QAB Interview: Catherine Fletcher, Ph.D, Historian

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Professor Catherine Fletcher
Professor Catherine Fletcher

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ABOUT CATHERINE FLETCHER, Ph.D

Catherine Fletcher, Ph.D is a historian specializing in the history of the Renaissance and early modern Europe. She is a Lecturer in Public History at the University of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, United Kingdom. Professor Fletcher is an expert in Renaissance and early modern diplomacy, particularly European “permanent resident” papal diplomacy in Rome, Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries. From her extensive research, Professor Fletcher completed a microhistorical study of Gregorio Casali, an Italian nobleman in the diplomatic service of Henry VIII of England, culminating in her premier historical biography, Our Man in Rome, Henry VIII and His Italian Ambassador. Beyond Professor Fletcher’s research specific to 15th and 16th century diplomacy, she is extensively researching the Public Histories of the Renaissance. She is currently composing a comprehensive biography of Alessandro de’ Medici to be published by Bodley Head.

Professor Fletcher’s most recent work included providing historical consultation to the British Broadcasting Company’s production of Wolf Hall, a six part mini-series that will premier on BBC2 tonight in the United Kingdom. Based on the Man Booker Prize winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies composed by highly acclaimed author Hilary Mantel, the mini-series focuses upon the life on Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex from his childhood through the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn. In the following interview, Professor Fletcher shares her experiences as a historical consultant to Wolf Hall and also shares fascinating insight into her ongoing research.

To learn more about historian Catherine Fletcher, Ph.D, visit her website at Catherine Fletcher.

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell Photo Credit: British Broadcasting Company
Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell
Photo Credit: British Broadcasting Company

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Professor Fletcher, it must have been very exciting to work as a historical consultant for BBC2’s highly anticipated Wolf Hall mini-series based on the stellar novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, written by the highly acclaimed author Hilary Mantel. QAB’s first series of questions focus upon your work in the mini-series production.

1. What exactly was the role you played in insuring historical accuracy in the Wolf Hall mini-series?

“I worked with the art team on the show through the filming process between April and August last year. The set designer had already done a lot of research getting the look of the show right but I was on the end of a phone and taking emails to sort out the day-to-day queries that came up.”

2. Just how important was it really for producers to create a sense of historical time, place and atmosphere? Can you give us some examples of how the director and production staff accomplished their goals?

“Obviously Hilary Mantel had done a huge amount of research to inform the original novels, and I think everyone involved in the TV adaptation was keen to stay true to that as it shifted onto the screen. So they were consulting experts about everything from Latin pronunciation to music to etiquette. Even little details like the correct colour for an altar cloth would be checked.”

3. I would imagine that consulting to such an important project was a huge responsibility. Can you give us some examples of recommendations you made to accomplish accuracy in the production?

“Well strangely enough some of the time I found myself saying, ‘you know, we just don’t know this’. For example it is hard to find pictures from the period showing the interior of houses. We find them in the Netherlands and Italy but not so much in England. On the other hand there were things that I discovered as I went, like the correct shape for a Tudor coffin – keep an eye out for that!”

4. Did your responsibilities include insuring the writing of the screenplay was as true as possible to the novels? Or was this a responsibility taken on by Hilary Mantel?

“No, I came on board at the filming stage. The screenplay obviously had to be condensed a lot from the novels but that was already in place before I got involved.”

5. Can you share with us your favorite contribution to BBC2’s Wolf Hall?

“I’ll get back to you on that once I’ve seen the whole series! There’s one particular suggestion I really hope they took on board but I’m waiting to see how it looks on screen.”

Editor Note: To read more about Professor Fletcher’s experience as a consultant to the Wolf Hall mini-series, click the following links: 1. Adapting Wolf Hall for TV: How I Played Historical Guessing Game  2. ‘What did a Tudor coffin look like?’: the weird and wonderful world of a Wolf Hall adviser.

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Alessandro de' Medici, Duke of Florence (Artist:  Jacopo Pontormo)
Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence
(Artist: Jacopo Pontormo)

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Professor Fletcher, QAB is fascinated by your research and expertise in the workings, influence and importance of diplomacy in early modern history. Our next series of questions will focus upon your research of early modern era diplomacy in general, your research specific to Gregorio Casali, King Henry VIII’s ambassador to Rome, and your outstanding premier biography, Our Man in Rome, Henry VIII and His Italian Ambassador. We will also touch upon your current research.

1. I would imagine given the influence of the papacy in the workings of early modern era European governments and cultures, that Rome was a huge epicenter of diplomatic activity. Professor Fletcher, can you share with us some highlights of your research surrounding European diplomacy in general at the papal courts in Rome, Italy in the 15th and early 16th centuries? Where did you find your contemporary sources? What was your favorite “previously unknown find’?

“Up until the middle of the nineteenth century, Italy was divided up into lots of small states. Diplomacy was vital to keeping the peace between them. Lots of rulers kept agents in Rome anyway to deal with church business and paperwork, so it wasn’t surprising that the papal court became a centre for other diplomacy too. The Italian archives are amazing places to work. A lot of the letters are still where the used to be – so the duke of Mantua’s archive is in Mantua, for Venetian documents you have to go to Venice – there’s a lot of travelling involved. But my favourite find was when I tracked down the descendants of Henry’s agent in Rome Gregorio Casali and discovered they still had sixteenth-century documents in their house!”

2. Just what types of tactics did diplomats of varying nations use to seek the favor of the Pope and his Cardinals to move their monarch’s agendas? Is it safe to say there were “indulgences” flowing?

“Henry VIII’s ambassadors were told to use ‘ready money and continual entertainment’ when they were lobbying for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. One of them is alleged to have slept with a courtesan to try and get information from her! There were certainly plenty of lavish gifts given – though of course one man’s ‘bribe’ was another man’s reasonable reward for services rendered.”

3. In your book Our Man in Rome, Henry VIII and His Italian Ambassador, you present a comprehensive biography of Gregorio Casali. Can you explain to browsers who exactly Gregorio Casali was and what his influence and importance was to the reign of King Henry VIII?

“Casali first came to England in the entourage of Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio (who of course was later papal legate in the divorce case). That was around 1518-19, and he was probably still a teenager. He obviously caught Wolsey’s eye – perhaps Henry’s too – because he started working as an agent supplying horses, hawks and hounds from Italy to the English court. In 1525 he was appointed English ambassador to Rome and must have thought it was a plum posting – little did he know that Henry’s scheme to marry Anne Boleyn was about to make it the job from hell!”

4. With the strong knowledge base most Tudorphiles have of Eustace Chapuys, why do you think there is so little known of Gregorio Casali?

“Well, obviously Chapuys was based in London writing about the detail of events at the Tudor court, so he’s an obvious source for the history of what’s going on in England. Casali was stuck in Rome, a long way from what was happening in England. He was trying his best to get Henry what he wanted but he wasn’t as close to the English action as Chapuys. But I think he’s a wonderful example of someone who accidentally got caught up in these great events of English history, while just trying to make a living for himself at the papal court.”

5. Somewhat related to Hilary Mantel’s influence upon the resurgence of interest in Thomas Cromwell, while you were researching throughout Rome and Italy, did you find any hints as to his life there, his meeting with Pope Leo X in 1517, or his connections with the Frescobaldis?

“Sadly not. I would bet on there being more to find about Cromwell somewhere in the Italian archives – but it would be a needle-in-a-haystack job!”

6. What happened to Gregorio Casali once King Henry VIII broke from Rome and established the Church of England? Did he remain in King Henry’s service?

“When Henry broke with Rome he recalled his ambassadors. Casali hoped to swap to a posting in Venice instead, but a scheme to make his brother English ambassador to Hungary went badly wrong. I don’t want to give away exactly what happens but suffice to say Thomas Cromwell does not come out of that particular story well.”

7. It is my understanding that your current research focuses upon the life of Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke and essentially ruler of Florence, Italy from 1530 to 1537. As an early modern history scholar what interested you in focusing your research on this particular historical figure? Will there be a biography of his life forthcoming?

“Alessandro was an illegitimate nephew of Pope Clement VII. Part of the reason that Clement was so reluctant to agree to Henry’s divorce was that he wanted the backing of Charles V (Catherine of Aragon’s nephew) to help the Medici back into power in Florence. So Alessandro is part of that story. But what’s also intriguing is that we think Alessandro’s mother – a servant in the Medici household – was mixed-race, of African descent. People often assume early modern Europe was all-white but that’s a long way from the truth. And quite apart from that Alessandro’s story is a wonderful bloody tale of family rivalry and revenge. I’m hoping the book will be out in 2016.”

8. Are there other research projects you are interested in sharing with QAB members and browsers?

“Alessandro was a great collector of handguns. They were a new technology in this period and I’m hoping to write more about early modern guns in a future project.”

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our man in rome

TO PURCHASE OUR MAN IN ROME, CLICK THE LINK BELOW!!

OUR MAN IN ROME, HENRY VIII AND HIS ITALIAN AMBASSADOR

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WOLF HALL starring Mark Rylance premiers on BBC2 beginning January 22, 2015 in the United Kingdom and on PBS on April 5, 2015 in the United States.
WOLF HALL starring Mark Rylance premiers on BBC2 beginning January 21, 2015 in the United Kingdom and on PBS beginning April 5, 2015 in the United States.

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WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles will premiers on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.
WOLF HALL and BRING UP THE BODIES featuring the Royal Shakespeare Company and starring Ben Miles both premier on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre on March 20, 2015.

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AUTHOR HIGHLIGHT

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is a highly acclaimed, award winning English historical fiction writer of novels and short stories. A two time Man Booker Prize Award honored author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, both novels featuring Thomas Cromwell as main character, Hilary Mantel is currently composing the final novel of her Tudor Era trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. 

Considered by many to be the world’s finest historical fiction author writing in the English language, Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, was published in 1985. Since then, Mantel’s exhaustive body of work includes a variety of stellar novels and short story compilations. Her commitment to and interest in composing compelling short stories greatly enhanced the genre’s popularity with readers and continued publishing viability.

Awards and prizes bestowed upon Hilary Mantel for extraordinary accomplishment in literature include the following: Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize 1987, Southern Arts Literature Prize 1990, The Cheltenham Prize 1990, Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize 1990, Sunday Express Book of the Year 1992, Hawthornden Prize 1996, CBE 2006, Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year) 2006, Costa Novel Award 2009, Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2009, National Book Critics’ Circle Award (US) 2009, James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) 2010, Walter Scott Prize 2010, and Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2012.

A portrait of Hilary Mantel, the creativity of Nick Lord, is on display at the British Library. She is the only living author to be bestowed such honor.

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Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel

TO PURCHASE A BOOK AUTHORED BY HILARY MANTEL

CLICK THE LINK BELOW

BOOKS BY HILARY MANTEL ON AMAZON.COM

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Beth von Staats

is the owner and administrator of QueenAnneBoleyn.com. The author of "Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell", Beth specializes in writing magazine articles, online historical articles, short stories, and flash fiction.

2 Replies to “QAB Interview: Catherine Fletcher, Ph.D, Historian

  1. Fascinating interview, I would love to learn more about Casali’s time as the English Ambassador to Rome. How exciting that Catherine Fletcher was involved in the filming of Wolf Hall.

    1. I am also very fascinated, Your Grace. In addition, I am interested in Professor Fletcher’s research of Alessandro de’ Medici and the apparently far greater diversity of cultures in Europe than we previously were aware of.

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