It was a dark and stormy night in Elizabethan England, a night of driving rain and howling wind, God save the mark! when even the stately oaks bowed their great heads and giant ash trees clawed with spidery fingers at the tempest, duck ponds and horse-troughs were lashed into foam, chimbley pots toppled on the heads of honest citizens, staring owls clung to their perches with difficulty, and broom-riding witches circled crazily over blasted heaths, stacked and waiting in vain for clearance to land, Steeple Bumpstead was whirled away leaving a gaping hole in the middle of Essex, cows and domestic animals were overturned, slates and washing flew every which way, and stout constables, their lanthorns awash, kept out of the way of sturdy beggars and thanked God they were rid of a knave, leaded casements rattled in stately Tudor homes, causing the noble inhabitants to give thanks for roaring fires and bumpers of mulled posset what time they brooded darkly about sunspots, global warming, and the false forecasts of Master Michael Fishe, he o’ the isobars, who had predicted only light airs gentle as zephyrs blowing below the violets, would you believe it, while out yonder, in lonely hamlet and disintegrating hovel, the peasantry scratched their fleas and gnawed lumps of turnip and blamed it on the Almighty (poor churls, what did they know of warm fronts and depressions o’er Iceland?) or on the hag next door, her wi’ the Evil Eye and black familiar Grimalkin and devilish spells, curse her, and wagged their unkempt heads as haystacks and livestock crashed through their thatches, and asked each other in fearful whispers whether such raging fury of the elements portended the end of the world, or the Second Coming, or another bloody wet week, and agreed that it was alle happenynge, gossip, and where would it end?Well, that takes care of the weather, and before meteorologists start hunting through their almanacks for the date of this monumental tempest, we shall tell them that it befell on a certain February 2—but make no mention of the year, save that it was sometime between the foundation of Kiev University and the discovery of Spitzbergen, and they can make what they will of that, my masters. Why such reticence? Because the moment a romantic story-teller starts committing himself to actual years, and similar pretensions to strict historical fact, his character is gone, being at the mercy of nit-picking critics who will take gloating delight in pointing out (for example) that Attila the Hun couldn’t possibly have studied Monteverdi’s second madrigal book, because it hadn’t been published in his day, see? Nor were pretzels available in the ’45 Rebellion. Out upon them, pedants.Another reason is that many of the principal characters in our little moral social fantasy wouldn’t have known what year it was anyway, they being carefree primitives chiefly concerned with sheer survival, clobbering their neighbours, armed robbery, animal (other people’s animals) husbandry, protection racketeering, arson, kidnapping, irregular warfare, and general mischief, all of which, being natural poets, they described as “shifting for a living.” Now and then they pondered about which religion they ought to belong to, inevitably deciding that on the whole they’d let the hereafter take care of itself, thus freeing themselves for any amount of boozing, guzzling, dicing, hunting, racing, and swiving, this last being a popular pastime of the period, and still carried on today under a variety of names.Indeed, they were a stark and ignorant lot, and if you’d asked them what day it was, it wouldn’t have occurred to them to reply “February the second, good neighbour”; they would more probably have responded with “Candlemass, ye iggerant booger,” because that is how they talked, and they were used to reckoning by their old Christian festivals in that happy, far-off time when there were no desk diaries or wall-planners (though even then the precocious Flemish schoolboy, P. P. Rubens, may well have been making furtive sketches of sporty nudes in his exercise books, in anticipation of the Playboy and Pirelli calendars).Not that everyone was backward and unlettered in Good Queen Bess’s day, mind you. Sir John Harington, for one, was a man of much learning and science, but since at the time our story opens he had just installed the world’s first flush toilets in Her Majesty’s palace of Richmond, and the royal apartments were ankle-deep in water, with little Tudor plumbers going hairless, hammering pipes and crying “Good lack!” and “Where’s the stopcock, missus?,” he had more to do than worry about what year it was. He plays no part in our tale, by the way, but has been introduced merely to provide a little period colour, like the scenes and characters in the next couple of pages. Irrelevant they may be, but they are familiar and therefore may be useful in evoking the spirit of the Elizabethan Age and letting the audience know what is going on behind the scenes of our tale.So . . . on that tempestuous night of February 2, 15––, when Merrie Englande was being sore buffeted by storm, and the plumbers were warning a distraught Sir John that he was flying in the face of nature and the union wouldn’t let them mop up . . .In the Mermaid smoker, two playwrights were engaged in a game of envious one-upmanship, with Marlowe snidely advising his rival to get out of drama and into poetry (“because your Saturday-morning serials are a real dead end, I mean, three parts of Henry VI, for God’s sake, people are beginning to ask what next, Kemp and Somers Meet Henry VI?
”) and Shakespeare was countering with back-handed compliments about Dr. Faustus
(“loved the costumes, Chris”) while wondering if he dared hi-jack the character of the grizzled old fatso at the next table, who was being extremely coarse and funny, and didn’t look like the kind who would sue . . .and at Richmond, Gloriana herself was standing for her portrait to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, in a raging temper and a tent-like gown of cloth of gold with enormous winged sleeves which she was convinced would make her look like a vulture about to take flight,* wherefore she would crop his ears, by God, and that went for that knock-kneed rascal Harington, too, him and his gang of splashing tatterdemalions wi’ their honeyed promises and leave it to us, your grace, shalt have no need o’ chamber-pots hereafter, forsooth! And that reminded her, that pack of upstarts in her Parliament needed instruction “not to speak every one what he listeth—your privilege is Aye
.” And it had better be Aye, or there would be a few by-elections pending . . .while in his cabinet her minister, Lord Burleigh, was wrapping cold towels round his head as he struggled to make sense of a list of “those malefactoures of the name of Graham who doo infeste oure Skottische border,” and finding it no easier because his agents’ reports spelled the name variously Graeme, Grime, Grim, Gremme, Groom, and even Greene, godamercy, and wishing he had a computer . . .a convenience which had not yet been invented, although had Burleigh but known it, the next best thing was in the office across the way, functioning smoothly between the ears of Sir Francis Walsingham, the original “M” who ran Elizabeth’s espionage and dirty tricks operations, and was so secretive that if he wanted a new feather for his hat, he would buy three separate pieces at three different shops and sew them together in the dark. It cost him a fortune in sticking-plaster, and his bedraggled headgear cracked up the mocking gallants in Paul’s Walk, but as Sir Francis dryly observed, you don’t need to be in Esquire
to combat the devildoms of Spain . . .which at that very moment were preoccupying King Philip II in the Escurial, where he was scoffing pastry (as was his wont) and planning that second forgotten Armada which came to grief in 1597 in an unforeseen hurricane (loyal Master Fishe strikes again!) and wondering if it might not be a better idea to build holiday villas on the Costa del Sol and bankrupt the heretics by luring them into time-share deals . . .while in Edinburgh another monarch, James VI (shortly to be James Numero Uno), was hugging himself with glee as he conned the proofs of his new sure-fire best-seller, Daemonologie, or Alle Ye Ever Wantit Tae Ken Aboot Witchcraft But Were Feart Tae Speer
, a natural for the MacBooker—a confidence not shared by Master Napier down the street, who was wondering gloomily if his projected treatise on logarithms would even be noticed by the reviewers . . .but at least he knew they would work, which was more than could be said for his fellow-savant in distant Pisa of Italy, where Galileo wasn’t sure whether he’d invented the thermometer or not (that at least is how we interpret a cryptic entry in a learned work which states that sometime in the 1590s “Galileo invented thermometer [uncertain]”) . . .and in the far-off Caribbean a splendid old pirate was being laid to rest in his hammock by grieving shipmates who could not guess, as the deep sea swallowed him off Nombre de Dios, that far from being dead he would live for ever . . .And while all these important things were happening, give or take a year or two, elsewhere an ingenious cobbler was creating the first stiletto heels, Henri Quatre was deciding that Paris was worth a Mass, an English eccentric named Fitch was removing his boots after walking
much of the way home from Malaya, the game of cricket was receiving its first mention in print, an excited alchemist was identifying a new element and dreaming of Nobel prizes as he christened it “zink” (all unaware that Paracelsus had beaten him to it by half a century), Sir Walter Raleigh was encountering poisoned arrows on the Orinoco, a French physician diagnosed whooping-cough, an absent-minded Italian composed the first opera and promptly lost the score, religious persecution reached a point where autos da fe
were causing industrial pollution and Jesuits were being wait-listed for priests’ holes, Japan banned missionaries and invaded Korea, and English vagrants were making a bee-line for the new parish workhouses in the ill-founded hope that these would offer a relaxing change from delving, spinning, swinking, and being turfed out by brutal landlords.None of which really matters to our story, except as a brief erratic survey of the distant background, and to set our narrative tone, which may already have convinced the reader that he has not stumbled on a supplement to the Cambridge Modern History. Far from it: this is just a tale, and if it takes occasional liberties of style and speech, who cares? If Shakespeare can have clocks striking in Caesar’s Rome, and give his plebs the street-smart backchat of Tudor London, a poor romantick can surely have similar licence. If we seem to treat history lightly in this regard, that is not to say we are false to it; mad fancy may go hand in hand with sober fact so long as the two remain distinct. So, in confidence that you’ll spot the difference, we return to that wild Candlemass night and our story, which is at last getting under way in a desolate waste on the Anglo-Scottish frontier, that blood-red Borderland where the laws of shrewd Queen Bess and canny King Jamy do not run, except for cover, and the motto of the wild frontier tribes (those carefree primitives to whom we referred earlier) is “Thou shalt want ere I want”—a widely held philosophy in any age and clime, recently imputed to the Thatcher and Blair governments, and to trade unions by employers (and vice versa), but only the old borderers were honest and dumb enough to inscribe it on their coats of arms, holler it aloud in their cups, and scribble it on the Roman Wall when the Wardens weren’t looking.*See the National Portrait Gallery, and sympathise with Her Majesty
Copyright © 2008 by George MacDonald Fraser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.