QAB Interview: Historian of “Fact, Faith, Fiction and Fantasy”, Derek Wilson

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Derek Wilson
Derek Wilson

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Derek Wilson is a self-described highly prolific historian of  “fact, faith, fiction and fantasy”. A graduate from Cambridge in 1961, Derek spent several years travelling and teaching in Africa before becoming a full-time writer and broadcaster in 1971. Derek’s body of work of both fiction and non-fiction work is exhaustive, and we strongly urge you to visit his website of an amazing chronology of biographies, general history books, and historical fiction novels at Derek Wilson: Historian of Fact, Faith, Fiction and Fantasy. Under the pen name D.K. Wilson, Derek  authored The First Horseman and the recently released The Traitor’s Mark, both featuring lead protagonist Thomas Treviot, young goldsmith drawn into a religious conspiracy.

Queenanneboleyn.com caught up wit Derek recently to discuss his new release The Traitor’s Mark, as well as his interest in Tudor Era history. His commendable knowledge led to highly fascinating answers to our questions.

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1. Derek on your website you describe yourself as a historian of “fact, faith, fiction and fantasy”. You obviously are a highly prolific author of both factual English history and British historical fiction. Can you share with browsers how “faith” and “fantasy” influence both your research and your fiction writing?

As a Christian (my university degree is actually for theology) I am naturally interested in the impact of religion on major movements in history, particularly the Reformation. The 16th C was a time when issues of belief were important for the majority of people. As to fantasy, I’m not into sci-fi but one of my literary heroes is C.S. Lewis. In 2013 I published Magnificent Malevolence, a kind of update on Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. Perhaps I should have put ‘Imagination’ instead of ‘Fantasy’ – but that wouldn’t have alliterated!

2. The main protagonist of The First Horseman and your recently released novel The Traitor’s Mark is Thomas Treviot, a fictional goldsmith who while providing no spoilers gets drawn into religious intrigues and conspiracies during the reign of King Henry VIII. Please tell QAB browsers a little bit about Mr. Treviot. What makes him such a compelling lead character?

When we first meet Thomas as a 21-year-old, he’s a damaged character. He’s lost his father and his wife in quick succession, he has an infant son to bring up and his mother is suffering from dementia. He’s very much a ‘lost soul’ and, as such, evokes our sympathy (I hope). It is the quest for Packington’s killer that draws him out of his self pity. Then his innate qualities of loyalty and tenacity emerge. Also, his business contacts and his life in London involve him in society at all levels.

Hans Holbein the Younger (self-portrait)
Hans Holbein the Younger
(self-portrait)

3. I see that Hans Holbein factors into your newly released novel The Traitor’s Mark. Do disagreements among historians as to his cause of death factor into the plot at all?

I don’t think there are ‘disagreements’. Our only source is Karel van Mander who stated, 60 years after the event, that Holbein died of plague. Historians generally accept that because there’s no alternative. But the plague theory rests on very weak evidence and earlier attempts in Elizabeth’s reign to locate the artist’s grave and English family failed. We can fairly class Holbein’s disappearance as a mystery and that entitles the fiction writer to speculate.

4. I am an admitted lover of historical thriller and mystery novels. What interested you in the genre?

I’ve always loved whodunits as well as historical novels. Because scientific crime detection was almost non-existent 500 years ago there remains a wealth of unsolved homicides ready for exploration.

5. In your fascinating QAB Guest Article that published on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury on March 21st, you discuss the Prebendaries’ Plot of 1543. (For the benefit of browsers, this plot was a conspiracy among conservative clergy to orchestrate the fall of Thomas Cranmer). Is this plot so unfamiliar to many Tudor enthusiasts in any way factor in your new novel The Traitor’s Mark? If you can do so without giving too much away of the overall plot, how so?

Much of the action of the Prebendaries’ Plot took place in Canterbury and the surrounding area of Kent. This is where Treviot has his country home and by 1543 he is a leading member of Kentish society. As the county is torn apart by pro-Cranmer and anti-Cranmer factions Treviot is inevitably involved in trying to maintain law and order.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Photo Credit: Jesus College, Cambridge)
Thomas Cranmer
(Photo Credit: Jesus College, Cambridge)

6. Please forgive my ignorance, but until I read through your website, I did not realize that you researched and wrote a history book entitled A Brief History of the English Reformation. I was thrilled to see this as many new to an interest in the era are sometimes frightened off by the outstanding comprehensive works of historians such as Diarmaid MacCulloch. Do you find that shorter historical works draw in those who might otherwise not delve into the intrigues and historical significance of the English Reformations? Why is the English Reformation still important for people to understand today?

I see my role very much as making history accessible to the non-academic reader. History, after all, belongs to everyone. The Reformation, in my view, was the most important movement in the last thousand years of European history. Certainly it created ‘modern England’ as an independent nation state, increasingly in conflict with its neighbours and one which transplanted its religious and political ideology all over the world (including America).

7. Do you think their is a historical figure who is under appreciated relative to his or her contributions to the English Reformation? If so, who is this person and why?

It worries me that Thomas Cromwell is often represented as a cynical politique, driven by self-interest and by his desire to please his tyrannical master. Foxe’s evaluation of him as a great ‘soldier and captain of Christ’ tends to be dismissed by our secular age which finds religious commitment difficult to understand.

8. Do you have any thoughts about the life stories of English priests and recusants enduring through the English Reformation?

One must admire all who suffer for their beliefs. The position of English Catholics was made impossible when the pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth and released them from their allegiance to her. Like all marginalised communities their resentment led some to acts of violence (the Gunpowder Plot).

King Edward VI
King Edward VI

9. Many browsers as history enthusiasts debate this question endlessly. Since you have an expertise in the English Reformation I will ask this question on their behalf. Who do you think was the principal driver of the Devise of the Succession of 1553, King Edward VI or John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland? To follow-up, why are you of this opinion?

There is no doubt from Edward’s diaries that he was a dyed-in-the-wool Protestant who wanted at all costs to prevent the accession of Catholic Mary and who believed he could not face his Maker if he allowed his realm to fall back into the papal fold. Had Dudley engineered the coup to place Jane Grey on the throne I think he would have made military preparations to ensure its success. This he, fatally, failed to do. See my Uncrowned Kings of England, pp.215 ff.

10. Given we are Queenanneboleyn.com, I need to ask this question for the benefit of our browsers. How much did the religious beliefs of Queen Anne Boleyn influence the English Reformation? Is the opinions of many “Anne Boleyn enthusiasts” that she had a profound influence overstated?

We have to accept the unpalatable fact that, in the 16th C, women, of whatever status, were regarded as inferior to men. There were several outstanding examples of women who made their mark despite this prejudice but Henry VIII certainly never allowed his wives to ‘interfere’ in religion or politics (eg. he became irritated in 1546 when he thought Catherine Parr was trying to instruct him in matters of faith). This does not mean that they had no influence. Anne, for example, suggested that Henry should read Tyndale’s Obedience of a Christian Man. It took a much subtler mind, such as Cromwell’s, to ‘steer’ the king towards further reform.

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11. Is there anything else you would like to share with QAB browsers?

The only point I’d like to add is that we should read historical fiction for what it is – fiction. The novelist always has to tell a story. That means that he/she selects the facts to be used (and not used) and the interpretation placed on them. Novels should not be allowed to colour our judgement of the major figures in history. That is why I prefer to write about made-up characters from the lower echelons of society. I’ll be making this point in the video Claire plans to post on her site next month.

Editor’s Note: In the answer above, Derek is speaking of Claire Ridgway, historian and founder of  The Anne Boleyn Files and The Tudor Society. The video he is referencing will be shown on The Tudor Society, and membership is required. QAB’s owner and Twitter Representative @QueenAnneBoleyn are both members of The Tudor Society. We wholeheartedly recommend this outstanding online forum.

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The Traitor’s Mark (Content from the author’s website):

FACT

In the autumn of 1543, Hans Holbein, the leading European portrait painter, disappeared in London. What happened to him remains a mystery. At the same time a plot was afoot to bring down Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Were these events linked?

STORY

Thomas Treviot is again plunged into the murky world of Tudor politics and religion when his friend, Hans Holbein, disappears and his assistant, Bart Miller, is charged with murder. Thomas and friends who will be familiar to readers of The First Horseman are drawn into the political world of a sick and unstable Henry VIII and a nation torn apart by ruthless, rival factions determined to shape England’s identity. Publication 14 March 2015. Available as ebook now.

Derek Wilson is a self-described highly prolific historian of  “fact, faith, fiction and fantasy”. A graduate from Cambridge in 1961, Derek spent several years travelling and teaching in Africa before becoming a full-time writer and broadcaster in 1971.Derek’s body of work of both fiction and non-fiction work is exhaustive, and we strongly urge you to visit his website of an amazing chronology of biographies, general history books, and historical fiction novels at Derek Wilson: Historian of Fact, Faith, Fiction and Fantasy. Under the pen name D.K. Wilson, Derek has authored The First Horseman and the recently released The Traitor’s Mark, both featuring lead protagonist Thomas Treviot, young goldsmith drawn into a religious conspiracy.

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The Traitor’s Mark

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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.

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