Dear Friends, Hosts of the radio interviews I’ve been doing ask me what I think of the movie, Mary, Queen of Scots. Here goes:

This latest excursion to the Tudor/Stuart saga got me sighing with happy surprise then clenching my teeth in fury and disappointment. The early section recounting young Mary, Queen of Scots’ struggle to manage factions in Scotland was very effective. Radical Protestant John Knox preached with virulent implacability, and the formation and dissolution of plotting cliques, with their extra-judicial written bonds of assassination, was vividly unsettling. I wish this had been the whole film, because those six years of a promising reign that fell disastrously apart hold vital lessons to us today about the perils of tribalism, where no one wins for more than an instant. Saoris Roman’s Mary combined generosity, wilfulness and feral militarism. I admire the film’s willingness to evoke the homosexuality and bisexuality at Mary’s court, and the varieties of rather bad sex available to the characters. Not souping that up respected probable historical truth. If the movie had expanded all that it would have been great.

So what did I hate: Mary’s interactions with her cousin, Elizabeth I. In order to cover 26 years in 2 hours, the directors fabricated a scene in a decrepit wooden hut near the Scottish border with England, where the two queens dodged each other from behind gauze curtains, presumably meant to symbolize their separate destinies. That meeting never happened, but the script uses it to cram 19 years of tensions between them. It doesn’t work to the point of silliness.

The film also repeats one of the most enduring fakeries in films about Elizabeth. Consider the photo above. Mary’s body language and complexion suggest agility and vibrancy, while Elizabeth’s suggests haggard repression. By the time Mary was confined in an English castle, she was prone to bouts of ill health, often rigid with pain, while Elizabeth was supple and athletic into her 60s. Sir Francis Drake met her for the first time before his voyage circumnavigating the world in 1577. She was 44. He commented on her youthful skin and comely looks. She paid a price for retaining power without marriage, but not so heavy to be hollowed out.

The film suggests that Elizabeth’s near death from smallpox in 1562 disfigured her face, and that she disappeared under layers of white lead paint from then on. She did have smallpox in 1562, but recovered with no mark on her face. It was her lady-in-waiting, Mary Sidney, who nursed her, was disfigured and withdrew from court. Elizabeth certainly used toxic white paint make-up, but so did other women. Showing court scenes where the wigged queen is a kabuki apparition surrounded with young women made up for an episode of Sex in the City, and men who never age much, is false. Below is one of Elizabeth’s Ladies-in-Waiting, Lady Scudamore. I love this portrait, which is in the Yale Museum of British Art, New Haven. It’s a rather hard face, seamed by make-up, inward suffering etched into her mouth lines. When Elizabeth’s court assembled, there were gorgeous young strivers, but also attendants like Lady Scudamore. Elizabeth’s white face was one among many. Her aging male councillors were gouty, paunchy, often battling pain.

There is a fascinating tale to tell about the complex relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. The film gets right Elizabeth’s desire to handle their rivalry with more moderation that her councilors urged. She thwarted all efforts to remove the Scottish line from the English succession. In a sense, Mary was her surrogate mother. Mary entered the miserable marriage to produce a male heir to both thrones. Despite the threat Mary posed to Elizabeth at times, birthing James Stuart, later James VI of Scotland and James I of England, freed Elizabeth to rule as a single woman.

Here is what Elizabeth wrote to Mary when she married Bothwell: “no good friend you have in the whole world can like thereof, and if we should otherwise write or say we should abuse you. For how could a worse choice be made for your honor than in such haste to marry such a subject who besides other notorious lacks public fame has charged with the murder of your late husband, besides the touching of yourself in some part, though we trust in that behalf falsely. And with what peril have you married him that hath another lawful wife alive, whereby neither by God’s law nor man’s yourself can be his lawful wife, nor any children betwixt you legitimate…” There is loving, protective anger in these words. And prescience, because Mary was deposed soon after. The hints the film offered about the connection between the queens don’t make up for its puerile visual devices.


READER CONTEST: There is an invention described in a primary account published by Strada in the eighteenth century. But there’s no image. Readers, could you send me a drawing or plan? The winner will get a free paperback with a signed fantasy map which I commissioned for the book launch. With your permission, I would put it on my blog and incorporate it into my slide show, with credit to you. Please read on to learn more about the puzzle of this mystery vessel…

I thrust Latham into the Siege of Antwerp twice. He is on the bank of the River Scheldt when the first self-detonating bomb ship explodes with devastating effect. The Dutch defenders weren’t good at military basics—they refused to flood the surrounds while they had time, and they never secured communication with allies who could have taken advantage of temporary military successes to break the siege—but they were inventive. They were so inventive that the Spanish commander, Alexander Farnese, later Duke of Parma, despaired.  He wrote that mere humans couldn’t penetrate their devilish inventions. War’s End was many times bigger than any other vessel, an artillery platform the Dutch hoped to float with corks and annihilate the Spaniards. It grounded on a sandbar. However, even to design and build it horrified their enemy.

