Last month, my husband started getting excited over Ancestry.com. He's now got an account and is exploring our family history. I had zero information on my paternal grandfather, and so he went to work for me, discovering that one of my ancestors on my paternal grandfather's side was a colonel in the Revolutionary War! Wow! That was news to me and who knows... maybe another novel in the making someday?
One of my author friends has quite an illustrious family history in Great Britain. Elizabeth St. John has traced her lineage clear back to the Wars of the Roses, and her newest book is about one of the women in her ancestral past. This week, I'm thrilled to host her here on Brook's Journal. So let's not waste any more time, but get straight to Elizabeth and what she has to tell us about her forebears.
An Interview with Elizabeth St. John
Welcome to Brook’s Journal, Liz! I’ve read some of your work, and there’s a fascinating component there that readers will want to know about. How do your past books relate to your family, as well as your new one?
Thanks so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to chat with you, and I love Brook’s Journal. It’s one of my favourite blogs! Well, my books are inspired by my own family stories that I have discovered through our ancestral records, diaries, letters and the locations they lived in. I’m fortunate the St.John family was prominent in English history, and so we left quite a trail—which can be both good and bad! My previous novels, The Lydiard Chronicles, are based on the diaries and records of my 17th century family, and it has been a glorious research journey uncovering their words and stories.
When I was looking for inspiration for my new book, The Godmother’s Secret, I literally put my own name into our digitised family tree to see who else was recorded. I was so excited to find Elysabeth St.John who lived in the 15th century – and over the moon when I discovered she was the godmother to Edward V – the eldest brother of the missing Princes in the Tower. I had a new family story to investigate! And surely Elysabeth, above anyone else, would know what happened to those poor princes?
What are some interesting details about your new book, The Godmother’s Secret? Would you tell us about your main characters and the basis of the plot?
I wanted to retell the story of the missing princes in the tower as soon as I discovered my ancestress’s relationship with Prince Edward. Elysabeth, who married John, 5th Baron Scrope of Bolton Castle in Yorkshire, joined the queen in sanctuary to witness the birth. In medieval times, a godmother was considered a blood relative, and was responsible for the spiritual wellbeing and security of their godchild. A serious commitment.
Where it gets interesting, Brook, is that Elysabeth was also the half-sister to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Elysabeth’s husband was a close ally of Richard III. So not only was Elysabeth (a Lancastrian) godmother to the York heir, she was also aunt to the Tudor claimant. Talk about a family at war! My plot revolves around Elysabeth’s vow as godmother and her desperate efforts to protect her godson, Edward V, from the intrigue and betrayal that surrounded him after she delivers him to the Tower of London for his coronation. At the same time, she is dealing with her own conflict, upholding her loyalty to both her husband and her family. More than anything, Elysabeth defies the bounds of blood and loyalty to make her own decisions for her godson’s survival in a hostile medieval world where women had little authority.
And remember, the princes went missing. Their bodies were never discovered, and no one was ever found guilty of murdering them. Even the bones that are claimed to be theirs in Westminster Abbey are not authenticated. Their disappearance is the biggest mystery in English history. I could weave in authenticated family facts and create my version of their story.
Wow! What an opportunity for a writer! Researching every book is an adventure. I know you've made several trips to the UK—I assume to gather some research for Godmother. Tell us about a specific moment when you felt overwhelmed with excitement by your character/work you were doing. (And it doesn’t HAVE to be in the UK! 😊)
My first research trip to England was well after I’d started the manuscript during lockdown (which was a huge challenge in itself—it was hard to write then, wasn’t it?). My daughter and I travelled to Bolton Castle for their Medieval Festival – literally a couple of weeks after we were allowed to fly again! The castle is fabulous – parts are still inhabitable – and watching the musicians and dancers perform to music that I know Elysabeth would have been familiar with, in her chamber, pretty much had me in tears!
And to your point, not all “aha” moments happen in such glorious circumstances! The other memorable day was when the whole plot came together for me. I was online on The Lydiard Archives website and realized that a dynastic family marriage (trying to avoid a spoiler here) made my story of the missing princes plausible. I got up from my chair and had a dance party with my cat and dog on that find!
Yep, celebrating those moments is an awesome feeling. But what was your biggest challenge with this book?
There were two really. After writing about the 17th century, where women had more of a role in society and records are plentiful, it was really challenging to create Elysabeth’s character in such a way that she had agency without being anachronistic. Chasing down fragments of records, often written in Latin or French, was a daily hair-pulling exercise in patience and persistence.
Oh, and wading into the biggest controversy in English history ranked a pretty close third. Did Richard III murder his nephews? Was Margaret Beaufort to blame? Or was it Tudor propaganda? I am braced for some healthy debates! I’d love to hear from your readers their opinions!
Readers can ask some pretty tough questions, sometimes. Since your characters are actual ancestors, have you ever fashioned one of them with your own personality or traits? If so, do tell us about that. And if not, is that something you might try sometime?
I think as authors, we always write a bit of ourselves into our work. And I’ve noticed that these traits can change over time, just as we do. In order to really sink into a story, I need to become that person and think about all their relationships and how they handle challenges, conflict, adversity, happiness. If I don’t draw directly on my own personality (that would get tedious for everyone pretty quickly) I do think of situations and people I’ve encountered over the years and reflect how they would act.
And now you can take a deep breath before the next question. What’s next for Elizabeth St. John?
