To mark the publication by Endeavour Press of the new Quinton title, The Devil Upon the Wave, I’m delighted to provide a treat for my loyal readers and followers of this blog – namely, the first few pages of the book.
Here, Painter, let thine art describe a story,
Shaming our warlike island’s ancient glory:
A scene which never on our seas appear’d,
Since our first ships were on the ocean steer’d.
Make the Dutch fleet, while we supinely sleep,
Without opposers, masters of the deep.
Anon., Fourth Advice to a Painter (1667)
‘By God,’ says he, ‘I think the Devil shits Dutchmen.’
Sir William Batten, Surveyor of the Navy; words reported by Samuel Pepys in his diary, 19 July 1667
The Gunfleet Anchorage
‘Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.’
Tom Butler, who uttered these words, did not look like a religious man. The pursed lips, formed into a permanent kiss, and the grey bags beneath his eyes gave him the look of a libertine; and, every now and again, if the fancy took him, that was what Tom Butler was, sometimes for months at a time. In faith, then, he was not really a religious man at all. But his pronouncement as we stood at the stern, watched the men on the yard unfurling the main course of the Elsinore Merchant to catch the strengthening south-westerly breeze, was as solemn as any by a bishop. It led me to wonder which lord he meant: the Lord on high, or the lord who stood before me. Religious he might not be, but a lord Tom most certainly was, despite the rough seaman’s shirt and breeches that he and I both wore as disguise. Indeed, one day, if God willed it, he would rule an entire kingdom. For Thomas Butler, Earl of Ossory, was son and heir to the Duke of Ormonde, the vice-king of Ireland.
‘A fair wind for it, Matt. A fine breeze to carry us over to avenge England’s greatest shame. Just as they had a fine, fair breeze for it four years ago.’
‘Amen to that, My Lord Ossory.’
I looked out over the waist of our ship. To all but the very keenest observer, she would appear an innocent flyboat, a merchantman with her course set for Rotterdam. Yet that one solitary keenest observer might note that by the standards of innocent merchantmen, her crew were somewhat brisk. The course was sheeted home a little too efficiently, the ship’s head steered a little too precisely. The crew on deck was distinctly large by the standards of any such innocent merchantman, making a voyage to Rotterdam; and that was without counting the two hundred soldiers and seamen concealed in the hold. True, the Elsinore Merchant was as low in the water as a ship notionally carrying a cargo of salt from Maldon could be expected to be. But she carried no salt: instead, her commodious hold also contained enough weaponry and ammunition to sustain a small army, and a full set of canvas, enough to outfit one of the largest men-of-war in the world.
‘You still think it’s an insane scheme, Matt?’
My Lord of Ossory knew me too well. We had known each other for years, since the days when we were both penniless exiles in the United Provinces of the Netherlands. We had both married Dutch women; and, if anything, our wives were even better friends to each other than we were.
‘Then why am I here, Tom?’
‘Ah, well, Matt Quinton, there’s the rub. Why are you here? This was my insanity, God help me – mine alone. To bring her back to the haven from which she was taken. To bring her back in triumph. To avenge the humiliation. To redeem England. To exculpate our king. My idea. My folly. If God so wills it, my death. But why are you here, Matt?’
I looked out. To larboard, the low, featureless shores of Essex and Suffolk were beginning to recede behind us. To starboard, there was only the gently swelling sea, dotted with some small hoys, flyboats and ketches, under a grey spring sky. A sea that led to the mouth of the Maas, and the harbour of Rotterdam, where the Elsinore Merchant was notionally bound. But to reach Rotterdam, the ship would have to pass through the haven of Hellevoetsluis: or, as English seamen knew it, Hell-vote-slice. That harbour contained many ships, but only one of them mattered to Englishmen. Only one ship burned a word into English hearts, just as Calais was said to have been burned into the heart of Bloody Mary.
And that word was:
I smiled. ‘You know the reason, Tom. You were in Ireland, but I was there.’
Yes, I was there. I could still remember the heat on my face from our burning ships. I could recall the shame I felt at the sight of the Dutch flag flying proud from the ramparts of Sheerness fort. I remembered the brutal humiliation that our country had suffered. That I had suffered: the very personal crosses which I bore from that fateful summer of 1667. And that was why I sailed with Tom Butler now, on a scheme so insane, so suicidal, that any man of reason would have rightly decried it as the brainchild of lunatics.
Our collective madness began in high summer, some three months earlier, almost exactly four years after the catastrophe at Chatham, in a high room: a dark, stifling chamber in the round tower of Windsor Castle, atop its vast, overgrown mound, the Thames and Eton College just visible through smears in the grime caking the tiny windows. For some unaccountable reason, the king was thinking of making Windsor his permanent summer residence, rather than doing what any rational man would have done, namely, deciding it was better to stay in Whitehall after all and tearing down the entire rotting pile.
Tom Butler and I were standing over a table, looking down upon a chart of the mouth of the river the Dutch called the Maas. Across the table from us stood a tall, dark, ugly man wearing a simple shirt and a large black wig. If anything, Charles Stuart, King of England, was scrutinising the chart even more intently than we were.
‘There are almost no guards, Majesty,’ said Tom. ‘A few elderly marines. Some ship-keepers. No more. And of course, the Dutch will not be expecting such an assault.’
‘But they will still have men-of-war in the roadstead,’ I protested.
‘A thirty-gunner or two, perhaps,’ said Tom, confidently. And only one thirty–gunner will be more than sufficient to blow us out of the water, I thought. ‘That’s what our intelligencers suggest. Otherwise, their fleet will be laid up for the winter. What ships they’ll have in commission will be far to the north, at Texel and the Helder.’
I thought of objecting, but the king nodded vigorously, and I knew better than to challenge the royal nod. Yet this was strange. Indeed, it was strange beyond measure. Charles the Second, normally the most practical and sceptical of men, was not raising the objections that jostled within my head, each squabbling for precedence over the other. Objections that would usually have issued from his royal mouth, long before they reached mine.
‘You could rig her within an hour, while holding off the Rotterdam militia?’ said the king.
‘Jury rig only, Majesty, but enough to get her out into the roadstead. Then, a simple matter to take her out as far as our escorts. If you give us a brace of fourth rates, that is.’
‘But—’ I began.
‘The day will be chosen carefully,’ said Tom. ‘A spring tide. Sufficient for even her great draught.’
‘But the wind, Tom,’ I said. ‘All depends on an easterly, or a northerly, in that roadstead.’
And there, of course, was the great, terrible flaw in Tom Butler’s plan. It may be that the Dutch would be unsuspecting enough to believe that the King of England would not attempt such a thing. It may be that the defences were as weak as Tom believed them to be. It may be that we could erect jury rig in an hour. It may be that only a hundred or so men would be able to take to sea a ship usually crewed by eight hundred. It may be that the tide would be right. It may be that a million angels could dance on the head of a pin.
But nothing on this earth could determine the wind.
I looked at the king. I had known Charles Stuart for many years now, and knew him as most men did: the arch-cynic, the libertine, the fornicator. I also knew him as a consummate seaman, who could handle a helm as well as any pilot, and design a hull as well as any master shipwright. I knew the other Charles Stuart too, the one that fewer men saw, the brutal, vicious, amoral creature that would readily destroy hundreds of lives with the stroke of a pen. But I did not know the Charles Stuart who spoke now.
‘We shall trust in God,’ said the king, with the simple, unarguable finality of a martyr on the way to the stake.
That unsettling certainty, that uncharacteristic display of faith from the least religious monarch ever to occupy the throne of England, won over even me, Matthew Quinton, brother and heir of the Earl of Ravensden, scion of a family that, with only a very few exceptions, had never been noted for its piety. And that was how I came to be standing on the deck of the Elsinore Merchant with my old friend Tom Butler, Earl of Ossory, bound for the Dutch coast, there to board, seize, and bring back to England, one ship, thereby most certainly triggering immediate war between the two countries.
But this was not just any ship. It was one of the greatest ships of all, which was towed away from Chatham four years before, in the most abject defeat the English crown had ever suffered.
So although I did not quite know why, I knew that I would fight, and if necessary die, for this most impossible of causes: to bring back our king’s flagship, towed out of the Medway by the Dutch, to England’s eternal shame.
We would rescue the Royal Charles, and redeem our country.
So just what ‘very personal crosses’ does Matt Quinton bear from the summer of 1667? And what befalls the desperate mission to retrieve the Royal Charles? You’ll have to get hold of a copy of The Devil Upon the Wave to find out!