Excerpt: The Widows Guild

Excerpt: The Widows Guild

Book Three: Francis Bacon Mysteries

CHAPTER 1

London, 29 August, 1588

Francis Bacon sat at a scarred oak table in an interrogation chamber of the Tower, waiting for another prisoner to be brought up for questioning. He devoutly hoped this one would recognize the extremity of his situation and simply take the oath, surrendering a name or two. Then they could release him without further ado. The hope was not unreasonable; about half of the men they’d questioned so far had been eager to cooperate.

The other half had been hung.

The loathsome chore of probing the loyalty of every known recusant Catholic in England had been appointed to Francis along with seven other commissioners. His uncle, the Lord Treasurer, had offered him the post as a reward for past service — more work being the usual remuneration tendered by her Majesty’s frugal ministers. Serving on the recusancy commission was an honor, after all; everyone said it. The other commissioners were far senior to Francis’s twenty-seven years and several of them were knights.

And the work was necessary. English Catholics had in fact conspired to remove Queen Elizabeth from England’s throne, many times since her accession. This summer the whirlwind of rumors, portents, and warnings swirling through Europe had in fact resolved itself into a real armada: over a hundred Spanish ships carrying an estimated thirty thousand troops, bearing down on England’s sparsely defended coast.

The valiant English navy — and every Englishman with a boat — had dogged the Spanish fleet along the southern coast for most of July, nipping at their tails, keeping them at bay, while the whole country held its breath in terror lest the fragile defenses fail and ferocious Spanish tercios surge onto their shores.

Everyone knew King Philip had sent his awesome fleet to kill the queen, convert the populace at sword point, and swallow England into the over-swollen Spanish empire.

The English defenses had held. They’d driven the armada against the coast at Calais and closed in to strike. Sailors who witnessed the final battle on the eighth of August still spoke of it with a tremor in their voices and tears in their eyes.

England had won, or so it seemed. Her navy had driven the broken Spanish fleet north into the German Sea, but no one knew if or when or where they might stop to regroup. Drake thought they’d head for Denmark. Lord Burghley feared a landing in Scotland, where they might find friends, land their troops, and invade from the North, where so many English men and women continued to practice the old religion.

The queen wanted put the crisis behind them and let the people — especially soldiers being paid by the state — go back to their normal lives. She led a triumphant procession to St. Paul’s Cathedral on the twentieth of August to give thanks for God’s mercy in granting them the victory. The battles at sea had ended, but the streets now reeked from neglect. Sick and hungry men trickled in daily from the coasts, struggling to get home.

People snapped at each other, on edge, everyone’s humors out of balance. The hangings of recusants over the past few days had helped somewhat to purge the city of fear and anger, like the catharsis of a Greek play. At least, Francis hoped they served some purpose. There had been so many.

No one knew where the Spanish fleet was now or where it was going, but the security of the nation depended on knowing; hence the need for this commission, composed of clerks of the Privy Council, officers of the Tower, and experts in the common law. Every recusant — persons who refused to attend the services of the established Church of England — had to be examined. Francis shared the sense of urgency and accepted even the need for torture in times of imminent peril, but after every interview he trudged home through the filthy streets with his stomach in knots. He knew in his bones that making fresh martyrs only prolonged the controversy.

“Did you hear Drake’s report?” Sir Richard Topcliffe, Francis’s co-commissioner, sat drumming his fingers on the table top in an irritatingly irregular rhythm.

“No,” Francis said. He had not been in court that day. “But I understand the navy is exhausted and our coffers are empty.”

Sir Richard said. “Drake wants to send a fleet to strike the Spanish hard, now, in their own ports, while they’re weak.”

The English were too. Drake would be hard pressed to man even a single ship. “Did he have any news about the location of the armada?”

“We’ve seen the last of them,” Sir Richard said. “They’re staggering around the coast of Scotland, is my guess.”

Everyone had their own guesses. “No word from Ireland yet, I suppose?”

Sir Richard barked a laugh. “Don’t you trust my judgement by now, Mr. Bacon? I’ve been right about these prisoners of ours nine times out of ten, haven’t I?”

More like five out of ten; a pathetic score, considering Sir Richard had gathered most of the names on their list himself in his capacity as a pursuivant for the Privy Council. He had spent the last year travelling through the kingdom meeting bishop and justices of the peace to collect the names of those who failed to attend their parish church on Sunday morning as prescribed by law. Leading recusants, especially those with known associates on the Continent, were sent to Wisbech Castle in Ely where they could be securely guarded. Gentlemen who convinced the authorities of their desire to cooperate were confined to their homes until the current crisis had passed. The lesser sort were brought to London and confined in prison cells to await their examinations.

Lord Burghley, a fellow Lincolnshire man, held Sir Richard in high esteem, but Francis knew him to be the worst kind of zealot. He loved to find men guilty; a dangerous bias when lives were at stake.

“Praise God for the news,” Sir Richard’s clerk said. He sat at the small table in the corner, unpacking his writing materials with the air of a man who had worked in far worse circumstances than this stuffy, stone-walled chamber. He rarely spoke, but often flashed a thin smile at a prisoner’s reaction to his master’s threats. He was a short, soft-bodied man, with thinning hair combed over his balding pate, somewhere between Francis’s twenty-seven years and Sir Richard’s fifty-seven. His accent revealed his Lincolnshire origins.

Francis unrolled the documents concerning today’s subject, one Thomas Howard of Suffolk. He suppressed a sigh. Would there be any of that surname left by the time the war with Spain had finally exhausted itself? The late and unlamented Duke of Norfolk, another Thomas Howard, had allegedly conspired with the late and less lamented Mary, Queen of Scots, to dethrone Elizabeth and return England to the Catholic fold. Others of that family continued to foster Jesuit priests and disseminate Catholic pamphlets. They had to be stopped, one way or another.

