Chronicles of King Edward’s Privy Chamber Gentlemen.
Part the Second….Governing Passions
By J McDonnell Murphy
1598 – Lent Term
She opens her eyes.
She’s propped up by several pillows. Her head rests slightly to the left. It’s still. It’s black.
Draped in this lightless darkness, soft as velvet, warm as the womb, comforting as mother’s milk, she listens…
Faint sounds echo eerily…near…far…trailing off into the distance; footsteps; laughter; shouts. They fade away to nothing.
She turns one way then another. She harrumphs. She’s awake. She wants the world to know that she’s awake. She knows she’ll not go back to sleep.
She’s learned to love secretive night as once she loved the company of men. That thought amuses her. Inside her head she smiles. In her time, she was the greatest dancer for the dance. Night after endless night handsome men stepped out of line to dance in step with her…
No more: dances are done. She’s cloistered in bed: observant, alert, alone.
The night is solitary. Like her it’s unattached. With this dark companion she shares the wakefulness of old age.
She hears the wind.
Though her eyesight isn’t what it was, her hearing is acute as ever. She’s alert to every sound: a spider-queen at the centre of a web of lies that’s become her life. She senses the merest tremor on the gossamer spirals that hold her in her place.
‘Why’s he limping back from Ireland… he’s no place here… back in my life.’
She’s annoyed and curious – annoyed he’s coming back, curious as to how he’ll be. How’ll he look? What will he have to say?
‘What does he want?’
It’s is a reflexive judgement: all motives are suspect.
She considers her suspicions.
As there’s nothing to see, there’s nothing to distract her.
Suspicions shroud the world she inhabits. Here, detached from events, she deciphers the ambiguities.
In the formless safety of her private thoughts she gives her governing passions play. She allows them free rein in her imagination. They’re allowed to stroke the soft nap of her disinterested intellect.
As masturbation contrives lone orgasm so her intellectual game contrives her solitary pleasure. She bathes naked with her sequestered thoughts in remote musings of myriad possibilities.
Later, in her mind she marshals her ideas; she inspects her observations; she parades them across fields of rhetorical argument. They’re like the liveried guards she cautiously eyes from her privy chamber – a statement of her authority….
And, as with her guards, she suits her abstractions to the occasion for which they serve. She then aimlessly considers how they’ll play out in day’s reality rather as if she’s humming and hawing over a change of clothes or clucking uncertainly over a new uniform for an old retainer. That will work. That won’t do. What will they say to that or this?
The mind-games give her a satisfying sense of omnipotence.
She’s toiled for forty years in the political vineyards to savour the smooth delights of these vintage years. She tells herself she’s traded the fizz of sparkling youth for the subtle complexities of age’s wisdom….
She’s vain enough to want to believe this elegant conceit is true but too intelligent not to recognise it’s false.
She pulls a pillow from behind her and throws it down the bed.
‘Men try to have it both ways. Why can’t I have it both ways? Sweet Jesu, men have it both ways… my father did…’
Men…always back to men and what they want from her.
Another disapproving harrumph sets off a coughing spasm.
‘Men trample across my life as if they own it.’
She’s wide awake. Another harrumph
‘I hate men.’
In the dark she doesn’t believe a word of what she says. But darkly wise she knows others will over-hear and will believe.
What they’ve deduced she’ll later squeeze from them like juice from bruised fruit.
Sooner or later to feed their own ambitions they’ll slake her thirst drop by drop with their sour dew. It’s nectar to her at her age.
She’ doesn’t pursue that thought. She closes her eyes
‘In private they hope I’m old enough to believe anything they say in public.’
In public she knows they say anything they think might please her.
Their flattery is hollow. It always disappoints. But at her age there’s nothing much else left that’s worthy of belief. She may as well believe in flattery. It holds a certain charm in an uncertain world.
‘He’s too old for this voyage. He must have gone mad.’
Once again she turns from one side to another. He eyes are wide open. In old age she sleeps less. Sleepless night isn’t fearful: no, rather it seems this wakefulness has crept upon her unnoticed.
She can’t remember it being different.
Yet she knows it once was different. She knows she slept soundly through the alarums and crises of her youth. She slept as soundly through the uncertainties of her certain middle age. She can’t recall not sleeping.
That’s why her sleeplessness is puzzling.
In the dark she considers the conundrum. He always said she preferred an insoluble puzzle to a soluble problem. She can hear his voice in her head. It makes her smile. Tomas Ormond….mazes in Chelsea Place, knot gardens and adventure. She almost ran away with him once. She gives a little laugh.
The curtains deaden the sound. It goes unheard by the listening ears about her private rooms.
Her thoughts turn this way and that as she turns from side to side.
She didn’t sleep the night she waited to hear news from Fotheringay Castle. No, she couldn’t sleep then. None could sleep while Mary Stewart slept soundly in her bed, dreaming her ambitious dreams.
England was no place for two queens.
Was it her sister who’d said that to her? Another Mary…Mary’s a luckless name for her family.
She clucks her disapproval.
She didn’t sleep for many nights after they’d done the dreadful deed.
The execution of her royal cousin still profoundly disturbs her. But her diplomatic conscience assures her it wasn’t her fault. How could she have known she’d be disobeyed?
Why’s she thinking about it this? She’s promised herself never to think about it; she mustn’t think about it. Why’s she dwelling on the dead past? Leave it to bury itself. But it’s the dead past that’s taken ship to London that’s stirred up these confused memories…just when everything seemed to have settled into its proper place. She bites her lip.
‘Why’s he coming back now?’
This time she’s speaks loud enough to be heard. Her question begs another question – who’s the ‘he’ of whom she speaks?
They’ll all think she’s talking of Lord Essex. Her young Heracles – another Robin perched inside her gilded cage. She considers her young cockerel. He’ll be strutting about Lent Court with his friends in fancy dress. He’s too cock-sure; he crows too loudly.
Perhaps she should caponise her prince?
Abruptly, she drops the thought….
She smirks. She’s thinking of another way…to pluck them all of their fine feathers by way of religion. It’s time they gave up something for Lent. She gives a little laugh.
That’s it that’s what she’ll do…..
She uses her fingers like scissors cutting along the edge of her sheets. She’s almost crying with barely repressed laughter…
It gradually subsides…she’ll save it for later…after chapel…
Inside her head Essex bows to her…She’s gracious…
….He makes her feel young…as if the years have rolled back…like those sunny days in the Tower when Robin Dudley….Leicester dead and gone…and now another Robin…altogether different…
…Tomas Ormond is returning to court. She can’t remember when she last saw him…
That’s a cheap deceit. She can. It was April 1583. She told him to go home to Ireland and not to return until he’d caught a bigger fish than his father. It seemed an innocent remark to all about her. But Tomas knew what she meant. He was hurt by it. She meant him to be hurt. How long ago was that? Fourteen years? It can’t be. She refuses to think any more about time.
No one knows about Tomas and Elizabeth. No one needs to know. No one shall know…just as no one can see her here in her bed.
No one can see her brown teeth, sugar coated with sweet decay; no one can see her wispy grey hair. No one can see the scars left on her alabaster skin by the cruel pox that almost killed her. No one can see into her heart. No one, not God Himself, can fathom what she believes or thinks.
That’s what she chooses to believe here, alone, in the dark.
God and religion…they’re both more trouble than they’re worth. In the blackness, as this heresy crosses her mind, simultaneously, she crosses herself…in case He can see.
‘Good Lord, deliver us from vainglory.’
