I have just finished my first novel, a historical fiction account of the short and merry lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read. It’s been a huge challenge, mainly because I’m hopelessly undisciplined and had to unlearn a lot of bad habits to actually sit down and get it done!
But get it done I did, and now I just face the daunting task of tearing it apart and turning it into something I won’t feel mortified to share with the world. And in the meantime, I’m onto my next project; a murder mystery set in Victorian London during a certain mania that was sweeping the globe.
I had huge enjoyment out of researching the lives of pirates operating out of the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. Separating fact from legend was an interesting task, as well as trying to uncover as much as I could about the real person who was Anne Bonny (my main character). I have no doubt that some of the stories are true. It’s highly likely that she would have responded to a would-be rapist by ensuring he was bedridden and unable to walk for months afterwards. But I’m less sure about the stories of how her and Mary were more violent and blood-thirsty than the men on their crew. There is a tendency to see violence coming from a woman as being worse than violence coming from a man, even if in reality, she’s used no more force than the man. So I have no doubt that the hapless crew who encountered their ship would have made far more of the attacks by two women, purely because it would have been more unexpected, and therefore would have stood out more.
We know Mary died in prison in 1721, more than likely of fever, but Anne disappeared from the records. There are a number of theories about what might have happened to her. She may have died in prison like Mary, or it’s possible her wealthy, plantation-owning father paid for her to be released and brought her back home. We do know that there’s a story about an Anne Bonny who returned home in 1721 to marry a man called Joseph Burleigh, and who died a respectable woman in her 80’s. We’ll probably never know what really happened, but in the meantime, it gives great scope for imagination.
Known as the Pirate Queen of Connaught, this heroine was a fellow Irish woman, who lived an extraordinarily unconventional life in the 16th century. A brave woman who defied convention, she lived her life, refusing to be anything other than who she was. She is remembered as one of the most remarkable people in Irish history.
She was born in 1530, at the time when Henry VIII was turning the kingdom upside down and breaking away from the Church in order to divorce his Queen, Catherine of Aragon and marry another favorite heroine, Anne Boleyn.
Grace started life as Gráinne Ní Mháille, born to a sea-faring family on the west coast of Ireland. Her father was chieftain of the Ó Máille clan and made his wealth from trading with the wealthiest kingdoms of Europe, Spain, Portugal, France and England. He also charged fishermen for use of his waters. Grace’s sense of adventure was apparent right from the beginning. She begged her father to take her with him, on a shipping expedition to Spain . Probably because he wasn’t keen to take her out into pirate-infested territory, he refused, claiming that her long hair would get caught in the ship’s ropes. He arrived at the dock the next day, to find Grace already there before him, her hair chopped like a boys. She got her expedition, and also a new nickname, “Gráinne Mhaol” , “maol”meaning bald.
Grace proved herself aboard merchant vessels, able to lead men, work hard and was not afraid of a fight! Legend has it that when their ship was attacked by pirates. Grace saved the lives of one of her fellow crew members by leaping from the rigging, straight down onto his attacker.
When she was 16, she was married off to a man named Donal of the Battle (real name Dónal an Chogaidh Ó Flaithbheartaigh). It was a good match politically, as Grace’s father and now husband were both heads of their respective clans. Grace and Donal had 3 children, Owen, Margaret and Murrough. Murrough grew to be an unpleasant man who betrayed his family and seems to have hated women. Donal was a hot-headed warrior who was eventually killed in battle. Grace recaptured what is now known as Hen Castle, and returned to her family’s clan, taking many of the O’Flaherty clan with her. Later for political reasons, she married Richard Burke, known as Iron Richard. After one year, Grace divorced him under Brehon Law, keeping control of his castle, Rockfleet Castle. According to legend, she locked herself and her followers into the castle, then she leaned out the window and yelled “Richard Burke, I dismiss you.” And so, it was goodbye Mr Burke. Because she was in possession of the castle, she was entitled to keep it and it remained in her family for centuries. Today, it is open to the public.
Upon the deaths of her father and husband, Grace O’Malley inherited coastal lands and castles. Complaints about her started when she decided to impose a tax on ships traveling in her waters. Her and her men would stop and board the ships, demanding payment. If they refused, the situation tended to rapidly deteriorate into violence and bloodshed. Once they had their toll, Grace’s ships would quickly disappear. Later on, she recruited fighting men from both Ireland and Scotland and began raiding not just ships, but fortresses and holdings along the coast line.
It’s inevitable that a heroine like this has many legends told about her exploits. One of the more well known ones is that she visited Howth Castle as a courtesy call. She was told that the family was at dinner and the gates were closed against her. Determined to teach them manners, Grace abducted the Earl’s 10 year old grandson. He was eventually released when the Earl agreed that from that day on, his gates would always be open to visitors and an extra place set at mealtimes. He gave her a ring as token of the agreement. The ring is still in Grace’s family, and to this day, the Earl’s descendants honor this agreement.
One of her other legends is that she captured Doona Castle, owned by the MacMahon clan, as revenge against the murder of her young lover, Hugh de Lacey. When the members of the MacMahon clan visited Caher Island on pilgrimage, Grace captured their boats and then murdered the ones responsible for killing her lover. She then sailed to Ballycroy and took Doona Castle for herself.
