The Bohemian Queen who saved London - and other true stories

Hana Whitton, photo: Danka1, CC BY-SA 3.0

You may well have heard of the English princess who became Queen of Bohemia for just one winter, but did you know that it was a Bohemian queen who persuaded Richard II not to burn down London in a fit of rage? Or at least, so the story goes. The historical links between Bohemia and Britain go back a very long way, and have become something of an obsession for the Czech novelist Hana Whitton. She talks about her writing with David Vaughan.

Hana Whitton, photo: Danka1, CC BY-SA 3.0
Hana Whitton is a best-selling historical novelist in the Czech Republic, with over thirty books to her name. She lives with her English husband Paul in a village near Oxford, and between them they run an international literary and rights agency. Many of Hana’s books have explored the rich historical links between Bohemia and Britain, combining historical detail with an eye for a good – and romantic – story. We met at Prague’s Bookworld book fair, where Hana was meeting some of her readers.

“I try to map Czech and British history for Czech readers in a popular way, but the language should be really classical and as good as possible. Always at the back of the book you can read how it really was, because I can’t always follow the precise historical plot, as it would become an academic study, not a romance or a romantic story. So that’s how I try to do it.”

I sometimes have the impression that Czechs are almost obsessed with history. There is a great love of history in this country, isn’t there?

“I think so, and one of the reasons is that it’s a case of rediscovering our history. Maybe that’s what has brought me to writing about Czech history. You know Czechs: they really are terribly negative and critical about their history, and I think, without boasting, that the Czech nation is really a very sophisticated nation with a rich history. We can find our roots in the history of the Přemyslid and Luxemburg dynasties.”

We are talking about the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries…

“Yes, more or less, because unfortunately when the Habsburgs came it was a slightly different story, even though I have written two novels about the Emperor Rudolf II, who was a Habsburg, but who actually made Prague the beautiful city it is today. He brought all the artists and scientists to Prague and made it an imperial city.”

There are plenty of other historical figures you have chosen to focus on in your fiction…

“Well, my first novel was actually about Elizabeth, the Winter Queen. She was the daughter of James Stuart, the King of England, and she was wife of Frederick of Pfalz. They were King and Queen of Bohemia for just one year, well known as the Winter King and the Winter Queen.”

After the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620, they were forced into exile and three hundred years of Austrian rule followed…

'Winter Queen', photo: Klokan publishing
“Yes. Nothing could really be done, because the cards had already been played somewhere behind their backs. James I, Elizabeth’s father, had written her a letter begging her not to take the crown of Bohemia as it was a really tricky business…”

a poisoned chalice. But, in fact, Elizabeth of Bohemia, despite having been forced into exile after just one winter, is a very important figure historically.

“She really is, and actually the present-day British monarchy is descended from her.”

And what about some of the other figures that you have written about?

“My real obsession is Anne of Bohemia, who married the English King Richard II and was daughter of Charles IV whose anniversary [700 years since his birth] we are celebrating this year.”

She was living in the second half of the 14th century…

“Yes. She married Richard II. It was of course an arranged marriage and the English weren’t very happy about his marrying some princess from Bohemia. When I found some details about her in the Bodleian Library in Oxford I was really offended, because she was described as not very beautiful and things like this. But she was the only person who could manage Richard II. Unfortunately she lived a very short life and when she died I think that Richard II, even though he remarried, never really recovered from her death.”

You were telling me that Richard II, if we look at it from today’s point of view, probably suffered from some kind of mental illness.

“He had this anti-social behaviour, I would say, because when I did some research into the historical background I found out that once, when he was talking to his courtiers, he killed one of them with his bare fist. So she was the only one who could somehow break him. One infamous story about him is that when he was very angry he would burn down towns. On one occasion he wanted to burn London, but the queen knelt in front of him and implored, ‘Richard, don’t do this. This is really not a very good idea.’ And he really didn’t do it. To this day, you can hear her called the Good Queen Anne. But when I first came to Britain I didn’t even connect the Good Queen Anne with Anne of Bohemia.”

'Anne of Bohemia', photo: Klokan publishing
There’s an obvious problem when you’re writing historical fiction. What language and what register should you choose? You can’t use the language of the time, but if you fill it with anachronistic language then it’s hard to be convincing. How do you solve this problem?

