Hodder & Stoughton | 2018 (14 June) | 448p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Lady Frances Gorges, the young daughter of one of the most noble women in the Tudor court, is brought to the bedside of Elizabeth I in March 1603 to help nurse and comfort the Queen during her dying days, she enters a nest of vipers. Robert Cecil was Elizabeth’s chief adviser and he has every intention of fulfilling the same role for the new king James and that means distancing himself from all of the old Queen’s favourites, including Frances and her family. Frances, in turn, is delighted to be sent away from James’s increasingly decadent and superstitious court to the warmth of her country home where she can learn her healing skills in peace, with no risk of interference.
But then Frances is suddenly called back to court, to serve as maid to James’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, and Frances finds herself caught up in a web of plots and secrets. The court is an unhappy place. James’s paranoia and hatred of Catholics, all potential conspirators in his eyes, has reached new heights, and is only matched by his fear and loathing of wise women that he’s all too determined to persecute as witches. Frances is not immune to the lure of the rich court – she even hopes for love – but this is a dangerous place, where few are what they seem, and watching them all is Cecil.
The court of James I during the early years of this unhappy king’s reign is such a fascinating time and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed its recreation more than I did in this wonderful novel. Tracy Borman is a renowned historian of the period and her learning and depth of knowledge stand her in good stead. The King’s Witch is full of all of the details and colour that you want from the best historical fiction. But it’s not overloaded with research. Tracy Borman also proves herself a fine storyteller and it’s the story that rules here but it’s undoubtedly superbly supported by a wealth of historical insight into the early 1600s.
I was a little surprised yet delighted by the direction the novel took! I think it’s the title that slightly misleads because there is far, far more to The King’s Witch than a story about ‘witches’, as these poor women were labelled, or their persecution. There is much more to Frances’ character than the expected – she is a thoroughly intriguing young woman who wants as little to do with the court as possible but is nevertheless drawn to it, not least because of her attachment to her young charge, the adorable, precocious and slightly intimidating Princess Elizabeth. Frances has cause to use her healing skills on more than one occasion but this is a novel about a young woman who is in danger of being caught out of her depth by the plots and schemes of her fellow courtiers.
Some of the most famous plotters of the day are brought to life in The King’s Witch and their stories are engrossing. Our sympathies are torn in every which way and it’s easy to sense the danger and urgency of the times. I was immersed in The King’s Witch from start to finish. Lady Frances Gorges is a fascinating, little-known figure and I love how Tracy Borman interprets her story, mixing fact with the possible, making her both likeable and complex. This is easily one of my favourite novels of the year so far.