The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor

London, 1668 – A dangerous secret lies beneath Whitehall Palace…

The Last Protector

HarperCollins|2 April 2020|419 pages|ebook |Review copy via NetGalley|4*

The Last Protector is the fourth book in Andrew Taylor’s series featuring James Marwood, a government agent and Cat (Catherine) Lovett, set in Restoration England. The year is 1668 and the exiled Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver, heavily in debt, has returned in disguise to England.

Charles’ extravagant life style and licentious behaviour has now lost him the support of the people and many are hankering after the old days under Oliver Cromwell and then his son, Richard as Lord Protectors. He needs Parliament to vote him the funds to pay off his debts, maintain his court and fund the expansion of the navy and is relying on the Duke of Buckingham for support. However Marwood’s masters suspect that Buckingham is secretly conspiring against the King and assign him to spy on him. 

Cat, a regicide’s daughter, is married to Simon Hakesby, an elderly and ailing surveyor and architect. She knew Richard’s daughter Elizabeth as a child and finds herself drawn into the Cromwells’ plan to recover a package Richard’s mother had hidden in the Cockpit in the gardens of the Palace of Whitehall just before her death; a package Richard hopes would be sufficient to clear his debts. He turns to the Duke of Buckingham for support in gaining access to the Cockpit. Buckingham is keen to use Richard in his plans to gain power. Cat, who now is unhappy in her marriage, resentful of Simon’s demands on her, is reluctant to get involved but unfortunately for her Simon is eager to help, and they soon find themselves in great danger. She is reluctant to ask for Marwood’s help fearing they could be charged with treason.

Like the earlier books in the series this is a gripping story, full of historical detail, complications, intrigue and danger. The characterisation is brilliant with memorable characters such as Ferrus, a mazer-scourer’s labourer, who lives a terrible life, forced to sleep in a kennel with Windy, a vicious dog that guards the kitchen yard at the Cockpit. Treated brutally by his master, Ezra Reeves, his job is to clean the sewers. He is starved so he can squeeze himself down unto the foul stinking mess of the sewers, bending his long thin arms and legs. The stench of London comes across very vividly in this novel. Then there is Chloris, the kind-hearted prostitute, who helps Marwood. 

This is a book full of action too, with a swiftly moving plot and a climatic ending. It is full of suspense and surprises. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories.

I’ve read all  the earlier books and loved them too – The Ashes of London (set in 1666, six years after Charles II was reinstated as King) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), and The King’s Evil (set seven months later). It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it really helps if you do.

Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.

The King’s Evil by Andrew Taylor

London, 1667 – a royal scandal that could change the face of England forever…

The King's Evil

HarperCollins|4 April 2019|464 pages|Hardback |Review copy|5*

This is the third book in Andrew Taylor’s series following James Marwood and Cat (Catherine) Lovett. I loved the first two – The Ashes of London (set in 1666) and The Fire Court (set in 1667, eight months after the Great Fire of London), so I was delighted when Felicity Denham at HarperCollins asked me if I’d like a proof copy of The King’s Evil to review. It is not necessary to read the earlier books as I think they all work well as standalones, but I think it helps if you do.

The King’s Evil carries on from where The Fire Court ended. Seven years after the restoration of the monarchy it’s still a time of political and social change. Whilst Charles II still had immense power as the King a new middle class, both professional and administrative, was evolving. James Marwood is a government agent in Whitehall, working as a clerk for William Chiffinch, one of the commissioners of the Board of Red Cloth. Chiffinch was also Keeper of the King’s Private Closet and Page of the Backstairs, an important position as he controlled private access to the King. In addition Marwood also works under Joseph Williamson, the Undersecretary to the Secretary of State for the South, one of Charles’s most powerful ministers.

Charles had reinstated the ceremony of ‘touching for the King’s Evil’ as a demonstration of his divine right to rule – a ceremony in which the monarch touched those people suffering from scrofula, a disease, now known as  tuberculosis, that caused the swelling of the bones and lymphatic glands in the neck (the book cover illustrates the ceremony). It was believed that the King’s touch cured the disease.

The novel begins as Marwood is in the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall watching the ceremony. Chiffinch had told him to attend on the orders of the King to meet Lady Quincy and do whatever she commanded. Lady Quincy, accompanied by a small African child, her footboy suffering from scrofula, tells Marwood to meet her outside the church near the Tower of London. She also warns him that Edward Alderley, her step-son, is out for revenge on Cat Lovett because of what she had done to him. (This refers to events in The Fire Court). 

In order to keep her identity secret Cat, whose father had been one of the Regicides, is going by the name of Jane Hakesby. She had been working for Simon Hakesby, a surveyor and architect, on a garden pavilion project in the grounds of Clarendon House. Then Alderley is found dead in the well in the garden pavilion.

Marwood is asked to look into the circumstances of Alderley’s death, under the King’s authority. He decides to keep his connection with Cat to himself, whilst he tries to find out where she has gone and who was responsible for Adderley’s death. Was it an accident, was it suicide, or was it murder? After Chiffinch received an anonymous letter naming Cat as the murdererhe sent officers to arrest her, but she had disappeared. So this was taken as a confession of her guilt. Marwood was afraid that this could implicate him too if it became known that he had told her that Alderley knew her whereabouts.

In addition, Lord Clarendon is convinced that Alderley was involved in a conspiracy against him and also suspects that someone in his household is involved in the plot. He is out of favour with Charles, and had recently been removed from the office of Lord Chancellor.  But he’s still potentially politically powerful as his daughter is married to Charles’s brother, James, the Duke of York. His grandchildren, the Princesses Mary and Anne, are the next heirs in the line of succession if Charles remained childless.

Marwood tries to find Cat, and also escorts Lady Quincy to Cambridge on a secret mission. Eventually his investigation into Alderley’s death leads him to discover who is behind the plot against Clarendon, and also to uncover a potential royal scandal in which Lady Quincy and the Duke of Buckingham, one of Charles’s favourites who had supplanted Clarendon, play important roles. 

I loved the characterisation and all the details of the setting, bringing to life scenes at the royal court as well as in the refugee camps that housed the homeless as the work of rebuilding London continued. Andrew Taylor is a supreme storyteller, combining fact and fiction – his novels are full of historical details that slot seamlessly into his stories. The King’s Evil is historical fiction at its best, full of suspense and tension, an intricate and tightly plotted murder mystery, enhanced by the intrigue of a royal scandal. 

I loved it.

Many thanks to the publishers, HarperCollins for my review copy.