When people think of bad, bad queens they perhaps – rightly or wrongly – think of Isabella ‘the She-Wolf of England’ (who may not have been bad at all).
Or they might think of Bloody Queen Mary, or Isabella the First, or even – left field – Elizabeth Bathory, the so-called Queen of Serial Killers.
How many people would suggest Hürrem Haseki Sultan – or Roxelana, as she is sometimes better known?
I might, but then I would probably be in the minority.
Who was she? Hürrem was a concubine in the harem of Suleiman the Magnificent in the sixteenth century.
She was born in the Ukraine, which was then part of Poland. Captured in a Tatar raid, she was probably sold as a slave and traders brought her to Istanbul – then Stamboul – and the harem of the Sultan, Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Possessor of Men’s Necks.
What was a harem like?
Most men fondly imagine half-naked young women soaping each other in an Asiatic day spa.
In reality, the harem of Suleiman’s time was a grim and twilight maze of dark-paneled rooms where the sun seldom penetrated. Day to day life was a like a reality survival game – but with enormous stakes.
Imagine, if you will, a Miss World contest where the winner becomes an Empress and the other three finalists are drowned in a sack.
Oh, and all the runners-up only get to leave the stage when they die.
Our Russian slave girl thrived in this snake pit. She not only rose to become the Sultan’s favourite, she then – to the astonishment of the entire court, if not the whole Ottoman empire – persuaded him to break with two centuries of tradition and marry her. No Sultan had taken a queen since the Ottomans lived as nomads on the plains.
But there was more. To everyone’s amazement, he subsequently resigned his entire harem; three hundred of the most beautiful women in the whole empire. He granted his new queen concession after concession.
Scholars have asked why. So I did, too.
You see, many strange things happened during Suleiman’s reign. Before his marriage, his harem mysteriously – some might say, conveniently – burned down. Suleiman had his best friend and two of his sons murdered. He allowed the most abject of his progeny, Selim the Sot, to inherit the throne.
In my novel, “Harem”, I took all the facts that were known about Suleiman and Hürrem and imagined a rationale. Inspector Falconer then gathered all the known suspects in the drawing room for the denouement and pointed a trembling finger at the Sultan’s queen, charging her with adultery, treason and conspiracy to murder.
Unjustly accused? Perhaps. Of course, she denies everything.
But that is the point of speculative historical fiction. The author speculates about what is unknown and hopefully does it in a way that will keep the reader up until two in the morning.
The evidence against her is, admittedly, circumstantial. I’d never be able to take this to the Crown Prosecutor. Perhaps, in my novel, I have wronged an innocent woman. As has been pointed out to me, she was responsible for many charitable works.
But then so was Pablo Escobar, and every Christmas the Hell’s Angels give toys to children’s homes.
All I can say is this: I never fiddled with the dates, or the events. Right or wrong, it all hangs together.
And when those DNA results come back from the crime lab, she’d better watch out …