word craft


Story Behind the Story #67:
The Player King, Part One

The Player KingWhen one reads his­to­ry, one learns about big events and impor­tant peo­ple, such as the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, or, say, Napoleon. But if you read the foot­notes in those his­to­ries you can learn about the indi­vid­u­als who lived in those his­tor­i­cal moments. You learn about British prison ships in New York City, where more peo­ple died by mal­treat­ment than on the rev­o­lu­tion­ary bat­tle­fields. (Sophia’s War) Or you learn about a tiny skir­mish that changed people’s lives (The Fight­ing Ground). And you learn about a mys­tery boy in the 15th cen­tu­ry who, briefly, became King of England.

It actu­al­ly happened.

I’m not sure when I came upon this curious—but true—story. It was any num­ber of years ago, but it stuck in my mind.  From time to time I’d do a lit­tle research.  There was not much to learn.

The boy, Lam­bert Sim­nel—if that was real­ly his name—came out of nowhere, and was put for­ward by pow­er­ful nobles to claim the throne of England—then in pos­ses­sion of King Hen­ry the 7th. Hen­ry had recent­ly tak­en pow­er after killing King Richard the 3rd. Hen­ry 7 was father to Hen­ry 8, grand­fa­ther of Queen Elizabeth.

There is no doubt Lam­bert real­ly exist­ed, and was crowned king (in Ire­land) and led a large army against Hen­ry 7th. At that battle—the Bat­tle of Trent—his army was defeat­ed and he was tak­en prisoner.

Just how he came to be cho­sen in the first place is uncer­tain. One notion is that he looked like the Earl of War­wick, who had (by the stan­dards of the day) a claim on the crown. But the real Earl of War­wick was a pris­on­er in the Tow­er of Lon­don. What is known of Lam­bert was most­ly writ­ten down by peo­ple loy­al to Hen­ry 7th, and the Tudor dynasty, which he found­ed. This means even the “known” facts are to be treat­ed with sus­pi­cion. Still, there is no doubt, he was a real boy. It all happened.

It was claimed that Lam­bert was orig­i­nal­ly a kitchen boy. When he became Henry’s pris­on­er, he was put to work in a cas­tle kitchen. Thus, he was a kitchen boy, became a king, and then again, a kitchen boy.

Or so it seems.

Because so lit­tle is known about Lam­bert, it was up to me to invent his thoughts, his words, his feel­ings, as he was swept along. How would a boy—from nowhere—feel about being cho­sen to become a king and even crowned? Did he want to go along with this plot?  Was he forced to do it?  What was it like for a boy of ten (or twelve) to lead an inva­sion army into Eng­land? As he was taught to be king-like, did he begin to believe he tru­ly was a king? Did he know that his “friends” were real­ly his ene­mies?  No one knows. I had to invent him. All of him. That said, vir­tu­al­ly every char­ac­ter in the book is based on peo­ple who real­ly existed.

My writ­ing chal­lenge for The Play­er King was to make this sto­ry come to life in the per­son of Lam­bert, to make a true, but unbe­liev­able sto­ry, seem true—if that makes any sense.

There are no foot­notes in my nov­el. I just turned some­one else’s foot­note into a novel.

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