'Now. Sir Martin.' The Queen held the Mayor in her gaze. 'My barge is ready?' She pointed toward The Thames.
'Your Highness.' The Lord Mayor of London doffed his hat as Elizabeth swept past. 'Yes, Majesty,' He cast his eyes to the ground, 'All of your entourage and consort await departure.' With a bow he stepped aside.
'Good.' Elizabeth continued down the ramp onto the barge. Through the corridor of oarsmen in their brilliant white jackets and bright red trousers, holding their oars at arms. Snatched up a cushion from a seat, turned around and flung it at Leicester, who caught it, plumped it, and sat beside his Queen.
Leicester held his mirth, 'What has your goat now, my goodly Majesty?'
The Queen's eyes narrowed for a breath which she released in a huff of impatience. 'As if you have no idea.' She forced a smile.
The oarsmen took up their seats, nine to port and starboard with their oars high while the port side pushed the boat into the muddy waters of the River Thames. Two Yeoman Warders stood at the entrance to the royal enclosure ensuring Her Majesty and the Earl of Leicester would not be disturbed; by anyone.
A string quartet of black Moors began to play at the prow, filling the barge with their soft melodies. The gold roses on their red velvet jackets glittered in the sun, sending light dancing across the deck.
'Most pleasing, indeed.' Elizabeth waved a hand at the musicians who continued with their eyes lowered so as not to displease their monarch.
'Elizabeth, why do you tease?' Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stroked his greying beard. 'Could any man be more loyal than I? And yet I was not to be yours,' he soughed.
'Perhaps, but your scurrilous Commonwealth.' Elizabeth leaned across Leicester gesticulating at the southern bank of the river. 'Magnificent animals.' She clasped her gloved hands to her mouth. 'Who would keep such fine stock on the Marsh?'
'Are we going to discuss the matter at hand or talk horses?' The Earl straightened his hat.
Elizabeth slid her hands down her dress, drawing a long breath. She brought them to rest on her knees. She tapped her fingers twice, inspected the delicate stitching of her purple gloves, before snapping her head toward her good friend.
'I... never... wanted... this, Leicester,' with a tilt of her head. 'I wanted Dover.' She pushed herself back into her seat, folded her hands in her lap with her nose toward the sky.
'God's strength,' the Earl muttered to the swirling eddies of the oars.
'Bridge approaching!' the Mayor barked.
Shadows played over the water, masking the excrement flowing on the river. Bobbing corpses of cats and dogs made edible rafts for the sleek furred rats. The ebbing tide lacked the pull to drag the foul stench of yesterday's life out of the city. Buckets of filth poured from the triple-storied shops and tenements bordering the two lanes of traffic on London Bridge. Carts piled with goods from every country of the world vied for carriageway alongside the dung-carts of the street cleaners. Two hundred thousand beating hearts fought for space on the overcrowded streets.
'Gloriana, Gloriana,' the cheers of the peasantry hailed Queen and country as the Royal barge slipped beneath the bridge eastward toward Tilbury below the death gaze of the severed heads atop crude pikes.
'I shall be glad when we pass beyond the city limits with the Tower to our back and the green fields of England unroll before us.' Leicester winced as he adjusted the pillows in his ornate carved chair. 'Was this seat meant to be sat on by noble blood?'
'Are you going to gripe all the way or must I issue a decree of silence?' Elizabeth scowled at her companion. Her eye was drawn to the plight of three men hanging from chains along the Southwark shore. 'A clear sign the Liberties come at a cost.'
The Queen turned her attention to the opposite bank where the grey towers thrust up at the sky warded by the dark stone bailey, a challenge and threat to all would be invaders.
The Thames River meandered through the English countryside pulling the royal barge toward the sea. The number of traders and ferries dwindled as the city faded behind them. The sun slipped across the August sky, heading into the afternoon wastes as the royal party dined on hampers. 'Have you considered who might succeed you? Leicester opened a hamper. Taking out a decanter of wine he poured them both a drink. Queen Elizabeth sipped from a golden goblet. 'Essex, if tutored, would make a worthy King, would he not? Right now, he is preparing your troops, is he not.'
'Tell me.' Elizabeth peered into the distance where small barges were aligning across the half-mile width of the Thames. 'What are they doing? Why are so many assembled?'
The Queen reclined in her seat as the barge angled toward the northern shore and the sight of Tilbury Fort sitting amongst its spike palisade.
'Before I left here to collect you in person, I had them set a boom across the Thames. Should the vile Spanish make passage up the river, they will strike the anchored masts.'
