Most historical novelists do not first train as historians. That’s probably a good thing, for the most part: historical novels have to succeed as novels first, and as James Forrester notes in my latest interview for New Books in Historical Fiction, historians have to “undo the research” enough to relax and have fun making up whatever they need for the sake of the story. It’s important to keep the details straight and the surroundings realistic, but a light hand on the reins is more important still. The reader who spends the evening asleep over your book may thank you for the pick-me-up but won’t, most likely, finish your novel.
But historians who grasp this essential point—and James Forrester, aka Ian Mortimer, definitely does—can enrich their fiction with their deep and passionate interest in the past. Good historians understand how the past differed from the present and—especially important for fiction—where the cracks and tensions lay in the world being portrayed. The popular image of Elizabethan England is one of peace and tranquillity, religious toleration, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake. The reality was quite different. Elizabeth’s fragile polity placed a high value on loyalty—political, religious, and personal—and her subjects paid a high price if the state decided they had failed to meet that standard. High stakes, harsh demands, and intense, prolonged, complicated conflict—these are the elements on which fiction thrives, and Forrester handles them with aplomb.
The rest of this post is adapted from the New Books in Historical Fiction site.
London, December 1563. Elizabeth I—Gloriana, the Virgin Queen—has ruled England for five years, but her throne is far from secure. Even though Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister Mary, the idea of a woman sovereign still troubles much of the populace. And although the burnings of Protestants at Smithfield ceased with Elizabeth’s accession, religion remains a source of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Catholics, once protected by the crown, find themselves subject to unwarranted search and seizure, to having their ears nailed to the pillory or sliced from their heads, to arrest and confinement in the Tower on the merest suspicion of intent to foment unrest. Not all the plots are imaginary, either: several rebellions with religious overtones punctuate Elizabeth’s reign.
Amid this atmosphere of mistrust, William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, sits in the light of a single candle, listening to the rain outside his study window, his robe pulled tight against the December chill. A knock on the door sparks in him the fear that would later be familiar to victims of the Soviet secret police: who would demand entrance after curfew other than government troops bent on hauling him in for his allegiance to the pope? But the queen’s forces cannot be denied, so with considerable trepidation Clarenceux orders his servant to open the door.
In fact, his visitor is a friend, a betrayed man determined to pass on his secret mission to Clarenceux. In accepting, Clarenceux has no idea that the mission places at risk his life, his health, his family, his friends, and the safety of the realm. The price of loyalty is high, and betrayal lurks in every corner.
The Clarenceux Trilogy—Sacred Treason, The Roots of Betrayal, and The Final Sacrament—is the work of James Forrester, the pen name of the historian Ian Mortimer, author of The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England and other works.
Those interested in Henry Machyn’s chronicle can find the text online, hosted by the University of Michigan Libraries.