Sunday, 26 September 2010

King Wiliam's Gold - HMS Sussex 1694

In 1690, at the time of the Seven Years War, when Spain was an ally to Britain and France the enemy, Louis XIV sent his army across the Rhine to capture the German town of Phillipsburg - the town surrendered within weeks – but alarmed by his success a grand alliance against him was formed by Britain, Spain, Holland, Portugal, Sweden and the Italian Duchy of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, as well as the German Holy Roman Empire. Louis’s navy won control of the English Channel by defeating the Anglo Dutch fleet of Beachy Head, Sussex.

William III ordered the building of the HMS Sussex as a reminder of the defeat in the channel.
Under the command of Admiral Sir Francis Wheeler, the 80 gun warship with a 500 man crew set sail on its first major voyage in December 1693 as the flagship of the Royal Navy fleet to take up station near Cadiz with orders to protect the Spanish ‘Plate’ Fleet who carried precious cargoes from the Philippines and the Americas, going on to deliver to Mediterranean ports.

Aboard the HMS Sussex was a secret cargo known only to a few, ten tonnes of gold coins and bullion, to the value of a million pounds worth. This gold was destined for the Duke of Savoy, a bribe in order to enlist mercenary soldiers to fight Louis XIV, thus diverting the French troops to the northern front.

On the afternoon of February 17th, soon after Admiral Wheeler’s fleet cleared Gibraltar Bay, a fierce storm known as ‘a levant wind’ blew in off the African coast. The HMS Sussex was caught in the open sea with water entering her gun ports to overload the already low riding ship to the point where she lost her natural buoyancy. She sank with all lives lost bar two.

23 other ships of the same fleet of 80 were also lost with a loss of life that ran to 1200 – Admiral Wheeler’s body was found several days later on the eastern shore of the rock of Gibraltar.

The Duke of Savoy was left without his promised funds, so he changed sides and supported Louis XIV – this allowed the French to increase pressure in the north making fresh gains in German speaking Alsace and Lorraine.

Reputedly, this loss prompted William III to summon Sir John Houblon and instruct him to begin the plan he had been trying to convince the King to embark on – The Bank of England, and collect loans from the public to help him fight the French. As Huguenot, Houblon and his compatriots lent William III money to fight their erstwhile enemy, Louis XIV. The bank opened at John Houblon’s house before moving to its famous location in Threadneedle Street.

Peace was finally signed in 1697, giving Louis XIV Alsace and much of Lorraine – regions which would be fought over and change hands many times during the next 250 years.

Annexed by the German Kaiser in 1871 and again in 1940 by Hitler, although they had a largely French speaking population. They were returned to France in 1945 at the end of WWII.

Between 1998 and 2001, Odyssey Marine Exploration located the shipwreck off Gibraltar at a depth of 821 metres. In September 2002 Odyssey reached an agreement with the rightful owner, the British government, on a formula for sharing any potential spoils, under which it would get 80 percent of the proceeds up to $45 million, 50 percent from $45 million to $500 million and 40 percent above $500 million. The British government would get the rest.

Unfortunately, the Spanish Government stopped the project, insisting Spanish archaeologists take part in order to ascertain the shipwreck is indeed the Sussex and not a Spanish galleon. The wrangling over ownership, salvage rights and diving in Spanish waters is still ongoing.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

In the witch trials that raged across Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, legal authorities strove to uncover evidence of a pact between the accused witch and the devil. But did this alleged pact ever exist except in the imaginations of the witchfinders?

The legend of Doctor Faustus captivated the public because it purported to reveal the story of real-life German magician, alchemist, and astronomer, Johann Georg Faust, who died in 1540. Rumour had it that his powers were given to him by the devil. His legend first appeared in print in a 1587 chapbook, Das Faustbuch, a cautionary tale of how the unbridled pursuit of knowledge can undermine religious salvation.

Inspired by this pamphlet, Christopher Marlowe (1554-1593) penned his masterpiece, The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, the first surviving published copy of which is dated 1604. No simple moral tale, Marlowe's tragedy works on a number of levels.

Set in Wittenberg, Germany, the great humanistic centre of learning and the cradle of the Reformation, Marlowe's Faustus is a low born man who has become a respected Doctor of Philosophy at the university. But this is not enough. He would have absolute knowledge, absolute power. And so he turns to the dark arts. Casting a circle, he abjures the name of God and summons a demon, Mephistopheles. Under Mephistopheles's direction, Faustus then makes his pact with the devil, signing it in his own blood. He strikes a hard bargain. For twenty-four years, Faustus will do whatever he wants, with Mephistopheles as his obedient servant. When his time is up, Lucifer will summon Faustus to hell.

