Title: Sacred Treason
Hardback: 402 pages
Publication Date: 05/08/2010
1563. Protestant Elizabethan England is a dangerous place to be Catholic [if discovered then having one’s ears nailed to the pillory was the least a Catholic could expect by way of punishment]. Thus it is hardly surprising that William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms [he’s a herald, which explains the unwieldy title], is fearful when one stormy night there is a thumping at his front door. Instead he discovers fellow Catholic, Henry Machyn, bearing a chronicle containing a secret so powerful that he fears for his life.
As a result of Machyn’s late night visit, Clarenceux comes under suspicion from Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, who believe that he is the ringleader of a secretive Catholic brotherhood plotting against the Queen. Hounded from his house and family by Walsingham’s brutal henchman, Richard Crackenthorpe, Clarenceux is forced onto the run with Machyn’s wife, Rebecca. Their only means of salvaging their lives is to uncover the secret that the chronicle hides [which is made bloody difficult by Machyn’s phonetic, self-taught spelling].
Interestingly, and something that I only discovered when I finished the novel and read the author’s note, Machyn and his chronicle [and indeed a number of the characters in the book] actually existed. Indeed, historian Ian Mortimer [the man behind the pseudonymous James Forrester] has written articles on the chronicle and a number of historical books about the time. Bringing his obvious expertise on the period to bear on the novel, Sacred Treason has a feel of authenticity about it, whilst simultaneously remaining a thriller at heart. At only one point in the book was there any sort of prose that had the air of a history textbook, but it was only a brief passage in a novel that otherwise moved along at a fair lick with a healthy dose of action, violence and intrigue to keep the reader engrossed.
What Forrester does especially well in the novel is to bring out the differences in culture that existed in this period. Clarenceux is constantly struggling with his split loyalties: to his country, to his family and to his religion. It’s not something that we face to the same extent in our contemporary society, but this internal battle, coupled with the external hardships that he and Rebecca must go through, makes Clarenceux an intriguingly complex focal figure. A highly enjoyable historical thriller.