The Lymond Chronicles

Charlotte Wells

University of Northern Iowa


The Lymond Chronicles is a set of six interlocking novels by the Scottish writer Dorothy Dunnett.  Originally published between 1961 and 1975, the books are now available in a uniform paperback edition issued by Vintage Books in 1997.  All are in print.  The first thing that should be said is that the books are not set exclusively in France, though France and its Renaissance form one of the major background themes of the series–a kind of literary continuo, as it were.  The protagonist, Francis Crawford of Lymond, is a Scot and his many and varied adventures take him from one end of mid-sixteenth- century Europe to the other in the years between 1547 and 1558. Dunnett concerns herself with high culture and with high society and its politics. No room here for the lives of ordinary people as early modern social history has uncovered them since the late 1970s; the lack is understandable since the last of the Lymond books predates even Natalie Zemon Davis’s seminal Society and Culture in Early Modern France (1976). Dunnett offers a set of complex tales rich in historic detail and a hero who surpasses the highest standards of his swashbuckling genre. Like Castiglione’s Courtier, Francis Crawford is handsome, graceful, athletic, a gifted soldier, a talented musician, fluent in a range of languages and erudite in their literatures. Spezzatura might be his middle name, and he suffers its disadvantages as well as its benefits. The reader begins by wondering why almost everyone in the books, including his family, has such difficulty in trusting the charismatic Crawford but ends by understanding all too well: people like Lymond are simply very hard to take. Especially so since this very young man doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and sixteenth-century Europe is as full of them as is our own world.  As Lymond seeks self-understanding, love, and a place in his world amidst its madness, the reader is treated to a dazzling tapestry of the Renaissance world on the eve of the religious wars.

Game of Kings is set against the background of the Rough Wooing, the English government’s forcible attempts to secure the very young Mary Queen of Scots as the bride of Edward VI of England. Outclassed in resources and troop strength, the Scots depend on French aid to preserve their independence. Intelligent leaders like Lymond’s brother Richard, a fictional Border lord closely allied to the historic Scots of Buccleugh, wonder if the price of French support may be too high. Amidst the sometimes good-natured chaos of raid and counter-raid, the exiled Lymond slips back into his country. At twenty-one he is already a convicted traitor and survivor of a stint in the French galleys. Tough, ruthless, dazzlingly sarcastic, he is surrounded by a troop of mercenaries almost as hard-bitten as he. Their obvious goal: to make a fortune by selling their services to the highest bidder. The less obvious: to find proof of Lymond’s innocence while helping to defend Scotland from English invasion. Lymond begins by setting fire to his brother’s castle while their mother is inside. Similarly easy-to-misunderstand actions follow as a complicated plot unrolls. Lymond and his men help to delay the English so that the child queen can be smuggled to safety in France but he ends up on trial before a special court of the Scottish Parliament. Only at the ultimate moment is the real villain of the piece revealed: Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox—a royal cousin with claims to both the Scottish and English thrones. She and her husband Archibald Stewart play both sides of the conflict for their own benefit and the then sixteen-year-old Lymond fell victim to their plotting during his captivity in England after the battle of Solway Moss. Douglas used him first as a lover and then as a scapegoat for treason she had committed herself. Douglas’ combined hatred and desire for Lymond forms another motif of the series—she does not receive her comeuppance until the end of the final volume.

Queen’s Play takes Lymond to the court of Henri II in France. Bored with baiting the English at home and moved, perhaps, by love of country, he accepts the Queen Regent’s commission to protect her daughter from those who do not want her to survive long enough to marry the Dauphin. The young Queen Mary is portrayed as an engaging tot in whom the reader has difficulty in detecting the later tragic queen, though the corruption of the French court suggests how it may have transformed her. Lymond disguises himself as an Irish bard and persuades an amiable if ineffective Irish princeling to take him to the French royal court. There he hunts down the man who seeks to kill his queen; the would-be killer ultimately proves to be connected to Stewart and Douglas.  His efforts are complicated by his disguise, which embroils him in Irish exiles’ plots to evict the English from their homeland. The beautiful and ruthless Oonagh O’Dwyer has tried to win French support for her original consort, Cormac O’Connor, in his quest to make himself king of a free Irish state.  Lymond persuades her that O’Connor is not up to the task. Sex intervenes, and a genuine relationship between the two seems possible. O’Dwyer, however, deems herself unworthy of Lymond’s regard and takes up instead with the governor of Tripoli, a member of the order of St. John of Jerusalem, and departs for the Mediterranean–though she is pregnant with Lymond’s child. Along the way there are elephants, the royal entrée into Rouen, a hair-raising foot race across the rooftops of Blois, and an elegant portrayal of the intrigue-ridden French court in the early years of the Guise ascendency.  This book introduces another theme of the series, the agency of women, as the fictional O’Dwyer and the historic Catherine de Medici, Diane de Poitiers and Marie de Guise maneuver for power and influence in pursuit of their goals.

