In this alternate England during the Elizabethan era, William Shakespeare must write a play that will incite the citizens to rise against the Spanish Monarchy that rules them...
Two Spanish soldiers swaggered up Tower Street toward William Shakespeare. Their boots squelched in the mud. One wore a rusty corselet with his high-crowned morion, the other a similar helmet with a jacket of quilted cotton. Rapiers swung at their hips. The fellow with the corselet carried a pike longer than he was tall; the other shouldered an arquebus. Their lean, swarthy faces wore what looked like permanent sneers.
People scrambled out of their way: apprentices without ruffs and in plain wool caps; a pipe-smoking sailor wearing white trousers with spiral stripes of blue; a merchant's wife in a red wool doublet spotted with white-almost a man's style-who lifted her long black skirt to keep it out of puddles; a ragged farmer in from the countryside with a donkey weighted down with sacks of beans.
Shakespeare flattened himself against the rough, weather-faded timbers of a shop along with everybody else. The Spaniards had held London-held it down for Queen Isabella, daughter of Philip of Spain, and her husband, Albert of Austria-for more than nine years now. Everyone knew what happened to men rash enough to show them disrespect to their faces.
A cold, nasty autumn drizzle began sifting down from the gray sky. Shakespeare tugged his hat down lower on his forehead to keep the rain out of his eyes-and to keep the world from seeing how thin his hair was getting in front, though he was only thirty-three. He scratched at the little chin beard he wore. Where was the justice in that?
On went the Spaniards. One of them kicked at a skinny, ginger-colored dog gnawing a dead rat. The dog skittered away. The soldier almost measured himself full length in the sloppy street. His friend grabbed his arm to steady him.
Behind them, the Englishmen and -women got back to their business. A pockmarked tavern tout took Shakespeare's hand. "Try the Red Bear, friend," the fellow said, breathing beer fumes and the stink of rotting teeth into his face. "The drink is good, the wenches friendly-"
"Away with you." Shakespeare twisted free. The man's dirty hand, he noted with annoyance, had smudged the sleeve of his lime-green doublet.
"Away with me? Away with me?" the tout squeaked. "Am I a black-beetle, for you to squash?"
"Black-beetle or no, I'll spurn you with my foot if you trouble me more," Shakespeare said. He was a tall man, on the lean side but solidly made and well fed. The tout's skin stretched drumhead tight over cheekbones and jaw. He slunk off to earn his pennies-his farthings, more likely-somewhere else.
A few doors down stood the tailor's shop to which Shakespeare had been going. The man working inside peered at him through spectacles that magnified his red-tracked eyes. "Good morrow to you, Master Will," he said. "By God, I am glad to see you in health."
"And I you, Master Jenkins," Shakespeare replied. "Your good wife is well, I hope, and your son?"
"Very well, the both of them," the tailor said. "I thank you for asking. Peter would be here to greet you as well, but he is taking to the head of the fishmongers a cloak I but now finished: to their hall in Thames Street, in Bridge Ward."
"May the fishmongers' chief have joy in it," Shakespeare said. "And have you also finished the kingly robe you promised for the players?"
Behind those thick lenses, Jenkins' eyes grew bigger and wider yet. "Was that to be done today?"
Shakespeare clapped a hand to his forehead, almost knocking off his hat. As he grabbed for it, he said, "'Sblood, Master Jenkins, how many times did I tell you it was wanted on All Saints' Day, and is that not today?"
"It is. It is. And I can only cry your pardon," Jenkins said mournfully.
"That doth me no good, nor my fellow players," Shakespeare said. "Shall Burbage swagger forth in his shirt tomorrow? He'll kill me when he hears this, and I you afterwards." He shook his head at that-fury outrunning sense.
To the tailor, fury counted for more. "It's near done," he said. "If you'll but bide, I can finish it within an hour, or may my head answer for it." He made a placating gesture and, even more to the point, shoved aside the doublet on which he'd been sewing.
"An hour?" Shakespeare sighed heavily, while Jenkins gave an eager nod. Drumming his fingers on his arm, Shakespeare nodded, too. "Let it be as you say, then. Were it not that the royal robe in our tiring room looks more like a vagabond's rags and tatters, I'd show you less patience."
"Truly, Master Will, you are a great gentleman," Jenkins quavered as he took the robe of scarlet velvet from under the counter.
"I trust you'll note this unseemly delay in your price," Shakespeare said. By the tailor's expression, he found that not in the least gentlemanly. While Shakespeare kept on drumming his fingers, Jenkins sewed in the last gaudy bits of golden thread and hemmed the robe.