Footsteps resounded outside the door. Sir Richard rubbed his hands together in eager anticipation. “This one is sure to need stretching — a little exercise on the rack. Not much doubt with that name, eh, Mr. Bacon?”

“Let us not pre-judge the case, Sir Richard. Our warrant constrains us to ask questions first and use harsher measures only in the obstinate cases.”

“Ha! You’re too soft, Mr. Bacon; too soft by half. Where’s there’s smoke, there’s fire, I say. Especially the stinking fumes of their idolatrous incense. You can smell it on their skin.”

The guards ushered in a slight man wearing a dirty shirt and slops. They shoved him onto a stool and left. The man faced his interrogators with wary eyes hollowed by lack of sleep. His gaze shifted from Francis to Sir Richard, then settled on Francis, perhaps because he looked the less frightening.

Francis was slight, like the prisoner, with softly curling brown hair and hazel eyes. He wore his beard and moustache closely trimmed and dressed in simple, yet well tailored, clothes of brown and black. His tall black hat bore only a plain gray band, though woven of silk. His barrister’s gown declared his profession and possibly conveyed an assurance that the law prevailed even here in this fearsome stronghold.

Sir Richard, in contrast, dressed the part of an executioner, in starkest black with blood red belt, garters, and hat band. His black hair and his spade-cut beard were streaked with white. Thick black brows overshadowed his dark eyes, giving him a hooded aspect. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with a large round belly, and used his bulk to intimidate the prisoners.

Francis spoke first. He kept his tone level, to signal the routine nature of the interview and put the prisoner at ease. “Good afternoon, Mr. Howard. We have a few questions to ask you today; nothing more. Then we’ll administer the Oath of Supremacy and you’ll be returned to your cell to await further judgement.”

“I’m not—”

“Wait for the questions!” Sir Richard pounded his meaty fist on the table, making both Francis and the prisoner jump.

Francis wanted to offer the man a smile, but he had learned not to. It only seemed to frighten them more. “Our pursuivants found a quantity pamphlets written by Cardinal Allen in your house, evidently intended to be spread more widely. Where did you obtain them?”

“I never did! I wouldn’t read such trash, nor ever let it into my house.” The man shot a fearful glance at Sir Richard. “I’m not the one you want. Ask anyone. Ask my wife, I beg you.”

“Ah, yes, your wife,” Sir Richard said. “I well believe she’s the one who bought those scurrilous tracts. Her so-called music tutor has been proved a seminary priest, hasn’t he?”

“My wife has no—”

Sir Richard leaned across the table, thrusting his scowling face forward. The prisoner pressed his lips together and began to tremble from head to toe.

Sir Richard’s deep voice fell into a menacing cadence. “You can not hide behind your wife, Mr. Howard. She may be as guilty as you; more guilty, most like. Women are weak. They cling to their old superstitions. And they’re sly, keeping their secrets inside their houses. We may not be able to prosecute her, but in its wisdom the law makes you and she one person, with you the head — a head on a slender neck that can be stretched.” He mimed pulling up a hanging rope. His clerk flashed an eager grin. “We hung ten of your kind from Tyburn tree this morning and watched them dance the hempen jig. Deny your foul seditious deeds and we’ll stretch the rest of you too, by my good Queen’s virtue! If we must, I promise you, we’ll get a warrant to bring your sneaking, traitorous wife here to answer questions as well.”

The prisoner wailed. Francis smelled hot piss. He wished Sir Richard would let the poor man speak; not only to get his answers written down, but to hear his accent. Something wasn’t right.

“I’ll tell you anything,” the prisoner said, tears streaming down his unwashed cheeks. “Please, I beg of you, leave my wife alone. She’s a good—”

Three knocks pounded on the door. Sir Richard called, “Come!”

A guard came in and sidled up to Sir Richard. He bent his head and murmured, “May I have word in private, sir?”

Sir Richard pointed a thick finger at the prisoner. “Sit there in your stink and think of every man — and woman — who has ever celebrated the devil’s masses in that secret chapel of yours. Oh, yes! Don’t think we don’t know about it!” He rose, beckoning his clerk to accompany him. They followed the guard out the door, closing it behind him.

Francis seized the opportunity. He spoke in a low, urgent voice. “When he comes back, I’ll offer to administer the oath before asking any questions. Take it, I beg of you, without fuss or disputation. There’s something odd about this evidence against you, but I’m not sure what it is. Take the oath! And go to church, for God’s sake, your own sake, and the sake of your family!”

“I swear to you, Mr. Bacon, I have never—”

Francis held up his hand. “It isn’t so great a burden. Outward conformity is all that is required. Paint an attentive expression on your face and think whatever you like.” He ventured a smile. “That’s what I do.”

“But Mr. Bacon, I swear by—”

“Shh!” Francis heard the latch click and waved the man to silence.

The other men returned, leaving the door wide open. The clerk returned to his table and began packing up his writing desk. Sir Richard stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at the prisoner with a wry grin on his grizzled cheeks. He cut his gaze toward Francis. “It seems there’s been a little mistake, Mr. Bacon. This gentleman here is not Mr. Thomas Howard of Suffolk. It seems the documents were miscopied. By the account of several of his cousins, all of whom are waiting in the yard below, he is in truth one Howard Thomas of Sussex and as good a Protestant as you or me.” He chuckled as if it were a simple, comical error, like mixing up the date or putting on the wrong hat, not one that had nearly sent an innocent man down to be cruelly tortured. “You’re free to go, Mr. Thomas.”

His chuckle rose to hearty laughter as the prisoner fainted into the dirty straw.

***

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Widows Guild. Copyright © 2015 Anna Castle.