In The Disorderly Knights, we find Lymond bolstering the efforts of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem to stop the Ottoman advance into the western Mediterranean, while also searching for O’Dwyer. In the course of his visit to the Knights’ main base on Malta, Lymond gains enemies worthy of his steel in the handsome and dangerous Graham Reid Mallett, a corrupt member of the Order, and his lovely and seductive sister Joletta.  When the scene shifts back to Scotland, Lymond barely defeats Mallett’s plan to dominate Scotland as he has come to dominate the Knights of Malta. Mallett avenges himself by arranging to have O’Dwyer and her son handed over to the Turks. The struggle for control of the Mediterranean is the historical centerpiece of the story with a spectacular narrative of the 1551 siege of Tripoli. France’s fragile and much-maligned alliance with the Turks is evoked in this and the following volume, as the reader is reminded how important the Mediterranean remained in European politics well into the early modern period. This might be a good way to spark student discussion of the dominance of the “Atlantic World” schema in contemporary historiography.

Pawn in Frankincense brings the quest to rescue O’Dwyer and her child to a devastating climax. Lymond wrangles an appointment as special French ambassador to the Sublime Porte in order to seek out and destroy Graham Mallett who is now working for the Turks. Lymond discovers  O’Dwyer has been killed in a spectacularly nasty fashion and he and his friends find themselves pulled ever deeper into a web of deceit and treachery. As their journey continues the reader experiences the splendor and horror of life at the Ottoman court as Lymond undergoes degradation and humiliation, including an unwitting addiction to opium and the acquisition of a hitherto unknown half-sister whose origins remain obscure at the end of the book. Marthe, who shares Lymond’s faults without his redeeming qualities, seems destined for the role of Lymond’s principal enemy after her brother manages to kill Mallett—and his own child—in a terrifying human chess game played before the enigmatic sultana Roxelana. But Marthe redeems herself by helping Lymond wean himself off opium.  At the end of the volume Lymond marries Philippa Somerville, a surprising and unsuitable choice. The teenaged daughter of an old friend, Philippa had appeared in the first book of the series as an angry ten-year-old coerced into helping Lymond.  Five years later, she still doesn’t like him all that much, but does follow him to the Mediterranean to help him rescue his son and ends up captive for two years in the seraglio of Suleiman the Magnificent in Istanbul. Lymond marries her to save her from social disgrace upon her return to Western Europe. Since the marriage is not consummated, both parties assume an annulment will be easy to obtain.  This proves not to be the case.

The Ringed Castle takes Lymond, recovering from his addiction, to the burgeoning Russian state. His new companion and muse, the courtesan Kiaya Khatun, had appeared in the previous two books. An ambitious and clever woman, she helps Lymond to overcome his emotional distress by focusing his considerable faculties on the task of helping the young unstable Tsar Ivan (not yet Terrible) in his efforts to secure Russia’s borders from Tartars and to set up trade with England. Lymond is surrounded by a cast of compelling minor characters, most notably the doomed explorer Richard Chancellor, who opened the Artic route to Russia for English merchants and died on the voyage that brought the first Russian ambassador to the English court. Lymond survives this very shipwreck and accompanies Ambassador Osep Nepeja to London. There he is reunited with Philippa, now a lady-in waiting to Queen Mary. Her years in the harem and life at court have honed her abilities and she has become suitable partner for Lymond. He falls deeply in love with her but, believing himself too old (he is ten years her senior) and too corrupt for her, is all the more determined to end the marriage and allow her to marry one of her many persistent suitors. Philippa decides her husband’s increasing stress comes from questions about his birth and sets out to discover who her husband really is.

