It’s publication day!
My latest novel, Armada’s Wake, is being published today by Canelo. This is the third book in the ‘Jack Stannard of the Navy Royal’ trilogy, set in the Tudor period, and completes the forty year saga. As the title suggests, the famous battle against Spain’s vast invasion force forms the centrepiece of the book, but three generations of the Stannard family also have their own personal battles to fight. As with the previous two books, an important thread is provided by the story of Dunwich, ‘England’s Atlantis’, and of the people who lived there.
It’s been very satisfying to bring this story to an appropriate conclusion in this, my eleventh published novel, something which I haven’t yet done with my other series, ‘the Journals of Matthew Quinton’. I have to admit that I was initially sceptical about writing something set in the Tudor period, having probably become jaundiced after too many years of teaching it and seeing far too many novels, films and TV series being set in it. But I swiftly converted myself, partly because the lives of the Stannard family took on a momentum of their own, partly because Dunwich provided such a compelling backdrop and a history which cried out to be better known.
I wanted to conclude this post with an extract from the novel as a ‘teaser trailer’. But I swiftly realised that there’s pretty well no single paragraph, let alone any longer body of text, which doesn’t give away some spoiler or other, particularly for those who have read the second book in the trilogy, Battle’s Flood. So here instead is an extract from the historical note which concludes the book. Those of you who prefer your myths to be sacrosanct are best advised to look away now!
The defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the best-known and most iconic events in British history. Yes, British, although it was a purely English fleet that took on the supposedly invincible maritime juggernaut dispatched by King Philip II: for example, to this day legends of Armada shipwrecks and sunken treasures fire imaginations from Fair Isle and Tobermory in Scotland to the west coast of Ireland, where Irish rocks put paid to far more hulls than did English guns.
In the Shetland detective thrillers by Anne Cleeves and the wildly successful TV series based on them, the central character, Jimmy Perez, supposedly owes his surname to an ancestor who survived the Armada, while the intricate patterns of sweaters from Fair Isle, Perez’s fictional birthplace, are allegedly inspired by Armada survivors – one of the most commonly used motifs resembles a griffin, the emblem of the town of Rostock, home port of the ship wrecked on the island, El Gran Grifón. In Ireland, survivors were reputedly responsible for introducing, inter alia, thoroughbred horses, Gaelic handball, and the surprisingly swarthy strain of Irish folk named by some the ‘Black Irish’. (A similar legend exists on the island of Westray in Orkney, where the ‘Westray Dons’, descendants of Armada survivors, allegedly formed a separate caste for more than two centuries.)
In a nutshell, then, a Spanish Armada shipwreck is vastly sexier than any ordinary common-or-garden shipwreck, while the story itself has always been irresistible to Hollywood and its ilk.
Sir Francis Drake? Check. Sir Francis Drake nonchalantly playing bowls as the enemy approaches? Check. Underdog apparently battling terrible odds? Check. The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I herself? Check. Queen Elizabeth I delivering one of the most famous speeches of all time? Check. Unlikely victory against aforesaid terrible odds, thanks to either (a) God or (b) climate change, depending on one’s belief system? Check.
All of which presents a humble author attempting to write a fictional story set against the backdrop of the Armada with a number of problems.
In the first place, the central elements of the story are so well known that there is simply no leeway. The fights off Plymouth, Portland and the Isle of Wight, the pursuit up the Channel, the fireship attack at Calais, the subsequent battle off Gravelines, Elizabeth’s visit to the army at Tilbury, and the fate of the Spanish ships, largely shattered on the cliffs of Scotland and Ireland, have all been described very much as they happened, as far as it has been possible to do so…
The central elements of the Armada story are certainly very well known, but on the other hand, several elements of the story that everyone thinks they know about it are myths, if not downright whoppers. The famous story of Sir Francis Drake saying he had time to finish his game of bowls and still beat the Spaniards is almost certainly apocryphal – it appears in no contemporary accounts and first emerges in print almost exactly 150 years later, quite probably the invention of the author and herald William Oldys, a man who was said to be ‘rarely sober in the afternoon, and never after supper’, his favourite tipple apparently being porter washed down with gin. Similarly, Queen Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech was not published in any form until 1654, based on a letter written in 1623, thirty-five years after the event, as a polemical argument against better relations with Spain at that time. (Having said that, the letter writer, Leonel Sharp, was present at Tilbury as the Earl of Essex’s chaplain…) Moreover, there are three entirely different versions of what she said, the two less renowned versions being far more contemporary than that containing ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. Having said that, the famous version is exactly the sort of thing Elizabeth undoubtedly did write and say on many occasions…so I hope my treatment of the story will be acceptable to those who still have misty-eyed visions of Flora Robson, Glenda Jackson or Cate Blanchett, depending on one’s vintage, in armour and on horseback.
I hope this whets your appetite for Armada’s Wake! Like the other Stannard books, it’s currently only available in e-formats, but I hope that if you do buy it and read it, you’ll enjoy it.