-order. In her own special way, Lucy has returned to the Tower.  

Buy on
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Find Elizabeth on Facebook        or her Website

Elizabeth will be giving an Author Talk at the 
Swindon Festival of Literature at Lydiard 
on 4th May 2017 at 7:30 pm. 

Elizabeth St.John was brought up in England and lives in California. She has tracked down family papers and residences from Nottingham Castle, Lydiard Park, to Castle Fonmon and The Tower of London to inspire her writing. Although her ancestors sold a few mansions and country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth’s family still occupy them - in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their imprint.

The Lady of the Tower, Elizabeth’s first novel, a Discovered Diamond and a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner, is on sale on Amazon, and at the Tower of London. She is currently finishing up a sequel, which takes her family into opposing sides in the English Civil War

18 April 2017

A Mission Impossible

with Wendy Percival

 I must begin by thanking Helen for inviting me on to her blog [HH my pleasure Wendy!] and allowing me to tell you about my current Mission Impossible which I’m hoping may not be so very impossible if I can persuade you to help. But before I explain what I’m rambling on about, let me introduce myself.

Ever since I came across an Australian death certificate, dated 1868, in the proverbial “box of documents in the attic”, I’ve been fascinated by family history and the secrets it holds. I’m clearly not alone, judging by the millions of viewers who watch TV’s Who Do You Think You Are.

As the programme regularly demonstrates, we invariably know little about our family history and that concept was the inspiration behind my first Esme Quentin genealogy mystery, Blood-Tied, where Esme discovers her sister has a secret past. In her search for the truth, Esme unleashes more than she bargains for and is caught up in a terrifying ordeal.
Fortunately, for we lesser mortals, family history research isn’t usually so dangerous! Though it can throw up some surprising, poignant and sometimes shocking stories, as you’ll see if you read my blog Family History Secrets where I share what I’ve uncovered during research into my own family’s history.

These investigations give me plenty of “plotting fodder” and it was the discovery that my husband’s ancestor had been transported to Australia in the early 1800s which set me on a trail to find out more. What I learned about the brutal penal policy of 19th century England was harrowing and gave me the idea for the second Esme mystery, The Indelible Stain, which I set on the North Devon coast. Esme finds a woman’s body at the foot of a cliff and must delve into the mystery of a convict girl who was transported to New South Wales for her crime in 1837 to uncover the truth behind the woman’s untimely death.

My new “short reads” eBook, Death of a Cuckoo, was inspired by reading about a Victorian refuge for “fallen women” here in Devon. The records left by this organisation meant I could dip in for background information to develop my initial idea.

Which sort of leads me back to My Mission….

The obvious appeal of  Who Do You Think You Are is the discovery of ancestors’ stories, frequently emotional, which have been unpicked from records, photographs and accounts, and paint a picture of their lives.

Wouldn’t we just love a BBC researcher to investigate our own family history stories! Imagine discovering that our great-grandmother or great-great grandfather had written an account of their life. What a find that would be! It would make an intriguing read.
But it probably never entered their heads to make such a record. And even if it had, they probably thought they were way too “ordinary” for anyone to be interested in their day-to-day existence.

Even you, as future great-grandparents, great-aunts or uncles, or even if you’re none of those, probably think the same. So let me try and convince you that you’re wrong, that your memories are worth recording – whoever you are and whatever age!
The pace of life and society is changing faster than it’s ever done before. Some aspects of our lives as children would be unrecognisable to the youth of today. Knowledge we hold of our parents and grandparents are never going to be accessible to anyone in the future – even those clever genealogists employed by the BBC – unless we make sure they’re recorded now. It’s said that such knowledge is lost within two generations unless someone takes the time to write them down.

Fortunately, this idea is already taking hold and writing personal memoirs is a growing phenomenon. Some have published their accounts online. A fellow family historians I know, Cathy Murray, is one of them. She’s produced two delightful eBooks of her 1950s childhood, called Cabbage and Semolina (as you might guess, school dinners are mentioned in this one!) and Jam for Tea. Both books are a collection of memories and events which she recalls with affection (or trauma!). What’s interesting is that reading them stirs memories of similar incidents in my own childhood.

Another inspiring read is Remember Then, a collection of women’s shared memories from 1939 to 1969 compiled by genealogist Janet Few. The book is divided into chapters covering different topics – the homes in which they lived, the games they played as children, their neighbourhood, school days, celebrations and holidays, for example. Photographs and images of advertisements of the time within the pages create a real historical document!
So, that’s my Mission Impossible – to get you to write down your memories. But, I hear you say, I wouldn’t know where to start. The answer to that is, “Just start”. You’ll be amazed at how things come flooding back once you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Ask yourself, what would I like my ancestor to have told me?

Another good place to begin is what you remember of your parents – how they met, where they lived, their jobs, the things that made them laugh, as well as any stories from their own childhood they shared with you.

As children, my sister and I loved to hear about when a World War Two incendiary bomb dropped on my mum’s house, landing in the bedroom where she was asleep! My gran ran upstairs and smothered the flames with a feather mattress and carried my mum downstairs into the back kitchen out of harm’s way.

My dad, on the other hand, was pulled off a wall when he was 7 years old and spent 3 years in hospital after getting TB in his hip. He spoke of coming home from a large ward with high ceilings and feeling claustrophobic at the tiny rooms of the family’s lodge cottage.
When I’ve finished editing my third Esme Quentin novel, due out later this year, I shall be digging around in the boxes of photographs and family archives and write what I remember being told, as well as my own childhood memories. In fact I’ve already made a start. I hope you will too. Your descendants will love you for it!

Further interest:

Wendy's  book links

Amazon UK
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon US

e-book only
Amazon UK
Amazon US
Read the Discovering Diamonds Review HERE