Checkmate is set against the last Hapsburg-Valois war. Lymond must enroll in Henri II’s army to ensure that the annulment of his marriage to Philippa is not further delayed. He helps plan the attack that ends the long English control of Calais, though (of course) all the credit falls to the Duc de Guise. Philippa’s investigation takes her from England to France, where she is summoned by the now- teenaged Queen of Scots. Mary has become thoroughly French, but she remembers Lymond fondly and, after meeting Philippa concludes the pair should remain married. She adds Philippa to her roster of ladies-in-waiting, so that husband and wife will meet at the French court. Against the bustle of preparations for Mary’s wedding to the Dauphin, Philippa comes to reciprocate her husband’s feelings, but is determined not to stand in the way of the more advantageous union planned for him. Her parting gift would be confirmation that he is the true son of his beloved mother, Sybilla—albeit by her incestuous affair with her father-in-law, the first Francis Crawford. Proof of the affair rests with Lymond’s nasty great-uncle who shows up in Paris and demands sex with Philippa as the price for the documentary proof. Philippa pays. Amidst the chaos of the royal wedding celebration, she falls apart and Lymond leaves his army post to care for her.  In the months that follow Philippa recovers in body but not in spirit and is unable to engage in the physical relationship for which her husband longs.  A distressed Lymond at leaves to seek death in battle–and almost succeeds. He is saved by the friends and family he has avoided for so long, leading to a complex denouement in which the lovers are united, Sybilla is cleared and Margaret Douglas is revealed as the harridan she has become. Husband and wife head home to Scotland to work for a positive and peaceful future. The reader knows events will not unfold as they hope and so the series ends on a profoundly ironic note.

This is a challenging and compelling set of stories that tells us a good deal about Europe in the mid-sixteenth century but also leaves much out. Most of the characters are real, except for Lymond and his immediate associates, and they are portrayed accurately, if dramatically. The battle scenes are vivid; the passages set at courts exhibit well both the splendid surface calm and the roiling behind-the-scenes plotting. Dunnett’s idea of the Renaissance, however, seems slightly outdated, clearly indebted as it is to Jacob Burckhardt’s conceptualization of the era as the first great age of self-fashioning. Both Lymond and Philippa are intelligent people who effectively create themselves as the charismatic figures they become. They and the other characters show little allegiance to the great causes of their day; they are motivated by love, friendship, or hatred.

Indeed, love of country seems to be the only general passion Dunnett admits, and its existence in the mid-sixteenth century is to say the least problematic. Lymond voices ideas and attitudes that foreshadow the politiques of the 1570s and 1580s, but those ideas came out of the crucible of the religious wars, which are briefly foreseen as the series ends. As I reread the books after many years, it was the absence of the Reformation I found most troubling. Lymond admits to believing in God, but shows no leaning to any particular set of doctrines; Philippa expresses no religious sentiments at all. In the final volume Lymond’s brother Richard admits to having signed the Scottish Covenant, but offers no justification for his Calvinist beliefs. Sybilla remains a Catholic, but this causes no dispute between mother and son. When the action is in England, we hear little of “Bloody” Mary’s persecution of Protestants. The English characters are more concerned about her foreign consort  gaining actual power than they are about their queen’s religious policies.

Only in Checkmate do the tensions in France between Catholic and Huguenot play any kind of role in the story, and while Catholic violence against the Huguenots is portrayed as deplorable, the Huguenots are presented as mildly ridiculous. For instance, Lymond finds a manuscript of John Knox’s First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women lying forgotten in the home of a woman with whom the reformer had been staying.  He muses ironically that the anti-female message of the tract cannot have been pleasing to Knox’s hostess.  I wondered why Dunnett did not have Lymond meet Michel de l’Hospital, who was working in the Chambre des Comptes in Paris in 1557 and thus in close proximity to the locations of our hero’s activities. A conversation between Lymond and the religiously tolerant future chancellor would seem to have a clearer hope for future religious peace than Lymond’s several encounters with the first Cardinal de Guise, who turns against Lymond for refusing to clearly articulate his own religious beliefs. A reader lacking background in the period might come away wondering what all the religious fuss was about.

