This is a story of three words: ‘Arise, Sir Ox’. Not stable-taught but star-led, for my uncle was the Earl of Southampton and my mother was thrice ladylike. I was raised in beauty’s backwater. To find Belmont, the following hint: from a hilltop garden in sight of the Solent, aged six, I witnessed the sinking of the old king’s ship, Mary Rose.
No matter where in the belle monde; I was born and died in one room, that same airy chamber in my father’s house, seventy five years later. Still in the beautiful world, I spent thirty of those cold, hard years imprisoned. For all Farlington was a haven, my homes were London jails: Newgate, Marshalsea, even the Tower housed my recusant soul before I came back.
A creekside view of Portsmouth was my mistress, and my master was Winchester School; a twelve mile gallop along the downs. There I stuck the seat of my hose to a seat of English learning. I spat the library’s dry wisdom, pissed the water-meadow’s stream of reason, yawned cathedral arches of truth. I was top of the class, spurting immaculate mother-tongue; and chosen, of all the boys, to give oration when the new queen toured the college in 1559, with a little Latin verse of my own.
I spouted that speech again, one night when we sat neck-deep in mead at some backward manor on her progress to Worcester. Having trained in civil law, I’d served my time in Lincoln’s Inn; one day as a lawyer was all. That same day, my father died and I could have retired. But I caught Elizabeth’s eye at court; or perhaps it was my money that winked at her.
Gloriana had me for a clown; a handsome, clever ass. Long had I known jaws drop at the fairness of my face; often had I noticed heads turn. God wot, I had the body of a Greek statue, carved on the slopes where the South Downs slid gently into the sea. Cod-sucking, in those days, but my postures found favour with her royal person. ‘Esquire to the Body’, my sovereign lady kept me in her pay. I directed the court masque at Kenilworth Castle on Christmas day, 1569.
But I danced to her for free, spinning to stiff grace, bending to rigid majesty. Forsooth, it was my religion. I turned for a protestant goddess. And the court would count while I twirled my toes, with torchlight flickering up the castle walls and the lute players fingering quicker.
Seven turns about before my foot slipped and I fell at the queen’s feet. Her cheeks were glowing, her crown aflame; though, at ground level, she stunk of shit, where her kirtle had been dragged through it. With breath of manure, no better than Portsdowne’s rude air, she insulted me. Elizabeth Regina bellowed and the whole court laughed: ‘Arise, Sir Ox.’
But this is a story of four words: ‘sic transit gloria mundi’. So I muttered, face down in the Kenilworth earth; so I shouted, eyes raised to the Warwickshire stars; so I shrugged, feet trudging south to the sea again; to a coastline of half-buried Roman villas, to my Catholic roots.
‘Thus passes away the glory of the world.’ How much would I miss it? I wondered on the long walk home, scrounging from hedgerow and scavenging from meadow. How many were the glories:
A codpiece, stuffed with mint. Supposed to act as an aphrodisiac, it only attracted cats to me. I tore it off as I walked and tossed it into the bushes.
A four-poster bed chiselled in oak, the pillars inscribed with a sepulchral story. Like a rack to stretch me on; I would rather sleep under the hedge tonight.
A banquet of turkey and potatoes, with honeyed apricocks and moons made from marchpane. Food sailed to the table from overseas, instead of the home-grown greens that servants eat. I would rather a fistful of hazelnuts and blackberries for my royal feast.
The toys of Elizabethan times were dropped behind me on the road home. And though my dear mother was still alive, and the ancestral seat unchanged, I stepped back through the door as its master. Firm on the feet that spun offstage; and neither a courtier nor a protestant ever more.
On my knees before the curtained Virgin Mary in the hallway, I confessed. I had betrayed my own soul and solemnly swore to spend the rest of my days repaying God for what I’d squandered on the queen. She had been shunned by Gregory XIII; now I turned my back on her at Belmont.
Word came to me, there, of the disciples of our day, in letters sent by my uncle Southampton. He was supporting the Society of Jesus, started by a wounded warrior healed by the bible, now spread to India, where the brothers were building a church for midnight-skinned natives, bringing them eternal light.
These stories inspired me to serve the flesh of the lamb in far-off places. I went to work in Winchester, first, taking with me a young noble of my acquaintance. Thomas Stephens had agreed to dress as my servant while out of doors, for two rich Catholics together would catch the eye of Protestant spies; but inside we were close kin.
