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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

A Renaissance Man

reviewed by Ben Soton

Execution Execution by SJ Parris, HarperCollins 2021. Hardback: 496pp, £14.99; Paperback: 496pp, £8.99.

EXECUTION is the sixth novel by SJ Parris (the pen name of writer and journalist Stephanie Merritt) covering the exploits of Giordano Bruno. A Dominican monk, Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) abandoned Holy Orders after being discovered with the heretical work of Erasmus and was forced to flee Italy from the Inquisition. He spent much of his life as a wandering scholar and he is believed to have spent some time in England in the 1580s. Little is known about what Bruno did in England during his stay but Parris’ novels, based on Bruno’s opposition to the Catholic Inquisition, tries to fill the gap and puts him in the employ of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster.

Bruno’s latest adventure takes place in Elizabethan London, or specifically Southwark. He infiltrates the plotters around Anthony Babington who plan to assassinate Elizabeth and put her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

Parris’ novels bring the Elizabethan world to life. As an author she details the dress, customs and even the food of the time. Southwark, on the south bank of the Thames outside the control of the City of London, was nominally run by the Bishop of Winchester. The prostitutes who worked Southwark’s streets were known as ‘Winchester Geese’ and the whole area was dominated by brothels, playhouses, bear pits and gambling dens.

Parris’ depiction of Southwark reminds us that England has been a multicultural society for a long time. For instance, one character in this book is Leila, a ‘Moor’ – a general term in those days for people of African or Middle Eastern origin.

Attempts to restore Catholicism in Elizabethan England were reactionary. A Catholic victory would have destroyed the limited free thinking that existed in England at the time. England would have come under the domination of Spain, which would have stifled commerce and prevented the development of capitalism. Parris’ interpretation of events and Bruno’s role in it broadly support this view. The author adds that Elizabeth’s advisor Robert Cecil wanted to alter the English constitution, making everyone including monarchs answerable to the law. In other words, Mary Queen of Scots’ execution may have set a precedent in English law paving the way for the trial and execution of Charles I, her grandson, less than a century later.

What of Bruno himself? An outsider who risks life and limb for England but receives little reward for it; he is not given residence in the country. He is often insulted by members of the lower orders in alehouses for being a foreigner, whilst he is insufficiently rewarded by the likes of Walsingham who are happy to use his skills. At least members of the lower orders have the excuse of not knowing that he is actually doing them a favour. Bruno is the ultimate heroic outsider.

Giordano Bruno was a truly remarkable man. He is known for having developed a system for improving memory as well as being a supporter of the ideas of Copernicus. Bruno also believed in the concept that if the universe were made up of numerous stars there could also be many planets. Parris’ novels fill in the gaps in his fascinating life and are a fitting tribute to a genuine Renaissance Man.