'Will it work?' Elizabeth smiled, returning her goblet.
'I hope not to find out.' The Earl of Leicester rose to his feet as the barge nestled against the jetty. 'Take care, my Queen, the moorings are not fastened, and the lands here are soft underfoot.'
'I would like to inspect the troops before traveling to Saffron House,' Elizabeth strode from the boat toward the entrance.
'Essex will have everything ready for the morrow, Majesty, will it not wait another day?'
Elizabeth spun around, 'It may.' Glaring at Leicester, she snapped, 'I will not.'
'As you wish,' Leicester lowered his head, allowing Elizabeth to continue to the Blockhouse.
'Are we prepared or not?'
Elizabeth looked out of the Royal Pavilion, across the Thames to Gravesend, where the muzzles of a dozen lion-hearted culverts waited to roar.
'Essex has the men as ready as possible, given the shortness of time he has had to recruit and train.' Leicester checked the buttons of his collar giving them a deft twist of his thumb. 'For one so young he has proven himself beyond measure.'
'I do hope so. After yesterday's poor showing. Nothing more than a few armed peasants having a stab at each other.' Elizabeth waved a limp hand at Leicester.
'Essex assures me the men are ready to face any invader foolhardy enough to step foot on these shores.' The Earl of Leicester coughed into his hand, wiping the dark spots with a kerchief.
'I do hope you're not going to die on me, Leicester. It would be most inconsiderate of you on such a fine day in front of all the men.'
The clash of steel chimed on the breeze stirring the heart of the Queen. Three man-of-war sat poised in the estuary, survivors of Flanders, elegant as swans with the breath of dragons. With their sails rolled and their anchors lodged in the bed of the Thames, they waited in solemn pride.
'What now?' Leicester stood with one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other he ran through his dark grey hair. He eyed Elizabeth taking in the full image of her glory. Her flame red hair tumbling over her shoulders onto her white and black satin dress. Only the sun outshone her radiance.
'Harness.' Elizabeth stabbed a long finger at the leather straps on the armour rack.
'Oh, seriously, your Majesty?' Leicester strode forward only to be stopped by the hand of the Queen.
'Today they will get more than a mere woman.' Elizabeth straightened her back as the harness was fastened about her. 'They will get a warrior.' Leicester stepped back with a polite bow observing his beloved as she was adorned in silver cuirass and spaulder over her right side.
'You win.' Leicester doffed his black velvet cap.
'Of course.' Elizabeth stood with her hands on her hips inspecting her image in a full-length bronzed mirror. 'The Yeoman and the garter are to remain in the pavilion. Fetch the Black Earl and Essex, together with the Master of Horse. And have my page bring the grey charger. I am ready to inspect the troops.'
Among the men
The bright August sun cut through the fading clouds as Elizabeth stepped out of the royal enclosure with only a handful of her trusted consorts. Thomas, the Black Earl, bowed deep as he took the Sword of State from Elizabeth's hands and strapped it around his waist.
'And how fares my Black Earl this day?' Elizabeth blew a gentle kiss.
'I fair well as ever, my good cousin.' the Black Earl, smoothed his moustache into his beard.
'Let us walk among the men, show them we are not distant figures viewable only through an eyeglass but warriors on the same fields of blood.' Elizabeth removed her gloves and passed them to her page. She ran her hand along the back of her grey mare. 'Have the animal saddled. I shall need her when I address the men this afternoon.'
'Is this necessary?' Leicester huffed.
Elizabeth rounded on Leicester her eyes narrowed, lips drawn in a painted red line.
'Then we will commence the inspection at once, your Majesty.'
The Earl took his place two paces behind the Queen, to her right while Essex fell in at his stepfather's left. None of the men spoke.
'Do lead Thomas, at least someone knows the protocol.' Elizabeth barked.
The small entourage wound its way down from the Pavilion through the ranks of Yeoman and the Royal Garter with the Master of Horse, Sir John Norreys, bringing up the rear.
Surrounded by the clatter of ill-fitted armour and dulled blades, the Gloriana went among her people as one of them. Pikes wielded with the finesse of a clothes pole clashed with shields more used to being ploughshares as the soldiers were drilled beneath the bright sun.
'Again,' the captain barked at his men. A man of no more than eighteen, thick set with a tangle of reddish-brown hair and the beginnings of a beard, shook his aching arms as he raised his sword and took his stance.