Her prayer is oddly comforting.
‘An earnest prayer sincerely said promises salvation.’
Who said that? She’s unsure. Wasn’t it one her worthy sister’s aphorisms? She can’t remember…Her short-sighted sister…long dead, long buried. They were never close. They belonged to different worlds; different mothers; different religions.
Elizabeth snorts contemptuously…
She decides: what the Supreme Governor of the Church says goes…on earth…if not in…
She cuts short her consideration of the remit of her religious writ.
She stares wide-eyed into the dark. The blackness seems to be alive: it moves around her. She’s amused by this optical illusion.
She blinks again. She goes to rubs her eyes. She resists the temptation. It only makes the itching worse. Her eyes are stinging. She scrunches them up and then opens them wide. That’s a little better. She repeats the action again and again. To take her mind off the itching she starts quickly declining Latin nouns in her head…thoughtlessly she mouths
‘Regina, Regina, Reginam, Reginae, Reginae, Regina….’
No one can see her black eyes with their bloodshot whites.
The white lead powder that applies perfect composure to her iconic image has inflamed her eyes and skin. She’s a martyr to rashes. Her sore eyes often water. But like her wasted gums, eaten away in constant service to her regal tastes, these symptoms of decay are visible only to the special few who guard Elizabeth the Queen.
She squints into the dark trying to survey her bed. It’s her secret world, full of her secrets. It’s a world unknown to her adoring public.
Her people glimpse their bejewelled queen shimmering in distance. Eternally theirs, she might be heaven’s queen. Like heaven’s queen she’s a virgin…but this virgin rules God’s kingdom here on earth.
Of course all this is a mirage. But it’s what they see and seeing they believe.
‘He’s always in the wrong place at the right time. So why’s he come?’
The loudness of her voice giving voice to her thoughts startles her. She’s suddenly awake in a different way. She wants to get up.
She knows if she pulls the heavy curtains around her bed she’ll not be left alone.
Then she’ll be the queen. Like the sun, when the flashy brilliant that’s Gloriana rises, all must rise.
She sighs heavily.
That once was the very element of monarchy that she loved. Now, its onerous rituals of duty and obligation leave her cold.
She’s weary of her image.
She prefers to be alone like this. Here behind the curtains unseen and unseeing she can ponder her many thoughts, her many fears and her many decisions. She can concentrate her intellect upon reassembling the pieces of the puzzle that her life’s become to her… try to make sense…perhaps…puzzles, conundrums and mazes…Tomas Ormond.
‘Damnation and Christ’s wounds will he not leave me alone?’
Before she can control her temper she’s pulled the bed-curtains.
Her bedchamber door is thrown open. Two middle aged women rush in deeply curtsying to the old woman sitting on the edge of her bed swinging her thin scrawny legs.
‘Damn puzzles; damn mazes; damn patience; damn men.’
‘Was your majesty dreaming?’
The old woman’s face crinkles as she dissolves into loud laughter.
‘The Irish will be the death of me….they’ve chased me all my life and now I’m running out of time I’m running into them all over again.’
The two women exchange a look. Its knowingness silently speaks meaningfully of old age and dementia.
Elizabeth considers them and their looks.
‘Christ’s eyes I can see through your threadbare expressions. Get out; out I say, get out. Jesu, I swear I’d rather stare Death in the face than look at you two. Out, away, go on, away: Get ye to a sermon…’
She looks about. She finds a shoe which she deftly flings across the room. The two women are gone in a rustle of taffeta.
She calls after them
‘Where are the young ones? I want the young ones.’
Her voice holds a note of melancholy.
The two older women stand in the privy chamber looking back at their royal mistress. The queen’s intemperate behaviour is as legend as her virginity. The queen appears to be crying. They’re too embarrassed to do anything more. They’ll send in some of the younger women from the outer chamber.
The queen is left alone in the bedchamber. It’s a relief. She bites her lip. She can hear the hullaballoo
‘The queen’s awake….the queen’s awake….’
She’s still sitting on the bed, swinging her legs like a little girl. The young ones…the young ones…what‘s happened to her?
‘He loves me, he loves me not.’
She was young. In her mind’s eye she can see herself sitting in the Italian rose garden at Hatfield House pulling petals from a flower.
It brings tears to her eyes.
Why? After all these years…why has she remembered that?
She looks about the bed for a handkerchief.
She catches her reflection. For a second she’s frozen in fascinated horror. Is that her? Is that what’s she’s become? She was young; now she’s that…old…
Her cheeks are wet with tears. Inexplicably she wants….she needs…to see Tomas again.
‘The devil’s breath gnaws at me old bones.’
The misty puffs of his breath become one with the freezing fog.
It hangs around a frozen wasteland of snow. It hasn’t lifted. It’s now a little after one in the afternoon. It’s dull enough to be the end of day.
‘It won’t lift now.’
Once again his words launch misty spray into the biting cold air. It seems everything is frozen in its place.
He might have also frozen to the ground but for his exertions with the shovel. He’s clearing a pathway. As he shovels the snow it cannot easily determined where he shovels from or to…He shovels away the snow that’s blanketed everything around. In some places, it’s three feet deep.
He’s glad the wind has died down even if the fog hangs about.
He wears a leather cap. It’s got flaps that cover his ears. Each time he fills a shovel with snow he casts it carelessly sometimes over to his right sometimes to his left. He ploughs steadily on, stopping now and then to take stock. He calculates his whereabouts relative to the tiny white stone chapel that’s behind him.
It’s snow-thatched: the wind has blasted snow right up the walls; it covers the Romanesque arch; it’s frozen to the door. In the snow-scape the chapel has acquired the rounded appearance of a whited sepulchre – which in its way is appropriate, since, inside the church the recently arrived priest, who warms by a fire, is watching the words of St Matthew’s Gospel, glow and burst into flames and then curl to ashes…just a few lines are left on the side…he can just make out
“….Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres…” and
“and of all uncleanness….”
The words mean nothing to him…he kicks the remnant scraps into the brightly burning fire. The fire’s set in the nave. There’s probably some prohibition against this in canon law. Though he’ll not let anyone into the secret, he’s set the fire with pages from the Great Bible. There’s probably another prohibition agin that. Prohibitions set limits to be tested….
God’s word burns brightly; it’s blazed a mighty good fire. As none hereabouts reads English the pages won’t be missed one way or the other. The remains of the leather bound bible lay on the altar: the good book has made a noble sacrifice….
The priest is warm…warm enough to have other thoughts…
Outside the priest’s parishioner looks back towards the chapel. He’s also thinking about the fire.
His cap is tied under his chin; he’s wearing a dark brown woollen jerkin and hose. He’s on two pairs of thick wool stockings and has wrapped rough cloth rags over his shoes.
He’s lucky to have the clothes to keep the cold at bay…though he hardly feels lucky out here today. He hardly feels anything anymore.
His face, red with exertion, is lined and weather-beaten. He coughs and splutters as he shovels. He might be sixty. In fact he’s barely thirty…an age he shares with his master, the new priest. Although both share peasant parentage and a birth-year, the priest looks half his age.
Their birth-stars have cast them into lives as different as lives can be.
Neither‘d waste time to divine reasons for their respective lots. Life is what it is and they’re who they are. It’s hard fact. It’s no need of further explanation.
Our capped crude-spader has obviously been at his shovelling for some time. He’s visibly tired. He’s no longer making much progress. The snow is hard-packed and difficult to move…. As a result his shovelling has become little more than ritual….in that it echoes what the priest does….if not exactly what goes on inside this priest’s head……
Inside the chapel the fire has fired his blood and his imagination…he can’t help himself…he’s resentful, bitter as the bitter cold, to find himself bitterly alone in this frozen backwater….without companions and …
He shivers with excitement and cold at the same time…he’s thinking of other fires burning…the burning desires he remembers…the white thighs of the pale virgin nuns…his hands slipping up towards their golden bushes which he soon had burning hot with slippery desires they never knew they owned….he recalls how he made them squirm…with wet passion, sucking, licking, lapping at his huge cock whilst he made them utter terrible profanities…women, two or three naked with each other and with him exploring the farthest reaches of sexual pleasures, pleasures of the palest flesh…they were changed for ever…
His imagination is suddenly overwhelmed with flashing images…he can’t help himself…these are the images this priest worships….he pulls his engorged cock from his hose. He strokes its fat length. It’s slick and sticky….He openly masturbates.
He’s both bold and yet cautious…a blend of virtue and vice…desecrating the holy place makes the sin all the more exciting…He looks about nervously as if he might be being watched…might be caught in the act…It never crosses his mind that God might see this flagrant display and disapprove…God doesn’t have a place in this priest’s heart or mind….
His heart is only in the task in hand….his licks his wet hand and smiles. There’s semen on the stone flags of the nave…he rubs his shoe over it…it smears the stone…if only the nuns were here they’d lick it up… like bitches on heat…heat…heat…he shivers…he must add something more to the fire….a wider smile… as he eyes the bible on the altar…
Outside, Martin shudders. He stops once again to look about. The white trees are coated in frost. It’s pretty to look at. It’s not so pretty to be out in.
‘I’m eaten alive with the cold.’
He spits. His frothy spittle freezes on the snow. He drops the shovel. He’s had enough. He shudders again.
‘Begorra, let the fecking priest dig the fecking snow himself.’
His curses are deadened by the fog.
As he utters them two shadows emerge into the freshly cleared path.
‘Bless us and save us, mistresses, ‘tis plain wicked out here. You ladies should be home by fire and all.’
Two grey-haired old women, linking, almost propping up each other, dressed in drab green and dull grey, are only a few feet from the man. They wear linen bands wrapped over their ears to which they’ve pinned their caps. They look almost like nuns. They don’t look alike. One of the sisters has a scarlet birthmark on one side of her face… though the linen bands hide the full extent of her disfigurement. Despite that, even in her old age, her delicate features possess a haunting beauty.
The women and the man greet each other
‘T Dia duit’
‘Dia is Muir duit.’
They speak these salutations one after the other. From them you’d know that you’re in Ireland. The man closes the exchange in his heavily accented English, – the dominant tongue these days in the Pale of Munster and about Youghal.
‘Mary be with you ‘n all.’
The women pass-by somehow, their damp dresses dragging up the fresh snow, stepping into the un-cleared snow, making their way with difficulty, before disappearing back into the fog.
The man watches. He shouts after them.
‘Take care, will ye now.’
They make no reply. They’ve never much to say for themselves.
The man knows that they’re women from the Inchiquin Castle where the old countess lives. The two women must be in their sixties or seventies. It’s a good age by measure of the times but they’ve nothing on the Lady of Inchiquin, Katherine, dowager countess of Desmond. She’s generally believed to be older than a century by thirty or more years.
She’s still spry enough to climb a ladder to pick cherries from the special tree in her orchard every summer. It’s little short of miraculous…perhaps unnatural…perhaps it’s witchcraft….it’s whispered that…..
The man’s watched these two make this journey in all weathers, hail and rain, storm and sun. It’s a weekly ritual as reliable as Mass on Sunday. Each Friday they walk this way to visit their sister’s grave.
The snow has obliterated every common feature that might identify it, this is a graveyard.
It’s used by castle and village alike. All life hereabouts ends up in here. There’s an end to it.
He looks after them but it’s too cold to hang around for their return. He makes his way back to the church. As he does another man emerges from the fog wrapped in a gown with a fur collar and trim. The two exchange a few heated words.
‘Will ye not be finishing digging out the path then?’
‘I will not be God.’
‘You will so.’
‘Sure if its digging you’re after be doing the digging yerself.’
‘Be Jazus Martin what about your man here in the church. We’ve got to put him down before he turns.’
‘He’ll not be turning in this cold and I’ll not be digging.’
‘He needs a Christian burial.’
‘Well he’s nowhere else to go. He can wait on. Sure if I’m out here another minute it’s the two of us ye’ll be burying.’
It’s obvious to both of them that Martin is right. They walk back in silence to the church.
Once inside, they both stand shivering by the open fire. In it there’s a pot. It contains a broth made of bones and barley. In the cold it’s a feast fit for a king.
The two men share the single wooden plate and wooden spoon. They eat without ceremony or manners. They don’t speak. They stand. They pass the spoon and plate between them.
They’re no pews here in the stone chapel. It’s too poor a place to grace with chairs and such. At the far end of the nave, before the stone altar with its cross and candlesticks, there’s an old refectory table. Laid out on it is a body. It’s a man. He properly dressed in his winter clothes. His flesh is blue-white. There’s a white linen square from the altar covering his face. He’s passed being cold; passed hunger and beyond company. He’s been laid out here a week. Though it’s too cold for maggots to feed the air about him is sickly sweet.
The diners ignore the smell.
Once they’ve finished they turn to him.
‘Let’s put him in the snow for now. Once the earth is soft we can dig him in proper like.’
‘Now sure that’s a great idea.’
Martin adventures back out into the graveyard to fetch his shovel. As he walks along the path he sees the two women coming towards him.
‘Heaven above you’ve been here too long. It’s your own death ye’ll catch.’
They say nothing but pass on by as before.
Martin finds his shovel and turns and walks after them. He sees them disappear into the Irish mist. They’re just as mysterious. They’re much talked of in the village. The two women interest him.
As he reaches the church door, the priest, in his fur trimmed gown, joins him. They both look after the women.
‘Sure, I’ve never known such devotion amongst a family for a dead sister. It speaks well of the village.’
That’s when the priest notices the velvet purse that’s been dropped on the ground. He picks it up. Martin is looking at him. The priest looks inside. There’s some silver and a golden angel.
‘I’ll return it to them.’
He makes to follow and changes his mind.
‘I’ll do it later. Here ye are Martin, this is providential, so take yourself four groat here. I’ll tell the ladies I gave it ye for funeral rites.’
‘I’m not sure as I should be taking their money sir.’
There something is his tone that arouses the priest’s curiosity. He’s only been in the village a few weeks. But he already knows these two women; he‘s observed their pilgrimage to the graveside several times. They never come into the chapel; they’re never at Sunday mass.
‘What house in the village do they live in Martin?’
‘Oh no sir, they don’t live in the village at all. Not at all, no indeed, they’re not our women no, not local women, not at all. They came here, oh they came, my mother says, more than five and twenty years ago.’
The priest is silently amused.
He speaks out of turn
‘Sure to God Martin if quarter of a hundred years isn’t long enough, then how long need ye live here to pass as local?’
Martin is unable to answer this question as he can’t rightly put a number on it since he can barely count to twenty by himself. But commonsense and his mother tell him that quarter of a hundred, whatever that is in years, isn’t long enough.
It’s clear to the priest that out here in the back of beyond commonsense is as thin as the leather on the soles of his shoes.
‘Why did they come here? Why come here of all the places in God’s earth?’
