Tudor historian Tracy Borman will already be familiar to many readers of Historia from her non-fiction books, which include Witches and the best-selling Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, her many television appearances and her role as joint Chief Curator for Historic Royal Palaces. Tracy has now turned her hand to historical fiction and her debut novel, The King’s Witch, was published on 14 June 2018 by Hodder & Stoughton.
The King’s Witch (the first in a trilogy) tells the story of Frances Gorges, a young noblewoman who has learned to use the flowers and herbs of her Wiltshire home to become a much-loved healer. Having served at Queen Elizabeth’s deathbed, Frances becomes embroiled in the politics and plots consuming the early years of King James I and his court – a court which, because of the King’s fascination with the subject, is obsessed with witchcraft and is thus a dangerous place for a young girl skilled in the healing arts.
Tracy was able to take time out of a very busy schedule and answer some questions both about the novel and her own very successful trajectory.
You have a fascinating background as an historian, what inspired you to go down your career path?
I have loved history since I was a child, and that stayed with me throughout my school and university years. But I never dreamed that I would be lucky enough to follow a career in it. In fact, I remember a careers adviser at school telling me that the only possible way of using my history would be to teach. Little did I know that there were many other ways! I feel extremely fortunate to be surrounded by history on a daily basis now – both as a writer and in my work at Historic Royal Palaces. As a Tudor historian, being based at Hampton Court is pretty much a dream come true.
You have a deservedly excellent reputation as a non-fiction writer – has the move into fiction writing been a long-held ambition? Was there a particular spur to embarking on it now?
I think I was eight years old when I wrote my first story. I dread to think what it was like, but it sparked a passion for storytelling that has stayed with me ever since. I read historical fiction all the time and since writing my non-fiction books I have dreamed of penning a novel myself, but didn’t think I would ever have the chance. Then a few years ago, inspired by the research I carried out for my non-fiction book, Witches, an account of James I and the English witch hunts, I began developing an idea. It was batted to and fro between my agent and I for a couple of years, until it was eventually in a fit state to show to a fiction editor. I was overjoyed (and not a little apprehensive!) when he agreed to take it on.
Many historical fiction writers talk about finding the golden nugget, or the gap in the facts, to mine down into – was it something similar that sparked The King’s Witch?
Absolutely. I have long been fascinated by the Gunpowder Plot and in particular who was really behind it. The plotters referred to a ‘great patron’ but their identity was never revealed. Writing The King’s Witch enabled me to explore a candidate who has never really been considered before. But the more I researched them, the more credible they seemed. I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the book!
I heard Melvin Bragg give a great talk a couple of years ago basically called, ‘This is what’s real and this is what I made up’ – beyond her immediate biography, and her well-known mother, how much information was available to you about Frances Gorges, the novel’s protagonist?
To a historian, the fact that precious little is known about Frances (other than her lineage, date of birth/death, etc) would present a huge challenge in exploring her life. But to a novelist, it is a gift. Although I have stayed true to the few details we do know about Frances, having the freedom to fill the long gaps in between with my imagination was an absolute joy. By the end of the book, she was as real to me as a historical figure about whom we know far more – Elizabeth I, for example.
The King’s Witch is set at the cusp of the Tudor and Stuart changeover and opens with Elizabeth’s dying – what do you think it is about this period, and the Tudors in particular, that continues to attract readers, and authors?
As chief curator at Hampton Court, I am often asked why the Tudors are so popular. For me it is all about the drama of the age. You have a king who marries six times, a Virgin Queen, Shakespeare, the Reformation, the Armada … the list goes on. It was also an extraordinarily self-confident era for England, one that shaped our national identity for centuries to come. Given how much I love the Tudors, I felt almost treasonous writing about the dynasty that succeeded them, but the Stuarts have now got me hooked. It was such a dark and dangerous age, a real melting pot in all sorts of ways – from religion and politics to overseas diplomacy and the role of the monarchy. I couldn’t have wished for a more inspiring – or a more turbulent – backdrop for my novel.
I’m glad you think so because that’s exactly how I feel about her. I wanted readers to be able to relate to Frances, but without making her anachronistic in any way. This was an age when women were considered to be very much second class citizens, and the fact that James I was such a misogynist was a big part of his witch hunting drive – it was no coincidence that around 80% of those accused of conspiring with the devil were female. But women did fight back, and I loved making Frances one of those. James soon realises that he has made an enemy of the wrong woman.
And finally (and without giving away any spoilers!) what can we expect for Frances in the next part of the trilogy.
Frances was born during the glory years of Elizabeth I and died in the year that Charles I was executed, so her life spans one of the most dramatic periods in our history. The Gunpowder Plot is the focus for the first book, but there is so much more to come: from the sudden death of James I’s son and heir, Prince Henry, to the rise of the deadly favourite George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, and then the descent into civil war. I think that I’m going to have more than enough to keep me busy!
Catherine Hokin’s novel, Blood and Roses, brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine’s short stories have been published in magazines including Writers’ Forum, Mslexia and iScot and the forthcoming Scottish Arts Club Anthology. She blogs monthly for The History Girls.