The late 16th century is riddled with the wars of religion after Henry’s VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly, England is in conflict with Spain and France, Rome threatened by a king seizing the great wealth of the church and establishing a hierarchy with its own authority.
Mary Tudor does what she can to restore the Catholic Church, including burning those who refuse to return to the true religion, but Elizabeth I reverses the trend once again, the country divided by Reformists and Catholics. Then there are the plots against Elizabeth, who is considered a bastard by those who cling to the old faith. But nowhere does the conflict run so deep as the great University of Oxford in 1583, where religious debate circles around the Church’s Earth-centric belief and the flowering of the outrageous concept of a broader universe.
A former monk from Naples hounded by the Inquisition for his embrace of a heliocentric universe, Giordano Bruno barely escapes with his life, traveling first to France and the court of Henri III then to England, where he undertakes a secret commission on behalf of Elizabeth’s secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham. Ostensibly at Oxford for a debate, Bruno is charged with discovering the identities of Catholic spies and any plots against the queen.
A series of murders on campus throws Bruno into unexpected danger, scholars posed as martyrs in bloody scenes. An infatuation with an educated young woman named Sophia puts Bruno on a collision course with spies and murderers willing to do anything to protect their numbers and defend their faith. This is mystery of religion and politics at its best, the author looking into the spirit of the times, the intensity of debate, and the extremes of religious persecution.
Followed everywhere he goes in search of spies and plots, Bruno hazards a foray into enemy territory - that is, a group of practicing Catholics who gather to say the Mass in secret. Assuming another identity, Bruno plays a cat-and-mouse game with his adversaries, when he can figure out exactly who they are. It seems that no one is who he says, men disguised either for their own reasons or on behalf of yet another plot against the queen.
Bruno’s chivalry leads him badly astray, Sophia’s innocent face and bright curiosity leading him to make serious mistakes and render false judgments of friend and foe. As the body count rises, Bruno learns the value of discretion, barely escaping a bloody end himself. Too late, he learns he has trusted the wrong men, his Walsingham supporters too far away to be of assistance. Torn between his loyalty to Sophia and his duty to Walsingham, Bruno balances on a knife’s edge in a bizarre mix of the strange bedfellows of politics and religion. In this stimulating blend of philosophy, religion and the academic life, Bruno becomes both pawn and hero, philosopher and fool.