Chapter 1 – Caput Draconis

THE FIRST POET I saw die was in a garden in Deptford. It was May 1593 and in truth I never really liked the fellow. They said it was about money but that was a lie. It was murder all right, and afterwards I had no choice but to disappear for a while.

It all started with an invitation to dinner. That’s when I met them both. Otherwise I’d never have recognised him, and might well have thought better of getting involved when I did. But if it was a case of who you know rather than what you know, then that was less than half of it. For me, the how you know has always had the greater part to play in my fortunes. And if that invitation was the spark, the kindling had been in place long before.

I was twelve when my grandfather was appointed rector at the Sorbonne and I went to live with him. I picked up the language with ease and before long I was running his errands and writing his letters, and in return he taught me Latin, Greek, History, Ethics, Rhetoric, Logic, Mathematics and much more besides. Of all the subjects, Natural Philosophy was his favourite – except that branch called Alchemy. When I asked him why, he looked at me with disappointment. “Only God can turn bread and wine into flesh and blood,” he said, “and a man is a fool who thinks he can change lead into gold.”

Well I’ve met many such fools in the years since.

After my grandfather died, many expected me to stay on at the university, but much as I liked Paris the academic life was never for me. I returned home and moved to London, where I took a room in a boarding house south of the river, close to the royal docks.

I soon found work inking copy for the printers around St Pauls – nothing regular, just pamphlets of the common sort, penny a line. My colleagues were a sociable lot, and most evenings we’d end up drinking in some alehouse or visiting the stews until the early hours, and I quickly learnt to avoid the thieves and vagabonds who roamed the empty streets and piss-soaked alleys as I made my way home.

I was whiling away a pleasant afternoon in the Anchor Tavern, when two I hadn’t seen before came in. The first, Tom Nashe, was about my own age, tall, thin and dressed in a grubby brown frock coat. The second was a few years older, well-built if a little on the heavy side, with a red face, a russet beard and clothes to match. His name was Rob Greene, and while most of us hacks struggled to make a living, he was very much in demand.

One of my friends introduced them, and Nashe extended a clammy palm. “And you are?”

“Francis Sparry.”

“Francis Sparry! A scribbler too?”

“Trying to be.”

Nashe was a lively talker and easy company, but he was no better off than me, and as the landlady came over he looked eagerly towards the kitchen. “Steak and kidney pudding on the menu, Molly?”

“Yes, sir,” the lady replied.

“And you, Tom, can watch me eat it!” teased Greene, with a wink.

“If my purse is a little light tonight,” said Nashe, somewhat sniffily, “you may count yourself privileged.”

“Oh yes?”

“Yes.” Then, addressing us all, he continued. “I’m forming a society – let’s call it a fraternity – and today we meet for an evening of unparalleled entertainment and discussion. I can see you’re eager to join, Brother Greene!” He slapped the older man on the shoulder. “For the price of a pudding you qualify for admission! Molly, fetch your trolley!”

We all laughed and Greene, to his credit, not only paid for Nashe’s dinner but bought a round of drinks for the rest of us too.

A few days later I bumped into Greene again, this time at the Mermaid on Cheapside, and we got talking. Whether he saw me as just another drinking partner, I enjoyed his company and we were soon meeting up regularly.

He was always generous, was Rob Greene, but never more so than when he went out of his way to advance my prospects by putting me forward to translate The Geomancie of Maister Christopher Cattan: a practical guide to the construction of the figures and how to read them, which had gained a certain popularity in Europe. I’d never paid much heed to that sort of thing before – my grandfather’s influence I suppose – but it was only intended as a bit of fun. Besides, money is money and I wasn’t in a position to be choosy.

As it happened, there was something about the book that gripped me from the first. I completed the assignment in six weeks, and even the publisher’s expectations were exceeded when it went on sale.

If I regret anything about our acquaintance, brief as it was, it’s that through Greene I got to meet that other writer; that son of a Canterbury cobbler who could hold the masses enthralled with the power of his pen yet could put his foot in his mouth so easily. Some say he couldn’t resist playing Devil’s advocate. All I know is that his unruly tongue sealed not only his death warrant but mine as well.

*

“You, Francis, are in for a treat, and I expect you to make the most of it. Opportunities like this don’t come along every day.”

Greene had been invited to Durham House, home of Sir Walter Ralegh, one of the richest men in England, and I was flattered when he’d asked me to go with him.

