The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman - book review: Romance, drama, intrigue, betrayal and brutality fill the pages
Old Queen Bess is dead, long live the king… but what changes will come when James I takes the throne of England?
Author and historian Tracy Borman sweeps us away to the volatile and lascivious court of the first Stuart king in a thrilling and richly detailed debut novel which follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a young noblewoman whose healing powers thrust her into a maelstrom of suspicion and danger.
The King’s Witch – set against the fascinating backdrop of religious paranoia and Catholic plots which marked out the early years of James Stuart’s reign in the 17th century – is the first book of an enthralling trilogy starring the real-life Lady Frances Gorges, daughter of one of Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite ladies-in-waiting.
Little is known of Frances but her home, Longford Castle in Wiltshire, still survives and is one of the finest examples of an Elizabethan prodigy house which was built in an unusual triangular formation, a device often used to express an owner’s Catholic faith.
And adhering to Catholicism was perilous in the reign of James I, the intolerant and dogmatic king whose desire to stamp an extreme brand of Protestantism on to the English people led to the notorious witch hunts which saw many innocent women put to death… not least the Pendle witches of Lancashire.
As she helps her mother, Helena Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth in March of 1603, Frances Gorges longs to return to the fields and ancient woodland of Longford Castle, her parents’ Wiltshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved and respected healer.
Frances has always had an affinity with the natural world and ‘the simple rhythms of life’ and could happily live out her days at Longford, far away from the hustle and bustle of court. So when the new King James I arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion, Frances is more than happy to be back at her home where she can truly relax.
And James’s court is already proving to be shockingly decadent despite the king’s Puritan brand of Protestantism. Intolerant of all the old ways, he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft, believing that the Devil ‘shows favours’ to wise women ‘skilled in the art of healing.’
So when her uncle, the ambitious Earl of Northampton, forcibly brings Frances to court as an attendant to James’s eight-year-old daughter Princess Elizabeth, she is trapped in a frightening world of intrigue and betrayal, and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the king’s first minister and a man eager to disgrace her family.
Surrounded by deadly dangers, Frances is a marked woman and finds happiness only with the precocious young princess in her charge, and handsome young courtier Tom Wintour.
But as a dark plot to destroy both the king and his parliament swirls around her, Frances must decide whether Tom, the one person at court she has come to trust, is really all he seems?
Borman uses both her historical knowledge and an impressive new-found flair for storytelling to immerse her readers in the decadent and dangerous court of James I whose bizarre dichotomy between Protestant virtue and restraint, and drunkenness, depravity and excess provoked a simmering and potent resentment.
A cast of vibrant real-life Jacobean court players, including the scheming Lord Robert Cecil, the young Princess Elizabeth and some of the infamous Gunpowder Plotters, play out their parts alongside the intelligently and creatively imagined Frances whose herbal skills render her vulnerable to the paranoia of the king.
The King’s Witch is a rich and sumptuous story, written with insight and embroidered with fascinating detail of both the period’s turbulent political history, and the claustrophobia and corruption of James’s royal court at Whitehall.
Romance, drama, intrigue, betrayal and brutality fill the pages as Borman seamlessly blends fact and fiction into a powerful opener for what promises to be a dynamic and action-packed trilogy.
(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)