Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

Getting his own back: of Charles II and the persecution of the Scottish Covenanters

The 17th century was a period of much instability and religious strife throughout Europe – and especially in Britain. Ever since the Reformation, there’d been a lot of tension between Catholics and various Protestant factions, such tensions coming to a head in The Gunpowder Plot of 1605. As the century wore on, the Protestants fell out amongst themselves, united only in their distrust of all things papist.

In this environment, it was perhaps not the smartest of moves for the future Charles I to marry a Catholic princess. On the other hand, it wasn’t as if there was a huge selection of eligible Protestant princesses, and Henriette Marie came with the benefit of being French, thereby creating some sort of tenuous treaty between France and England.

Book_of_common_prayer_Scotland_1637It was even less of a smart move for Charles I to attempt to impose his brand of Protestantism, the Anglican Church, on all his subjects. Scotland exploded in flames at having a Common Book of Prayer thrust upon them, and Scottish nobles, ministers, gentry and common folk streamed to Edinburgh to sign the National Covenant (a document that in principle told Charles I to back off, or else…) King Charles I had a religious war on his hands – a war that would escalate well beyond the borders of Scotland and ultimately result in the deposition and execution of Charles himself.

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Charles I and his queen were gifted with a large nursery, headed by their eldest, the future Charles II. By all accounts an intelligent person, Charles II lived first-hand the violent upheaval of the Civil War, and upon his father’s beheading he was promptly pronounced Charles II by the die-hard royalists – which included the Scots, who in general were quite shocked by the execution of Charles I. In an act of belligerence against Cromwell’s Parliament that now ruled England, the Scots promptly proclaimed Charles II as their king and the young man was whisked off to Scotland for a coronation.

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A young Charles II

For a couple of years, Charles II remained the guest/hostage of the Scottish Covenanters. Surrounded on a daily basis by the stalwarts of the Covenanter cause – most of them rather dour men who intended to use the young king to push through their own ideas – Charles developed a permanent dislike of Covenanter religious ideas.

As we all know, Charles made a desperate attempt to regain his kingdom with the aid of the Covenanter Army, but in September of 1651 he saw his troops bite the dust at the hands of the Parliamentarian Army and was forced to flee from the Worcester battlefield, spending anxious days and nights in hiding before he was finally smuggled out of England and back to the continent.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. With him died the passion for keeping England a republic. There were no obvious leaders to take up where Oliver left off, and as no one wanted a return to Civil War, overtures were made to Charles II. He was offered to return to his kingdom assuming he promised not to wreak vengeance on Parliament and its long serving officers. Charles promised to grant a general amnesty – excepting the regicides, the men who had signed the Execution Order for Charles I. This was seen as a fair compromise, and in May of 1661, Charles II was restored to his kingdom amidst much joy and celebration.

Charles_II_by_John_Michael_Wright_or_studioCharles II was marked by his years in exile, and excelled at navigating the turbulent waters of Restoration England without giving anybody much of a glimpse into what he truly thought. Instead, he retreated behind the façade of the carefree Merry Monarch, a man who seemed more interested in the pleasure of the senses than in statesmanship. He was also not about to do anything that jeopardised his restoration, and when the men closest to him started pushing for the implementation of the Clarendon Code, a whole new set of laws aimed at restricting the forms of worship to the Anglican Church, he went along, even if it appears that Charles perceived issues of faith to be of a very personal nature, not something the state should meddle in.

He did, however, have a deep-seated distrust of Scottish Covenanters – indirectly, they were the cause behind his father’s loss of head. Actually, come to think of it, the Scots were the direct reason behind Charles I’s decapitation as it was the Scottish Covenanter Army that captured the fleeing king and returned him to Cromwell’s not so gentle care. Maybe this is why Charles II chose to turn a blind eye to the potentially violent consequences of the Clarendon Code in Scotland.

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Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon & very anti-Covenanter

In Scotland, the new laws were a punch in the face of the Scottish Kirk, as among other things they required people to recognise the king as the head of the church. Anathema to the Scots, and stubborn ministers refused to kowtow which lead to them being evicted from their livings and in some cases being branded as outlaws when they continued preaching the word of God as they knew it, often out on the moors somewhere.

The men and women who clung to their Presbyterian faith were to pay a high price. With an open season on anyone who refused to acknowledge royal authority in all matters of state and church, they were in many cases forced to abandon their homes. Many were fined, quite a few were bonded out as indentured servants overseas, and just as many would pay for their stubbornness with their lives.

9781781321713-Cover.inddIn conclusion, Restoration Scotland was not the most salubrious of environments if one was a convinced Presbyterian – something which my protagonists in The Graham Saga were to experience first-hand. In The Prodigal Son, Matthew Graham is at constant loggerheads with the powers that be, and more than once he places his life – and the life of his wife and children – at risk to save dissident minister Sandy Peden. At times, this leads to substantial strain in the Graham marriage. At others, it is through proximity to each other that Alex and Matthew can escape the fears and concerns that colour their everyday life. Which is why I chose the below excerpt from The Prodigal Son…

This is ridiculous, Alex berated herself, he’s been gone for a day and you go all weak-kneed at the sight of him. He’s your husband, for God’s sake, calm down, woman! Except that she’d woken with a hunger for him, and he hadn’t been there, and all day half of her had been thinking of him and the things she wanted him to do to her. Now he stood on the other side of the clearing, and she was squirming inside with lust, but was rooted to the spot by his eyes, and so she just remained where she was, waiting. A dull ache sprang from a point in her lower back, spread like tendrils down into her sex, up into her womb. Like a contraction, a huge, burning contraction, and she was aware of thousands upon thousands of nerve ends, all of them shrieking for him.

At his continued silence she drew the pins from her hair and shook it out, hearing his loud intake of breath. She undid the bodice and let it drop to the ground to join her discarded straw hat and cap, and shifted from one foot to the other to bring her thighs together in a soft rubbing motion that almost made her moan.

He gestured at her skirts. The look in his eyes made her clumsy, her fingers struggling with uncooperative knots, with fabric that slipped through her sweaty hold. She wriggled her hips and the heavy wool slid down her legs to puddle round her feet. It was an effort to breathe, to move. Her knees folded and dipped, her heart was pounding against her ribs, and for some reason her mouth was dry, she had to lick her lips to moisten them.

The grass below her feet tickled her soles, sunlight danced through the foliage above her, touching his hair, gilding his shoulders. She raised her hands to the lacings of her shift, the thin linen an oppressive weight she had to discard. Her skin screamed for his touch, her mouth begged for his lips, and there was a hollow sensation between her legs that only he could fill. The shift fluttered to the ground and she was as naked as the day she was born.

Lord, but she was beautiful, quivering like a cornered doe below the spreading branches of the oak. Matthew kicked off his breeches and advanced towards her in only his shirt, aware that his cock protruded like a prow before him. Her mouth… he wanted her mouth, and then he was going to use his own, and… his cock jerked. He beckoned her to him and she stumbled, nearly falling before she righted herself.

He traced her brows, her nose, the line from her jaw to the hollow between her collar bones. He so wanted to say something, to put words to the emotions that surged through him, but all he could do was kiss her, softly at first, a bare brushing of lips that changed into an intense, hungry possession, with her as hungry as he was, her fingers closing painfully in his hair to hold him still. And then she knelt before him… he swayed, his hands on her head, eyes closed against the glare of the sun.
“No,” he backed away, “not yet… I want…” He fell to his knees beside her, and now he had words, telling her she was his heart, the sun in his life, the single thing he could never do without, and Alex laughed and cried at the same time, her hands on his arms, his chest.

Together they rid him off his shirt, and he held her eyes as he eased her down to lie on her back. There was the softest of exhalations when he entered her. She tightened her hold on him, he pressed his groin against hers, bracing on his arms to keep his weight off her rounded belly. Her mouth fell open, her eyes closed, and she lifted her hips towards him. He was drowning in a sea of sensations; the sun on his back, the rough texture of the grass under his knees and shins, but most of all his wife, the softness of her skin, the urgency of her hold on his hips and the moist, welcoming warmth of her cleft. Heat surged through his loins, his cock twitched and roared, and Matthew came, wave after wave of bright red pleasure washing through him. 

