In a burnt-out house, one of Queen Elizabeths aristocratic cousins is found murdered, her flesh marked with profane symbols. At the same time a plot is discovered to assassinate Englands feared sea warrior Sir Francis Drake a plot which, if successful, could leave the country open to Spanish invasion.
The year is 1587. One man is charged with the desperate task of solving both cases: John Shakespeare, chief intelligencer in Sir Francis Walsingams spy network. With the Spanish Armada poised to strike, Mary Queen of Scots awaiting execution and the pikes above London Bridge decorated with the severed heads of traitors, the country is in peril of being overwhelmed by fear, chaos and religious strife.
Following a trail of illicit passions and family secrets, Shakespeare travels through a teeming underworld of enemy agents, sorcerers, whores and poets, among whom is his own younger brother, the struggling playmaker Will.
Gradually unravelling a complex conspiracy of international intrigue and shadowed at every turn by his deadly rival, the Queens brutal torturer Richard Topcliffe John Shakespeare soon realises his own family and the beautiful woman he desires are in grave danger of becoming the next martyrs to a passion for murder.