Autumn, 1609. It is six years since the Scottish King James I came to the throne of England and since the death of the much-revered Elizabeth I; already the glories of her long reign seem but a distant memory. There is no denying that London is still alive with culture, but the core is rotten, for the court of King James is greedy, extravagant. Superstition abounds, not least a belief that gold can be made form base metals. Some of the leading courtiers hire their own alchemists, and since the death of the Elizabethan magus Dr John Dee, who was rumoured to have discovered the formula for making gold just before his death a year before, the capital is rife with reports that his lost papers have been found, giving charlatans and forgers a free hand to trick a gullible public. In the wider political scene it seems that England's honour has been pawned. A peace treaty has been signed with the Catholic enemy Spain, but the stability it brings is riven by rumblings of internal discontent against the Scottish king and his advisers. There is an underlying atmosphere of fear at the court, heightened by the paranoia of King James.
Meanwhile his wife Anne, heedless of politics, passes the days and nights in merriment and dancing, and James' alienated son and heir, the fifteen-year-old Prince Henry, looks on, dour, disapproving and ambitious - and secretly thinking that if he were king, he would be leading an army at the French king's side, against the old enemy Spain-