Afterwards he spooned himself around her.
“I missed you,” she said, making him laugh.
“Aye, I gathered that.” He nibbled her nape. “I missed you too, but then I always do.”
“Liar, I bet you didn’t think of me once last night.”
“Too much beer.”  Too many other things to think about, but he had no desire to ponder upon them now, so he scooted closer to her and pillowed his head on his arm.
She took his hand and lifted it to lie between her breasts, toying with his fingers. He yawned, slipping into that agreeable state halfway between wakefulness and sleep. Alex turned fully in his arms, raising her hand to his face.
“I once read in a book that making love is something you get better at with practice – a lot of practice, preferably with the same person. We’re getting pretty good at this, Mr Graham.”
He opened one eye and smiled. “Aye, but practice is always good, lass.”
“Now?” she asked huskily.
“Now,” he nodded and rose on his elbow to look at her before he lowered his head to kiss her.

Thank you, Lord, for my marvellous wife, this woman that drives me to the precipice of lust and beyond, who holds me so tenderly, who loves me so entirely.

Oh God; oh God, oh God, oh God… This is my man, God, and you gave him to me.

The historic consequences of rainy summers

IMG_0314So far, this summer isn’t exactly hitting top of the pops when it comes to the weather. June disappeared in rain. July has mostly been the same, except for a week of heat. For those of us on summer vacation – and us Swedes have a religious approach to our four weeks of statutory vacation – this means more time spent indoors than outdoors, and yes, some of us complain. A lot.

This is when yours truly clears her throat. (Yours truly doesn’t much mind the rain, but that is neither here nor there) To have your vacation rain away is an irritant. No more, no less. And, yours truly adds with some severity, imagine what it was like for our poor forebears, say two centuries ago. A summer like this was not an irritant. It was a promise of famine come winter, of having to bury the babies and the old ones.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, weather conditions throughout northern Europe were pretty dismal. Sweden was to experience the worst years ever in the late 1860s, one year after the other of failed harvests. One year farmers could survive. Two were a stretch – parcels of precious land had to be sold, the plough horse ended up on the table. Third year, and the children started dying.

Now when the crops rot in the fields, when entire families are left without sustenance, those who have sufficient funds – or strength – take off. The rest die – or are reduced to menial servitude. In Sweden, family after family made their way down to Karlshamn and the waiting ships, hoping for a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. Years of seeing their harvest rot on the stalk, of too much rain, too little rain, had left them thin and hollow, sinewy people who had nothing left to lose.

Did they want to leave? To judge from letters, not really. Most of them left under duress, what future they’d had here wiped out by bad luck and rainy summers. Some left due to religious persecution – Sweden was very big on ensuring people conformed to the Swedish Lutheran Church, well into the late nineteenth Century. All of them left because they had to. All of them left family behind, people they would never see again, at most exchange an annual letter with. It was a painful severing of roots, ancient family structures rent apart. And still they went, clinging to the dream of better tomorrows.

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Anti immigration propaganda: Dream vs reality

The Swedish authorities were less than pleased. They needed the farmers to remain, yoked to their lands. Strong able-bodied men were needed in Sweden’s embryonic industries, they were the backbone of the agricultural system whereby farmers were obliged to work certain days for free on the fields of the rich landowners. The priests offered long and fiery sermons, attempting to dissuade their parishioners from leaving. God would be displeased, the priests said, God did not like it when the order of things was questioned. Sitting silent and hungry in their pews, the people listened. Some quailed and lost their nerve. Some became even more determined to leave, tired of tugging at their forelock whenever their betters rode by.

By the 1860s, almost all Swedish people could read. Mandatory school had been implemented in 1842 (for both boys and girls) most of the time at school spent learning the Bible, the glorious (and censored) history of Sweden and a dutiful approach to your elders and betters. No languages other than Swedish were taught. As a consequence, the people leaving for the beckoning shores of North America knew no English, would be incapable of communicating in their new home. Silent Swedish men became even more silent, nervous Swedish wives wondered how on earth they would survive. And still they went…

Immigrants gravitate towards landscapes that remind them of home. The Swedes were no exception, happy to disappear into the forests that covered large parts of present day Minnesota and Illinois. They were familiar with the hard work involved in clearing land, of uprooting tree stumps and shifting rocks. It suffices to study the landscape of Southern Sweden to realise just how much rock Swedish farmers had moved over the years.

These our forebears (well, not mine. Mine stayed put in northern Sweden, half-dead of starvation but so poor a ticket to the New World was an impossible dream) worked their butts off in their new homeland. No vacations for them, no matter the weather, but at least they were taming land with their name on it, building a better future for their children.

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Leaving home for ever

Hard work was never an issue for the Swedish immigrants. They bowed backs and shoulders, added more and more land to their holdings, and the letters back home spoke of endless fields, of land there for the taking. What was only a dream in Sweden could become a reality in America, and young Swedish men left by the boatload, eager to carve themselves a new life.

It is estimated close to a million Swedish people left Sweden during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Close to 25% of the population up and left – a veritable exodus – and by the end of the century Chicago was the second largest city in the world when it came to Swedish speakers. Over a couple of decades, Sweden was drained of people – mostly the ones visionary enough, determined enough to try again, elsewhere.

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Emigrants, E.Petersen

For many of them, their journey started because of a summer like this. Days of rain, of seeing the barley flattened in the fields, the potatoes rotting in the ground. Some despaired, fell to their knees and prayed for divine intervention. Others pulled themselves together, light eyes lost in the western horizon. A new life, a new home – right at the end of the rainbow.

Roma Nova – a place to visit in your head

Recently, Alison Morton released the fourth book in her Roma Nova series, Aurelia. Interestingly, this the fourth book is actually the first book as it details events that are already in the past when the first book in the series opens. Confusing? Not really. Book four simply moves fifty odd years backwards in time. Plus it means it is perfectly okay to start your acquaintance with Ms Morton with Aurelia – not having read the three previous books is not a drawback.

RomaNova booksI am a Roma Nova fan. Ms Morton writes characters I can relate to (and once you’ve read the books, how about mulling that one over…I clearly relate to kick-ass women who excel at deadly combat) and to her characters she’s added an intriguing alternative history angle, in that Roma Nova is a remnant of the former Roman Empire, tucked away in a corner of the alps. In Ms Morton’s world, Hitler never happened, the French never sold Louisiana to the US, and the Spanish retained hold of California and other territories. As to Roma Nova, Ms Morton breathes life into her invented little country, this very much thanks to her obvious familiarity with Roman traditions. In fact, Roma Nova has become my next “to-go-to” destination, which was why I was thrilled to discover this little article recently. What? Roma Nova doesn’t exist? Pshaw! Details, schmetails. Use your imagination, people.

Roma Nova is trending as one of the must-see destinations this year. Sol Populi travel journalist Claudia Dixit reports on what’s on offer for visitors.

Visiting Roma Nova? Well, you won’t find too many orgies – such a myth! – but you will receive a very warm welcome. Roma Novans love showing visitors round their city and countryside, and many of them speak English. Here are my top places to visit and things to do.

ArchConstantine_v.smFor history buffs, there is the forum with the colonnaded public buildings and the Arch of Maia Apulia. Not quite on the scale of ancient Rome, but some of the oldest columns date back to the sixth century. Don’t miss the smaller temples, especially that of Mercury Esus which may look tiny, but like Mercury himself, is deceptive!

You can book a guided tour around the Senate house including the famous Altar of Victory, saved by the first ruler, Apulius and his friend, Mitelus, in the late fourth century. For tickets to sit in the public gallery and watch a lively debate, ask at the information desk. You’ll have to brush up on your Latin, though!

The Golden Palace, which you can see halfway up the hill behind the city, is not open to visits as it’s the imperatrix ‘s private home, but there are guided tours of the gardens.

