Slippery Cecil by Michael Fitzalan

Slippery Cecil

Robert Cecil made the whole of the Gunpowder Plot up. his lie was so convincing everyone believed him.

Chapter One, The Missing Items, 4th November 1605

On the first floor, in a room connected to the Palace of Westminster, a roaring fire danced in the grate, a basket of large logs promised a warm night for the occupants.  Slippery Cecil

The walls, painted white, the joist and beams were made of seasoned timber. It was late and the small leaded windows, opposite the fire, looked like an ink spot on parchment paper. 

Most rooms in the building had wall hangings on at least one wall but Mr John Whyneard, member of the Privy Chamber and keeper of the King’s Wardrobe, preferred unadorned simplicity. 

Behind them was a table where the occupants of the chairs had sat and supped on leek soup, cold mutton and pickled onions.

A quantity of sack was consumed, each man matching glass for glass. Slippery Cecil

The pewter decanter had remained on the table but they had filled their glasses before they had risen and they had taken them to the fire to warm the spirit and to warm their spirits. 

The dining table suffered from a draught blowing through the leaded windows, which chilled the room. The whole palace was cold away from the fire and Whyneard worried that Knyvett might want to go on patrol of the precincts. 

Sir Thomas Knyvett had been the other diner at Westminster Palace that night. 

Whyneard wondered why he should have visited on such a cold night, his house was opposite Whitehall, a stone’s throw away from where they sat. 

Stingy old Knyvett could have invited Whyneard, but it would have been warmer, the food better and a messenger could easily be dispatched, and it was five minutes at most, by foot, to where the house was to be found.

It was most disturbing to have a surprise visit. 

The draughty palace was only good for a snooze by the fire away from doors and windows. Knyvett House was modern in comparison. 

The stone walls of the Palace seemed to breathe in the cold, whereas Knyvett’s house was built of brick, Flemish qualle and timber, and the roof was tiled. It was warm and welcoming, a spacious house that had first been leased from Queen Elizabeth. 

Whyneard had visited and had noted that it was wainscoted inside from ceiling to floor in the main hall and two parlours, which had brick floors. In the buttery, kitchen and cellar there were jointed dresser boards instead of wainscoting, and stone was on the floor. 

The first storey had a wainscoted dining room, with a fireplace and painted tile surround, along with six more rooms and three closets. There were four garrets along the roof.  

It was a fitting house for a loyal servant of the Crown, an ideal place to have a pleasant dinner and Whyneard felt the food would have been better cooked, he had found his mutton tougher than normal, and the dishes would have been more varied and plentiful, he was becoming sick of leek soup. Slippery Cecil

The Westminster Palace chef, an old Beefeater whose cooking skills had been honed serving the Earl of Essex’s soldiers in Ireland, he favoured bland and plentiful. Slippery Cecil

Knyvett House was renowned for its architecture and its cook who as widely regarded as one of the finest in the kingdom. 

It was not time to wonder about what might have been if the venues been reversed, but to reflect on their previous conversation.    

“I think you may be correct in your assumption that I have mislaid some of the King’s properties, a French hunting scene embroidered on a wall hanging and some other trifles,” wearily Whyneard complained. He sounded somewhat pompous. 

“Where is the inventory?”Slippery CecilSlippery Cecil

“You gave me the list a few days ago; I checked this morning and they were there, all items, every single one of the King’s props for the opening of parliament; it was a wonderful piece of tapestry work that hunting scene.”

“Well it is missing, now!” complained his guest, Sir Thomas Knyvett, irked at having mentioned the situation three times already and chastising himself inwardly for allowing the conversation to veer on to lighter subjects.

He was not willing to let the matter rest despite Whyneard’s attitude of ‘away dull care’.

“Oh, dear me,” declared Whyneard, showing real concern for the first time, he had managed to dismiss Knyvett’s remarks previously.Slippery CecilSlippery Cecil

 He had been hungry, after all, and that had taken precedent at the time, but the importance of the situation finally hit him as he ruminated after his supper, his belly full. Whyneard was preoccupied; sleep would be most welcome but rest was not possible with all the thoughts swimming in his head. 

There was nothing like the taste of dry sack and mutton, he had to admit, it induced sleep, too, experience told him, but the responsibility given him by King James weighed heavily on his mind. It was a huge shock to know that certain items belonging to the King himself were missing; in truth he had not noticed.

“I can search for those props,” volunteered Sir Thomas Knyvett. Slippery Cecil

Whyneard’s surprise dinner guest, a man of equal importance at court, a fellow member of the Privy Chamber, had been only slightly less than that shock; it was not a good thing, to be thus disturbed at his age. 

