The Wild Irish - Robin Maxwell

BOOK: The Wild Irish - Robin Maxwell
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



T H E    
W I L D    I R I S H

A Novel of Elizabeth I and the Pirate O’Malley






The Wild Irish

“Maxwell reveals for us a very complex, passionate, and remarkable woman in Grace O’Malley, the legendary sixteenth-century pirate.

. . . A most satisfying novel.”

Library Journal

“A stunning tapestry of love, loyalty, and betrayal. . . . Superbly crafted, this dynamic tale brings a host of historical characters vividly to life.”


“Vivid. . . . Warmly drawn.”

Publishers Weekly

“A bawdy, boisterous, wonderful novel about two powerful, unconven-tional women. . . . Truly a brilliant read bringing the last years of the sixteenth century gloriously to life.”

Poisoned Pen

“An absorbing tale of the conflict between two strong-willed and courageous women. . . . Sweeping and compelling.”

Mystery Lovers Bookshop

“A compelling, exhilarating, and thought-provoking account. . . . In riveting prose, Maxwell details how two remarkable women, Elizabeth I and the Irish rebel Grace O’Malley, meet face-to-face as the fighting and intrigue in Ireland escalate. . . . Richly drawn.”

Boston Irish Reporter

“Through the eyes of these intelligent and courageous women, the dramatic and violent events of the Irish conflict come stunningly alive.”

The Irish World 

1 5 9 3


THE SUN WAS WARM on her face and she wondered,
were the mists?
London was perpetually shrouded in fog, was gray and dreary. And it stank. Or so her father’d said. Owen O’Malley had sailed into London once and only once in his life, but for his two wide-eyed children, the art of his conjuring had forever after painted the city a dank and fetid hole. Yet today Grace O’Malley was blinded by sunlight. The bow of Murrough ne Doe ’s galley sliced the Thames like a seamstress’s scissors through a length of glittering cloth—a river of diamonds, it seemed.

Perhaps, thought Grace, Elizabeth would be wearing diamonds when they met. The Queen of England—what would she look like? In her portraits the woman had a strange look about her. Cold. Brittle. Sharp beak nose. And the hard gaze of a man. No, ’twould not be diamonds, Grace corrected herself. ’Twould be
. The first Elizabeth, it was said, swathed herself in pearls, both black and white, some as tiny as a bead, some large as a goose ’s egg, the rare black ones her favorite.

A din rose from the clutter of docks and warehouses on the river’s north shore. The long, narrow waterfront properties were abutted seamlessly together, ships large and small clamoring for their place at the jet-ties and water stairs. Brawny shoremen grunted oaths as they labored, loading and unloading vessels, hefting plain and exotic cargoes back to high, timbered warehouses. Carts full of wares rumbled away down cobbled streets behind. The loudest ruckus came from the wharf receiving a shipload of wetfish whose odors—pungent and familiar—filled her nose. Fishermen were the rowdiest sailors, she knew, more so than merchantmen. Pirates even. She glimpsed seamen hurrying to finish their chores. They’d be keen to be done, to leave the ships they’d crewed for weeks or months and swagger down the planks in boisterous bands for a night of brawling and whoring in the world’s mightiest city.

Stretched out beyond the waterfront was the endless sprawl of London’s squat and storied houses, hundreds of streets. Church spires by the dozens pierced the sky, more in one place, thought Grace, than she ’d even seen in Spain. Deep in the city rose the tallest of all the steeples, surely the famous cathedral of St. Paul’s. And up ahead was London Bridge, still too far in the distance to see the heads of traitors rotting on their pikes.

Commercial landings now gave way to fine residences, each as large as a small castle, broad lawns sweeping down to the river’s edge. Those were the homes of the great lords, she knew, some of whom had been wreaking havoc in Ireland. The sight tightened a knot in her gut. She must stifle her hatred. Remember her purpose. But here she was, sixty-three years of age. Her maiden voyage into London Town and she was a
on a ship not her own. Sure her colors flew below those of Murrough ne Doe O’Flaherty, but it was humiliating all the same. Infuriating.

Well, she had come to remedy that. She would pay a wee call on the queen, at Greenwich, and see about the disturbances. Grace wondered if she was as tall and bony and yellow clackered as they said she was, if the alum and eggshell face paint she wore cracked grotesquely at the corners of her mouth and eyes. If she ’d loathe the woman on sight, her enemy for more than thirty years.

She would know soon enough, thought Grace, gripping the rail with her strong, sun-browned fingers. Soon enough indeed.