….The priest speaks with some feeling. He’s been banished to this living by way of punishment for clerical misconduct.
There were accusations of inappropriate behaviour with a couple of nuns. Well, there were more than the two nuns and more was spilled than communion wine…..
The nuns belonged to the revered Irish order of St Brigit. It’s fitfully survived the holocaust of dissolution by grace and favour of the earls of Desmond. The priest had been, until a few weeks ago, chaplain to the earl of Desmond’s household and he was therefore also chaplain to the house of nuns kept by his grace.
The fifteen or so nuns lived in one of the hunting lodges on the earl’s estates near Cork. It’s a gentle enough existence for gentlewomen of good blood and without a husband. A contemplative career is often happier than an unhappy marriage. And there’s more to contemplate than the mysteries of faith in the lands of the Desmond earls.
His misdemeanours would have been unnoticed if he hadn’t refused the abbess her share of his services. She took matters into her own hands when he pushed her hand away.
She wasn’t to be spurned so easily. She told the earl that one of her sisters was with child and that hers wasn’t by all accounts an immaculate conception although a priest certainly had a hand in the business.
The scandalised earl sent his chaplain to the farthest reach of Geraldine patronage….Inchiquin…a back-water not far from the River Blackwater, where coarse fishing thrives and coarser traditions of gutting and filleting enemies survives…..
….All this is still fresh in the priest’s mind as he stands holding the purse…pennies from heaven.
Martin knows nothing much of his priest’s past. He and the villagers are glad to have someone who can marry and bury them…and say the Mass.
‘Came here from where?’
‘Youghal they says…after it were sacked by the Desmond…they came to shelter here in Inchiquin. They say’s they’re kin to the Geraldine. Three sisters then there were…Martha, Mary and Meg. It’s Meg that’s out there in the grave.’
The priest has heard enough but it isn’t easy to staunch the flow once Martin’s has starts a conversation.
‘They say they’re wicked women them sisters both.’
‘Wicked in what way?’
Despite his better judgement the priest encourages Martin
Martin continues in a whisper, out of respect for the chapel,
‘Oh ways sir you can’t imagine. Such wicked women…all three whores…all three murderers…butcher’s daughters…they butchered men for money so they say.’
‘Who says? Who here might know this if they’re strangers?’
‘Sure them up in the castle so says…up there where they’re living and all, all them say so sir. And who’s to know more than they’d be knowing now, I asks?’
‘Well what would they know? The women are as much strangers to them. Holy Saints man this it’s no more than hot gossip for a cold night.’
‘Sure then sir, have it as you will. But I tell you by St Brigit and her Holy Flame them two women ain’t at all what they appear. They don’t belong.’
The mention of St Brigit and her holy flame ignites memories. The priest finds himself getting hard. It’s quite a tribute to the flame of his desire given the freezing cold. He pulls his gown tight about him in case the disturbance in the cloth, of this man of the cloth, becomes obvious to Martin.
‘If they’re so wicked what are they doing here visiting their sister’s grave each week?’
Martin considers this. It’s not something he’s thought of before. Then slowly shaking his head he announces with a triumphant wink
‘If they serve the countess they know enough of poison and wickedness to know the truth of what is said of them.’
‘What foolishness…the countess is an ancient dowager Martin…’
‘Ancient she may be; dowager once she were but I says what old woman can ate with new-grown teeth at her age? Holy Mother of God I’m telling she has them and the growing of them is pure wicked.’
‘Oh Martin this is woman’s talk.’
‘The old countess is older than time…she lives…by magic means’
He lowers his voice
‘Drinks babies’ blood they say…loves her children….loves ‘em to death.’
Martin starts to laugh at his comic turn of phrase. He’s pleased with it. He must remember to tell his wife when he gets home tonight.
The priest considers Martin. He shakes his head smiling in disbelief.
‘By the Holy Wine what moonshine you all talk: you villagers will have me made a fool I think. Sure shut up now.’
Martin’s flow isn’t to be staunched – he clears his throat and makes to continue
‘Let it alone I says.’
He shakes his gown and dramatically pulls it back around him. Martin eyes the gesture, non-committal.
‘Before light falls for heaven’s sake, let us dig him in.’
The priest nods towards the body on the table.
Martin knows enough of gentry and their manners to know that the priest’s ‘us’ means ‘him’.
They go out together a little beyond the entrance to the church. They walk off the path and wade into virgin snow. The priest nods and points. He watches as Martin shovels away the snow.
Nothing is said. The priest is silent.
Martin takes this to be a sort of spiritual preparation. In that he betrays an optimistic nature…
Martin drags the corpse, from the church, by its feet, and rolls it over. He rolls it over the snow onto the edge and with his rag-covered foot then pushes the body down into the snow-grave. The corpse is dusted as if by powdered-sugar. One eye is open the other closed. It’s like a jester’s joke.
The priest doesn’t notice. He’s lost in his own thoughts. He’s not thinking about the dead. He’s considering the opportunities presented to him by those living in the castle. He’s turning his mind towards how to ingratiate himself up there. It’s like a prayer being answered….if it’s true. His sorts of people are living above inside Inchiquin. He must bring his special ministry to them…
When it comes to holding his place in service our priest pays little heed to religion: he’s without feeling. His education has made him vain. His experience has made him selfish. His inclination makes him ruthless.
As the last of the snow is shovelled over the body he’s smiling beatifically.
Martin stamps the snow down with his feet. Indifferently the priest makes the sign of the cross over the makeshift grave…the emptiest of empty gestures. This Christian burial, hardly worthy of its name, reveals the true nature of the priest.
Martin, unschooled in reading signs, faithfully trusts his priest is in silent prayer – mumbling some holy Latin words that ensure his dead neighbour’s eternal rest.
Both men shrug.
Martin and the priest return to the church and stand before the dying embers of the fire.
They ladle out another plate of barley broth. They share it as before.
There’s really nothing more to be said. The man’s dead. He’s buried after a fashion.
It’s a bitter ending in the bitter cold.
But one man’s ending provides another with a fresh start.
‘I’m going to be sick.’
Sean throws up on the deck. The violence of his ejaculation might lead you to believe the ship’s in a raging storm. It isn’t. It’s quiet for the Irish Sea, almost like a millpond. But Sean hasn’t found his sea-legs. And now he’s lost the contents of his stomach. He wishes he’d never set sail; he wishes he’d never seen the sea; he wishes he were dead. Before he can make another wish he throws-up once more.
‘I wish I could die.’
He rolls unto his side. He curls up almost like a child and begins to cry. This isn’t any way for a grown man to behave. But Neptune’s desert has a way of making children of the bravest. Sean moans. He retches. He moans. By now he’s vomiting bile. How many more times will he be sick? He feels as if he’s expelling his soul from his body. But he’s still alive.
This performance is wryly observed by a group of sailors and an old man.
The old man is grandly dressed in black silks and velvets with gold brocade trim. Around his neck is a gold chain. It hangs over a jewelled baldric on which are pinned three badges. He’s a prince or regal viceroy of sorts. He’s a full head of white-grey hair. He’s no hat on his head. His hair falls over his wide lace collar which is stitched with gold thread. He’s an equally finely trimmed beard. His piercing eyes command all about him. None pass by him without a bow. He looks on at Sean with an amused sympathy.
‘It was you Sean who wanted to come to see the queen.’
‘If I only knew …’
Sean can’t say more. He retches involuntarily and groans.
‘Sweet Jesus I’m dead my lord.’
