It is my very great pleasure to welcome Historical Fiction author, Dean Hamilton onto the blog. Dean is going to tell us about the inspirations behind his latest book.
The Jesuit Letter
Ex-soldier turned play-actor Christopher Tyburn thought he had left bloodshed and violence behind him when he abandoned the war against the Spanish in Flanders, but fate has different and far bloodier plans waiting.
The innyards of London are closed due to plague and the playing troupe The Earl of Worcester’s Men are on the road, touring the market-towns of the Midlands.
When Tyburn accidentally intercepts a coded letter from a hidden Jesuit priest in Warwickshire, he is entangled in a murderous and deadly conspiracy. Stalked by unknown enemies, he must race to uncover the conspiracy and hunt down the Jesuit to clear his name. . . or die a traitor’s death. His only hope – an eleven-year old glover’s son named William Shakespeare.
This novel has been selected by the Historical Novel Society as an Editors’ Choice and Short-listed for the 2016 HNS Indie Award. It has also been selected as a Semi-Finalist for the 2016 M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. It was recently awarded an Indie B.R.A.G Medallion.
You might think, given the subject matter, that the primary inspiration for THE JESUIT LETTER was William Shakespeare, however, in actuality it was his father.
I knew relatively little about Shakespeare’s family and upbringing until I happened to read Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. Greenblatt, like many biographers before (and after) him, pulls together threads, ideas and commonalities from Shakespeare’s many works, drawing parallels between the limited evidentiary knowledge we have about Shakespeare’s life and upbringing, and tying in supposition, guesswork and context to try and draw a picture of the life of the famous Bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
What surprised me, was that John Shakespeare – Will’s father – actually had rather more documentation accessible about him than his much more famous son. John Shakespeare was a glover by trade, but also held a number of properties and agricultural interests including an active role as a brogger, illegally trading in wool. He served as a municipal ale taster, a constable, an alderman, and eventually mayor (High Bailiff) of Stratford-Upon-Avon. By all accounts, he was one of Stratford’s leading citizens but in 1575, it all started to apparently go downhill. Records indicate a series of property sales and ownership transfers, the loss of his position as an alderman due to non-attendance, and usury charges over the next decade.
The question that has intrigued scholars is why? What caused John Shakespeare’s reversal of fortune, which saw him slide from aspiring gentleman (he applied for a coat-of-arms in 1569, an application that was allowed to lay fallow until revived by Will in 1596) to a man withdrawn from public life. Research led to a number of different cited possibilities including alcoholism (for which there is zero evidence, only speculation assumptions and guesses based on a handful of lines cited from Will Shakespeare’s plays), issues with the Courts due to his usury and brogging charges, commercial speculation, depression (8 children, of whom only 5 survived to adulthood) or illness, and Catholicism.
Of the many cited possibilities, the question of Shakepeare’s Catholicism is probably the most telling. His withdrawal from public position coincided both with fines paid for his wife’s continued absences from Protestant church services, and the arrival of the new Bishop of Worcester, an ardent anti-Catholic, in Stratford on a visitation. Mary Shakespeare’s maiden name was Mary Arden, one of Warwickshire’s leading families and one vehemently identified with the Catholic faith. The titular head of the Arden family, Edward Arden (who also makes an appearance in The Jesuit Letter) was openly Catholic and at terrible odds with Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, the Queen’s favorite councilor. In addition a Catholic testament supposedly with John Shakespeare’s name upon it was uncovered in the rafters of the Shakespeare family home on Henley Street in the 18thc, though some scholars doubt its veracity. Some have speculated that Shakespeare deliberately divested himself of his properties only on paper – transferring ownership and “conveying land and goods” to his friends to avoid possible recusancy fines, bitter taxation and potential property confiscation due to his Catholic faith.
The other piece of (entirely speculative) commentary that Greenblatt noted that caught my eye was whether young Will could have attended any of the performances of the travelling theatre troupes that his father is documented as paying for as mayor in 1569, and, more tellingly, whether Will attended the famous celebrations held at Kenilworth Castle, when Queen Elizabeth’s Summer Progress rolled through in the summer of 1575. Many scholars have seen significant parallels between Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the staged performances, fireworks shows and events held at Kenilworth by the Earl of Leicester to honour (and woo) the Queen. There is a superb record of the Kenilworth events documented in the Langham Letter from 1575.
This tiny, dangling bit of supposition about what actually happened to alter John Shakespeare’s fortunes made me wonder – about playing troupes, the hidden life of Catholic recusants, the corrosive political and religious strife that had torn England apart over the preceding thirty years, the knife-edge that Elizabeth’s reign balanced on between hard-line Protestantism and a dangerous fanatical Catholicism, and the every-day, ordinary lives that had to determine their own fates, in a time when landing on the wrong side of the fence at the wrong time could result in torture and death.
Most fiction embedded in the Elizabethan era tends to be tales of Court intrigue, set amidst the silken splendor of palaces. Mine tends to hang about in ale-soaked taverns, muddy streets and fetid back-alleys where cold-steel by lantern light offers redemption or grim death by turns…
So just what would happen if a battered ex-soldier turned play-actor, venturing about on a summer playing tour in the Midlands, stumbled into vicious conspiracy and murder in the quiet town of Stratford-Upon-Avon?
Well, you will have to read the book to find out.
About the author
Dean Hamilton works as a marketing professional by day and prowls the imaginary alleyways of the Elizabethan era in his off-hours. He is married, with a son, a dog, four cats and a turtle. The Jesuit Letter is his first novel.
(A note from Mary - I reviewed The Jesuit Letter, back in January of this year. You can find out what I thought of the book…here!!)