Extracts – The Crystal Ship

London & Venice – 1570 – 1572

Chapter One

Tottenham, England, June, 1570

Jacob Bell, the Queen’s Glassmaker, rode out of the front gate of his house in Tottenham just as the sun broke through the rain-filled clouds. The lush, buttercup-strewn meadows smelled clean and fresh after the early rain and Jacob sniffed appreciatively. Carefully skirting the newly tasselled corn, his horse breasted the rise about a hundred yards from the gate and he looked back at the attractive stone house with its distinctive Dutch gables. The house, a gift from Queen Elizabeth, for his services to the Crown, had formerly belonged to the traitor, Sir Richard Urie. A wonderful retreat from the hustle and bustle of London, he was sad to leave, but needs must if he was to answer the urgent call from Quiff, the leader of the Ring, his information gatherers. He searched for a glimpse of Roberto, his partner and friend. Sure enough, there he was by the front entrance with Elizabeth his wife and their young son of two months, waving their goodbyes. With a cheerful wave in return, Jacob spurred his horse beneath the sturdy oaks that stood guard by the London road and it soon settled into a smooth canter. It was an hour’s ride, but fortunately the threatening rain failed to materialise, so Jacob made the most of the countryside. All too soon, however, the houses became more frequent and keeping alongside the wall’s outer ditch, he rode along Houndsditch until the gate into the city appeared.

The gate was already thronged with lumbering carts bringing farm produce for the city’s markets, waiting to pay their entry dues. Passing them with difficulty under the narrow, vaulted arch of the city gate, Jacob turned his horse into Poor Jewry. Leaving his horse at the nearby Aldgate livery stable Jacob strolled along keeping a wary eye open for cut purses, his hand ready on the hilt of his sword. The crowds thronging the narrow streets jostling on their unheeding way, made life easy for these rogues to make a living. Despite the early hour, the teeming streets were alive with the sound of street sellers and apprentices trying to attract customers.

‘Buy a fine toast fork. Give your husband a treat.’

‘Fine oysters! Who will buy my fine Wainfleet oysters?’

A little further on there were more cries.

‘Buy rue: buy sage: buy my fine rosemary and bay?’

‘Buy your barnacles here and you’ll never miss a word again!’

‘White radishes: white young lettuce. Who will buy?’

Jacob ignored all of their blandishments and hurrying along Crouched Friars Street, passed the Crouched Friars Glass-works, his place of business. Resisting the temptation to call in, he carried on to his house in Harte Street. Mistris Simpkin, his housekeeper, welcomed him at the door with her usual cheery greetings and informed him that Quiff had already arrived. Accepting the offer of some fresh lemonade, he went upstairs to the reception room. It always felt so welcoming and Jacob looked forward to evenings spent there after a hard day’s work. He just wished that his beloved Maria could be here in London to share it, instead of wrestling with the Venetian courts to obtain his pardon.

A figure rose from the comfortable chair by the fireplace and greeted him warmly. ‘You look as though the rest has done you good, Master Jacob,’ said Quiff, with a cheery smile. ‘I hope Elizabeth and young John Jacob are in good health now.’

Jacob shook the outstretched hand warmly. ‘They have fully recovered from the nasty fever and are very well indeed. They send their regards.’

‘I suppose the boy is shooting up,’ said Quiff sagely, for one who had yet to have his first child, ‘they seem to grow up so quickly.’

‘That’s true,’ Jacob agreed, ‘he is already a sturdy fellow and of a very pleasant nature. He sleeps well and hardly ever cries.’

He regarded Quiff with interest. The distinctive white shock of hair from which he took his name had not changed, but the drawn, sunken cheeks and hangdog expression produced by years of beatings and starvation had gone. Quiff, the leader of the ‘Ring’, a band of London apprentices and servants who kept a steady stream of information flowing to Jacob, was now a confident, married man and father-to-be, next spring.

Motioning him to sit down Jacob looked at him enquiringly. ‘What have you found out then Quiff? I hope it’s important enough to warrant dragging me away from Tottenham!’

Quiff took no offence, his eyes crinkling at the corners with humour. ‘You know me better, Master Jacob,’ he said with a wicked grin. ‘I wouldn’t have asked you to come unless it was important. Especially as I know how much you were looking forward to spending some time at Tottenham.’ His grin became even wider as Jacob shook his head in mock disbelief. ‘One of the servants has turned up an interesting story that you ought to know about. It’s about another Count I’m afraid.’

Jacob made a grimace of distaste at his memories of the late, unlamented Count Maldini.

‘This Italian gentleman is called Count Ridolfi,’ said Quiff. ‘He’s been visiting the Duke of Norfolk in the Tower for months. Several times recently, one of the Duke’s servants has collected large sums of money from Ridolfi, after he has been to Flanders. It’s supposed to be for the Duke, but my informant has seen a letter to the Bishop of Ross explaining the money is for the imprisoned Queen of Scots and the Catholics who support her cause.’

Jacob was intrigued. ‘Has he now! I don’t suppose he managed to obtain this letter?’

When Quiff shook his head, Jacob sighed. ‘I thought that would be too much to hope. I must say I’m surprised at the Duke of Norfolk being involved. It was only last November that he was thrown in the Tower for promising to marry Mary Stuart. The Northern rebellion raised by his supporters was crushed in only six weeks and several of the leaders executed. You’d have thought it would have put him off getting involved again.’

Quiff assumed an innocent expression. Jacob, not taken in for a second, questioned him further. ‘Who is this Count Ridolfi anyway? I assume from the expression that you have some more information about him?’

Quiff gave a sly grin. ‘I have, and it’s even more interesting,’ he said, unable to keep the glee from his voice. ‘His full name is Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian, belonging to the Florentine family of Ridolfi di Piazza. He’s a banker and has lived in London, on and off, ever since Queen Mary’s reign.’ The smug expression told Jacob that the next piece of information was going to be out of the ordinary. With a resigned look, he said. ‘Come on Quiff let me know the worst. What has he been up to?’

‘It’s not what he’s been doing, Master Jacob,’ he replied, ‘but more who he’s been doing it for. Among others in high places, he has been employed by Sir William Cecil, to advise him on financial matters.’

Jacob gaped at him in astonishment. ‘Sir William Cecil! Are you sure?’

Quiff smiled enigmatically. ‘I’m sure, Master Jacob and I believe he’s had dealings with Sir Francis Walsingham too.’ With this final piece of news, he settled back in his chair with a self-satisfied smile.

Jacob regarded Quiff incredulously. ‘Let me get this straight, Quiff. You’re implying that this Count Ridolfi is a Spanish plotter and that he advises both Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham on financial matters?’ He looked at him with disbelief as Quiff gave several solemn nods then broke into a beaming smile.

‘Not only that, Master Jacob, but I’m sure that he’s not being used by either of them as a counter-plotter if my information is correct. I’m pretty certain it is too!’

‘How can you be so sure, Quiff?’ said Jacob, wanting to be in no doubt on this point before he considered the implications.

Quiff became serious. ‘You should know me well enough by now, Master Jacob,’ he said, in a slightly aggrieved tone. ‘I don’t rely on just one source of information. When I first heard about this, I put the word out round the Ring that I wanted to know everything about this Count. Since then several reports have come in, which confirm he’s been giving financial advice to various important persons including Sir William Cecil. Although I’ve no proof of his spying activities as yet, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.’

Sitting back in his chair, Jacob pondered his next move. From experience, he was sure that barring something very well concealed, the information in Quiff’s report was correct. In all probability, both Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham were employing a man for financial guidance who at the very least was a spy for the Spanish and possibly a plotter against the Queen.

He would need to be very careful how he made use of this information. The last thing he wanted was to get on the wrong side of Sir William Cecil, or Sir Francis for that matter. They were frequently on opposite sides of the political fence and often disagreed on the right way to advise the Queen. Undoubtedly, they both had her best interests at heart, but unfortunately, there was no great empathy between them.

However, on some matters, like plots against the Queen, they worked closely together. To inform one and not the other would lead to trouble. Not to mention the political implications for both of them. It could undermine their credibility as protectors of the Queen at the very least.

While Jacob digested the information, Quiff sat quietly in his chair waiting for his next move. Since Jacob’s glass was empty, he poured him some lemonade. Acknowledging it with a nod, Jacob took a deep draught then put the glass down purposefully. ‘I want you to put the word round the Ring. This Count Ridolfi is the most important target we have.’

When Quiff looked questioningly at him, he answered the unspoken query. ‘I’m not prepared to risk telling either Sir William, or Sir Francis, without something more solid in the way of proof. The word of apprentices or liverymen will simply not do in this case. No, we must have something much more definite. See if they can get hold of letters, or instructions. Particularly any he sends to the Duke of Norfolk, or the Bishop of Ross.’

He thought for a moment and then went on. ‘Should he send a letter to the Spanish Ambassador, or to France, or Spain, I want to know about it at once. In fact, I would like to get my hands on it. We might be able to intercept it, copy it, and send it on its way without them being any the wiser. It won’t be easy, but see what you can do.’

