Friday, April 19, 2013


I confess. I, Linda Root, conspired with James Douglas, Earl of Morton, Regent of Scotland,  my quintessential villain to kill off Helen Leslie, widow of James Kirkcaldy, the knight Sir William Kirkcaldy's younger brother.  Most histories that bother to mention her at all blame her murder on the Kirkcaldy brothers, but they did not get it right.  No less an authority than the very authoritarian Reformer Knox himself presents evidence that the lady survived the death of the Kirkcaldy brothers and continued to procreate for at least three years after Kirkcaldy's head was put on display above the Portcullis Gate of Edinburgh Castle which Kirkcaldy loved so much. 

Naughty Helen( by Russ Root)


I first met  Lady Helen when researching the life of Kirkcaldy of Grange.  That in and of itself presents a challenge, for most of the records pertaining to the Kirkcaldy family were stored within the knight’s offices in Edinburgh Castle during the Lange Siege of 1573, but according to my research, when the castle fell, the vindictive Regent Morton had them destroyed, as if eradicating the documents would erase the man.  Because Kirkcaldy was a voracious letter writer, a treasure trove of correspondence was forever lost, except for the letters generated by him, some of which have surfaced in private collections and made their way into the histories of the time. There also existed a popular contemporary reporter of Kirkcaldy’s exploits, and that is Sir James Melville of Halihill, Kirkcaldy’s uncle, who kept journals and wrote memoirs in which Kirkcaldy figures prominently.  Melville, however, was known to embellish the record.  
. There are two acknowledged two truths about Sir James Melville.  First, he was a novelist at heart and a bit of a prevaricator, and second, he was Kirkcaldy’s uncle, his mother Janet Melville of Raith’s very much younger brother, and his accounts are more than a little skewed.  Much like the rumor that is passed from ear to ear around the dinner table, Melville’s highly biased account of his illustrious relative made its way into the popular histories of two of the knight’s biographers, James Barbe and John Grant.  Neither of the gentlemen looked past Melville in their reports of the perfidious antics and precipitous demise of Lady Helen. 
             A reader relying on Melville, Grant and Barbe will believe that after Helen orchestrated the betrayal of her husband James Kirkcaldy, he  somehow escaped Morton's dungeons at Dalkeith long enough to strangle Lady Helen with her shawl, the kind of literary justice that novelists and readers love, and no wonder it endures as the popular version of the perfidious lady’s end.  However, the truth of the matter is something entirely different, and the source of the more likely story is none other than John Knox and his editor.  Knox, it seems, had an enduring friendship with Helen Leslie due to kindnesses rendered to Knox’s first wife when she was dying, which among other things demonstrates that my mother was right when she taught me the adage, "there is a little bit of good in the worst of us, and a little bit of bad in the best of us.'  According to footnotes with citations in his history of the Reformation, lady Helen had distinguished herself with Knox as 'the Gudewife Barroun'  during her marriage to Knox’s friend John Barroun, an important Edinburgh official. According to the footnotes, after her second husband James Kirkcaldy’s execution, she married a third time to a parson named Seton and gave birth to two more daughters, dying in approximately 1576.  The fact that  Knox's angelic Helen is the same Helen Leslie who had been the regent Morton’s mistress and the betrayer of  Kirkcaldy brother is confirmed by reference to her will in which she names her son William Kirkcaldy as her surviving heir.   There is nothing in the literature to rehabilitate her character or prove her innocent of selling out her husband, but Knox’s notes  certainly acquit either of the Kirkcaldy brothers of her murder, since she outlived them both and continued to procreate. As an amateur  historian, I must wonder why Melville’s account has been so easily adopted and passed along, when the truth is  readily available. However, as a writer of historical fiction, l like Helen best when she is at her most evil, which suits my persona as a fiction writer and makes her outrageously delicious to kill.

 In Last Knight at page 710, Kirkcaldy does his best to kill his sister-in-law, but he realizes that much of what she has become is due  to his rejection of  her when she was an adolescent living with his family. Chivalry overtakes his need for revenge in the following excerpt, which takes place shortly after Kirkcaldy learns that Helen is not only responsible for his brother's capture but also for the death of  Mariel Fraser, the midwife who had profoundly touched his heart. The incident with the willow switch is in retaliation for an injury she inflicted on her little son when he tried to save his nanny from being dragged away by Morton's soldiers. The excerpt is edited for sensitive and young readers to remove the one word we inherited from the Scots that most editors deem too hot to handle.

