This is the first volume in a trilogy of political thrillers set in Elizabethan England. The protagonist, William Harley, although a Catholic under a fanatically Protestant regime, holds an honorable position in the state as Clarenceux King of Arms. This precarious balancing act is upset one night when a Catholic acquaintance, Henry Machyn, entrusts a secret chronicle to him. Machyn is soon afterward tortured to death by the “Queen’s spymaster,” the implacable Francis Walsingham. The chronicle, it turns out, conceals a coded message which points at evidence that Elizabeth was not fathered by Henry VIII and therefore has no claim to the throne. Harley and Machyn’s widow, Rebecca, flee London with Walsingham’s brutal henchmen hot on their heels. Through a series of grueling days and nights, with one narrow escape after another, Harley and Rebecca are inevitably drawn to one another. It all ends in a rousing chase and a duel in which Harley, a gentle, peaceful man, finds his back to the wall.
I discovered only after finishing the book that Forrester is the pen name of Ian Mortimer, a scholar of English history, whose delightful Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England I reviewed here some two years ago. He writes well and fills the novel’s background with lots of convincing period detail. The book concludes with quite a scholarly author’s note. The Machyn Chronicle is a real document, which one can view online, although the handwriting, I found, is all but indecipherable. I recommend the novel and look forward to its sequel.