|Historical Novelist Marie Macpherson|
And now it gives me very great pleasure to present historical novelist Marie Macpherson, whose debut novel The First Blast of the Trumpet (Knox Robinson Publishing, 2012) has a setting very close to my own heart - early 16th century Scotland. Central to the story is a real historical figure, Elisabeth Hepburn, prioress of St Mary's Abbey in Haddington, so without further ado, I'll hand over to Marie so she can explain all...
The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, the polemical pamphlet by the Scottish reformer, John Knox, has reverberated down through the ages and irritated generations of women no end. So why did I choose such a controversial title for my novel? Basically because my original title The Abbess of Unreason lacked resonance, so the publisher decided. Something punchier was needed and, since the abbess may have been one of the ‘monstrous regiment’ that Knox railed against, then why not steal his cracking title? Though it may sound as if my Abbess of Unreason could be a ‘heroine of fantasy’ she was neither mad nor fantastic but a very real historical figure whose importance, like many women then and now, has been overlooked.Elisabeth Hepburn was the prioress of St Mary’s Abbey, the Cistercian convent in Haddington, East Lothian, where the famous treaty that betrothed Mary Queen of Scots to the French Dauphin was signed in 1548. That tiny nugget of information piqued my curiosity to find out more about this mystery woman. How was she related to the Hepburns of Hailes, the powerful Earls of Bothwell? Did she have any connection with John Knox, who served as a priest in Haddington? Was she acquainted with the playwright Sir David Lindsay, exiled to Garleton Castle a few miles away?
Delving amongst local records I was excited to discover that this prioress was not in the least pious but had a murky history. For a start her age and ‘defect of birth’ should have disqualified her from being appointed prioress. At 24-years-old she was too young and as the natural daughter of an Augustinian canon she was illegitimate. Nevertheless her uncle, John Hepburn the influential Prior of St Andrews, forced through the appointment, overruling the nuns’ own choice and gaining a dispensation for his niece. He did this to ensure that the Hepburn family controlled the wealthy abbey finances.
But her life at St Mary’s was hardly one of quiet contemplation. A prioress in 16th century Scotland was a woman with considerable power in a world dominated by men and Elisabeth was plunged into the political maelstrom and religious turmoil of the times. Strong-willed and independent she rode to the hunt with the court of King James V and faced an accusation of ‘carnal dalliance’. Her unorthodox behaviour may even have inspired the character of the prioress in Lindsay’s biting attack on the corrupt Roman Catholic Church in Ane Satire of the Three Estates’. His prioress turns out to be a ‘scarlet woman’ who tears off her nun’s habit to reveal a crimson underskirt, complaining that she didn’t want to be a nun anyway.
The writing was on the wall for religious houses, however, as the reformation loomed in the shape of her godson, John Knox. The First Blast of the Trumpet speculates about the rôle that Prioress Elisabeth played in the upbringing of the young reformer and how it may have influenced his attitude to women.
The First Blast of the Trumpet, the first book of the Knox trilogy, is no Calvinist slog but a highly- entertaining exploration of the early life of the Scottish Reformer, John Knox (an excerpt follows below). It chronicles his on-going relationship with the powerful Hepburn family, including the Earls of Bothwell, but especially his godmother, Elisabeth Hepburn, Prioress of St Mary’s Abbey, Haddington.
Opening in 1511, two years before the Scots’ tragic defeat at the Battle of Flodden, 1513, it ends in 1548 with John Knox as a galley slave rowing the young Mary Queen to Scots to France.
Then would I say: ‘If God me had ordained
To live my life in thraldome thus and pain
What was the cause that He me more constrained
Than other folk to live in such ruin?
The King’s Quair
James I, 15th Century
St Mary’s Abbey, 9 November 1513
Arrayed in the virginal white of a novice with a wreath of embroidered flowers crowning her chestnut hair, Elisabeth approached the altar and genuflected. Prior Hepburn smiled indulgently.
‘Her recent loss seems to have purged our bee-heided niece of all her daft notions.’
‘Aye,’ Dame Janet replied. ‘Now that her fiery temper has been smoored, you’ll find our niece more ready to accept her fate.’