On a chill November evening we took a boat upriver, disembarking a short distance west of London Bridge, at the private landing stage off the Strand. The servant who met us eyed me suspiciously before nodding at my companion and turning towards the house.

“Sir Walter won’t mind me coming?” I whispered to Rob as we followed.

“Not at all,” he replied. “He insisted I bring you.” I knew he was joking, but it made me feel better all the same.

Once inside, we were led towards a doorway, where another servant, no more friendly, ushered us through.

The room was magnificent. A vaulted ceiling of black oak, white-washed walls hung with tapestries and gilt-framed portraits, and stained-glass windows that glimmered like jewels in the candlelight. A fire blazed in the hearth beneath a huge stone mantel, and stretching towards us was a table, so polished you could see your face and set for a banquet

There must have been fifty there already, but there was no need for Rob to point out Sir Walter, with his ivory lace ruff, pearl-studded clothes and jewelled shoes, his hair swept back and his neat brown beard combed to a point in the Spanish fashion. He’d fought in France and Ireland, studied at Oxford and the Middle Temple, helped fill the royal coffers with raids on Spanish ships and named his colony in America ‘Virginia’ in honour of the queen.

Elizabeth, in turn, had appointed him captain of her guard, and rewarded him with lucrative monopolies, his palace on the Thames, estates in Ireland and Dorset and a knighthood. She called him ‘Sir Water’ for his west-country accent, but also, perhaps, for laying down his cloak in a puddle so she could cross the courtyard at Greenwich without wetting her foot.

From the outset, many were jealous of his wealth and influence. Others just disliked him. A man, they said, a Prince should be afraid to employ.[1] But I came to know him better than most, and for me such faults as he had were easy to forgive.

On seeing us, he came over. “Master Greene! Good to see you.” He shook my friend vigorously by the hand. “And this must be the young man responsible for The Geomancie’. A fascinating work and excellently rendered! Copied it from the French I presume?”

“The Italian, sir, mainly. Although some I took from the German where it was clearer.”

“Indeed? A linguist as well as a scholar! Welcome to our little gathering.”

He stepped over to the table, and picking up a silver spoon, tapped it hard against the side of a large crystal goblet until his guests fell silent.

 “Over the past few years,” he began, “so much has been accomplished here. For me, at least, it’s been an education!”

That raised a titter. The School of the Night was how some of his enemies had referred to Durham House. Certainly, some of the most brilliant minds of the day were regular attenders, among them the mathematician, Thomas Harriot, whose navigational charts had guided Ralegh’s expeditions, and Lawrence Keymis, the tall, slim, Balliol don turned ill-fated adventurer. Others simply shared Sir Walter’s love of the arts and all things scientific.

“Lord Percy and Lord Strange, it’s a pleasure to welcome you here.” Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, was even richer than Ralegh. Nicknamed the Wizard Earl for his experiments in alchemy, his passion for cartography and his enormous collection of books, his shyness, mild deafness and slight speech impediment hadn’t held him back. Strange, heir to the Earl of Derby, was patron of London’s leading company of players and a courtlier figure than his northern friend.

Sir Walter turned towards an elderly man, with a snow-white beard, a long nose and a silk skull cap: “You, sir, grace us with your presence.” Dr Dee nodded modestly. He was indisputably the most learned man in England and had amassed at his house in Mortlake a library that surpassed those of Ralegh and Percy put together.

“And I mustn’t leave out Lord Manteo!” The man Sir Walter addressed was as finely clothed as any, but his beardless face was weathered by years in the sun. A native of Roanoke, he’d caused something of a sensation when he’d first visited England. And now, after defending Ralegh’s struggling settlers from some not-so-friendly locals, he’d been rewarded with a peerage.

“For the rest of you,” said Sir Walter, “we’re united by common interests and these are exciting times. Later I’ll tell you something about my plans, but now be seated and enjoy the best of what my humble table has to offer.”

As we took our places, thirty footmen dressed in livery descended to fill our glasses, and we dined on venison, quail and all manner of delicacies, served on silver plates each bearing Ralegh’s coat of arms, washed down with the finest claret.

Among the more unusual offerings were some fist-sized roots, with skins as brown and wrinkled as Manteo’s. I took them to be baked apples, straight from the fire, until I bit into the sweet white flesh. They’d come half way round the globe, and the Indian bellowed with laughter at Harriot’s efforts to teach us their name.

“After me,” he said sternly. “Poh.”

“Poh!” we chorused.

Tah,” he said.

“Tah!” we followed.

And finally, “Toh.”

“Toh!”

