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Authors: J. D Davies

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The Blast That Tears the Skies (2012)

BOOK: The Blast That Tears the Skies (2012)
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The Blast That Tears the Skies (2012)
Matthew Quinton Journals [3]
Davies, J. D
(2012)
Tags:
Historical/Fiction
Historical/Fictionttt

1665. Britain's at war, but conspiracies against the King abound. As
plague stalks London, Captain Quinton commands a vast man-of-war in the
fight against the Dutch. Surviving action in the thick of the Battle of
Lowestoft, one of the greatest sea-fights in the age of sail, he returns
home only to discover an uncomfortable truth about himself and his
family.

THE BLAST THAT
TEARS THE SKIES

J. D. DAVIES

 
 
 

For Colin and Wendy Bancroft

 

First draw the sea, that portion which between

The greater world and this of ours is seen;

Here place the British, there the Holland fleet,

Vast floating armies, both prepar’d to meet!

Draw the world expecting who shall reign,

After this combat, o’er the conquer’d Main.

~ Edmund Waller,
Instructions to a Painter (1665)
 

 

To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.

~ Cicero (106–43 BC)

 
F
AMILY
T
REE OF THE
Q
UINTONS,
E
ARLS OF
R
AVENSDEN
 
 
 
 
 

Fragment of a letter written by Sir Martin Bagshawe (1616–1665), Justice of the Peace for the Shire of Middlesex. Date unknown; presumed to be February 1665.

 

…that before his slaughter, the man’s flight was as desperate as though he were being pursued by the very hounds of Hell.

My Lord, the last deponent, and the only one actually to witness the murder of this unknown wretch, was Thomas Eden, ostler of the parish of Stebonheath. He states that he was making his way across Blackwall Marsh, alias the Isle of Dogs, by the King’s Lane from the Greenwich ferry. Some business had detained him in Deptford, and thus it was dark by the time he approached the chapel of Pomfret; the only building on that entire bleak isle. Eden depones that he was passing by the ruins when he espied two mean creatures, clad in dark raiments, stabbing poniards or some other short blade into the body of a man upon the ground. Eden believes that his
sudden
appearance as a man on horseback startled the killers, who took flight at once, running off across the marsh in the direction of the Lime House breach. Eden depones that he dismounted and went to the murdered man, 
who lay upon the muddy floor of the ruined chapel. (This ostler seems a trustworthy fellow, My Lord, not one of those foul, idle rogues who would fall upon a dying man only to steal the possessions from his body, so I think we may value his testimony highly.) The dying wretch gripped Eden’s hand strongly, pulling the ostler down to him so that he might hear his parting speech. The strangest thing is Eden’s claim that even as his life-blood left him, the man appeared to be mightily content, even smiling, proud to speak the words that he uttered. I know that some men greet death thus, My Lord – witness the example of Vespasian – but it is this man’s words that make me pause to inscribe them on a paper intended for such an eminent personage as yourself.

My Lord, Eden swears open oath that the man’s dying words were these:

‘Twenty captains. Twenty will turn, in the first battle of this coming war. Twenty, true to the old cause. Twenty will join the Dutch and bring down the tyrant Charles Stuart. There will be no more kings in England but King Jesus.’

May God have mercy upon us all, My Lord Percival, if this be true.

 
 
 

Describe their fleet abandoning the sea

And all their merchants left a wealthy prey.

Our first success in war make Bacchus crown

And half the vintage of the year our own.

~ Edmund Waller,
Instructions to a Painter

 

The white cliff-wall of France, glimpsed through flurries of bitter February rain, appeared dangerously close. My ship strained in the swell, timbers seeming to protest against the proximity of those
ship-breaking
cliffs and the subterranean rocks that lurked off them. We were under courses alone, and despite the ferocious tide-race we still had ample sea-room to come off (or so those who were more expert in such matters contended), but I still felt that old dread upon my heart: the dread known only to men who have almost met death in a shipwreck when they sail too near a rocky coast.

Yet if we were close to that ominous lee shore, another was closer still. Spectators upon the shore of France – if there were any such about upon so bitter a day – would have witnessed the curious spectacle of two nearly identical ships, one running as close inshore as possible, the other closing her rapidly from the north-west, sails taut in the strong breeze. A quick count of the gunports cut in their sides would have established that the nearer carried thirty pieces of ordnance, the more distant thirty-eight. Any spectator knowledgeable of naval matters might have contemplated the absence of forecastles and the narrow, high sterns of the two warships and thus identified both as Dutch. For the inshore ship, that assumption would have been confirmed by the horizontal red-white-blue bars flying proudly at her stern. But in the case of the other, he would have been disabused at once by the red ensign with a red cross upon white in the canton, streaming out in the wind: the unmistakeable colours of the Navy Royal of Charles Stuart, second of that name, King of England. The paradox was easily explained by the fact that our hypothetical spectator was gazing upon His Majesty’s Ship, the
House of Nassau
, a prize taken during the war between England and the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Or rather, the previous war, for the greatest certainty in the entire world on that February day in the year 1665 was that another was imminent. Perhaps very imminent indeed.

