Guy by Michale Fitzalan


Robert Cecil stood under the gable of the cloister.

His cape pulled around his body, accentuating his slim silhouette.

It was dawn. He watched his breath cloud before his eyes as he surveyed the red-brick. Looking at the dozens of chimneys and the multitude of dark windows, searching for a candle light or some other sign of life. Maybe some smoke from a chimney, but nothing could be seen, the occupants were all abed.

Only the palace guards, and he, were about and abroad that morning.

Smoke rose from the kitchen chimneys but Cecil could not see them, the bakers and cooks were busy. The ladies and gentlemen of the Court were sleeping off their excesses.

The twilight journey to Hampton Court had been necessary though supremely uncomfortable. Two oarsmen as opposed to one had pulled their blades through the still water of the Thames.  But, the timing of their journey was totally reliant on the tides.

The rising tide meant their journey was much faster than usual; there was nothing worse than rowing against the tide. 

Cecil understood the difficulties of such a strategy since he had always rowed against the tides. He also tried to cement the sands that shifted under the castle of state. 

On this bedrock stood the mill of the Tudor and the Stuart state where treachery and intrigue threatened to dislodge the cogs of the machine.  It was his machine and he had to secure its function; protect its foundations. 

The Thames carried with it swift currents, flowing west, and therefore a journey to Hampton could, with the right tide and the right crew, sometimes, take only an hour and a half. An hour and a half of abject misery for all on board; the rowers had frozen extremities and their ceaseless endeavour was uncomfortably strenuous; the cocoon created for Cecil was just not warm enough. His very inactivity encouraged the chill to crawl around the hides he hid under and slip through chinks. 

The cold chilled his very bones. Despite layers of sheepskin over his legs and around his body, two layers of gloves, one pair of thin pigskin and one pair of thick leather, the chill wind seemed to be able to find every gap and pierce every material.  Cecil’s velvet hat kept his head warm but he could feel his ears turning to ice.  

Cecil dared not touch the red raw numb flesh of his earlobes and cursed his vanity, dressing to meet King James was important and demanded a fashionable hat but a muffler or a woollen shawl would have protected his ears. The rowers were swathed in scarves and mufflers made of cotton and wool. 

Watching the oarsmen sweat; the steam rising off their bodies; vapour trailing from their open mouths; finding gaps in their swaddling like stew simmering in a covered pot; he marvelled at their industry.

They moved like a pendulum, back and forth, their arms worked, rhythmically, they pulled the oars through the water in a reassuringly perfect synchronicity. 

The oarsmen’s hose were covered in horse-blankets and their doublets covered with a leather jerkin, which made him almost envious. They had the sense to wear caps that covered their ears and to cover their nose and mouth with a shawl. The breath trailed over the lips of their shawls. All that Cecil was able to see of the boatmen was their eyes staring at the bank behind him. Every so often, they would turn their heads to check their progress. 

Cecil marvelled at their knowledge of the river as it meandered and twisted through the landscape, their ability to steer in the correct direction and use the currents to place their boat in order to speed its progress.

If only the factions at court could make such swift progress together, admittedly, they all rowed together but it tended to be in different directions. 

While the crew of the boat strived and sweated, he could feel his teeth chattering, the damp had penetrated his bones and it was difficult to keep warm, he had been convinced that he would catch a chill.

The oarsmen’s faces became redder and redder as his became bluer and bluer, it was as if he had cold blood running through his veins.

As each minute passed, he wondered whether he would freeze to death. He wryly observed that fashioning a statue of him would perhaps be made unnecessary, as he would provide his own frozen monument.  

Stiff with cold his body would only require gilding.

Granted, he mused. His prone position would not be flattering for a statesman who should be seen standing up for justice not sitting at his ease.

Thinking further, he decided that as he was the seat of power in England it was perhaps a fitting pose for him to adopt, after all.

Little games and word play in his head kept him occupied; he also thought about the plots and schemes he had concocted. 

All his recipes seemed to be producing the desired results: a pinch of piety, a spoonful of suspicion, all stirred in to the mix. Plots peppered with the nutmeg and cinnamon of gossip and disinformation to spice them up; mistrust sprinkled liberally; stories and rumours, lies and half-truths were all added to the mix. A broth of most satisfying flavour was produced.

The people were hard at work, all the time; there was no room for dissention. It was the bishops and the nobles that vexed Cecil. No gruel could be concocted or created to satisfy their desires.  

In the court kitchen, things were baking, nicely. Fears and self-interest provided the base and all the ingredients, added together, combined to produce a cake of multi-layers and designed to suit all tastes. 

‘Time and tide wait for no man’, he noted and ‘needs must, the devil drives’ he dutifully recited his Shakespeare in his head; he knew each quote by heart.  

The need to be at Hampton Court for the forthcoming conference, the plague emptying London of its courtiers to the countryside and being at the mercy of tide had resulted in this miserable journey. He planned meticulously but he could not control some events.

James was determined to have this conference and it could not be delayed. As he froze, he idly recited the lines of Brutus in Julius Caesar; he admired the sense and sentiments of the soliloquy: 

‘There is a tide in the affairs of men, 

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; 

Omitted, all the voyage of their life, 

Is bound in shallows and in miseries. 

On such a full sea are we now afloat, 

And we must take the current when it serves, 

Or lose our ventures.’

What wise words.

He had taken the tide at the flood and had overseen the successful succession of James to the throne, augmenting the earlier work Walsingham, his father, Lord Burghley, and he had achieved under ‘Good Queen Bess’, succeeding in securing the state. 

The crown was safe for the time being. Nevertheless, there was constant danger of losing the advantage, there were different interest groups in the state and even his cousin, Francis Bacon, was vying for power, plotting to wrestle it from him. 

Elizabeth had been unable to achieve all she could because of the wars that she had been forced to wage and the poor coffers her father had left through his grandiose lifestyle and costly warmongering.

She tried to be careful but the cost of running a Court was expensive.

Henry had ignored the costs and benefitted form the windfall of selling property and land when he dissolved the monasteries. Elizabeth and James were not as fortunate.  

James, with his extravagance and need for new palaces and entertainments, was likely to undo all that Queen Bess had achieved. 

Late in her reign, Elizabeth’s exchequer had become more bounteous, she had been thrifty throughout her reign and she was almost balancing the books by the end of her monarchy. James and his spendthrift ways were in danger of undoing all her hard work.  

She had worked tirelessly to balance the Exchequer’s books. The commonwealth needed to have peace and security in order for the country to prosper. It was an idea that had been muted long ago by Machiavelli but still it was not a policy that all wanted, especially hotheads like Drake and Raleigh.

Cecil saw the sense, the gallants wanted glory and spoils.

He had succeeded in dispatching one such fool, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, and Sir Walter was, at present, languishing in the Tower of London despite his popularity. It was the safest place for him, inciting everyone to war was not conducive to Cecil’s plans. Cecil had concocted a Catholic plot, put Raleigh at the head and persuaded several nobles. The nobles, including the fearless friend of Essex, Griffin Markham, to implicate Raleigh and be saved execution for a fabricated plot. 

There was danger at every step. The Tudor state had seen much machination and persecution. 

The Stuart state would perhaps fare no better. James’s profligacy would have to be curbed. Cecil remembered the old farming adage: “After a gatherer, there comes a scatterer.”

The previous evening he had travelled by wherry from London Bridge, past the Cathedrals of Saint Paul’s and Southwark, past the Strand, past Westminster Palace, Edward VI’s hospital, Saint Thomas’s on the opposite bank, past Lambeth Palace, eventually mooring at Cheyne Walk at a house near Sir Thomas More’s old home in Chelsea. 

There he had dined with one of his spies in the House of Lords, Thomas Clinton, 3rd Earl of Lincoln and his wife, who was, by coincidence, sister to Thomas Knyvett, Elizabeth Knyvett, keeper of both Westminster and Whitehall palaces, a trusted servant of the Stuarts. They had a conversation into the night that revealed much.  

Cecil had been woken as the tide rose for his trip to Hampton. As dawn broke, he broke his fast: a boiled egg, two Hampstead apples and some Camberwell artichoke hearts served with some Croydon saffron and Epping butter.

Only the finest ingredients were offered to Robert Cecil, the Secretary of State, Baron Cecil of Essendon in the County of Rutland. He decided against the house beer and drank milk from Farringdon instead. 

Once he had rubbed his gums with salt and combed his hair, he went downstairs thanked his host and hostess and walked down to the wherry where he stepped unassisted onto the long overhanging bow and into his seat. He greeted the two wherry-men with a jovial good morning. They sang ‘good morrow’ in reply, making sure they addressed him with a civil tongue; they, after all, wanted a tip for their good service and Cecil was well known for his generosity, if all went well. Equally, he had a reputation revenge on those who displeased him. 

Distractedly, Cecil watched the scenery pass, ticking off each landmark in his mind, Chelsea Reach, Wandsworth, Fulham, Putney, Hammersmith and Barnes. All these places drifted by. Then, the boat sped onto Mortlake that he wryly noted might spell the death of him in the cold damp air. He truly believed he might catch his death of cold that day. 