“I realized that I must have a more sophisticated level, not just present-day colloquial language. So I chose language that is not archaic, but is a bit old-fashioned. It doesn’t have present-day colloquialisms. And when I was talking to some of my readers just now, I had the impression they quite liked it. I gave it to them as a kind of challenge. I would really like the Czech language to flourish and, I shouldn’t say it, but there are too many foreign words! I know I sound like someone from the 19th century, but I think we need to keep the language at a certain level.”

And what sort of things have your readers been telling you today, as you’ve been talking about your books?

“The first thing was that they said, ‘Oh my, there really is a Mr Paul Whitton. He is my husband who is sitting here next to us! They thought it must be some kind of pseudonym, so that was the first thing. I think there is one thing all my books have in common and that is that they have some positive values. There’s a background of Christian values – that we shouldn’t lie, shouldn’t cheat, that we should be honest, we should help each other and things like this. And they have a positive ending. A lot of people told me that it did help them. So that is one thing. A lot of people read history, so they asked me quite tricky questions! You wouldn’t believe it, but I really do study all the notes I took for my writings because they really ask me a lot of questions!”

We are going to hear something from your book The Winter Queen. Could you tell us a bit about the extract?

“I will tell you the end of the story, which perhaps I shouldn’t do, but it is really significant for the story, because when Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia had been through this really quite unpleasant life in exile and was now a widow, she was approached by one of her courtiers, Lord Craven. He really loved her very dearly, but he was afraid to disclose his feelings for her. On board ship when they are heading for England, he told her, ‘Your Majesty, I really do love you. I must tell you now. But I’m just your poor courtier and I will serve you till the end of my days…’

Elizabeth grasped the rail of the rolling ship and watched the flat coast of Holland, for so many years her exile home, slipping into the distance. The rigging squeaked rhythmically as the vessel rocked gently over the dark emerald waves. Only the plaintive cry of the gulls disturbed the peaceful harmony of the voyage. William Craven stood on deck beside her. How long have I dreamt about this moment? he thought. Elizabeth turned to him. It seemed that the sunset was lighting up her hair like a copper flame. Her dark eyes sparkled as she smiled at William. At that moment he realized that Elizabeth would never grow old, as she had once promised to herself many years ago. She was then a young princess, the daughter of James I of England, but her youthful smile and the burning flame in her heart had not been dimmed. She would remain forever young. As she touched his windswept, suntanned face, he put his hand over hers. She noticed the short, pale scar on his temple. His dark hair already showed a few silver strands. William looked at her with a devoted love shining from his honest eyes. He held on to her hand, kissed her and then knelt before her. “Will you marry me, Elizabeth?” After all they had been through, he knew now that he could pose this question. Elizabeth uttered a brief, happy laugh. “I will!” was her only reply. […] William paused suddenly and was silent for some time, before continuing: “I can give you everything you long for, Elizabeth, but I cannot make you Queen.” A shadow of sadness crossed his handsome face. “You may care deeply about that …” Elizabeth fell silent for a long interval, a mysterious smile playing on her lips. “No, that is no longer a concern of mine,” she replied. “Do not forget, I have already been Queen once.”

Most of your writing has been about the distant past, but I understand that you are currently working on a book that is set in the far more recent past.

“I decided to write something like a family history, but it is actually more general and it covers the historical development in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989. It should somehow show how the situation projects into the normal everyday life of people, because I think what was worst was this terrible grey tunnel. You couldn’t see the end of it. I remember the feeling in the ‘80s, when I just thought there was absolutely nothing in front of us. I would like to remind people about what was going on. This book should cover three places and periods in Czechoslovakia. It is not only the capital city, Prague, but also a farm, because my uncle had a farm, and he was called a kulak because he did not want to join the cooperative. He fought against it till the end of his days and we always went to help him when there was something to do. And then there is the Sudetenland, because part of my family moved there.”

You mean after the Germans had been expelled from the Sudetenland.

“They thought it would be good to have some land of their own, but of course it was not as easy emotionally and otherwise as they thought. So it is like returning to your own past and it brings quite painful memories. I sometimes struggle. I feel I really must write this.”