A break until the beginning of next year, to restore and then perhaps dive back into the family tree. We did have some rather colourful Tudor cousins…including George Boleyn’s mother-in-law! Although I do have a story that’s about 25,000 words written where I absolutely love the main character. Now that she’s on the page, she won’t leave me alone…
It's obvious we’re both big historical fiction fans. Tell us about a book you love and recall reading with utter exuberance. Why was it so special?
Not fair to pick one! I have many that I love, so let me just say that. But if there is one book I return to every so often, it’s Katherine by Anya Seton. It was one of the first historical fiction novels I read, my mother gave it to me when I was about 12. It opened a whole world of history and storytelling and inspired teenage me to dream that one day perhaps I could write a novel. It has everything I love about historical fiction – compelling characters, great world-building, action, romance, and brilliant dialogue – and although it took a few decades, I did write my book!
It's simply amazing how you've written your family's stories—and readers love them. Who has been the character that has captivated you the most as a writer?
I think it’s Lucy St.John, the heroine of The Lady of the Tower. Her impact on our family, which I told in The Lydiard Chronicles, was significant. She was brave, and honest, and loving, and did the absolute best she could to care for her family in the most incredibly difficult conditions – living in the Tower of London, surviving civil war, a devastating marriage, and a world hostile to educated women.
Although I must admit, after spending the last two years with my medieval namesake, I have an enormous admiration for any woman who could survive in a world of such uncertainty and fear.
What is it you appreciate the most about being an independent author? If the right agent ever approached you, would you consider traditional publishing?
I adore the independence of choosing my own stories, and working with my incredible editor, Jenny Toney Quinlan, to bring them to readers. I can write to my own themes, and hopefully, the success of my books shows that we indie authors can be just as captivating as those traditionally published. I also love the camaraderie of the independent author community – an incredible group of people who truly support and inspire each other.
And actually, I’m just about to announce that I was recently approached by an agent and am very excited to be working with her. She is representing my work for co-editions along with film and translation rights at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October – so let’s see what happens!
Liz, how exciting!!! Do know that I wish you the absolute BEST! I'm so grateful for your time and delightful answers to my questions. But I still have one more. I happen to know you have a special source of inspiration and his name is Arthur! Tell my readers why he’s your special KING Arthur!
LOL. Arthur, aka King Arthur, and Arthur McArthur. Like you Brook, I’ve always had dogs at my side when I write, and when our lovely old Newfie, Chubs, passed away at the end of 2019, we were devastated. We didn’t have the heart to find another Newfie, and we have always loved Clumber Spaniels. So, just before lock down, three month old Arthur came into our lives. He’s an absolute clown, full of love and snores like a buzz saw. There hasn’t been a dull moment since!
Again, a very special shout-out to my friend, Elizabeth St. John for sharing so many juicy tidbits about her family, her books, and aspirations. What a special community of writers it is to which she and I belong!
More about Elizabeth St. John
Elizabeth St.John spends her time between California, England, and the past. An acclaimed author, historian, and genealogist, she has tracked down family papers and residences from Lydiard Park and Nottingham Castle to Richmond Palace and the Tower of London to inspire her novels. Although the family sold a few country homes along the way (it's hard to keep a good castle going these days), Elizabeth's family still occupy them— in the form of portraits, memoirs, and gardens that carry their legacy. And the occasional ghost. But that's a different story.
Having spent a significant part of her life with her seventeenth-century family while writing The Lydiard Chronicles trilogy and Counterpoint series, Elizabeth St.John is now discovering new family stories with her fifteenth-century namesake Elysabeth St.John Scrope, and her half-sister, Margaret Beaufort.
All About The Godmother's Secret
What if you knew what happened to the Princes in the Tower. Would you tell? Or would you forever keep the secret?
November, 1470: Westminster Abbey. Lady Elysabeth Scrope faces a perilous royal duty when ordered into sanctuary with Elizabeth Woodville–witness the birth of Edward IV’s Yorkist son. Margaret Beaufort, Elysabeth’s sister, is desperately seeking a pardon for her exiled son Henry Tudor. Strategically, she coerces Lancastrian Elysabeth to be appointed godmother to Prince Edward, embedding her in the heart of the Plantagenets and uniting them in a destiny of impossible choices and heartbreaking conflict.
Bound by blood and torn by honour, when the king dies and Elysabeth delivers her young godson into the Tower of London to prepare for his coronation, she is engulfed in political turmoil. Within months, the prince and his brother have disappeared, Richard III is declared king, and Margaret conspires with Henry Tudor to invade England and claim the throne. Desperate to protect her godson, Elysabeth battles the intrigue, betrayal and power of the last medieval court, defying her husband and her sister under her godmother’s sacred oath to keep Prince Edward safe.
Were the princes murdered by their uncle, Richard III? Was the rebel Duke of Buckingham to blame? Or did Margaret Beaufort mastermind their disappearance to usher in the Tudor dynasty? Of anyone at the royal court, Elysabeth has the most to lose–and the most to gain–by keeping secret the fate of the Princes in the Tower.
Inspired by England’s most enduring historical mystery, Elizabeth St.John, best-selling author of The Lydiard Chronicles, blends her own family history with known facts and centuries of speculation to create an intriguing alternative story illuminating the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.
Connect with Elizabeth
BUY THE BOOK!!!
This title is available on #KindleUnlimited.