Further, the oarsmen rowed the boat, onto Ham, Twickenham and Richmond.

Cecil spotted Queen Elizabeth’s old palace there, Richmond Palace. He remembered how resplendent it had been. Yet, now, it was barely visible between the trees, and, finally, they rowed past the village of Kingston. 

Beyond all those villages, Cecil could clearly see. Suddenly rising out of the mist, the mighty, redbrick walls of Hampton Court Palace, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s magnificent edifice.

He still marvelled at it scale, its truly awesome proportions, larger than any awe inspiring Cathedral Cecil had ever seen. 

When the boat arrived at the palace’s waterfront, the boatmen had to pull Cecil from his recumbent position. He was buried under skins of every type, deerskin, sheepskin and goatskin. Therefor, they had to remove these layers before they found him cocooned in his cape.

The decision to avoid the beer at breakfast seemed like an error. Maybe the alcohol might have helped even if it had just dulled his perception of how cold he was. 

The boatmen stepped up onto the wooden jetty where the frozen dew formed a white coating over the boards. Tying up the boat, bow and stern, they returned to haul Cecil out of the boat. Taking an arm each, it was an operation completed with deference but without elegance. Cecil was small and thin, a light load for these strong men. The slippery boards that they trod on seemed to cause them few problems. 

It was with his cape wrapped round him that he stepped gingerly onto the stone path. The path was leading from the water’s edge to the palace gates. 

It was a strange sight; Cecil was small and hunch-backed, flanked by two giants, a child escorted by two beefy bodyguards. He thanked them for escorting him and tipped them both generously. And yet, he was wondering why the palace guard had not rushed to greet him. 

He watched the boatmen depart, stomping cautiously back to their vessel.

He did no envy their return journey even if as he suspected. They moored in Kingston to drink some mulled ale or cider. They would be warm soon; Cecil wondered whether his cold bones would ever thaw.

The frost from dawn provided a slippery route that he found difficult to negotiate even in his leather boots with their soles scored with a knife, in a criss-cross pattern, to give them better grip.  He slid several times. A shiver went up his spine as he almost toppled over; his usual purposeful stride was replaced by a hobble, which did not look very dignified in front of the guards. 

Fortunately, it meant he prevented himself from slipping over, which would have robbed him of all his dignity. The King called him his ‘little elf’. Elizabeth called him her ‘little beagle’, and on that path, he felt more like a Hobgoblin; more than the most powerful man in England, after the King. 

He had long grown immune to what people thought of him or his appearance. He had been trusted with the protection of the crown, trained by Sir Francis Walsingham and by his father William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  

The affairs of state were like walking a tightrope or negotiating a slippery path, caution had to be balanced with progress. His caution accentuated his deformity whereas a determined gait did as much to disguise it. 

“Hail, Watchman of the Guard, good morrow to you.”

Cecil cried haughtily. He was a consummate actor and could feign joviality even though inside he was a frozen ice block and was not in the best of moods either. 

He stood there. Feet apart in front of the ornate iron gates. Keep trying to imitate a valiant but managing only to look less crooked than he was. His breath came in clouds of impatience, he wanted to be inside and warm. 

His good mood was an act; the gate should have been open and the waiting to welcome him. 

It was admittedly early. Cecil conceded that, but he was expected and he could not forgive such an enormous oversight in security and courtesy. He would write a letter to the commander of the palace guard at a later date. He was too cold to tarry that day.  

“Your Lordship, Baron Cecil of Essendon, good day to you; the King sleeps; ‘you come readily on your hour’, indeed you do,” the guard joked. He hoped that by using a phrase Cecil often used, which they both recognised as Shakespearean, he would ingratiate himself to the Secretary of State. 

His words sounded hollow in their false joviality and came out as gusts of steam.

He too, like the rest of the guard, was chilled to the bone. The beer allowance eased the misery but there was a limit to how much alcohol you could drink. A slight drunken flush was all well and good; a staggering step was too much.

“You flatter me, using the expressions that I use, you flatter Shakespeare in knowing his quotation, and you know imitation is the greatest form of flattery, you do well in quoting the bard; I have arrived early, thanks, in part, to my oarsmen. I need to warm myself before my audience can warm to me.” 

“Expected and warmly appreciated,” the guard continued obsequiously yet there was warmth there, too, it was clear he was fond of Cecil.

Years of experience had taught him how much ale was needed to lessen the cold without slurring the speech or affecting the gait.

