British schoolmaster Stephen, author of 15 books on English literature and military history, recounts the bloody intrigues of Jacobean England as seen by a double agent.
An Englishman of the 16th or 17th century had to take care how he said his prayers, since the glimpse of a rosary or, alternately, of the Book of Common Prayer, could put him in irons, depending on who sat on the throne. A secret Catholic, Henry Gresham works as an agent for King James I’s virulently anti-papist Chief Secretary Robert Cecil. A rank opportunist, Cecil sees the Protestant cause as a means of consolidating support for the king against the Catholic powers of Spain and France, who have flooded the country with spies eager to stir up resentment among oppressed Catholics. Sympathetic to the Catholic cause, Gresham nevertheless recognizes the dangers posed by these Catholic provocateurs who play into Cecil’s hands by hatching plots against the Crown. While investigating Sir Francis Bacon’s sexual tastes for Cecil (sodomy was a capital offense, and Bacon had become a thorn in Cecil’s side), Gresham hears of a fantastic plot to blow up Parliament and install a Catholic on the throne. He proceeds cautiously and eventually discovers that the conspiracy centers on two rather shadowy figures: Guy Fawkes and Thomas Percy. Mercenaries both, Fawkes and Percy seem to be secret agents of Cecil, who is bent on fomenting a dramatic Catholic rebellion that he can “unmask” and quash at the last moment, thereby winning the favor of the king and the affections of the populace. Can Gresham (a Catholic posing as a Protestant) foil the plots of Fawkes and Percy (Protestants posing as Catholics) and thereby save the life of a Protestant king who alone can prevent a full-scale massacre of English Catholics?
A vivid cast and a good grasp of the period make for a gripping debut tale of deceit and chicanery in high places—and a reminder that some things never change.