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 wouldn’t have known 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.

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87:  Nero Goes Forth

A black cat (Nero) peeking round a door.My niece and I were at our reading when Nero crept in.  You would think he were born in this house, so apt is he to find a door to slip through.

He should have been a spy cat, not a sea cat.

He told us he had not yet finished the heroickal verses he means to give out at our Field, but begged me to set down in ink his true account of the voyage.  Else it may be lost.

“Willingly,” sayt I, “for I wish to know more of my lord’s doings.”

Nero settled hisself.  This (in brief) is what he sayt.

“After my old master went from this world, leaving me (as I then believed) with nowt but a place in Linkin’s household, I resolved to seek death or honour at sea.

“From Portsmouth I took ship to Plymouth where our fleet lay.  There, I saw men employed earlier as mariners being put ashore, though that left our ships ill-manned.  These men knew not one rope from another.

“I heared our Earl say that scant as his knowledge is, even he could see some were unfit for service at sea.

“On the key I made the akwayntance of a cat who’d come ashore from the Rainbow.

“She told me the press-masters took bribes and let the proper mariners go.  She did not blame the mariners.  They knew they’d get nowt from the Queen for their pains but scant vittles and sour ale.

“That was not newes to me.  For not only does Queen Puss [Bess] distain us, her pen men defraud us.  They care not that we hazard our lives while they lie snug at home.

“Then my new friend sayt our expedition might come to nowt!

“It was ever her captain’s custom before a voyage to seek advice from a learned doctor.  This doctor had warned of great peril for our General.  And true, Essicks’ ship was leaking before he reached Plymouth.

“Also, the doctor himself had thought to accompany her captain, but had seen from his figures that there would be great winds, sickness and the like.

“I arrkst my she-friend if she meant to stay ashore, but she believed her captain and her ship would come safe through.

“And I sayt my captain was my old shipmate John Trout [Troughton], a man who knows his trade.

“So she and I left Plymouth in good heart.  As did our Earl.

detail-from-a-painting-by-willem-van-diest-c1600-1678-public-domain-via-wikimedia-commons“All now know this learned doctor spake true.  The like weather at this time of year was never seen, but we weren’t driven back to port.  What some called a tempest was to us no more than a stiff gale.

“We kept with Lord Thoms Howit’s ships and came to the coast of Spain. 

“We waited for the others there, and gave the Spaniards good sight of us.  They did not come out to fight.  We believed they were not readie.

“Then a pinniss [pinnace] brought word from Essicks that we was not to let them see us or do owt till he joined us.  Too late for that.

“So Lord Thoms Howit ordered that we run to Plymouth on the wind that would not let the other ships set forth again.  And there we lay, whilst vittles were consumed and almost all our soldiers sent home.

“In truth, my she-friend and I agreed that were it not for our reputations, we would have gone ashore and not returned to our ships.  Then came a fair wind, and we went forth.”

An Elizabethan Pinnace, from ain illustration in Julian S. Corbett's 'Drake and the Tudor Navy' (1917) via the Internet Archive.
An Elizabethan Pinnace, from an illustration in Julian S. Corbett’s ‘Drake and the Tudor Navy’ (1917) via the Internet Archive.

By the time I’d writ this, my foot and leg aked.  I told my niece (listening prick-eared) that she should take up our pen.

But Nero sayt he too was wearie, and would return to end his account on the morrow.

No word of thanks to me.

I was near to telling Nero that I was not his secretarie when he added, “My she-friend from the Rainbow told me of another who sought advice from the doctor.  Her question touched upon our Earl.  I hope I may remember it when next we meet.”

Oh, that cat’s an arrant knave.


Toutparmoi - Note from the EditorThe captain of the Rainbow was Sir William Monson (c1568-1643), who’d been knighted the previous year at Cadiz.

He went to Oxford University aged about thirteen, but ran away to sea when he was sixteen.  He had a long and adventurous career.  Later in life he wrote his account of the war at sea. Edited by the naval historian Michael Oppenheim, it was published in five volumes between 1902 and 1914 by the Navy Records Society.

Sir William Monson was a regular client of the astrologer and medical practitioner Simon Forman (1552-1611) who kept careful notes of his consultations and whose clients represented a cross-section of society.

John Troughton/Traughton, captain of the Garland, had sailed with Sir John Hawkins and Sir Francis Drake on their last, disastrous expedition to the West Indies in 1595/96, and sent a report of it to Sir Robert Cecil.

Nero wasn’t the only poet on this voyage (if he went, that is).  John Donne, who’d been to Cadiz the previous year, was also there, probably on the Earl of Essex’ ship.