The King’s Witch follows young noblewoman Frances Gorges as she navigates the transition from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to that of King James I. Frances was a favourite of the old Queen, and her skills in herbalism and healing were called upon to aid the ailing ruler in her final days – but the new King is on a witch hunt, sanctioned by God, and when Frances is thrust into court by her uncle, she unwittingly becomes a target. Serving as a companion for King James’s daughter, she finds herself a favourite of the young princess and her mother – but the Lord Privy Seal’s loathing for Frances and her family and his desperation to secure favour from the new King put Frances and those she loves in peril.
He forces Frances to watch the hanging of a witch, and it’s the single most upsetting scene in this entire book.
Now I’ll admit, while I love history this is not a period I know a HUGE amount about, other than the details of witch-hunting (on which I have, for my own purposes, done quite a bit of research as of late). A Tudor fan in school, I comparatively know very little about the ruler that followed and the goings-on of his court. Borman is a historian, and from her writing you can tell she has a wealth of knowledge about the era – foods, clothes, makeup, all are painstakingly rendered real through Frances’s eyes. There were a few moments where the extent of the focus on these minor aspects began to shift it from fiction to historical, but more often than not they served to aid the story as opposed to hinder its telling. This attention to detail paid off in full when we as readers are first witness to the decadence and hypocrisy of King James’s court. A man with often puritanical beliefs and laws, we see his parties filled with salaciously clad guests – most memorably a woman wearing a large ribbon who is shortly thereafter very naked – and his young, handsome favourites openly spending more time in the company (and bed) of the King than his wife the Queen. King James is portrayed in a thoroughly unflattering light. Physically unattractive, rude, cruel and vulgar. His reaction to his wife’s miscarriage is one of disgust and loathing, and his invasive involvement in trialling witches is downright sinister. It suddenly became much more understandable that people had tried to kill him.
More on that later on.
Poor Frances just wanted to grow plants. We see at the novel’s opening a young woman whose passion for helping others and favour in the Queen’s eyes have allowed her to remain somewhat naive and sheltered even as she grew up in court. She is content in her home grounds, helping those who fall sick in the village nearby, aided by a priest whose own passion for healing nurtured and informed her own. However, even before the Queen’s death, things were changing in court – and all too soon Frances is just another pawn in the political machinations therein. Suspicion turns to outright accusation, and we see the true trials of a suspected witch.
Frances, once accused, is tested for ‘witch marks’, humiliated and possibly assaulted. She is deprived of sleep, slapped and stripped of her dignity – and her clothing – in search of the devil’s handiwork, left bleeding and full of hatred in the Tower of London before her release – ironically – because she may be the only person who can heal the ailing princess.
Now all of this happened by the time I was halfway through the book, so obviously I was a little confused. It’s called the King’s Witch, she’s been released, is she accused again?
And then it dawned on me.
It was the early 1600s.
It was King James.
In what can only be described as a ‘HOLY SHIT’ moment of realisation, I recalled through years of fireworks displays in cold fields exactly why we have bonfires on the 5th November.
Someone was going to try and blow up the King of England.
What’s more, he was awful so by this stage you actually want them to succeed. Which is weird given that I grew up in a country that joyously sets fire to scarecrow versions of one of the perpetrators every year to celebrate how they failed. And you know they fail, which makes it hurt more.
Now aside from Guy Fawkes – whose name has been made infamous by the whole ‘remember remember the fifth of November’ thing – I had no idea what any of them were called. Only that they were hung, drawn and quartered (or more accurately, drawn, hung and quartered). So there I was, pausing every few minutes to google a name that sounded vaguely familiar and see if they were eventually executed for treason. This did take away from the immersion somewhat, as I got the impression I was already supposed to know the significance of the name ‘Thomas Wintour’ when he showed up.
At first the pacing was a little slow, and it took me a while to get into this book. Once she was at court, however, I read the rest very quickly! It was a real page-turner towards the end, with the gunpowder plot in full swing and Frances navigating a world where she has been tainted by her trials as a witch. Apparently this is the first of a trilogy. Would I read the rest? Yes probably, I enjoyed the book well enough to be interested in more of Frances’s life, so who knows you might be seeing reviews of those in future!
Overall while I did greatly enjoy this book towards the end, it took me a little while to get into at first. I would recommend this book to fans of historical fiction, and if you struggle with the beginning do stick with it! Honestly, it might just have been me changing genre
Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖 4 books out of 5
A cope of The King’s Witch was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.