Sacred Treason is a novel by James Forrester, the pen-name of the leading British historian Ian Mortimer. In his first work of fiction, Forrester writes about the secret intrigues and plots surrounding the court of Queen Elizabeth I.
We had the opportunity to ask James Forrester/Ian Mortimer a few questions about his novel:
The Elizabethan period has inspired many authors to write about its court intrigues and mysteries. What drew you to writing a story set in this time?
First, because I have a PhD in early modern English social history, the ‘feel’ of the period comes naturally to me. But also I wanted to talk about loyalty and betrayal – loyalty to the state, to your wife/husband, to your religion and ultimately to yourself. If you do that set in the modern world, no one is that bothered – adultery is commonplace, anti-state sentiments are almost a badge of honour in certain left-wing quarters, and in England today disloyalty to your faith is of no great consequence. However, put all those things in a 16th-century setting and they all become amazingly important. You could be publicly flogged and humiliated for adultery in 1560s London. You could be burned for heresy (as several Anabaptists were) and you could be hanged, eviscerated and quartered for treason – or burnt at the stake, in the case of women. The whole plot becomes so much more sensational when set in the Elizabethan period, and the struggle the conscientious individual to ‘do the right thing’ becomes a battle in itself.
Your book includes characters who existed in real life, such as Henry Machyn. When developing their characters, do you try to remain as close as you can to their real-personality (as much as one can with a person from the 16th century) or do you try to re-imagine them and give them more depth?
Definitely imagined to give them more depth. As a professional historian I know that accuracy in such matters is something that only amateurs can delude themselves into thinking they’re achieving. But that ‘impossibility of accuracy’ gives me quite a lot of scope for developing the character as best fits my plot. Yes, I do base my character as far as possible on the real man but it still means my Henry Machyn is only loosely based on the real man – because so much is imagined. Likewise Cecil and Walsingham are only loosely based on the real men. My emphasis is on telling a good story with the correct period social detail, not describing characters as closely as I can, or slavishly following their lives’ events.
You have now written both fiction and non-fiction books – do you find that there are differences in how you go about writing them, and do you find that one was easier (or more enjoyable) than the other?
Good question. I love writing my in-depth medieval biographies because I love the thrill of finding out things that no one knows. I am lucky enough to have access to the original documents in the British Library and National Archives and similar places of deposit, so those narratives are great to develop in conjunction with the documents created at the time. The joy of doing my Time Traveller’s Guides (to Medieval and Elizabethan England) is that of talking about those periods to audiences afterwards: discussing how the past is like us or different from us, and what meanings we can draw from that. But in writing fiction the thrill is in the plotting and thinking the story through. So I like all three sides of my writing – for different reasons.
Our thanks to James Forrester for answering our questions. You can learn more about his novel Sacred Treason from his website.
See also our interview with Ian Mortimer from 2009