For the final post on this site in 2016 – and wasn’t that just the most nondescript year ever? – I thought I’d provide a Christmas treat for all loyal readers of both this blog and my books. I mentioned recently that Endeavour Press will soon be publishing the long-delayed Quinton prequel, The Rage of Fortune, focusing on the adventures of Matthew’s eponymous grandfather, the eighth Earl of Ravensden, at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign. So I’m delighted to be able to publish the first ‘teaser trailer’, in the shape of an extract from the book!
Whenever I’ve done this before, I’ve always published the first chapter of a new title. But I can’t do that this time…not only is the first chapter of The Rage of Fortune decidedly ‘left field’ in terms of both style and content, it also contains a significant number of examples of the eighth Earl’s distinctly un-aristocratic language, which might not be entirely appropriate reading matter in Christmas week. As it is, the extract I’ve chosen has two ‘expletives deleted’, but I’ve censored those in order not to offend the sensibilities of any vicars or maiden aunts who might be looking over your shoulders as you read this.
The passage which follows is one of many in Rage that are based on real historical incidents – in this case, the astonishingly daring dash through the Straits of Dover in 1599 by a squadron of Spanish galleys commanded by Federico Spinola, brother of the much more famous Ambrogio. Justinus of Nassau, the ‘Bastard Orange’ as Earl Matthew calls him, is another real historical figure, an illegitimate son of William the Silent, Prince of Orange. Randal Gray, the historian of Spinola’s operations, opens his account of this event thus:
‘In these parts has happened that which hardly would have been believed, that six galleys known to be coming out of Spain and so long looked for should pass through the Narrow Seas and recover harbour without any hurt.’ So wrote Sir Robert Sydney, Governor of Flushing in the Netherlands, to Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth l’s Secretary of State, on 13 September 1599. Eleven years after the ruin of the ‘Invincible Armada’, Spanish galleys commanded by 28-year-old Federico Spinola of Genoa had humiliated the combined navies of England and Holland. And Spinola was to pass the Straits of Dover not once but twice, in a manner comparable with the Channel dash of Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in 1942.’
And so, having set the scene, I’ll hand over to our two narrators: first a mysterious Hungarian mercenary who calls himself Laszlo Horvath, then Matthew Quinton, Earl of Ravensden. Season’s greetings to one and all!
‘Six galleys,’ he cries. ‘Six [expletive deleted] Spanish galleys, and they’re running the Straits!’
It is my first sight of galleys. They are very different to the high-hulled English and Dutch ships struggling to get clear of the Road of Calais. They have long, low hulls, with pronounced beaks in the bows. They have single masts, which carry the triangular sails that the sailors call ‘lateens’. At the sterns, they have curious structures which resemble half-upturned sea-shells. Half way along their decks are squarer upperworks that resemble small castles. From these protrude several large guns, only a little smaller than the great guns mounted in their bows.
They are a glorious sight. Their banks of oars move in unison, propelling them swiftly through the calm waters. Even in Calais, amidst all the noise of our own activity, we can just make out the sound of their drums, beating out the rhythm for the rowers. We can see the morning sun glinting on the armour of the hundreds of soldiers lining their decks. And we can see the red and gold banners of Spain spilling out as the galleys create their own breeze, while our ensigns of Saint George hang limply.
‘God’s blood,’ he cries –
Matthew, Earl of Ravensden
‘God’s blood, send us a fair wind!’ But we had not a whiff of one. Not one [expletive deleted] whiff. ‘Master Carver! Can you not but find us a breath or two of breeze, man?’
Even as I uttered the words, I knew they were hopeless. Carver had men adjusting the topsails every few minutes, the main courses nearly as often, but no matter what he did, there was no wind. We caught no breeze off the land. We found no hint of a westerly even when we were out beyond the shelter of Grease Ness.
My ships, and those of the Bastard Orange, were making a knot or two, if that, as we struggled to make any way at all. Even the Dutch cromsters, trim little war-craft with lateen sails at their mizzens, could make but poor progress. And out at sea, in the very centre of the Strait of Dover, the six great galleys were doing a good twelve knots. I’d served with enough men who’d been slaves in the galleys, and knew from them that to keep up this sort of speed, the rowing masters would be pushing the oarsmen to the very limit. I could imagine the whips cracking on flesh, the blood and sweat of the men as the sweeps cut the water. They could not maintain such a tempo for long. But then, they did not need to. The night and the mist had given them the advantage of surprise, the calm now gave them the advantage of speed, and in truth, the Straits of Dover form but a very small stretch of sea. The galleys’ bow waves of white foam were all too visible to we slugs becalmed at Calais, a sure sign that they would soon be past us. But as I clung on to the foremast shrouds, waving my fist at the distant enemy, I knew it was even worse than that. For if we had no wind, then neither did Leveson, Raleigh and Tom Howard over in the Downs. They would be doing the same as us, trying somehow to find a decent breeze and sea-room, but like us, they would be failing. The Spanish admiral, whoever he might be, was both bold and lucky, and in fighting at sea, those are the only qualities an admiral needs.
But as I watched the impressive sight of the galleys, rowing through England’s private lake as though they owned it, a suspicion grew upon me that the Spanish admiral had more qualities than those alone. This was not some chance raid, not some hare-brained mission dreamed up on the spur of the moment like so many of the expeditions of, say, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh. Or Matthew of Ravensden, come to that, if I am honest. A voyage so daring, with such high stakes and high risks, required meticulous planning and preparation. It required careful rehearsal of different options: for instance, the possibility of sending galleys into the English Channel in winter. Suddenly, the fight that had nearly done for my Merhonour, and forced us into Nantes to repair, made perfect sense, although the thought was not a pleasant one. God alone knew what a Spanish admiral so efficient and so ruthless – for sending a galley full of several hundred men into northern waters in November, when it would most likely be swamped by the sea, was ruthless beyond measure – yes, God alone knew what such an admiral might achieve.
There was only one consolation. I looked over to the Dutch flagship, and could see Justinus of Nassau clearly, standing there on his quarterdeck. He had buckled on his breastplate, but he wasn’t laughing now, by Christ. He was as still as a statue, staring at the huge galleys as they moved away inexorably, out into the North Sea. Oh, they’d be a threat to England, all right – Drake hit that particular nail well and truly on its head – but they were ten times the threat to the Bastard Orange’s upstart rebel republic, with its entire economy dependent on sea-trade and all its main ports standing on shallow waterways where galleys were in their element. If the Spanish admiral got safely into Sluys, as he was now nearly bound to do, the Dutch were in more shit than the gong-farmers of Cheapside.
The balance of the war had just changed, there was no doubt of that.