Writing fiction using historical fact

Secret Agents, Tulips, and the English Crown Jewels

The real history behind The Chosen Man Trilogy

Some authors are irritated by the question ‘where do you get your ideas from?’ but I see it as perfectly valid. Knowing the genesis of a good story can deepen its enjoyment or appreciation. In my case, however, it’s rather chicken and egg. Which came first, the idea for The Chosen Man and what became a trilogy, or the ideas generated out of the research? Historical fiction authors can probably relate to this; they may also agree that while research can take you down fascinating rabbit holes, some of the best bits have to be left out because readers almost certainly won’t believe it. This is what happened when I started gathering material about the first financial bubble known as tulipmania or tulip fever and Vatican secret agents for The Chosen Man. All of which was fascinating, but in many respects almost beggared belief.

But where did the idea come from? Well, the story began with a combination of events, one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele, a British National Trust property on the River Tamar in Cornwall and the model for the fictional house ‘Crimphele’ in my first novel. Wandering around the house mentally preparing the sequel to The Empress Emerald (set early 20th Century), I was beset by characters living in the 17th Century. To start with, the evil-minded McNab walked out of a wall, crossed the Great Hall and disappeared, then re-appeared later crossing the courtyard. He made my skin crawl, but he was not to be ignored. The portrait of a Stuart harridan gave me the unpleasant mother-in-law, and then to top it all, while I was gazing down at the Tamar Estuary from the roof of the Tudor tower I ‘saw’ Ludo da Portovenere arrive on a boat – much as he does at the end of the first book in the trilogy. So, I went home, set aside my original notes and started a new book entirely.

The story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA and I was reminded of the Dutch tulip bubble. During the 1630s in the Netherlands, or the United Provinces as the country was known then, tulip bulbs were worth more than their weight in gold. A virus which attacked the bulbs resulted in exotic stripes or ‘flames’ on petals, and a single rare bulb could cost three times the annual wage of a skilled artisan or even the price of an elegant house in Amsterdam. This was a period of intense political and religious intrigue in Europe. Spain was heavily involved in the Thirty Years War to regain Flanders; Pope Urban VIII was outwardly supporting Spain while conspiring to limit the size and power of the Holy Roman Empire, to which Habsburg Spain belonged; and France was playing both sides against the middle, harrying Spanish ships and playing double games with Rome. Having lived in the Netherlands I was well acquainted with the tulipmania, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo might be employed as an agent provocateur in a conspiracy to undermine the burgeoning Protestant Dutch economy. Charismatic, wily Ludo is fictional, but he serves to show how just one man can create financial mayhem and ruin the lives of humble men and women in the process. Acting on behalf of the Spanish monarch and a Vatican cardinal, Ludo encourages and facilitates speculation on tulip bulbs.

The conspiracy theory behind Ludo’s actions is unproven, but the tulip bubble was very well documented at the time. Contemporary reports and records of sales transactions demonstrate the outrageous escalating prices paid up to 1637, when the bubble burst.

The question is why did otherwise sober, thrifty Dutch men and women engage in what was basically gambling with flowers that for most of the year could not even be seen? The answer lies in a combination of factors overshadowed by the knowledge that Death was quite literally on their doorstep.

Amsterdam in 1635 was a thriving city driven by what we call the ‘work ethic’. Frippery and ostentation were frowned upon, so what could people who by their very thrift have acquired surplus income spend their money on? It had to be something that was not a visible luxury. Some people became patrons to up and coming artists, some became tulip connoisseurs. These exotic flowers, introduced into Holland from the land of the infidel, were defined as a ‘connoisseur item’ and were named after famous admirals and towns, and coveted. Within no time, otherwise sensible men and women began gambling on bulbs doubling or tripling their value in the space of a year, a month, a week – by 1636 prices were going up by the day. Men of both the professional and artisan classes, and many women, were spending their entire savings on bulbs, because money must not lie idle, and plague could kill an entire family in the space of one day.

