1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 04
The Tower of London
“Well, they certainly made a mess.”
“My Lord, those responsible –” Captain Holderness said, visibly sweating despite the cool of the spring morning.
Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, made a chopping gesture. For silence, certainly, but a nervous man who had just had the biggest breakout from Europe’s supposedly most secure prison happen on his watch, well, he could see the stroke of a headsman’s axe in the gesture. “Those responsible are already making their way to whatever refuge they have chosen. This was long in the planning and I don’t doubt Strafford — Wentworth, we must now call him, since his impeachment — laid his plans deeply enough that he ensured he was ready to break out of this place if he was ever put there. The weasel always has a back entrance to his burrow, mark you well, the weasel always has a back entrance.”
“My Lord, the Americans, Cromwell –”
“Are Wentworth’s bargaining counters. Do not let me learn you have said otherwise in the matter, sir. Do not let me learn it. We have our traitor, and he has compounded his treason with misprision and flight. That is the truth of the matter, whatever else you may have heard or inferred from a too-hasty consideration of the evidence before you.”
Of course, the earl himself had been here only minutes, himself, and now stood before the wholly-slighted St. Stephen’s tower looking at the havoc wrought on the medieval structure by the explosions. If he was condemning other interpretations as “hasty” it was for form’s sake.
“As you say, M’Lord,” Holderness agreed, hastily.
“Cromwell will have been taken as a weapon to use against the rightful power in England. The man would have been Wentworth’s competition in the other history, so for certain sure that was why he was locked up so readily. Now that Wentworth is exposed and scotched, well, the devil will use what tools come to hand. The Americans, there to gain him entree at the Swede’s court, no doubt. Or possibly as hostages to win him favor with Richelieu. We shall see where he appears next.” Boyne sighed. “Nevertheless, the stable door is open, the horse is bolted, we should at least try and chase the beast.”
The next day, Boyle greeted James Graham, 5th Earl of Montrose, at his London town house. Like so many such meetings since the Ring of Fire, they exchanged a look. Any man of notability in these times had something of a record of what he would have done in the future that never was, and whether a man believed in the truth of those histories that had poured out of Thuringia over the past three years, they were always present in mind.
Montrose had tried, in the civil war that would have been, to fight at first for royal power against the Scots churches, episcopal and presbyterian alike, and for all his military successes, had made no progress in getting the divines to stick to spiritual matters. He’d fought for the covenanters against the bishops to break their power, and switched sides to the royalists to keep the presbyters from securing more political power. He’d led highland regiments to great effect, during the times when he could keep the prospect of plunder in front of them, and led disciplined Irish mercenaries when the highlanders failed him.
Here and now, he was a handsome man in his early twenties, hereditary chief of Clan Graham and, after a shaky start — acceding to the earldom at the age of fourteen was hardly an auspicious start — now a serious figure in Scots politics. And, if he’d read his own future biography, he had his mind concentrated wonderfully by the knowledge that his eventual fate had been to be hung, drawn and quartered by the king’s enemies, his head on a spike for ten years.
If that weighed heavily on his mind on this bright afternoon in London, however, he gave no sign. “Things have changed mightily since I received your invitation to visit, my lord Cork,” he said. The faintest hint of a smile was about his lips as he spoke.
“If all this were happening to some other nation, My Lord Montrose, I’d laugh heartily at their misfortune. And I take no pleasure in having the king’s confidence in times like these, I assure you.”
There was a bitter truth. Charles’s own folly had put him firmly in Boyle’s hands, given England an eminence grise to match the one that had been an easy target for the pamphleteers of France’s enemies for so long, and Boyle found himself frantically working to keep a fracturing nation together rather than advancing his own wealth and power. It would take all the cunning at his disposal not to end up with his own head on a spike. Even with Cromwell in the Tower, there had been more than enough discontented gentry to foment rebellion. With Cromwell now out and given the cause for a grudge that would awe even Boyle’s own feud-happy Irishmen, it was time to try attacking the problem from the other end.
Boyle had seen that in the beginning of the civil wars that would have ravaged England, Scotland and Ireland had been plagued by enough factions that none could convincingly end the conflict and secure a settlement by force in the beginning. It took twenty years for enough blood to be let to exhaust them all to the point that reason and the settlement of the restoration could prevail. If there was anything left to the royal power at this time, Boyle was resolved to use it to nip that in the bud before it bloomed into civil strife.
