The King’s Witch
by Tracy Borman
In March of 1603, as she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth of England, Frances Gorges dreams of her parents’ country estate, where she has learned to use flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer. She is happy to stay at home when King James of Scotland succeeds to the throne. His court may be shockingly decadent, but his intolerant Puritanism sees witchcraft in many of the old customs—punishable by death.
But when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to the royal palace, she is a ready target for the twisted scheming of the Privy Seal, Lord Cecil. As a dark campaign to destroy both King and Parliament gathers pace, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Frances is surrounded by danger, finding happiness only with the King’s precocious young daughter, and with Tom Wintour, the one courtier she feels she can trust. But is he all that he seems?
Acclaimed as a brilliant historian, Tracy Borman proves with this thrilling debut novel that she is also a born storyteller.
I received an eARC of The King’s Witch from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
In recent years there’s been a spate of historians taking to historical fiction – like Lucy Worsley with Eliza Rose and Janina Ramirez with Riddle of the Runes, and Alison Weir has been writing fiction alongside her non-fiction for years – so when I saw Tudor and Stuart historian Tracy Borman had written her debut novel about a suspected witch, I couldn’t resist requesting a copy from NetGalley.
The novel follows an incredibly turbulent period of Britain’s history, following the death of the last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, and James VI of Scotland’s ascension to the English throne as James I. James was obsessed with witches and many women, and men (but mostly women), died because of his obsession, and many more died because of his persecution of the Catholics. In fact he treated the Catholics so badly that, only two years into his reign, they tried to blow him up.
Into this turbulent environment walks Frances Gorges. A lover of the countryside and her family’s home there, she’s taken to the Stuart court by her uncle in the hopes that she’ll make a good match where he’s secured a job for her as a companion to the young Princess Elizabeth. Unfortunately for Frances, her affinity for herbs and healing sees her come under suspicion for witchcraft, and a budding romance with another courtier puts her in danger of being accused of something else entirely.
Sadly I didn’t love this one, but I also can’t say it’s a bad book. If you haven’t read a lot of historical fiction, or haven’t read a lot set during this period of history, I think The King’s Witch would be a great starting point. Tracy Borman is a historian and she really knows her stuff; there are little details she adds about England at the period, and particularly about some of our most famous historical buildings such as Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London, that have you learning without it being obvious that she’s teaching you, and this book is a very easy read.
My issue with this book is that, for me, it isn’t anything new. Of course Frances is the most beloved and beautiful and learned and most studious child in her family, and of course she has a jealous sister who we barely see which begs the question why she was there at all other than to make Frances look good, and her uncle is a bit too moustache-twirly to be taken seriously. I found Frances a little too passive which is a real shame because I think there is a lack of quiet heroines in fiction, but Frances wasn’t quiet so much as waited for the men around her to tell her what to do. This is particularly odd when her internal narrative so often called out how unfair it was that women had to do what men said all the time – and yet that’s what she spent the majority of this novel doing.
I mean this woman gets caught up in one of the most famous regicidal plots in history by accident. There’s so much more that could have been done with this novel, but instead it felt like two novels mashed together. The first half followed Frances’s battle with a witchcraft accusation – and to Borman’s credit, I really appreciated that she included a ‘witch-pricking’ scene which just proves how horrific and degrading a process it was once a woman was accused of witchcraft – and the second half followed her falling into the Gunpowder Plot.
The strange thing is these two halves of the plot could have fit together more than they did; because King James hated witches and Catholics in equal measure, Catholicism itself became associated with witchcraft so it would have made sense for Frances to also be a secret Catholic. Instead she grows to care about the Catholic plot because all the men involved tell her she should care and she thinks, ‘fair enough, yeah okay’ and I just didn’t believe her.
Worse still, I kind of lost a little respect for her? Don’t get me wrong the woman suffers a harrowing ordeal and she has just as much of a reason to hate the king as everyone else he’s wronged, but it didn’t take much to win her over to the Catholics’ side and I’d’ve preferred the novel if she’d already been on their side to begin with. Instead we have a novel about the Gunpowder Plot where we never actually see its organisers organising it, and it seems a shame we were left out of that side of things.
Frances’s romance with one of the conspirators also could have been fleshed out more. They seemed to fall in love incredibly quickly, and whenever they declared their love for one another all I could think was, ‘why, though?’ because for the majority of the novel Frances has no idea what he’s up to. It’s difficult to decipher how much they actually knew each other at all.
(I also wasn’t a fan of the sex scene – why so many historical fiction sex scenes completely forego foreplay and include lines about ‘pain giving way to pleasure’ I’ll never know.)
I do really appreciate that Borman included Anne of Denmark, James’s wife, a lot in this novel, as I feel she’s someone who’s often forgotten and I’d love to know more about her. I can’t imagine it was easy being married to a man like James VI, especially as he was rumoured to prefer the company of men and often flaunted his favourites in front of the queen. The Anne Borman wrote was incredibly dignified, and I always looked forward to scenes she was in.
My only other thought, upon finishing this novel, is that I can’t help wondering if historians are letting women from history down when all they write about is the royal court. Considering the majority of women accused of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries were ordinary, working class women, I can’t deny that it’s frustrating to see yet another witch novel set at the royal court. Frances was able to escape the fate of many accused witches thanks to her connections at court, but what about all the ordinary women who had no such benefactor?
Of course a lot of historians specialise in royal history, in fact both Borman and Lucy Worsley are Joint Chief Curators of Historic Royal Palaces, but the historians who turn their hand to historical fiction are also the writers who have the means for researching the ordinary people from history at their disposal.
All that aside (I feel like I’m being very mean, and I actually like Tracy Borman a lot – I’ve seen her speak a couple of times and she’s incredibly knowledgable and genuinely lovely!) while it is clear this is Borman’s debut novel, she certainly has the potential to get better and better. I won’t be picking up the next book in this trilogy, sadly I don’t care enough about Frances to find out what happens to her next, but I’d be interested in seeing what else Borman may write in future.