“In the Palace of Felicity, in Constantinople, in the land of the Turks, early in the Christian year 1591, viziers to Murad the Great, third of that name, Sultan of the Ottomans, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Caliph of Caliphs, dispatched an embassy to a far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth.”
With that humdinger of an opening sentence, Arthur Phillips begins "The King at the Edge of the World," an inventive historical novel of royal succession, religious conflict, and last-ditch espionage at the end of the Elizabethan era. The king is the Catholic-baptized, but professed Protestant James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots and great-great grandson of Henry VII of England. The queen is the aged and frail Protestant Elizabeth I of England, James’ first cousin twice removed, daughter of Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII. The espionage is supplied by a group of “Cunning Boys” trained and organized by the recently deceased Catholic-hunting zealot, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster and orchestrator of the sting that provided evidence to support the death warrant for Mary Queen of Scots, the infamous “Bloody Mary” and James’ mother.
To this historical cast of characters, Phillips’ imagination adds Mahmoud Ezzedine, a fish-out-of-water Muslim scientist-doctor-herbalist, and his soon-to-be espionage handler Geoffrey Belloc, once one of Walsingham’s Cunning Boys and lately recruited back to the anti-Catholic cause by Robert Cecil, Walsingham’s successor.
Elizabeth’s cousin, James VI, King of the Scots, is the closest living Protestant heir in the dynastic line stretching back to Henry Tudor and therefore the most likely successor to the childless Virgin Queen. For Elizabeth and the veterans of England’s decades-long and bloody religious wars, the question for which they desperately need an answer is whether or not James is a truly committed Protestant worthy to succeed Elizabeth. If James is really a vengeful crypto-Catholic in sympathy with his martyred mother’s Roman Church, his accession to the English throne would mean a return to the burnings, beheadings, and bloodshed of “Bloody Mary’s” reign. (To add additional dramatic tension to the mix, Phillips also makes James’ wife a Catholic, which is not historically accurate).
How, though, does one find out the true inner beliefs of another? How, among all the official diplomatic dispatches, secret correspondence, and personal protestations, emanating from Edinburgh Castle, does the English queen and government in London determine her Scottish cousin’s theologic thoughts and religious fitness to rule England? For that, one needs a foolproof scheme executed by a trusted disinterested spy who can gain intimate access to King James and plumb the depths of his soul.
And it needs to be done with dispatch; Elizabeth’s health is failing.
And that’s when the English spymasters recruit Dr. Mahmoud Ezzedine, the only Muslim in England, left behind as a medical “gift” to the English by the Ottoman Sultan’s recently departed diplomatic mission. Making the abandoned and homesick Turk an offer he couldn’t refuse, and using a daisy-chain of middlemen, runners, and pseudonyms, Geoffrey Belloc deploys his one-of-a-kind agent to wet and windblown Edinburgh to determine the truth of James’ beliefs—the “Clarity” Elizabeth and her advisors demand.
This is a clever tale and Phillips is a terrific storyteller, laying twists, turns, and red herrings everywhere. He takes the point of view of an omniscient narrator and creates dialogue in period Elizabethan cadences to give the reader an atmospheric feel for the times. Phillips develops his characters with care and delves into their dreams and fears while pulling the reader along, subtly and effortlessly, to a mysterious faraway, long ago place and time. The King at the Edge of the World is an imaginative novel and a pretty good mystery. And the ending will leave you still pondering the original question.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.