This invention by engineer Federigo Giambelli did work. It was the first ship bomb detonated by a clock at a pre-set time (crew not necessary), attached to a flint that fired a wick that blew up 7,000 pounds of explosives and flesh-shredding metal or stone contained by a pyramid-shaped cone that forced the blast sideways rather than up. Loss of life was devastating, 1,000 in an instant. It did breach the bridge of ships the Spaniards had built across the River Scheldt. But the Antwerp defenders didn’t check on their success for a couple of days, so the Spaniards were able to repair the bridge. The siege continued, but the notion of the dreaded Hellburners took on mythic status in Spanish minds, contributing to the eventual defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

READER CONTEST: The mystery vessel described in a primary source by Strada had no sails on deck. Instead, it had an underwater mast and sail that allowed it to be propelled straight at the bridge by the current of the River Scheldt. According to Strada, the Dutch built two: one with hooks to tear the boat bridge apart, the other with 4,000 pounds of explosives. Both hit the boat bridge, so the design worked. They just weren’t big enough to win the war for Antwerp. I look forward to your ideas and designs!

UPDATE: I’m pleased to announce that R.L. Crossland, retired Navy SEAL and naval officer, award-winning author of Jade Rooster and Red Ice, has agreed to judge the entries. The deadline for submission ( is March 31st, 2019.


  • Friday, January 25th, 11am-12pm, WBTM-AM: Bennington Today, with host conductor/ composer Thomas Lawrence Toscano. Vermont friends, please tune in!
  • Monday, January 28th, 9:45-10am, WKNY-AM: The Morning Show with Warren Lawrence. Calling upstate New York friends: please root for me!

Next blog, I promise we’ll be back in the 16th century! More scary innovation AND a reader contest (for a prize)!


On our days of wild-west social media, it’s fascinating to revisit a Tudor version of communication mayhem.

With the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, monarchs and the church lost control of their stories. The above text is Edmund Campion’s “Brag,”  printed and circulated in Engand in 1580-81. Campaion, his religious journey and execution are plot movers in my novel.My fictional Latham and Edmund Campion have a tangled relationship. Both Catholic Elizabethans, they act out their religious convictions in different ways. They meet in England and Europe at pivotal points, their courses invariably diverging. In 1566, in the first chapter, when Elizabeth begins a week-long visit to Oxford, Campion is Queen’s champion in the Latin debates, soon to be a Protestant deacon. With intellectuals like Campion becoming Protestant, Latham sees no space for Catholics like him. He throws up status, family and wealth to serve Catholic monarchs abroad. By the time Campion becomes a Jesuit missionary infiltrating England, Latham has seen enough depravity in Catholic rule to support his birth country again.  Campion’s “Brag,” titled Address to the Lords of the Privy Council was sent to Europe, where it was printed and smuggled back. It circulated widely. In it, Campion demanded public debates on theology, where he would justify primary allegiance to Pope over Crown. Then he went underground, moving from covert Catholic estate to estate. This wasn’t a capital crime. Yet.

But the map shows the problem:

map by Hannah Rothman

When do words become incitement or action? On the right are households where Campion stayed, justifying primary allegiance to Rome. On the left the same year, in western Ireland, a Papal/Spanish army captured Smerwick, Irish territory ruled by England. English forces under Admiral Winter were trying to take it back. Privy councillors who had to counter Campion’s words were also repelling an invasion. Writings like the Brag became treason. Campion was eventually caught, along with five other priests, tried, convicted and hung, drawn and quartered as traitors. If this blog makes you want to read more, I published an extended article that includes an excerpt from Latham’s dialogue with Campion in the Anne Boleyn Files. It provoked lively commentary from descendants of recusants and Protestants. OR GET THE BOOK!


TUNE IN. RADIO INTERVIEW ON THE REVERSIBLE MASK. IF YOU’RE IN THE OCALA REGION OF FLORIDA, I will be interviewed on WOCA AM this Thursday 10.35-11.00 am EST. The hosts are Robin McBlane and Larry Whitler, formidable writers and musicians themselves. 25 minutes. What will they ask me? What will POP…out of my mouth? No idea. Celebrate my first LIVE radio interview since the release of my music CDs a lifetime ago. My next blog will go back to disruptive innovations my characters encountered. Some contrast.


This is the entrance to the first Alpine tunnel through an entire mountain, Monte Viso. It was begun in 1480 and opened in 1490. I send Latham and Don Cristobal into it at the closest point in their partnership, when they take guerrillas through on an unauthorized military expedition. Fun horror stuff happens on and inside Monte Viso. Resentment of Tuscan taxes inspired the French and Saluzzan monarchs of 1480 to dig from their respective ends.  The former financial adviser in me was tickled by such sustained palpable tax avoidance schemes.