"You could wear it in the street, Master Will, and have the commonality bow and scrape before you as if in sooth you were a great lord," he said, chuckling.
"I could wear it in the street and be seized and flung in the Counter for dressing above my station," Shakespeare retorted. "'Tis a thing forbidden actors, save when on the stage." Jenkins only chuckled again; he knew that perfectly well.
He was finished almost as soon as he'd promised, and held up the robe to Shakespeare as if he were the tireman about to dress him in it. "You did but jest as to the scot, I am sure," he said.
"'Steeth, Master Jenkins, I did not. Is mine own time a worthless thing, that I should spend it freely for the sake of your broken promise?"
"Broken it was not, for I promised the robe today, and here it is."
"And had I come at eventide, and not of the morning? You had been forsworn then. You may have mended your promise, but that means not it was unbroken."
They argued a while longer, more or less good-naturedly. At last, the tailor took five shillings off the price he'd set before. "More than you deserve, but for the sake of your future custom I shall do't," he told Shakespeare. "Which still leaves you owing fourteen pounds, five shillings, sixpence."
"The stuffs you use are dear indeed," Shakespeare grumbled as he gave Jenkins the money. Some of the silver and copper coins he set on the counter bore the images of Isabella and Albert, others-the older, more worn, ones-that of the deposed Elizabeth, who still languished in the Tower of London, only a furlong or so from where Shakespeare stood. He looked outside. It was still drizzling. "Can you give me somewhat wherewith to cover this robe, Master Jenkins? I am not fain to have the weeping heavens smirch it."
"I believe I may. Let me see." Jenkins rummaged under the counter and came up with a piece of coarse canvas that had seen better days. "Here, will this serve?" At Shakespeare's brusque nod, the tailor wrapped the cloth around the robe and tied it with some twine. He bobbed his head to Shakespeare as he passed him the bundle. "Here you are, Master Will, and I am sorry for the inconvenience I put you to."
Shakespeare sighed. "No help for it. Now I needs must-" Horns blared and drums thudded out in the street. He jumped. "What's that?"
"Did you not recall?" The tailor's face twisted. "By decree of the Spaniards, 'tis the day of the great auto de fe."
"Oh, a pox! You are right, and it had gone out of my head altogether." Shakespeare looked out into the street as horn calls and drums came again. In response to that music, people swarmed from all directions to gape at the spectacle.
"A lucky man, who can forget the inquisitors," Jenkins said. "A month gone by, as is their custom, they came down Tower Street making proclamation that this . . . ceremony would be held." He might have been about to offer some comment on the auto de fe, but he didn't. Shakespeare couldn't blame him for watching his tongue. In London these days, a word that reached the wrong ears could mean disaster for a man.
He felt disaster of a different, smaller, sort brushing against him. "In this swarm of mankind, I shall be an age making my way back to my lodgings."
"Why not go with the parade to Tower Hill and see what's to be seen?" Jenkins said. "After all, when in Rome . . . and we are all Romans now, is't not so?" He chuckled once more.
So did Shakespeare, sourly. "How could it be otherwise?" he returned. In Elizabeth's day, Catholic recusants had had to pay a fine for refusing to attend Protestant services. Now, with their Catholic Majesties ruling England, with the Inquisition and the Jesuits zealously bringing the country back under the dominion of the Pope, not going to Mass could and often did mean worse than fines. Like most people, Shakespeare conformed, as he'd conformed under Elizabeth. Some folk went to church simply because it was the safe thing to do; some, after nine years and more of Catholic rule, because they'd come to believe. But almost everyone did go.
"Why not what?" Jenkins repeated. "Think what you will of the dons and the monks, but they do make a brave show. Mayhap you'll spy some bit of business you can filch for one of your dramas."
Shakespeare had thought nothing could make him want to watch an auto de fe. Now he discovered he was wrong. He nodded to the tailor. "I thank you, Master Jenkins. I had not thought of that. Perhaps I shall." He tucked the robe under his arm, settled his hat more firmly on his head, and went out into Tower Street.
Spanish soldiers-and some blond-bearded Englishmen loyal to Isabella and Albert-in helmets and corselets held pikes horizontally in front of their bodies to keep back the crowd and let the procession move toward Tower Hill. They looked as if they would use those spears, and the swords hanging from their belts, at the slightest excuse. Perhaps because of that, no one gave them any such excuse.
Two or three rows of people stood in front of Shakespeare, but he had no trouble seeing over any of them save one woman whose steeple-crowned hat came up to the level of his eyes. He looked east, toward the church of St. Margaret in Pattens' Lane, from which the procession was coming. At its head strode the trumpeters and drummers, who blasted out another fanfare even as he turned to look at them.
More grim-faced soldiers marched at their heels: again, Spaniards and Englishmen mixed. Some bore pikes. Others carried arquebuses or longer, heavier muskets. Tiny wisps of smoke rose from the lengths of slow match the men with firearms bore to discharge their pieces. The drizzle had almost stopped while Shakespeare waited for the tailor to finish the robe. In wetter weather, the matchlocks would have been useless as anything but clubs. As they marched, they talked with one another in an argot that had grown up since the Armada's men came ashore, with Spanish lisps and trills mingling with the slow sonorities of English.
Behind the soldiers tramped a hundred woodmongers in the gaudy livery of their company. One of those robes would do as well to play the king in as that which I have here, Shakespeare thought. But the woodmongers, whose goods would feed the fires that burned heretics today, seemed to be playing soldiers themselves: like the armored men ahead of them, they too marched with arquebuses and pikes.
From a second-story window across the street from Shakespeare, a woman shouted, "Shame on you, Jack Scrope!" One of the woodmongers carrying a pike whipped his head around to see who had cried out, but no faces showed at that window. A dull flush stained the fellow's cheeks as he strode on.
Next came a party of black-robed Dominican friars-mostly Spaniards, by their looks-before whom a white cross was carried. They chanted psalms in Latin as they paraded up Tower Street.
After them marched Charles Neville, the Earl of Westmorland, the Protector of the English Inquisition. The northerner's face was hard and closed and proud. He had risen against Elizabeth a generation before, spent years in exile in the Netherlands, and surely relished every chance he got for revenge against the Protestants. The old man carried the standard of the Inquisition, and held it high.
For a moment, Shakespeare's gaze swung to the left, to the gray bulk of the Tower, though the church of Allhallows Barking hid part of the fortress from view. He wondered if, from one of those towers, Elizabeth were watching the auto de fe. What would the imprisoned Queen be thinking if she were? Did she thank King Philip for sparing her life after the Duke of Parma's professional soldiers swept aside her English levies? "Though she herself slew a queen, I shall not stoop to do likewise," Philip had said. Was that generosity? Or did Elizabeth, with all she'd labored so long to build torn to pieces around her, reckon her confinement more like hell on earth?
'Twould make a splendid tragedy, Shakespeare thought, were setting so little as a single line of't to paper not worth my life-and a hard, cruel death I'd have, too. Written or not, though, those scenes began to shape themselves in his mind. He shook his head like a fly-bedeviled horse, trying to clear it.
More than a little to his relief, a murmur in the crowd brought his attention back to the parade. Behind the Protector of the Inquisition stalked Robert Parsons, the Archbishop of Canterbury. His cold, thin features made Neville's look genial. He'd spent a generation in exile, struggling from afar against English Protestantism.
After the prelate marched another company of guardsmen. These were wild Irishmen, brought over to help the Spaniards hold England down. Most spoke only Irish; the few who used some English had brogues so thick, it was hard to tell from the other tongue.
The crowd stirred and buzzed. A couple of men pointed. A woman exclaimed. After the sallet comes the main course, Shakespeare thought. A couple of dozen men exhibited life-sized pasteboard images of those convicted by the Inquisition who had either died in gaol or had escaped its clutches and were being outlawed. More servitors carried trunks that bore the bones of the former. The sides and tops of the trunks were painted with hellfire's flames.
Then came the prisoners themselves. First was a group of about a dozen men and women with conical pasteboard caps fully a yard high on their heads. Most of the caps had HERETIC written on them in large letters in English and Latin. One said ALCHEMIST, another SODOMITE. In the first years after the triumph of the Duke of Parma's men, Shakespeare remembered, the words had been written in Spanish as well. These days, though, the English Inquisition operated on its own, with little help from its former teachers. Each of the condemned had a rope around his neck and carried a torch in his right hand.
More prisoners, also carrying torches, followed the first lot. They wore sanbenitos-coarse yellow penitential tunics without sleeves-with the cross of St. Andrew painted on the back in red. Some of them, after their condemnation at the ceremony, would return to imprisonment. Others would be released, but sentenced to wear the sanbenito forever as a mark of their crimes. "More ignoble and more humiliating than death itself," a fat man near Shakespeare said. Two familiars of the Inquisition accompanied each of them.
And after them tramped the dozen or so who had been condemned to the flames. They wore not only sanbenitos but also pasteboard caps, all of which were painted with flames and devils. Along with the familiars of the Inquisition, four or five monks accompanied them to prepare their souls for death.