You’ll probably hear about the Twelve Families, but at present, no tours of their historic homes are available. But as many of their members work in high profile government posts, you might see them speaking in the Senate debates or on the news…

Rome walkabout - 22And shopping? Don’t miss the little shops in the Macellum among the international brands. You’ll find the famous Roma Novan silver jewellery, every electronic gadget you could wish for, plus fine glass and the modern version of Samian ware. A must-see is the daily produce market – you’d be surprised at how many different types of olives and olive oil there are!

Pons Apulius – A treat for engineers to appreciate and the rest of us to gaze at in wonder! The unique design with a single row of three towers and network of support cables is a practical but breathtaking piece of modern design. You can walk or cycle along it in a dedicated lane on the south side. Would it be immodest to mention that Romans have a long history of bridge building?

Learn to sail at the marina basin next to the river port or take a canoe out on the river. Do keep to the designated lanes whatever you use – you don’t want to get boarded by one of the imperial navy’s patrol boats!

Although Roma Nova has an excellent public transport system, you may want to hire a car to explore on your own. Car rental is easy and as long as you can present a points-free licence and a valid ID, you’ll soon be driving on Roma Novan roads. Take a moment to study the speed limits or you’ll hear the siren and see the blue flashing light of the custodes, the Roma Novan police. They can be strict and issue spot fines if you exceed them!

Fancy yourself as a gladiator? Most Roma Novan gyms are happy to issue day passes and several run beginners’ classes. They do blunt the weapon edges for visitors, though! And don’t forget to chill out afterwards in the traditional Roman baths!

For excellent service and fine dining, visit Dana’s in the Via Nova. It’s retained the charm of its origins as a simple bar, but now offers high quality Roma Nova and international cuisine.

Further afield, Castra Lucillan wine is tops – visit one of the vineyards south of the city for a tasting session. You may well be seduced by the fruity, but subtle, white wine – my favourite!

green fields_smBe sure to bring your walking or hiking boots – a complimentary map showing all the paths and trails is available from city tourist centre. Serious climbers will need a permit (35 solidi) to climb the twin Gemini Peaks in the north. You’ll also need to show a certificate of adequate insurance. Contact the mountain watch centre at cust.mont@improm.com for further details.
Roma Nova has one of the lowest crime levels in the world; the public CCTV and restorative justice system make this a very safe environment for law-abiding residents and visitors alike. A word to the wise: do sample the delights of Roma Nova to the full, but please note that using or dealing in illicit drugs is prosecuted without exception.

And lastly, you’ll see a lot of women and men in uniform, not the stereotype Romans in films – that armour must have scratched – but modern military. They are there to guard the safety and integrity of Roma Nova. I know they can look intimidating, but they’ll be happy to talk to you and answer questions. However, do please remember they are usually on duty.

This is just a quick round-up of things to do and see in Roma Nova. Drop the tourist centre at turista@improm.com a mail and they’ll be delighted to send you a full information pack and answer any specific questions.

Happy touring!

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Well, that was that – Roma Nova in a nutshell. For more information about Alison Morton, why not visit her website or her Amazon page?

And as to Roma Nova – it lies just a book away.

AURELIA_cover_image600x385Late 1960s Roma Nova, the last Roman colony that has survived into the 20th century. Aurelia Mitela is alone – her partner gone, her child sickly and her mother dead – and forced to give up her beloved career as a Praetorian officer.

But her country needs her unique skills. Somebody is smuggling silver – Roma Nova’s lifeblood – on an industrial scale. Sent to Berlin to investigate, she encounters the mysterious and attractive Miklós, a known smuggler who knows too much and Caius Tellus, a Roma Novan she has despised and feared since childhood.

Barely escaping a trap set by a gang boss intent on terminating her, she discovers that her old enemy is at the heart of all her troubles and pursues him back home to Roma Nova…

Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live

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The Mother

In the lost mists of time, long before the advent of monotheist religions, man worshiped Mother Nature. Time passed, civilisations developed, and somewhere 4 000 years ago, the old veneration for Mother Nature – a most female deity – was replaced by the decidedly male God of the Hebrews, soon to become the equally male God of Christians and Muslims.

A Patriarch God preferred male servants – or so the male servants said. Scripture abounds with examples putting women in their place – below men. St Paul states that “woman was created for the sake of man” and men like Thomas of Aquino did women a disservice when he described us as being intellectually inferior to men, weak vessels that did best in acknowledging man’s supremacy. (Huh: consider the notion of men going through childbirth – repeatedly – and then let’s talk about who’s weak and who isn’t…)

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“Here, have an apple, honey”

Further to this, woman was much more susceptible to sin than men – after all, it was Eve, not Adam, who ate that famous apple. And let us not get into the myth of Lilith, that ultimate apocryphal seductress, proving once and for all that woman was susceptible to lust, a creature ruled by her carnal desires and adept at entrapping men in her web of sensual pleasures. Ugh, said Thomas of Aquino, wrinkling his nose. Seriously, he added, sex for pleasure is a sin, and women are most sinful of all.

It suited the powerful Church to relegate women to the fringes of things. By combining a subtle defamation campaign along the lines described above with the often repeated “truth” that women are weak and need male protectors, women were eased out of almost all positions of power – at least officially.

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Lilith

Women who chose not to listen, or who continued to draw on ancient knowledge to heal and help others were viewed with distrust. Witches, their uneducated neighbours would whisper – but more in awe than in fear. Initially, however, the Church scoffed at the concept of magic and witches, stating that such things did not exist, and it was very rare for anyone to be accused of witchcraft. But in the 15th century, things began to change.

For one thing, the Church was battling an increased number of heretics, and secondly, popular belief began to equate witches with heretics – in the sense that a witch, per definition, worshiped Satan. A papal bull late in the century and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (The Witch Hammer) in 1487 effectively created an open season on witches – most of whom were female (of course, what with us being weak and sinful to begin with…)

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Execution of so called witches, late 16th c

Things didn’t explode until late in the 16th century. The tensions of the Reformation coupled with the general instability of the times created fertile ground for witch hunters, and suddenly there were witches crawling out of every fissure in the ground, both on the Continent and in Britain. No matter how many voices were raised protesting the barbaric practices of torturing a woman to extract her confession of being a witch, they didn’t help – especially not when such prominent figures as James VI of Scotland loudly argued that witches did exist and had to be fought with whatever means possible. (He wasn’t alone: his royal Danish brother-in-law, Christian IV, expressed exactly the same views)

Enter the Witch-finder, usually a man, who claimed to have the ability of identifying all potential witches. One such man was Matthew Hopkins, and what childish dreams he may have had regarding what he wanted to be when he grew up we will never know, as essentially nothing is known of Matthew Hopkins until that day in 1645 when out he pops of the woodwork, a self-proclaimed Witch-finder General.

At the time, Hopkins was a young man, some years and twenty, and over the coming years he was to more or less single-handedly cause the death by hanging of 300 witches (mostly women) Given that it is estimated the total number of people executed for witchery in England is around 500, one can but assume that Hopkins took to being a Witch-finder as fish take to water.

He extracted confessions through various creative procedures, such as sleep deprivation and “pricking”, whereby the accused was shaved of all body hair and submitted to being pricked with a long, sharp needle. Should the needle hit upon a point that didn’t bleed – well, obviously the naked terrified woman being inspected was a witch.

MatthewhopkinsFortunately for the women of England, Hopkins died in 1647 – still a number of years shy of his thirtieth birthday. At the time, his methods were already being questioned, and a number of people were speaking out against him, accusing him of being a cheat (duh), more motivated by the money involved than by any genuine desire to cleanse the world of real evil.

Unfortunately for several women in the New World, Hopkins was very proud of his methods – so proud he wrote a handbook, called The Discovery of Witches, published the same year he so opportunely died. This book was taken as the ultimate guide in how to find witches – at least in the Colonies – and indirectly Hopkins would thereby cause a number of further deaths in America – long after he was dead.