‘Not at all, Sean, sure you’re only sea-sick. It will pass quicker than your life and will be as quickly forgotten.’
‘I’ll never forget this. I’ll never come home again to Ireland. I swear if I…’
His swearing is interrupted. He retches again. This time he rolls on to his back to see if it brings relief. It doesn’t. His eyes are closed
‘Good God take me.’
‘Sean, open your eyes. Open your eyes I say. Look at the stars.’
The tone commands – it commands both Sean’s attention and his compliance. He’s so used to doing as his master asks, he does so without consideration. He’s staring at the stars.
‘Can you see that one, there, no, there, see, there, on the left, look…’
The older man is by him on the deck. The ship rises on the gentle sway. It surprises the sailors on deck that the old grandee is so supple. It surprises more that he should be giving a lesson in star-gazing to his servant. Sean in his agony didn’t hear the footsteps on the deck.
‘And there the great bear, Ursus Major …follow the stars with your eyes and see if you can draw the lines in your head to join the stars together… see if you make a great bear.’
The old grandee knows this isn’t really possible but he knows enough of seasickness to know that once you concentrate on the sky your body takes the sea’s motion in its stride. After a ten minute stargazer’s guide to the sky at night Sean notices he’s stopped feeling sick.
It’s a miracle. He crosses himself. He goes to speak. The old man puts his finger to his lips.
‘Thank God the wailing has stopped.’
‘I’m sorry your lordship I shouldn’t have crossed…’
The old man grandly waves to him to silence
‘I thought I was dead.’
‘If you’d carried on much longer I’d have killed ye myself….or these fellows here would have thrown ye overboard.’
They’re both laughing: the gentle laughter that speaks of intimacy.
‘I’m sorry. I’m a fool. I feel so much better.’
‘Well then help me up you fool.’
Sean stands easily and has found his sea legs. He waves a couple of seamen to assist him. The three gently get the prince to his feet. Sean dusts him down like an old gown brought from the attic. The old man waves them all off
‘By God, you make me feel like an old lady not an old soldier, do ye hear?’
The fuss subsides.
A door open from the cabin and one of the captain’s men appears
The young man is fully on deck. He bows with an exaggerated grace. He’s obviously impressed with aristocracy.
‘Your lordship, the Captain Fitz-Anthony invites ye to dine with him. He’s asked me to escort you there.’
‘We’ll be along, we’ll be along.’
He’s waved aside. The boy’s head drops. He stands frozen in disappointment.
Ormond turns to Sean. He takes the old man’s elbow and leans towards him and whispers something. Ormond turns back to the boy
‘Of course, ye shall, ye must announce me to your captain…excellent young fellow, excellent.’
The boy’s face brightens as if a thousand candles were lit within. He turns and opens the cabin door.
‘Make way, make way, The Right Noble the earl of Ormond, The Right Noble the earl of Ormond.’
There are many gestures to accompany this flourish of titles as the boy proceeds into the cabin shouting his news to one and all.
Sean is smiling; as is Tomas Ormond…He turns to Sean
‘Thanks, Sean, thanks…that means much to him. His face is a joy.’
‘I know how much being noticed once meant to me.’
‘Well said, it’s the small kindnesses that make a great gentleman.’
Sean takes an angel from his doublet and hands to the earl
‘Give it to the lad with yer own hand, my lord, it’ll mean so much to him.’
He hesitates. He takes the coin. He shakes his head.
‘Sean the things I do to please you.’
‘Your lordship is a great prince. I serve you to make the world know you as I do.’
‘Indeed…indeed… it’s more akin to father taking guidance from his son.’
Tomas Ormond walks on after his noisy herald. Sean behind him has a puzzled expression on his face. This hints at something the old man has hinted to him before. He said something to him in while they were waiting to board the ship in Youghal. In his wretchedness he forgot about it. Now Sean wonders what he could mean.
As he goes into the cabin he passes a sign. It reads
‘Anthony O’Brien, Captain of the Mary Rose, 1546-1569.’
Idly Sean wonders if this Anthony O’Brien is the same one he was told of in Youghal. He was one of the heroes of the Desmond uprising. He refused to surrender his house to the rebels. They burnt it to the ground and Captain O’Brien in it its said; and his wife it’s said; and their three children too. The Geraldine rebels had shown no mercy to this agent of the English Queen.
The earl and he had stayed in the house next to it. It had been home to a one-time Mayor of Youghal, a man called William Annyas. He was a Jew with an unsavoury reputation for women and murder.
Sean smiles: it’s surprising how much you can find out about a place in a few days. He wasn’t normally that inquisitive. But the earl had been hunting down local information for some reason or other. Sean asked about and passed on what he knew. He’d long made it his business to take an interest the earl’s interests.
That’s why the name Anthony O’Brien has rung a bell.
He’ll ask the captain after dinner when he comes to collect his lordship from table. He may as well. After all there are only so many stars in the sky and they all look much alike to Sean. He thinks of his master’s monologue. It makes him smile. That was so like him…thoughtful but also…how does one say this of a great nobleman…well slightly serious, worthy, maybe dull…
….They’re only so many horizons any one man can appreciate. His master never seems to see enough. Sean sees only the blue…endless blue….boring blue. But then there are Ormond’s stories… his endless stories about his childhood; his adventures in the court of King Edward… the boy king…the son of old King Henry….
From those stories, well you’d hardly believe the white haired, proper old man would have led such an exciting life. He knows the queen…the queen…he knows her. He knew her from years back, when they were both young. He shared a school room with Edward; he shared the same teachers with Elizabeth; he even claimed to have served Queen Mary.
Once he told him about her wedding in Winchester Cathedral. He’d been one of King Philip’s supporters: a gentleman of the privy chamber of the Spanish king…to Sean it’s amazing, that the modest, quiet old man who gazes at stars and horizons and dozes in the afternoon sun…was by all accounts quite a player, quite the gallant: all quite amazing really.
Later, when Sean returns to the captain’s table to escort the earl back to his quarters Tomas insists he joins them for some wine. Sean is a bit embarrassed. But the captain makes nothing of it. The three make a toast to the queen.
Sean notices they’ve had salmon. He smiles. The earl isn’t much of a one for fish, not even the king of fish. Sean knows why this is…well he does and he doesn’t.
Suddenly he finds himself asking the captain
‘What do you know about Anthony O’Brien?’
The captain stops drinking and looks at him.
‘Now why’d ye be interested in him?’
‘No reason really…you see when his lordship and I stayed in Youghal waiting for yer honour’s ship, we were in a house next to where his once was……in the rising and the siege ‘n all…that it’d been burnt down. Then I see his name again here by the cabin. So…I wondered…’
There’s a painful silence.
The captain nods towards the cabin door
‘I put it up after he died.’
‘Oh I see.’
He doesn’t but it’s polite.
‘He was my father.’
‘Was he, now? Oh I see…your name…son of Anthony, Fitz-Anthony, of course, Captain, I’m slow these days…Well you’re the son of Captain O’Brien…that’s of great interest to me. You’re his son…well, well.’
The earl speaks. It’s a surprise….Captain Fitz-Anthony crosses himself
‘Requiescat in pacem.’
The earl notices the catholic gesture. Sean looks concerned. There’s no need
‘Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro, quondam pauper, aeternam habeas requiem.’
