I love historical fiction. Anyone who knows me well knows this. But in that love, I admit to a gaping hole in my knowledge about the period of the English civil war. Okay, I have a gap in my knowledge about a LOT of periods of history. But this gap is particularly noticeable because it’s British history, my personal sweet spot. I love the post-Roman era (the “Dark Ages”), the Saxon period, all parts of the Middle Ages, not so much the Tudors… and then my interest starts to slip off.
Cryssa Bazos and I spent some time hanging out around the same “literary water cooler,” as she puts it, and I was curious about the rave reviews for her debut novel. Finally I decided just to purchase it, and I am very glad I did! Since finishing her book and enjoying it so much, Cryssa agreed to do an interview with me, talking a bit about her love of an era I know little about.
Thank you for joining me, Cryssa!
What was your introduction into the 17th century, and why do you love it?
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas was the novel that launched this passion. The swashbuckling adventure and the political intrigue drew me in. But I wasn’t firmly attached to the 17th century until I discovered the English Civil War, and I credit Dumas for that as well. In his Musketeers sequel, Twenty Years After, two of the musketeers are sent by Queen Henrietta Maria to rescue her husband, King Charles II, who is a prisoner of Parliament. They very nearly accomplished saving him, but their plan unraveled, and instead, they were trapped under the scaffolding during his execution. That scene was so vivid and heartbreaking that it stayed with me.
I’m fascinated with the era because this is a century of extreme growing pains coupled with evolutionary change—social, religious, scientific. This is the dawn of our modern era, and the seeds were sewn during extended periods of war, not just in England, but also in the Continent.
People are fascinated by the medieval period, and the Tudor period is always very popular. Why do you think there isn’t more interest in the English civil war?
I’ve asked this question too as have many other writers I know who love this period. I suppose it only needs discovering by HBO. This period has so much going for it—drama, political intrigue, love, war, family conflict. It’s a time when people were examining their position in society, their religion and testing the social fabric. The medieval period certainly has drama and war, but the social and religious hierarchy was never challenged. The Tudor area certainly saw the Reformation and church reform, but it was a relatively peaceful period. Enter the charismatic, albeit cursed, Stuarts and the 17th century. Everything seemed to hit them from all angles.
I’ve heard someone suggest (the reference escapes me) that the ECW is still fresh in the collective English memory as a tragic and difficult period that many are not yet quite prepared to examine. Over a quarter million people died during this period, both due to the fighting as well as the collateral damage of starvation and disease following the conflicts. It’s not a proud moment for any nation. Here in North America it’s simply not very well known. Hopefully that will change soon.
In your opinion, is there a historical figure from this period that deserves more attention, either because they are overlooked, misunderstood, or too hyped (and therefore needs reexamination)?
Yes! Charles II. His teen years were consumed by the civil war, and at the age of 20, when his father, King Charles I, was beheaded, he attempted to regain his rightful crown. He allied himself with the Scots to reclaim his throne, and in 1651, invaded England at the head of a Scottish but was defeated at Worcester. He then spent 6 weeks dodging dragoons who were beating the countryside for him until he finally escaped to France. He finally regained his throne in 1660, not through war, but instead through an invitation from Parliament (who did not want a monarchy of the House of Cromwell). From the Restoration until his death, Charles was known as the Merry Monarch thanks to the loose morals (read debauchery) of his court. He had LOTS of mistresses and children by said mistresses, but unfortunately his queen was barren. I feel that people underestimated him. He was more than the Merry Monarch. He was quite astute and had to walk a fine line to keep various factions appeased. In a crisis, he was a man of the people.
In Traitor’s Knot, your protagonists are Royalists. Did you make this choice because it suited the needs of the novel, or because you have a soft spot for that side of the conflict?
That’s an excellent question. Old habits die hard. When I started writing this novel, my sympathies were with the Royalists, because it was through that perspective that I was first introduced to the war. But it did very much align with the story that I wanted to tell. I was intrigued by the idea of a highwayman (a man outside the law) taking up sides with the King.
I was also interested in exploring how a soldier would feel returning home to a world that has been turned upside down? The world order has been shattered with the execution of the king. The rebels who tried and beheaded the King were running the country, while those who were loyal to the king were treated as traitors to their country and were crippled by fines. This was the period of retribution not restoration. I thought it made the perfect springboard for my story.
Is there a part of this period of history that you think is most often misunderstood?
I don’t think that most people truly appreciate how complicated this chapter in history. There are still misconceptions, for example, that everyone who supported the king was an aristocrat while those who supported Parliament were commoners. Not true. There were many prominent families fighting against the King. As well, the reasons for why people supported Parliament over the King were varied. For some, it was a desire for reform, others wanted more of a revolution for the rights of men, while others wanted to fashion a more godly society. Eventually the fanatical factions seized power and purged out the moderates on their side.