One prisoner, a big, burly man, shook off all attempts at consolation. "I go gladly to my death," he declared, "knowing I shall soon see God face-to-face and rejoice in His glory for ever and ever."
"You are wrong, Philip Stubbes," a monk said urgently. "If you confess your sins, you may yet win free of hell to Purgatory."
"Purgatory's a dream, a lie, one of the myriad lies the Pope farts forth from his mouth," the Puritan said.
The monk crossed himself. "You will also win an easier death for yourself, for the executioner will throttle you ere the flames bite."
Stubbes shook his head. "Elizabeth cut off my brother's hand for speaking the truth. Torment me as you will, as the Romans tormented the martyrs of old. The flames will have me for but a little while, but you and all your villainous kind for an eternity." Another man, a red-bearded fellow with a clever, frightened face and cropped ears, spoke urgently to a somber monk: "I'll say anything you want. I'll do anything you want. Only spare me from the fire."
A vagrant drop of rain landed on the monk's tonsured pate. He wiped it away with his hand before answering, "Kelley, your confessions, your renunciations, are worthless, as you have proved time and again. You will return to your alchemy, as a dog returneth to its vomit. Did not the heretic Queen's men petition you for gold wherewith to oppose the cleansing Armada?"
"I gave them none," Kelley said quickly.
"And did you not die for this," the monk went on, inexorable as an avalanche, "you surely would for coining counterfeit money in base metal."
"I did no such thing," Kelley insisted.
"Each lie you tell but makes the flames of hell hotter. Compose your spirit now, and pray for mercy from a just God Whose judgments are true and righteous altogether."
And then, to Shakespeare's horror, Kelley's eyes-green as a cat's, and showing white all around the iris-found his in the crowd and locked on them. "Will! Will! For the love of God, Will, tell 'em I'm true and trusty!"
Shakespeare wondered if he turned white or red. He felt dipped in ice and dire, both together. He'd met Edward Kelley perhaps half a dozen times over as many years, enough to know he'd lost his ears for making and passing false coins. The alchemist moved in some of the same circles as Christopher Marlowe, and some of Marlowe's circles were also Shakespeare's. Wheels within wheels, as in the epicycles of Master Ptolemy. But for Kelley to point him out to the Inquisition . . .
Before he could speak, either to curse Kelley-which was what he wanted to do-or to praise him, the monk said, "Where your own words will not save you, why think you any other man's might? Go on, wretch, and die as well as you may."
But he looked in the same direction the alchemist had. And his eyes, too, met Shakespeare's. He nodded thoughtfully to himself. He knows my face, Shakespeare thought with something not far from despair. Other people saw as much, too, and moved away from him, so that he stood on a little island of open space in the ocean of the crowd. He'd come down with a disease as deadly as smallpox or the black plague: suspicion. Devils roast you black, Kelley, and use your guts for garters.
On went the procession. Other voices drowned out Edward Kelley's whining claims of innocence. Behind the condemned prisoners rode the Grand Inquisitor, somber in a purple habit, and several members of the House of Commons, their faces smug and fat and self-satisfied. Another company of soldiers-Spaniards and Englishmen mixed again-and the parade was done.
As it went past, the pikemen who'd been holding back the crowd shouldered their weapons. Some folk went on about their business. More streamed after the procession to Tower Hill, to watch the burnings that would follow. Shakespeare stepped out into the muddy street. Along with the rest of the somber spectacle, he wanted to see Edward Kelley die.
"Say what you will about the Spaniards, but they've brought us a fine show," said a man at his elbow.
The fellow's friend nodded. "Better than a bear-baiting or a cockfight, and I never thought I'd say that of any sport."
Tower Hill, north and west of the Tower itself, had been an execution ground since the days of Edward IV, more than a hundred years before. Things were more elaborate now than they had been. Stakes with oil-soaked wood piled high around them waited for the condemned prisoners. Iron cages waited for them, too, in which they would listen to the charges that had brought them here. More iron cages, small ones, awaited the pasteboard effigies of the folk who had died in gaol or escaped the Inquisition's clutches.
At a safe distance from the stakes stood a wooden grandstand. Queen Isabella and King Albert sat on upholstered thrones, surrounded by grandees both English and Spanish on benches. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Grand Inquisitor, and the other dignitaries from the procession joined them. The first group of soldiers fanned out to protect the grandstand along with the men already there. The rest kept back the crowd.