This is from the last prayer, In Paradisum, in the Catholic requiem…the earl’s eyes twinkle with amused good humour…
‘Later captain, you should ask Sean here to sing the old requiem for you. He once sang it for a good friend of mine. He’s a fine voice, melancholy, well suited for requiems and Irish laments…As I recall, Sean, you were told all Anthony O’Brien’s family died with him in the house.’
‘I’m sorry your lordship, you’ve heard, you must understand, I can’t easily speak of this…I wasn’t in Youghal when the Desmond sacked the town. I was at sea.’
‘Ah, now I see…I’m so sorry….I wish I hadn’t spoken of it…I meant no offence…’
‘Ah sure, it’s fine. It’s almost thirty year ago; I’m old; the pain of the past fades over the years. But your lordship will understand I can’t talk easy of this with strangers.’
Later Sean takes the earl back to his quarters and assists him undress and helps him into bed. The earl is silent. Sean goes to speak on a couple of occasions. But he senses Tomas doesn’t want to speak. Once Tomas is in bed he closes his eyes. It’s a sign….
Then as Sean turns to leave he hears the earl turn over. Sean blows out the candles. It’s dark.
‘Go sing the requiem for the captain…with my compliments.’
‘You heard… off with you. It’s your duty: your papist secrets are safe with me.’
The earl sighs heavily as if his patience is being tested.
‘Your Christian duty: think of it as a family obligation if you will…just do it Sean. Goodnight.’
Sean opens and closes the cabin door. Sometimes he just doesn’t understand his very noble and very protestant master one little bit.
‘Read it me again Master Shakespeare, read it me again. I like it well.’
Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton is seated by the fire in the chamber of his house in Winchester. Once owned by Bishop Stephen Gardiner it passed into his family on the bishop’s death in 1555.
The old bishop cannily married one of his nieces into Southampton’s family. The house was a marriage portion…. Its reputed by locals to be where King Philip resided the night before his marriage to Queen Mary…It was in fact home to the astrologer Cornelius Gove….he was one of the brightest stars in the constellations of astrologers… he’s the man who taught Dr Dee – all he knows and also trained Ambrose Hyde who’s actually somewhere about the house….brought here in the train of his patron, Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex….the queen’s favourite…
This house isn’t the family seat….that’s nearby – Place House in Titchfield – but this sturdy stone-faced manor, beside the College founded by Bishop William Wykeham, is large enough to accommodate a hunting party…and there’s hunting nearby the city and some decent fishing down on the river by the great cathedral with its square towers. This is one of England’s finest churches…the points of its tall gothic nave almost touch the stars…it’s some of the finest stained glass windows in Europe and still boasts a fine group of chantries, home to the remains of some of its most distinguished bishops….though St Swithin’s bones are long gone. They were scattered into the river that runs almost alongside the cathedral through a meadowland the locals nickname ‘Paradise’.
While Lord Southampton amuses himself with poetry his humourless steward waits and waits….He stands, not amused, besides a large oak table with ugly carved legs. Another relic from a bygone age…it was once the table used by Thomas Wriothesley, the first earl, and principal secretary to the eighth King Henry. He had it from Nonesuch Palace.
The steward waits for his master to sign the household accounts and approve some leases. The paperwork is helpfully set out…the steward helpfully holds a quill…every now and then hopefully dipping it into a pot of black ink.
It’s a waste of effort.
The earl is communing with art…. and has ears for the poet’s voice alone…..
So, grudgingly, the steward also listens to the poetry…
It’s clear from his expression he’s no opinion of poets in general or of Master Shakespeare in particular….Master Shakespeare is in the steward’s opinion a vulgar fellow…too familiar with his master…too familiar by half….
Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton is twenty six. He’s handsome. He’s exquisitely dressed in royal blue brocade with deep-rose trim. He sports a single pearl droplet earring in his left ear. His elongated ruffs over square-cut lace collars have set a fashion….Henry loves to attract attention…He loves the hunt. He loves music. He loves wine, sex and food. He loves himself. He loves poetry above most else – except the playhouse…for there, it’s possible to enjoy all his pleasures in one place…
Lord Southampton’s a man’s man; he likes women too…an ambiguity that fits perfectly into this world of fitting ambiguities.
Shakespeare’s velvet voice soothes; his mellifluous words tickle the earl’s fancy; his master almost purrs with pleasure….Meanwhile, the unblinking playwright out-stares the steward. Shakespeare stops speaking…suddenly the poet‘s smiling perhaps he’s amused by the steward’s purple doublet and hose and his yellow stockings with the garish violet garters….
The steward frowns by way of returned courtesy…Southampton interrupts…
‘Read on, read on, I said.’……….
…..Will Shakespeare loves his patron more than due diligence requires…
Today he’s serving as the earl’s word-smith. Lord Southampton employs him to write sonnets for a dark lady, Elizabeth Vernon…..
Will Shakespeare has supplied him with the words to melt chastity….Will has previously written for the earl…of love…of rape…he’s mastered his master’s tastes. Therefore he also tries to master his master’s mistress.
Shakespeare is here more out of necessity than need.
There’s plague in London. The theatres are closed….Lord Southampton offered him board and bed…One thing has inevitably led to the other. The two revisit an old love while Shakespeare writes sonnets to enable the earl to successfully chase down his new one….
“There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.”
‘You’re getting to like my Elizabeth too much…your couplets flirt too much as your rhymes show…Still as I like this one Will…if you read it me again…I’ll maybe let you read it to her too…’
‘Your lordship is generous…’
‘I can afford to be… that’s why she’ll be mine in the end…’
Shakespeare reads the sonnet again….as he does his mind drifts…
He ruefully observes that wise words rarely have governed his unwise passions…
…That’s how he ended married. That’s another story, one which he’d isn’t inclined to retell…even to himself…His wife…well…he’s married…He sees her in Stratford…once a year. It’s enough for a vocation….
…His children call him back…
…Still, these days he’s somebody in Stratford. That’s sufficient reason to make the journey home. He enjoys the journey: his many stops offer an opportunity to drink with acquaintance – old and new. He hears the local gossip. It’s fertile ground for his playwriting….
…However, he’s not going home until after the summer….
He comes back to himself…
‘There’s another…shall I go on?’
The steward coughs and throws the poet a filthy look….
There’s a noise …a clatter of feet and barking dogs, the sound of running along the gallery………….Before the poet speaks his next verse, doors are thrown open, there’s a flurry of noise, pages and grooms and yelping Maltese terriers scatter across the chamber…
Two pageboy-trumpeters dressed in tangerine livery appear and with a fanfare announce the entry of another tall handsome man.
‘His Excellency, the right noble, Robert Devereaux, the earl of Essex….’
If Shakespeare is infatuated by Southampton so, his patron is by Lord Essex. Essex is tall with golden hair and a reddish gold beard and piercing eyes. His winning smile oozes self-conscious charm….
The two earls dazzle the world with their dash and derring-do. Their bright unruly promise rules the court and in the brilliance of Gloriana’s court nothing outshines the hero of Cadiz, Lord Essex….the queen’s gilded Robin……
Both these men made their popular reputations at Cadiz….Henry Wriothesley, never less than a fine swordsman, was with the earl of Essex when, single-handed, they stormed the city’s gates….
This version of events has circulated widely and is widely believed… After all it’s the printed word…printed by the very presses that print God’s words in the bible…they’re bound to be true….they’re also bound to Lord Southampton since they’re owned by his friends…
Lord Essex’s appearance is as extravagant as his attention-seeking entrance.
He’s wearing pink velvets, two-tones, shot with gold and a pink and gold jerkin. The buttons of the jerkin are pink sapphires. The lawn sleeves of his shirt are embroidered with dianthuses. Its cuffs are starched gold-lace. He’s holding a walnut cane with a gold handle under-arm. His short cape is beetroot-coloured crushed velvet…
His cape has been cut down at the queen’s command: she’s caught-out the whole court this Lent by demanding all wear short puffed hose and short capes.
After morning service two Sundays back she claimed that there was too much ostentation in the chapel.
‘What’s needed my lords is some Lenten restraint…hereabouts the court…’
Her dictat cuts her courtiers down to size….Their loss being their tailors gain…..
Wriothesley is amused by the earl’s outfit. He makes a sound like a horn…
‘Are we hunting?’
‘I see you’re in the pink’
The earl growls
‘Very droll, Henry…the whole damned court’s in the bleeding pink. The queen’s commanded it. It’s Laetare court. She says it’ll brighten-up our Lenten season.’
‘Ah I see. Nothing you’ve whispered in her ear?’
‘You know her majesty…it’s her mood.’
‘It’s a convenient humour for you, my lord, since she’s given ye the monopoly on cochineal and none can dye cloth pink save by your leave and to your profit.’
Southampton giggles…Essex shrugs.
‘The queen’s command is hers alone….’
‘Ah well your lordship must make money as you can.’
‘Don’t remind me…God’s death I’ve no land left to farm…the queen has me mortgaged to the hilt. So, I must farm by royal license….sweet wine and cochineal I’m shopkeeper to her honour. I’m forced to live by its dishonour.’
Henry tuts sarcastically
‘It’s no life for a gentleman…not that it matters to her.’
‘No, I’m dressed like the fool she’s made me.’
‘Master Shakespeare you know about gloving and dies, don’t they stay the cochineal with bitches’ urine.’
‘Maids’ piss is best to stay colour, your lordship…’
‘Let’s hope the queen don’t know or she might piss all over you to stay you with her, Robin.’
‘I’m already drenched by her favour.’
Henry laughs. Essex shrugs nonchalantly.
Then they exchange a look that speaks to their frustrations.
Both men are under thirty…Their age alone prevents them from truly understanding the queen perspective…to her forty five is still young…. Sadly, both parties’ respective ages gives them their only perspective…both sides are tripped up by the fleet foot of cheating-time.
‘The queen‘s so long past her youth that her memories of it are as made-up as her face.’
More boyish sniggering…
‘She comes to Richmond for Laetare?’
‘She says she’ll come to Richmond but Lord Warwick says he’ll entertain her in Syon.’
‘She hates that place.’
‘She’ll not pass up someone else picking-up her charge.’
‘It’s Laetare at least there’s dancing and a feast…’
After a while longer this artificial conversation runs into the sand…in some ways already too much has been said….in this world walls have ears and servants tongues. They’re few who wouldn’t sell any earl for a price….
‘Will she dispose of the lord-deputyship?’
‘She says she will; it means she won’t. The Irish will have to wait upon her majesty but they, unlike us here in court, aren’t governed by her passionless indecision…’
‘Will ye take it my lord for yer father’s sake?’
Essex struts around the table as if he’s playing some childhood game. He brushes the steward aside. Southampton claps his hands.
‘Take all of this away; leave us, now…off, all of you…’
The steward bows out…bowing to his master…Southampton airily waves him aside. He joins Essex by the table as they pick over a bowl of fruit…
The steward clicks his fingers. Grooms and pages rush about picking up the account rolls and other papers…the steward waves off the chamberers and the two guards…Finally he leaves, quill between his teeth, in a sulk.
However, he’s overlooked Master Shakespeare who’s dropped into the shadows from where he watches with interest the scene played out before him……
The hero of Cadiz scratches his beard……….
‘So, will ye take the deputyship for your family’s sake..?’
‘What use is Ireland? By Christ it did nothing for my father…’
Southampton starts eating an apple…he grunts his agreement. Essex takes another peach…he uses his dagger to cut slices from the fruit which he puts into his mouth. They eat in silence…
Essex is lost in his own thoughts……..
…………….Robert Devereaux can’t correctly recall his father in any great detail. He remembers being told he was dead by his mother….
….His mother…what a piece of work she is…
Lettice Dudley…fashioned from the greater Boleyn connection full of her family’s naked ambition…once his father died his mother quickly traded Devereaux for Dudley….she married the queen’s paramour-manqué, Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester….
She’d hardly had mourned his father before initiating her torrid affair with Leicester. Before the mourning period was done Lettice Devereaux was undone…Her pregnancy induced an illicit marriage with the earl of Leicester…as ever with his mother….Lettice ensured her pregnancy was to a purpose…
Afterwards the queen’s fury hung over their marriage like a black cloud. It rained all over his childhood. He’s still drenched by its disgrace. On a good day the queen still hates her…
The great Elizabethan court is a small world. It’s made still smaller by family connections; family interests; family rivalries: family‘s its governing passion…..
The two earls continue their impromptu dessert……….. Essex is eating black grapes while it’s Southampton’s turn with the peaches…He borrows Essex’s dagger…
They munch but say very little that’s not about the fruit….
Robert Devereaux is still thinking….
His father…his father…. lost to history….lost to his family…lost in wastes of Ireland. He wasn’t slain in grand heroics on the battlefield. He wasn’t even in killed in a reckless duel in pursuit of honour: no, his father died in Dublin…of the sweat…
Fevered ambition carried off by fever… He died bankrupt: owing the queen ten thousand pounds or more. He left little land that wasn’t mortgaged to the hilt…nothing for Robert to dignify the honour of his title….let alone live off… His father gambled everything on Ireland…He ended with the clothes he died in; a broken sword and a gold-piece for his burial.
‘Nothing Henry…nothing at all…’
Essex walks over to the window… Southampton looks after him…
Shakespeare looks after them both…the interactions interest him…
Essex taps the window pane as if it might explain matters….explain why his father’s failed ambitions haunt him…
He’s considering the cold facts of his life…His father’s debts are as yet unpaid…not least the ten thousand pounds he owed the queen… and though the old woman forgets much, including modesty and honour on occasion, she never forgets a debt. There she’s perfect recall…
He also understands that he, himself, Robert Devereaux, a gangling youthful boy, alone brought down the curtain on the long feud between the his mother and the queen. Essex knows his charm is worth gold….
His debut in court in 1584 shattered the dynamic in all the long established relationships….even those of the queen with Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil…Essex is more than his step-father ever was in the government…but he still wants even more…power…
Essex has broken the mould of being merely a favourite…he’s…What is he? Whatever he is he’s still dependent upon the queen…her creature, this reality is uncomfortable… He’s kept in his place by the creature comforts she feeds her caged Robin….He plans an escape…but how?
He knows the queen’s willingness to forgive is easily forgotten…when it suits her she still uses his mother to humiliate him…the calculated snubs, the cruel taunts: it’s all part of her scheming playfulness with power…
Robert Devereaux looks for a means of turning the tables on his tormentor…The ambition to succeed governs him…it’s the only passion left in his relationship with the queen…
Caught in these thoughts, he catches his reflection in the window panes: he only sees himself. He’s pleased with what he sees. It makes him feel…irresistible….After all he’s still young, still handsome….he’s already changed things. Time is on his side…not on hers…
Essex smiles at his reflection while also seeing his admiring friend looking at him. The adulation gratifies…He’s understood since he was a boy he’s exercised an irresistible fascination for others…most importantly, for the queen.
