The Jesuit Letter

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Chapter I

Summer, 1575

The nudge in the ribs was short of a kick, but not by much. Christopher Tyburn came awake abruptly, his right hand reaching for his absent sword even before his grey eyes snapped open, sweeping his dim surroundings. Four years of mornings in Flanders had bred that habit into his very bones.

Tyburn was wrapped in a frayed woolen blanket, secure under the leafy vault of a large shadowy oak tree that was barely palpable in the pre-dawn gloom. A heavy wooden wagon stood hard by the spreading tree. From the stable in the innyard drifted a quiet nicker. The air smelled damp and thick, heavy with the scent of the inn’s waste pile. Except for a faint yellow flicker in the kitchen window, the inn was dark. Dawn was a slender promise beginning to eclipse the stars still manifest in the eastern sky.

“Up, you base player, rouse yourself from the muck.” The voice drifted down to Tyburn who sat up, cocked his head and glanced up at the shadow standing beside him. Tyburn couldn’t see it, but he sensed Alec was laughing at him in the dark.

“I am up, you poxed bastard.” Tyburn rubbed his neck. “Not even dawn, you know Oldcastle hasn’t even rolled off his whore yet.”

“He wants an early start.” Alec commented

“God’s bones . . .” Tyburn grimaced. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his neck to loosen the kinks left by the tree roots. Throwing off the blanket he got to his feet. Much the Elder was already busying himself shifting the trunks that weighed down the troupe’s well-traveled wagon while his son, Much the Younger, was feeding thin strips of bark and twigs into the embers, building the hot coals he had snatched from the inn’s fire into a steady and welcoming yellow flame.

“Too early even for the bloody rooster,” Tyburn muttered.

Alec grinned, gleaming teeth masked by the gloom. “Don’t fool yourself, that old’un’s rooster has been risen all night with that mort.”

“It might shock an Oxford man like yourself, but I was speaking of the actual cock’s crow,” Tyburn commented, his voice sour.

“So was I.” Alec laughed and made an abrupt gesture at one of the troupe walking past. “Robbie!” he called, handing a penny to the boy, “go filch us some breakfast like a half-decent servant should.”

Robbie took the coin with deft hands and gave the two players a sardonic grin in reply. “And hen’s eggs this time, Robbie, none of your goose eggs, you drigger, the bloody things give me the flux.”

Robbie waved a quick acknowledgement and vanished into the pre-dawn darkness.

Tyburn sat, pulled on his worn boots, yawned and ran one hand through his dark hair. “Where away today?” he asked Alec.

“North-east, along Evesham road, heading up towards Warwick. Just four days from here to London, but I expect we’ll slip over to Coventry, loop north-east and back down through your old steading in Cambridge first. Today, we’re for Stratford, up on the Avon.”

“So why the early rise?” said Tyburn. The sun was a low lambent glow pinking the eastern horizon.

Alec grinned. “Oldcastle likes his nuncheon.” He chuckled at Tyburn’s puzzlement. “He’s a cheap bastard, but likes to eat well, Kit. He arrives mid-morning in a nice market-town, befuddles the alderman with his charms and sophistication and gets”--he paused dramatically--“an invitation to dine.” Alec finished with a gaudy flourish of gestures, a flawless mimicry of Oldcastle’s flamboyant and overwrought mannerisms.

Tyburn grinned, unable to prevent himself in the face of Alec’s cheery demeanor.

A loud bellow rose from the innyard. Alec winced. “Speaking of roosters…”

“Up, you poxed coxcombs, you coves, we’ve a road ahead of us!” It was a familiar deep voice, long practiced at projecting to the deepest recesses of an innyard or manor hall. “By God’s Mother you are a lazy one, Alleyn, roll out of that blanket you worthless jackanapes, we’ve a road to be on.”


The sun was cresting over the eastern horizon before the troupe was moving down the rutted road, the wagon creaking a weary rhythm behind them, drawn by a sway-backed mottled dun horse that had seen better days.

Tyburn was chewing on a cold chicken leg as they walked, a breakfast courtesy of Alec’s largesse and his canny servant Robbie Hobson. “So where did Robbie learn to filch chicken so well?” he asked distracted, trying and failing to contain a cavernous yawn. “Robbie?” Alec chuckled. “Our Robbie’s no common draw-latch[1]. He was an angler in London, until he caught the wrong fish.”

“An angler?”

“You know, a hookman. He lifts your goods with a hook on a pole. Sneaky little buggers, every one of them.” Alec shook his head in admiration. “Robbie here got caught lifting some fellow’s bung[2] and had the catchpoles[3] on him right quick. Ducked into the Boar’s Head yard in the middle of performance and stepped right onto the boards, pretending to be a player. That tickled Oldcastle and he sent the bailiffs on their way.”

