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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 334

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The novel’s primary theme is religious tolerance. Closely related to this are themes of the relationship between politics and religious conflict, and the changing ideas of rulership and monarchy in the early modern period. The third in a series of historical novels set primarily in southern England, A Column of Fire brings the action from medieval times up to the transition from Tudor through Elizabethan to Jacobean England. By centering on one family, the Willards, and especially Edward (Ned), the novel provides personal perspectives on a tumultuous historical era.

Because Ned and his family are Protestants and his beloved, Margery, comes from the Catholic Fitzgerald family, religious tolerance—along with the many impediments to it—is anchored in their love story. Ned ends up working in royal espionage for the court of Elizabeth I, so he is privy to countless secrets and plots, giving a face to the political machinations that dominated those years. Rollo, Margery’s brother, is cast as a religious zealot; his character gives form to the religiopolitical hostilities that were rampant in the mid-sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries, when the book is set.

Mary, one of England’s last Catholic monarchs, was vehemently anti-Protestant, earning the nickname “Bloody Mary” for her relentless persecution of all who deviated from the Roman church. The difficulty of achieving a more tolerant atmosphere, as much as Elizabeth I desired it, is played out through numerous actual historical events, as dramatized through the Willard and Fitzgerald sagas.

The transition from Bloody Mary to Elizabeth I; the confinement and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and the subsequent reign of James I are all addressed in the novel Popular upheavals, including Guy Fawkes's infamous plot to blow up Parliament and kill King James, are shown as both causes and effects of changing English ideas about the responsibilities of the monarchy. Largely by elaborating Ned’s activities on the continent, differences between English and other European ideas, such as the war with Spain, are also developed.