THE IRISH GALLEY brazenly flying her two rebel flags had, but a moment before, sailed beyond sight of the mullioned window at Essex House. Robert Devereaux, second earl of that name, that house, had come to gaze at the river with an eye to calming his frayed nerves. He ’d found that the sight of ships and wherries and barges on the wide, moving ribbon of water slowed a racing heart, measured his ragged breaths, even occasionally lifted the dark veil that had, periodically, fallen since childhood like a shroud on his soul. Out there, the sun glinting off the Thames, life appeared simple, mundane, whilst behind him in his study was a roomful of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers—

friends, relatives, admirers (schemers one and all)—and in their company was every complication of which a man could dream.

Twenty-four, and I am already a great lord of England,
thought Essex.

He ’d recently astonished even himself, being granted a seat at the table of the Privy Council. He was Master of the Horse, a Knight of the Garter, and Elizabeth’s undisputed favorite.
Yet I am poor,
he thought bitterly,
the poorest earl in the kingdom.
This, like his title, was a legacy from his father, Walter, first Earl of Essex. He bemoaned that fact every day of his life and cursed his father, altogether conscious of the sin, but cursed him nonetheless. At age seventeen, with Walter Devereaux dead and disgraced in Ireland, and his mother despised by the queen, Robert had to come to Court a penniless lad. Had he owned an ounce less of 6 character and cunning, he often reminded himself, he ’d have been swallowed alive by the beast that was Elizabeth’s Court. Instead he had risen more quickly—nay, shot like a star across the heavens—than even his benefactor, the Earl of Leicester, had envisaged he might. Yet it had been tooth and claw all the way to this moment, Essex knew, and whilst the Privy Councilship was assured, his military exploits already the stuff of legend, and his popularity with courtiers, beautiful waiting ladies, and the public equally vaulted, much was nevertheless at stake. His very livelihood! He could remain poor and irritatingly bound in Elizabeth’s debt, he knew, eking out endless loans from the most tightfisted monarch who’d ever lived, or he could, with the stroke of a quill, become a man of status, a man of means.

It seemed a small thing, really. All he needed was her granting to him the Farm of Sweet Wines. The sugar-laden wines imported from the islands of Greece—the malmseys and muscatels, romeneys and bastards—brought twice the levy of other wines, and he had been sniffing round this particular favor since the death, six years before, of its last holder, Robert’s own stepfather, the queen’s beloved Robin Dudley, Earl of Leicester.

Essex needed the grant desperately, for his current financial embarrassment was acute. He had inherited nothing but debt from his father, and there was no way he could squeeze another penny from his various tenants. But with administration of this Farm, even after paying the Crown its part of the customs levied, the profits he pocketed would provide him with a handsome and steady income for the whole of the long-term grant. More important, it would mean security for raising larger sums of money on credit, crucial for his standing at Court. He would finally be able to afford to redeem his debts to the queen, would no longer be beholden to her.

But how could he wheedle the prize from her?

And was this, in fact, the best use of his time and energies? There were the Bacon brothers to consider, most important Francis. If he could convince Elizabeth to grant his protégé the post of Attorney General, it would benefit Robert immeasurably. But, Essex reminded himself, Francis Bacon had disgraced himself in his first ever Parliament earlier this year by obstructing the passage of an increased-subsidy bill. One did not, Essex knew, and had wrongly assumed Francis knew as well, argue publicly
putting more money in the queen’s treasury, especially to take the side of mere gentlemen, whose finances would be stretched to pay the taxes.

But the deed had been done. Francis had been disgraced . . . but tem-porarily, Essex was sure. His own influence with Elizabeth, sweet talk and intimate laughter, would soften her. The post would eventually be Bacon’s.

The gabble of voices behind him exploded into laughter and Essex, planting a smile on his face, turned to join his retainers in good cheer.

He ’d come to think of the second-floor longhall of Essex House, now his study, as a great hive buzzing with golden bees—the Queen’s Bees—

beautiful, forward young men, all of a certain generation. His razor-tongued mother, Lettice, referred to the place as a “nest,” the implication unspoken but nevertheless understood that she described something more akin to a home for vipers than a family of birds.

She was wrong, of course. There was, for example, nothing remotely deadly about Anthony Bacon, thought Essex as his gaze found the tubby, sweet-faced young man, squinting nearsightedly into a large ledger.

Though he deftly coordinated a brilliant ring of continental spies, Anthony was far too soft and sickly to be thought dangerous. Essex had rarely known the queen to be so anxious to meet a man as she was Anthony Bacon. It was clear she meant to reward his good works and astonishing network of contacts with a plum position at Court. But each of the many meetings Essex had so carefully arranged between the two had been canceled as a result of Anthony’s ill health. If it was not a gout so severe he could hardly hold a quill, it was the stone that laid him low.