He wondered nervously whether Cecil was checking up on him, it would not be the first time. Sir Thomas was known as not only High Sherriff of Norfolk but also Member of Parliament for Thetford and had been Master of Arms to Queen Elizabeth. His knighthood had been bestowed in 1604, showing how respected he was by the King.   Slippery Cecil

“I would not countenance that,” Whyneard almost whined, just managing to keep his voice steady.

“Say no more, it is a trifle.”Slippery Cecil

“I cannot allow it.”

“But, I insist.”

“It is not necessary.”Slippery Cecil

This offer to personally hunt over all the rooms of the palace was even more of a shock. First, this privy councillor arrived unannounced and unexpected, then, he had spotted that various wall hangings and trifles that James had specifically requested were missing. Slippery CecSlippery Cecilil

These items were to furnish the chamber where James would wait before summoning parliament. Not only he lost these items, Whyneard knew that he was not going to be trusted to find them. He was sure that they were not lost, but merely mislaid, being powerless against Knyvett and his masked accusations and insistence.

“It is really no trouble and I would do anything to avoid the displeasure of the King,” replied Knyvett, sounding as if it were a rebuke rather than an offer of assistance.Slippery Cecil

“But you are part of the Privy Chamber, you cannot leave the warmth of the fire for such a mean task,” argued Whyneard.Slippery Cecil

Anyone listening would have detected the half-heartedness of his plea for Knyvett to desist. The whole situation was getting out of hand; it was not right to have the King’s finest men patrolling the precincts of the palace at such a late hour.

I am a Justice of the Peace, suited to search for these things, capable even of punishing the thief. We might even find the culprit. I have served both Her Majesty and His Majesty, allow me to search,” Knyvett insisted, rising from his chair with determination.

“I cannot argue!” demurred Whyneard; the events of the evening were in danger of spoiling a good dinner. “It is a mean task and I cannot allow you to go alone, I must accompany around the grounds.” 

Whyneard rose from the comfort of his chair by the fire; his seat, stuffed with horsehair and the cushions crammed with goose down, had been a comfortable place.

It was particularly irksome to leave his nesting place with the fire giving off a most delicious, soporific heat. 

“I will go alone, I do not wish to trouble you.”Slippery Cecil

Knyvett was insistent so he bowed graciously to the knight, relieved to let him go. He had searched the cellar earlier with Lord Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk . However, all they had found were sack barrels and brushwood. 

He had not expected a visit from Suffolk’s brother-in-law, Sir Thomas Knyvett; he did not like either of them, but had no choice but to offer the latter supper. They were part of Cecil’s cultural circle and so they need to be treated with the utmost respect. 

“My cloak!” demanded Knyvett putting as much force and drama into the request as he could muster, he might have been an old soldier but he was still a soldier and, as such, he possessed a soldier’s lion heart. 

Whyneard winced, he did so abhor such boorish behaviour, a ‘please’ would not have gone amiss he felt, after all, he noted, ‘manners maketh man’.  Knyvett was not one to worry about such trifles. 

That was why so few warmed to him. Slippery Cecil

A pageboy, dressed in a doublet of the knight’s colours, and green hose, materialised from the corner of the room. He had taken one of the dining chairs and sat on it, fidgeting and waiting for his master’s command. His position close to the far corner of the room meant he hardly benefitted from the fire but despite that, he had dozed. 

It was vital that he rested when he could. His days were long and hard, waking before his master to prepare the breakfast and sleeping when his master bade him leave, which could be in the morning; he had no daily nap, in the afternoon, like his master. Slippery Cecil

Fortunately, he had woken moments before with cramp in his thigh, stirring to shift position.

At his master’s command, he had leapt up. Like many important men, Knyvett was impatient; it was fashionable to be so. 

“But it is near midnight Remonstrated Whyneard, not looking forward to leaving the fire.

He rang the bell for his servant while shuddering at the thought of having to brave the cold. 

“No matter, I cannot sleep. I will take my valet and rouse the Captain of the guard.” The page had collected his master’s cloak and sword from the table by the door in the time that it had taken for this exchange to take place. 

“I should accompany you,” Whyneard half-heartedly suggested, feeling that he had to show willing.

He even walked a little way towards the door, waiting, as Knyvett put his sword belt around his waist, the heavy leather belt and it scabbard hung slightly below the more elegant and thinner belt of his doublet. 

He looked every inch a man of action. 

Whyneard was not and wished Knyvett would act alone. Once fastened, the visitor held out his hands for his cloak, which his page laid on his forearm. 

“No need to do that; why who would be here to answer a call should there be another crisis?” Knyvett said.

Whyneard had to admit that he liked the way the fellow thought; there was no need to be rash when Knyvett’s reasoning seemed so sensible. He could settle back into the fire and await news. If this knight wanted to go out on such a night, he would not fight. 

“Your Lordship, your wishes cannot be denied, if you wish to search the precincts for the properties, then, you have my blessing and I hope you have more luck than I” said Whyneard. 

