89: Nero Sees Action

Head of a ginger, black and white cat, looking stern.
Gib’s Niece

My uncle was wearie, so I, from the generosity in my heart, offered to set down the last of Nero’s lies.

I told him no more sailors’ talk that none else can comprehend.

Nero knows outlandish words.  My poor uncle had to pause his pen to seek their meaning.  He wisht to set all down plain for ease of reading.

I have not the patience.

And I told Nero ’twere well that he made a brisk end.  We was not like to find ink and cut quills on the morrow.  He believed me.

“We made haste (sayt he) toward the sound of shot.  At dawn we saw the Rainbow.  But nearer was a Spanish frigget [frigate] that did not know we was English.  When we put out our flags she, hoping to escape, sprang her luff.”

(Here Nero brake off and scratched hisself.  I sayt nowt.)

“We seized her,” sayt Nero.  “She carried no silver, but we rejoyced to find kitchen eel.”

An 18th century watercoloured sketch of a a man brushing cochineal scale from a cactus.
Collecting what Gib’s niece heard as ‘kitchen eel’ from a prickly pear cactus. Cochineal was much in demand as a dye.  Via Wikimedia Commons.

(I did not enquire why eels were a matter for joy.)

“While our men were rummaging her, a boat came from the Rainbow to say the treasure fleet was but two or three miles ahead, and we must follow.

“Then through the mist we glimpsed two sail astern.  My nose told me they was ours.  I begged that we pursue the fleet.

“Our prisoners from the frigget swore they ships were Spanish.  Proof they were not.  So came our Mary Rose and Dreadnowt.

“Then all gave chase with wet canvas.  The fleet ran to Tercera.  None of our ships was standing in their way.

“The port’s great guns gave fire when we of the Garland and the Rainbow sought to enter – first under sail, then sly by boat to cut some cables.

“My friend on the Rainbow told me that yesternight they’d come upon more ships than she had claws.  She knowed by their stinks they was Spanish.  Her captain thought they may be ours.

“The sea was calm (sayt she).  He ordered the boat lowered and went to hail them.  They told him they were of Civil [Seville].  When they learnt he was of the Queen’s navy, they was most uncivil, and made mock of him.  We hung out our lights and fired our ordnance to show we’d found the knaves.

“We harked you (sayt I).  But how was we to know their ships were all ahead of us, and none astern?  And to leave that frigget unmolested would have caused great heart-burnings among our company.

“My friend marvelled that so few English ships were nigh.  Certes, she and I were not at fault.  

“’Twas a day or more before Essicks and some others joined us.  Along the way they’d took a great ship coming late with two more friggets.  Enough to pay the costs of this voyage.

“And we learnt that after we’d sailed westward, Essicks had newes that the sail sighted there was ours, not Spanish.  He sent word that we didn’t receive, and he and the rest of our ships left their places near Tercera to go to Saint Mikel [San Miguel].

“Had they stayed, the King of Spain’s treasure were ours.

A modern drawing of the map in the previous post, showing Essex’ route to and from the Azores. From ‘The Successors of Drake’ by J. S. Corbett – Internet Archive.

“Frustrate in our hopes, all sailed for Saint Mikel.  I did not go ashore, but I heared that Essicks, going in a boat, was armed only with his sword and a collar to protect his throat.

“When our Rear-Admiral called that he should wear back and breast plates, Essicks answered that he would not go so advantaged above the men who rowed him.

“Who could not love Essicks?  Though some sayt a General should not be careless of hisself.

“I also heared that in one town (I know not where) some women were slow to flee.  Essicks sayt he would punish any man who insulted them.  He put them in a house well-guarded, and sent them food from his own table.

“We set sail for home.  The Spanish navy, knowing we came weak and weatherbeaten, was waiting to have at us.  We readied ourselves for fight, but the Queen Cat of Heaven punished them for their insolencie. 

“In harbour all sailors’ fingers are limed twigs – there’s nowt that doesn’t stick to them.  Who was not loathe to part with goods so hard-gotten?  Sir Water Rawly sold sugar to pay hisself and all his company.  What more was kept from Her Majestie’s cold claws, I cannot tell.”

My uncle arrkst Nero, “What of the question to the learned doctor that touched upon our Earl?  Some matter of kitchen eel?”

“It was,” sayt Nero, “put by a lady on the matter of his marriage.”

A black and white photo of the portrait of a young Elizabethan woman, formally dressed and holding a fan.
A very young and anxious-looking Puss Fur-None, better known as Elizabeth (Bess) Vernon (1573-1655).  From Charlotte Carmichael Stopes’ biography of the Earl of Southampton, via the Internet Archive.

“To Puss Fur-None?” arrkst my uncle.

“No,” sayt Nero. “I believe this lady has hopes of her own.”

I scented scandal, but my uncle sayt he would write what Nero told us next.

He fears I may set down something slanderous of His Harryship.

My uncle may be old, but he is cute [sharp].


 Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorNero and the Rainbow’s cat were eager to declare they weren’t to blame for anything.

So was the Rainbow’s captain, Sir William Monson.  He claims he sought to delay the treasure fleet by inviting them to try and capture his ship.  That sounds foolhardy, but at the time he didn’t know that almost all the English fleet were elsewhere.

Sir William then faults the Earl of Southampton for the Garland’s staying to take the Spanish frigate and identify the Mary Rose and Dreadnought.  And also Sir Francis Vere (on the Mary Rose) for bringing a soldier’s caution to the pursuit of the fleet into the port of Angra.  But mainly the Earl of Essex, for taking advice from the wrong people.

Had the English fleet maintained its position in the vicinity of Graciosa and Terceira, the treasure would have been theirs.  Hindsight, of course.

The “great ship” escorted by two frigates that was taken belonged to the Governor of Havana.  She was unloaded at Dartmouth and reported to be carrying cochineal and indigo.  A good haul, though there are hints in letters to Sir Robert Cecil that sticky fingers may have been busy before she reached Dartmouth.

88: Wanderings upon the Sea

Nero came by to continue his true relation of the voyage.  Now he has a secretarie, I fear it may never end.

“We was not long at sea (he sayt) when another storm scattered our ships.

“That night we heared shots fired by one in distress, and went to give what aid we could.  The Mathew – a Spanish ship refitted for our purpose – had lost her foremast and her bowsprit, and her mainmast was loose.  All were in great peril of their lives.

“She carried six or seven hundred mariners and gentlemen.  Too many to take onto the Garland, but our Earl went in our pinniss [pinnace] to beg the captain to bring hisself and as many as he could to us.

“The captain sayt: No.  As I believe all knew he would, for this were a matter of honour.

“It’s not in our Earl’s nature to abandon his friends.  We passed that day with them while all strove to make the Mathew fit to sail home.

A black and white cat standing on its hind legs to look at ropes and tackle on a sailing ship.“I called to a cat who was making a survey of the damages that she could leap into our pinniss.

“But she sayt that were she to flee, it would strike such terror in the mariners they would give theirselves up for lost without more ado.

“At end of day we had no choice but to leave them to Fortune and set course to catch our fleet.  And so we came to Finistair [Finisterre].

“There we heared Essicks’ new ship had taken so much water they left off pumping and bailing, and sought to stop the leaks with pieces of beef and linen cloths wrung together.

“We had but the remains of our fleet.  The Mathew gone, the Andrew feared lost, and no word of our Rear-Admiral Sir Water Rawly.  We later learnt his mainyard cracked, and he was forced that night to run westward before the wind.  Some twenty sail followed his light, not knowing owt was amiss.

Sir Water Rawly, better known as Sir Walter Ralegh

“No hopes now of burning the Spanish fleet as it lay in harbour.  

“Then Sir Water sent word that he’d met with an English captain who told him the fleet had gone to waft the West Indian treasure ships home through the iles of Asores [Azores].

“All now know this captain was a villain.  Seafarers, like poets, may be free to fable, but he told a wicked lie.  He was from Southampton.  Need I say more?

“We stayed among the Asores for some days.  Most dwelling there are Portugals.  Their islands were usurped by Spain, so they bear us no malice.  Sir Water joined us, and all took on vittles.

“To my remembrance, ’twas then we saw by moonlight that piece of falseness men call a rainbow.  They marvelled at it, saying it was the colours of fire.

“Any cat could have told them it had many hues of blue.

“About this time there was a calm, and with it great heat.  I lay baking and breathless in what shade I could find.

“They few men that could swim slipped overboard to cool theirselves.  When they clamb back I – also hoping to be cool – lay in the puddles they left on the hatches.  That did nowt but salt and boil me, and cause my fine black coat to rust.

“There was word that the treasure ships would pass more southward of the Asores than was their custom.  Or might not come at all.  Few believed that, and we ranged our ships from north to south to give them warm welcome.

“Next, we had newes of a great ship sighted, so the Garland was commanded westward.

“In the dark of night when men can see nowt, mine eyes and nose told me the Rainbow and two more were with us.  Soon I lost them.

“Then we heared the sound of guns.  The treasure ships were come.”

A 16th Century map of the Azores, from ‘The Naval Tracts of Sir William Monson’ vol II (1902) – Internet Archive.

Here Nero brake off, and sayt he wisht to take refreshment.

My niece sayt, “You’ve not told us of the question put to the learned doctor that touched upon our Earl.”

“A small thing,” sayt Nero, very grand.  “A mere interlude.  First, I mean to tell of action at sea.”


Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe ships that Nero refers to as the Matthew and the Andrew were the San Mateo and the San Andrés, captured the previous year at Cadiz.  The idea of a full attack on the port of Ferrol had been abandoned, and the fall-back plan was to use these two ships (which the Earl of Essex referred to as “great carts”) to escort fireships into Ferrol to burn the Spanish fleet.

Without them there was no hope of achieving anything at Ferrol, so Essex moved to stage two of his fall-back plan: the treasure fleet, along with some raids upon the Spanish settlements in the Azores.  (His original strategy had included the capture of the island of Terceira.  That was no longer possible.)

It was at this stage, as Nero indicates, that things became confused and confusing.

The Mathew’s captain was Sir George Carew/Carey.  They made it to the French port of La Rochelle (where he estimated around 4000 people visited his ship), and thence to Portsmouth.  I understand the Andrew managed to return to England, too.