No, Anthony was no viper. Of the four secretaries he managed—
might be a more apt description—only one, Henry Cuffe, could be said to claim any ambition at all.

Certainly Anthony’s brother, Francis, boasted a rare and incisive mind. He wrote brilliantly, his extraordinary essays having caused more than a small stir at Court and abroad. He was adept at using others for his own advancement, and recently Essex was the one being used. But this was a quality to be respected and, besides, he was using Francis Bacon equally.

the man? thought Essex. Francis should have been back from Court hours ago.

Essex’s eyes fell on Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.

This graceful and gorgeous young man stood with his arm draped about his latest “find,” London’s most talked-about poet and playwright. He could see that between his patron and himself, Will Shakespeare held a sheet of parchment that was the subject of their scrutiny—and perhaps their laughter. Southampton had, at twenty, already earned a rightful reputation for profligacy, his warmth and enthusiasm matched only by his petulance and hot temper. Now
was a man worthy of Lettice ’s suspicions. In station and title more Essex’s equal than any of the others, and with family and social ties binding them tightly, Southampton was the closest thing Essex had to a friend.

“What, may I ask, is so humorous?” Essex demanded.

“Why, Master Shakespeare has been reading your verse,” replied Southampton, managing to keep a straight face.


“The sonnet to your latest mistress. ‘Beneath the Smile.’ ” Southampton began to read from the parchment and Essex felt his face flush pink, horrified by the poet’s scrutiny of his amateur attempts.

Worthy Lady, think me a man of imperfections, but one that
For your love endeavors to be good

And rather mend my faults than cover them . . .

Essex snatched the parchment from Southampton’s fingers, forcing a smile he hoped was not too sour. “My private thoughts, gentlemen,” he said, skewering Southampton with his gaze. “Not to be broadcast to all the world.”

“We may be great, my lord,” quipped Southampton, “but we are scarcely the world.” He turned and gazed with open desire at the young dramatist. “You think the poem good, don’t you, Will?”

“I do,” said Shakespeare, holding Essex, rather than Southampton, in his clear, steady gaze. “Your images are bold, and you’ve wisely chosen to eschew the nauseating flowers most amateurs delight in.” Essex was grateful for the compliment but teased, “What
would you say of it, Will? A too harsh criticism of the queen’s ‘most beloved’

might land you in Irish exile with another poor poet.” Everyone laughed at the expense of Edmund Spenser, once the court’s most famous versifier, now disgraced for his criticism of William Cecil, Lord Burleigh. In his satirical “Mother Hubbard’s Tale,” Spenser had likened Elizabeth’s oldest and most trusted adviser to a chicken thief.

Before he knew what had happened, Spenser had been banished, along with the English army, into the quagmire that was Ireland. Little had been heard from him since.

“Master Shakespeare is too clever to anger the queen.” Anthony Bacon had risen from his bench and approached the group. He held out to Essex a freshly powdered parchment filled with Henry Cuffe ’s unmis-takable scrawl.

“This is . . . ?” Essex inquired.

“A list of all Her Majesty’s subjects recently sighted at King Philip’s Court, my lord. Papists, all of them. Their purpose, it appears, is to make mischief on the queen’s armies garrisoned in Ireland. And there is rumor of a Spanish invasion to be launched on Guernsey and Jersey. Oh, and the latest report on Philip’s lunatic son, Don Carlos.”

“Very good,” said Essex, beaming at Anthony. His smile was genuine, for this was the sort of intelligence that Elizabeth most craved these days.

The heavy wooden door of the study opened and Francis Bacon blew in, the air of a black storm hanging round him.

“How now, Francis?” Essex called out, careful not to exude more good cheer than the obviously gloomy man could countenance.

Francis Bacon laid down his ledger and bulging document case, sighing deeply. “Beware the Gnome,” he intoned morosely and took the bench recently vacated by his brother.

“What has he done this time?” demanded Essex. “The Gnome” was Lord Burleigh’s son, Robert Cecil—the queen’s secretary—a swarthy little hunchback who seemed determined, at every turn, to make their lives a misery.

“He cornered me in the Presence Chamber this afternoon.”

“In itself a revolting vision,” said Southampton.

He, Essex, and Anthony came to surround Francis, all exuding sympathy. Will Shakespeare, not of this charmed inner circle, hung back quietly, but all ears.

“Patronizing little prick,” Bacon went on. “He began by compliment-ing my most recent essay, then inquired in that irritating whine if I didn’t think I would be happier with the lesser post of Solicitor General than with that of Attorney General.”

“He didn’t!” cried Essex.

“Bastard,” Southampton muttered.

“What did you tell him, brother?” Anthony Bacon demanded.

BOOK: The Wild Irish - Robin Maxwell
6.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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