He feared that he might have overdone the amount of beer that morning and Cecil might have noticed already. 

If only he could have read Cecil’s mind. 

“I wish I were warm but I thank you for your sentiments,” replied Cecil. Cecil was trying to stop his teeth chattering and suppressing a shiver that threatened to rack his body. 

At all costs, he would appear oblivious to the cold. Two Beefeaters armed with pikes stood behind the Watchman of the Guard as he fumbled clumsily with the keys hidden under two thick black wool cloaks. A pair of thick, tan, leather gloves, that he was reluctant to take off, did not help the struggle. 

Eventually, he tore off his gauntlets and stuffed them in the wide leather belt around his waist. Cecil’s face was impassive. 

“I won’t keep you waiting Your Lordship,” he promised rashly and he thought he heard a heavy sigh from Cecil.

With tremulous fingers, grasped the ice-cold ring of the keys from the hook on his belt. His fingers felt frozen already but he persevered.  

The cold was biting and he could feel his fingers becoming so numb that he could not remember when they were so cold and so difficult to manipulate.  

Gingerly grasping the cold vertical bar of the gate, he swung it open, pulling hard so that he should not have to hold on for too long. The momentum achieved and the design of the hinge brought the gate wide open to allow the baron through. 

Cecil wasted no time in slipping through the gap. His countenance did not betray his fury at such incompetence. He had been clearly visible from the river and the fathead had waited until he was standing at the gate to open it.   

“Thank you.” he said slipping his slight frame through the gap as the gate swung back. For the first time that day he smiled with satisfaction. He would soon be warm. His penance was almost over, the ordeal by ice would be part of the history of the day, soon. 

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Your Lordship; it is cold and bitter.”

The fumbling guard apologised profusely, again using one of Cecil’s phrases that both knew he had borrowed from Shakespeare. 

He hoped that the ‘in-joke’ would serve to lighten the tension in the air that lingered like tobacco smoke in a tavern. 

It was not a very auspicious start to Cecil’s visit. The Watchman of the Guard had noticed that his lordship had looked slightly displeased at having to wait so long. It did not do to upset one of the most powerful men in the kingdom.

It was difficult to know when Cecil might suddenly reappear so the guard decided, right there, to limit his intake of beer and redouble his vigilance just in case Cecil remembered his poor reception. He cursed his luck. Fortune’s fickle wheel had turned.   

He hoped that he had got away with not being at hand when Cecil arrived but he could not tell for sure and the beer was befuddling his thinking.

All the guards had a generous allowance of beer and it helped to ease the boredom. The chill but it was easy to have one drop too many in cold weather or on long nights.  

While Cecil stayed at Hampton Court, and for the duration of the conference there, that would never be the case from thence.

“Indeed it is cold and bitter, especially for me, out on the Thames where the chill penetrates the very bones,” Cecil explained casually as if he were describing the fate of someone he did not know rather than being the sufferer himself.

“You are most welcome to the palace and the warmth within,” the guard mumbled, not knowing how to apologise properly. 

Without glancing back or acknowledging the pikemen, who had appeared from who knew where and stood on either side of the gate as he passed through it.

Cecil strode towards the archway that would lead to the Great Hall, willing himself not to slip or slide on the hoar frost.

The grass on the lawn had ice crystals on every blade, the flowers in their beds had frozen fronds.  

He did not feel so bad after all, on reflection, the movement was making him feel warmer and soon, he would be warmer still. As he passed through the main archway, he nodded at two further Beefeaters, who brought the shaft of their pikes to their right shoulders in salute.

Instead of continuing straight on to the palace doors, he turned left and stopped under the third gable of the cloistered garden and there, Cecil stood under the arched stonework, waiting for his man, William Owen. 

While he waited, he stomped his boots and flapped his arms inside his cape, looking like a raven at the Tower, trying to take off from a stationary position. 

Evidently, there had been no time to brush it. It was clear that he had overslept and, like the palace guards, he had mistimed the arrival of Cecil. 

Both men knew that Owen should have been waiting for his chief not keeping him waiting. 

Cecil was strict about punctuality and Owen knew that it did not do to antagonise him. 

Owen cursed his misfortune, he was normally always on time, blaming his servant for oversleeping would not help the situation, though giving his servant a thorough kicking as he slept, before he left, would have done much to mollify Owen’s mood.

“Apologies, Your Lordship,” he hissed angrily, he had meant to sound apologetic but it sounded as if Cecil and not he was at fault. Remembering, at that very moment, the fact that he had forgotten to give his servant boy a round kicking for not waking him up made him feel even angrier. “Have you been here long?”