One pamphlet of the time recorded the items and their value which were traded for a single Viceroy bulb. As you read, bear in mind the family of a shoemaker or baker lived on between 250 and 350 guilders* a year.

Item Value
(florins*)
Two lasts of wheat 448
Four lasts of rye 558
Four fat oxen 480
Eight fat swine 240
Twelve fat sheep 120
Two hogsheads of wine 70
Four casks of beer 32
Two tons of butter 192
A complete bed 100
A suit of clothes 80
A silver drinking cup 60
Total 2,500

(Guilders and florins* – the name of the currency used at this time varied from province to province. I opted to use guilders because it is the modern word for the currency.)

At its height, in the early spring of 1637, a Dutch merchant paid 6,650 guilders for a dozen tulip bulbs. Artisans pawned or sold their tools to ‘invest’ – largely thanks to Ludo da Portovenere, who brings bulbs from Constantinople then facilitates a futures market so humble men and women can participate in the fun. Ludo had access to the forbidden city because he was once a Barbary corsair and speaks the language.

As the trilogy progresses, Ludo gradually reveals his identity, or lack of it. His mother, a Doria, daughter of the Doge of Genoa, was captured by corsairs. Ludo was born in the Berber stronghold of Salé and raised by Murat Reïs, a renegade Dutchman named Jan Janszoon, who went into history as the infamous Murat Reïs the Younger, illustrious ancestor of the American Vanderbilt family, Jackie Onassis and Sir Winston Churchill.

In Book 2, A Turning Wind, Ludo moves into the Portuguese Goan spice trade, but he is still pursued by the Vatican agent, Rogelio, who must destroy any evidence of the tulip conspiracy. Rogelio is part of the Vatican Black Order, sinister operatives and secret agents tasked with eliminating those who oppose or threaten the power of Rome. Here again, my background reading supplied much of the story – although this is where I also chose to leave out quite lot. The real history behind the Holy Alliance and the Black Order is hair-raising.

To write this second book I had to read about taxes and tariffs on cargoes from the East, about gems and silks, and secret treaties between England and Spain. Ludo becomes involved in delicate personal missions for two monarchs and sets in motion his vendetta on the Doria clan, who rejected his mother on her return to Liguria and exiled her to the castle in Porto Venere.

Agostino Doria was Doge of Genoa from 1600-1603. His family tree names each of his sons, but there is also an un-named daughter (who became Ludo’s mother). Having lived across the Gulf of La Spezia in Lerici, I knew a fair amount about Porto Venere. Each of the scenes there is written with the place very clearly in mind. Ludo, we learn is illegitimate, he is also ambitious and determined to get recompense for the way his mother was treated by her brothers, which is exactly what would have happened to any woman of ‘gentle birth’ who had been captured by corsairs: she could never hope to make a good marriage after that, her name was sullied.

As the story progresses, Ludo is sent to the Spanish court, which is passing the summer in El Escorial. He has been engaged by Charles Stuart to seek support from Catholic Spain for the coming Civil War in England. He is also charged by King Charles’ wife, the French Henrietta Maria, to help her sister Isabel, Queen of Spain. Both these commissions are based on real, albeit perhaps little-known affairs. During the early 1640s Spanish and English Ambassadors were drawing up a treaty that would enable Spanish troops to cross southern England as a land bridge to Flanders to avoid being attacked by the French. It was a tricky issue, the Protestant English celebrated the failure of Catholic Spain to invade Britain in 1588, the Spanish would not have been welcome, despite the fact that the West Country mainly favoured the Royalists during the subsequent war. Ludo becomes involved in these negotiations, and also in the Spanish queen’s private battle for control over her husband Felipe IV with his valido (First Minister and favourite) the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares, and his Gorgon of a wife, Inez.

This became another moment where researching documented history uncovered details begging to be turned into fiction. The Conde-Duque was difficult, dangerous and spectacularly ugly. And in each respect, he and his wife were well-matched. Writing scenes involving these two real characters was as entertaining as it was challenging. A lot has been written (in Spanish) about both, so I had to choose my words carefully.

While researching Goa and the uncut-gem trade, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689) while preparing for A Turning Wind. In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza. This is where having lived in different countries and travelled pretty widely came in useful too. We had lived near El Escorial in the province of Madrid for a number of years, and I had visited Lisbon, Portugal, on various occasions.

Imagining these places in the past was not difficult, although Lisbon was effectively destroyed during a major earthquake in the 18th century, which made describing the old city rather more creative than factual.

 

Book 3, By Force of Circumstance, was helped along by a visit to a gin distillery in Plymouth (important research here!) and some astonishing facts relating to how Queen Henrietta Maria tried to raise money for Charles Stuart during the English Civil War. On a more serious level, one of the main themes in the trilogy shows how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. What happens to the main characters, Ludo, Alina and Marcos, is determined by a conflict not of their making, in a country not their own. Their efforts to safeguard their families was probably little different to what real people in their social circumstances experienced.

To write this part of the story I needed to find out what happened to certain gems, brooches, necklaces and pearl-studded hatbands belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn these royal heirlooms was well documented at the time, although a few, including the spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the jewels is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. It became a matter of ‘what if . . .’ combined with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.

This final story takes Ludo back Porto Venere. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus. I’d had the final scene of the trilogy in mind for a very long time, but writing it brought tears to my eyes. Ludo and Alina had become real people for me.

You can read more about the origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, Tavernier’s description of how men used eagles to acquire diamonds from pythons, and about the missing items belonging to the English Crown Jewels here in this blog.

Each of the books in The Chosen Man Trilogy is a Readers’ Favorite 5*. If you have enjoyed the stories, please leave a review on your retailer’s site.

 

 

 

 

The Chosen Man Trilogy completed!

Mission accomplished! The trilogy I promised Penmore Press is now complete. It’s exciting, and I will admit to a considerable sense of satisfaction, but there’s also to a sense of loss: I shall miss my voyages with Ludo. I shall also miss doing the research behind each story; it was both enjoyable and enlightening. Each of the books involved a good deal of background reading and investigation despite being based on topics familiar to me and set in places I know.
To give you an idea of what I have learned while writing the trilogy here are a few details on how each story began and what I needed to know about before I could actually start.

The Chosen Man – Tulips, Vatican intrigue and a financial scandal

The first Ludo story was inspired by a combination of two events; one very real with devastating financial consequences, the other un-real, other-worldly, when I ‘saw’ people during a visit to Cotehele in Cornwall (while preparing for another book altogether). Cotehele, a National Trust property on the River Tamar, became the fictional house Crimphele, then the story-line fell into place as I watched news coverage of the Lehman Brothers and mortgage scandals in the USA. I had lived in the Netherlands, was acquainted with the tulip bubble, and it seemed quite plausible that a character such as Ludo (the infamous ancestor of Leo Kazan in The Empress Emerald) might be employed as an agent provocateur acting for Habsburg Spain and, supposedly, for Rome. After fitting these elements together, I then had to learn some hard facts behind ‘tulip mania’ and some of the vaguer, barely credible history behind Vatican espionage and secret agents. It took a good two years to write The Chosen Man, fortunately reviews show it was all worthwhile.

A Turning Wind – Gems, Snakes and Ladders and the Queen of Spain

A long, long time ago I had a gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop, it wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I learnt a lot and it helped greatly while preparing notes for A Turning Wind. During my research, I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India, Tavernier quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene. That, and the ancient ethical origins of the game Snakes and Ladders, created the background for Ludo’s second adventure, via documented history on Portugal and the ambitious Duchess of Braganza, and a little known, unrealized treaty between Charles 1st and Felipe IV of Spain. Having spent many years living near El Escorial, the scenes set there with the infamous Conde-Duque de Olivares and Velazquez were easy to write.