The holy land of cobbled streets, with timber-framed houses and diamond-paned windows overhanging every dim alley; lost souls, separated from the original church, lived secretly here. Velvet curtains to hide the altar, an iron strongbox for the host, an ingenious hidey-hole for the priest who faced certain death if caught with the means or the method of mass.
To threatened congregations I gave my talents, now; my money, of which there was still plenty, and my time, which I had the same as everyone else, including those who spent theirs persecuting us. I gave my oral skills and the power of my pen; my straight limbs and handsome face, with flowing beard. With all that I served the Faerie Queen, I now offered her oppressed subjects, to the greater glory of God.
I financed the communion, fetching the Holy Father, feeding his flock, sourcing the scripture. Any expense was a blessing; for what I didn’t have in my pockets couldn’t betray me; but in my bag were pages that I’d pay for with my life, if Popish writing was ever published beyond my reading circle.
With the families of St. Cross, old boys from school who’d read Socrates, Seneca and Sidney alongside me, I covertly saw the church calendar round; Pentecost to the Last Supper in hiding. From snow to snowdrops, sun to sunflowers, the seasonal housefronts never showed a sign to Calvary; yet I was arrested one autumn eve, arriving at the premises of my oldest convert with a wheel of cheese for his wife.
The Bishop of Winchester had issued a warrant; and I was rumbled all night in a prison cart. Next morning in a pitch-black cell, the blacksmith clanged me in iron fetters. While he worked, his flaming torch lit the dungeon; and I lifted my hands to it, in prayer. This caused hot oil to drop upon his shoulder, accidently, but in anger he struck me hard with his hammer.
It is easy for man to follow the example of Christ at a time like this. The instructions are clear. I offered my assailant the other cheek. The blacksmith had great need of my charity; mind blackened, heart of metal, he was ready for my pity. As he chained me to the Marshalsea floor, I forgave him. And the Lord had mercy on us both in equal measure for this story has the following climax: the blacksmith repented after our conversation and converted to the Catholic faith, dying happily in prison chains himself for the glory of the kingdom and the love of God.
I was bailed out by the Earl of Southampton, who undertook to detain me at my mother’s house. In Belle Monde, the habits of the dungeon were still mine; I slept on the bare ground and ate only once a day. Conditions of the flesh could not alter the convictions that burned in my soul. I was glad of the daylight to write in, the dawn and dusk as times of deeper reflection, and the starry sky as a reading lamp at night.
But I did not undertake to stay there forever. My plan was a journey to Rome, through France and Flanders, picking up the best young men along the way, to train at the seminary of Santa Maria della Strada. My desire was to join the army of Jesus and fight for him until I died.
So I took the three day walk to London, with Thomas Stephens in his drab travelling clothes, on a hilly road to the Thames’ plain. Entering the city’s half-timbered forest, where moonlight barely finds the cobbled floor, I found out old friends from schooldays, from Lincoln’s Inn, from the court of Queen Bess: I tried them for darkness and shone my faith upon them.
The last man to convert, and the hardest, kept me coming back with priests of higher spiritual standing, at greater personal cost and physical risk every time. But the danger had its delights, for I could make my confession to the likes of Father John Payne as we slunk from Southwark at midnight.
I decided to try once more for my friend’s soul then set sail for Rome, to my priesthood and patronage of the best altar boys in Europe. One last evening at London, with my bag packed and slung across my chest as I left his house, ready to slink down to the Thames.
Spies of the queen, servants of her privy council, defenders of her puny faith; the eyes were everywhere in England in 1575, trained on well-dressed gentlemen with frills and physiques. I was captured on my way to board the ship that would have sailed me out of sight. The paperwork found on my body confirmed in black and white: I was a traitor.
This time my march to jail was public. With hat and cloak snatched by the lieutenant’s wife, in heavy shackles I walked to Newgate. The crowd shouted crucifige on London Bridge, along Cheapside, past St Paul’s. Inside the prison, I had no friendly blacksmith to beguile; but an hundredweight of iron pressing on my chest. Not just darkness but lack of air I must contend with now. To my joy I found the image of Christ burned brighter in my blindness, and his promise of bliss resounded in my gasps for breath.
