London, December 1563. Elizabeth I–Gloriana, the Virgin Queen–has ruled England for five years, but her throne is far from secure. Even though Elizabeth succeeded her half-sister Mary, the idea of a woman sovereign still troubles much of the populace. And although the burnings of Protestants at Smithfield ceased with Elizabeth's accession, religion remains a source of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. Catholics, once protected by the crown, find themselves subject to unwarranted search and seizure, to having their ears nailed to the pillory or sliced from their heads, to arrest and confinement in the Tower on the merest suspicion of intent to foment unrest. Not all the plots are imaginary, either: several rebellions with religious overtones punctuate Elizabeth's reign.
Amid this atmosphere of mistrust, William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, sits in the light of a single candle, listening to the rain outside his study window, his robe pulled tight against the December chill. A knock on the door sparks in him the fear that would later be familiar to victims of the Soviet secret police: who would demand entrance after curfew other than government troops bent on hauling him in for his allegiance to the pope? But the queen's forces cannot be denied, so with considerable trepidation Clarenceux orders his servant to open the door.
In fact, his visitor is a friend, a betrayed man facing death and determined to pass on his secret mission to Clarenceux. In accepting, Clarenceux has no idea that the mission places at risk his life, his health, his family, his friends, and the safety of the realm. The price of loyalty is high, and betrayal lurks in every corner.
The Clarenceux Trilogy, which continues with The Roots of Betrayal and The Final Sacrament, is the work of James Forrester, the pen name of the historian Ian Mortimer, author of The Time Traveler's Guide to Elizabethan England. His novels wear their history with lightness and panache: Sacred Treason (Sourcebooks, 2012) will pull you into Elizabethan London, and you will not want to leave. Enjoy the ride.