This little handbook offered a number of alternatives as to how to reveal a witch. Sleep deprivation and pricking have already been mentioned, but Hopkins was also a warm advocate of the swimming test, whereby the unfortunate woman was tied up and thrown into the water. If she floated, she was a witch, if she sank she was innocent. Most people float – at least initially – when thrown in water. And once they start sinking, chances are they’re already more dead than alive… (Incidentally, if you want to read an excellent fictionalised depiction of a woman being subjected to all this, I warmly recommend Ann Swinfen’s Flood)

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“Double double toil and trouble…”

Over the coming years, Hopkins’ methods would be applied to a number of unfortunates, starting with poor Margaret Jones, a Boston midwife who was hanged as a witch in 1648. His suggested approach to witch discovery was also used at the notorious Salem Trials of the 1690’s, and the swimming test would continued in use for a number of decades after that, as testified by the sad case of Grace Sherwood, who was ducked in 1706, had the misfortune (or not) to float, and accordingly spent the following eight years in prison for witchcraft. (Grace’s story I’ve covered in a previous post)

Over time, the voice of reason prevailed. Over time, men would yet again scoff at the ridiculous notion of witches. Sadly, that reaction came too late to save the estimated 50 000 people, 75% of which were women, who were executed during those centuries when it sufficed to point finger and yell “witch” to bring that person’s life tumbling down.

The miracle plant – of medicines and alcohol

20150713_194316_resized_1This time of the year, I spend a lot of time outside. Other than weeding my few flower beds and calling down eternal curses on those foolish monks who decided to introduce ground elder in Scandinavia (it’s edible – but it’s also wildly invasive) I rather enjoy studying the plants that grow on our meadow.

I love our meadow. Our sons were all for converting it into a football field, but I have adamantly refused, citing such things as plant variety in my defence. These days, my boys have resigned themselves – plus I suspect they’re pretty much in love with the beauty of the meadow, even if they don’t admit it. That’s guys for you…

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Meadow sweet

Part of our land is borderline marshy, and at this time of the year this means a dipping sea of meadow sweet flowers, the plant itself standing well above my waist, the heavy cluster of miniature white flowers brushing my shoulders. Meadow sweet smells of almonds – or rather of newly baked almond cake. It is one of the more versatile medicinal plants around, can be used for everything from disinfecting open wounds to alleviating pain. In fact, meadow sweet is a natural source of aspirin, and in dire need one can dig up a piece of the root and eat it to bring that galloping headache back in control. My dear friend Nicholas Culpeper (well; that may be an exaggeration, seeing as Nicky boy has been dead these last three centuries past) has the following to say about meadow sweet:

“It is an excellent medicine in fevers attended with purgings, and may be given to the quantity of a moderate bason full, once in two or three hours. It is a good wound-herb, whether taken inwardly or externally applied. A water distilled from the flowers is good for inflammations of the eye.” Up here in Scandinavia, we also know this plant does wonders with acidic stomachs – and its roots are a natural source for black dye.

Second son, who is a fount of knowledge on everything from wormholes to Roman Emperors, would add that meadow sweet has also been used since time immemorial to clean out the vats prior to setting a new brew of beer or mead. Actually, the plant served dual purposes: first it was used to disinfect the vats, then it was added to the brew, an elegant little whiff of almonds accompanying the finished product. Seeing as second son has a major interest in brewing, this counts as a point in favour for our plant of the day.

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dog roses – before they become hips…

These last few years, second son has been experimenting with various concoctions, all of them with the purpose of achieving an alcoholic beverage that is
a) cheap
b) potent
c) drinkable.
In this, he takes after his father, who drove me crazy with his youthful attempts to make something resembling wine from rose hips. When second son started talking about making sherry from carrots, I was therefore somewhat skeptical, and after two years of watching this potent brew bubble and darken I can report that carrot sherry fulfills two of the above. It also looks very nice, a deep golden brown colour that brings to mind high end whiskies. That’s the only resemblance it has with whisky, high-end or otherwise. On the other hand, compared to his father’s efforts he is one up: hubby barely achieved a) above with his hip concoction.

Second son, however, is not easily discouraged. Being of a scientific bend, he analyses the results, compares outcome with expectations, and sits down to consider just what in his brewing process he needs to tweak so as to achieve his goals. His friends cheer him on, no doubt very keen on the a) and b) part above. Seeing as his friends have downed sizeable quantities of that carrot sherry, we know for a fact they are less concerned by such aspects as taste. Anyway, I cheer second son on too, because his experiments expand beyond the realm of alcoholic beverages, and so it is second son who will surprise us with jars of homemade strawberry jam – or who fills the entire house with the delicious smell of baking bread.

Last year, second son developed a fascination with meadowsweet. Personally, I think he’d overdosed on Amaretto, which was why he hovered like a drunk bumblebee round the flowering almond-scented plants.
“A cordial,” he said, “wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“Hmm,” I replied. A cordial? Yeah, right!
“A cordial,” he told his sister, “What do you think?”
“Hmm,” she said. “Stick with the elderflowers.”
He gave her a disappointed look. “People like you don’t drive evolution forward.”
Being the big sister, she just raised an eloquent brow.

Anyway, to make a long story short, second son made cordial. The kitchen smelled of almonds, the entire house smelled of almonds. The cordial smelled of almonds and was quite, quite undrinkable. As per second son, this was just a matter of not having set it to brew. Hopefully, he suggested mixing his cordial with more sugar and leaving it all too bubble along happily in a nice secluded corner of the country house. Did not happen.

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Bog-myrtle, an unassuming little thing…

This year, second son is back to hovering around the meadow sweet – in between crouching in front of one of our impressive stands of bog-myrtle and sighing happily. Bog-myrtle is an excellent flavouring in schnaps. Excellent. Once upon a time, it was mixed with yarrow and rosemary and used to flavour beer – before people caught on to hops. It is also a fantastic midge repellent, good for combating fevers, stomach aches, pulmonary infections and unwanted pregnancies. In fact, bog-myrtle is almost as useful as meadow sweet – but it is nowhere near as pretty.
Not that second son cares about such superficial things as beauty: no, second son inhales the scent of crushed bog-myrtle and turns to beam at me.
“Pretty much a miracle, huh?” he says, gesturing at the meadow sweet, at the bog-myrtle. “Two plants – weeds, almost – and they’re more or less a complete pharmacy.”
“Yup.” A miracle indeed. I hunker down beside him, and there we sit, two people with wide smiles on their faces as we inhale the scents of our magic meadow. It makes me think of Ferdinand the Bull – you know, the bull who preferred flowers to fighting.

Having it all – and losing it.

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Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella

Some people are destined to live their lives as an appendix to other people. Through the march of history, many of these appendices have been women, having had little control over the major decisions in their lives.

This does not necessarily mean that these women were unhappy – in my experience, whether we are happy or not depends much more on temperament than on actual circumstances. Plus, of course, it helps if the expectations are realistic to begin with.

A girl born into any of the European noble houses in the 17th century quickly realised she was a pawn to be used in securing new alliances, or buttressing old ones. She probably did not expect to be allowed to choose her future husband, instead she had to hope her father would make a match that held some hope of future contentment for her. And no matter her opinions about the groom, she knew her duty, which was to be compliant and do her duty by her family and husband – plus birth an adequate number of children.

In 1658, the Duke of Modena welcomed a daughter to the world. Named Maria Beatrice Anna Margherita Isabella d’Este, she was found to be pretty and healthy and already then all those high-ranking matchmakers that were constantly on the look-out for potential brides noted her name.

Of excellent family, little Maria came with the added benefit of a French Connection, her mother being one of Cardinal Mazarin’s nieces. Ergo, the French king considered this particular little princess to be within his circle of influence, which effectively meant any proposed match would have to be approved by magnificent Louis XIV himself.

Little Maria knew nothing of this. She only knew she had a Mama and a Papa, and then she no longer had a Papa, and her snotty-nosed baby brother was the Duke instead, which meant Mama did all the duking about on his behalf. Maria’s mother, Laura Martinozzi, was by all accounts a gifted and well-educated woman, who ensured her children were equally well-tutored, with Maria becoming fluent in both French and Italian and proficient in Latin.

Maria grew up. Tall and shapely, by all accounts sweet and even-tempered, she had most of the qualities a top-notch royal bride was expected to have. Maria’s mother began looking for a suitable husband, and high up on that list was that sad result of generations of incestuous marriages, Carlos II of Spain, but fortunately Maria was spared that fate. Instead, Maria’s Mama decided – after ensuring Louis XIV approved – to marry her precious daughter to the much older widowed Duke of York.

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James and Anne

James Stuart had been looking for a new wife since his first wife, Anne Hyde, died. That first marriage was something of a mesalliance, with James promising Anne a ring before seducing her – and surprising everyone by actually keeping his word afterwards. Not that anyone expected him to: little Anne Hyde was a commoner, should not expect to end up the wife of the king’s brother, but it seems James cared for her and wanted her as his wife and the mother of his future children. Sadly, Anne failed rather dismally at the future children part. Over 11 years of marriage, she gave James eight children, of which “only” two daughters lived beyond childhood.

When Anne died, James had already converted to Catholicism – in secret, of course, as otherwise the very Protestant Parliament would have a major fit. He had also come to realise that the future of the Stuart dynasty depended on him. Not that brother Charles wasn’t leaving a trail of pretty children behind, but they were all illegitimate, while the Queen, Catherine of Braganza, was quite incapable of producing a living heir.

Said and done, James went wife-hunting, and among the candidates was one very young Italian princess, our Maria. Okay, so James didn’t do the actual hunting himself – he sent a capable and trusted servant to do so. Lord Peterborough was quite taken by Maria – or Mary, as he chose to call her. At the time, Mary’s aunt, a lady of thirty or so, was also in the running, but Peterborough decided to put youth before age, being quite convinced the Duke of York would be thrilled with little Mary. The fact that James was twenty-five years older, pox-scarred and in general somewhat less than bright and shiny, did not worry anyone unduly. Such was the lot of princesses, that they were sold – oops, married – off, and were expected to make the best of it.

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James Stuart, Duke of York

In September of 1673, not quite fifteen-year-old Mary was wed by proxy to James Stuart, Duke of York and next in line to the English throne. Two months later, she landed in England, where she had inadvertently caused a roaring fire-storm due to her faith. An heir to the throne to marry a papist? The new Duchess of York was branded the “Pope’s Daughter” by the intolerant English public, and the pretty Italian teenager risked the humiliation of having her marriage declared invalid by Parliament, general opinion being that the Duke of York was not free to marry without Parliament’s consent.

Charles II sorted this by suspending Parliament and ensuring the marriage was hastily consummated. Faced by this fait accompli, Parliament grumbled and squeaked, but stopped talking about annulments. Instead, the savvier members of Parliament began to talk about barring the Duke of York from the succession all together, frightened out of their wits by the notion of the Duke fathering a legitimate son with his new wife.

While James was delighted with his new wife, Mary initially had no such feelings for her new husband. In fact, she avoided him as much as possible and had a tendency to burst into tears at the sight of him. With increased familiarity, her fears passed, and by the time she became pregnant with their first child, Mary had settled into contented married life. And as for James, he was over the moon: his new wife was expecting! (Not so over the moon as to stop wooing other women. But hey, the man needed his pastimes…)

In early 1675, Mary gave birth to her first child. The little girl died in infancy. This was to become a recurring event in Mary’s life – giving birth to babies that did not survive. In 1676, there was a new baby – yet another girl. Little Isabel survived babyhood, remained alive as Mary had other babies who died young, but in 1681, her precious little girl died. Mary was devastated. James was equally distraught.

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Mary of Modena

On top of all these personal losses, Mary and her husband had a hard time of it during the latter half of the 1670’s. In the wake of the Popish Plot, the fiery Protestant faction lead by the Earl of Shaftesbury began hounding the Catholic Duke of York in earnest. (As an aside, the Popish Plot was an invented thing, the attempt of a singularly unattractive character named Titus Oates to leave a permanent mark on the world. He most certainly did – because of his ungrounded accusations several Catholics died, condemned for participating in a plot that never existed but that purportedly was planning to do away with Charles II. Titus, being not only slimy but also stupid, even accused Charles IIs wife of being one of the conspirators…)

Charles II felt obliged to exile his brother to allow things to calm down. They didn’t. When Charles fell ill, James with Mary in tow rushed back to London, fearing that Charles’ eldest illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, might otherwise make a claim on the throne. Charles recovered, was not exactly happy to see his brother – or rather, he was, but things being as they were, he found it best to send James off again, this time to Scotland where he was to remain until the so called Exclusion Crisis (Parliament’s attempt to bar James from the throne) had safely passed.

In 1685, James became king of England. In general, there was little protest upon his ascension – after all, he had two staunch Protestant daughters from his first marriage, and poor Mary seemed destined to give birth to children who died. The English people might not love their Catholic queen, but they did feel sorry for her.

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James Francis Edward

Had things continued as before, i.e. Mary birthing babies that died, who knows what would have happened. But in June of 1688, Mary presented her overjoyed husband with a healthy son – and ironically, this her happiest moment was the beginning of the end. Little James Francis Edward Stuart was welcomed with open arms by his mother and father, with lurid gossip insinuating the baby was a changeling by his half-sister Anne, and with stunned silence by the English peerage. Their Catholic king had a Catholic son, and God alone knew what fate lay in store for England with a Catholic dynasty in the making!

Six months after the birth of her son, Mary was yet again in exile, her husband dethroned and replaced by his eldest daughter (yet another Mary) and her husband, Dutch William. James was determined to win back his throne – his wife, of course, cheered him on. Now there was a little prince to think of. James launched his Irish campaign, Mary sold her jewellery to support the cause. By 1691 it was evident James had failed, and instead of returning in pomp and circumstance to London, James and Mary built a life for themselves in France, where Louis XIV received them relatively generously.

Mary was popular at the French court, and was a special favourite with Louis XIV under-cover wife, Madame de Maintenon. James, however, did best to stay well away from the French court – his hosts found him dreadfully boring and tiresome, going on and on about his lost kingdom. (Not, one would have thought, all that strange…)

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Louise Mary

In 1692, Mary gave birth to her last child, a little girl named Louise Mary. The proud father was close to sixty, the mother was marked by all those pregnancies, and the baby was happy and healthy. This little princess was in every way a comfort to her parents, compensation for all they had lost. In James’ case, it wasn’t only about a lost throne, it was about two daughters who betrayed him, and he could never understand how they could have been so cruel as to spread the rumours that little James Francis Edward was not his true-born son, but a replacement for a stillborn boy, smuggled into the birthing room in a warming pan.

This new daughter was pretty, she was dutiful. She loved her Papa and her Mama, watched her father die when she as nine, and dedicated herself to being a good and dutiful daughter. Her contemporaries adored little Louise Mary, her half-sister Queen Anne held her in the highest regards, and various princes expressed an interest in her hand.

But in 1712, both Louise Mary and James Edward Francis contracted smallpox, but where he survived, she died, and Mary was left bereft and devastated. Yet another child to die away from her, yet another promise of future generations squandered. All Mary had left was her beloved son, so it was with considerable heart-break she watched him leave France in 1712, exiled as a consequence of the Treaty of Utrecht. Mary was left alone, without her husband, with her children gone.

Mary fell into a depression, and turned to the church. As a young girl, she had nurtured dreams of becoming a nun – fanciful, impossible dreams for a girl of her impeccable bloodlines, but still. Now, a lifetime later, Mary had nothing left beyond her son, the boy born to be king but reduced to the moniker “the Pretender”. A frustrated young man, one imagines, raised on stories of his illustrious family and his God-given entitlements. An angry and lonely young man – not much of a comfort to his grieving mother. So thank heavens for the nuns of the Convent of Visitations, who welcomed Mary among them. Thank heavens for Mary’s few female friends, such as Louis XIV’s wife, who stood by her during her last few years, years marked by penury and grief.