It was easier admitting defeat; this was no time to argue. 

It was not a very auspicious end to a rather long day. Instead of arguing, he smiled graciously, in one deft movement, the knight’s cloak was suddenly held aloft before him; the collar forming a veil for Knyvett’s face, his arms were crossed, his hands held the wings of the collar. 

The beautiful green silk lining shimmered in the firelight. In one graceful movement, the knight raised his hands above his head, flipped the cloak by uncrossing his hands and brought his arms down to his collarbone; instantly turning the coat from inside out to right ways. 

Just like a conjuror, he made the green silk disappear and revealed the drab brown colour of the thick wool cloak, a mantle on his shoulders. The fire roared in its grate when he swept his cloak onto his back; creating a gust of wind up the chimney, embers glowed, visually signalling action as clearly as a cannon blast would sound it, and he was off to do his duty. 

Within a blink of an eye, he had tied a bow at his neck; then, he bowed to his host, thanked him for the meal and marched through the room.

Master and page strode over towards the exit and their exeunt. Neither spoke until they had negotiated the narrow stairwell; a stone spiral staircase, which was not conducive to men in cloaks, carrying swords, making swift progress. 

As they slipped down the steps, Knyvett took a pair of buckskin gloves from his doublet-belt and eased them over his fingers. At the bottom of the stairs, the page collected his cloak from Whyneard’s servant who had been sitting in the pantry waiting for the bell to ring so he could clear away the plates and pottery, cutlery and crockery and go to bed. 

He loathed long nights, he had to be up early the next day, he had been relieved by hearing the sound of them leaving. Hearing footsteps on the stairs; Whyneard’s boy had guessed his guests were leaving and had snatched up the page’s flimsy black. 

He had been in a similar situation himself; being determined to show some kindness to Knyvett’s boy, he did not like the knight and his high-handed ways. 

He was not sure whether he liked his pageboy either, he seemed sullen; then he sensed the boy was judging him and the rest of Whyneard’s household as just not good enough and was sure that that came from living in a house opposite Whitehall. Still, a kindness was a kindness and he was glad to dry a fellow servant’s meagre mantle. 

Rich people took their cloaks to the room to show their expense and thickness; the servants took off their protective layer at the door, rolled it up and handed it to their equal to stuff somewhere, preferably by the oven or near the cooking fire. 

Servants who had the heart and time to do so would try and hang the cloak by a fire. Whyneard’s servant, Ben, stood by the door, only opening it as the knight’s foot hit the last step. As he passed, he took out the bundle from under his arm, handing it to the page before nimbly stepping forward to open the door for the knight.  

“Thank you,” the page whispered, his cloak felt warm. 

Jerome was genuinely grateful and smiled at Ben. 

Whyneard’s boy was a thoughtful one, many a time the page had worn his cloak as wet or as cold as it had been when he had entered a premises. On this visit, the cloak had been aired by the fire and felt warm to the touch. The drizzle that had coated its fibres had disappeared, steamed out by the heat of the fire. 

They both thanked him and wished him good night and the boy closed the door behind them, shivering at the cold outside, the draught of which had almost numbed him before he managed to scamper towards the dying embers of the cooking fire to warm himself before having to traipse upstairs to clear the room as Whyneard dozed by the fire waiting for Knyvett’s return. 

Barely had the door closed, when the knight slowed his pace to allow the page to come level with him and with a swoop of his cloak, rested his arm on his shoulder. 

The page recognised this signal, matched his pace to his master’s, and inclined his head towards the head that now moved towards his ear to whisper. It was cold but his cape was warm, the drizzle, that had fallen when they arrived, had finally stopped after starting at dawn and lasting the day. 

The chill wind that had brought the Arctic to the Palace of Westminster still blew icy draughts. Within a few miserable minutes both knight and servant were chilled to the bone, it was not a night to be abroad. 

Both page and master wished to be abed or for it to be St Crispin’s Day, instead, October had been a milder month. Had not King Henry blessed that saint’s day himself on the eve of Agincourt? Many more subjects would know of the events of that November night. Jerome was unaware that he was stepping into history; he was doing his duty, yet he would be a forgotten piece of the puzzle.

“Come, Jerome, we have official business to perform. Are you armed as I instructed?

“I have a small stiletto dagger hidden in my tunic,” he replied, wanting to pat the front of his doublet to make sure it was still there, the cold metal had warmed next to his skin and he barely perceived its existence. He decided against such an outward sign of doubt.

“Good, Cecil says we will find him in the cellars.”

“Under what pretext?”

“Whyneard is missing some articles for tomorrow’s opening.”

“What pray?”

“The hanging and trinkets I told you to store for me.”

“I have them hidden!”


“Ha, I wondered why you gave those to me,” he admitted. “I dared not ask why you had given me that task but knew that it must be a part of a greater plan than I was privy to.”

