Today is publication day for the eBook of the latest novel from V.E.H. Masters. The Apostates is the third in her series of historical novels set in sixteenth century Scotland and Europe. It’s a cracking good read and I really recommend it. See the links for how to buy The Apostates – it’s available in paperback as well – and also to find out more about the author and her other books.
I was most intrigued by the history behind the book and asked Vicki to tell me what drew her to write these books.
Here is what I asked:
“I’m intrigued to know what drew you to writing about the clearly devastating religious conflict in sixteenth century Europe. I knew practically nothing about it all, so reading The Apostates has really opened my eyes. It’s a fascinating as well as horrifying subject. Can you please tell us a little about what inspired you to write these dramatic, heart-wrenching stories?”
And here is Vicki’s answer…
For me the series started with my own fascination with the siege of St Andrews Castle, Scotland in 1546. I grew up in St Andrews and when our class was eventually taken by our history teacher, Miss Grubb, on a visit to the castle I was immediately entranced. The group who held the castle under siege for fourteen months called themselves The Castilians and I had this visceral sense even then that I would write this book – it seemed such a perfect title, as well a true story with so many fantastic twists and turns.
When I finally did come to write it many, many years later I was surprised that no one else had beat me to the post. The siege is mentioned in some well researched history books covering the period but only as a few pages, a kind of aside to greater matters of historical import. It took a lot of unpicking for me to work out what did happen and in particular what the purpose of the siege tunnel (known as the mine and counter mine) was… I’ll leave you to read The Castilians to find out.
As I wrote the book I was of course following the twists and turns of the actual history – there are truces called during the siege and the castilians run amok in the town; the Pope enacts a Great Cursing upon them and then later sends absolution; and Henry VIII is writing to the Scottish Queen Mother, Mary of Guise, (it’s the infancy of Mary Queen of Scots) from across the border, ‘if you would be content to withdraw the siege for our sake and until the matter of displeasure against them were further debated, we would take it for token of love and kindness towards us and think you esteemed our friendship…otherwise we shall be forced to relieve them.’
So there are wonderfully juicy pieces of history here, but as I wrote more about my characters, Bethia and her brother Will, caught up in these terrible times for St Andrews – one a Catholic, the other a Protestant – I grew more and more interested in them. When I finished the first book readers were asking what happens next and I had to go on.
The first novel is about a seminal moment early in the Scottish Reformation and initially that for me was only a backdrop to the events that unfold during the siege – which is also the beginning of John Knox’s career as preacher.
Quite by chance the second in series, set in Antwerp, focused on the plight of Conversos, sometimes referred to as Marranos or Crypto-Jews. So Conversos were Jews who had been forcibly converted to Catholicism by the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and were fleeing to Antwerp in increasing numbers. This is part of my husband’s family history so I got very curious to learn more.
Antwerp belonged to the Holy Roman Empire and so the inquisition is creeping in but the good city burghers don’t want anything to interfere with trade – and there are some very rich and influential Conversos who are lending money to kings, including Charles of Hapsburg, Henry VIII and Henri of France. Inevitably the book is entitled The Conversos (such another great description, like The Castilians).
Religion, without any deliberate intention on my part, has therefore become a key theme of The Seton Chronicles. It was central to peoples’ lives then and following the correct religion in the correct way was a means of control that is quite unimaginable for many of us living in the West. And just as today, it was all determined by where you happened to live. In Antwerp rich English merchants could follow Protestantism privately but Anabaptists, who were poor, were burnt at the stake. In The Apostates, which is book three of the series, my characters find themselves in Geneva, the city state headed up by Calvin. Any visitor caught practising Catholicism would be banished and, if they were a Genevan citizen, imprisoned or worse. Calvin actually has Servetus, whose doctrine he fervently disagrees with, burnt at the stake during this period.
My characters end up in Venice where many Conversos fled. In Venice they are welcomed and accepted by the Venetians in a way they were never in Antwerp. Jews can also live openly albeit in the ghetto (the word ghetto originated in Venice), wearing yellow hats to distinguish them and restricted in the trades they can engage in. The Jews don’t much care for the Conversos who have privileges that they do not, and call them ‘a ship with two rudders’ ever tugged in opposite directions.
So Venice is tolerant, up to a point. It is not however wise to be a Protestant living there – although the authorities tend to favour a quick and discreet drowning rather than the spectacle of a burning, which may upset trade. Nevertheless in 1553 Venice has a great book burning of the Talmud (and Rome too – where Jews were also allowed to live openly). It seems that it’s time for my characters to move on again if they are ever to find a place of safety. Book Four in series will reveal more but I’ll just say that Constantinople is likely to feature.
It’s interesting that you mention the subject matter of The Apostates at times being harrowing. I read something early on in my writing career about being empathetic to your characters, or at least having sympathy for them, and it resonated for me. It is unavoidable that bad things do happen – for they did then (and now) but I feel a strong connection with my characters and it’s important to me that they are essentially striving to be good and true people within the parameters of what they see as determining this. There are of course a few nasty characters, just as there are in life, but in my books they’ll never win out.
One of my favourite writers when I was younger was David Lodge. I would feel an absolute comfort picking up one of his books and knowing I could be certain of both a good read and a happy ending. Alexander McCall Smith, the prolific writer of the Number One Ladies Detective Agency and other series, often speaks on the power of a happy ending. I don’t want to say I’ll never end a book on grim note but I honestly cannot imagine ever doing so. There are enough troubles in the world and I want readers to feel what I feel – that there’s always hope and kindness and it should (and in my books will) overcome evil and plain nastiness.
Thank you, Vicki, that was really fascinating! Your personal connection to the history is inspiring.
I haven’t yet read The Castilians or The Conversos, but I intend to put that right, as I’m even more intrigued now to find out how Bethia and Will’s difficulties started.
Now, as I promised, more about The Apostates…
(Fabulous cover, don’t you think?)
‘One of those books where you forget you’re reading and feel you’re there.’ Lexie Connygham
It’s 1550 and Bethia has fled Antwerp, with her infant son, before the jaws of the inquisition clamp down, for the family are accused of secret judaising. She believes they’ve evaded capture but her husband, Mainard, unbeknownst to her, is caught, imprisoned and alone.
Reaching Geneva, Bethia hopes for respite from a dangerous journey, but it’s a Protestant city state which tolerates no dissent – and she’s a Catholic. And why has Mainard not come?
Perhaps he’s already reached Venice where Jews can live openly, the Virgin gazes benignly from every corner and difference is tolerated, for the wealthy at least. Yet much is hidden beneath the smooth waters of this perilous city. Must they again flee to survive…
‘A series which never fails to get better and always leaves me wanting more.’ Esther Mendelssohn
Where can you buy it?
Want to know more about V.E.H. Masters and her books?
V.E.H. Masters was born and brought up on a farm a few miles outside St Andrews, Scotland and now lives near Peebles in the Scottish Borders. Her first novel The Castilians tells the story of the siege of St Andrews Castle in 1546 and The Conversos and The Apostates continues the story. She writes about events in history with which she feels a strong connection, working to understand how and why people acted as they did. Many of these significant moments have led to who we are today, which she finds endlessly fascinating and hopes her readers will too.