In 1718, Mary died of cancer. The girl born to birth kings and queens, to do her duty as commanded by her father, her mother, her husband had tried her best but failed. Not that it was her fault, but somehow I don’t think Mary saw it quite like that. If only her son had been born sooner, when his royal uncle was still around to keep him safe. If she’d been better at helping her husband to gauge the mood of his countrymen, if she’d succeeded in building stronger relationships with her step-daughters, if, if, if…

Some people are destined to live their life as an appendix to others. Some people do so with grace and with charm, stoically accepting whatever life throws their way. Mary of Modena is often relegated to being a foot-note, the tragic queen who was accused of presenting a changeling as her son. Maria Betarice Anna Margherita Isabella was much more than that. All of us are.

Summer nights – a prose poem

IMG_0261The fragrance of the mock orange perfumes the air. To the west, a faint line of lighter green is still visible on the horizon, to the east, the sky is streaked with greyish pink. The Nordic summer night is brief, a shadow, no more, between light and light.

IMG_0258Such nights should not be spent indoors. They should be spent in a rocking chair on the porch, while all around the shadowed forest rustles with life. Here a bird, there a twig that breaks. A bat hurls itself upwards, is silhouetted for an instant against the full moon, before disappearing from sight.

Dawn streaks the eastern horizon. The lake still retains some of the light it trapped at sunset – or so it seems, the waters lighter than the sky. A gaggle of wild geese take off in a flurry of wings, a deer rises from its bed among the lupins and melts into the safety of the trees. The blackbirds sing, the blue tits chirp, and just like that the night is over.

The Nordic summer night is brief and short – as is the Nordic summer.

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A long time to hang in the sky – of a recent visit to Denver

On June 18th, we set off from home for the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave”. (IMO, that national anthem is probably the most challenging in the world to sing, which is neither here nor there…)
The ultimate goal with our visit to the US was to attend the Historical Novel Society’s (HNS) conference in Denver. Well – that was my goal. Hubby sort of came along on the ride.

The HNS has as its purpose to promote historical novels – it therefore comes as no surprise that most of the participants are a) history buffs and
b) writers.
There are quite a few readers around as well, but they are in obvious minority – although most historical writers I know are also historical readers, goes hand in hand, if you will.

IMG_6343After Las Vegas, the 30 degrees Celsius in Denver came as a relief. And that, dear peeps, is the extent of what I have to share about Denver as a place – beyond expressing my surprise at finding the mile-high city to be situated on a very flat, very huge, plain. The mountains were about as distant as Mount Doom is to Frodo when he decided to go it on his own, leaving Aragorn et al behind.

The Conference, however, is another matter – I did not walk about for two days with ears and eyes firmly closed. The chosen venue boasted friendly staff – many of whom, to my delight, I could speak Spanish with – good rooms and hints of high-tech, such as USB chargers in the rooms and an interactive TV that could be used as a computer.

The Conference itself was well-organised with a nice variation in panels. Of course, you throw 450 people together and attempt to feed them simultaneously, and the result can be a tad chaotic – but in a friendly way.

Fortunately, friendly was also a word I’d use for the sword-fighting session I went to. Put rapiers in the hands of enthusiastic historical novelists and there is a teensy weensy risk people may go all wild and crazy – because it is fun to grip a rapier, heft it in your hand. I am glad to report there were no accidents, just some friendly clashing of steel, some posturing and a hell of a lot of advance, retreat, passo avanti and passo in dietro, which essentially meant many of us had sore thighs the day after. Even a novelist can survive sore thighs…David Blixt, I suspect, heaved a sigh of relief once the sessions were done. Not one single injury!

Personally, I’m thinking of taking up a career as a bravo. I’d look good in boots and cape, with my rapier in its frog and a dagger tucked discreetly in my belt, somewhere mid-back. But however dashing, being a swordsman in this day and age leads to ridicule and titters rather than awe and fear. Besides, did I mention my thighs hurt?

Other than learning about the Bad, Great and Dangerous aspects of historical fiction, enjoying an excellent session about ”Historical Fiction without the famous” and in general taking notes, this was a conference in which a lot of time was spent meeting the real people behind the FB avatars.Plus, of course, it was an opportunity to catch up with friends, sit and discuss other things than books and writings, which is how some of us ended up talking about democracy, the situation in Syria, the cultural divides that still, to a large extent, cause so many dangerous misunderstandings in this world of ours. Discussions one should hold while surrounded with candles stuck in empty wine bottles, the erstwhile content in those bottles no more than a rusty residue in chipped glasses. Sorry: no candles, but we did well enough anyway.

I came to Denver a bundle of nerves. You see, I was one of four finalists for the Historical Novel Society’s 2015 Indie Award. I am a competitive sort – which is why I only play Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit with hubby, as in all other board games he tends to win. Well, in all other games, if we’re going to be correct. Unfortunately, when it comes to book awards, there’s nothing you can DO to ensure you win. You can only wait patiently, and, as some of you well know, Patience is not my middle name…

Being a writer is per definition creating in isolation and then throwing whatever you’ve created out into the world, eyes squished shut so as not to watch if the precious creation drowns rather than swims. It takes guts to publish books – if nothing else because all writers pour a substantial amount of self into their work. A negative reception is therefore not only a reflection on the book as such, but also, some authors feel, on themselves. Actually, most reviewers have no opinion about the author as a person – how can they, when they don’t know him or her? Nor do most reviewers want to express an opinion about the author – they want to talk about the novel as such. Easy to forget for the insecure writer – and most writers/artists are insecure when it comes to their work – which is why all writers need their supporting network.

First and foremost, such a network is built on family and close friends. Probably a useless network from a professional book business perspective, but essential to keep the writer’s ego relatively hale and hearty. Today, thanks to this thing called Internet, the network expands exponentially – assuming the writer is willing to put in the time needed.

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Helen and I – thanks to Cathy Helms

Through Internet, I have met some of my most stalwart supporters. People like Helen Hollick, writer of a devastating book about Harold (of 1066 fame) which I just can’t bear to finish, hoping that by not reading it, I help Harold evade his fate. Stupid, I know, but when authors write gripping books, they make you care, right? Other than Harold, Helen has introduced me to charmer pirate Jesamiah Acorne, for which I am very grateful, but first and foremost Helen encourages and promotes, is generous with advice and is always there to help you pull your socks up and get on with it. Plus she’s a great hugger, something I’ve known for some years now (And hubby was pleasantly surprised to be warmly hugged as well. He likes hugs – a lot!)

Other fantastic supporters include Amy Bruno – not only does she offer great virtual book tour packages, but she is generous in sharing, in yanking ”her” authors into whatever limelight she can find – the same goes for Stephanie Hopkins, who through her blog Layered Pages gives so many authors a chance to be seen and heard. Once again, these ladies know how to hug – and it was wonderful to finally get the opprtunity to do so when we met face to face in Denver. (Internet has a major drawback in the hugs deparment. I do hope someone is working on that specific issue)

All writers need reviewers, preferably reviewers who like your books. Such people are to be treated as precious pearls, and are often willing to act as sounding boards for new ideas and projects – assuming the writer has take the time to build a relationship with them. I have a number of reviewers out there who ”get me”(well, my books; hubby says ”getting me” is a lifetime project, and I’m assuming that’s a compliment.) Voracious readers all of them, they are generous enough to take the time to write a review, post it AND share it!I can’t mention them all, but I was so happy to finally meet people like Erin and Margaret at Denver. Once again – yup, they know how to hug.

All this hugging served the purpose of distracting me – slightly – from the upcoming Award ceremony. Wonderful writer friend Alison Morton was amused and supportive, her brisk British humour making me laugh – a lot. New friends such as Cathy Helms and Char Newcomb smiled and kept their fingers crossed. Nice ladies all three – and great huggers.

Geri Dunlap Clouston of IndieBRAG already KNEW who had won, but was as enigmatic as a sphinx, while being as lovely and gracious as she always is. For those of you that don’t know what IndieBRAG does, I suggest clicking here. In brief, IndieBRAG works towards making great Indie novels visible. And yes, there are great Indie novels – quite a few, in fact. Ahem: like mine. (So this is when, as a Swedish person, I expect God to strike me down on the spot for hubris. Us Swedes are taught never, ever to toot our own horn. But sometimes one has to…) Did I mention Geri is yet another great hugger?

