Monday, 27 January 2014

The Witch's Heart ~ Kings Lynn

As I was visiting family this past weekend and wandering the high street of King's Lynn, I was reminded of a local legend. One of the main areas of interest in Kings Lynn is the Tuesday Market Place and the buildings that surround the square these days are Georgian, many of which house museums and places of interest. One of the houses is a particular talking point.

If you look up whilst walking past number 15-16 Tuesday Market Place, you will see a crude black diamond carved into red brick. Within the diamond is a black heart. There are two commonly told stories that explain just why this heart is carved above the window of this house both of which are equally as morbid as the other.

The Tuesday Market Place was used as Lynn's place of execution for centuries, and was the site of hangings as well as a number of burnings, in particular the burning of witches. Both stories link to gruesome executions conducted in the market square.

The first involves the execution of Margaret Read in 1590. Margaret was found guilty of witchcraft and sentanced to burn within the market place, and as the flames engulfed her body it is said that her heart burst from her chest and smashed into the spot above the window where the diamond is now carved. The organ is then said to have fallen to the ground and rolled away where it sunk into the river Ouse. Gnarly eh?

The second tale involves treachery and is particularly heartbreaking. No pun intended. A housemaid let slip to her lover that her recently widowed mistress had agreed to leave her the entire family fortune. Said lover agreed to marry the young housemaid and she wrote her own will entirely in his favour. Shortly after the mistress was conveniently murdered and the housemaid was found guilty of treachery - the crime of petty treachery involved a woman murdering her husband or a female servant murdering her master or mistress, and the punishment for such a crime was being burned at the stake. The maidservant kept on insisting that she was innocent, right up until the moment the flames were lit and as she began to burn foretold that as a symbol of her innocence her heart would burst from her chest. As her body was consumed by the flames it did just that and smashed into the site of the heart in the diamond. The diamond was carved in the very spot where the heart hit and left it's gory blood stains.

Quite a sordid tale is it not? There are various versions of the story, all using different methods of execution but all with the same end. A heart bursting from the chest of a condemned woman. I have no idea whether any of these legends are true, indeed the only information I could find online was regarding the legend, and the tales I had heard growing up. A brief search online for the "Witch's Heart of Kings Lynn" should give you more information, or indeed a trip to Lynn if you ever get the chance. True or not, the story is particularly gruesome whichever way you look at it, and one that has stuck with me since I was a little girl.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

[Review] Blood & Beauty by Sarah Dunant

"The more outrage the better. That way people will fear us while we are alive and never -ever- forget us when we are dead"

I think it's a well known fact amongst my readers that I am very picky when it comes to novels about the Borgia family. Given the research I have put into this family and the absolute awe I hold for Cesare - I say again, how many have his personal motto tattooed? - I tend to avoid historical fiction about the Renaissance and in particular the Borgia family. I blame this in part for the travesty that was Kologridis' "The Borgia Bride" and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Jean Plaidy's novels about Lucrezia, I found them to be somewhat dry towards the end. So it was somewhat hesitantly that I picked up Dunant's latest offering.

And I have to say it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

From the outset you can tell that Dunant has really put the effort into her research. As I read, I found myself slap bang in the middle of the Borgia apartments in Rome, in the Room of Mysteries with the Pope, with Cesare as he stood before the walls of Ravaldino. And whilst I am aware that this is a work of fiction, I couldn't have been more pleased to see the placing in there of actual historical events. More so the LACK of incest in there pleased me no end. You will all know how against that theory I am, and how I am a firm believer that Cesare and Lucrezia were close, that he loved his sister more than any woman he had ever met but that they never crossed the line. I found this was portrayed excellently in this novel with stolen glances, the odd lingering touch and one kiss that may have gone a bit too far. The awkwardness between the two siblings after that kiss just seeped from the words so I felt as if I felt as physically awkward as Lucrezia did. 

The characterisation of Cesare has to be one of the best that I have ever read. It is well known that Cesare Borgia was temperamental, or "famously bipolar" as I like to call him and this comes across wonderfully in Dunant's writing. From his overly inflated ego to his need from power, to his cold and calculating manner when plotting the downfall of those who had become useless to the family. There were moments when I sat there with a knot in my stomach, hearing Cesare's rants as if I were stood there in the very same room as him. I felt his need for power, his egotistical nature. And there are not many novels that have ever made me feel like that. And if I am honest it was the same with all of the characters in this novel. Particular favourites included Lucrezia (it was SO nice to see her written as she would have been, rather than a scheming poisoning adulteress), Juan and Pope Alexander VI. The work went into the characterisation of these men and women who actually lived all of those years ago. And you could honestly tell.

The only issue I really had was how the ending of the book seemed a little rushed. It would have been nice if more time could have been spent on Cesare's military campaigns in the Romagna. Unfortunately the story ended with Lucrezia leaving to go to Ferrara. We all know that the story goes on and we see the death of Pope Alexander, Cesare's downfall and his heartbreakingly lonely death in Viana, finishing with Lucrezia's death in Ferrara. I can't help but wonder whether Dunant will be writing a follow up to cover these events? I have to say I would love to read a novelisation about Cesare's last years. That really is my only gripe if I am honest. It just left me wanting MORE!

If you are a lover of Renaissance and Borgia history then I urge you to pick up this book. Fantastically written, excellent characterisation and a complete page turner. I shall certainly be picking up more of Dunant's works!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

On This Day In History - Rodrigo Borgia Is Born

Starting off the year as I mean to go on, I thought I'd drop in with a little "On This Day In History" post for you all.

On 1st January 1431, Rodrigo Borgia was born in Xatvia Spain. His birth name wasn't actually "Borgia" but "Lanzol", and only took his mother's surname in 1455 after the elevation of his maternal uncle to the Papacy (Calixtus III).

As we know, Rodrigo Borgia would go down in history as one of history's most depraved Popes (Alexander VI) and as the father of history's most infamous individuals; Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia. Was he that bad? No, not really. He was simply a man of his time and actually less depraved than many of his predecessors.

Happy birthday Rodrigo Borgia. I'll be writing a lot more about you in the coming months.