Alec gestured back at Oldcastle, who had perched his oversized bulk with delicate care on the narrow bench beside the drover for the long slog between towns.

“By Jesu, he might be a cheap bastard but if he likes you, he looks after you.” Alec concluded.

Behind Oldcastle, the livery flag of the troupe flapped disconsolately in the capricious morning breeze, announcing to the world that the Earl of Worcester’s Men were on the road. Tyburn knew that the flag and its livery, along with the paper writ and vellum letters in Oldcastle’s trunk, were the only tangible protection the troupe had against town bailiffs and Puritan officials.

The Poor Laws had outlawed the chronic vagrancy and poor endemic to many towns, pushing the indigent into workhouses or prisons or more often into an uncertain wayward lifestyle of begging, haunting the highways and local parishes until either imprisoned or pushed on to a new locale by the bailiffs or sheriff. In the eyes of many Puritan officials, players ranked considerably lower in status than even vagrants, despite the nominal patronage of the queen and the nobility. Only a troupe with influence, protection and patronage could safely tour the countryside and remain free of official interference.

The Earl of Worcester’s Men were one such troupe. They had been touring since mid-May, following the great roads that threaded south and west, looping up through Bristol and Warwick, before swinging around and heading back into London at summer’s end. Death and Worcester’s mercurial personality had been the instigators of this season’s tour. A brief outbreak of plague in London had provided all the excuse the city officials needed to summarily call a halt to innyard performances within its confines. By itself, Tyburn thought amused, that would have not been enough to rouse Oldcastle into considering a tour. Oldcastle preferred to set up in Southwark, outside of London’s jurisdiction, and wait out the closure in comfort but a letter from the earl had “requested, by their kindness” to perform in Winchester for a friend. Oldcastle had acquiesced and so Worcester’s Men set forth.

Tyburn was aware he was fortunate just to be accompanying the troupe. He had been performing with them for just under a year, since his return from the Low Countries. To Oldcastle, Tyburn was yet another irritant foisted on him by his unpredictable patron. Christopher Tyburn, late of Her Majesty’s service in Holland, was a mere untried performer at a time when apprentice actors were starving in the London streets. If not for the intervention of the Earl of Worcester, who had deigned to assist an ex-soldier for his own particular purposes, Tyburn would be one more ruffian scuffling for an existence in the London back-alleys.

As a paid performer rather than a “sharer” Tyburn also was under no illusions–Oldcastle would keep Tyburn in the troupe only so long as Tyburn could perform to his satisfaction. Oldcastle was an old hand at balancing his patron’s whimsies with cold, hard practicalities and “losing” a player foisted on him against his will would have been an easy task after the first few months passed. Oldcastle’s largesse could end at any time. Surprisingly thus far, it had not done so and Tyburn now trudged the dusty roads of Warwickshire enjoying the early morning sunshine and a well roasted chicken leg for his breakfast.

The two walking men were a study in contrasts. Alec Masterson was tall, elegant with fine, aquiline features topped by a shaggy mass of thick blond hair that bespoke his Norse ancestry. Well dressed and cheery, he was the son of a wealthy London guild master, a man whose varied interests in properties and merchantry had purchased him rich lands in Surrey and Hampshire, a fine house in London on a fashionable street and a fat sinecure at court.

Alec’s chosen profession upon leaving Oxford had earned him his father’s lasting wrath, tempered only by the recognition that it could well have been much worse. A steady stream of Oxford students were abandoning their education in England altogether and voluntarily taking the road to exile in Rheims and Douai to pursue their studies at schools established by exiled Catholic priests. For the exiles, returning to England was a dangerous and difficult undertaking, in particular since the Pope had condemned the queen as a heretic only a few years previous. Even a public renunciation of the Catholic faith couldn’t guarantee protection for recusants; many who had departed on a whim or in a fit of rebellious student angst found themselves adrift on the continent in lonesome exile or imprisoned with alacrity upon their return.

Alec’s father provided his son a generous staple income, hoping for the day that Alec would come to his senses and abandon his wayward life as a player.

Tyburn was slightly shorter than Alec, but was Alec’s converse in both dress and appearance. The dark-haired, saturnine Tyburn was lean and well-muscled. A thin scar edged along his left jawline and curled, tapering up onto his lower cheek like an off-set frown. The scar gave Tyburn’s face a sinister cast tempered only by his steady grey eyes.

Tyburn, like Alec, had also walked away from his studies. Ensconced at Cambridge, Tyburn had abandoned his charge five years previous to cast his fate in with Thomas Morgan and Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s expedition to Holland and Flanders.

Unlike Alec, Tyburn had no family largesse to fall back on, just the thin credit and the reluctant miser’s wage extended to him by Oldcastle. Tyburn’s clothing was worn, his boots thin-soled and his doublet threadbare and torn. To an outside observer the difference between vagabond and player was a narrow one at best.

