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The Coffee Pot Book Club Presents "A Woman of Noble Wit" by Rosemary Griggs

Please welcome back to the Tavern the lovely Rosemary Griggs! We're celebrating her new historical novel, A Woman of Noble Wit. I'm eager to find out more, so grab a cup of mead and let's take a peek into Rosemary's wonderful story...


A Message from Rosemary Griggs

A remarkable woman who lived in Devon five hundred years ago has rather taken over my life for the past six or seven years. Discovering and understanding Katherine Raleigh and the times she lived through has been a wonderful, enriching experience. She’s one of the army of history’s forgotten women who stood behind famous men and she inspired me to write my first novel A Woman of Noble Wit.

You might wonder how this woman has been able to make such a strong impression on me. Well, it all started when I retired. Wait a minute. Retirement is when you wind down, travel, potter in the garden and enjoy time with your grandchildren, isn’t it? Well, no, — at least not for me! It’s my time to do the things I want to do. I’ve had a lifelong passion for history, always loved books and always wanted to write, but a career in the Civil Service left little time to spare. Now at last I’m free to delve into past lives and to tell the stories of those who went before us.

I was first introduced to Katherine when I volunteered at the National Trust’s Compton Castle near the village of Marldon in Devon. Invited to make a costume, I was soon immersed in a new world of research into sixteenth century clothing. Creating an outfit that looked OK on the outside was not enough for me. I needed to construct clothes as they did so that I could feel what it was really like to wear them. My research into historical clothing led me in all sorts of fascinating directions; from Devon’s ancient wool industry to the history of dyes; through laundry and linen to the sumptuary laws and even into international trade and piracy. I dusted off some long dormant dressmaking skills, married them up with something closer to engineering, and started to make “the Lady Katherine’s” clothes. Dressing as she did, walking in her shoes in places she knew, opened windows into the realities of life for a well-born women of her time. If you have ever tried to run up a spiral staircase wearing a farthingale you will understand what I mean.

Soon I was getting requests to bring her to life for local history groups, WIs, museums and other community groups. To cut a long story short, I now appear as Katherine all over the county. To do so I had to find out more about her and the times she lived through. That was when the serious research began. I had to dig deep to find her family and the part they played in Devon and beyond. I enjoy research — perhaps it’s the Civil Servant in me. It’s so satisfying to track down pieces of the jigsaw, to trace the tangled threads that link our great Devon families together. There is nothing quite like the thrill of unfolding an ancient parchment complete with seals to find a signature still clear after centuries. Imagining the hand that made that mark brings people from long ago almost within touching distance.

Unlike the people who feature in so many Tudor novels— Henry and his Queens, politicians and priests, — Katherine doesn’t feature often in the historical record. But one intriguing mention gave me a huge clue to her character. In Foxes Book of Martyrs there is an account of Katherine Raleigh’s vigil with protestant martyr Agnes Prest. Katherine is described there as “a woman of noble wit and godly ways”. I wanted to understand how the life she lived might have shaped her, and given her the courage to sit in that prison cell beneath Exeter Castle to give comfort to a poor woman who, on the next day, must meet her death in the most horrific way.

Although records of Katherine’s life are few and far between, her sons certainly left their mark. Of five surviving sons with two different fathers, four were knighted, and all played their part in those tumultuous times. Her eldest, Sir John Gilbert, upheld the family name amongst Devon’s great and good and was involved in the defence of England against the Armada. Her second son, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, claimed Newfoundland for Queen Elizabeth. The third Gilbert boy, Adrian, though not knighted, was a somewhat eccentric but renowned scientist and garden designer who backed many voyages of discovery undertaken by, amongst others, his friend and neighbour John Davies. The eldest boy from her second marriage, Sir Carew Raleigh, served as a soldier, sea captain and politician. But of course, it’s her youngest boy, the larger than life Sir Walter Raleigh, who strutted across the Elizabethan stage as a courtier, poet, writer, soldier, and adventurer. I wanted to get to know the woman who didn’t just give birth to those boys but nurtured and taught them and surely inspired them to great deeds.

