Peter Tonkin proves again there is much to explore within the dramatic reign of Queen Elizabeth I. His first novel in The Queen’s Intelligencer series, Shadow of the Axe, focuses on the fascinating events that led to the Essex Rebellion of 1601, and the rival factions of Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex. The novel opens on a stormy autumn night with horsemen riding towards the great Nonsuch Palace. Among these horsemen are the key figures of Robert Devereux (the Earl of Essex), Gelly Meyrick, and Henry Cuffe. The Earl of Essex reaches the great Tudor Palace and demands an audience with Queen Elizabeth. Upon his peace-making with Ireland, Essex breaks into Queen Elizabeth’s chamber and attempts to explain his actions. Both alarmed and angered, Queen Elizabeth places him under house arrest. Now, one would assume Tonkin would follow the Earl of Essex’s perspective throughout the entire novel but, interestingly, he instead focuses on the character of Robert Poley, one of the most notorious spies of the age. A double agent and informer, Poley was known for his involvement in the Babington plot. After Devereux’s interruption, Robert Cecil privately speaks to Poley. Cecil wants the Earl of Essex to be “destroyed”.
Upon frequenting a pub, Robert Poley is then seemingly trapped and taken to Fleet Prison. Through making friends with a fellow prisoner, Henry Cuffe, he is rescued and brought to the House of Essex. Thus ensues a complicated and intricate game Poley must play. He must prove his loyalty to the Earl of Essex yet also feed information to Lady Janet Percy (one of the Queen’s handmaidens), for the ears of Robert Cecil. Playing the role of double agent is a precarious game, and Poley must do everything to ensure his cover is kept intact.
Shadow of the Axe is an intricate and gripping novel for those looking for a window into the events leading up to the Essex Rebellion. Opening with the excitement of the Earl bursting into the Queen’s bedchamber, to concluding chapters of the executions of beloved characters, Tonkin ensures that the reader is constantly on the edge of their seat.
The descriptions of the prisons, pubs and houses are well researched and transport the reader back to the Elizabethan era. The streets are alive with detail and colour, but this is never to the detriment of the novel’s pace or suspense. Tonkin has combined his thorough research with impressive storytelling skills to create a novel that never flags.
Furthermore, through making Poley a witness to Essex’s downfall, we are given a fascinating story of the Elizabethan court. We see events through the complex role of a double agent. Tonkin does well to show the mixed emotions of Robert Poley:
“He was simply torn between his duty as he saw it to the Council, Cecil, and the Queen and the friendship and duty his undercover self owed to the men and women who had taken him in.”
The final chapter is as heart wrenching as it is gory. Regardless of your knowledge of the Essex Rebellion or the key players of the Elizabethan court, the reader will still find much to enjoy in the Shadow of the Axe.