By Force of Circumstance (2019).- The English Civil War, Barbary corsairs, Doria family secrets and Portovenere

One of my aims while writing this trilogy was to show how decisions made in high places can have appalling consequences for ordinary members of society. This story in particular shows how one’s personal destiny can be determined by events far beyond one’s control. The over-riding circumstance here is a civil war. What happens to Ludo, Alina and Marcos is determined by a conflict not of their making in a country not their own and their efforts to safeguard their families. Regrettably, it is something many readers can relate to nowadays.
What I specifically needed to learn about for this book, though, was what happened to certain gems belonging to the English Crown Jewels. Queen Henrietta Maria’s attempts to sell and pawn exquisite necklaces, hatbands and brooches – royal heirlooms – was well documented at the time, although a few, including the famous spinel clasp named The Three Brethren, did go astray. What Ludo does with the gems is largely my invention, but a Portuguese Catholic princess did marry an English monarch so to an extent I was only playing with facts. All I really had to do was say, ‘What if . . .’ and combine it with Ludo’s capacity for mischief.
This final story takes Ludo back to Portovenere in Liguria, Italy – a place I have visited many times. The name derives from a temple dedicated to the goddess Venus; and there’s a Doria castle there too. Agustin, the Doria Doge of Genoa of the epoch, had a daughter, she is un-named in the Doria family tree but she may have lived there. Barbary corsairs constantly raided the Ligurian coast – so again, what if . . .?
And that brings Ludo’s adventures to an end, although he does have two impish daughters who might well set to sea in a galleon named ‘Tulip’ in the not too distant future.

If you would like to know more about some of the history mentioned here you will find it here in my blog.

Golconda diamonds – long ago, far away

Writing about real diamonds in historical fiction

Once upon a time, I had gap year job in a jewellery and antique shop. I was taken to their workshop to see how jewels were cut and set, and gradually learned what sort of antiques sold to what sort of customer. It was a pleasant job, but not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Looking back, however, much of what I learned then has come in very handy for my historical fiction.

Budding authors are advised to write what they know: my first novel, The Magpie, subsequently re-written as The Empress Emerald, is about Leo Kazan, a young man in colonial Bombay who has a fascination for all things shiny. I had a basic knowledge of the gems, and what I knew about India during the Raj came from tales of a great uncle who loved his time in India. In writing this novel – and without giving it any thought – I was combining the far away and long ago with personal experience. A technique I extended for The Chosen Man trilogy, drawing on my time living in Italy, the Netherlands and Spain with events that happened centuries ago.

While preparing for my new release, A Turning Wind, (Book 2 in The Chosen Man trilogy), I came across the writing of the French merchant-explorer Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689). In a spell-binding account of how diamonds were mined in the Golconda region of India he quotes an account supposedly written by Marco Polo of how diamonds were found and traded in the area centuries before. It was too good not to use so I wove it into the opening scene of A Turning Wind, it also sets the scene for what is to come later perfectly.

Goa, India, September 1639

It was a ramshackle affair for such valuable goods. A makeshift marketplace created out of crimson and brightly striped awnings. Lengths of scarlet, orange, turquoise, purple and blue formed curtains between trees; sheltering the splendid commodities from the late summer sun. Vendors were still laying out their wares when Ludo arrived: gems and trinkets in copper and gold, ivory combs and bangles, shimmering sari silk and embroidered fringed shawls, all transported from one coast of India to the other on heads and shoulders. The costly cargo had passed through the famous alluvial diamond valleys of Golconda, the human caravan collecting ever more precious gems along the way – a cargo now watched over by guards with arm muscles that rippled ‘beware’ and vicious knives tucked in wide belts.

Curious, colourful, magnificent . . . everything Ludo had hoped for. He was delighted. Yet, wandering among the displays, he began to wonder why he had come – what, apart from uncut diamonds, he was actually seeking.