The road the players traveled was rutted, uneven and poorly maintained, following a much older Roman road that had once traced a similar path through the low, rolling English countryside. The landscape was dotted with small farming hamlets nestling together in quiet green hollows and crossroads. The patchwork of old stone walls that had separated the landscape into small mixed plots and parcels had given way to larger allotments and grazing. Sheep foraged in placid flocks across a far hillside and the distant lowing of cattle drifted through the air.

It was mid-summer and the air was redolent with the smell of fresh-cut hay. A small group of men were scything away in the early morning sunlight, slicing through the tall grass and piling it into neat stacks, distance belying the intensity of the labour.

The road itself was a well-trafficked one. A heavy laden cart was trundling slow ahead of the troupe, carrying tight bundled tods of wool. The fine dust swirled behind the cart, drifting back and catching in the players’ throats. The winding path of the River Avon to the south, paralleling the road, was bordered by a thick curtain of woods and revealed by the occasional gleam of cool water that shone through the distant trees like a promise.

A kite circled slow overhead and then arced away across the cloudless blue to the east. Tyburn followed it with his eyes, envying its easy grace. In the far distance, a church spire rose above a thin line of trees.


Will gazed wistfully out the narrow shuttered window and shifted his weight on the hard wooden bench. The blue sky hung cloudless and beckoning, just beyond the rooftops. The clatter of a passing cart trundling through Church Street echoed off the stones while the indistinct voices of people passing floated up from beyond the window. In the distance, a dog barked, barely heard over the din of the street and the endless cooing of the pigeons nestling under the wooden eaves.

Will sighed to himself and forced his gaze downwards to his hornbook. The neatly copied Latin passage was still there, waiting for his attention. He felt a nudge on his foot. To his right sat his friend Richard, who. grinned and pointed across the room at the teacher’s assistant, trying in vain to sort through a heavy bound Latin volume while balancing another and pointing out a passage to a smaller group of very young boys. The group included Will’s tow-headed brother Gilbert, who was gazing with vacant boredom into the empty space of the rafters.

Dust motes danced in the sunshine, spiraling upwards while a small dog lay sleeping in the far corner. The heavy-beamed room was long and felt murky and dark, even with the shutters wide and the sunshine flooding in. Lined with a series of long, dark wooden benches and tables, the room was occupied by some thirty-odd children of various ages from six to fourteen. Another man sat at the end of the room, laboriously writing on an old piece of vellum with measured care. The continual sound and soft bustle of small bodies in constant motion rose throughout the space. Legs kicked, fingers poked and whenever the occasional muffled giggle or mumbled sound was heard, the man in the long gown would glance up, his eyes sharp under his brow, glowering at his charges in unspoken reproach. Moments after his head would drop back to the page, the soft noises would resume.

“Hsst. Will, how’s this?” queried Will’s immediate neighbour, shoving a tattered piece of script in front of him. Will peered down at it. The paper was tracked with several ink blotches and thin scratchy, elongated letters.

“God’s bowels, I can’t even read that, Edward--is it Latin or a drawing of a pig?” Will whispered back.

Someone snickered quietly. Edward’sround face was pained when Will glanced up from the sheet. Will sighed in exasperation.

“First, it’s collis, not coleus,” began Will, speaking in a low urgent tone. Edward looked puzzled and leaned over to look at the tattered paper.

“Are you sure?” Edward asked, his voice rising with his querulous tone. Will and the others winced at the volume of Edward’s reply.

“Shut it, you ninny,” one hissed angrily, “you’re going to get us all in trouble.”

Collis,” whispered Will. “Hill, right?”

“So what’s coleus?” Edward was quite puzzled. The other boys shrugged. Will drew a deep annoyed breath.

“It’s . . . well. It’s . . . um . . . your sack.”

“My what?”

“Your sack, your stones . . . you know.” Will pointed down. The other boys tried and failed to stifle a quiet burst of laughter as Edward nodded, blushing furiously.

Coleus--what’s that?” whispered Richard in a mocking imitation of Edward. “Will, can you tell me the difference between culum and cunnus?[4] I really need to know.”

The other boys tittered, even the ones whose Latin was so indifferent that they didn’t know the meaning of the joke. “Horum, harum whore![5]” one chirped.

Richard snickered. Will grinned and said “Pedagogue, peticatum.[6]” Several boys stifled their laughter by stuffing the ends of their sleeves in their mouths. Emboldened Will ventured, “Scortum[7] sup.”

The whip-crack of the long, flat wooden paddle against the table brought the quiet sniggering laughter to an abrupt and startling halt. Ashen, Will looked up and saw the teacher standing beside their table, looking down on the collection of boys. The long stick was poised like a promise over the dark scarred wood surface.