'Move aside.' Essex bullied his way through the throng, drawing his thin-bladed cutlass. 'Copy me, boy.' Flourishing his sword, he struck at the young man's weapon. He thrust forward, swept right and left forcing the young man to guard and parry. 'We may make something of you yet.' Essex shoved the hilt of his sword into his opponent's face, leaving a stud mark from the jewelled hand guard, ending the spar. 'Who are you, boy? Do you even have a name?' He smiled at his own wit.
'Johnson, sir.' His fingers clasped the handle of his bastard blade, 'John Johnson.'
'Well, Johnson,' Essex thrust his sword into its sheath. 'Work hard, and you might make a soldier.'
Johnson glowered at Essex strutting along after his Queen, oblivious to the eyes upon him.
'Again.' The captain restored order.
At the end of the field stood the archers learning to tend their fletches. Elizabeth plucked an arrow from the dirt inspecting its shaft. She held her hand out to the master at arms. 'Knife, if you please.' With a practiced hand, she trimmed the fletch and returned the blade. Turning toward the row of dummies she lifted a longbow and knocked the arrow. Drawing it to her lips, she kissed it, and loosed it to its target, striking the gold centre. The men clapped and cheered.
'Care to challenge me, Essex?' Elizabeth coquetted.
'Perchance, under other circumstances, Majesty.' Essex puffed out his chest.
'Careful, Robert,' the soft tones of his stepfather cautioned. 'Always respect who she is.'
'Wise words indeed.' Elizabeth returned the bow to its owner with a courteous smile.
Sitting astride her grey mare. Elizabeth rode into the heart of her men. The Black Earl stepped aside, allowing her Majesty to pass. Leicester slowed his pace until he stood beside the Black Earl. Only Essex remained next to the Queen as though it were his birthright. The handsome dark-haired youth held the royal mount by the reins, turning it to face the amassed rank and file of twenty thousand soldiers and conscripts.
Elizabeth straightened in her saddle, pushing herself as upright as possible.
'My loving people.' She turned her head from left to right taking in the sea of faces staring back at her. She smiled.
'We have been persuaded by those careful of our safety,' Elizabeth waved a hand as though batting a fly. 'To take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; be assured I have no desire to cause distrust.' Bolstering her tone she continued. 'Let tyrants fear. I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my utmost strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore, I am come amongst you, as you see.'
She paused for the cheering to abate. The grey mare pawed at the earth with a snort.
'At this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust.'
Elizabeth turned her mount around searching for more troops to inspire. 'I know I have the body of a feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, a King of England, and think foul scorn should Parma or Spain,' she spat the name in the dirt, 'or any prince of Europe, dare invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.'
The applause of sword on shield beat the air with its iron-clad hands.
'I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you on the word of a prince, they will be paid their due. In the meantime, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead. Never has a prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; and I know you will obey my general. By your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we will soon have a famous victory over these enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of you, my people.'
The lion-hearted roar of England filled the air to cries of 'Gloriana, Gloriana! Long live our Queen.'
The grey mare reared in salutation to her mistress. Essex pulled hard on the reins, bringing the animal under his control. Elizabeth gasped, grasping the young master's shoulder with a firm grip. Essex, ever the hector, raised an eyebrow at his Queen with a playful smile. Elizabeth half-closed her eyes and turned her attention toward the accolade of her subjects.
The Battle of Gravelines
'Mother of God.' The lookout stared ashen-faced as a plague of sails spread along the horizon. An ill wind whipped his dark hair about his face lashing him into action. Snatching up a stake, he thrust its linen wrapped head into a jar of flaming oil. With a glance toward the blistering sickness on the Channel he lowered the dripping torch into the brazier and set the Lizard beacon ablaze. A second fire raged further along the coast, chased by a third and fourth, on and on until the warning came in sight of Plymouth.
A wan sun warmed the sea with a tepid hand reflecting the mood of the walled-up citizens. Church bells rang, not to call the faithful to heel but to summon the captain-at-arms. Cannons grated on iron wheels to peer out and espy the invading Spaniards.
'My lord, the beacons are ablaze to the south and west. Our enemy approaches.' Captain Hawkins stood with his helmet tucked beneath his arm, his back straight, awaiting instruction.
'So be it.' Sir Francis tugged at his beard refining its point. 'We have yet time. We cannot force the tide to our favour.' Drake looked to the sky. 'No rush. With this wind they will be on us in a couple of hours. If Walsingham is right, and he usually is, they will pass us by. It is Parma they seek and his army. It will be our job to harry them and sink as many as we can.'
Captain Hawkins waited for Sir Francis to finish straightening his clothing before they walked out of the town into the sheltered anchorage of the Plym where the fleet awaited the embrace of the waves. With the sun on their backs they boarded the launch and took up their seats as they were rowed across the estuary to the Swallow.
'Any plans forming in that dastardly mind of yours you'd care to share?' Hawkins looked up at his vessel. The Swallow rolled on the turning tide.
'Follow my lead and watch for signal,' Drake smiled. 'Trust me, we'll have fun.'
Richard Hawkins reached for the rope ladder and climbed aboard. He strode across the deck to the other side where Sir Francis' ship, Revenge, sat poised to strike.
'With the wind to our backs we will have them!' Hawkins cried to all who had an ear to hear. 'They shall rue the day they festered our waters.'
The afternoon sun scurried behind darkening clouds as the war front scourged the English coast. The invincible Armada rolled on the turgid seas, their guns belching fire and ruin at the coastal villages.
Aboard the San Martin the confident Duke of Medina Sidonia sat at his dining table sucking oysters from their shells as the guns fell silent. The song of the ocean against the hull took up the battle cry as the mighty Armada of one hundred and thirty ships rode the seas to war. Unmolested the Spaniards sailed forth into the night.
'My good men,' Sidonia raised a crystal glass. 'In a few days we will tear the barren whore from the throne and raise the flag of Spain on the bloody towers of London.' Wine sloshed from bottle to glass, marinating the captain's banquet. 'To Felipe, our King, and the victory of our God!'
'To Felipe and to God!' roared the officers as the miles cruised beneath their hulls.
The door to the captain's cabin burst open. 'The English are at our tails. The rear of the fleet is under fire.'
The messenger held the door as the officers threw the remains of their breakfast wine down their throats and surged onto the deck. The unmistakable sound of cannon fire sobered the Duke's mind.
'Fetch an eyeglass.' Sidonia stood at the poop rail with his hands folded behind his back, counting the shots of the English guns. 'Their guns.' Sidonia took the telescope from the captain, raising it to his eye. Through the curved ranks of the inner fleet where the supplies and settlers sat encircled by the greatest warships the Spanish had ever constructed the flash of cannon fire was closing in. 'Can you hear them? They sound different.'
'Our man in London reports the pirate Raleigh,' Mendoza spat on the deck, 'has refitted his ships, they are strong and swift. We too adapt the merchants. But unlike us, they have no God.'
'You speak the truth, my Captain. True and loyal, one in whom I can trust.' Sidonia hugged Mendoza with the strength of a younger man. 'Ensure the guns are primed and powder is kept dry. We cannot lose this war, the Holy Father has given us his blessing.'
The afternoon darkened into evening, bringing a strong wind to hurl the ocean at the Armada. Cannon fire continued into the dark hours, the bright thunder-flash marking the passage of their enemy.
'What losses?' Sidonia looked up from his map with a raised eyebrow.
'One: the San Salvador sank off Portland. Some of the smaller ships are damaged. The English shot passed right through a slave vessel; some cargo was lost but none of the men. One ship burns but will be out soon.'
Mendoza lifted a slice of salt beef from the platter waving it before his commander. Sidonia brushed it aside smiling as he swilled his wine around the glass.
'Makes me think,' Sidonia refilled his glass. 'The English pigs harass us all day and now leave us in this hole...' Sidonia blew out his cheeks. 'Gravelines, who would name a place such, why? We are going nowhere. Speaking of swine, where is Parma?'
Mendoza adjusted his ruff and coughed into the back of his hand. 'He gives apology. He says he only has twenty ships and none of them worthy enough to assist you.' The captain stood with his hands together as though cradling his stomach.
'Pompous mule!' Sidonia banged his fist on the table, upsetting his wine. 'The King's cousin thinks he is too good to serve me. He will see we do not need his ships. We will rout the English peasants ourselves. Come morning the seas will run red with the blood of the whore's men. I will press my foot to the neck of my enemy and gut the admiral myself.'
Sidonia unfurled a map of the channel before ramming a dagger through one corner to keep it open. An incandescent light flickered upon the name of Calais, scattered by candlelight from the jewelled gold handle of the dagger.
'Signal the fleet to hold fast. No one is to break formation. The pigs harass us all day on the right and left and still we prevail. We can ride out any storm that may assail us.' Sidonia tucked his hand behind his back and gave a nod toward the door. 'Make sure a watch is put on every ship, I do not want another Antwerp on my hands.'
'Very well, your grace.' Mendoza took up a lantern and returned to the deck leaving Sidonia to himself.