‘If he was a man of sense,’ said Lieutenant Kit Farrell, at my side upon the quarterdeck of the
House of Nassau
, ‘he would by now be making ready to salute.’

I kept my telescope level upon the deck of the Dutch man-of-war. No men were going into her shrouds; no man stood by her ensign staff.

‘I do believe he intends to brazen it out,’ I said. ‘He means to fight, rather than give His Majesty his due in his own seas.’

By time-honoured custom, and perhaps more pertinently by the king’s direct orders, captains of His Majesty King Charles the Second’s Navy Royal were enjoined to enforce the salute to the flag in the British Seas, defined – entirely reasonably – as extending to the
high-water
mark of every nation’s shoreline from Norway to Spain. Such was stated quite explicitly in my copy of the Lord High Admiral’s general instructions, addressed personally to Matthew Quinton, captain of His Majesty’s ship the
House of Nassau
. The impertinent Dutch and their continental brethren oft quibbled with this manifestation of what they perceived as Britannic arrogance, the quibbling sometimes going as far as full broadsides, but surely here, in sight of Kent – in waters that were thus as much a part of the king’s domain as my native county of Bedfordshire – no Dutch captain would be lunatic enough to deny us our right?

‘Perhaps he reckons we will not want the responsibility of being the direct cause of the war,’ Kit said.

‘In that case, the captain yonder is most certainly steering the wrong course,’ I replied. ‘Quintons have been starting wars for six hundred years. Mister Farrell, we will clear for battle. And make it abundantly clear to the Dutchman that we are doing so.’

My old friend, to whom I owed my life, nodded in return and passed on the order to those in the ship’s waist. A boy ran to the ship’s bell at the forecastle rail and rang it lustily. As the off-duty watch began to emerge onto the deck, our two trumpeters took up their position at the poop and began roaring their song of defiance. All along the upper deck, gun crews manned their weapons, hauled on the tackles, and ran out the sakers. Shot, cartridges, rammers and sponges were made ready. Gun captains took up their positions. Several of the men looked up toward me and smiled, for they knew me of old, and I knew them. There was Martin Lanherne, the ship’s coxswain and unofficial leader of the ferocious Cornish coterie that attached itself to me during my second commission and had since become my personal following, serving under me in each of my commands. There they were, ready at their guns: men like the giant George Polzeath, the minute John Tremar and the simian Cornish monoglot John Treninnick. Next to them, the unlikely friends they – and I – had acquired over the years, such as the renegade Moor Ali Reis, the Scot Macferran and the runaway Virginian slave Julian Carvell. If a war truly was to be started this day, I could think of no better men to start it.

‘He’s responding in kind, sir,’ said Kit, his eyepiece upon the Dutchman.

True enough, our opponent, too, was opening his ports and running out his guns. Now he had men in the shrouds, and moving out onto the yards; but the slight turn of his bow toward the
Nassau
proved that he no longer sought to run from us if he could. He was going to meet us, and fight.

‘What odds would you give, Mister Farrell?’

Kit weighed the scene before him with the eye of a man far older than his years. ‘We’ve more guns, and heavier – but that gives him the advantage in speed and manoeuvring. On the other hand, we have the wind, and he risks us forcing him onto the lee shore. So if I were placing a bet, Captain Quinton, I’d place it on us.’

I smiled and went down into the waist, moving from gun to gun. ‘Well, my brave lads,’ I shouted as a fresh shower of rain began to fall heavily, ‘Lieutenant Farrell has weighed the odds, and wagers on a victory for the
Nassau
!’ A happy growl and some cheering; the men respected Kit Farrell, and they also respected the significant quantity of prize money that such a victory would bring them. ‘I’ll not challenge that, but let it not be said that Captain Matthew Quinton is miserly with his coin!’ Much laughter. ‘Well, then! A firkin of wine to the guncrew that brings down any mast of the Dutchman, and a guinea to the man who brings me the sword of her captain!’

The men cheered wildly, stamping their feet upon the deck and waving their fists in the air. I sprang up the steps onto the forecastle, took hold of the foremast shroud and hauled myself up onto the starboard rail, drawing my sword as I did so. There was our enemy, barely half a mile away now and closing rapidly.

‘Come on then, you butterboxes!’ I cried exultantly. ‘Deny the right of our king, would you? Come see how England defends the honour of her flag, my hogen-mogen friends!’

Of course, my performance was for my men, not for an enemy who could never have heard my words. For one glorious moment I imagined myself an armoured knight – why, perhaps even a duke – upon a mighty steed, charging the enemies of my king. Then a huge wave broke over the bow, soaking me to the skin, and the dream was drowned in a torrent of salt water.