Verbaarum delectus orige est e lequentrai,” the man intoned. He pointed the stick at Will. “Translate.”

“Delight in the words and the origin of eloquence,” Will replied, watching the stick with wary eyes. The man ventured a thin humorless smile behind his long beard.

The remainder of the class had turned and was watching the scene soundlessly. The assistant teacher had set down his tome and started over, halted by an abrupt dismissive wave of the man’s hand. Even the dozing yellow dog had deigned to lift its head, yawned and then settled back down in its sunlight patch.

“The rest of you begone--it is nuncheon.” The teacher gestured to the door. The boys scrambled off the bench, Gilbert hesitating for a moment before turning and joining the group as they tumbled out the door and down the exterior staircase, their voices fading. “Not you.” The teacher barred Will from leaving. “Sit,” he commanded, pointing with the wide, flattened end of the stick.

“Whatever am I to do with you, young Will?” The stern look in his eyes faded and amusement stole across his face. He stroked his long beard pensively. “I don’t think I want to hear you complete that Latin you were practicing, do I?”

“No, Master Hunt. I should think not,” replied Will.

“You are a hell-wean, make no mistake, Master Shakespeare. Cleverer than any student I have ever seen but a hell-wean nonetheless.” He paused. “Abeunt studia in mores [8]– do you agree?”

Will nodded.

“By the love of Christ but you do deserve a beating for abusing the Latin, but I am impressed with your vocabulary.” The schoolmaster arched a sardonic brow. “And beating you doesn’t seem to have much effect. I sense I am plowing in the river, trying to restrain your fancies.” Hunt stood and smacked the long, flattened stick against his palm several times with ominous intent.

“Off you go, Master Shakespeare, and try to be back in time for the afternoon lessons.”

Will slid off the bench and turned towards the door.

“Will?”

“Sir?”

“There is more found here than your word games. We school you for more than just rote recitation and parroting the Catechism. Sin is all around us in this quiet land, and God. . . well, God is oftentimes not seen or manifested in men’s hearts. The world is a place of avarice and pain. Only in God’s grace can we walk”--he paused, hesitated, and then continued with greater assurance. “Knowledge can be a path to salvation and understanding of God’s great mercies. Remember that, when the time comes.”

Will paused, looking at the schoolmaster for a moment, then turned and clattered down the outside stairs.

“Well,” Hunt muttered to himself, “you could at least pretend you’d suffered a whipping for my reputation’s sake.”

Will turned right towards the stony confines of Chapel Street. He hadn’t gone four paces when Richard popped out of the doorway he’d been leaning in and grasped Will’s upper arm. A full head shorter, Gilbert hovered beside him, an uncertain grin on his face.

“Did you get another whipping?” Richard was grinning.

“Not this time,” Will responded, “but I do think I’ve galled him enough today.”

“God’s Mercy on you, Will, but your father won’t spare you the beating Master Hunt should have laid on you, if he finds out.” Richard laughed.

Will winced inwardly. His father had little patience for what he termed “foolish flightings” and games and even less with Will’s continuing intransigence at the restrictions and rules of the King Edward Grammar School. Will glared at Gilbert.

“You better keep that trap of yours shut,” Will growled, “or anything lands on me, you’ll be the worse for it.”

Richard nodded in sage agreement as the affronted Gilbert chirped, “Will! I wouldn’t blow on you.”

“I find you cracking off, I’ll whip you good.” Will gave Gilbert another hard look, one that failed to make an impression as Gilbert grinned in response.

A cart trundled past, its ungreased wheels squeaking. It was stacked high with heavy yellowing tods of wool and followed by a great buzzing mass of flies. Will regarded it with a jaundiced eye, realizing it was probably bound for Henley Street and his father’s small barn.

“Hey, what’s that?” Richard paused, listening.

A low brassy bellow rose faint from the southwest.

“Will, it’s a troupe!” Richard pulled hard on Will’s arm. Another booming trumpet sounded and the rattle of a drum drifted down, tatting light and rhythmic in the distance.

“Come on!” Will shouted at his friend and the two, leaving Gilbert gawping, shot past the heavily-laden carter, dodged a rooting pig and a squat woman carrying a bundle of clothes and headed up Tinker’s Lane to where the Evesham Road met Stratford proper. “Last one there is Jack o’ Lent.[9]” The boys’ excited shouts bounced off the timber-framed buildings, blending with the ragged sound of a trumpet.

Worcester’s Men had arrived.



[1] Petty thief

[2] Purse

[3] Arresting officer

[4] Culum = buttocks, cunnus = female genitalia

[5] Latin demonstrative pronouns – “his” in the genitive tense

[6] Peticatum = slang for anal intercourse

[7] Scortum = whore

[8] “Studies go to form character”

[9] Fool figure


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