Plans in the Dark
A heavy moon bled through blackened skies as the storm swept down the channel with a northerly bite. The weather had turned, no longer kicking a flamenco: the wind now favoured the British as they poured out of the Thames estuary to blockade the narrow sea to Europe. The Revenge sat heavy in the water, her forty-six guns primed and corked, ready to engage the enemy. Vice-Admiral Sir Frances Drake climbed the rope ladder amid the rolling waves to reach the deck of the Ark Royal.
'Admiral Howard,' Drake saluted his superior. 'Frobisher,' he added, shaking the hand of his counterpart.
'Time is critical, Francis, we must make haste. Despite the weather, the Spanish hold formation as tight as a Scotsman's purse strings.' Howard ushered his vice admirals through to his personal quarters.
'Have we any losses?' Frobisher lifted a port decanter from the table and filling a glass he offered it to Thomas Howard. 'Drake?' He poured a second drink for himself watching Drake and Howard arrange model ships on a table map. The ship rolled on the uneasy sea, the dark waters hissing along the length of the seasoned timbers. A candle cast its flickering eye over the plan, its dim light casting much of the quarters in quivering shadows.
'No losses to report, a few peppered hulls and perforated sails. We made good use of the culverts and kept the Spanish at range. Most of their shot was pissed into the ocean,' Drake scoffed.
'Aye, was the same for us too. Their tiny weapons are no threat to our Virgin Queen.' The three commanders laughed at the Admiral's jibe. 'Jesting aside, men, what can we do to break their formation? Unless we can get to the heart of the fleet we have no hope of preventing them from reaching London.'
'I'll not risk a full assault, they'd carve us up.'
A knock at the cabin door cut Martin Frobisher short.
Admiral Howard motioned toward the door. 'See who it is, I'm expecting John Young with his report. The door was opened to a man in his late thirties, his blonde hair tied back in a ponytail wet from the sea. Unlike most men of the day he preferred a clean face to a fashionable beard. His emerald eyes caught the candlelight giving the impression of an inner fire. He stood with his hands straight at his sides, water dripping from his black jacket and trousers.
Young straightened at the voice of the admiral.
'Parma is nowhere to be seen. Walsingham was right about him: he is refusing to come to the aid of Sidonia; there is no love lost between those two. There are patrol boats around the Spanish formation, they carry small signal lanterns. But the commanders are all surrounded. The seas are rough for small vessels but our fleet sits sound.' Young stood at ease.
'We'll not be able to surprise them unless we can take out the patrols first.' Frobisher adjusted the position of his ships on the map. 'There is chance we could slip alongside them and rain havoc on their flank.'
Frobisher drew a line with a finger where he thought the action might take place.
'We'd have better hope of success in the early hours before light breaks: we'd have the sun to our backs.' Drake finished his port and placed his glass back on the silver tray with the emptied decanter.
'Either way we'd risk too many ships in such a manoeuvre. With so many of our hulls turned toward them we'd be impossible to miss. And should they run at us we would be food for fish.' Admiral Howard added his glass to the others.
'Three years ago, we broke the Spanish in Antwerp with fire. Why not this time?' Drake adjusted the ships on the table. 'We position ourselves thus, with the sacrifice between us, holding them until we have them aligned on our enemy. Then we peel off and wait here and here. Admiral, you take the rear to prevent an easy escape.'
'My lords, if I may.' John Young took a step forward. 'The man you need is among us. Frederigo Giambelli is on this ship. With him, we can get started on the construction right away. The wind still favours us, and we can move into position as we prepare.'
'Make it so.' Admiral Howard set eight tokens on the map ahead of the fleet.
John Young left the Admiral's cabin with haste, running the length of the main deck before disappearing through the crew door at the prow. Below decks lanterns swung with the heft of the sea, throwing portions of the hold in and out of shadow and back again. Men stood by their guns, adjusting the powder kegs and stacking cannonballs. All shutters were held fast to keep light from straying out into the night. John Young found his man working in the near dark in the bowels of the ship, ensuring the stack kept dry.
'Giambelli!' Young called out to the figure fastening a net over a pile of barrels.
'Sir.' Giambelli rubbed at the small of his back as he straightened up. His black hair hung in sweated clumps about his scarred face.
'Our services are required by the Admiral.'
'Oh aye,' Giambelli pulled a grimy hat back over his head, securing his hair beneath it.
'We are to repeat our exploits in Belgium upon this hellish Armada.'
Giambelli smiled. 'It's going to be long night.' He looked around the stacked barrels and crates of produce. 'Gather all the kindling you can, and oil. We'll need plenty of oil.'