Poh-tah-toh.” It sounds so very English now.

I was sitting between a grey-haired, bespectacled gentleman called Hancock, and a younger chap, no more than a year or two older than me, with a friendly smile and a direct way of speaking, who went by the name of Butshead. (I was warned not to ask why – something to do with his father wanting him to grow up tough.)

At the far end, a man was talking loudly and slapping Rob Greene on the back as if he was his best-ever friend. I could hardly make him out in the candlelight. Hancock shook his head when he saw me peering. “London’s brightest star,” he said, “if you believe his own press anyway.”

“I feel I should know him,” I said.

Butshead raised his eyebrows. “He’s the main attraction this evening. Isn’t that right, Mr Hancock?”

Hancock winced. He was Sir Walter’s private secretary, and acting on his employer’s instructions he’d been instrumental in securing the attendance of ‘the star’, with whom it seemed he was less than impressed. “That’s one way to put it. Others may say distraction. But you must make up your own mind.”

Before I could explore the matter further, the last few plates were cleared away and Sir Walter got to his feet and called for quiet.

 “I hope you’ll join me for a smoke,” he said, as his servants brought round clay pipes. “I think you’ll find this toh-bah-coh,” – he winked at Manteo – “to be of the very finest quality.”

In those days, I wasn’t as accustomed to the weed as I’ve long since become, but it would have been churlish to decline such an offer. In less than a minute my pipe was lit and I was puffing away with the best of them.

When the air was filled with a dense and aromatic smog, Sir Walter continued. “Now,” he said, “let’s push back chairs and talk!”

He spoke for half an hour, and although I can’t remember much of the detail, the time passed very quickly. He started as he’d promised, by telling us of the ships he was sending to the Azores. Royal approval had at last been granted for a privateering expedition, and with Percy and Strange among the investors, and Gifford, Keymis and several of the younger men likely to be on board when the fleet sailed, his words were greeted by a cheer of excitement.

Once he had us where he wanted, he moved onto politics, a subject always very close to his heart. He spoke of the growing resentment towards the influx of traders from the Netherlands, France and Belgium. There’d been rumours of a rising among the business community, which Ralegh blamed on Cecil and the rest of the Privy Council, for their policy of active encouragement under which the Europeans were welcomed with open arms.

Even for someone in Ralegh’s position this was dangerous talk, but Sir Walter was ever one to walk his own line. This was evident in the friends he chose, none more so than the man sitting beside him – Robert Gifford, impassive, inscrutable, with a chin like an ox – he’d once spent six months in the Tower for his undercover work to defeat the Babington plot.

Sir Walter judged a man by his actions and said what he thought; and when it came to thoughts and words, no subject, however controversial, was beyond the pale. Some would call it a vice, others a virtue, to speak so freely. That it was unwise none would disagree, but Ralegh was ever ruled by his heart not his head. I think he relished the argument as much as anything, for as I later discovered his convictions were rarely fixed. And if anyone could take a man to the brink, only to change his mind and turn him at the last, it was him.

This was the first I saw him speak, and to a crowd already with him, but even then he knew the importance of keeping his audience to the finish, of taking his bow early, while they were still on his side. “You have listened to me long enough,” he said, “and I thank you for your kind attention. But now I ask you to give an even warmer welcome to someone very special. Gentlemen, I give you Christopher Marley!”

The man beside Greene stood up and climbed onto his chair. Elegantly dressed in an ochre-lined, close-fitting velvet doublet, a square-edged collar of white linen fell outside his jacket and an inch of cuff was visible at the wrists. Confident brown eyes stared out from a milky-white face with a thin moustache and a trace of downy beard, and a mop of wheaten curls tumbled down to his shoulders.

Drawing deeply on his pipe, the young man looked around the room and exhaled, watching the smoke slowly rise towards the ceiling.

“A few short years ago,” he reflected, “it was only wine and women for me, but now I’ve broadened my tastes – any who don’t love tobacco and boys are fools!” There were a few sniggers at this, and several of the guests shifted awkwardly in their seats.

“It makes you think, doesn’t it?” he continued. “We’re told this mortal life is a trial for the everlasting one to come. We teach our children to be good if they want to go to heaven; that, as Dr Faustus noted, the reward of sin is death. But why is so much that’s sinful so damned pleasurable? What Divinity would make so many beautiful things and place them on this earth just to tempt us? The same who’d create plagues, allow babies to die in their mothers’ wombs and support the actions of the Inquisition? Well, such a God is not for me. To him I say goodbye, adieu and good riddance! Give me music and dancing! Give me wine and tobacco! Give me women and boys! And God can keep his guilt and suffering for others!

“Look around this room, gentlemen. We’re men of science are we not? It isn’t religion we should concern ourselves with, but metaphysics; not the bible we should study, but almanacs. It’s in charts, lines, circles, symbols, letters and characters that we’ll find the truth. Wouldn’t you agree, Dr Dee?”

This prompted a spluttering from the old man and laughter elsewhere. Marley was clearly enjoying himself, his intention being to provoke, unsettle and entertain.

Little did he notice, and wouldn’t have cared if he had, when one dour weasel-face, dressed all in black, rose from the table and slipped quietly out of the hall.

Butshead watched him leave and caught my eye. “Robert Poley,” he whispered. “An agent of some sort. Goes by the name of ‘the stoat’. He’s worked for Ralegh and Gifford for years, but I don’t trust him.”

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. It’s just the way he lurks, watching everything but never saying much.” It crossed my mind Butshead had more about him than his name might suggest.

Marley carried on, tweaking tails outrageously and loving every minute of it, until finally Sir Walter stepped in. “Hell’s teeth, Marley, enough! You’ll have us all in hair shirts by morning! I asked you here to entertain!”

If Marley was offended, he didn’t show it. “Certainly,” he replied with a smile, “but I’m not sure I have anything for such a distinguished audience.”

“You know that’s not so,” said Strange. “Don’t be shy! Come, come, Kit!”

“Yes, come, come, Kit,” repeated Percy, and when we all joined in, Marley smiled in willing resignation. He knew what we wanted.

Come live with me, and be my love …” he paused while a hush descended on the room, “… and we will all the pleasures prove.” He carried on with his beautiful verse, and whatever the arrogance of the man, none could fail to be moved by the young shepherd’s plea to his girl, sitting by the river, while melodious birds sang madrigals.

But Sir Walter was not about to be outdone. Prior planning prevents piss poor performance, and he’d engineered the occasion well.

“A charming thing, for sure,” he said, when Marley had finished, “but passion passes all too soon, and what are you left with?”

Then he gave us his own immortal nymph’s reply:

“If all the world and Love were young, And truth on every Shepherd’s tongue, These pleasures might my passion move, To live with thee, and be thy love.

 “Time drives the flocks from field to fold, When rivers rage, and rocks grow cold, And Philomel becometh dumb, The rest complains of cares to come. 

“The flowers do fade and wanton fields, To wayward winter reckoning yields, A honey tongue, a heart of gall, Is fancy’s spring but sorrow’s fall.

“Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses, Thy cap, thy girdle and thy posies, Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten, In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

“Thy belt of straw and ivy buds, Thy coral clasps and amber studs, All of these in me no means can move, To come to thee and be thy love.

“But could Youth last, could Love still breed,  Had Joys no date, had Age no need, Then those delights my mind might move, To live with thee, and be thy love.”

After Sir Walter had taken his well-earned applause, others were called on to perform. Rob, of course, had no difficulty and soon had the room in fits with his tales of rakish knavery.

When it came to my turn, I’d nothing of my own to offer, until I remembered a poem Tom Nashe had recently penned which had gone down well among the fraternity, about a young man who’d visited a brothel to see a pretty whore. He’d paid ten gold pieces for her favours, but was embarrassed to lose his erection as soon as she lifted her skirts. Feeling sorry for him, the girl persevered and his ardour picked up, but to her great disappointment he came early, and she was obliged to take matters into her own hands to obtain satisfaction.

I took an embarrassed bow, before scuttling off to a dark corner. Manteo was seated in a chair, a glass of brandy in his hand. He shot me a sympathetic look.

Late in the evening, I complimented Marley on his poem. He was considerate enough to remain silent about mine, and I took no slight from the brevity of our conversation when Strange and Percy called him away.

 Rob Greene was still partying, but others had started to leave, and not wishing to outstay my welcome I said goodnight to Butshead and Hancock, and sought out my host to thank him.

“The pleasure’s been mine, Sparry,” he said. “I hope we meet again one day. I might have a use for a man like you.”

Quite what ‘use’ Sir Walter would make of me I couldn’t have begun to guess, but with his kind words ringing in my ears I made my way back to Deptford Strand.

Although neither the royal favourite nor the people’s playwright yet knew it, matters were already afoot. For Ralegh, Marley and me, fate was shortly to unleash a few unpleasant surprises.