A few days before, at the Requiem Mass on All Souls’ Day, as Prior Hepburn read out the roll call of the fallen at Flodden, Elisabeth fumbled for the talisman she’d hidden underneath her sark. Looped onto the blue ribbon were the king’s ring and the St John’s nut, its kernel pierced with a needle. To help her endure fort when she heard Adam’s name being read out, she pressed it against her heart. Still, the shock made her ears buzz and, yawning deeply to clear them, she just caught the name – Sir David Lindsay. Her heart shoogled.
‘Dies Irae, Dies illa. Day of Wrath, that dreadful day,’ the choir chanted, ‘Lacrimosa dies illa.’
Though her heart longed to scream out in anguish, she kept her head bowed, fearful that the ever-watchful eyes of Sister Maryoth might detect her distress. But the words of the Gospel made her raise her head: Thy brother, Jesus said, will rise again. Would that it were true.
Since then Elisabeth had been confined to her cell where she’d spent the last few weeks in prayer and fasting to cleanse her soul in preparation for receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders. The regime must also be purifying her body for she hadn’t needed to ask for monthly cloths. That, the washerwife pointed out, was one of the benefits of fasting. It staunched the accursed monthly bleed. ‘And another,’ she added with a conspiratorial wink as she gathered up the linen for washing, ‘is that it’ll put you in Sister Maryoth’s favour. For it’s a sign of devotion in her eyes.’
As he anointed her on the forehead with holy chrism, the prior noticed that his niece’s downcast eyes were red and swollen and her face pinched and pale. Janet was right. Much of her fire had been quenched. He must have a word with Maryoth not to be so harsh.
After Elisabeth had pledged her vows, he presented her with two gifts. From a velvet-lined box he took out a string of rosary beads made from freshwater pearls with an exquisite silver crucifix that glinted in the candlelight. He draped it over her wrist and placed in her hands a Book of Hours, expensively illustrated with a jewel-encrusted cover and gold clasp. The newly ordained nun could only nod her thanks.
The sacrificial lamb was led in to the sacristy where Sister Maryoth tore off the wreath and put away the pearl rosary beads and the gaudily engraved Book of Hours for safekeeping. Then she set about cutting her hair. She grabbed it in tufts and hacked at it clumsily, cropping it back almost to the scalp, all the while muttering, prayers and incantations under her breath to fend off evil.
'Lord, she is not worthy. Lord, forgive me for this shameful offering. Cast out the horned Prince of Darkness from this child of Satan.'
‘What’s this?’ Maryoth’s hand had become entangled in the blue ribbon round Elisabeth’s neck. ‘A holy scapular?’
Though she had no idea what a scapular was, Elisabeth gripped hold of it and nodded.
‘Though I doubt it. For a heathen such as you, it’s more likely to be a lucky charm.’
Before she could stop her, Maryoth had tugged at the ribbon, snapping the love knot and sending the ring and the nut clattering onto the flagstones. Elisabeth dropped to her knees, splaying her fingers to search for them but as she crawled about, Maryoth stamped on her knuckles and then crunched the nut underfoot. The ring had rolled away unseen.
‘As for this,’ she declared, dangling the blue ribbon as if it were a venomous viper. ‘The only way to be rid of this devil’s tail, is to burn it.’ With that, she held it over a candle, watching intently until it shrivelled to cinders. The vicious look in her narrowed eyes betrayed a desire to dispose of her rival in the same way.
Meekly the newly shorn lamb obeyed Maryoth’s order to strip off her white lace gown and stood shivering in the cold vestry, hugging her tender breasts. Elisabeth closed her eyes as the dun-coloured habit was pulled down over her head, prickling her scalp and scratching her skin. Only when Maryoth tugged the hempen cord and knotted it tightly until it dug into her waist did Elisabeth flinch.
For now that she had lost Lindsay and her only connection to him had been severed, nothing mattered any more. She didn’t even have the St John’s nut to protect her from the evil eye. Covering her shaven head with the wimple and securing the ties, Maryoth thrust a heavy wooden crucifix, crudely carved with the figure of the dead Saviour into her hands.
‘You are a bride of Christ, now. Kiss your holy spouse, Sister Elisabeth.’