While the party lasts, Faustus lives it up. The middle of the play is full of schoolboy pranks. His horse is an enchanted hay bale which he sells to a hapless tavern keeper for fifty thalers. Mephistopheles spirits Faustus to the Vatican so that he can mock the pope and cardinals. When the pontiff and his men try to exorcise Faustus and his host of demons with bell, book, and candle, they find they cannot. In Marlowe's play, the pope is depicted as powerless to expel evil because he himself is corrupted and damned. Marlowe's own anti-Catholicism is well documented. While a student at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, he served as a government spy, infilitrating Catholic circles to uncover plots against Queen Elizabeth I.

At the Emperor's court, Faustus conjures Alexander the Great and his paramour. He even manages to conjure up the spirit of Helen of Troy.

Yet when all these merry japes are over, Faustus finds himself utterly alone and bereft, forced to face the full weight of his pact. Though he desperately seeks redemption, he never achieves it and so quietly resigns himself to his coffin where he awaits his damnation.

Moral interpretations of the play are complicated by the Protestant teachings of Marlowe's era that insisted it was impossible for the individual to save his or her own soul. Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination, namely that God had already determined who was damned and who was saved, without any reference to the person's virtue or deeds. Seen through this lens, Faustus is not damned because he sold his soul to the devil. No, he is a clever Renaissance man who strikes this bargain because he has already been damned by his own God; our hero wants to at least enjoy some pleasure and self-determination in this earthly life before his inevitable eternity in hell. In witnessing Faustus's yearning and failure to achieve redemption are we seeing the devastating implications of Calvinist dogma?

Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was a sensation when it was first performed, scandalizing its audience by featuring forbidden acts of conjuration and blasphemy on stage.

Marlowe himself is a shadowy figure. In London, he kept the company of mathematicians, poets, and scientists, who gathered in a secret School of Night. Did Marlowe himself indulge in the dark arts? We will never know.

On May 30, 1593, the playwright, previously arrested on charges of brawling and duelling, became embroiled in a dispute with a tavern keeper over his bill. This escalated into a full blown knife fight, resulting in the playwright's death. He was twenty-nine years old.

Around this time, a note delivered to the authorities stated that Marlowe was an atheist who believed "that the first beginning of Religion was only to keep men in awe." But it is impossible to judge the veracity of this claim. Marlowe the man remains as shrouded in mystery as the legendary Faustus himself.

It's interesting to contrast Marlowe's Faustus to the version by Goethe, the great German Romantic. Goethe, who studied philosophy, alchemy, mysticism, and natural magic, appeared to have felt a great deal of sympathy with Faustus. Instead of demonising him, he invites us to identify with his protagonist's tireless quest to understand the mysteries of existence. Significantly, Goethe's Faustus receives redemption. Angels carry him off to heaven before Mephistopheles can drag him down to hell.

Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's production of Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus was absolutely magical, making maximum use of the circular stage to create the magic circle around which the audience hovers, as though we are spectral witnesses to Faustus's damnation.

This is no dry production but an enchanting pageant meant to capture the Elizabethan sense of awe at the magic taking place before us.

Lucifer (actor Gwendoline Christie) appears as a woman in glittering chainmail, who flies down from the ceiling on a trapeze. The actor appears to have great fun with her role, cackling and lounging on Faustus's desk while he mourns his doom and the impossibility of redemption.

A host of twenty four extras play the part of spirits, demons, and courtiers, mingling with the audience before descending on ladders onto the stage. Huge puppets appear as the host of Seven Deadly Sins. Faustus even engages in actual stage conjuring. But at the centre of it all is the powerful chemistry between Patrick O'Kane, who plays the volatile Faustus, and the quiet understatement of Ian Redford's Mephistopheles, who appears as an unassuming old man in a vicar's suit.

Ultimately the play is a powerful meditation on free will and the soul, and how willing people are to sacrifice their soul for fleeting ambition.

My husband, who saw the play with me, observed that in the modern corporate world, people sell their souls for a lot less than Doctor Faustus, who had least had some fun while the party lasted.

Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre's production of Doctor Faustus runs until October 9.

Dr. Naomi Baker's essay on Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus

Sunday, 12 September 2010


One of the aspects of being a writer of historical novels that I particularly love is the ability to weave my fictional characters' lives into the real events and characters of the day. My novel THE KING’S MAN, in particular, has its feet firmly in the turbulent events of 1654 when a number of generally inept plots to restore Charles II to the throne were foiled.  Behind the unravelling of these plots is one man, the singular spy master of the age, JOHN THURLOE.
                John Thurloe so intrigued me that he actually appears in both my books and a large folio print of the man hangs in my stairwell. Thurloe came from a fine tradition of spy masters to the English Court, such as Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil who dominated Elizabeth’s reign and saved his Queen from assasination on many occasions.
                Thurloe, born in 1616, began his professional life as a lawyer, working for Oliver St. John, the English Statesman and judge whose alliance with parliament and personal connections to Oliver Cromwell would have brought Thurloe into the parliamentary circle of influence during the early part of the Civil War.  Under St. John’s patronage he served as secretary to the Commissioners of the Treaty of Uxbridge (an unsuccessful attempt to bring a peaceful resolution to the first civil war) . He also recorded the negotiations with the Dutch in the later years of the 1640s.
                He had impressed the right people and in 1652, the Secretary of State died and Thurloe was appointed to the position. The Commonwealth regime under Cromwell was poised in a precarious position with threats to its stability over continuing dissensions in religion matters and with the underground activities of the royalists both at home and in exile abroad and in 1653 the portfolio of “Clerk to the Committe for Foreign Affairs” was added to his duties, along with sole management of foreign intelligence.  Later, he also gained control of the post office, enabling easy interception of the mail to boost his intelligence gathering. Thurloe had become Cromwell’s spy master.
                Thurloe set about building an intricate network of agents. They were not hard to find. There were plenty of disenchanted and penniless royalists happy to exchange their former loyalties for regular pay. Names like Joseph Bampfield, Richard Willys, Henshaw and Wildman are all characters who cross my fictional agent's path in THE KING’S MAN.  Through this web of deceit, Thurloe managed to foil the Ship Inn plot (or Gerard’s plot) which is the central plot to my story and to infiltrate the famous Sealed Knot.
                He recruited the mathematicians John Wallis and Samuel Morland to his service as cryptographers. Ironically Morland was later to become a double agent and was instrumental in the restoration of Charles II.  In 1657 Thurloe became a member of Cromwell’s second Council of State and began to accept public posts, such as Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.  Following Cromwell’s death he transferred his loyalty to Richard Cromwell, but the younger Cromwell was not the man his father had been and in 1660 Charles II returned to the throne.
                Following the Restoration, inevitably Thurloe was arrested for High Treason but he was never tried.  His extensive knowledge of foreign affairs made him too valuable to the new regime and he was released on the promise that he could be called upon to assist England in its troubles with foreign powers but his days of influence were over.  He had been plagued by ill health for many years and died in February 1668 in his chambers at Lincoln’s Inn.
                During the reign of William III, workmen discovered the entire collection of Thurloe’s State Papers in a false ceiling during renovations to his former home. These are now readily available online.
                Like his predecessors, Thurloe’s strength lay in his ability to work behind the scenes and he had the absolute trust and confidence of the Lord Protector to whom he remained completely loyal, even advocating that Cromwell accept the crown.  Above all the temptations of high office, he seems to have remained absolutely honest and true to himself.  Even one of his political opponents writing in 1659 said: “...(Secretary Thurloe)...having taken no man’s money, invaded no man’s privilege, nor abused his own authority, which is and merits to be great, the weight of all foreign and almost all domestic affairs lying on him...And though intelligences have been infinitely chargeable, yet without it, into whose hands had this nation fallen?...”
                I will leave the last word for Richard Cromwell who is famously said to have described Mr. Secretary Thurloe as possessing “...the key to wicked men's hearts...”


Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Third Supply

In June 1609, England's "Third Supply" sailed toward Jamestown. The fleet consisted of nine ships and 500-600 colonists, which included the first group of women and children. Two women had arrived prior to this shipment, but there had been no active colonization previously. During the voyage, a hurricane sank one ship, and wrecked the flagship the Sea Venture on the coast of Bermuda.

Six remaining ships separated and arrived in Jamestown in mid-August. Another ship, the Virginia arrived later in October. Estimates of the survivors are around 300. Approximately 200 colonists that could barely feed themselves greeted the new arrivals. Unfortunately for the colonists, some brilliant decision maker in England had decided to put most of the colony's supplies and all of its leaders on the Sea Venture, which was thought to be lost at sea.

In September, the colonists formed two new settlements in order to take some of the burden away from Jamestown. In October, five ships set sail for England, reducing the numbers even further. Still, the events had been set in motion, and the colony experienced the horrific winter of 1609-10, commonly called the Starving Time.

Meanwhile in Bermuda, most of the colonists aboard the Sea Venture had survived. Many believe the tale was the basis for Shakespeare's The Tempest. Over a nine-month period, the survivors made two smaller ships from Bermuda cedar and what was salvageable from the Sea Venture. The two ships arrived in Jamestown in May of 1610 only to find 60 colonists left. Many had died from starvation, disease, or Indians, over the winter. Others had run off to the Powhatan, and only one of the other groups that had left in the fall still survived.

The 60 survivors were in poor shape, and the colony was considered to be a failure. Everyone boarded the two ships to set sail for England. As the group traveled down the James River, they met another relief ship, headed up by Thomas West, Baron De La Warr. The colony had been saved.

While Lord De La Warr's arrival was timely for those in Jamestown, the new governor's arrival would sadly set in motion another historic tragedy. He later used tactics that he learned in Ireland to annihilate the Paspahegh and Kecoughtan.

Kim Murphy