William Shakspere The Corisco Conspiracy
ELEVEN: All the Conspirators Save Only He
Rolling half-awake off a sweat-soaked bed, not a stitch of clothing on me, I am transported by rhythmic choral singing in flawless harmony with the pulsating pounding of drums and intermittent outbursts of palpitating ululations. Angelic refrains emanate from various pockets far and near. And at regular intervals blasts of gunshots drown the melodious blend. It is the dawn of All Saints’ Day 1585 in the island city of Corisco.
The last of Bishop Watson’s guests to arrive in the Malabese capital, Doctor Lopez and I had had little more than twenty-four hours to prepare for a skein of never-ending ceremonies – ceremonies so stimulating in their solemnity they must have melted the hearts of the Holy Trinity.
In the course of those twenty-four hours, I was given a taste of things to come. Physically, I couldn’t have been more than a few thousand nautical miles removed from the vapoury skies of England. Sensually, I was on a different planet.
The ordination to the priesthood of Julius Marikana; the consecration of All Saints’ College; the unbridled street parties which followed; how a fully-vested Father Julius was carried on the shoulders of his compatriots from one end of the island to the other and laid on the lap of King Massango MwanaKongo; how the Bishop of Winchester had to be guided like a blind man to his throne beside the king because he was festooned with garlands of flowers up to his mitre; these and a good many related events are meticulously recorded in The Annals of the Kingdom of Malabo. Suffice it then for me to observe here only that neither the authors of the annals nor the poets and chroniclers of the kingdom came anywhere close to capturing the spirit or painting the splendour of the pomp and pageantry which were the order of that sweltering day in Corisco.
The first familiar person I conversed with after the parties were over, for him and me at any rate, was the Earl of Oxford. We were on the balcony of the suite he and I shared in a four-hundred-year-old castle still going by its original name: Castelo Novo. A soft wind blew in from Santa Elena Beach and cooled our sweaty bodies while I outlined my plan for a partnership with Emmanuel. Oxford’s eyes opened wider and wider as I spoke. He clutched the armrests of the Savonarola he was sitting in – tighter and tighter until his knuckles turned ghastly white by the time I reached the end of my revelation.
“It’s suicidal,” he mumbled.
“How do you arrive at that conclusion, my lord?”
The earl leapt out of his chair, grabbed me by the shoulders and lifted me off my backside. His eyes blazed. Like a beast frustrated because it couldn’t decide whether to swallow its prey whole or first tear it to pieces, he shook me back and forth and left and right. His voice louder than I had ever heard him raise it before, he asked: “You haven’t a clue what you’d be up against, do you?
“What would we be up against?”
“You’d both be killed sooner than if you tried to break into or out of the Tower!”
Throwing me back in my chair and reassuming his in exasperation, he spluttered the following suggestion like a man in excruciating pain: “Instead of your partnership, so-called, why don’t you fight a duel with him here in Corisco? If nothing else, the outcome could be less regrettable: one of you may live to serve the Church for another few years.”
“My lord, I don’t understand over what exactly you’re winding yourself up in knots.”
“Then let me tell you. The parishes of London are crawling with spies, code breakers, torturers and instigators of quarrels. Nobody, least of all the pair of you, can circumvent the city’s web of anti-Catholic operations.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“Not sufficiently, I’m afraid. How long do you think your scheme would last before one of your messages is deciphered or you’re provoked into a physical confrontation? If you want to be killed, don’t drag your friend to the gallows with you.”
“We can avoid quarrels. We’ve both done so many times before. The worst that can happen is that one of us is charged with incitement or sedition.”
“How about treason or subversion?” Steam appeared to blow out of Oxford’s mouth. “You can be hanged in England for uttering an innocent word in the wrong place, let alone circulating treasonable messages in writing.”
So saying, the earl left me and went and locked himself up in his room. For the next few days, I ate my meals alone. If he ate at all, he did so out of the castle, presumably to make sure I didn’t ruin his appetite.
Early one morning three or four days later, I was sitting in the sand on Santa Elena Beach watching the tide come in when Oxford, who wasn’t given to small talk, crept up behind me and went straight to the point: “How would you defend yourself against a charge of treason?”
“Our defences can be built into the plays themselves.” I stood up and faced him, feeling like an advocate before a judge.
“How?” snarled his lordship.
“For one thing, all our scenes could be set in faraway lands – exotic entertainment having nothing to do with England. For another thing, we will make it a rule to choose subjects from the distant past, and use them to reflect present-day conditions only indirectly.”