As he finished his first circuit, a white bullock ambled in pulling a cart laden with clay flagons. Happily over-paying an urchin for a drink of water then returning the cup, Ludo strolled back among the folding tables, trestles and floor mats, this time stopping to examine a miniature chest of drawers decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl for women’s trinkets. It was pretty, but no, not special enough to add to his ship’s cargo. Moving on, he encountered an awkward Englishman dabbing at his forehead with a sodden handkerchief. The pink-faced sahib was struggling to keep up with an Indian agent’s heavily accented sales patter without losing his cherished dignity.

“Let me tell you how they are found,” the Goan agent was saying as he ran a hand seductively through a wide lacquered bowl of uncut diamonds. “When it rains, water rushes down the mountains, taking these precious stones with it and leaving them trapped at the bottom of gorges and in caverns. When the dry season comes and there is not one drop of water to be had, when the heat is enough to kill an Englishman as he walks from his door, brave men risk their lives to collect the stones. But they must go where wild serpents thrive. Venomous serpents and vast – serpents that crush and swallow men whole . . .”

Ludo shuddered along with the Englishman: snakes were another of the reasons he had made no attempt to travel inland during his stay in Goa.

“. . . but these diamonds are precious not only for the means by which they are obtained, not only for their special rarity, but for their quality. Look, sahib, see how fine they are, how they bring light into our lives. Each one is perfect, flawless . . .”

The Englishman put a forefinger in the bowl and peered at a stone the size of a sparrow’s egg, then at another the shape and form of a woman’s fingernail. The Goan agent took his hand and placed an uncut stone in the sweating palm then exchanged it for a cushion-cut diamond ring magicked from among his robes saying quietly, “This is not for everyone to know, sahib, but I should tell you, there may not be many more of these diamonds. Each year there are fewer. It is said the serpents now eat them to preserve their heritage.”

Ludo swallowed a grin and gestured with a hand to attract the agent’s attention. Half-convinced, half-enthralled, and knowingly walking into an enticement worthy of his own invention, Ludo stepped forward and cocked his head to one side enquiringly. The agent retrieved the ring from the Englishman and put it in Ludo’s open palm then whisked a heart-shaped ruby from thin air and put it next to the ring.

Ludo’s hand was broad but there was barely room for the two wonderful gemstones. The agent picked the ring from Ludo’s hand, leaving only the ruby to burn through his palm in the warm light of the coloured awnings.

“A gem worthy of a queen, sahib,” the agent murmured.

“Worthy of a queen . . . it is indeed,” Ludo murmured. This was what he wanted: this ruby. “But it is too much for a humble merchant such as me.”

“No, sahib, this ruby is for you. This is what you seek.”

Ludo shot him a surprised glance. The agent’s expression was open, generous, but two black-bead eyes under a startlingly white turban bore into him, hypnotising him, holding his gaze.

“You must know, sahib, a ruby of this quality has such virtues from the Sun that a man living in ignorance or consumed by sin, or pursued by mortal enemies, is saved by its wearing. When stones such as this are found they are named: this is Rani Saahasi’. There is no perfect translation that I know in Portuguese: in English you could call it ‘Queen of Courage’.

Ludo forced himself to look away, shook his head to clear his vision and pulled himself back to the multi-coloured market place. But his fingers clenched the ruby of their own accord: the stone, as red as pomegranate seeds, as cool as the waters of Kashmir, sang in his palm. He had to have it.

“No,” he said. “No, I cannot risk my small income on a bauble such as this.”

The Englishman’s jaw dropped. Ludo willed him to move away, not wanting to risk haggling against the flushed-faced mister as well. The Englishman stayed exactly where he was.

Reluctantly, Ludo held out the ruby saying, “I seek smaller, uncut gems . . .” As he spoke a set of long-nailed, hairy fingers plucked the stone from his palm and the thief escaped round the trunk of the nearest tree.

