A Song of Sixpence, by Judith Arnopp
I am getting excited – we are just a few days away from the publication of A Song of Sixpence, a new novel by Judith Arnopp that tells the story of Elizabeth of York and Perkin Warbeck. To celebrate, Judith has let me interview her about the book. This is the first interview I have done for the blog, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it! I also hope you will join me in pre-ordering the book, I have so enjoyed Judith’s other offerings!
A bit of context: Edward IV had two sons, Edward and Richard, both of whom were minors when he died in 1483; he also had a daughter, Elizabeth of York. Edward’s brother Richard was named Lord Protector for his oldest nephew, who was pronounced Edward V. The young King and his brother were conducted to the Tower in great ceremony in preparation for Edward’s coronation – but before that could take place, Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was declared invalid, making their children illegitimate and ineligible for the throne. As a result, Richard changed roles from Lord Protector to King in his own right: Richard III. His nephews never left the Tower, and the rumor arose that they had been murdered there on Richard’s orders. Perhaps because of this suspicion, Richard was an unpopular king, and Henry Tudor led a rebellion against him, killing him at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 to become Henry VII. Henry married Elizabeth of York, arguably heir to the throne in her own right, uniting the country.
In 1490, a young man named Perkin Warbeck appeared on the scene claiming to be Richard of York, the younger of the two murdered princes. Perkin was not the first to make this claim – Lambert Simnel had done so only four years previously. But Perkin saw greater success: he got Margaret of York, Edward IV’s sister and Elizabeth of York’s aunt, to concur that he indeed who he claimed to be. This put Elizabeth in a very awkward position…
Janet Wertman: First, congratulations. This is your – eleventh is it? – novel, most of which have dealt with the Tudor court. You’ve written about Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr and others – and now Elizabeth of York. How did you decide to write about her, and what inspired you to center intrigue around Perkin Warbeck?
Judith Arnopp: Hi Janet, thank you for hosting me on your lovely blog.
Eleventh novel? I think it is the seventh, you are rushing me – lol. The Tudor period has always fascinated me, especially the women. Since I was a teenager I’ve read everything I can get my hands on but when I began to write professionally I chose another era because people are always saying the Tudors have had too much attention. My first three books were Anglo-Saxon/early medieval (another of my favourite periods). But I had so many readers asking if I’d ‘done anything Tudor’ that I decided to give it a try. The Winchester Goose was my first in the 16th century and that is when people began to notice my work. A Song of Sixpence is my fourth novel in the Tudor period and it won’t be my last.
Perkin Warbeck is intriguing and I am surprised he hasn’t been the subject of more novels. Although I write historical ‘fiction’ I do try to keep to fact as far as possible but with Perkin the records are nebulous, which gave me a much freer hand for his part of the narrative. We will never know his real identity for sure and I could no longer ignore the ‘was he, wasn’t he?’ aspect of his story.
As the mother of the Tudor dynasty Elizabeth has never had a great deal of attention yet her plight was significant. Like it or not she was married to the opposing team, a man she had been raised to loathe. Even if, as we suspect, her mother had been intriguing with Margaret Beaufort on Henry’s part, Elizabeth had no choice in whether to marry him or not. Duty or ambition were the only factors in the union, she put personal desire aside although they did, in the end come to have a great deal of affection for one another.
There is no record that she ever encountered Perkin but she must have wondered about him. He had considerable backing among the heads of Europe and Henry was certainly quite rattled by his claim. In the years between the disappearance of her brothers in 1483 and Warbeck’s arrival on the scene Elizabeth’s life had taken a complete turnaround. Had Warbeck’s cause been successful her conflict would have been immense; imagine having to choose between brother or husband.
A Song of Sixpence charts the transition of her loyalties from those of a Yorkist princess to a Tudor queen.
JW: It sounds from the synopsis that your Perkin Warbeck was a legitimate claimant. If it is not giving away too much, does Elizabeth of York believe that Perkin Warbeck was actually her brother?
JA: For much of the novel Elizabeth is horribly unsure. Warbeck’s claim has a profound effect upon Elizabeth. She just doesn’t know, and although she pretends to Henry she believes ‘the boy’ is just a pretender, in her heart she is terrified he isn’t. For years she has believed her brothers met a grisly end, so on one hand she wants it to be Richard, but because of her newfound loyalty to Henry and her son, she needs him to be an imposter.
As I said earlier there is no record of them ever having met but they do in the novel and her conflict increases once she realises her little brother is back from the dead, the living image of her father and determined to reinstate York on the throne. Elizabeth never really loses her York loyalties but after Warbeck’s fall discovers a new way of ensuring Plantagenet power lives on.
JW: Where does the title come from?
JA: From the nursery rhyme:
Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing,
Oh wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?
The king was in his counting house counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes,
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.
We all know the rhyme, don’t we? There are a few different interpretations of the meaning behind it, but I have always preferred the idea that the king in the counting house is Henry VII and the queen in the parlour is Elizabeth of York. Early on in the novel Elizabeth reminisces about her father’s court and how she used to sing to him in exchange for sixpence. Sixpence seems to have been the going rate for a song in those days. There are references to singing for sixpence in contemporary or near contemporary literature; most notably in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night during a drunken conversation between Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew.
SIR TOBY BELCH: Come on; there is sixpence for you: let’s have a song.” (Twelfth Night, Act II Sc. III)
Of course, no Tudor banquet was complete without minstrels to play the favourite songs. One can easily imagine the king and queen seated with their court at groaning tables, dining on exotic dainties to the strains of fabulous music. I couldn’t resist the image. I don’t recall when I struck by the idea for a title but since it is instantly recognisable it seems to be drawing people to it.
JW: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
I love writing so although the hours are long and lonely, and the research can be tedious, I don’t really find it difficult. The trickiest part is the editing. During the first draft, when my creative juices are in full flood, I am perfectly happy but then I have to go back and tweak it. Editing is hard. Sometimes, for the sake of the novel, I am forced to remove some of my favourite parts. Then I have to find those pesky errors, anachronisms or just plain rubbish writing. I am a bit obsessive. I go over and over it, and so does my husband, then my beta readers take a look at it. Then it goes to a professional editor and STILL she finds small things wrong.
It is also hard to let go. To finally say, ‘it is finished’ and send it off into the world. It is rather like sending your toddler to school for the first time, a bit of a relief but incredibly sad. Almost immediately I begin to think of what my next baby …erm novel might be. J
JW: How do you research your subjects? Do you try to get it all done before you start writing, or do you prefer to research as you go?
JA: One of my obsessions is perspective which is why I often write with dual narratives. This obsession also prompts me to read widely and obtain as many different takes on a subject as possible. Sometimes I use primary sources but the Tudor period is so well covered that I rarely need to. I have a vast personal library which is growing every day and, once I have exhausted that, I visit the university library and see what they have on their shelves.
A novelist needs to take a stance, it may not always be one I personally believe, but for the sake of the book I pretend to believe. For example to make A Song of Sixpence work I had to assume that Warbeck was in fact the younger of the two princes. In taking that view I then dismissed the confession he made on the scaffold, and assume he made it under duress.
For research purposes it is important to be objective but once I begin to write the fiction I have to be biased in a particular direction or the novel wouldn’t work. I have to believe in what I am writing for the duration of the project.
I research thoroughly before I begin to write, and continue to read extensively during the writing process. I make notes (and often lose them) I have portraits of my characters if I can find them. I study their expression, their clothes, visit their homes if I can, read their letters if any are extant. (Katherine Parr, even if her writing is rather tedious to the modern eye, was especially good for this). Very often the things I learn never make it into the novel but having the knowledge in my head helps to create a believable world.
By the time the novel is finished I feel I know my characters very well. History provides the skeleton and I try to provide the flesh. Since I write in the first person I have to become my characters, love who they love, hate who they hate, and pity who they pity. It is a strange but wonderful way to make a living.
JW: Do you have any ideas about what your next novel will be about? Are you ready to share?
JA: A few people have asked me to write about Jane Seymour but she isn’t ‘speaking’ to me yet.
JW: I have to say, I am rather glad about that, since I’m writing my own book about her! And perhaps that’s because she’s been too busy speaking to me…
JA: I suspect you’re right, Janet! One voice that is rather insistent is Margaret Beaufort. During the writing of A Song of Sixpence I spent quite a lot of time with Margaret and came to understand her better. She is usually depicted as a staid, pious woman, which of course she probably was. She was immensely powerful and loyal to her son but there would have been more. Philippa Gregory has her down as a bit of a religious nut, an obsessive, but she is so interesting I don’t think she requires that kind of sensationalising. Margaret was an immensely rich heiress. She divorced her first husband at the age of ten – think of that – she married again at twelve, gave birth to Henry at thirteen. That is unthinkable today and it was frowned upon at the time. In A Song of Sixpence, seen through Elizabeth’s eyes, Margaret is quite annoying; an interfering mother-in-law with a rarely seen gentler side. I’d like to return to her childhood and build on that to illustrate how she became the formidably powerful woman she was.
Most experts agree that our early years shape us into the adults we become and I’d like to trace her experiences but she had a long eventful life, it might require a trilogy.
JW: More books to love! Can’t wait – for them AND this one!
