Many novels have been written about Anne Boleyn, but what of the executioner who took her life? C.C. Humphreys made him the protagonist of his novel, The French Executioner. Here, he explains why:
Where do the ideas for novels come from?
I remember exactly what I was doing when the idea for The French Executioner hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was working out.
I was living in Vancouver at the time. Making my living as an actor. I’d written a couple of plays. But my dream from childhood had always been to write historical fiction.
I wasn’t thinking of any of that, on that day in a gym in 1993. I was thinking about shoulder presses. Checking my form in the mirror.
This is what happened. (It also shows you the rather strange associations in my brain!)
I lift the weight bar.
Me, in my head. ‘God, I’ve got a long neck.’
‘If I was ever executed,’ – Raise bar – ‘it would be a really easy shot for the ax.’
‘Or the sword. Because, of course, Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword.’
Raise bar. Stop half way.
‘Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand.’
Flash! Boom! Put down bar before I drop it. It came together in my head, as one thing: the executioner, brought from France to do the deed, (I remembered that from school). Not just taking her head. Taking her hand as well, that infamous hand – and then the question all writers have to ask: what happened next?
I scurried to the library. Took out books. I knew it had to be a novel. I did some research, sketched a few ideas. But the problem was, I wasn’t a novelist. A play had seemed like a hill. A novel – well, it was a mountain, and I wasn’t ready to climb it. So I dreamed a while, then quietly put all my research, sketches, notes away.
But I never stopped thinking about it. The story kept coming and whenever I was in a second hand bookstore I’d study the history shelves and think: if ever I write that novel – which I probably never will – I’ll want… a battle at sea between slave galleys. So I’d buy a book on that subject, read it. Buy another, read it.
November 1999. Six years after being struck by lightning. I’m living back in England and I find a book on sixteenth century mercenaries – and I knew the novel I was never going to write would have mercenaries. Twenty pages in, I turn to my wife and say: “You know, I think I’m going to write that book.” And she replies, “It’s about bloody time.”
I wrote. The story, all that research, had stewed in my head for so long, it just poured out. Ten months and I was done. I wondered if it was any good. I sent it to an agent. She took me on and had it sold three months later.
I was a novelist after all.
ABOUT THE FRENCH EXECUTIONER:
The most notorious executioner of his time, Jean Rombaud is brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead the condemned Queen of England, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution, Rombaud is coaxed into a promise by the ill-fated queen to bury her six-fingered hand at a sacred crossroads.
Yet in a religious war-torn Europe, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is such a powerful relic that many will kill for it…And so from a battle between slave galleys, to a black mass in a dungeon, to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Rombaud must travel to honor his vow.