He made it to Rossend long before sunrise, just as he had planned. Rossend was still his, and like all of his properties, he knew its every secret.  He had negotiated the hidden passage that Chatelard once used to reach the queen’s bedchamber, and he correctly guessed Helen would have selected the elegantly furnished room for herself.
            Chatelard’s secret passageway opened into a cabinet in the gallery outside Helen’s room.  He did not linger.  He boldly marched to Helen’s chamber, a man on a mission. He felt no compulsion to behave discretely. He had already bribed the garrison outside.  He would have killed them had they balked.  He saw no need to make a secret of his presence. As soon as the lady’s body was discovered, all of Fifeshire would know who had done the evil deed. He disliked assassinations and considered them cowardly, but some wrongs cried out for vengeance..

            He spotted a fine knitted scarf tossed upon a chair. Good, he thought. He would not need his belt.

            Helen was in her curtained bed, imitating the sleep of the innocent. Although she was entering her fifth decade, she was still a beautiful woman.

            She had been more than forty when she finally married Jamie. The children came soon, one within a year of the other.  Kirkcaldy wondered whose they were.  Thank God that neither was his.

            He must have given out an audible sigh, because the lady stirred.

            “Who’s there?”

            “He who is your worst fear.”

            “Kirkcaldy” she whispered.

            He did not respond.

            She propped herself up on her elbows.

            “To my bedchamber at last!  I must have lit a candle to the right saint.”

 The woman was amoral. Yet the fact that she was not cowed strangely pleased him.

            “Why, Helen?  How could you do this?  The man loves you.”

            “Morton asked me the same question,” she said. “He seemed puzzled when I told him that it had nothing to do with Jack.  It is all about you, Kirkcaldy. But then you always knew that. You were the firstborn.  Perhaps if your father had promised me to you, none of this would have happened. But no.”  She was quiet for a moment and turned her head away.  Kirkcaldy thought he saw a tear forming. ...“You accursed people took my pride from me and used my money when pride and wealth were my only weapons, and now I am taking from you that which you cherish most.” 

He wondered if she was referring to his brother’s life or the purloined gold he needed to save his castle. He was about to forgo strangling her with her scarf and had withdrawn his sgian to strike a fatal blow. Afterwards he was never certain if it had been Helen’s next words or the noise from behind that stopped him. 

Surely the whimpering child in the doorway was a part of it, a wee lad with a welt across his cheek.  The Kirkcaldy heir. His heir.

            “Do it, Kirkcaldy,” she taunted.

            “Unca Willy?”

            “Aye, it is your Unca Willy, here to chase the Bogle away and to kiss you goodnight.”   He hid the dagger in the folds of his garments and hoisted the boy onto his shoulder.  Then he turned to Helen.

            “You have not taken that which I value most, Helen, and you will not succeed tonight where you have failed in the past.”  His voice and his demeanor had mellowed. His nephew was already half asleep. He gently lowered him to the floor, tousled his hair and swatted him off to his room. :

            “I’ll be tucking you into your bed before I leave,” he promised.   

            He found a willow in a vase, and with thumb and forefinger, he stripped it of its fuzzy blooms. Then he made a single swipe at Helen’s cheek, striking her just below her eye.  She made no effort to ward it off.

            “You think you are the world’s great knight, Kirkcaldy, but you are mistaken.”

            “I am perhaps the world’s last knight, but surely not its greatest. But you, Helen, are most assuredly the world’s greatest c---. Both of us are past our prime. Perhaps I should fall upon my sword and you should retire to a nunnery.”

            He stomped out of the room and gathered up the children. He could not take them back to the Maiden Castle, so he delivered them to one of the Melville farms where his brothers David and Robert were living.

            “Hide them”, he said, after sharing the news ofwhat had happened to Jack.

 “Should Helen find some future use for them, she might want them back.”   
 When he rode off into the predawn fog, his brothers gave a muffled battle cry. “A Kirkcaldy,” they called, and he returned the battle cry of their clan.

            He never heard it raised again.  

And in Midwife's Secret at page 174,  Helen finally meets her end. And  to make it easy on my conscience, the very naughty Helen of Last Knight becomes pure evil in the pages of Midwife's Secret, to the  point that I actually enjoyed killing her off.  Since the earl of Morton was so good at killing people, I had him do it. 

The midwife was not the last expendable woman in the saga.

After their executions, the Kirkcaldy brothers took on a new mystique.  Soon Kirkcaldy had joined the ranks of legendary Scottish heroes of the likes of Wallace and the Bruce. The people of Edinburgh were again in the knight’s thrall, anxious to avenge him, and too fickle for Morton to risk setting them off by publicly lifting the skirts of Jack Kirkcaldy’s widow.  After Helen betrayed her husband and his brother, and the Grange’s head went on display above the castle gate, she ceased to have a value worth the peril she presented. Morton began to plan her death.  He was in no particular hurry.  Without a husband to accommodate her, her sexual appetite was both voracious and unsatiated, and besides, he had yet to groom a replacement.

 To keep Helen satisfied, Morton let her remain living in Rossend after her husband’s execution, and when that still did not appease her and she made increasing demands on his time, he found her a preacher for a husband, assuming that would calm her down. He vowed to postpone his plan to poison her for as long as she behaved herself.  After Kirkcaldy’s death, Morton was at the pinnacle of his power, and at the time, Helen was too much of a survivor to complain.  She was pregnant with Morton’s child and needed a husband in a hurry.  
The bridegroom James Seton hardly noticed. He was too busy courting favor with the Council of the Kirk to question the stage of Helen’s pregnancy or how she occupied herself during his absences.  The preacher continued his habit of sleeping on a bench in a pew at his country kirk on weekends so he could draft his Sunday sermons without the distractions of his wife, and Morton renewed his nocturnal excursions to Rossend Castle. He abandoned any plan to rid himself of Helen permanently until her child was born. Should it be a male, he would have Knox’s successor Craig annul her recent marriage and would thereafter acknowledge the child as his.  As if he had a curse hanging over him, all of the children born to his several mistresses had been daughters.  As things stood, his dying wife’s nephew was his only heir.  A son would be worth the scandal of a marriage to the widow of the man he had butchered three years earlier. A simple well placed pillow would take care of his bed-ridden wife.

Helen’s supposed premature delivery of a daughter weighing over half a troy stone raised eyebrows in some quarters, and its sex caused Morton to sulk, but the cuckolded preacher wrote a lengthy sermon lauding the virtues of a gudewife such as Helen. However, two daughters later, the older of which was surely his, it was time for Motion to sever his link to Helen Leslie.  His regency was under attack.

Challenged by the earls of Atholl and Argyll, and losing his control over the pubescent king, Morton had no energies to spare for Helen, who was dissatisfied with the role of a parson’s wife.  With his wife long dead, he had run out of excuses. After the birth of a second daughter, Helen had ceased her menses. There would be no stallion from this particular brood mare.

Morton was canny enough to know that Helen would not go quietly to pasture. He fooled her into thinking that the surplus poison he had acquired from the Englishman Walsingham to poison the Earl of Atholl was set aside for use on the preacher. He helped her hide it in a cabinet in her bedchamber telling her that she would administer it when he indicated the time was right.

  Then one evening after a particularly gratifying demonstration of her repertoire of depravities, he poured her a generous mug of claret which he embellished with the contents of the vile. He had always been good at sleight-of-hand. He was within her when she began to convulse.
Morton’s varlet Binney, who as usual knew the plan, had been waiting in an alcove outside Helen’s bedchamber. He quickly emerged and placed a pillow over Helen’s face to muffle the sounds of her death throes. After it was over, Morton instructed Binney to deal with the corpse in whatever manner pleased him most, but to clean up the evidence of his expended fluids and leave the lady in an uncommon angelic repose.  Then Morton rode off to his lair at Dalkeith, pondering which of his new chambermaids would be the best to train in the techniques he had learned from Helen.  

At her heartbroken husband’s request, Morton arranged a lavish funeral for the murdered mistress in the Kirk of Saint Giles where Knox had preached.  He and Binney placed an elegant wreath on her casket, lingering tearfully at the open grave sharing their last ménage e’trois. 

And thus, the girl who had started it all by running her bare foot up Kirkcaldy's leg at the dinner table  when she was an adolescent heiress living in the Kirkcaldy manor house at  Halyards at the beginning of my second novel The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots meets her bitter end in The Midwife's Secret - the Mystery of the Hidden Princess.  I had written her into the prologue of the fourth book of the Queen of Scot's Suite, my current work-in-progress, but  today I edited her out of it.  Better she rest in peace. 

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