A troop of other practised thieves appeared above, peering with the faces of buffoons between the different coloured awnings then scrambling helter-skelter from branches or shimmying like circus performers down supporting wooden props. The Goan agent screeched not unlike the unwanted visitors and grabbed the corners of his open cloth on the low table behind him, hugging the rapid sack to his bony chest so no more of his valuable goods could be taken. Suddenly there was a commotion around the bullock cart carrying water; a thief had upturned the clay cups and made off with a jug, carrying it awkwardly on three legs for she had a baby on her back. Her sister, meanwhile, discovered a display of brass incense holders and bells. Seizing as many as she could, she began to juggle; the bells ringing into the air then clanging to the soft mud beneath her feet. Then up went a candlestick, and then another and another, caught by one cousin and tossed to an uncle who, brandishing it as trophy, bared his teeth at the buyers and headed for home.

But as he went, more of his clan arrived, targeting push-carts, floor mats and head-rolls; some stealing arm bangles and pushing them up their thin, hairy arms before running back up the tree trunks into the branches and awnings, or jumping on tables, scattering wares that had crossed perilous oceans and scorching plains to be brought undamaged, intact across mountains and marshes down to Goa.

Ludo started to laugh at the shock and surprise of the invasion, then stopped as if the scene were frozen in time when the ruby he so coveted dropped to his feet from above.

“Choke on it, choke on it!” the monkey cursed, for it was inedible and he did not want it.

Slowly, slowly, hardly believing his luck, Ludo bent to pick up the gem. His right hand closed over it and it was his.

But it was not.

He started to walk out of the covered square, but his legs would not move. The ruby held him to the spot, telling him perhaps that a man living in ignorance or consumed by sin, or worse – pursued by a mortal enemy – is saved by its wearing. Ludo did not believe he was consumed by sin or that he lived in a state of ignorance, but he was pursued by enemies, one, possibly two, or even three if you counted the ridiculous Count Hawk – but he was no thief. No common thief, anyway.

***

‘Write about what you know’ and what you pick up along the way . . . My research has taken me down all manner of exotic rabbit holes, and (reported) truth can be much stranger than fiction. Quoting Marco Polo again, Tavernier explains how diamond gatherers supposedly avoided serpents to harvest precious stones:

“Now it is so happens that these mountains are inhabited by a great many white eagles, which prey on the serpents. When these eagles spy the flesh (raw meat men have flung into the valley) lying at the bottom of the valley, down they swoop and seize the lumps and carry them off. The men observe attentively where the eagles go, and as soon as they see that a bird has alighted and has swallowed the flesh, they rush to the spot as fast as they can. (…) When eagles eat the flesh, they also eat − that is, they swallow − the diamonds. Then at night, when the eagle comes back, it deposits the diamonds it has swallowed with its droppings. So men come and collect these droppings, and there they find diamonds in plenty.”

‘Diamonds in plenty’ – at seventeen I couldn’t see a future in them; now I cannot imagine how at least two of my novels could have been written without them.

©J.G. Harlond

This post was written for Helen Hollick’s Discovering Diamonds blog. You can read a review of ‘A Turning Wind’ on: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com/search?q=A+Turning+Wind

For sale – the Crown Jewels

King Charles 1st and his French Queen, Henrietta Maria by Anthony Van Dyck

 

Henrietta Maria and the English Crown Jewels

Who owns the British Crown Jewels? If asked, what would you say: the monarchy; the reigning monarch of the time; the State or the people of Great Britain?

The question itself represents just about everything in dispute in the United Kingdom during the period leading up to the English Civil War (1642-1646), a time when ‘ordinary people’ were trying to limit the power of a monarchy that considered it reigned through ‘divine right’. Charles 1st believed he could rule without Parliament and had the right to raise taxes as he saw fit to cover his expenses. That is an over-simplification, but it is how many commoners in towns and villages interpreted his actions. Ongoing disputes finally led to a vicious war between Parliamentarians, known as Roundheads because of their short hair, and Royalists, who fought to keep Charles 1st on the throne.