“What if historical accuracy requires that some events in your plays be portrayed as taking place in England?”
“Then Emmanuel can leave out controversial events.”
The earl swatted a fly on his arm, swore at it and then said: “In other words, your English histories, if you write any, won’t be histories. They will be adulations.”
“Adulations with a beneficial purpose, my lord.”
We were here interrupted by other early risers. About a dozen young boys and girls ran in our direction. They stripped themselves stark naked in front of us and raced one another into the undulating waves of the ocean.
My examiner heaved a deep sigh and walked away. I stayed behind and spent the entire day that day on the beach, unable to resist the temptation to swim in the altogether like everyone else – even though it meant exposing my shrivelled, pink tool to ridicule.
I woke up late the next morning – too late to attend Bishop Watson’s installation of Father Julius as the rector of All Saints’ College. Under other circumstances, I would have been beset by remorse. But at that point I was too worried about my future to pay attention to matters of general interest.
Moping around Castelo Novo, I cursed the fate that had taken me half-way around the world in search of a friend who seemed determined to maintain insurmountable distances between himself and me. Emmanuel, I learned upon arriving in Corisco, had gone to Mbini, one of the villages on the west coast of Africa where they speak Bube, the native language of his former nurse. He was there compiling a grammar of the language as the final stage in his doctoral studies.
I fumed at Emmanuel for eluding me, and at Edward de Vere for disapproving so vehemently of my plan. Most distressing of all, I seethed at myself for making the earl anxious about us, and then not thanking him for alerting me to a fatal pitfall.
The earl had nothing against writing and producing plays. He himself had written various entertainments in his day and had actually overseen the production of some of them in Italy. What frightened him was my motive for a partnership with his disciple. I wanted to use Emmanuel’s dramas as vehicles for sending information to the Catholic underground. My hope was that each time he supplied me with a play I would sit down with a council of learned adherents to the old faith and together we would insert in the text encoded messages which Catholics in any given audience would recognize as addressed to them.
I had skipped breakfast and dinner. Just as my mind turned to supper, someone knocked. I went to the door, opened it and let in the bishop’s young squire, a thirteen-year old by the name of Robert Catesby.
Robert and I had met when I visited Winchester Palace as Doctor Beaverbrook. He too was a Warwickshire boy, a scion of the upper crust of our county – the only son of Sir William Catesby of Lapworth and Lady Anne Throckmorton, daughter of Baroness Elizabeth Hungerford and Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton Court.
“His lordship’s been asking about you,” said Robert as we sat down to share the potato pies and roast lobsters I had ordered for us. “He has convened another meeting.”
“No. Tomorrow. At twelve noon.”
Oxford had left me a note saying he and Doctor Lopez were visiting the nearby island of Elobey, and weren’t going to be back until the next morning. So Robert kept me company that evening and slept in the earl’s room for the night.
A little before noon the following day, we headed for the refectory of All Saints’ College, where he had told me our meeting with the bishop was going to take place.
We entered the building through the pantry. It was empty. So would the refectory itself have been, but for nine men seated, waiting, at an immense, six-legged table in the centre of the hall. Five of them sat on one side of the table. I joined the four on the other side.
A chair reserved for his lordship had been placed at one end of the table; and a high stool on each side of the chair. Robert climbed on the stool opposite me, which would be the one on the bishop’s left when he assumed his place.
The second stool, immediately to my left, had already been occupied. Perched on it was a dark, young woman of stunning beauty. She wore a bright-red single article of clothing which would have been considered outrageously revealing as an undergarment in England. The dress, to use the term loosely, had no neck; nor would it have reached down to her knees had she been standing. Her long, slender arms were more exposed than those of any of the men before her, the right one hanging not more than two feet away from me.
While I gave the other men furtive glances in an attempt to study their features, my hands twitched under the table and beads of sweat trickled down my brow. I considered going outside to dry my face and armpits, and then sitting at the opposite end of the table when I returned. As I was about to rise, Bishop Watson breezed in.
“Good day, everyone.”
Standing and bowing, we replied all at once: “Good day, my lord.”
Bishop Watson took his seat. The rest of us sat back down, except for the lady. She had turned and was standing with her back to me. A stream of curly, pitch-black hair cascaded down her back all the way to the slope where her upper body dipped into her well-endowed posterior. When she bent down to whisper something in the bishop’s ear, the curls fell on his shoulder. He nodded nervously, and sat upright as stiff as the piece of furniture holding him up.