It wasn’t just Katherine herself that got under my skin. Of all periods in English history, the sixteenth century has always held a special fascination for me; ever since I read Jean Plaidy’s stories when I was girl. It was such a time of change and upheaval, and those changes weren’t just confined to the glittering figures of the Royal court. After the invention of the printing press and the spread of humanist learning more and more people had access to education — even some women. I wanted to explore what it was like for those women, whose lives were still defined by marriage in a patriarchal society, to see their King set aside his wife of many years. I wanted to consider how two teenagers thrust together in a dynastic marriage might have fared and to follow the noble and gentry families of Devon as they weaved a path though political and religious reversals under successive Tudor monarchs. The historical record gave me only the bare bones. Where facts are backed up by reliable sources I respect them. But I wanted to bring Katheirne’s story to life, to put some flesh upon the bare skeleton. And so her story began to take shape.

The beautiful Devon countryside that formed the backdrop to her life also cast its spell over me. I count myself incredibly lucky to live in what is surely the most beautiful part of the whole of England. As I’ve followed Katherine’s footsteps around Devon I’ve found much that she would recognise; glimpses of ancient woodland, rivers that still trace their path to the sea, buildings like the mighty Cathedral in Exeter. I‘ve found traces of her world in Devon’s churches, many of which were built in the fifteenth century or before and have changed little.

In these hallowed places I can marvel at the skill of the wood carvers who created rood screens that somehow survived the reformation. I can gaze in awe before steeples and towers, touch the ancient doors, wonder at memorials to those long gone and stand at fonts where the people I’m researching were baptised. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to visit in sixteenth century clothes and then I feel the shivers running down my spine.

I’m a country girl at heart, brought up on a farm near Northampton, so the rhythm of the passing seasons is not new to me. But here amongst the green Devon hills everything is so vivid,]. Less has changed here than in the arable areas where I grew up. In the first period of lockdown, without the constant twenty-first century hum of traffic, I remembered what it was like to hear the birds. Katherine would have heard their music every day, just as I did as a child. She would have welcomed the primroses with joy each spring, listened for the cuckoo’s call and heard the raucous rooks amongst the bare branches in wintertime. In Katherine’s time even a wealthy woman had to be acutely aware of the natural world around her to ensure that her household was well provided with food, medicines and clothing. She would have known the seed times and harvest, what must be grown to supply the brewhouse, bakehouse and still room, how to preserve what was in season against hard times. I wanted to bring the natural world and the Devon countryside into Katherine’s story. As one Amazon reviewer puts it

……… Rosemary Griggs draws from fascinating details of Elizabethan life, weaving them with vivid descriptions of the Devon countryside to create an evocative narrative……….

I’ve met a cast of other forgotten Devon women in my research and now I’m on a mission to tell their stories too. My next novel is on the way.

Few women of her time lived to see their name in print. But Katherine was no ordinary woman. She was Sir Walter Raleigh’s mother. This is her story.

Set against the turbulent background of a Devon rocked by the religious and social changes that shaped Tudor England; a Devon of privateers and pirates; a Devon riven by rebellions and plots, A Woman of Noble Wit tells how Katherine became the woman who would inspire her famous sons to follow their dreams. It is Tudor history seen though a woman’s eyes.

As the daughter of a gentry family with close connections to the glittering court of King Henry VIII, Katherine’s duty is clear. She must put aside her dreams and accept the husband chosen for her. Still a girl, she starts a new life at Greenway Court, overlooking the River Dart, relieved that her husband is not the ageing monster of her nightmares. She settles into the life of a dutiful wife and mother until a chance shipboard encounter with a handsome privateer, turns her world upside down.…..

Years later a courageous act will set Katherine’s name in print and her youngest son will fly high.

Trigger Warnings: Rape.

Universal Buy Link HERE!


About the Author

Rosemary Griggs is a retired Whitehall Senior Civil Servant with a lifelong passion for history. She is now a speaker on Devon’s sixteenth century history and costume. She leads heritage tours at Dartington Hall, has made regular costumed appearances at National Trust houses and helps local museums bring history to life.

Connect with Rosemary here:


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