The novel is a fiction based on historical fact. It is an imaginative interpretation of a major historical event, the collapse of the Stuart dynasty. Q appears to be using the works of Scott and Dumas as models.
The novel opens in 1672, during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685), and at the time of the Dutch Wars. The reign of James II (1685-1688) is referred to only retrospectively. Most of the action centres on the early years of the reign of William of Orange, with James exiled but hoping to return with the help of Louis XIV. The enemy of England is no longer the Netherlands but France.
The central historical figure of the novel is John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. Churchill was originally a military friend of James, Duke of York, and his influence increased when James ascended the throne. However, following the landing of William of Orange in 1688, Churchill defected to the Dutch. English dissatisfaction with the Dutch ruling caste then led Churchill to obtain a letter of pardon from James. Churchill appears to have favoured neither William nor James but Anne, the Anglican daughter of James. Sarah Churchill, John’s wife, was Anne’s confidant.
The main fictitious characters are Captain John Barker and Captain Jeremy Runacles, who fought the Dutch under James when he was Lord High Admiral, and regarded William, after 1688, as a foreign usurper. A third character, Roderick Salt, also fought the Dutch, but follows his best interests as protégé of the Duke of Marlborough.
1672, 13 March: The French and English declare war on the Dutch in the ‘Third Dutch War’.
28 May – 7 June: An English squadron attacks the (Dutch) Smyrna fleet off the Suffolk coast in the ‘Battle of Sole Bay’. Ensign John Churchill is aboard The Prince, the flagship of the Duke of York.
Churchill is appointed captain of the grenadiers in the Duke of Monmouth’s regiment in the English contingent serving under Marshall Turenne and the Prince of Condé, and ultimately under King Louis XIV of France. The French advance eastwards towards Amsterdam.
1673, 17 June: Louis XIV invests Maestricht. An English force, consisting of Captain Churchill and thirty gentlemen of the Life Guards, lead the assault on the Glasis, Covered way, the Ditch and the Ravelin. The fourth assault secures the position.
1673–4: Marshall Turenne and Vauban advance into the Palatinate, with Churchill as a colonel of the infantry. The ‘Treaty of Ryswick’ ends the ‘Third Dutch War’ in 1674.
1675: Churchill is lieutenant-colonel in the Duke of York’s regiment.
1677–8: Churchill is chosen by Charles II as an agent communicating with William, Prince of Orange, about the war with France.
1679: Churchill attends James, Duke of York, in The Hague and Brussels.
1685: Charles II dies and the Dyke of York becomes James II (and a Catholic in private).
James II has two Anglican daughters:
i. Mary (1665-1702), the next in line to the throne, who marries the Protestant William III of Orange (1650-1702)
ii. Anne (1665-1714), who marries George of Denmark, and has Sarah Churchill, the wife of John Churchill, as confidant.
1688 June: James Francis Edward is born to James II, so securing the Stuart succession and invalidating the claim of the Anglican Mary. William of Orange is at war with Louis XIV and requires English assistance.
11 November: A Dutch army, led by William of Orange, lands at Brixham.
23 November: Churchill recommends to James a concentration of forces and then defects to William. Prince George of Denmark, Princess Anne and Lady Churchill also defect to William. James flees to the continent.
1689 April: William is crowned in London. The Dutch are unpopular and Churchill protects his position by obtaining a pardon from the exiled James.
1689–1697: A coalition, including the Dutch and English, war with France. The English Whigs support William while the Tories favour the Stuarts.
1692: An invasion of England from the Cotentin Peninsula, with English, French and Irish troops, is planned for April, but is aborted.
5 May: Marlborough is imprisoned by William.