The author's note at the end of this tale cautions the reader against considering The Roots of Betrayal an accurate historical novel. As the author is the well-respected historian Ian Mortimer writing under the pen-name James Forrester, we'd do well to listen to him. Roots of Betrayal is out-and-out fiction, and a great piece of fiction at that.
The tale follows William Harley, Clarenceux King of Arms, in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. Harley has possession of a secret document that would prove that Elizabeth I is illegitimate, and so should not be queen. The next in line for the throne is Mary Queen of Scots. The problem is Elizabeth I is Protestant, Mary Catholic. So if Elizabeth was shown to be illegitimate this would spark religious war in England. Harley, despite being a Catholic himself, does not want to see this religious war and so, when the document is stolen, Harley suspects the secret Catholic society the Knights of the Round Table, and sets off in pursuit. As he has been trusted to keep the document safe, his life depends on it.
As the novel weaves its course it includes wonderful descriptions of 16th century London and Southampton, including Calshot fort (which still stands), and some detailed and very convincing descriptions of the life and battles of a pirate, Carew.
We may take the author at his word that the book shouldn't been seen as an accurate depiction of life in Elizabethan England - nevertheless a particular highlight for me is the true-to-life portrayal of the nuances of the struggles over religion under her reign.
Walsingham, a famous historical figure, Member of Parliament and de facto head of Elizabeth's spy network, is rightly depicted as ruthless and spreading a climate of fear and suspicion about pro-Catholic activities. Yet Forrester also makes clear that it's not as simple as Catholics v Protestants. There are those, like Clarenceux, who are fervently religious yet do not think that any true religion would condone the bloodshed perpetrated by characters like Walsingham in its name. There are those, like Sir William Cecil, the Queen's Principal Secretary, who support whichever religion is winning at the time. And then there are those like the pirate Carew, who are not religious at all.
The Roots of Betrayal is impeccably researched, as you would expect from a historian who researches Elizabethan England as his career. Forrester uses this research to great effect to bring the period alive. Yet the book reads like a seat-of-your pants thriller at times - and the pace of the story never slows. This is no mean feat - and makes for a hugely enjoyable read.