A PLAGUE OF ANGELS
By P F Chisholm
(fourth in the Carey series)
Summoned by his father, Sir Robert Carey returns to plague-stricken London in the autumn of 1592. With him is a reluctant Sergeant Henry Dodd, who has never before ventured south of York and sees no reason to start now.
Carey must run the gauntlet of his multitudinous and embittered creditors, while coping with the pregnant reason for his hurried departure in June. She in turn has to deal with that lovesick failure, Shakespeare. And the player is torn between passion for his mistress and his pressing need to stay under the protection of Carey’s formidable father.
Surrounded by enemies, Carey and Dodd can only avoid the Fleet prison – or worse – by getting to the bottom of a murderous tangle involving Carey’s own family and the capital crime of forging gold coins.
“This series makes modern policing seem like Dixon of Dock Green.” – Sunday Telegraph.
New English Library
First page sample:
Wednesday 30th August 1592, late afternoon
You could always tell when you were near a town from the bodies hanging on the gibbets by the main road, thought Sergeant Dodd. London was no different from anywhere else they had passed on the interminable way south. As their horses toiled up the long hill from Golders Farm, Dodd could just glimpse a robber’s corpse dangling from a big elm tree, up on the brow. Of course Sir Robert Carey had told him how close they were to London when they turned off the Great North Road and passed through the village of Hendon, but they had been delayed by Carey’s horse throwing a shoe. The afternoon crowds of people were gone now so that the dusty rutted road was quite empty. It could have been anywhere.
A bit of knowledge gleaned from Carey’s manservant floated to the front of his mind.
“Ay,” he said with interest, and turned in the saddle to speak to Barnabus himself who trailed lumenly along behind them on a sulky looking horse. “Would that be Tyburn Tree up ahead there?”
Barnabus was frowning with concentration as he tried to get his mount to move faster up the hill.
“Nah mate,” he puffed, kicking viciously at the horse’s flanks. “Tyburn’s off to the west, where the Edgeware Road meets the Oxford Road, and it’s a lot fancier than that. That’s only the Hampstead Hanging Elm.”
The road was curving round into a deep cutting with scrubby heathland trees growing on the banks. Ahead the Courtier’s ugly and obstinate replacement horse was balking at something again, probably the smell of rot from the corpse. Carey had glanced without interest at the Elm with its judicial fruit. The horse neighed, tossed his head and skittered sideways.
More about Sir Robert Carey – from my Introduction to the American edition of A Famine of Horses (published by Poisoned Pen Press)
Anyone who has read any history at all about the reign of Queen Elizabeth has heard of at least one of Sir Robert Carey’s exploits – he was the man who rode 300 miles in two days from London to Edinburgh to tell King James of Scotland that Elizabeth was dead and that he was finally King of England. Carey’s affectionate and vivid description of the Queen in her last days is often quoted from his memoirs.
However, I first met Sir Robert Carey by name in the pages of George MacDonald Fraser’s marvellous history of the Anglo-Scottish Borders, The Steel Bonnets. GMF quoted Carey’s description of the tricky situation he got himself into when he had just come to the Border as Deputy Warden, while chasing some men who had killed a churchman in Scotland.
“…about two o’clock in the morning I took horse in Carlisle, and not above twenty-five in my company, thinking to surprise the house on a sudden.t Before I could surround the house, the two Scots were gotten into the strong tower, and I might see a boy riding from the house as fast as his horse would carry him, I little suspecting what it meant: but Thomas Carleton… told me that if I did not… prevent it, both myself and all my company would be either slain or taken prisoners.”
Perhaps you need to have read as much turgid 16th century prose as I have to realise how marvellously fresh and frank this is, quite apart from it being a cracking tale involving a siege, a standoff, and some extremely fast talking by Carey. And it really happened, nobody made it up; references in the Calendar of Border Papers suggest that Carey made his name with his handling of the incident.
