Excerpt: Murder by Misrule

Book 1: Francis Bacon Mysteries


Westminster, 19 November 1586

A sudden roar startled Francis Bacon out of his thoughts, making him jump, his shoes actually leaving the ground. He glanced to either side, hoping no one had seen him. Of course, the street was empty. The roar came from the cheers rising from the tiltyard where all of London celebrated Queen’s Day with jousting and pageants. The world and its wife were there today, including everyone who mattered at court. Everyone, therefore, except him.

He didn’t know why he’d come down to Westminster. He should have stayed in his chambers at Gray’s, reading in the blissful peace of the deserted inn. He needed exercise, he’d said to himself. Stretch his legs, catch a breath of air. Once he was out, he’d thought he might drop by Burghley House in hopes of gaining a moment with his uncle, the Lord Treasurer and Her Majesty’s most indispensable counselor. He knew His Lordship would not be at the tiltyard. He rarely took time off from work and disliked noisy spectacles. Francis didn’t much care for them either. Sweaty people, filthy grounds, ear-splitting roars like the one that had just startled him. Dreadful. He shuddered to think of it.

His uncle had refused to see him. The secretary offered a transparent excuse about heaps of letters and an aching head. One did not need the deductive gifts of a Bacon to recognize that he was persona non grata at Burghley House as well. All he’d done was have an idea — a perfectly reasonable idea for reforming the English common law — and mention it here and there. He was born to have ideas, he’d been told as much from infancy. But his proposal had created a bit of a stir.  The queen didn’t like controversy among her courtiers, so she’d banished him until further notice. The punishment far exceeded the crime, but to whom might one complain?

On a sort of self-flagellatory whim, he walked down the Strand to Whitehall, thinking of popping up to his friend Henry Percy’s to borrow a book. He changed his mind on the very threshold, wavering two steps forward, two back, taking another slow step forward. Then he turned and walked quickly away with downcast eyes. He knew, and everyone would know he knew, that banishment from court meant no visiting of friends who were visiting at court. What had he been thinking? He’d taken a risk just passing through the King Street Gate.

He should go back to his chambers at once and stay there. He walked swiftly past the palace and turned into the Privy Garden to get off the main street. If German tourists were allowed to stroll here at their pleasure, then surely so should he be. He inhaled deeply as he hurried through the maze of tall yews, appreciating their wholesome fragrance to bolster his courage until he reached the narrow street on the other side. Now he was officially outside the palace grounds. Safe. Francis exhaled a sigh of relief and directed his steps toward the Westminster wharf. He’d catch a wherry back to the Temple Stair and avoid the whole palace area until he had been restored to the queen’s good graces.

The lanes south of the palace formed another maze, with narrow alleys winding between tightly-packed houses, darkened by the overhanging upper stories. The short November day was drawing down. Rows of puffball clouds streamed across the sky, casting confusing shadows across the timbered walls. But Francis knew Westminster like he knew his Bible. He could walk it blindfolded.

He turned a sharp corner and stumbled onto a soft mass. Backing up, looking down, a gasp of horror choked his throat. The mass was a man, dead, sprawled across the middle of the lane in a pool of wet dirt. Wet with blood, which Francis had walked right into. If he’d been paying attention, he would have smelled it first: the tang of fresh blood was unmistakable. He backed off a few paces and checked his boots, a thoughtless act he immediately repented. The poor man, whoever he was, deserved his first consideration.

Francis took a few breaths, patting himself on the chest to calm his heart, his gaze averted toward the pink plaster wall beside him. He’d been to funerals, but he’d never seen a corpse, much less nearly trampled one in the open street. He steeled himself to take another look. He avoided the face at first, easing himself into the odious duty. He noted a doublet of excellent cloth and a figured Spanish belt. The clothes were rich: this man had been a gentleman.

Ah, worse! The garment he’d thought was a cloak was in fact a robe: black, with two velvet welts on each wide sleeve. Those stripes told him the man had been a barrister.

There was no help for it now; odds were high he knew him. Francis took two gingerly steps closer and shifted his gaze to the face. Ah, mercy! What have we come to? The body in the lane was Tobias Smythson, an ancient of Gray’s Inn, Francis’s own Inn of Court. He not only knew him, he knew him well.

Smythson had been Francis’s tutor when he’d first arrived at Gray’s back in 1579, an eighteen-year-old boy newly bereft of his father. He’d been disoriented and miserable, facing an uncertain future. Kindly, wise Tobias Smythson had taken him under his wing. He’d guided his studies without those annoying little jokes about the speed with which his pupil mastered each subject. He’d introduced him to judges at all the courts. Francis wouldn’t say it had been a convivial relationship — they weren’t close in the way of real fathers and sons — but it had been comfortable, productive, and most welcome in those difficult early days. In a few years, it became obvious to them both that Francis had no further need for a tutor. Although they saw one another less frequently, they remained on amicable terms.

Now, here his old tutor lay, dead in the street. How could such a thing have happened? What was he doing here on such a day? A barrister would have a hundred reasons to visit Westminster on an ordinary day. But why today, a holiday? Smythson was no fonder of the Queen’s Day crowds than his uncle and himself.

Fortunately, it wasn’t Francis Bacon’s job to solve that mystery. He should call the coroner now, or, considering the proximity of the palace, the Captain of the Queen’s Guard, Sir Walter Ralegh. He took three strides back toward King Street before he caught himself. He had been forbidden to speak to any courtier at any time on any subject. The queen’s temper was unpredictable. She might well be incensed to see him approaching the tiltyard gallery even under these extraordinary circumstances.

A flash of anger creased his brow. Really, the situation was preposterous! By rights, as the son of the late Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, he ought to have a personal attendant at all times who could be sent hither and yon with messages. Then he remembered that he did have one, after a manner of speaking: the upstart son of a privateer who had been foisted upon him in exchange for the payment of an unfortunate accumulation of debt. Thomas Clarady was sure to be at the tournament, getting drunk with his friends. Francis jogged up to King Street and whistled for a boy to summon him. Thanks to the superfluity of population in the capital, there were always boys eager to earn a farthing or two. Since Clarady was undoubtedly dressed like a carnival clown, he ought to be easy enough to find.


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.

Murder by Misrule. Copyright © 2014 Anna Castle.

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