First up is Sword & Scimitar by Simon Scarrow, a standalone novel about the 1565 Great Siege of Malta – when the island fortress of the Knights of St John was besieged by the Ottoman Turks. At stake was the future not just of Malta – then as in the Second World War, a key strategic position in the Mediterranean – but of Christian Europe. Quite frankly, this is a key event in European history that should be more widely known about than it is.
Even so, there is of course more to Sword & Scimitar than the defence of what would become The West. The novel’s protagonist, an English knight called Sir Thomas Barrett, is a disgraced former member of the Order of St John who is summoned from rural Hertfordshire to return to help defend Malta. In addition to risking life and limb for a cause he has tried to forget about, he is given a secret mission to carry out on Malta by Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster-in-chief to Queen Elizabeth I. There’s a certain document in the Order’s archive on Malta that needs to be recovered at all costs, and to help with this task Sir Thomas is given an assistant who has a few secrets of his own.
In a sense, then, this is a spy novel that happens to be set against the backdrop of one of the most significant battles of the sixteenth century. There are dire consequences for England if the document falls into the wrong hands (far be it from me to spoil things by saying what the document is, as Sir Thomas is as much in the dark as the reader for the best part of the novel), although for much of the novel this is of secondary importance to the battle for control of the island – and should the Turks win, the consequences for all of Europe would in themselves be catastrophic.
Thanks to his ‘Eagle’ series of Roman-era novels, Simon Scarrow has a proven track record when it comes to describing historical fight scenes and he’s clearly in his element as the Knights’ situation becomes ever more dire in the face of unrelenting attacks by the numerically superior Turks.
This being a modern novel, blind faith is treated with some degree of scepticism by the main protagonist who, having seen at first hand the destructive power of religion – both in terms of the all-out war between Christianity and Islam and the persecution of Catholics in England – has lost his faith, something which enables the modern reader to identify with him.
Secrets concerning the stability of Tudor-era England are key to another recently-read novel, Sovereign by C.J. Sansom.
Unlike Sword & Scimitar, Sovereign is part of a series of novels – to be precise, the third in the Shardlake series of detective novels set during the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a hunchbacked London-based lawyer who, rather like Sir Thomas, has come to privately doubt his faith and this, combined with having to endure endless mockery for his physical stature, causes him to regard the sixteenth-century world he inhabits from a cynical viewpoint – thus allowing us readers to identify with him as an outsider.
Sovereign sees Shardlake and his assistant, Jack Barak (the brawn to Shardlake’s brain), in York. Henry VIII’s 1541 progress to the North – a region still seething with discontent following the Pilgrimage of Grace – is about to arrive in the city but Shardlake is actually on a secret mission to ensure that a key anti-Henry prisoner in York Castle gets taken to the Tower of London for questioning (obtaining information by torture being nothing new under the sun). Things start to become rather complicated when a local glazier is found dead, and Shardlake stumbles across a cache of documents that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Tudor claim to the throne (I’ll say no more to avoid spoilers, but it’s based on an historical rumour that’s been given TV airtime before now).
It’s always interesting to see how famous people from history are represented in the pages of historical novels. In Sword & Scimitar, Walsingham is shown as a sixteenth-century version of M, a role that Archbishop Cranmer appears to fulfil in Sovereign (in the first two novels of the Shardlake series, Dissolution and Dark Fire, this role was played by Thomas Cromwell, himself the subject of a recent Tudor-era novel, Wolf Hall). But where Sovereign takes things to a new level is with the appearance in its pages of the larger-than-life man whose personality and actions dominated the Tudor era.
I refer, of course, to Henry VIII. Even as an unseen character in the first two Shardlake novels, he cast a long shadow and left the reader with the impression that getting close to his royal personage was inherently dangerous (Dark Fire, of course, ended with the execution of Thomas Cromwell). I’d previously though that Samson was doing well to resist drawing him into the story, but for his third novel he takes the plunge, and brings out the big man – but only for a walk-on part at the gates of York, with the stench from his infected leg (if nothing else, the Shardlake books convey the smell of Tudor England to an unsurpassable extent) hitting the nose before he deigns to ridicule the man who is in fact working to save his realm.
Accompanying him is wife number five, the doomed teenager Katherine Howard (not so much young enough to be Henry’s daughter as actually several years younger than his eldest) who gets an unusually sympathetic portrayal here, and the impression we are given via Shardlake of her fall from grace is that she was a naive girl who was more sinned against than sinning (this is made more explicit in the afterword – all good works of historical fiction have one of these – where Sansom does his best to clear her name of the charge of adultery that is usually thrown at her). Sovereign is a well-written and well-researched novel (Sansom holds a PhD in History), but his obvious erudition never stifles the plot – as, for example, the author’s learning does in The Name of the Rose and to a lesser extent Wolf Hall.
Sovereign and Sword & Scimitar are both worth reading. They have timeless themes running through them that are as valid today as they were in the sixteenth century: The uses and abuses of power, clashes between civilisations and religious conflict all feature. They also pose some very modern questions. Can the state be trusted? How far do you go to defend what you believe in? Is information obtained by torture valid? Does the end really justify the means? And finally, if you have information that will probably plunge your country into chaos if it’s released, what do you do with it?