I’m starting to see a theme here: good, supportive people very often are great huggers. It goes hand in hand with an open and embracing (;))personality.

Anyway: Saturday evening approached. I was beginning to go about with a constantly elevated pulse, damp patches behind my knees, and a slight humming in my head. I distracted myself by rehearsing my speech for the MM Bennetts Award which I was presenting – didn’t exactly lower my heart rate…

Dinner on my plate, but who could eat? My intestines knotted together. One award. Next award – the one I was presenting. Gulps of air, march up to the stage, speech – attempt at speech, initially, as I seemed to have forgotten how to breathe. Cleared that one up, presented the three finalists, announced the winner, got a big hug. Nice big hug. Men who are enthusiastic about hugging are fantastic huggers, and Greg Taylor was so happy with his win (for the excellent book Lusitania REX) he was very enthusiastic.
HNSWinnerDown to wait some more. I studied my nails and considered whether it would be bad taste to chew on them. Decided it would be. The runner-up was presented. Not me. I stared at the floor.
”…the winner is Anna Belfrage…” someone said. Me! I wanted to leap atop the table and do the hula-hula, but just like with the nails, I decided it wouldn’t be appropiate. But I did do some dancing on the spot – and guess what? Three more lovely warm hugs!

R&R webstampThe book I won with is Revenge & Retribution – the sixth in The Graham Saga, but fully readable as a stand-alone. The beautiful cover was designed by Olly Bennett at MoreVisual, and the book was produced by Silverwood Books – delivering yet another beautiful finished product.

Now it is almost 48 hours since that exhilirating moment in Denver and I’m back home in Sweden. And I smile and smile and smile. I am so happy, so honoured, so proud. I may not have seen much of Denver, but as of Saturday June 27th, that particular city has a very special place in my heart! To quote one of my favourite artists, ”It’s a long way from this place to Denver, a long time to hang in the sky” – but I would leap onto that jetplane in a flash, just to experience once again the sheer rush of joy that had me, for a moment, feeling very much on top of the world.

Mother Nature gives – and takes

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San Francisco

The first song I learnt to play on the piano was America the Beautiful. So what, some of you may think, having no interest whatsoever in my musical development – but bear with me, okay?

I probably need to rephrase that first sentence: the first song I learnt to play two-handed was America the Beautiful – my first musical conquest was ”twinkle, twinkle little star”, played with one finger…

So why would a Swedish woman learn to play an American song? Probably has to do with Mrs Miller, my dragon of a piano teacher. She was also my French teacher, and there was a time when I could conjugate avoir and être in my sleep, so thoroughly did she bang these verbs into my head. Mrs Miller was a woman one did not mess with.

At the time, I thought her old like Methuselah, now I realise she was probably around fifty (gulp, gulp) and, however demanding, a great teacher. She loved French. She loved piano. She loved deportment. I loved French. I liked piano. I hated deportment. But hey, two out of three aint bad, so Mrs Miller and I rubbed along just fine – as long as I didn’t question what songs she taught me to play. (And as to deportment, I have had the dubious pleasure of entire afternoons spent walking about with books on my head, lessons in how to sit, how to cross my legs, how to exit a car, how to enter a car, how to walk up a staircase in high heels and long dresses, how to walk down that same staircase…)

Anyway, while I remember Mrs Miller with fondness, she is not the theme of today’s post. America the Beautiful is.
It started in San Francisco. I could move there tomorrow. Yes, the streets are a cardiovascular challenge, but so what? This is relatively young city (from a European perspective, it’s a toddler at most) but the tree lined streets, the gorgeous architecture and the ever present sea makes this beyond a doubt one of the most beautiful and welcoming cities I’ve visited. (My mother, however, could never live there on account of the wind – she hates it when her hair lifts out of place.)

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Not real mountains…

So, we were sort of sad when we left San Francisco behind and took the 580 east, making for Yosemite. I like road trips – even more so when hubby is driving and I can look about. Okay, so I was in charge of map reading, not all that onerous a task on this particular journey, and so I studied the passing landscape. (Well, to be honest, I spent quite some time studying cars. I like cars, preferably the growly type with dual exhaust pipes. Plenty of those in the bay area…)

Somewhat more inland, and we entered the realms of mono-culture. Apricots, apricots, apricots, cherries, cherries, cherries, apricots, apricots, almonds and look, a grove of walnut trees. I am doubtful about this form of agriculture – monocultures come at the expense of diversity. However, it all looked very neat and tidy – settled, if you will. Not so that it qualified as an “America the beautiful” moment, though – despite the gorgeous oleanders, huge drifts of white and pink that bordered roads and fences.

We passed Oakland. The Sierra Nevada began to be discernible as foggy shapes in the distance. I entertained hubby by singing “Desde la Sierra Nevada viene bajando, cielito lindo…” Hubby, being a smart man, merely smiled. We entered the foothills, and I fell silent. Around me, a carpet of tawny high grasses gilded the rolling hills, here and there dotted with the odd black oak, a couple of cows or a horse.

We travelled onwards. Foothills became respectable ski slopes, steep if rounded, and hubby’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as we spiralled our way upwards. We made it over the first set of hills and entered a landscape of valleys and ever-growing hills.
“Not much in the way of mountains,” hubby commented.
“What?” I gazed at the slopes towering above us.
“Well, you know: they lack in harshness, somehow.”
This, dear people, was said BEFORE he saw Yosemite valley, with Half-dome in the distance. After that, he shut up regarding “real mountains”…

IMG_6263I don’t have words to describe Yosemite – suffice it to say I spent the entire day singing “America the beautiful” under my breath, repeating over and over “for purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain” (See how neatly I tie it all together?)

The valley of Yosemite is like a green jewel set in purple-grey stone. Yosemite is granite cliffs that rise to touch the skies, waterfalls that thunder downwards, boulders smoothed by tons of ice into soft shapes so at odds with the stone itself. And trees – everywhere trees! It’s not as if we don’t have pine trees in Sweden – we have plenty – but in comparison with the specimens that tower above us in Yosemite, Swedish pines resemble chopsticks – fragile and puny. As a side comment, EVERYTHING is much bigger in America: the trees, the moose, the wolves, the lynx – even the warning cones used to designate road works. (And let’s not get started on the portions…)

IMG_6240What struck me most about Yosemite was that it was a place imbued with benevolence. That sounds silly, I know, but there was something about the silence among the giant sequoias, the way the sunlight filtered through tree crowns so high overhead I had to crane my head back just to see them, that filled me with a sensation of peace – and, in a way, of insignificance. These towering cliffs have stood like sentinels for thousands of years, they’ve seen generations of humans come and go, will see many more generations come and go, and ultimately it is possible they will still be here when we are gone. Is that a frightening thought? Maybe.

After Yosemite, we set out for Death Valley. And yes, this evoked images of bleached bones at dry waterholes, of vultures circling like vigilant specks high up above, waiting for whatever fool had been stupid enough to enter this wasteland to die, thereby giving the carrion eaters an unexpected feast.

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Death Valley

If Yosemite is an expression of the Creator’s/Mother Nature’s bountiful and fertile generosity, Death Valley brings home the message that Mother Nature can paint the most vibrant of pictures without stopping to consider such inconsequential aspects as our need for water to survive. In this harsh environment life is eerily absent – at least to the eye of the casual observer. But beauty is present everywhere, the rock and earth of the hillsides exploding in purple, in red and orange, in yellow and grey. The valley floor shimmers with heat, creating the impression that there might be water at the bottom, when in fact it is all sand and dirt, an arid wasteland where the heat is such it sucks your wits out. Once again, I felt inconsequential. Once again, I was humbled by the beauty that surrounded me. But this time, there was no benevolence. This was Nature showing its teeth.