So, then, what have we got and what do we do with it? I’d identify Dunnett as a direct spiritual descendant of Alexandre Dumas père. Her works exemplify the swashbuckling genre he helped to invent. Like Dumas, Dunnett has researched her settings and characters but reshaped them to focus on her protagonist and his story. Her gift lies in piling detail upon rich detail to create the background against which her people move like characters in an opera. (The fact that she was a successful painter probably explains the visual wealth of her writing.) The great scenes of the novels are all action, whether Dunnett evokes the thunder of a sea battle or quieter intellectual combat, as in Lymond’s trial at the end of Game of Kings. Humorous episodes relieve the tension here and there, but these are not lighthearted stories; neither, in spite of the strong and feisty female characters are they real romances—much less “chick lit.” For all their vivid descriptions, the books’ emotional tone is stifled. Philippa exists only to be shaped into Lymond’s destined mate. Once she has been, we don’t hear much internal dialogue and thus the sacrifice of her virginity not to her husband but for him doesn’t quite resonate as Dunnett probably intended.  And Lymond is almost always seen through others’ eyes; only in the last two volumes does Dunnett really let us listen to the despair and self-hatred that torment his psyche. As for sex and love—we are told it happens but never experience it. Like her nineteenth-century models, Dunnett draws a discrete veil over her characters’ more intimate moments. Call me modern, call me cynical, call me a historian of the sixteenth century, but I know people at that time were not quite that refined! So the books fail as romance, but they definitely succeed as action adventure.

Marker at entrance of the Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh

Like all novels, these are no substitute for actual history, but they can certainly make it more vivid for those students able to deal with complex story lines. The whole series poses the question of the relation between Renaissance and Reformation, but a number of narrower themes can be drawn out as well. Early modern warfare is certainly one: Disorderly Knights, The Ringed Castle, and Checkmate all offer vivid and accurate recreations of battles. Other topics intrigued me even more: one would be to compare the character of Lymond to a close reading of The Courtier—Dunnett shows us very clearly that the pursuit of spezzatura had its costs. Moreover, Philippa, Sybilla, Marthe, and perhaps especially the villainous Margaret Douglas raise questions about the agency of early modern noblewomen that resonate with much modern scholarship.  And then there is the whole question of the relation between religion and national sentiment and when the latter began to surface in France and elsewhere….I occasionally teach a graduate seminar on political ideas associated with the wars of religion of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. I just may add one or more of the Lymond books to the reading list next time around so I can challenge students to tell me where and how Dunnett rearranged history to make room for her characters and their stories.

Dorothy Dunnett, The Lymond Chronicles, 6 vols. (1961-1976), New York: Random House, 1997, 6 vols.

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2 thoughts on “The Lymond Chronicles

  1. With respect, comparing 16th century people’s appetites and behaviour with a 20th century novelist’s stylistic choices is like comparing apples and peas – not the same thing at all, so possibly not the strongest argument on which to base the assertion that the novels fail in some regard. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Dunnett was writing for the contemporary reader who discerns that sometimes less is more; indeed, this is one of the aspects of her work that is most admired. (Btw, did you mean a “discreet” veil?)

  2. Nice summary of the books (though horrifically spoilerish for those who have not read them – I think a spoiler warning would be in order given that almost every major plot twist and reveal is given away).

    I agree about the disappointing absence of Protestant/Roman Catholic issues, given the times, but strongly disagree about Philippa Somerville’s character (and was she really in the Seraglio for 2 years?) which is very well drawn throughout. “As for sex and love — we are told it happens but never experience it … Call me modern, call me cynical, call me a historian of the sixteenth century, but I know people at that time were not quite that refined!” – well, that would be true also of the works of Scott, Austen, Dickens, et al. It’s not that these people don’t have sex, just that we are not party to the mechanics of it. And I think that though we may not experience explicit sex, we are certainly party to love: between lovers, mother to sons, brother to brother, husband to wife and, stalker to victim, and as the author points out, citizen to country.

    And finally, on to the issue of nationhood. Ms Wells says “Indeed, love of country seems to be the only general passion Dunnett
    admits, and its existence in the mid-sixteenth century is to say the
    least problematic” – I think it rather depends on the country – in Italy, in still-forming France, in still-forming Russia, in the Ottoman Empire it would be problematic. But in Scotland? Scotland, which in over two hundred years earlier issued the declaration of Arbroath stating “never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself”.

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