Cover image of "Murder in the Queen's Wardrobe," a novel about murder in Elizabeth's court

World War II and the Cold War have generated an inordinate share of the spy fiction that has appeared in recent years. The court of Queen Elizabeth I seems to be running third in the espionage sweepstakes. No surprise there. The island was in turmoil, rocked by forces set in motion by the queen’s father, Henry VIII, when he cut the Church of England loose from Rome in order to marry the woman who became Elizabeth’s mother. Conspiracies swirled around Elizabeth, with her courtiers jockeying for power and her enemies hatching one assassination plot after another. And the queen’s Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, ran what may well have been the first official intelligence service in Western history. Novelist Kathy Lynn Emerson adroitly spotlights this scene in her story of a murder in Elizabeth’s court.

An engaging heroine

The novel introduces Mistress Rosamond Jaffrey, the subject of Emerson’s three-book series of spy novels set late in the Elizabethan era. Jaffrey is the illegitimate but beloved daughter of a wealthy knight whose fortune she inherited. Also, “she’d been given a remarkable education, equal to that received by any gentleman’s male heir.” Now independently rich, she owns a large and comfortable London house and other property. Her husband, Rob Jaffrey, is now seeking his fortune in Moscow. The two are estranged. She does not expect them to reunite, but they remain friends. Life seems good to her. Which makes her reluctant to agree to an appeal from Master Nicholas Baldwin, a family friend throughout her life. He is “a merchant wealthy enough to own manors in both Northamptonshire and Kent.” Unaccountably, he wants her to work undercover as a spy in the household of young Lady Mary Hastings. But he will not tell her on whose behalf she would be working, or why.

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe (Mistress Jaffrey #1) by Kathy Lynn Emerson (2015) 271 pages ★★★★☆

Painting of Queen Elizabeth observing an experiment by her astrologer, a scene behind the scenes in this novel about murder in Elizabeth's court
Elizabeth I and her courtiers observing an experiment by astrologer John Dee. Image: Welcome Library via Encyclopedia Britannica

The historical setting

Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe is set in 1582, “during the twenty-fifth year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.” The confrontation with the Spanish Armada lies six years in the future. And the queen will reign for two more decades. But it is a troubled time in England. Her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, still lives, five years before her execution. Conspiracies on her behalf continue to swirl around Elizabeth’s court. Even Sir Francis Walsingham, with his agents planted across the realm, is hard-pressed to stay atop of the turmoil. And then an emissary to England from Tsar Ivan the Terrible arrives, seeking to establish trade relations with Britain and secure an English “princess” as a bride. (There are no English princesses, so Lady Mary Hastings will have to do.) The fraught politics surrounding the mission from Muscovy adds further complications to Walsingham’s life. And that is the source of Baldwin’s plea to Mistress Jaffrey to work undercover as a spy. Little does she know even after accepting the mission that she will become embroiled in murder in the queen’s court.

Fresh and original subject matter

The author makes the most of her tale, bringing into vivid relief a picture of life among the wealthy and privileged young women who populate Elizabeth’s court. Their fear-filled chatter about “the Apocalypse heralded by the coming conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn” reveals the hold that astrology had on the minds of the English upper class in Elizabeth’s time. And her choice of Tsar Ivan’s mission opens up a fresh window on the era, highlighting the work of the Muscovy Company. It was the forerunner to the British East India Company that colonized India and the Virginia Company that attempted to do so in America. Emerson sets much of the action in the novel in Moscow, conjuring up the terror spread by the tsar and the machinations of the English merchants. Murder in the Queen’s Wardrobe is one of the few novels about espionage in the Elizabethan era I’ve come across that doesn’t involve Mary Queen of Scots.

About the author

Photo of Kathy Lynn Emerson, author of this novel about murder in Elizabeth's court
Prolific historical novelist Kathy Lynn Emerson. Image: Mystery Fanfare

Kathy Lynn Emerson has written 14 historical mysteries, 14 romance novels, and four novels for young readers under her own name. She has also written a dozen other historical novels under pseudonyms as well as three nonfiction book-length works. Emerson was born in New York state in 1947 and educated at Bates College and Old Dominion University. She now lives on a Christmas tree farm in Wilton, Maine, with her husband and three cats.

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