As a means of raising funds for the Royalist cause and her husband in particular, King Charles I’s French-born Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria (1609-1669), tried to pawn and sell a large part of the Crown Jewels during the early 1640s. Her attitude was that they were the property of the reigning monarch, not the State. When considering Henrietta Maria’s attitude one must bear in mind that she was the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France and the much loathed Marie de Medici, and that she was married to a Stuart, who, as mentioned above, believed entirely in the divine right of kings. Other factors that may have led Henrietta Maria to take financial matters into her own hands were the knowledge that her husband was not ‘good with money’ and her Medici ancestry. Needless to say, her actions met with major opposition from the British Parliament. But it became more than a question of ethics as Parliament actively tried to thwart Henrietta Maria’s attempts to finance the Royalists.

In July 1641, a year prior to the actual start of the war, the House of Commons drew the attention of King Charles to the fact:

That the House of Commons have received Information of great Quantities of Treasure, in Jewels, Plate, and ready Money, packed up, to be conveyed away with the Queen, not only in such a Proportion as the present Occasions, with due respects to Her Majesty’s Honour, may seem to require; but a far greater Quantity; and that divers Papists, and others, under the Pretence of Her Majesty’s Goods, are like to convey great Sums of Money, and other Treasure, beyond the Seas; which will not only impoverish the State, but may be employed to the Fomenting some mischievous Attempts, to the Trouble of the publick Peace. (JHC 2: 15 July 1641)

It was already evident to Parliamentarians that Henrietta Maria was in the process of obtaining money or credit with the aim of acquiring guns, ammunition and mercenary support for the Royalists. The view of the Commons was that all gemstones, regalia and plate in the possession of a monarch were part of the Crown Jewels, ‘owned’ not by the monarchy but by the State.

This was just the beginning. On 11 March, 1642, Henrietta Maria arrived in The Hague and set about selling and pawning precious objects she had brought with her from England. One contemporary report placed a total value of 1,265,300 guilders on the various items. (To get a perspective on this sum, an artisan and his family could live reasonably well for a year on the 300 guilders). The jewels, silver and gold came from three interlinked sources: items belonging to King Charles, jewels belonging to Henrietta Maria, and items forming part of the State collection known as the Crown Jewels. But while being astute in money matters Henrietta Maria had overlooked one important fact – her ardent Catholicism. As David Humphreys says in ‘To Sell the Crown Jewels’ *

“The sale of precious objects by an English Catholic (albeit not an English Catholic of average status) in Protestant Holland, under circumstances clearly motivated by political needs, was a task of enormous difficulty at best. That fact was brought home to Henrietta Maria when the first formal viewing of the items for would-be buyers was conducted at the New Palace in The Hague’s Staedt Straat in mid-March 1642. Many of those who attended were pro-Parliament in sympathy and questioned the queen’s right to sell any of the items on show—particularly those items considered to be specifically from the Crown Jewels collection. The queen insisted she had rights of ownership and could prove them with a document signed by King Charles and, therefore, had the right to sell. Those present baulked at the enormous sums expected for the most magnificent of the items on show: two collars, one of which was described as the ‘ruby collar’. Their response grew even more negative when it was made clear that payment for items was expected in specie.”

The Queen did manage to pawn a number of items while in The Hague, but the most valuable remained unsold. In the end she was only able to raise funds on that which was clearly in her personal possession. Unwilling to accept defeat, she then tried to pawn items on the Antwerp and Amsterdam markets, then either sell or pawn the larger of two hugely valuable ruby and pearl collars to the King of Denmark.

A letter dated 2 June, 1642, sent from Amsterdam, was read to the House of Commons on the 11 June by Sir Walter Erle:

That there were Jewels brought to Amsterdam, certain Collars of Pearl; which were sold; and the Product of them is the Sixteen thousand Pounds sent over hither; and the Residue is kept there, to pay for the Arms and Ammunition bespoken there. One great Collar of Rubies. The Jewels called the Three Brethren; Four or Five great Diamonds; with divers other Parcels; but no Money got upon them yet. … (JHC 2: 11 June 1642).

Another letter from an unnamed correspondent but someone close to the Queen was later read to the House of Lords.