It’s all the more surprising then that Robert Carey was the youngest son of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon. Hunsdon was Queen Elizabeth’s cousin because Ann Boleyn’s older sister Mary was his mother. He was also probably Elizabeth’s half-brother through Henry VIII, whose official mistress Mary Boleyn was before the King clapped eyes on young Ann. I have to say that one of the attractions of history to me is the glorious soap opera plots it contains.)
The nondescript William Carey who had supplied the family name by marrying the ex-official mistress, quite clearly did not supply the family genes. Lord Hunsdon was very much Henry VIII’s son – he was also, incidentally, Elizabeth’s Lord Chamberlain and first patron to one William Shakespeare.
Robert Carey was (probably) born in 1560, given the normal education of a gentleman from which he says he did not much benefit, went to France for polishing in his teens and then served at Court for ten years as a well-connected but landless sprig of the aristocracy might be expected to do.
Then, in 1592, something made him decide to switch to full-time soldiering. Perhaps he was bored. Perhaps the moneylenders were getting impatient again.
Perhaps he had personal reasons for wanting to be in the north. At any rate, Carey accepted the offer from his brother-in-law, Lord Scrope, Warden of the English West March, to be his Deputy Warden.
This was irresistable to me. In anacrhonistic terms, here was this fancy-dressing, fancy-talking Court dude turning up in England’s Wild West. The Anglo-Scottish Border at that time made Dodge City look like a health farm. It was the most chaotic part of the kingdom and was full of cattle-rustlers, murderers, arsonists, horse-thieves, kidnappers and general all-purpose outlaws. This was where they invented the word “gang” – or the men “ye gang oot wi’” – and also the word “blackmail” which then simply mean protection money.
Carey was the Sheriff and Her Majesty’s Marshall rolled into one – of course, I had to give him a pair of pistols or dags, but they only fired one shot at a time. He was expected to enforce the law with a handful of horsemen and very little official co-operation. About the only thing he had going for him was that he could hang men on his own authority if he caught them raiding – something he seems to have done remarkably rarely considering the rough justice normally meted out on the feud-happy Border.
Even more fascinating, he seems to have done extremely well – and here I rely on reports and letters written by men who hated his guts. By 1603 he had spent ten years on the Border in various capacities, and got it quiet enough so he could take a trip down to London to see how his cousin the Queen was doing. Unfortunately for him, Carey also seems to have been too busy doing his job to rake in the cash the way most Elizabethan office-holders did.
So when Carey made his famous ride, he was a man of 42 with a wife and three kids, no assets or resources, facing immediate redundancy and possible bankruptcy. As he puts it himself with disarming honesty, “I could not but think in what a wretched estate I should be left… I did assure myself it was neither unjust nor unhonest for me to do for myself… Hereupon I wrote to the King of Scots.”
What Carey did after his ride will have to wait for future books – or you could read his memoirs, of course. As GMF says, “Later generations of writers who had never heard of Carey found it necessary to invent him… for he was the living image of the gallant young Elizabethan.”
Based on a few portraits, I think he was quite good-looking – as he had to be to serve at Court at all, since Queen Elizabeth had firm views on the sort of human scenery she wanted around her. As he admits himself, he was a serious fashion victim. Nobody wears a satin doublet AND a sash of pearls unless that’s what they are, which is how he’s peacocking it in one of his portraits. Most remarkable of all, he married for love not money – and was evidently thought very odd for it, since he was perpetually broke.
And that’s it, the original man, an absolute charmer I have lifted practically undiluted from his own writings. The various stories I tell are mostly made up, though all are based on actual incidents in the history of the Borders. About half of the characters (and most of the bad guys) really lived and were often even worse than I have described. As I say in most of the historical talks I give, we like to think we’re terribly violent and dangerous people nowadays, but really we’re a bunch of wusses. The murder rate has dropped to a tenth of what it was in the Middle Ages – and they didn’t have automatic pistols to make killing easier. It took real work to kill somebody then.
And yes, I’m afraid I have fallen, hook, line and sinker, for the elegant and charming Sir Robert Carey. I hope you do too.
Patricia Finney, Cornwall 1999.
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