The page admired his master and hated all Papists. After all, they were a threat to him directly, if they took over again as they had under Mary what would happen to those associated with the previous power brokers? For a start, he would be without work. 

The Papists would almost certainly seize property, lands, and shun those of the protestant faith. 

He had heard enough horror stories of the ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor. His childhood had been filled with the ghastly and gruesome acts of that Catholic queen. 

He had been baptised in the Church of England but his parents had been swayed by the convincing rhetoric of the Puritans, joining their cause. They had instilled the persuasive non-conformist ideology in his mind and in his heart. 

He knew where his loyalty lay; he was knowledgeable enough to know that those people who surrounded Cecil, and did his bidding, when asked, often gained promotion. His ambition was rooted to Knyvett for the time being. 

Thankfully, his master had been given many tasks and had been richly rewarded for carrying them out. That was why he would follow his master’s rising star. He kept pace as Knyvett made his way to the guardhouse.

“The fool,” hissed his master, “first he had not realised anything was missing until I noted it this evening, just before supper. I suppose that is understandable with all the activity and changes but then he tried to talk me out of searching for them!”

“It is a little strange looking for them at midnight don’t you think?” the page ventured meekly. His opinion was rarely sought but he hoped that such insight would reveal his ability. He was at an age where he wanted to show how clever he was.

“We need a little incredulity to make the story more credible! Even the most credible lie has some fault in it; people are suspicious of perfection.

We have to dissemble when giving information for public consumption. That is his maxim, his maxima propositio. You know his ways; we have, as our chief, the most brilliant mind in Christendom.”

“So where is the Papist? Is he armed?”

“He is waiting in the wine cellars as instructed, armed with a lantern and that’s all!  We will take the captain of the guard as a witness to corroborate our story!”

“Did you want him dispensed with?” the page offered with the bravado that had secured him his post. 

He had been thoroughly indoctrinated. He was keen to take out the stiletto and intimidate people with it. Even when he was first questioned over his religious beliefs during his apprenticeship, he had shown his Puritan nature. 

He was a product of those who believed in double-predestination, ‘I am saved and the rest are damned’.

 Anne Boleyn would have been proud of his Calvinist leanings. He was an ideal agent, passionate and committed; Cecil could use people like that extremely easily to further his ends but they would have to be disposed of or deposed afterwards. Puritanism might be a threat to the state but its adherents had their uses in his book. They were pawns, the foot soldiers on his chessboard. Cecil would use anyone of any religious persuasion in order to execute his plans.

“I want him alive unless he makes too much noise, he is part of a group of plotters; we would like him to tell us about them all, if it is possible.”

Hastily, the knight broke away and marched hurriedly to the guardhouse where he rapped violently on the door three times with his gloved hand. He stood legs part, feet firmly planted, hands on hips, demanding a response from those inside, it looked as if he could break the door down if need be. 

Inside there was the sound of chairs scraping and candle light shifting as someone rose and took a lantern from the window ledge to better light their way in order to answer the door.

The page, catching up with Knyvett, could see the candlelight and the glow of the guardhouse fire through the windows, shadows leaping on the walls, and he wished he could step inside and not have to visit the dark, cold cellars underground. 

He awaited the door being answered with bated breath, his chest felt tight; his heart beat hard and fast with anticipation.  Jerome was not sure whether it was because he suspected that this would be a momentous occasion or whether it was the apprehension at what he had to do; he realised that rather than merely use his stiletto to threaten the conspirator, he might have to kill him. 

The thought filled the boy with dread but his Puritan determination meant that he was fully prepared to do so if it was necessary.  

As a committed Protestant and a volunteer, in Cecil’s service, he was prepared to die to protect his country. He had been told the story they would tell to the authorities if anything went wrong. 

“I am Sir Thomas Knyvett, Master of Arms, member of the Privy Chamber; I command that you open the door,” he demanded in a booming voice that made Jerome shudder in terror, momentarily. Ben opened the door sheepishly.

“Yes, Your Lordship.”

“Send a messenger, to Edmund Doubleday to meet me here. You’ll find him at the Saracen’s Head in King’s Street, he owns the place. Then, summon the Captain of the Guard.”

“I am here your Lordship,” Falsdart announced rushing to the door.

“Can I help in any way, sire, we are at your service, what is it you need?”

“Good, I am glad you are here, it will save time. Have word sent to Doubleday, double quick.”

“Why I know him and where, he lives, I will send our boy immediately. He is a scrivener and vintner. He is a fine gentleman and an honest and upright man.”

“That’s the man, send your boy to fetch him without delay; we will need a man of great stature, valour, gravity and activity!”

The plot was thickening and Knyvett did not want to take any chances. Doubleday was a loyal ally and would help intimidate the man they meant to catch. He would also provide a well-respected witness to events.

Written 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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