Mary Lawrence and Kensington are offering a free copy of her newest novel, "Death at St. Vedast!" Leave a comment underneath this post (including your email address!) to be included in the prize drawing. The contest will end and a winner will be notified on January 31.
When I first started writing fiction over twenty years ago, I combined two of my greatest curiosities into a single theme that has become the basis for the Bianca Goddard Mystery series. My background is science, but I have a strong interest in history. Reading about alchemy as a fledgling science--about its influence on thought and analysis of the natural world--and then understanding the historical context of its practice in Europe, especially in Tudor England (my other passion), has given me plenty of ideas for stories. It also satisfies my love of history, science, and writing.
Alchemy is a peculiar mishmash of a variety of disciplines including religion, mathematics, physics, astrology, and, of course, chemistry. Its origins began in Egypt and China and developed separately from one another. Eventually, knowledge of the ‘dark art’ spread to Europe sometime in the eighth century when the Moors invaded Spain.
Alchemy’s usefulness or rather, its possibilities, led to its popularity and spread across Europe. By the fourteenth century the Sudanese source of gold had depleted and the need for precious metals to mint coins had reached a crisis. Every king needed gold to sustain his power and control. Therefore, alchemists and their discoveries needed to be carefully monitored. Monarchs needed to safeguard against an alchemist’s desire for personal gain and/or the sale of their discoveries to enemies of the state. In 1403 Henry IV banned “multiplying of metals” and required English practitioners to apply for licenses with the expectation that they inform the king of any progress.
The demand for wealth and gold was no different in the Tudor dynasty. Henry VIII was influenced early on by his tutor, Giles d’Ewes, a French grammarian and alchemist. During his reign, Henry employed alchemists to work in his royal mint and searched for alchemists to bring to court. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa, a German alchemist, turned down the opportunity and later was encouraged by his patron, Eustace Chapuys, Imperial Ambassador to England, to write a pamphlet denouncing Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Henry’s efforts to find willing alchemists were not always successful.
So, did Henry ever practice alchemy? I cannot find mention of it, though we know he dabbled in medicines and had a chest full of remedies he had concocted himself.
In 1542 Henry passed a law forbidding the practice of sorcery and witchcraft. An unlicensed alchemist was taking a dangerous gamble if someone were to accuse him of spouting incantations and conjuring spirits while practicing the dark art.
My series takes place during the final years of Henry’s reign. The threat of practicing alchemy without a license or of being accused of witchcraft, requires my main character, Bianca, to keep a low profile. She denounces alchemy while secretly acknowledging its usefulness. She knows she is taking a chance with her life, but she is driven by her curiosity. In most historical fiction, a driven personality such as hers is reserved for male protagonists.
Bianca’s independent mind runs counter to some people’s notions about women’s lives in the sixteenth century. I disagree that women were completely at the mercy of their husband’s wishes; that they were demure to the point of expecting beatings from their husband or father since legally, they were owned by them. For Death at St. Vedast I researched women’s wills and it is clear that while women held a subservient role to men, they were often cagey in manipulating their legal documents to serve their purpose. So, if there is evidence of wily women in the sixteenth century why couldn’t there have been a woman like my character Bianca?
There have always been self-reliant women in this world but traditionally, history has been recorded by men. Men were the learned class and they comprised the scholars and scribes through which we see history. My series is a work of fiction. It is not meant to educate in the way that a reference book would. So at the risk of offending some, I stretch the bounds of historical fiction while attempting to play within its rules. Using alchemy--a pseudo-science built on equal parts discovery and imagination--gives me room to be inventive with storylines. It is my hope that readers will put aside their preconceived notions regarding historical fiction and simply enjoy the ride.