After Philip Stubbes was locked in his cage, he began singing hymns and shouting, "Vanity and lies! Beware of Popish vanity and lies!" A monk spoke to him. He defiantly shook his head and kept on shouting. The monk unlocked the cage. He and several of his fellows went in. They bound Stubbes' hands and gagged him to keep him from disrupting the last part of the ceremony.
That worked less well than they must have hoped. When the charge of heresy was read out against him, he made a leg like a courtier, as if it were praise. More than a few people in the crowd laughed and clapped their hands.
Shakespeare didn't. No way to know whose eyes may be upon me, and all the more so after that Kelley-damnation take him!-called out my name. He nervously fingered his little chin beard. A hard business, living in a kingdom where the rulers sit uneasy on the throne and their minions course after foes as hounds course after stags.
He plucked out a hair. The small, brief pain turned his thoughts to a new channel. In a play, could I place a man of Stubbes' courage? he wondered. Or would the groundlings find him impossible to credit?
One by one, the captives sentenced to more imprisonment or to wear the sanbenito were led away. Only those who would die remained. They were led out of their cages and chained to the stakes. As monks made the sign of the cross, executioners strangled a couple of them: men who had repented of their errors, whether sincerely or to gain an easier death.
Edward Kelley cried, "Me! Me! In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, me!" But his Latin, his learning, did him no good at all.
The inquisitors looked toward the Queen. Isabella was in her early thirties, a couple of years younger than Shakespeare, and swarthy even for a Spaniard-to English eyes, she seemed not far from a Moor. The enormous, snowy-white ruff she wore only accented her dark skin. Swarthy or not, though, she was the Queen; Albert held the throne through his marriage to her. She raised her hand, then let it fall.
And, as it fell, the executioners hurled torches into the waiting fagots. They caught at once. The roar of the flames almost drowned out the screams from the burning men. The roar of the crowd came closer still. That baying had a heavy, almost lustful, undertone to it. Watching others die while one still lived . . .
Better him than me, Shakespeare thought as fire swallowed Edward Kelley. The mixture of shame and relief churning inside him made him want to spew. Oh, dear God, better him than me. He turned away from the stakes, from the reek of charred flesh, and hurried back into the city.
Lope Félix de Vega Carpio had been in London for more than nine years, and in all that time he didn't think he'd been warm outdoors even once. The English boasted of their springtime. It came two months later here than in Madrid, where it would have been reckoned a mild winter. As for summer . . . He rolled his eyes. As best he could tell, there was no such thing as an English summer.
Still and all, there were compensations. He snuggled down deeper under the feather-filled comforter and kissed the woman he kept company there. "Ah, Maude," he said, "I understand why you English women are so fair." He had a gift for language and languages; his English, though accented, was fluent.
"What's that, love?" Maude Fuller asked, lazy and sleepy after love. She was in her middle twenties, around ten years younger than he, and not merely a blonde-blondes were known in Spain-but with hair the color of fire and a skin paler than milk. Even her nipples held barely a tinge of color.
Idly, Lope teased one between his thumb and forefinger. "I know why thou art so fair," he repeated. "How couldst thou be otherwise, when the sun never touches thee?"
He let his hand stray lower, sliding along the smooth, soft skin of her belly toward the joining of her legs. The hair there was as astonishingly red as that on her head. Just thinking about it inflamed him. Since the weather here will never warm me, as well the women do, he thought. Of course, the women back in Spain had warmed him, too. Had he sailed off to America instead of joining the Armada and coming to England aboard the San Juan, no doubt he would have become enamored of one, or two, or six, of the copper-skinned, black-haired Indian women there. Loving women was in his blood.
"What, again, my sweet?" Maude said around a yawn. But his caresses heated her better than the embers in the hearth could. Before long, they began once more. He wondered if he would manage the second round so soon after the first, and knew no little pride when he did. Ten years ago, I'd have taken it for granted, he thought as his thudding heart slowed. Ten years from now . . . He shook his head. He didn't care to think about that. God and the Virgin, but time is cruel. To hold such thoughts at bay, he kissed the Englishwoman again. "Ah, querida-beloved, seest thou what thou dost to me?" he said. But lots of women did that to him. He had two other mistresses in London, though Maude, a recent conquest, knew about neither of them.
And she had secrets from him, as he discovered the worst way possible. Downstairs, a door opened, then slammed shut. "Oh, dear God!" she exclaimed, sitting bolt upright. "My husband!"
"Thine husband?" Despite his horror, de Vega had the sense to keep his voice to a whisper. "Lying minx, thou saidst thou wert a widow!"
"Well, I would be, if he were dead," she answered, her tone absurdly reasonable.
--from Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove, copyright © 2003 Harry Turtledove, published by Roc, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: