Finding Kit Kavanagh
When I set out to write the story of Kit Kavanagh, an extraordinary female soldier who fought several campaigns dressed as a man, I wanted to follow in her footsteps. So I began at the beginning, and went in search of her in her home country of Ireland.
Kit’s story (and mine) begins in Dublin, where she was born in 1667 to a family of maltsters and taverners. As a teenager she came to live at her Aunt’s pub, Kavanaghs.
The pub is situated next to the famous Glasnevin cemetery, an oasis of calm crowded with beautiful stone tombs – where Micheal Collins now lies – and thus was given the name ‘The Gravediggers’.
Of course it was necessary to have a pint of Guinness there to fully soak up the atmosphere of the tavern where Kit lived and worked!
Kit lived at Kavanaghs for four years, learning the pub business, and she fell in love with one of her aunt’s servants, Richard Walsh. Kit and Richard were happy until one night, when the regiment came to town, he disappeared without trace. It appeared he had inadvertently enlisted, and Kit cut off her hair, disguised herself as a man, and followed him.
In my story Kit is shipped from Dublin to Genoa (Genova) in Italy. Genoa has been a bustling seaport for centuries, and the lighthouse which is Kit’s first sight of foreign land, and the location for her first encounter with Captain Ross, was also Columbus’s last sight of land as he sought a new world.
Kit gives thanks for her safe voyage at the famous shrine of the Madonna della Fortuna in the church of San Carlo. Interestingly, the Madonna herself is no plaster saint but a ship’s figurehead, wrenched from a wrecked ship and appropriately beloved of soldiers as their particular saviour.
Kit trains under Captain Ross at the Palazzo Reale, the seat of Genoa’s Duke. Here, as in Venice, the ruler was known as the Doge, exemplifying the close rivalry between Italy’s Eastern and Western coastal powers.
In her search for her husband, Kit rides with the dragoons to the little town of Rovereto, in the mountains above Lake Garda. At that time Rovereto was in the lands of the Holy Roman Empire, and under the rule of Emperor Leopold I. Rovereto is a very pretty town and is very well preserved. The houses are painted in creamy white, with lovely frescoes and place names painted directly onto the plaster. It seems such a peaceful place and it is hard to believe that at the time of Kit’s story Rovereto was a crucial outpost for Prince Eugene of Savoy, commander of the Imperial forces. The only real clue to the town’s martial past is the sturdy castle set on the hill above the river Leno.
The castle now houses an extremely comprehensive and very moving military museum, with some incredible artefacts from the First World War. Below the castle is the Forbato bridge, which connects the Venetian old town to the Imperial new. It is the setting for one of Kit’s more dramatic episodes; she fights a duel on the bridge with her rival Sergeant Taylor.
Riva del Garda
Riva del Garda is a picturesque town which sits on the very northern shore of Lake Garda. Garda is the largest body of water in Italy, and boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in the Italian Lakes.
Unfortunately Kit does not see any of it, for she is taken to Riva del Garda to recover from the wounds she sustained at the Battle of Luzzara. In the field hospital located under the lakeside Bastione, she falls under the power of the malign surgeon Doctor Atticus Lambe.
As most of my readers will know, Venice is just about my favourite place in the world. I’ve written about this fairest of cities quite a few times, but with Kit the challenge was different. Kit is well-travelled by the time she reaches La Serenissima, but the place is entirely new to her and I had to try to see a place I know very well through fresh eyes. By the time she reaches Venice Kit is exhausted and penniless, too poor to even buy a passage on a ship. She is scooped up by the enigmatic Duke of Ormonde and immediately taken in a gondola to one of the most opulent palaces on the Grand Canal – in reality the Palazzo Bernardo San Polo, a gorgeous edifice of creamy stone built for the Bernardo family in 1422.
While Ormonde makes Kit an offer she can’t refuse, she and the duke dine on the dish of doves, an ancient Venetian dish which is mentioned in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. ‘I have here a dish of doves, which I would bestow upon your worship,’ (Merchant of Venice, Act 2 scene ii)
Ormonde takes Kit to Stresa on Lake Maggiore, and from there to his palace on the Isola Bella, the most beautiful of the three stunning islands on the lake.
Isola Bella was described as an ‘inchanted island’ by Anglican clergyman Gilbert Burnet, placing it firmly on the itinerary for those undertaking the Grand Tour. The island certainly is ‘inchanted’. The Palazzo Maggiore, which belonged to the Borromeo family for centuries, is breathtaking enough, but it is entirely eclipsed by its gardens. Ten terraces of flower-studded, fountain soaked, manicured green gardens, give way to stunning views of the lake. The garden is famous for its white peacocks, which, to this day, wander serenely through the flowers.
The place became a playground of princes, and it is here that the Duke of Ormonde plays Pygmalion with Kit, transforming her from a scruffy soldier into a French countess.
At Mantua Kit enters the most dangerous phase of her mission. She must enter Mantua in her disguise as a French countess, and try to elicit military secrets from Philippe D’Orleans. At the beginning of the 18th Century Mantua was under French occupation, and the invaders made a court to rival Versailles at the elegant Palazzo del Te. The Palazzo features stunning frescoes of wrestling giants by Guiliano Romano – the only painter to be mentioned in Shakespeare as ‘that rare Italian master Julio Romano’. But the city owed its security to the Palazzo Ducale, a huge and imposing Barbican surrounded on three sides by a defensive lagoon.
The Palazzo was the home of the Gonzaga family, whose head, Ludovico II Gonzaga, took such exception to the Pope describing Mantua as ‘Muddy, marshy, riddled with fever and unbearably hot’ that he gave the whole city a facelift and created the elegant urban landscape we see today.
After her adventures abroad, and a long and distinguished military career, Kit was commended by Queen Anne herself and lived comfortably on a royal pension in Charles Street, Westminster. In her last years she was given the honour of being the first woman to enter the famous Chelsea Hospital for retired soldiers.
The hospital was instituted by Anne’s uncle Charles II in 1682, for those ‘broken by age or war’ and was built by Christopher Wren. To this day it is a peaceful riverside haven for those who have given their best years in the service of their country. Kit Kavanagh died in this restful place, and her story ends at St Margaret’s church, Westminster, where, after a life of adventure, she was laid to rest.
Kit is released on 16th July.