IMG_6282After the heat of Death Valley it came as something as a relief to end up in an air-conditioned room, with cold water in the shower and a magnificent waterworks display outside our window. Las Vegas with all its lights, all its pulse is at the opposite end of the scale of places such as Death Valley (even if the heat was similar). And yes, the Bellagio fountain is indeed a marvel in itself, proving that man can create impressive beauty – but does it rival the wonders of places like Yosemite and Death Valley? Nope. Not even close.

America, a land that stretches from ocean to ocean (or shining sea, as the lyrics say). America, a land in which Nature shows itself in all its glory, from the tenacious cacti that survive the punishing heat in the desert, to the bright green lichen that decorate the ancient sequoias. America, truly a beautiful, beautiful land which I hope to revisit many more times. After all, there is so much more to explore!

Foreswearing your faith – the smart thing to do for a 17th century English Catholic

MLWhen Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that church door in Wittenberg, he had no idea what he was unleashing on the world. Or maybe he had, hoping that his actions would cause an incendiary debate and reform in all things religious. Well, he succeeded in creating debate, all right, and when he died close to thirty years later, he was still under excommunication by the pope. By then, Martin Luther no longer recognised the pope’s authority – and neither did a growing number of people throughout Europe.

At a distance of five hundred years, we can’t comprehend just how cataclysmic the Reformation was. Over a couple of decades, God-given truths were turned upside down, one of the more controversial aspects being that the true believer had no need of priests in his communication with God. It sufficed to study the Bible and meditate on God’s truth as expressed in the Holy Book.

LutherbibelWhere before the Bible was printed in Latin, now it was being translated into vernacular, making God’s word available to anyone who could read. Literacy exploded in Protestant regions, and these newly literate soon discovered other reading matter than the Bible, thereby starting an educational process that would culminate in our present day democratic society.

The Holy Roman Church responded forcefully to this new threat to its hegemony (and finances). Not only was there an impressive out-pouring of art and literature defending the true faith plus an increase in efforts to bring the lost sheep back to the fold – such as the installation of the Society of Jesus under Loyola, an order whose main purpose was to defend and bolster the faith- the Counter Reformation also applied other methods: heretics were persecuted, arrested, tortured and burnt at the stake – nothing new, really.

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The Last Judgement

As the Protestant factions grew stronger, they resorted to their own persecution, torture and execution – but of Catholics. A sort of tit for tat, one could say. In general, the assumption was that all Catholics were loyal to the pope, not to their king or queen. That, I would think, was in general a correct assumption. For people who still believed in the afterlife and for whom heaven and hell were realities rather than metaphors, protecting their eternal souls came first. But from there to assume all Catholics were nefarious traitors – well, it’s a bit of a leap, isn’t it?

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James I

In England, the authorities were taking no chances. James I introduced legislation aimed at Catholics who aspired to public office whereby any higher official should regularly receive communion as per the Church of England rites – anathema to a Catholic – but initially no one seems to have bothered with upholding it. In fact, James had several capable Catholic men in positions of trust. Things became somewhat trickier as per the reinforced Corporation Act of 1661, making it mandatory to partake of the sacraments as per the Church of England. However, not all Catholics were subject to the law – Catholic peers were generally exempt.

In 1673, Parliament in its wisdom passed the Test Act. It no longer sufficed to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper as per Anglican rites, now anyone aspiring to serve as officers of the court, parliament or the military, also had to reject the concept of transubstantiation (a central tenet in the Catholic faith). Further to this, any person aspiring to public office had to take an Oath of Supremacy and Allegiance, in effect placing their loyalty to the king of England before that to, for example, the pope.

Clearly all these measures were not enough. In 1678, Titus Oates revealed the so called Popish Plot to the shocked authorities, describing detailed plans to rid England of its present monarch. There was no Popish Plot – Titus was a narrow-minded worm of a man who saw his chance to fame and grabbed it, titillating his audience with one invented detail after the other. His ridiculous construction of lies could (and should) have been exposed immediately by the members of Parliament, but certain members were utterly thrilled by this development as it gave them an opportunity to further tighten up the Anti-Catholic legislation.

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Duke of York

The reinforced Test Act required all peers and members of Parliament to declare against transubstantiation, the existence of saints and the sacraments of Mass, thereby effectively ousting all Catholics from Parliament. The Catholic lords fought back as well as they could and succeeded in delaying the act plus managed to weaken it substantially by sneaking in an exception for the Duke of York – that most Catholic heir to the English throne.

A consequence of all this legislation and badmouthing was to make life very difficult for Catholics in general. When Edmund Godfrey, a Protestant magistrate, was found dead, the anti-papists went wild. London seethed with anger, Catholics were beaten and hounded, and people were warned to be on their guard: there were evil Jesuits everywhere, there were nasty recusants hiding throughout the country, horrible Catholic people that wanted to overthrow the Anglican Church and reinstate the hegemony of the Pope in England. What can I say? A crowd gone wild is a hotbed of fevered imaginations – even more so when people in authority foment the flames of lunacy.

England’s anti-Catholic legislation was to remain in place until 1829, when it was repealed by George IV. By then, the Test Act had long since played out its role, but for a number of decades in the 17th century, Catholics did best in keeping a very low profile. Very low. Especially if you were a Catholic priest.

R&R webstamp smallReligion plays an important part in my series The Graham Saga. In Revenge and Retribution, the sixth instalment of the series, Matthew and Alex welcome an injured Catholic priest into their home. Well; Alex welcomes. For Matthew, this is not an entirely easy thing to do, seeing as he is more than aware of the spiritual deficiency that characterises a papist. Alex doesn’t agree: to her the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant are very minor – probably reflecting the fact that she is a modern day woman. In the excerpt below, the Graham household has been augmented with yet another person, a Presbyterian minister, making things rather interesting.

Conversation became somewhat livelier with two men of God in the house – maybe a bit too lively, Alex sighed, when Father Muñoz and Minister Allerton settled down for yet another intense religious debate, the minister seconded by Daniel, the priest fighting his corner alone.

Father Muñoz sat up straighter and looked at Minister Allerton.

“No.” He shook his head. “Absolutely not. God allows our actions to speak for us.”

“Of course,” Minister Allerton said, “if we belong to the chosen few.” He gave the young priest a challenging look.

“Hmph!” Father Muñoz drank deeply from his mug of beer. “God is not that fickle. We live on this earth a short while, and it’s in many ways a testing ground for eternal life that comes later. God is merciful and forgives us our trespasses on behalf of His Son. He sees us labour and strive to be good, and He is pleased. He sees us fall into a life of evil, and He decides if the stay in purgatory will be long and painful or if we go to hell directly. But it’s the quality of our sins and the genuineness of our repentance that ultimately decide our eternal fate.”

Too right, Alex agreed, even if she sincerely hoped God was somewhat selective when it came to deathbed repentance. If not, heaven would be chock-full of some rather nasty types.

“Purgatory!” Minister Allerton waved dismissively. “Nowhere in the scriptures is that mentioned. It’s nothing but a figment of imagination that allows the dying sinners to hope they may still be saved.”

“Not to me,” Father Muñoz said, looking quite mulish. “To me, God is more prone to forgive than damn, and as such He has created one last opportunity for the lost soul to gain entry to heaven.”

The argument went on and on, the churchmen plunging deeper and deeper into the scriptures and the history of the Christian Church.

“Why be good?” Father Muñoz argued. “Why should we strive to lead exemplary lives if God has already preordained who goes to Heaven?”

“Why be good?” Minister Allerton replied mockingly. “Why strive to lead exemplary lives if all you have to do is beg forgiveness for your sins before you die?”

Most of the adults around the table nodded in agreement.

“Lewd and sinful,” Mrs Parson muttered to Alex. “All papists are, more or less. And then, on their deathbed, they recant. Not that it helps the misguided souls, bound for hell as they are. Pity on the wee priest who seems a good enough man – just like his father.”

“Hmm,” Alex said as neutrally as she could, and then brought the whole discussion to a halt by plonking down the pudding dish in the middle of the table.

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