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Cover, Millenium edition, 2000


Pavane by Keith Roberts is an alternate history science fiction fix-up novel first published by Rupert Hart-Davis Ltd in 1968.

Comprising a cycle of linked stories set in Dorsetmarker, Englandmarker, it depicts a 1968 in which the Roman Catholic Church still has supremacy; in its timeline, Protestantism was destroyed during wars that resulted from the aftermath of the assassination of Queen Elizabeth in 1588.

Without Protestant England, Spain prevented the Protestant Netherlandsmarker from attaining independence, while the German mercantile city states that financed the Reformation were also suppressed. As a consequence, while Spanish power eventually wanes, the Roman Catholic Church has no rivals and the Pope becomes the effective secular, as well as spiritual, ruler over Europe. The Church thus also controls the restive "New World" (which approximates the United Statesmarker in our timeline), as well as "Australasia", where James Cook planted the cobalt flag of the Vatican, instead of the Union Flag, in the eighteenth century.

Most of the original stories were published in Science Fantasy. An additional story, "The White Boat", was added in later editions.
The social effects include a continuing feudal system and bans on innovation, particularly electricity, leading to a roughly mid-19th century technology with steam traction engines and mechanical semaphore telegraphy. Outlying areas are dangerous, with wild animals and occasional manifestations of the 'Old Ones' or 'People of the Hills' (supposed fairies) who leave crab-symbol graffiti. The stories take place at a period when the possibility of revolution is rumoured.

The location and flavour, nostalgic yet tragic in outlook, resemble a science-fictional equivalent of the fictionalized Wessex of Thomas Hardy (as in the Hardy stories, there are place-name differences; for instance, in Pavane Dorchestermarker retains its Roman name, Durnovariamarker). Real geographical locations play a major role: Golden Capmarker is the site of a semaphore station, and the castle at Corfemarker is a key presence in the book.

"Over all, the long arm of the Popes reached out to punish and reward; the Church Militant remained supreme. But by the middle of the twentieth century widespread mutterings were making themselves heard. Rebellion was once more in the air . . ."


The title alludes to the stately and melancholy dance, the pavane, the book being divided thematically into measures and a coda.After a brief Prologue explaining the back-story, the stories are:
  • "The Lady Margaret" — a lonely steam haulier meets a friend from his past;
  • "The Signaller" — an apprentice semaphore operator is assigned to a remote station;
  • "The White Boat" (not in all editions) — a discontented fisher girl is obsessed with a mysterious yacht;
  • "Brother John" — a monk becomes disaffected by the practices of the Inquisition;
  • "Lords and Ladies" — a woman's bitter memories are evoked at the deathbed of the haulier from the first story, who is her uncle;
  • "Corfe Gate" — an aristocrat, the daughter of the central female character in "Lords and Ladies", is involved in a regional rebellion.
  • The "Coda" is set some years after the events of the final stories, and centres on the son of the seneschal to the female aristocrat from "Corfe Gate".


Possible influence

The notion of using a sophisticated semaphore system to communicate over long distances was later used by Terry Pratchett in his Discworld novels, particularly Going Postal, in which it is called 'clacks'. The technology described is not very similar, Pavane having been written before general use of digital computers, or even facsimile transmission, and using two arms like the Napoleonic War coastal semaphores, whereas the clacks anticipate digital computing, as does "Hex", the amusing computer at Unseen University.

Similar timelines

There are two different traditions in subsequent alternate history fiction that have resulted from the counterfactual victory of the Spanish Armada over Elizabethan England in 1588. In one strand, Spanish domination is emphasised, and Spain survives an imperial power and retardant on much technological progress. Two examples of such fiction are John Brunner's Times Without Number and Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia.

In the other strand of alternate history fiction, it is Catholic ideological and institutional domination over England and Western Europe which is the chief beneficiary from the suppression of the Protestant Reformation. Kingsley Amis' The Alteration and John Whitbourn's A Dangerous Energy (1991) and To Build Jerusalem (1995) both share this central premise with Pavane, with the effects of technological retardation also apparent. However, these novels depict such worlds' divergence point from our own as being attributable to earlier sixteenth century events than the arrival of the Spanish Armada, and their specific contingencies are described below.

Of the two Spanish hegemony novels, Brunner's book was written at the same time as Roberts' and shares its historical divergence point, positing a successful Spanish Armada, which invaded Elizabethan England in 1588. However, Brunners' alternate history is Spanish-dominated, rather than Catholic-dominated, as Roberts' is.

Moreover, time travel exists in its alternate universe, and the Time Society, of which one Don Alvarado is a member, strives to protect the integrity of its version of alternate history, and there are no supernatural elements within its storyline, as there are within Roberts'. Ultimately, the Time Society fails, due to the disappearance of the English Catholic "Earl of Barton" who insured the success of the Armada in their world.

Turtledove's later book can be characterised as being written in an opposite vein, being set in an alternate 1598, and depicting an England which within a decade of being defeated and occupied is already rebounding and plotting to throw off the Spanish yoke.

Kingsley Amis' The Alteration fits into the second cited tradition of alternate history fiction related to Catholic hegemony, although its divergence point occurs earlier in the sixteenth century, when Catherine of Aragon and Arthur Tudor have a child, later "Stephen II", from their short-lived marriage, precipitating a usurpation attempt from Henry the Abominable (otherwise known as Henry VIII, and a "Holy Victory" that led to Catholic theocratic ascendancy within the contemporary "English Isles" in 1976. There is even an alternate Pavane entitled Galliard mentioned in the novel, where "Schismatics abducted Elizabeth Tudor and raised her as one of their own."

In his two novels, A Dangerous Energy (1991) and To Build Jerusalem (1996), John Whitbourn depicts another Catholic-dominated, technologically retrograde England, although, as with The Alteration, the sixteenth century divergence point from our own world occurs somewhat earlier than the arrival of the Spanish Armada, in 1562. In our world, Elizabeth I recovered from a severe bout of smallpox that almost killed her. In the above novels, she died from that same infection, and her feckless cousin Mary Queen of Scots took over her throne as "Mary II", which meant that England reverted to Catholicism, this time permanently in Whitbourn's timeline. In this world, psionic abilities are possible, and the Catholic Church is far more benign and well-intentioned than it is within the worlds of Pavane and The Alteration.

External links

  • Pavane Del Rey Online excerpt, Prologue and part of The Lady Margaret.
  • Pavane Infinity Plus review.
  • Pavane Uchronia: The Alternate History List detailed summary and international bibliography.



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