Monday, May 05, 2014

A Historical Novelist's Confession, an essay by P.F. Chisholm

I'd like to welcome historical novelist Patricia Finney here today.  Her most recent series includes six (thus far) historical mysteries featuring Elizabethan notable Sir Robert Carey, written under the name P.F. Chisholm.  She has also shown her mastery of the era in a number of earlier novels, including Firedrake's Eye, Unicorn's Blood, and Gloriana's Torch, all exciting works of historical intrigue.  Here she discusses an interpretation for one of her historical characters' lives which proved impossible to resist.


A Historical Novelist's Confession
P.F. Chisholm

Anne Morgan, the first Lady Hunsdon, was the mother of my Elizabethan crime novel hero, Sir Robert Carey, and I owe her an apology.

He (and she) really existed. He was tall, dashing and a bit of a dandy, with a nice line in self-deprecating humour in his memoirs (Memoirs of the Earl of Monmouth, ed. F H Mares). And he was also the man who rode from London to Edinburgh in two and a half days to tell James VI of Scotland that he was now James I of England. You may even have read his touching account of Queen Elizabeth's last days. It was love at first sight when I first tripped over him in the wonderful book about the Anglo-Scottish Borders, George Macdonald Fraser's The Steel Bonnets. He was the perfect Elizabethan, and as GMF says, "Later generations of adventure story writers, who had never heard of Robert Carey, found it necessary to invent him." I simply picked him up and let him run.

His most recent adventure, An Air of Treason, has just come out with Poisoned Pen Press and finds him at Elizabeth's court, getting poisoned. This confession, however, is about the book before that, A Murder of Crows.

You see, when I started writing stories about Sir Robert in the 1990s, the Internet was in its infancy, there was no Wikipedia – or it was filled with people who knew that Shakespeare was anybody except Shakespeare – and I found certain things very difficult to research, his mother being one of them. So I maintained a discreet silence.

Flash forward to a few years ago, when I started researching him again, and all was very different. At last I could track down my hero's mother.

There wasn't a lot, but it was an awful lot more than the pitiful listings I'd found in the '90s, usually giving the wrong number of children and occasionally mixing her up with her daughters-in-law.

Anne Morgan was probably born in 1529, making her only 16 at the time of her marriage to Henry Carey on 21st May 1545 when their marriage licence is dated. She was born in Arkestone, Herefordshire, daughter of Sir Thomas Morgan and Anne Whitney, of Welsh descent. She became Baroness Hunsdon on the 13 Jan 1559 when her husband was made Baron Hunsdon and she served the Queen as a Lady of the Privy Chamber. She had, according to the latest count, no fewer than twelve children, which argues an excellent constitution. John Dowland wrote a very pretty piece of music for her called "My Lady Hunsdon's Puffe." And she died on 19 Jan 1607, just over ten years after the death of her husband.

If you go to Westminster Abbey you can also find the splendidly vulgar tomb she organised for her husband in one of the first side chapels you come to: arguably the tomb is as big as the Queen's.

Here is exactly what you would expect: a respectable Elizabethan lady, who gave her husband a large number of children, some of whom died, as they did then, even if you were a Baroness. She served at Court and the rest of the time presumably settled at Hunsdon Hall in Hertfordshire and ran Hunsdon's estates for him.

So far so yawn. Yet I couldn't help noticing that her maiden name was Morgan and her sister married into the Trevannions of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall, within easy visiting distance of Arwenack House, Falmouth and the fascinating, deplorable Killigrews.

The Killigrews were certainly pirates (sorry, privateers) as well as smugglers. Thanks to them, Falmouth was held in roughly the same esteem as the coast of Somalia is today. They appear to have had control of the Cornish Admiralty courts, and could and did flip a fig at anyone who thought they shouldn't menace the shipping all along the Channel and up into the Irish Sea. That's how Falmouth outgrew Penryn, which is a far older town.

There are tantalising legends about a woman called Kate Killigrew who went privateering in her later years. Was there only one or were there several women called Kate of that family? A Jane Killigrew gave Penryn town a loving cup to thank them for looking after her when she ran away from her husband. Any connection?

It was thin but very tempting. I'm a historical novelist, and I generally try to stick to the facts known about somebody. Here was a historical novelist's dilemma: do I go with the probable historical dullness of Anne Carey, Baroness Hunsdon – or do I have some fun with her?

Could I add her to the redoubtable band of post-menopausal ladies like Grainne O'Malley who seem to have gone a-roving in later life, as a sort of hobby? Like, oh, knitting with blood? Could my Anne have got herself a letter of marque to give a figleaf of legality to her raiding? Certainly, she had the contacts at Court to do it. Could she have got herself a ship and used it? Well, yes. A remarkable number of Elizabethan bigwigs made investments in ships. Of course I could. And so was born the redoubtable and appallingly embarrassing mother who turns up with her ship in London in A Murder of Crows and creates havoc.

I know I probably shouldn't have. But I couldn't help it.


P.F. Chisholm is a pseudonym for Patricia Finney, a well-known writer of historical thrillers, children's books, and nonfiction blogs and eBooks. Previous titles in the Sir Robert Carey and Sergeant Dodd series are A Famine of Horses, A Season of Knives, A Surfeit of Guns, A Plague of Angels, and A Murder of Crows. After the events in An Air of Treason, Sir Robert and Sergeant Dodd will be heading back to the Anglo-Scottish Border, where trouble is brewing as usual. Visit her website at


  1. George Macdonald Fraser's The Steel Bonnets -- I've read that! You are the only other person to ever have mentioned reading this wonderful, and very useful book, a real work of historical research.

    Your eras are not the ones in which I work (as historian); but I stumbled upon Fraser's book while researching the background of the Scotch-Irish families so important in our history, particularly in the Revolutionary era and the secession era. Without them there probably would not have been an Age of Jackson and the small d democratic populist era. Or at least not so soon. Or, maybe ... even such hatreds that created our Civil War .... :(

    Love, C.

  2. Thank you for this wonderful post. My daughter and I have read every one of the Robert Carey series, and eagerly await the next one. I love the humor, the intrigue, and the unique characters - esp. crazy about Sergeant Dodd.

  3. I like "splendidly vulgar." Think I'll design my tomb to be the same.

  4. Wonderful post! I adore your Sir Robert Carey. I was sorry to lose Barnaby, but tough times and all that :) Here's my review (written quite some years ago) of Famine of Horses. So pleased that you've returned to writing these delectable mysteries.

    Yes, "Steel Bonnets" and also the fabulous "Candlemass Road". Thank you GMF. And not to forget Janni Howker's astonishingly powerful Border fairytale Martin Farrell. Language to die for.