Tell us how your characters came to be…
I’ve had a thing for highwayman since first reading the poem “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes. When I decided that I wanted to write a book, I combined both interests –highwaymen in the 17th century. There were many candidates to base James’s character on, but the one I was most drawn to was Captain Hind, the Royalist highwayman who became famous for stealing from the Roundheads and fighting for the Crown. James evolved into his own character, but the foundation for what made him go outside the law started here. For James, I really wanted to explore how honour and duty conflicted with family and love. Through the ages, men went off to war and left their loved ones behind, but to what end?
Elizabeth’s creation was subtler. I have always been intrigued by art of herbal remedies and women at that time were responsible for cures for their households. They were particularly vulnerable if things went wrong. Very early on, I knew she had to come from Dorset. The original reason has since disappeared several drafts ago, but she was born there and she will always be from there.
Did you get to travel to any of the places in your book for research, or have you visited them at any point previously?
I have had the good fortune to travel to the places I’ve written about. Worcester has drawn me from the beginning, and I’ve been there a couple of times. Walking the old streets helped me understand how the final battle of the civil war and the subsequent retreat would have unfolded. I also visited Warwick though I didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked there. Instead of the castle, I focused more on the streets and the market square, imagining the routes that James and Elizabeth would have taken as they went about their daily routine. I also had a chance to visit Weymouth where I met with historian Mark Vine who is THE expert in the Crabchurch Conspiracy that I reference in Elizabeth’s opening. He showed me around the streets and pointed out landmarks from the war, including a civil war cannonball stuck in a building. Of all the places, I found I loved Dorset the best. It’s my happy spot
What was the most fun part about writing this book?
Falling down the rabbit hole of research. I would be reading up about a Scottish battle and end up getting lost in the footnotes to find myself engrossed in a list of supplies stolen from the Parliamentarians. This can be problematic if you actually want to sit down and actually write the book, but no one ever said Wonderland was boring.
The best part of the research was visiting the places I was writing about and walking in the footsteps of my characters. Sometimes literally. On my last trip to Worcester, I was in a hurry to make an appointment and ended up running down the same street that Charles II would have fled to escape the city after the battle. I wasn’t as fortunate, and I didn’t make it to my destination. The cobbles tripped me up, and I broke my hand. Even 365 years later, Worcester may be treacherous for Royalists. To top off that evening, after getting my hand casted up, I returned to eat in the pub where Charles was reported to have stayed. They probably had good meat pies then too.
Who was your favorite character?
Both Elizabeth and James are waiting to pounce if I pick the other one. It’s impossible to pick a favourite child, so since I can’t pick both, I’ll choose another. I can’t help but find Nathaniel Lewis, the morally questionable barrister, fascinating. Nathaniel Lewis, or as James calls him, Pond Scum, has more than a few plots going on at once. He’s suave and several steps ahead of (most) people. Nathaniel arrived unannounced near the end of my first draft, satchel in hand, offering my crew his professional expertise. Nathaniel is getting his own book in the future (#3) and I can’t wait to explore all his dark edges—and he has many.
Did any parts of the plot surprise you as you write it?
Yes. In my first draft I had a great ‘what if’ inspiration that I decided to run with. After the Battle of Worcester, King Charles escaped and disguised himself as a peasant, avoiding capture for 6 weeks until he finally found passage to France. Many people helped him during this time, even though there was an outrageous reward for his capture. What if, I thought, James my highwayman would be one of those who helped the King? I argued (with myself) that it was fiction after all. The escape is a famous and well-documented event and it’s clear who was there, so it didn’t take long for the doubts to set in. Most annoyingly, they happened when I was completely married to the idea. Before I could decide how I was going to pull that one off, I started researching the history of Worcester. I stumbled on a transcribed letter from the Venetian Ambassador in France to the Doge about the King’s escape, where he stated: “The king of England entered Paris on Wednesday evening, being met by the Duke of Orleans, the queen his mother, the Duke of York and many grandees of the Court as well. His suite consisted of a gentleman and a lackey. His dress was more calculated to move laughter than respect, and his aspect is so changed that those who were nearest believed him to be one of the lower servants. He relates that after the battle, he escaped with a gentleman and a soldier, who had spent most of his days in highway robbery and had a great experience of hidden paths.”
After picking myself off the ground, I ran with it, and didn’t look back.
Is there more to James and Elizabeth’s story, or are you moving on to other projects?
I envision Traitor’s Knot as the first in a series that I call “The Road to the Restoration” which spans the years leading to Charles’s restoration. James and Elizabeth will have cameo appearances in each book, but I will be pulling out side characters and giving them their own story. Book 2 will feature the Scottish moss-trooper, Iain Johnstone who is being shipped to the English colony of Barbados. The title is The Severed Knot. I’ve already mapped out a third installment featuring Nathaniel Lewis and have ideas percolating for subsequent books. I hope to pull in all my characters (one way or another) for the finale, but we’ll see who survives.
Read my review of Traitor’s Knot HERE.
Cryssa Bazos is an award winning historical fiction writer and 17th century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelist Association and is a co-editor and contributor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, is published by Endeavour Press. For more stories, visit her blog cryssabazos.com. Follow Cryssa on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
Traitor’s Knot is available through Amazon.