In the later part of the 16th century, Elizabeth I was Queen of England, and she increased her power in Ireland. Soon, she was encroaching on Grace’s territory. In 1593, two of Grace’s sons and her half-brother were taken prisoner by the English governor of Connaught, Richard Bingham. Grace set sail for England and went to meet with Elizabeth directly. Astonishingly, the two women seemed to take a liking to one another. They met at Greenwich Palace. Grace refused to bow to Elizabeth, as she did not recognize her as Queen of Ireland. It is also said that Grace had a dagger with her, which was found when she was searched. Grace explained that it was for her own protection, and though it was taken from her, Elizabeth accepted this explanation and did not seem worried. They conversed in Latin as Grace didn’t speak English and Elizabeth didn’t speak Irish. After much discussion, they agreed on a list of demands. Richard Bingham was to be removed from his position as governor and Grace’s sons and brother were to be released. In return, Grace was to stop supporting the Irish lords’ rebellions. Grace returned to Ireland and initially, it seemed as if the historic meeting had done some good. Richard Bingham was removed from his position. However, Elizabeth did not honor parts of the agreement, including the return of castles and lands, taken from Grace by Richard. Richard was also eventually reinstated as governor. Grace saw that the meetting had been a waste of time, and went back to supporting the rebellions of the Irish lords.
She also returned to piracy although she gave it a thin veil of validity by directing it against “England’s enemies” during the Nine Year War.
She is said to have died in 1603, at Rockfleet Castle, a quiet and peaceful end to an otherwise extraordinary and exciting life.
One of my favorite heroines is Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian I. An amazing woman who changed countless lives for the better, by seizing her purpose with both hands. Theodora was born around 497 AD. According to the writings of Procopius, her father Acacius was the bear trainer in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, while her mother was a dancer and actress. Life in the Hippodrome was colorful and exciting.
However, hardship fell on the family when Theodora’s father died. Her mother remarried but her new husband was not offered her old husband’s job, leaving the family almost destitute. Her resourceful mother sent Theodora and her sister out wearing garlands as supplicants to the crowd. The Blue Faction took the girls under their wing, and Theodora was to be a supporter of the Blue Faction for the rest of her life.
Later, the girls started working as gymnasts and Theodora also performed as a comedian. It was from this time that some of the more scurrilous rumors originated, regarding Theodora’s behaviour. Theatres at the time were considered hotbeds of immorality and were later banned completely. It was said that she was a prostitute who entertained multiple lovers at the same time. According to Procopius, at one stage she had 40 lovers in one night, and complained that God had only given her three orifices to use. However, he also accused her husband of being a demon with no head so he probably wasn’t a guy to allow facts to get in the way of a good story. We do know that she was famous for her very racy portrayal of Leda and The Swan. As Leda, she removed as much clothing as she legally could, lay down and scattered seeds over her almost naked body and allowed geese to feed from her. It is also extremely likely that she would have taken lovers to supplement her income.
When she was 16, Theodora became the mistress of Hecebolus, who was a Syrian official. Their relationship was to last 4 years and she travelled with him to Egypt but he became abusive and eventually abandoned her. At some point before returning to Constantinople, she converted to Monophysite Christianity, which believed that Jesus was fully divine, not half human, half divine. Once back in Constantinople, she became a wool spinner, a far cry from her former career as an entertainer. It is said that Justinian fell in love with her at first sight when he saw her at her spinning wheel. However, it is far more likely that they met through a mutual friend who performed at the Hippodrome and was also one of Justinian’s spies.
At 40 years old, Justinian was much older than Theodora’s 21. He was a quiet, devout man with a sharp legal mind, who adored Theodora’s witty, light hearted personality and her beauty. However, due to her former career as an actress, he was forbidden to marry her, according to law. His uncle, Justin I had no problems with amending the law but the objection came from Justin’s wife, Empress Euphemia who had been a slave and concubine before becoming Empress. Possibly the whole topic touched a little too close to home. When Euphemia died in 525 AD, Justin repealed the law, allowing all penitent actresses to be freed from the stains of their past.
Theodora soon showed everyone what a heroine she was. In 532, a riot started in the Hippodrome between the Green and the Blue factions, later known as the Nika riots. Some of the rioters grievances arose from complaints against Justinian and Theodora. Many public buildings were set on fire and the rioters proclaimed the nephew of the former Emperor Anastasius I, Hypatius as the new emperor. Justinian and his officials, seeing no way to get the mob back under control, wanted to flee the capitol. However, our heroine, Theodora absolutely refused to flee. She declared that ‘purple makes a fine shroud’, stating it was better to die as a ruler than live in exile. Inspired by her speech, Justin changed his mind about fleeing and instead, ordered his troops to storm the Hippodrome, killing thousands of rebels, including his rival, Hypatius. After his victory, he made Theodora his co-ruler, making her the most powerful woman in the Empire. He trusted her absolutely and never forgot that it was she who had saved his throne. His writings show that he sought her input on many reforms, including measures to reduce corruption by public officials.
The Byzantine Empire flourished under their rule. Theodora and Justinian rebuilt much of Constantinople, building more bridges and over 25 churches, including the beautiful Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks. Theodora also used her power to make considerable improvements to the lives of women. Many of her changes will seem incredibly modern when you remember this was 1500 years ago. She shut down brothels and came down hard on enforced prostitution. Rape became punishable by death and it was no longer legal to kill a wife for committing adultery. She opened a home to help former prostitutes and granted women more rights in property ownership, divorce and guardianship of their children. She also banned exposure, the practice of leaving unwanted infants outdoors to die. As a result of her changes, women in Byzantium had far better lives than women in the rest of Europe and the Middle East.
Justinian and Theodora never had any children of their own. Theodora just had one illegitimate daughter from a previous lover. If Justinian died before her, she would be in a very uncomfortable position so she moved quickly to get rid of her enemies and make advantageous marriages for her family. Her niece, through her marriage to Justinian’s nephew, became empress after her. She also worked to protect the Monophysite Christians.
Theodora died of cancer in 548 and she was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles. Her husband was devastated by her death. He honoured her memory by continuing to work to bring about harmony between the Chaledonians and the Monophysite Christians.
Theodora is today a saint of the Greek Orthodox Church and is considered one of the first feminists.