He got up and paced around. He liked to walk when he was thinking over a problem. It was undoubtedly a tricky situation. With the Duke of Norfolk involved, it was likely that other Catholic Lords would be too. They would defend themselves from exposure by any means at their disposal.

Coming to a decision, he sat down and let Quiff into his thoughts. ‘I want you to make sure that everyone in the Ring knows that they’re not to take any unnecessary risks. Some very powerful men are involved in this affair. The Duke of Norfolk is the premier Earl and it will take a lot more than rumour to unseat him,’ he cautioned. I’ll get in touch with Sir Francis’s man Phelippes who deals with opening letters, ciphers and making copies. If we’re lucky enough to intercept a letter or instructions, he would be the man to copy it. A suitably incriminating letter would make sure we are believed about the Count. I can’t see it taking less than that, unless I’m very much mistaken.’

Quiff nodded solemnly. ‘I think you’re right, Master Jacob. I wouldn’t in their place. I’ll start putting the word out straight away, if that’s what you want.’

‘It is indeed Quiff,’ said Jacob. ‘The sooner we get the word out, the sooner our chances of success. In fact, you can tell them that the one who brings me the proof I need will get five gold royals. That should help to concentrate people’s attention. But don’t forget the advice on caution.’

‘I won’t,’ Quiff promised, ‘and it certainly will concentrate minds. I’ll be keeping an eye out too,’ he said, rubbing his hands. ‘I could certainly use the money.’

Having dealt with the matter of the Count, Jacob enquired how things were getting on at the Crouched Friars. He was relieved when Quiff told him that Peter Tyzack was doing a good job. Quiff was of the opinion though, that Jacob needed to spend a little more time at the Works, since the English workers were not progressing as well as previously. ‘It’s not Peter’s fault,’ he hurried to explain. ‘He just doesn’t have the time to be training them as well as running the Works and everything else.’

Jacob could see the sense in this, but it was going to be difficult to achieve, if this Count Ridolfi turned out to be the plotter that Quiff thought he was. He knew that once the information he had obtained reached Cecil and Walsingham, they would drag him into the affair. It was likely he would have less time, not more! With this in mind, Jacob decided to go and have words with Peter Tyzack.

It soon became apparent that as Quiff had suggested, the English workers were not the problem. Peter explained that they had too many orders and not enough workers. The Works had only its original complement of six Venetian glass-blowers. With Peter running the works on a regular basis, he had only five glass-blowers and whatever time he could spare in the ‘chair’, the glass-blower’s workplace.

Jacob realised at once that things were even worse. He had not made a glass for weeks and neither had Roberto. ‘Peter, my friend, I must apologise for the fact that I have put such a lot on your shoulders.’ He looked him squarely in the eyes. ‘I will see you are not the loser for coping like this. However, that will not solve the problem. Do you, or any of the other glass-blowers, know of any suitable men who would join us?’

Peter gave a smile of relief. ‘I was hoping you would see it like that. How many did you have in mind?’

‘Three glass-blowers and the usual workers needed for three more chairs,’ said Jacob decisively. ‘In fact, bearing in mind the orders we have coming in we could even take four. The Glass-Sellers are already receiving more orders than usual and the troubles in Antwerp will result in even more.’

‘I know of one glass-blower who has just come to London,’ said Peter, ‘he is Murano trained and so is his brother, in Antwerp. He is also hoping to find work in London. Do you want me to arrange for them to come in?’

Jacob thought for a moment. ‘Do you think they’ll be up to our standards, Peter?’

When Peter nodded, he told him to set him on straight away and to send for his brother. ‘If he knows any others looking to get out of Antwerp, get them in. Have a word with Captain Roberts. He can arrange passage on the Bona venture.’ The Bonaventure was a merchantman of 300 tons previously owned by Sir Richard Urie and on permanent hire to the Glass-Sellers. Jacob had been surprised to find he was the owner. Thomas Pepper, his lawyer, had discovered this when examining the full extent of the Urie estate: Jacob’s reward for his help with the Maldini Plot.

‘I’ll leave it to you to organise it and set them on.’ He shook his finger at Peter, ‘But no more than four chairs, mind you.’

With that friendly warning, Jacob went to his office, but he found it difficult to concentrate. His mind kept harping back to Quiff’s report and its implications.

Thinking back to the Maldini Plot, there had been some perilous moments, but he had to admit that he had never felt more alive than when he was battling against the evil plotters. Life since then had become rather mundane. He enjoyed the danger and whatever this new Count was up to, he couldn’t wait to pit his wits against him.