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Excerpt from A Song of Sixpence:
London ― Autumn 1483
Ink black water slaps against the Tower wharf where deep, impenetrable darkness stinks of bleak, dank death. Strong arms constrict him and the rough blanket covering his head clings to his nose and mouth. The boy struggles, kicks, and wrenches his face free to suck in a lungful of life-saving breath. The blanket smothers him again. He fights against it, twisting his head, jerking his arms, trying to kick; but the hands that hold him tighten. His head is clamped hard against his attacker’s body. He frees one hand, gropes with his fingers until he discovers chain mail, and an unshaven chin. Clenching his fingers into a fist, he lunges out with a wild, inaccurate punch.
With a muffled curse, the man throws back his head but, keeping hold of his prisoner, he hurries onward down narrow, dark steps, turning one corner then another before halting abruptly. The boy hears his assailant’s breath coming short and sharp and knows he too is afraid.
The aroma of brackish water is stronger now. The boy strains to hear mumbled voices, low and rough over scuffling footsteps. The ground seems to dip and his stomach lurches as suddenly they are weightless, floating, and he senses they have boarded a river craft. The invisible world dips and sways sickeningly as they push out from the stability of the wharf for the dangers of the river.
The only sound is the gentle splash of oars as they glide across the water, then far off the clang of a bell and the cry of a boatman. The boy squirms, opens his mouth to scream but the hand clamps down hard again. The men draw in their breath and freeze, waiting anxiously. There’s a long moment, a motionless pause before the oars are taken up again and the small craft begins to move silently across the surface.
River mist billows around them; he can smell it, feels it seeping through his clothes. He shivers, but more from fear than cold.
He knows when they draw close to the bridge. He can feel the tug of the river; hear the increasing rush of the current, the dangerous turbulence beneath. Surely they will not shoot the bridge, especially after dark? Only a fool would risk it.
The boy wriggles, shakes his head, and tries to work his mouth free of the smothering hand. He strains to see through the blinding darkness but all is inky black. The boat gathers pace and, as the noise of the surging river becomes deafening, the man increases his hold, a hurried prayer rumbling in his chest.
The whole world is consumed in chaos, rushing water, clamouring thunder, biting cold. In the fight for survival, the boy continues to battle fruitlessly for breath, struggle for his freedom. The body that holds him hostage tenses like a board and beneath the boy’s ear beats the dull thud of his assailant’s heart. The blanket is suffocatingly hot, his stomach turning as the boat is taken, surging forward, spinning upward before it is hurled down again between the starlings, shooting uncontrollably beneath the bridge.
Then suddenly, the world is calmer. Somehow the boat remains upright on the water. It spins. He hears the men scrabble for the oars, regain control, and his captor relaxes, breathes normally again. Exhausted and helpless, the boy slumps, his fight defeated.
All is still now; all is quiet. The oars splash, the boat glides down river, and soon the aroma of the countryside replaces the stench of the city.
His clothes are soaked with river water; his stomach is empty, his body bruised and aching. As the man releases his hold the boy slumps to the bottom of the boat. He lies unmoving, defeated and afraid.
The world moves on.
Much later, waking with a start, the boy hears low, dark whisperings; a thick Portuguese accent is answered by another, lighter and less certain. This time when he blinks into the darkness, he notices a faint glimmer of light through the coarse weave of the blanket. He forces himself to lie still, knowing his life could depend upon not moving, but his limbs are so cramped he can resist no longer. He shifts, just a little, but it is too much. His kidnapper hauls him unceremoniously from the wet wooden planks.
The boy’s legs are like string. He stumbles as they snatch off his hood and daylight rushes in, blinding bright. He blinks, screwing up his face, squinting at the swimming features before him, fighting for focus. He sees dark hair; a heavy beard; the glint of a golden earring—and recognition and relief flood through him.
“Brampton!” he exclaims, his voice squeaking, his throat parched. “What the devil are you doing? Take me back at once.”
Brampton tugs at the boy’s tethered arms, drawing him more gently now to the bench beside him.
“I cannot. It is unsafe.”
“Why?” As his hands are untied the boy rubs at each wrist in turn, frowning at the red weals his bonds have left behind. He pushes Plantagenet-bright hair from his eyes, his chin juts forward in outrage. “If my father were here …”
“Well, he is not.”
Brampton’s tone lacks respect, but the boy knows him for a brusque, uncourtly man.
“But where are you taking me? What is happening?”
“To safety. England is no longer the place for you.”
The boy swallows, his shadowed eyes threatening tears. Switching his gaze from one man to the other, he moistens his lips, bites his tongue before trusting his breaking voice. “Where is my brother? Where is Edward?”
Brampton narrows his eyes and looks across the misty river. He runs a huge, rough hand across his beard, grimaces before he replies. His words, when they come, spell out the lost cause of York.
“Dead. As would you be had I left you there.”
A Song of Sixpence is available on Amazon Kindle now, the paperback to follow soon.
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