“Nor would any man with more wit than a rabbit, my lord,” Montrose said, “and I’ve no truck with those that say you press your own advantage on the king’s misfortune.”
“Nor should you. And I’m not surprised that plenty are saying that. I’m not ashamed to say I’ve always striven to do well by myself, ever since I went to Dublin with the wealth I could carry and my sword and dagger to keep it with, but what price mere baubles and rich lands if the nation is crumbling about them?”
“Quite, quite,” Montrose said, “but how can I be of service to His Majesty in the matter? I’ll confess I was surprised to receive his summons from my estates. It’s said I was destined to take against the king for some of that future, and it has gone passing hard for such as me lately.”
“Results matter, my lord, results. His Majesty, and I can’t say for sure as I had not his confidence at the time, was likely of the hope that a man who’d died for the king in one time might be inclined to measure his loyalty better in another. And I’m of like mind, my lord Montrose, for a strong king can guard his subjects better than a weak one.”
“That’s right enough. How, then, to make a strong king of a weak one?”
Boyle smiled. The question itself could be counted treasonous, assuming as it did that Charles Stuart was a weak king. But then, there were village idiots who could see that not all was well with His Majesty’s rule. Only able to stay in power through foreign subsidy and foreign troops on the streets of London, he was now bedridden with his injuries, unlikely to ever be more than a halting cripple. It was taking all Boyle’s political skill not to look like the very epitome of the evil counsellor. He’d read of the famous dictum a future Cromwell would utter, of putting a sword in the tenth man’s hand when nine in ten subjects would disagree with his policy, but Boyle had seen armed men swarmed under by sufficiently angry mobs at odds less than that. The trick was getting the nine to think the tenth man’s sword was there for their protection and benefit, and if they could be brought to think that the unpopular policy was imposed by someone who had their best interests at heart, so much the better.
“My Lord, we are faced with factions and parties within and foreign conspiracy without. Wentworth, rot him, cozened the king into taking French gold in return for provoking Gustav Adolf and his Americans. Offered them further insult by imprisoning their embassy. Failed to keep them secure once imprisoned, so now their agents are loose within the realm. Factions within, conspiracy without. The foreign troubles, His Majesty may, with good advice, attend to himself. The factions within, we must repair ourselves so the kingdoms seem strong behind the king.”
Montrose gave Boyle a level, measuring stare. As an assessment of the situation, that mixed truth with bare-faced lies in about equal measure to offer a compromise everyone could accept without taking a portion of blame down with the bitter medicine. Good politics, in other words.
“His Majesty will have to make some concessions on episcopal power, if only to make the presbyterians less strident. Power outside the kirk, mind you. If we can stop the presbyters’ and bishops’ power at the walls of their churchyards, I think something can be done. And there’s precedent for it, now, with half of Europe crying freedom of religion. Do we only stop the mouths of the divines in politics, three parts of our factions become nothing.”
Boyle rocked a hand. “My learning on the estates of the Scots parliament is a mean thing at best, but I recall one of the estates is the bishops?”
“Aye, but if we get them to maintain the fiction that they’re there as larger landowners as much as lords spiritual, and promise not to try and impose overmuch on the presbyterians for the time being, I know at least some of them will shut up.”
“If I can secure that from His Majesty?” Boyle was pretty certain of that. Charles Stuart was no longer quite so melancholy as to sign and seal anything in front of him so as not to be troubled in his grief and pain, but he would still give way to any sufficiently persistent attempt at persuasion. Boyle would have found the experience a heady one, wielding the power of the king without trammels, were he not mindful of what tended to happen to men in that position.
“If you can, then there is much I might do to get Scotland united behind His Majesty. Argyll’s the rub, though, I’ll warn you. The man’s only still at liberty by being the most powerful man in Scotland and he’ll not consent to anything that makes him a second-rate power in a united kingdom. Not easily, at any rate.”
“Argyll’s the man I want you to work on, then. We can promise him much if we can only keep the kingdoms together, united or not. If we fall to squabbling now, with the USE looking greedily across the North Sea, he’ll be but a pilchard in that ocean, warn him of that. We can discuss the details later, but now I know your mind I can seek to persuade His Majesty on the subject of the bishops.”
Montrose wished him luck he’d not need, and took his leave.