Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Join The Coffee Pot Book Club in conversation with author Rosemary Griggs about The Dartington Bride #HistoricalFiction #Huguenots #ElizabethanFiction @RAGriggsauthor @cathiedunn

The Dartington Bride

Daughters of Devon

by Rosemary Griggs

1571, and the beautiful, headstrong daughter of a French Count marries the son of the Vice Admiral of the Fleet of the West in Queen Elizabeth’s chapel at Greenwich. It sounds like a marriage made in heaven...

Roberda’s father, the Count of Montgomery, is a prominent Huguenot leader in the French Wars of Religion. When her formidable mother follows him into battle, she takes all her children with her.

After a traumatic childhood in war-torn France, Roberda arrives in England full of hope for her wedding. But her ambitious bridegroom, Gawen, has little interest in taking a wife.

Received with suspicion by the servants at her new home, Dartington Hall in Devon, Roberda works hard to prove herself as mistress of the household and to be a good wife. But there are some who will never accept her as a true daughter of Devon.

After the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Gawen’s father welcomes Roberda’s family to Dartington as refugees. Compassionate Roberda is determined to help other French women left destitute by the wars. But her husband does not approve. Their differences will set them on an extraordinary path...

Welcome, Rosemary! Feel free to make yourself comfortable.
Would you like some tea or coffee? Or maybe something a bit stronger?

Thank you Cathie, I’ll have tea, please. My grandchildren call it  "grandma fuel" because I drink so many cups. Although, I do enjoy a mid-morning coffee as well. Coffee’s also my drink of choice just before I go ‘on stage’ as the Lady Katherine or Bessie the Serving Maid. I used to enjoy something stronger, but I developed an unfortunate alcohol intolerance a few years ago. Now, I have to be cautious even when it comes to a tiny bit of alcohol in cooking.

Oh no, I'm sorry to hear about your allergy. It must be tricky at times, especially when eating out. Tea it is.

Before we begin, please introduce yourself.

I’m Rosemary Griggs  and I’m passionate about bringing history to life. Since I retired from the Civil Service I’ve been lucky enough to be able to indulge this passion to the full.

I’ve been researching sixteenth century Devon for years. The names of characters like Drake and Hawkins, Raleigh and Grenville are written large in our history.  But the stories of the women who also played their part in those tumultuous Tudor and Elizabethan years often remain untold. I love bringing the wives, sisters, daughters and mothers into the light in my writing. I call them the Daughters of Devon. I’m particularly interested in one very well connected family: The Champernownes.

I also research sixteenth-century clothing and create outfits I wear in a unique blend of theatre, history and re-enactment. My presentations are very popular with museums and community groups, so I now travel all over the west of England and my diary is full. I definitely work as hard now as I ever did during what was a rewarding and demanding career.

On top of all of this, out of costume, for around 8 years, it has been my privilege to lead heritage tours of the gardens at Dartington Hall. A wonderful fourteenth-century manor house set in magnificent Grade II listed gardens, Dartington is now a visitor destination and charity supporting learning in arts, ecology and social justice. It’s also the setting for my latest novel, The Dartington Bride.

Could you tell us a little about your book and what inspired you to set your story during this particular period in history?

I fell in love with the sixteenth century when I was at school when I was captivated by all the tales of King Henry and his wives. But what really interests me now is how the other people of England, women in particular, navigated their way through the upheaval of a century of immense social, political and religious change.

I first came across Lady Gabrielle Roberda Montgomery when I was researching my first novel, A Woman of Noble Wit, the story of Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother. Roberda, as she was known, left her home in Normandy and came to England to marry Katherine Raleigh’s nephew, Gawen Champernowne. I wanted to explore how Roberda’s childhood experiences during the Wars of Religion in France may have affected her, and the sort of reception she may have received in Devon. I’m giving  no spoilers here, but her life did take a rather unexpected turn.

When researching the background of Dartington Hall from that era, did you come upon any unexpected surprises?

Just like any ancient property, Dartington has many ghost stories. The most prominent one has been passed down through generations of the Champernowne Family who lived a Dartington from the mid sixteenth century until 1925. It revolves around eerie footsteps resonating on the floorboards in a room known as 'The Countess's Room'. Initially, I was skeptical, but my research unearthed compelling evidence connecting not one, but two women who may have experienced great unhappiness within that very room.

Roberda was one of those two women, but I won't divulge all the details of her sorrows — readers will soon discover them for themselves. The other was Roberda’s mother, Isabeau, Countess of Montgomery. Sir Arthur Champernwone welcomed Isabeau and all of Roberda’s family to Dartington as refugees after the St Bartholomew Day massacre in 1572. My research suggest that Isabeau returned a couple of years later, at a very dark time in her life. Later records confirm that neither woman actually fell to her death from the window, as some stories suggest. But perhaps an imprint of sorrow, grief and loss does linger there. I was shocked to feel a strange chill run down my spine as I looked out form the widow of that room, even though Dartington’s gardens were bathed in warm summer sunshine.

We know of noble French families who fled to safety abroad, but how did ordinary Huguenots, those without the means to escape, cope with the violence and persecution?

I don’t think we can even begin to imagine how dreadful it was for them, though recent world events have thrown similar levels of suffering into sharp relief. Many of those able to find refuge overseas were professional people like doctors, clergymen, merchants and teachers, or skilled artisans, weavers, silversmiths, watchmakers. Poignant letters remain to tell us how they sent money back to France to support wives and families they had left behind.  Replies from the women beg their husbands to pay for their passage so that they can join their menfolk in what they saw as a promised land.

Most of those affected lived in cities where conditions were difficult. Those less well-off working men, the men previously employed by the workshop owners who did escape, were not only persecuted, but they had also lost their livelihood. The violence continued and I think many joined the armies of Henri of Navarre and continued to fight for freedom of worship. Fighting dragged on until the Edict of Nantes, signed in April 1598, ended the civil war and granted Huguenots their rights. Until then, I imagine some had no choice but to hide their true beliefs in order to survive.

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction during this era?

Setting aside my twenty-first century values and norms so that I can see the world through their eyes. Sixteenth century women lived in a paternalistic society where their expectations of life, freedom and happiness were very different from our own. That does not mean they didn’t live worthwhile lives and achieve a lot. Aristocratic women were the glue that bound wealthy families together, responsible for managing vast households and estates and brining up the next generation. They experienced life’s highs and lows, childbirth, loss, love, ageing, just as we do. But it was all within a vastly different framework. I think the most difficult trick is to give my female characters agency that is appropriate to their time.

What is your next writing project about?

I’m well on the way towards  a sequel to The Dartington Bride which will take Roberda and the Champernownes of Dartington through the time of the Spanish Armada and beyond.

As well as having a whole string of other potential Daughters of Devon waiting in the wings, I’ve almost completed my research into a high profile Tudor / Elizabethan figure connected to the Champernowne family. I hope this will eventually lead to another book, possibly a non-fiction one this time.

What an enlightening chat, Rosemary! It's such a fascinating era. I'm looking forward to reading The Dartington Bride, and to visiting Dartington Hall in September.

Thank you for your time.

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Rosemary Griggs

Author and speaker Rosemary Griggs has been researching Devon’s sixteenth-century history for years. She has discovered a cast of fascinating characters and an intriguing network of families whose influence stretched far beyond the West Country and loves telling the stories of the forgotten women of history – the women beyond the royal court; wives, sisters, daughters and mothers who played their part during those tumultuous Tudor years: the Daughters of Devon.

Her novel A Woman of Noble Wit tells the story of Katherine Champernowne, Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother, and features many of the county’s well-loved places.

Rosemary creates and wears sixteenth-century clothing, a passion which complements her love for bringing the past to life through a unique blend of theatre, history and re-enactment. Her appearances and talks for museums and community groups all over the West Country draw on her extensive research into sixteenth-century Devon, Tudor life and Tudor dress, particularly Elizabethan.

Out of costume, Rosemary leads heritage tours of the gardens at Dartington Hall, a fourteenth-century manor house and now a visitor destination and charity supporting learning in arts, ecology and social justice.

Connect with Rosemary:

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