This is a story of no words; but they would have me speak, in that position, at all hours of the day or night. Deep within the dungeon of cutthroat killers and thieves, I was questioned about my beliefs. They wanted to know the names of priests operating in town, the families who housed them, the funds that supported our communion. Come rack, come rope; I sold no other soul. They took my gold sovereigns one by one, those cutthroat thieving jailors, for the coffers of the killer queen.
A coin a week from my family estate and I was in Newgate for a year. I paid back much more than Elizabeth Regina ever paid me when I was her top performer. I charmed her whole court then and still had the same skills which, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I used now; to bring every lost soul who came to beat or berate me, back to Jesus. After three moons (sensed, not seen, through the prison wall) the guards were coming into my cell for prayers and praise. Another season in darkness and I was gaily dressed and giving mass, smuggled in by my congregation of captors.
Then we were all caught; surprised by how bright our light shone out of the black pit. Some of the warders were hung that day with my converted criminals, four in a row. I prayed for them loudly as I was dragged away by new guards, one on either side. I was weak from hunger, and dazed by the sun, and awkward in my manacles; or else I could have overpowered them, too. My voice was strong and I sung hymns for those on the scaffold to hear till we’d gone halfway to Blackfriars; but then Her Majesty’s pleasure put a river between me and the newfound church of Newgate.
Better men than me have been put in the river, at that point. They must have considered me a good man, though they kicked me as we marched. Good for money and worth more alive than dead. Good for connections with friends in high places who didn’t mind stooping low. The Earl of Southampton was extremely close to the Queen. He told me that, in her cups, she made the following confession: she wished she’d never called me an ox for she longed to see me hoofing again.
It was ten years since I’d played Mercury in the court masque at Kenilworth. I still remembered the script and the steps, though my ankles were chained; I still wore flaming silk slashes in my doublet and fire-licked hose. But now, in the dark cell, the name I invoked was Mercurianus. Father-General of the Jesuits, I had appealed to him for a part in their society.
When I was first in prison my friend, Tom, went to Italy without me, as I bid him; to the new-built Chiesa del Gesu we had dreamed of entering together. While I rotted underground, he was sunning his soul in Lecca. Admitted into the brotherhood, he became Thomas Stephens S.J. but, admitting it to me, he wept. Without his best friend ordained beside him, he said, the taste of the blood was bittersweet. As soon as the ceremonies were over, he turned his own chained feet back to London where he found me still in blackness, singing to the same light he basked in, in Puglia.
He took a long letter to the Father-General later, asking again for my entrance to their league, as Christ’s prisoner of war. All hope of my release was gone unless I apostatized. The prison was full of Catholics in the same position; all of us reading and writing missives by guttering flame as the only form of escape.
There was another way to get out but I peered at the dungeon walls in prayer and felt I had some purpose being there. Then came the reply to Tom’s plea and, having got me a place in the Society, he left for Goa, where he taught the word of God for forty years. Thomas Stephens made an open-air church under the blue sky, with banana trees for columns and sand-script gospels; taking the good news into a part of the beautiful world it had never been told. The natives sung his Krista Purana on a beach of shells for rosary beads. Whereas I was a missionary from within, at the Marshalsea.
I was daily struck by the fists of the reformation. Tripp and Crowley, doctors of divinity, would come into the cell, shouting and threatening to cut off my ears if I didn’t listen. ‘Twas no mere threat, I’d seen it done to priests before. They would ask questions and not wait for answers after the first one: are you ready to recant today? Forswear the faith and you can walk away.
A pair of Puritans; short haircuts, no beards. Only moustaches hid the snarling lips. Guardians at the gate of Elizabeth’s reformed church; but they didn’t stop barking there. They wouldn’t stop until I admitted that every man should take the bible exactly how he pleases, with no regard to any other part of it save the verse he has fixed upon, with no heed for its history, or its interpretation by the holy fathers.
Any fool could make the book say something clever; any warrior could make it justify his war; any oppressor could use it to his end. There must be one word only, if the original spirit is to be preserved; I told Tripp and Crowley. Chained to the cell wall, I breathed in tallow smoke from the single candle; and told them what Ignatius of Loyola said:
“That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity … if the Holy See shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” *
The second half of Alison Haben’s story will be published in issue 3.
- All historical facts and figures are found in the glowing threads of the glorious World Wide Web: