Or, a year of living dangerously in England for champions of the Tudor line, would-be pirates, and civilians susceptible to a touch of the plague.
Many a noted British historian, such as Tudor specialist G.R. Elton, has passed the year 1603 by without much comment, thinking it no more important than any other 12-month period. London-based freelance writer/historian Lee (The Sceptred Isle, not reviewed), undaunted, makes a case for that year as one of those previously unheralded watersheds in the history of the British Isles. After all, it marked the death of Queen Elizabeth and the inauguration of the Scottish King James VI, who became James I of England and set about making all sorts of controversial steps and missteps and opening up the path to civil war later in the 17th century; as Lee writes, “Elizabeth may have commanded the obedience of the people, but James would not—and nor would any sovereign who followed.” Complicating James’s uneasy ascent to the throne was the return of the Black Death, which felled 40,000 English men, women, and children in 1603; it was less catastrophic than previous episodes of the plague, but an added burden in a time of hunger, want, and economic distress. Against this backdrop, Lee populates his stage with vivid characters, including the none-too-pleasant James himself; a rising star named William Shakespeare; and the privateer, ne’er-do-well, and poet Walter Ralegh, whom English writers and historians have lately been discovering. Though Lee falls for a classic schoolboy-Latin trap (“O rare Ben Johnson” has nothing to do with the poet’s uncommonness) and seems sometimes to be channeling a period ghostwriter (“The people of James’s green and pleasant land would prosper and breed as they might anyway have done”), his narrative moves well and neatly weaves many threads.
A turning point in English history, skillfully distilled for readers four centuries after.