Today, as he looks at his still reflection in the window he sees himself as the future… him…He’s too vain and too uncurious to wonder how the queen sees him…
…….In the privy chamber at Richmond the queen is considering her options…What to wear for Laetare court? .As she looks at the clothes she reflects upon other matters….She often reflects upon her favourite’s ambitious passion to govern her…In this looking-glass world there are now two reflections to consider where before there was only one…echoes of Narcissus …Queen Elizabeth coolly reflects upon the certainty that the Tudor looking glass is cut to hold only a single image…at any one time…She’s opaque about her perceptions….a diplomatic blindness to reality suits her for the present….As they ‘ve agreed…she’ll wear pink and gold…
There’s a clatter of servants who bring more fruits and some wine. They clear the debris from the table and they leave.
‘Robin, you need an army at your back…’
‘I know…but how…?’
‘This Irish business…if Bagenal is as careless as he seems to be in his letters…’
‘He wants to impress…’
‘Tyrone will make a fool of him…’
‘Tyrconnell will lead the earl into war…that’s what Cecil thinks…’
‘Cecil…what does that double-dealing hunchback know…?’
‘If he’s right…Ireland will need to be subdued…’
‘I’ll not take it at any price. Bacon says Ireland’s a graveyard for all ambitions. Tyrone has every means to fight and every place to hide. I’ve been sent to fight on short supplies…Victory can’t be bought with parsimony and women’s meddling ways.’
The two men walk to the door of the gallery that leads to the private apartments. The dogs are yapping mad. Southampton is annoyed by them
‘Can I put them outside for Chrissakes?’
Southampton leaves looking for assistance. Essex plays with his dogs who jump up at him and lick him…they adore their master…it’s natural…and once the queen settles to her place as woman to a man…in their relationship, like his lap dogs, she’ll be happy and content…in her natural place….
He pulls a face
‘God’s she’s so old…’
…. The disparity between their respective ages has always lent their relationship an element of the grotesque. In public they play their courtly roles as ‘star-crossed lovers’ like a staged drama. The queen, in her wigs, powder, gems, jewels and fancy costumes, dresses to mask much. Essex struts and poses – struggling to find the voice to deliver something for which he’s unfitted.
The courtly-romance of this ancient Faerie Queen and her charming young prince has always contained an element of tragedy tinged with farce. But over ten years, unkind time has become un-kinder…
Their relationship has always had a hidden darker side…
….From the outset, in private, the two always fought like cat and dog. It was the realest part of their unreal relationship. The years have laced this with an undercurrent of mutual contempt…Now; Irish rebels drag this ship of fools into dangerous waters…
Southampton is back and two pages round up the dogs
‘I hear old Ormond will come to court. He’ll have advice the queen will hear.’
‘She hears much but heeds little. Anyways, what need have we of renegade’s advice?’
’It’s said he was once her coint.’
‘I doubt he dressed the part…being Irish plaid and all.’
They snigger… again they’re like naughty boys.
‘That was before time began and as the queen forgets much she’ll not even remember who he is…’
‘That’s assuming that he’ll recognise her.’
More laughter…the two men are close, confidential, whispering….
‘Still he might give voice to our ambitions.’
‘Well, in fairness he’s an old soldier – he’ll see her follies….Yes, he might just make us a good ambassador. We should seek his support – ask his advice on who to name as the new Lord Deputy.’
‘She’s bound to ask him.’
‘And he’s not tainted by partiality.’
‘Young Cecil will call on him.’
‘Then we must get there first… persuade him to our side.’
Essex slaps the table.
‘Ah politics, Henry, it’s all this fencing and feints.’
They look at each other.
Intoxicated he may by his friend’s easy charm but even Southampton can see beyond Essex’s faux-pose as the straight-talking soldier….
Essex is aware this gesture hasn’t come off…Instead he genially puts his arm about Henry….It’s a brotherly gesture….but it speaks to the soul of his friend’s weakness
‘I want to see your new Italian garden. I’m to make one up in Essex House.’
‘The queen greatly admires them.’
‘She likes old fashioned climbers in her garden….’
Essex hugs his friend…they’re both laughing
‘She fancies nothing ever changes.’
‘Queens knows how gardens grow.’
‘After a life of trimming – I doubt it. Her sister knew more of gardens than she.’
‘Never say that to her face my lord.’
They leave the chamber for the garden by the private doors at the end opposite the Great Chamber’s main entrance….
Master Shakespeare looks after them….
He reads the repressed sexual tension….He’s shrewd enough to frame their unspoken thoughts in poetry and their political ambitions in prose….. There’s been less of Henry IV in Bolingbroke and more of Essex than either the playwright or the earls can publically acknowledge….both are full of hints and allusions to unspoken agendas.
Shakespeare knows enough to know their public faces are a chivalrous dumb show for popular consumption….he knows from sly observations such as these how the pulse of treason runs. It gives his drama powerful authenticity…
He shakes his head thinking
‘Should I go after them?’
The chamber is empty. He talks aloud for no particular reason…
‘I wish I wasn’t….What they want… it’s not what I want.’
He scratches his beard. He thinks of Essex scratching his. Is he aping his betters? Who knows? For the moment he’s resolves these conflicts of class with heady thoughts of sex…He gets hard
‘What the fuck… let a good fuck write my fucking lines…it’s enough.’
He laughs. He knows once in bed Southampton is in his world. He also knows he writes…to fit their world… but he doesn’t fit into their world… In his heart he knows his love affair is only for the season…It will pass…but its passing troubles him…he’s lost…the rhapsody of love…it makes him feel…lonely…sad…sad…
Shakespeare hears music strike up in the privy chamber. They’re practising…He smiles. He’s thinking about Southampton. The earl loves his music, loves his food, and loves his love-making…all his pleasures tossed together…if only…if music was….
The poet sighs…maybe it’s better to leave these feelings…. It’s easier, safer, if he plays out his feelings elsewhere… He’ll give his longings to some imagined prince…let him hold his lonely pain…let him eat the food of love…Shakespeare smiles…this is what he’s always done when he’s been…hurt…
He’s brought to by a voice
It’s the steward – and those yellow stockings…The steward stands looking down his nose at the poet. He coughs
‘Master their lordships command you to bring them your poems…they’re in the garden….’
He coughs again. Shakespeare is slow to react. The steward waves his hand disdainfully.
‘Commanded master poet: it’s not for them to wait upon the likes of you. Come on…get to them. If you wait until their minds are changed the whole house will be put out.’
He kicks a piece of paper aside with his violet silk shoe.
‘And pick up these papers, please. Remember your place, you’ve none to run after you for the sixpence you have of them.’
‘I’m sorry sir.’
The steward adds with sarcastic relish
‘ I wish no evil to point out your vice with others’ money…Pay attention to the pence and the pounds will keep themselves…don’t waste expensive paper…ye use but one side for those fancy rhymes and crossings-out…the house might put the other to good use for accounts and such…it all adds up…’
The steward grandly turns and stalks away.
‘Don’t waste paper…It all adds up…I wish no evil…’
Shakespeare spits out these words under his breath in a sing song parody –
‘Fuck, I hate these jumped-up jacks. Someday I’ll get the bastards…so help me…’
He scurries about picks up the papers he’s dropped.
As he rushes out, he bumps into Essex’s astrologer…Ambrose Hyde.
‘I’m sorry, I wish no evil…’
He feels foolish repeating the steward’s affectations…the astrologer replies in Latin.
‘Ideo male volio…’