As I wiped the ocean from my eyes I wondered what my opponent would have made of a captain who hung over the side of his ship like some deranged pirate, his hair bedraggled by rain and wave, swinging his sword about his head in the teeth of a bitter squall. Even then, all those fleeting years ago, captains – even young gentleman captains but recently sent to sea – were meant to command gravely from their quarterdecks, not play at dukes and Drakes.

On came the Dutchman. The scream of our trumpets reached a crescendo, forming an informal chorus with his. He was within range of our bow chasers now, but there seemed little point in merely toying with them when our full broadside was about to be unleashed –

I squinted my eyes against the rain. Yes, there could be no mistaking it – the foot of his foretopsail was quivering, and the men upon the foretopyard were hauling upon the clewlines. Only a moment later, I knew beyond doubt that he was taking in all his topsails. And at the stern, the proud ensign of Holland was coming down to
half-staff
. The Dutchman was duly executing the salute to His Britannic Majesty’s flag.

She swept past with less than half a cable’s length of water between us, our mainyards nearly touching, her men lining her starboard rail and looking sullenly – in some cases, defiantly – toward the
Nassau
. My men jeered and cheered in equal measure, many derisively prodding one or two fingers into the air. The quarterdeck of the Dutchman came level with the forecastle of the
Nassau
, and her captain – a short, bluff old man – raised his hat. I responded by drawing my sword to my face in salute, then shouted out in the Dutch I had learned from my dear wife, ‘Quinton, Captain of the
House of Nassau
! My thanks and that of my king for your respect to our flag, sir, although you kept us wondering that you might choose another course!’

My fluency in his tongue momentarily took the Dutchman aback; then he smiled and shouted, ‘Uyttenhout of Enkhuizen, Captain of the
Vogelstruis
of the North Quarter Admiralty! Fear not, Captain Quinton, on another day we shall pay very different respects to your damned flag – and take back our ship, there, also!’

As I walked back along the waist of the
Nassau
, past men hauling the guns back inboard, I heard growls of anger and disappointment.

‘Be of good cheer, lads!’ I cried. ‘There’ll soon be work enough for all of us!’

‘A pox on the work, Captain,’ retorted John Tremar in the broad accent of Looe, where his Morwenna raised their twins. ‘We’ll deal with the Hollanders in short order any day of the year. But I had my mind set upon your guinea and the wine, that I did!’

* * *

 

We saluted Dover Castle and came to an anchor beneath that mighty edifice. I stood upon the quarterdeck, drinking in the scene. Fishing boats plied to and from the beach of Dover. The packet-boat from Calais slipped gracefully under our stern, no doubt bearing the latest letters of intelligence from the court of King Louis. Further out, one of our larger frigates beat down the Channel; fresh out of the Medway, probably, and eager to join the pursuit of every sail that came within sight from Ushant up to Calais. The pursuit that we would rejoin, once we had revictualled. The purpose and profit of such a mission was immediately apparent. All around us lay the yield of King Charles’s harvest of the oceans, the seizures of suspected Dutch merchant shipping that had been going on since the previous autumn, despite the fact that war had not yet been declared. At least a dozen prize ships lay in the anchorage: supposed Flemings, dubious Hamburgers, alleged Swedes, and the most troublesome of all, the Amelanders and East Frieslanders, nominally independent but little more than satellites of the Dutch, just as Jersey and Guernsey are for we English.

There was a cry from the lookout – ‘Boat for the
Nassau
!’

I thought I recognised the figure in the stern of the approaching longboat, and raised my telescope. A bluff young man sat there. His head was crowned by the most fantastically vast periwig and an equally monstrous broad-brimmed cap. In his right hand he held a bottle, which he raised toward me in salute.

‘Harris?’ My surprise was succeeded in short order by concern for proper form. ‘Boatswain Ablett, there! A side party if you please, to receive Captain Harris!’

We piped my old friend aboard the
House of Nassau
. He doffed his cap to me and to the ensign, but I sensed at once the reason for his arrival. The paper was there in his hand, having discreetly replaced the bottle. He said, ‘Captain Quinton, my respects, sir. I regret that I must trouble you for the use of your quarterdeck.’

I bowed, and signalled for my officers to assemble the crew within the waist of the upper deck. Once the men were in position, Harris unfolded the paper and read aloud the commission in the name of James, Duke of York, Lord High Admiral of England, that appointed him, Beaudesert Harris, captain of His Majesty’s Ship the
House of Nassau
for this present expedition. And as Beau read the last word, I ceased to be a king’s captain.

‘I was as surprised as you,’ said Beau as we drank in my – his – great cabin. ‘Coventry summoned me from the country. And when I found I was to replace you in this command – you, Matt, of all men – well, it shook me to the core.’

‘You gleaned nothing of the reason for my supersession? Is there some discontent with my conduct of this command?’ I had a sudden thought. ‘Have my prize crews been excessive in their plundering?’ I had oft doubted the wisdom of giving Cornishmen, of all the races upon God’s earth, the charge of ships containing large quantities of wine and brandy.

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