Upon receiving her last nod from his lordship, the young woman retrieved a scroll from a pouch and handed it to him. He said “Thank you” out loud. She replied, less audibly, that it was her pleasure; curtsied, and executed a breath-taking exit.
“Let us pray,” requested the bishop, whose face at that point was redder than his skull-cap.
We all got back on our feet.
His lordship thanked God for bringing us together and for some of His many blessings. He prayed for the prosperity of All Saints’ College, for our safe journeys back to England, and for success in our future endeavours.
After we resumed our seats, he stood up again and announced: “This will be brief. The only reason we’re meeting today is to sign the pledge which Mother Isola so kindly agreed to write for us. She herself may be late getting here or may not be able to join us at all. She’s taking care of a sick boy at the orphanage. That was her assistant, Amina Sefuwa, whom she sent to deliver our pledge.”
Bishop Watson handed his squire the scroll he had just received from Amina, gave him an encouraging pat on the back, and sat back down.
We had met five times before. At the last of those meetings we agreed on the terms of the pledge that Robert was about to read to us. It had been written by Isola Monteverdi, the philanthropic nun-turned-teacher who headed the Jesuit secret service in Malabo (under the code name MI). She was popularly known as Mother Isola.
I had been privileged to sit beside her at the party to celebrate the opening of All Saints’ College.
Isola was an only child. She and her mother emigrated from Mantua to England in 1539 after her father died in the Siege of Castelnuovo at the height of the Third Ottoman-Venetian War. She was six at the time.
Ten years later, Isola joined the convent of the Sisters of Santa Brigida in Northfield, a suburb of Birmingham.
The sisters had opened their first convent on English soil only a few years before King Henry the Eighth started disbanding Catholic religious houses. When they closed their doors in Birmingham, Isola decided to return to Italy and enter Santa Brigida’s mother house in Rome. However, the ship that was to have taken the young nun back home got caught in a hurricane which blew it off course to an islet at swimming distance from Corisco.
Isola settled in Corisco. She spent a couple of years learning Portuguese while teaching English and Italian. Then she opened an orphanage to provide refuge to some of the thousands of children across Malabo and the neighbouring African states whose parents were sold into slavery every year. And more recently, she oversaw the construction of the seminary in whose refectory Bishop Watson and we, his eleven guests, were now assembled.
Robert stepped down from the stool, cleared his throat and read:
A Pledge of Allegiance
To His Royal Highness, Philip the Second of that Name by the Grace of God King of Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and the Two Sicilies
Royal and Most High Majesty:
The door facing Bishop Watson creaked open and a gust of wind slammed shut the one behind him, which he had left ajar to let in some much-needed fresh air. Mother Isola limped in with the help of a rather short cane.
“Please don’t,” she said, signalling us not to rise. His lordship rose all the same, and they bowed to each other before she squeezed her bulk into the arms of the chair opposite him.
Squire Catesby cleared his throat a second time and continued:
We, the twelve undersigned English Roman Catholics, united in heart and mind while assembled in the island city of Corisco in the Kingdom of Malabo, have formed a fraternity we are naming the Midland Movement.
Our appellation shall be the Midlanders, being given that we come from that central region of England known as the Midlands, whence all future members of our fraternity will also be levied. And we have nominated as our first leader Viscount Guillermo de Guzmán of London and Madrid.
The Midland Movement shall serve two purposes: (1) to fight alongside the forces that Spain dispatches to take England back into the Catholic fold; and (2) to strengthen the remarriage of England and Rome until not a single English soul is left that does not adhere to the original faith of our forebears.
To these ends, we pledge our undivided allegiance to Spain and bend our wills to Your Royal Majesty’s every command.
Signed in Corisco (Malabo), as with one hand, this 8thday of November in the year of Our Lord 1585.
We stood up and applauded the young reader. While we were still on our feet, his lordship thanked Mother Isola for writing the pledge and me for suggesting the formation of such a body. She and I were also accorded a round of applause each before the Midlanders signed their first piece of correspondence.
Besides the Bishop of Winchester, the Earl of Oxford, Doctor Rodrigo Lopez, Alexander de Hoghton, Robert Catesby and me as Guillermo de Guzmán, the other founding members of the Midland Movement were Cardinal William Allen, Reverend Robert Parsons, Reverend John Gerard, Thomas Percy (Constable of Alnwick Castle), Francis Tresham (proxy for Sir Thomas Tresham), and Lord Henry Howard, the Earl of Northampton, who had escaped from the Tower shortly before Bishop Watson sent us his invitations.
Copyright: Raphael Soné