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Collection Connections: ‘The King at the Edge of the World’ by Arthur Phillips

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Rachel B. Dankert, Learning and Engagement Librarian, shares items she presented on March 3, 2022 as an introduction to The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.


When Mahmoud Ezzedine traveled to Britain in 1591, he never imagined that he would become a central figure in the succession crisis brought on by the failing health and old age of Queen Elizabeth I. In Arthur Phillips fictional account of this very real crisis, we see events play out like a game of chess—calculated yet not entirely predictable, with fewer options available to the opponents as the game progresses.

Before the knowledgeable doctor Mahmoud Ezzedine became Matthew Thatcher, he met with another wise doctor who was his intellectual interlocutor and guide to English court life—John Dee. Dee remains one of Elizabeth I’s most well-known advisors. A brilliant polymath who used his genius to serve the monarch and to advanced human knowledge, John Dee assembled a large library in the course of his work. In this book from the Folger collection, we can see Dee’s name prominently written at the top of the page, which lists a series of titles included in the work.

Index eorum, quae hoc in libro habentur…Venice, 1516. Folger call number: BF1501.J2 copy 2 Cage (folio

Ezzedine’s friendship with Dee did not last long, however, when the embassy left him behind in this strange land. Forced to convert to Christianity from Islam out of self-preservation, Ezzedine (now Thatcher) was given as a “gift” to a member of Elizabeth’s court and passed along once again to attend on James VI of Scotland. This latter move embroiled Ezzedine in court intrigue, engineered by spy Geoffrey Belloc. In the novel, Belloc belonged to Sir Francis Walsingham’s spy network, which planted eyes and ears around Europe looking for Catholic plots against England and the life of the queen. In this letter, written by Walsingham himself, we see a partially decoded cipher—the bread and butter of the Elizabethan spy network.

Autograph letter signed from Sir Francis Walsingham, Greenwich, to unknown recipient, 1574 May 26. Folger call number: V.b.264, before p. 435

Charged with ascertaining whether James VI of Scotland adhered to the Catholic or Protestant faith, Ezzedine used his background and training in medicine to his advantage. Belloc, by order of Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, arranged for Ezzedine to live and work in James’s court, but how the doctor discovered the truth was all his own. In this letter, we see Cecil’s personal concerns about the failing health of Elizabeth I at the end of her life, with the succession question likely lodged in the back of his mind when he writes: “To conclude my opinion (be:syds my hope)is certainly that she will recover this sickness, for she doth evry day more feele her sickness and her dulness vanisheth which was the only great signe of danger.” He hoped in vain for the queen’s recovery, but felt secure after Ezzedine’s diagnosis of King James’s soul.

Autograph letter signed from Sir Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury to Sir John Peyton, lieutenant of the Tower of London, 1603? Folger call number: X.c.43

To immerse yourself in the real-world materials that influenced this month’s pick, visit our curated The King at the Edge of the World image collection.


Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and whiteWords, Words, Words continues on April 7, 2022 with a discussion of If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio. Registration for this session opens Tuesday, March 8. We hope you make a plan to join us!


We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program:

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