“A few miserable moments,” Cecil responded casually, “but I am frozen inside and out so it makes little difference.”  

“What news of the Plague?” Owen asked, deciding a change of subject might improve both their moods.

“I think the plague will not be the death of me, the cold will.”

“So it is spent?”

“Not yet, James was right to move his court here, even though it is a cold and desolate place, it is safer. I cannot see much smoke coming from the chimneys,” Cecil said, seemingly depressed by all around him. He looked around the house for signs of light or life. “There are a few wisps of smoke from the direction of the kitchen.”

Cecil’s home in London was always warm. How he wished that he had stayed there, he would have done so but for urgent matters of state.

“The household stayed up late last night and the fires will be lit soon, when ‘His Majesty’ rises,” Owen assured him, feeling relieved that Cecil’s anger was directed at the slovenly members of the court and not at him.

“Only the kitchen fires are burning. You have the reports for me?”

“Indeed, Baron, I do,” replied Owen, fumbling in the folds of the lining of his cape to extricate the satchel that he had managed to slip over his shoulder as he left his room. 

Digging around inside it brought forth, three scrolls and a sealed envelope, which he handed to Cecil while stomping himself. He had not been out in the cold for long but dressed as he was it was long enough.  Icy fingers of damp cold slipped under his cape and beneath his silk shirt. 

“Lead me to the kitchens where that fire will thaw me out!” Cecil demanded, having made his mind up as to the best course of action during this hiatus. Inwardly, he cursed the other members of the court who were still lying in bed at this hour. What had happened to: ‘early to bed and early to rise’?

The court seemed to have changed beyond recognition, in the time of Elizabeth, it was a time of hard work and inhibition; James’s court avoided work and embraced hedonism. They preferred hunting to working for the common wealth.  

Cecil placed himself firmly in front of the fire, staring into the flames as he stood. He could feel the heat from the roaring fire, felt the damp of the river evaporate from his body and could feel his blood becoming warmer.  

A story by Michael Fitzalan

Michael Fitzalan’s first novel gained cult status and here are some others: Waterwitch was a hit with those who have ever sailed; two brothers battle storms and Spanish support for the Malvinas in an attempt to meet up with their girlfriends in Ibiza. They have to get from The Algarve to Ibiza, all very straightforward until engine failure and storms threaten to sink all their plans. The Taint Gallery tells the story of a modern Romeo and Juliet; the story is set in Cheslea and Fulham, not Verona, nevertheless, it is a doomed relationship. The book was shunned by big publishers for its highly charged and graphic sexual content and the small publisher who produced the book folded, copies are rare. A reprint is planned for its twentieth anniversary next year; it is still as pertinent and shocking today as it was back in 1996. Switch is an amazing mixture of Franz Kafka realism yet it reads like a Raymond Chandler thriller. Joe Ederer falls for a French girl but he is recovering from being dumped by his English girlfriend. A fish out of water in London, he chases her home only to be rejected. He hooks up with a suffocating drug addict and that is when his nightmares begin. Major Bruton’s Safari is the story of innocents abroad; a family invited to celebrate the coronation of the Kabaka of Buganda become indoctrinated into the ways of Africa. With an acerbic observer on hand, the family experience the warmth and ways of Uganda that help them to understand themselves a little better. IPG – Innocent Proven Guilty is about a teacher, Philip Hayward whose brother sold their shared flat and ran off to America with the proceeds. Philip bumps into his brother’s ex-girlfriend and she tells him his brother is back. Racing to the address she gave him, he arrives to find his brother with a knife in his back. As he leaves, his shoes leave bloody footprints and the police come looking for him. Carom – Finn McHugh and his team take on a swindler and smuggler, Didier, who is depraved in so many ways. They know he is smuggling art and drugs; he must be stopped before others take him out. The Cubans, want him dead, Finn wants to break the smuggling ring. Who will win? Remember the Fifth November – Guy Fawkes was innocent, Catesby was a broken man who brought his children up in the Anglican faith, yet Robert Cecil arranged for them to be portrayed as terrible villains. With a spy service second to none and with moles everywhere how could someone hatch a plot like this and fail to be discovered? The answer, they could not. Read the truth! One – Bullying does not go on anymore in schools. I would not bet on it. Weep as you read the terrible story of a school bully and the misery he dispenses to all the boys. Then, cheer as one of his victims takes revenge. Take a trip to a prep school in a time when kids built tree houses, danced and swung on Tarzan ropes!

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