I cannot learn that any Jewels more are pawned than I have formerly expressed, neither of the Sale of any jewels, save divers Collars of Pearls. (…) In writing hereof I understand, by an eyewitness, that all the jewels are brought here again to be pawned and amongst them the great collar fetched from Hamb. Also the three Brethren, four or five great diamonds, with divers more; but no money to be had thereupon in this place, as the party imployed therin doth tell me. (JHL 5: 11 June 1642).

Henrietta Maria did succeed in raising some finance, though. In Amsterdam a man named Webster advanced 140,000 guilders on her rubies and pendant pearls, the Burgomaster of Rotterdam offered 40,000 guilders on unnamed items and Fletchers of The Hague 126,000 guilders. Compared to what the Dutch had been spending on tulip bulbs between 1635 and 1637 these were not vast sums. By January 1643, Henrietta Maria eventually disposed of or pledged most if not all of the items considered to be her own, but when she set sail from Holland a month later she still had many of the items taken out of England, including the famed Three Brethren jewel.

The Three Brethren comprised of a massive pyramid-cut wine-yellow diamond surrounded by three square-cut spinel rubies and three large pearls set in pronged brackets rather than in elaborate goldwork. The centre diamond, of a most unusual cut, weighed approximately 30 carats. In the early 15th century it had been described as the largest faceted diamond in Europe. The jewel was said to have been commissioned as a shoulder-clasp for John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy from 1404 to his assassination in 1419. His grandson, Charles the Bold, owned it in 1467 when his inventory describes it as “Un Gros Dyamant Pointé a Fass”. It was then possibly sold to or via a banker called Fugger, and came into the possession of Henry VIII in England circa 1546. In 1551 it belonged to Henry’s only son, Edward VI.

On Edward’s death, the magnificent Three Brethren passed into the hands of his elder sister Mary, then became a favourite jewel of Elizabeth I. It features in several of her portraits including the famous ‘ermine portrait’. Subsequent portraits of James 1st of England, VI of Scotland show him wearing the Three Brethren as well.

 

What happened to the Three Brethren during the Civil War is uncertain. Various theories suggest it was sold, or pawned but not retrieved, in Amsterdam or Antwerp; that three more diamonds were added to it and it was renamed the Three Sisters; that Cardinal Mazarin, who collected valuable gemstones, acquired it along with the debts he purchased from Henrietta Maria. One theory says the jewel was adapted and offered for sale through Henrietta Maria’s agent, a ‘Monsieur Cletstex’ of the Bank of Lombardy in Rotterdam. What really happened to the Three Brethren is open for speculation . . . and this is where the third story in the Ludo da Portovenere trilogy begins.

In 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth to her last child in England then, gravely ill, returned to her homeland of France. Despite ill-health and lack of a permanent home (she was not welcome in Paris at the time and moved between various towns until finally allotted a suite in St Germaine) she continued to pawn and/or sell items considered to be the Crown Jewels to raise funds for the floundering Royalist army in England. Parliament maintained watchful spies but Henrietta succeeded in raising money and credit in various European markets until her husband was imprisoned.

The remaining items of royal regalia left in England were broken up to finance the Roundheads, or melted down to be made into more useful items. The very last of the valuables kept in the Tower of London were then nearly lost forever in 1671 when the infamous Colonel Blood made a daring attempt to steal them, only to be captured at the east gate with the crown, sceptre and orb in a sack.

Numerous authors have incorporated these deeds into historical fiction, not least because somewhere there are antique, now priceless gemstones that once belonged to the English monarchy – or ‘the people’ – in private hands.

JGH

This post was originally hosted on the English Historical Authors’ blog in September, 2017. See:  http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es

http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com.es/2017/09/henrietta-maria-and-english-crown-jewels.html

  • *For a more detailed analysis of Henrietta Maria’s attempts to raise money for Charles 1st see: To Sell England’s Jewels: Queen Henrietta Maria’s visits to the Continent, 1642 and 1644 by David HUMPHREY: https://erea.revues.org/3715