Historians despised historical novels. Now they write them down and can even acknowledge a debt to genre stars such as Hilary Mantel. In this first novel, Steven Veerapen even boldly ventures into his territory. Although Thomas Cromwell does not appear, his first master, Cardinal Wolsey is center stage, magnificently impressive in his Hampton Court Palace and admirably devious.
The young hero is an imaginary character, Anthony Blanke, half-breed, son of a Moor who had served Henry VII as a trumpeter and who was historical, not fictional. The action takes place over a few days in 1522 during a state visit by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was also King of Spain and nephew of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, that he wasn’t ready to throw away yet. . It is hoped that this visit will lead to an alliance against France. The Emperor must be impressed by the strength and magnificence of England, and the Cardinal has ordered a splendid mask in which Antoine, recalled to Wolsey’s service, will dance. It will be inspired by the first English bestseller of the age of printing, Morte d’Arthur by Malory.
The Tudors were not the first English kings to take an interest in Arthur. Edward I had a coffin opened at Glastonbury Abbey and identified its occupants as Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. Edward III had discovered Arthur’s famous Round Table, refined it and exhibited it in Winchester. But the Tudors were particularly obsessed with Arthur. They were upstarts, whose title to the hereditary throne was tenuous. But if they were Arthur’s heirs, no one could doubt their true royalty. So, we now learn that Wolsey commissioned a historian to investigate and prove Henry’s Arthurian ancestry.
Then the historian is found murdered, his papers stolen. Young Anthony is assigned to investigate the matter. The cardinal’s choice of the young man may seem odd, but no stranger than the fact that the Foreign Office chased Richard Hannay from his regiment and gave him a mission to foil Germany’s nefarious plan to raise Islam against the British Empire. Either way, Anthony, working against time, proves to be brave and resourceful. Other crimes follow. The danger to the Cardinal’s project and the proposed Grand Alliance becomes acute. It explores the dark depths of London’s underworld – beautifully portrayed. He encounters danger, suffers an injury from which, in the manner of the heroes of adventure, he makes what, in other circumstances, would be a remarkably rapid recovery. By acknowledging him as a hero, you can be sure he will get through this, but not how; and there are many twists and turns before reaching a tormented and twisted ending.
Veerapen followed the example of masters of the adventure novel such as Stevenson, Buchan and Dick Francis, and entrusted the narration to its hero. We see everything through his eyes, share his experience, unravel the mystery with him. A first-person narrator is the best for this kind of novel, but, although Anthony is as much a hero as a narrator, and although it is his image of London that enchants us, the novel’s star is the great Cardinal, Machiavellian and magnificent, magisterial, but aware that he takes what he has at the king’s pleasure.
This is a beautifully enjoyable novel. I hope Anthony’s adventures will continue. The brief part attributed here to Anne Boleyn suggests that they will. If so, how will Anthony fare with Cromwell? Cromwell, as Mantel’s millions of readers know, remained as loyal to the Cardinal as possible and became Anne Boleyn’s enemy. Anthony here is intrigued by Anne. How will he navigate his way through the Tudor Labyrinth, a time and place where no head is safe on its shoulders?
Blood came downby Steven Veerapen, Polygon, 372pp, £8.99