England's Elizabeth I was virtually deified during her reign, known as Britain's Golden Age. Behind the mask of Gloriana, however, Good Queen Bess ran a police state that quickly stamped out the slightest opposition. The fact that she remained unmarried and childless was a cause of much concern. Intrigue was rife, even for the royal courts of the time, and it has proven great fodder for novelists, including Arthur Phillips, whose recently published The King at the Edge of the World takes place when the queen is obviously dying, and it looks like James VI of Scotland will be her heir. The question troubling spy Geoffrey Bellocq and his masters is whether James will plunge England into the religious strife that blanketed the country prior to Elizabeth taking the throne. Bellocq finds Matthew Thatcher, born Mahmoud Ezzedine, an exiled physician to the Sultan of the Ottomans and resigned to never going home. Bellocq convinces Thatcher/Ezzedine to spy on James to answer the question, is James Protestant like he says he is, or is he secretly Catholic? Phillips keeps things moving through plenty of backstory and we feel Thatcher/Ezzedine's contempt for the foggy, faithless, filthy place that was Britannia at the beginning of the 17th century in this dramatic, suspenseful tale. If you like this book, I have more like it.
The Queen's Secret by Victoria Lamb stars another outsider, Lucy Morgan. Morgan is a singer from Africa, and Elizabeth sets her to gather intelligence on the queen's beloved, Robert Dudley, and his lover, Lettice, who is also cousin to the monarch. Morgan uncovers skullduggery afoot, and it's up to her to foil the plot against Elizabeth. Sensual details abound and so do deft characterizations.
Jumping to the early days of Elizabeth's reign is C.W. Gortner's The Tudor Vendetta. Michael Prescott, an intelligencer and supporter of the soon-to-be queen, is sent on a mission to find the missing Lady Parry, confidant to Elizabeth. He finds the last place she was seen gloomy and its inhabitants secretive. Prescott must unravel the mystery while keeping his own secrets in this fast-moving, richly detailed tale of intrigue.
Another fast-moving take on palace intrigue is the YA title Maid of Secrets by Jennifer McGowan. Cutpurse Meg is recruited to be a Maid of Honor, in this novel an all-female guard of the Virgin Queen. Her prodigious memory is put to good use when a delegation from Spain arrives with an all-too-attractive courtier. The complexities of the relationship between England and Spain in this period are teased out along with the religious rivalries in this twisty tale.
Speaking of the Spanish, the Armada is about to invade in Patricia Finney's Gloriana's Torch. A copious amount of gunpowder has gone missing, and it's up to David Becket and Simon Ames to find out where it went. With scenes in the dungeons of the Inquisition and a slave galley, this book may not be for the faint of heart, but it does cover the complex issues of the day, including African slavery. Finney has a fine historical imagination and masterful control of both her prose and continent-spanning story.
On the nonfiction front, there's Her Majesty's Spymaster by Stephen Budiansky. Sir Francis Walsingham was Puritan, discreet, and brilliant. One of Queen Elizabeth's best choices of advisers, he came up with modern spycraft, including code-breaking and double agents. Of course, Walsingham is hardly the only fascinating character in this wryly, humorous, deeply human portrait containing his "paid scoundrels," rival monarchs, and inevitably Good Queen Bess herself. If you're looking for the basis of the novels above, this is a good place to start.
Have more tale of plotters and patriots during England's Golden Age? Tell us in the comments.