A Dangerous Trade was the first in your Queen’s Spies thrillers, set in Elizabethan England and involving the interweaving fates of Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots – there were plenty of plots throughout Elizabeth I’s reign. Did any real-life plots make it into the novel?
Yes, Mary’s time in England is well known for coinciding with a huge number of plots (which started within the first years of her arrival). Mary represented an alternative monarch with a strong claim to the English throne. Dynastically, she had a better claim than Elizabeth, as Henry VIII had annulled the Boleyn marriage before having Anne Boleyn executed. Yet he had then put both Mary Tudor (his daughter by Catherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth in the line of succession, authorised by Parliament. Parliament had duly approved Elizabeth as queen regnant. This meant that she was in the anomalous position of being a legally illegitimate child in legal possession of the English throne. Mary, of course, was indisputably the legitimate descendant of Henry’s sister Margaret via her marriage to James IV of Scotland; but there were questions around whether someone born outside of England could inherit the throne (in other words, whether the English Crown was akin to a piece of Common Law property).
Nevertheless, the positions of both women as arguably rightful queens of England – one with a legal claim and one ipso facto – meant that they could not share the same realm comfortably. As Mary was Catholic, she represented a shining hope to increasingly-marginalised English Catholics. Elizabeth, on the other hand, represented English Protestantism, which had become the dominant faith in the English government. The background to A Dangerous Trade is Mary’s arrival in England, following her flight from Scotland (where she had lost a battle against her rebels). Elizabeth was in a quandary about her arrival – she didn’t want this rival claimant to her throne in England but she also did not want to send her back to Scotland, where Mary’s Protestant rebels (led by her half-brother, Moray) promised a friendly, coreligionist regime. Her solution was to give Mary a show-trial (or rather have her government front an investigation) into the murder of Mary’s husband in 1567. No verdict was reached, but the idea was to engineer an excuse to keep Mary – legally an innocent woman – in honourable confinement under Elizabeth’s aegis.
Mary, in horror on realising this, began seeking means for freedom. Her goal was to plan marriage to the Duke of Norfolk, who was himself interested. Both intended to present this as a way out – Mary would be free to return to Scotland and Norfolk (a Protestant) would gain a crown and establish himself north of the border. Both were keen to show that they meant no ill-will to Elizabeth – quite the opposite. Yet the plan was advanced in secrecy and hardly helped by a Northern Rising (led by the Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland) aimed at freeing Mary by force, deposing Elizabeth, and restoring Catholicism. It’s against these events that the novel takes place.
Jack Cole is the hero of A Dangerous Trade, and the series, is he based on a real person – and how did you develop him through the trilogy?
Jack isn’t based on a real person, but I hoped to use him to explore two things: the way ordinary people can be dragged into major events, and the ways in which servants made excellent spies. The big names of the day were surrounded by staff – people to tend their horses, change their laundry, play them music: these people must have seen everything. Knowledge, in the period, was power. Jack I always intended to be a child of abuse who was unsure of himself and trying to find out who he was: the perfect prey for extremists.
Catholic and Protestant, it’s difficult for some audiences to appreciate the huge divisions of the time. How were you able to convey the religious dimension in a spy thriller, and so make it a page-turner at the same time?
In a way, the Catholic/Protestant dynamic is fairly easy and makes for good thriller material, because it provides two clear opposing forces. To Catholics, Protestants were heretics; to Protestants, Catholics were heretics. Both had clear ideological standpoints and both were associated with various symbols and ideals (Catholics we think of as using relics and crucifixes, focusing on good works, and of course placing their faith in Rome; Protestants we think of as prizing the Bible and its teachings and believing in justification by faith). Having clear opposing forces with characters caught in between makes for good drama. Of course, when (later in the period than the books were set) both sides became more obviously fractured (Protestantism, for example, being divided between Arminians, Presbyterians, and those who were satisfied with Elizabeth’s settlement), things require a bit more exposition!
Mary QoS was held by the Earl of Shrewsbury for 17 years until 1585, and he features in the novel. Do we know what the relationship between the two was like?
A very interesting question! A whole romantic narrative sprang up regarding their relationship, with Mary and Shrewsbury accused of having an affair. It was, however, pure slander. Shrewsbury was one of those men who was loyal to his queen – Elizabeth – to a fault; he expended vast sums of money keeping Mary, and his relationship with his wife, Bess (which by all accounts started out loving), gradually fell apart under the strain. My own feeling is that, at first, Shrewsbury and his wife were delighted at having a glamorous and famous houseguest. They were quite prepared to show Mary off to visitors and Bess spent long periods embroidering with her. But the fact was that Mary was a prisoner and Shrewsbury and Bess, whether they were impressed with her at first or not, where her enforced gaolers. In a sense, they were all three prisoners of a situation which none of them liked.
He was involved in her trial – was it a stitch up?
Most certainly Mary’s trial was a stitch-up. Elizabeth’s advisers Walsingham and Burghley had been intent on ridding England of Mary (by bloody means) for years. The groundwork was finally set in the mid-1580s, when Mary’s son James was establishing himself north of the border. His problem was that he had a taste for the finer things in life and no sense of money. Elizabeth was able to buy him off with a pension. Following this, the English government banked on him not kicking up too much of a fuss if his absent mother (whom he couldn’t possibly remember) was offed. Walsingham set up an elaborate scheme of entrapment and Mary walked into it.
You’ve been described as fascinated by the ghastliness of life in the 1500s. just how ghastly was it?
Very! The casual violence of the period – and the delight so many found in blood sports – is horrifying to modern sensibilities.
How do you look at the novel now, nearly four years after its publication?
It’s funny because it doesn’t seem very long ago. I reckon even now I could pick those characters up again; in fact, I caught up with Jack’s wife, Amy, in the Ned Savage trilogy, where she had cameo appearances!
You’ve recently published Of Blood Descended, involving a tale of murder and court politics between Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn. Will we see a return of your character Anthony Blanke, son of John Blanke, the ‘Black Trumpet’?
Yes indeed – Of Judgement Fallen will be published in Spring 2023. This time, Anthony will assigned to work with Sir Thomas More when a prelate visiting Richmond Palace is found stabbed to death with a red-hot fire-poker in Cardinal Wolsey’s antechamber…
Andrew Taylor is a bestselling novelist and author o