As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.
Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.
So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister. Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.
Or can she?
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Tracy Borman’s first novel, The King’s Witch through NetGalley.
I have often read and enjoyed Tracy Borman’s non-fiction works. Indeed, her book on Matilda of Flanders, queen of William the Conqueror, was very helpful in my research for my own books, Heroines of the Medieval World and Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest. However, there is a great difference in writing non-fiction and fiction and not every author can make the jump. As a result I was unsure what tot expect from The King’s Witch but discovered that Tracy Borman has managed to create a masterpiece of literary fiction at the first attempt.
Set in the court of James VI and I shortly after his arrival in England, The King’s Witch weaves a wonderful tale of love, intrigue, betrayal and suspense, set against the backdrop of the king’s obsession with eradicating witchcraft within his realm and the persecution of catholics. The officers of the old regime of Elizabeth I are trying to curry favour with the new king by taking on his obsessions and making them their own, so that those out of favour are hunted on every side.
As curator of the Historic Royal Palaces, Tracy Borman uses the wealth of inside knowledge and information she has acquired to vividly recreate the world of early Stuart Britain in vibrant detail. She breathes life into her characters, both historical and invented, so that it is impossible to tell where the fact ends and the fiction begins. Her expertise is demonstrated not only in court etiquette, dress and manners, but also in the seedier side of Stuart Britain, in the treatment and punishment of prisoners, the oppression of catholic families and priests. The extent of research the author pursued in the writing of the book is demonstrated in the knowledge of herbs and their healing qualities, and how a girl may gain and use the knowledge to help others, if not always successfully.
There was silence for a few moments, then Helena bade her daughter sit with her again, and clasped both of Frances’s hands in her own.
‘My daughter.’ She pronounced the word as ‘dotter’, a rare hint of her native tongue. ‘You are my precious jewel. If only I could keep you as safe as these trifles -‘ she gestured to the coffers surrounding them, each secured with a brightly polished lock, the keys to which were only entrusted to her highest-ranking attendant.
Frances looked up into her mother’s dark brown eyes. She had long since seen her fiftieth year, but with her pale skin, high cheekbones, and small rosebud mouth, she was still beautiful.
‘Frances, you must know that the court – the kingdom – is greatly changed,’ Helena began, her voice low. ‘King James has no patience with the traditions upheld by the late queen. Already the court is beset with scandal and vice. It will bring shame upon the kingdom.’ A scornful look crossed her face. ‘Yet neither does he respect our former mistress’s moderation in matters of religion, but insists upon the strict observance of the Protestant faith. He seems determined to bend his subjects to his will.
Helena looked down at her hands for a moment, and when she raised her eyes to Frances again they were clouded with anxiety.
‘He has declared a war on witches, Frances. He says that they are a canker in our midst, and that God has appointed him to destroy them all. He will not leave a stone unturned in his search for the “whores of Satan”, as he calls them. Already Cecil is drafting a new Act against witchcraft. Any practice that is deemed to be sorcery will be punishable by death.’ She paused, eyeing Frances closely. ‘Even the arts of healing are under suspicion. There is to be no mercy.’
Frances looked doubtful. ‘Surely the king does not mean to hunt down the wise women and cunning folk? His officials would have to scour every village in the kingdom, and to what purpose? Their skills have always been used for good, not evil.’
The heroine of the story, Frances Gorges, as lady-in-waiting to King James’ pampered daughter, Elizabeth, has to navigate the Stuart court, despite being suspected as a witch by the king’s chief adviser, Robert Cecil. A skilled healer, Frances’ kind and trusting nature is tested to the extremes. While her skill with herbs and healing leads her into a dark place, her love for one of the men of the court leads her into the heart of a dangerous conspiracy and she doesn’t know who to trust. As the story unfolds, the reader is taken on a journey into the heart of a plot could change the course of history….
Tracy Borman has succeeded wonderfully in attaining that often difficult balance with historical fiction, of keeping to the historical fact while weaving an enchanting story which will keep the reader gripped to the very last page. Her obvious expertise in the era means that she is able to get into the heads of the characters she is depicting, thus relating their thoughts feelings and motivations with an uncanny accuracy which serves to transport the reader back in time, to the court and country of James VI and I. The author accurately depicts the sense of unease and apprehension at the change in regime from Elizabethan to Jacobean, demonstrating the distrust and unfamiliarity that accompanies the Scottish king to his new court; and conflict between those who find favour with the new king and those who hanker after the times and tolerance of the old queen, Elizabeth I.
Tracy Borman’s heroine, Frances Gorges, must traverse this difficult terrain of shifting allegiances and changing favourites, searching for a way to survive the plots and machinations of those who would see her fall. The King’s Witch is an exquisitely crafted novel, recreating the essence of Stuart Britain in wonderful detail.
The King’s Witch is available from Amazon.
About the author
Tracy Borman is joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces and Chief Executive of the Heritage Education Trust. She studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a PhD in 1997.
Tracy is the author of a number of highly acclaimed books, including Thomas Cromwell: The Untold Story of Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England, Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen and Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction. Tracy is also a regular broadcaster and public speaker, giving talks on her books across the UK and abroad. She lives in Surrey with her daughter.
Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US and worldwide from Book Depository.
From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066. Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository.
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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly