Unknown vs unknowable: the limits of research

The archive I used to manage had elaborate metadata templates for its resources, attempting to capture as much detail as possible in a structured, database-friendly fashion. Many fields had a list of possible values or a range of values, such as ‘Year born.’ Since it isn’t desirable to leave fields empty, many such lists ended with the choices ‘unknown’ and ‘unspecified.’ I might choose ‘unspecified’ if I know the answer but don’t want to record it, or if I think I might obtain the answer later. Someone knows; I just have to go find out. I choose ‘unknown’ if the information can or will never be retrieved. Lots of people in Back of Beyondia don’t know what year they were born.

I was always amused by the precise epistemology being elicited by that pair of choices. I remember it now, when I find myself searching for some tiny fact for one of my historical novels. This happened a couple of times in writing The Widows Guild, the third Francis Bacon mystery. It’s set in late August ~ early September, 1588. The Spanish armada has come and been defeated, and is now struggling through the German Sea, rounding the coast north of Scotland. After many months of fear and concerted response to that imminent threat, English have a chance to catch their collective breath and try to pick up their lives again.

What was how

Unlike many writers of historical fact, I have to paint scenes and set stages. My characters don’t move from one white room to another; they walk through streets and hang about on quays waiting for a ferry. They probably rode horses as often as they walked, if not more often, but horses are people too. They would need names, personalities, and grooms and add lots of words irrelevant to the plot. If I didn’t admire horses, I could use them more. So I leave them out.


Page from the Agas map showing wherries on the Thames


I assume that post-armada London is mess, in the literal sense of being dirtier than usual. Some writers assume it was always filthy from one end to the other, but I don’t believe it. Street cleaning and rubbish removal were parish tasks, so they would vary from parish to parish. Richer parishes would be cleaner, as in all cities I’ve ever visited today. Parishes with active officials and busybodies eagerly reporting infractions would also be cleaner. Also, my characters would be accustomed to the status quo and would not remark, in their thoughts or otherwise, upon a bit of cabbage in the lane or a stray pig, unless they happened to step on them.

Every account of the battles of the armada describe how many of England’s able-bodied men were drafted into military service one way or another. The whole nation had to rise to this dire occasion. Anyone with any skill in a boat was sent to aid the Navy. London’s wherrymen were particularly proud to enlist in the defense of their queen. Local militias mustered their quotas in every county with a coast, which is most of them. Patriots galloped hither and yon to offer whatever assistance they could.

There can’t have been many people left to sweep the streets and cart away the garbage. We’re not in pigthe twentieth century, when women had fought for the right to drive the ambulances and plow the fields. Things that were supposed to be done by men probably mostly didn’t get done.

So my characters notice the unusually unkempt state of their surroundings, even though I haven’t read anything that specifically describes the situation. It seems like nothing, right? But I try to invent as little as possible, apart from my particular story.

Who was where and when

Another problem with historical fiction is managing the real historical persons who appear in the tale. Important people had several houses — one in London and at least one in the country. Even Francis Bacon had his little lodge at Twickenham as a retreat from his chambers at Gray’s Inn. I know he was in town during my period, because he was serving on that dire commission with the odious Sir Richard Topcliffe. For the same reason, I know Topcliffe was in London and not out hunting more Catholics.

But what about everybody else? I do not possess pdf copies of Lord Burghley’s correspondence. I doubt any such thing exists. I didn’t actually need him in this story, but I did try to figure where he was, just in case. I have a note that Burghley was in Westminster, where he ought to be, considering the general state of emergency, followed immediately by an urgent need for funds. The queen was around; her palaces were mostly along the Thames. She reviewed troops at St. James in late August, to the comfort and inspiration of the people.

I have both Lady Anne Bacon and her sister, Lady Elizabeth Russell, in London during the whole period, although I have no idea where either of them was in reality. Ordinary women would keep their heads down in their country estates during such perilous times, but these women were not ordinary. Lady Elizabeth might be especially determined to stay close to the sources of fresh information.

One potentially tricky situation arose concerning a famous historical person. My villain uses a poison Francis Bacon can’t identify. He suspects the substance might have come from the New World, but he can’t any solid information about it.


Sir Walter Ralegh

If I were an Elizabethan courtier with a question about the New World, I would ask Sir Walter Ralegh. He was living in Blackwall, which is in the east end of London near the river. He had, of course, performed heroically during the battles with the Spanish armada. I had a scene all imagined (not written, thank goodness) in which Francis went to visit the dashing hero at home. Ralegh was only 7 years older than Francis Bacon and presents another very different temperament. I don’t know anything about how they responded to one another, but they must have known each other all their adult lives. One of these days, they’ll meet in my pages.

But not in The Widows Guild. Ralegh had no time to put his feet up and answer idle questions. He and Sir Richard Grenville were sent at once to Cornwall, to patrol the Irish Sea. Everyone feared the Spanish would land in Ireland, find eager allies to help them repair and reprovision their ships. Swing back around and attack again, while England was struggling to get back on her feet.


Mattingly, Garrett. 1959. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

McDermott, James. 2005. England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Whitehead, Bertrand T. 1994. Brags and Boasts: Propaganda in the Year of the Armada. Alan Sutton Publishing Limited.

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