History Behind the Glassmaker Series

The Glassmaker Series was inspired by the life of Jacopo Vercelline, a Murano glass blower working in Antwerp. In 1570, he was brought to London by a Frenchman, Carré to run his Glass-works at the Crutched Friars, part of a former monastery in Aldgate, behind the Tower of London. One year later Carré died, cause of death unknown and Vercelline took over the Crutched Friars, bringing in Venetian glass blowers. Four years later, he was producing glass to rival Murano. Falling foul of the Glass-Sellers Association, his glass-works mysteriously caught fire while his workers were at church. He pleaded with Lord Burghley for protection and became the first Glassmaker to Queen Elizabeth on the 15nth December 1575. He was given a monopoly for twenty-one years and the original Letter Patent is still to be seen today as part of the National Archive.

By the time Vercelline, retired in 1592, a rich man, the Crutched Friars employed twenty glass-blowers and their assistants, some 150 men in total and Vercelline had prepared the way for England to develop its own distinctive glass-making industry to rival Murano.

The Glass Dagger

Giacomo Bellini alias Jacob Bell is a fictional character and his life, adventures and the Maldini plot are also fictional. These were turbulent times in England’s history and throughout her reign, Elizabeth was plagued by plots that threatened her life. I have utilised these dramatic events as a background for my fictional tale.

In order to suit the purposes of the book, some historical dates have been altered i.e. the date for the award of Glassmaker to the Queen. Wherever historical figures are involved, I have tried to ensure that they have behaved in a manner consistent with my research and a a time consistent with real events.

Giacomo’s glass-making discoveries are purely fictional, but are certainly possible from the state of knowledge at that time. As such, they would have proved equally as important as suggested in the book.

Today, everyone owns some glass, but few know much about this strange solidified liquid and indeed how glass is made. I have tried to give some idea of the techniques used in glass making, which have changed little, in 400 years, apart from the furnaces, now electric. I hope the readers’ find this as fascinating as I have during my long-held love of glass and that it enhances their enjoyment of the book.

The Crystal Ship

The Glass Dagger was entirely a work of fiction utilising characters from history, but not actual events. The Crystal Ship, whilst still a work of fiction, weaves the fictional characters into historical facts. The Ridolfi Plot happened much as described, except for the actions of Jacob Bell and his fictional friends. As far as possible, all of the action is consistent with the historical unfolding of the plot. I have included a list of historical characters at the beginning of the book to help the reader. In order to clarify the edges I have blurred for fictional purposes, the following are the main historical facts used.

The Ridolfi Plot-571.

In 1571 a plot was discovered involving, Felipe II of Spain, Pope Pious V, the Duke of Norfolk, Mary Queen of Scots and her advisor, Leslie, Bishop of Ross. The conspirators were led by Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker based in London since the reign of Queen Mary Tudor. As an international banker, he was able to travel between Brussels, Rome and Madrid without attracting too much suspicion. Ridolfi had been questioned by Walsingham after the Northern Uprising two years before, but Ridolfi managed to convince him, he was simply a banker. Indeed his services were used in that capacity by many establishment figures, including both Walsingham and Cecil.

Ridolfi had discussed his plans with the Duke of Alba in the Netherlands and traveled to Rome and Madrid to raise support for an invasion of eastern England. There was to be an uprising of Catholics, followed by the marriage of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk to Mary, Queen of Scots

Ridolfi called for Spain to intervene with troops to support the marriage and put on the throne.

The Spanish were at first doubtful as to the value of the plan. King Felipe disliked the idea of assassinating Queen Elizabeth a stable England was needed as a counterweight to France. There was also no guarantee that the English population or its nobility were as Catholic in sentiment as the success of the plot demanded.

With the full knowledge of Cecil, Admiral John Hawkins, pretended to be part of the Ridolfi plot to betray Queen Elizabeth. He offered his services to the Spanish, in order to obtain the release of prisoners that he’d been forced to leave behind on one of his voyages. He also hoped to discover plans for the proposed Spanish invasion of England that Cecil suspected was being prepared.

When relations between England and Spain worsened, due to the activities of English privateers. The detention in England of Spanish ships carrying large sums of money destined for their armies in the Netherlands was the final straw. Encouraged by petitions from English Catholics for deliverance, the plot went ahead.

When Charles Baillie, a Scot favourable to Marys party, was arrested at Dover, incriminating letters from Ridolfi to Bishop Leslie were seized. Baillie revealed the existence of the plot under torture. Leslie, was interrogated and under the threat of torture, laid all the blame on Mary and Norfolk.

Mary admitted giving Ridolfi a financial commission but strongly denied any other part in the scheme. Elizabeth was reluctant to authorise the execution of a fellow queen, but Mary was kept under ever-tighter surveillance.

Norfolk was arrested, tried for high treason, found guilty and executed on Tower Hill on 2nd June, 1572. Ridolfi was abroad when the plot was uncovered and escaped this fate.

Although unsuccessful, the plot concentrated the minds of the English government on assassination attempts on Elizabeth, and, more importantly, exacerbated the Puritan demand that Marybe executed in order to safeguard the English church and state.

Hawkins for his help in foiling the plot, was rewarded, and became Member of Parliament for Plymouth. He was later appointed Treasurer and controller of the Royal Navy (1573-1589). His brilliant redesigning of the fleet laying the foundations for the long prominence of the Royal Navy.

Although pilloried by twenty-first Century values for his part in the slave trade, by the values of his own time, he was a hero. He was held in enormous esteem by Queen Elizabeth and the common people, to them, he epitomised the courage and resourcefulness that made England great.

The Battle Of Lepanto

In 1571, the Christian powers in the Mediterranean assembled a large fleet to confront the growing menace of the Ottoman Empire. Assembling at Messina, Sicily in July and August, the Christian force was led by Don John of Austria and contained vessels from Venice, Spain, the Papal States, Genoa, Savoy, and Malta. Sailing under the banner of the Holy League, Don Johns fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses (very large galleys with mounted artillery). Rowing east, they encountered the Ottoman fleet of Ali Pasha off Greece in the Gulf of Patras.

Commanding 230 galleys and 56 galliots (small galleys), Ali Pasha had departed his base at Lepanto and was moving west to intercept the Holy Leagues fleet. As the fleets sighted each other, they formed for battle. For the Holy League, Don John, aboard the galley Real, divided his force into four divisions, with the Venetians under Agostino Barbarigo on the left, himself in the centre, the Genoese under Giovanni Andrea Doria on the right, and a reserve led by Álvaro de Bazán in the rear. In addition, he pushed galleasses out in front of his left and centre divisions where they could bombard the Ottoman fleet.

Flying his flag from Sultana, Ali Pasha led the Ottoman centre, with Chulouk Bey on the right and Uluj Ali on the left. As the battle opened, the Holy Leagues galleasses sank two galleys and disrupted the Ottoman formations with their fire. As the fleets neared, Doria saw that Uluj Alis line extended beyond his own. Shifting south to avoid being flanked, Doria opened a gap between his division and Don Johns. Seeing the hole, Uluj Ali turned north and attacked into the gap. Doria responded to this and soon his ships were dueling with Uluj Ali.

To the north, Chulouk Bey succeeded in turning the Holy League’s left flank, but determined resistance from the Venetians, and the timely arrival of a galleass, beat off the attack. Shortly after the battle began, the two flagships found each other and a desperate struggle began between the Real and the Sultana.

Locked together, Spanish troops were twice repulsed when they tried to board the Ottoman galley and reinforcements from other vessels were needed to turn the tide. On the third attempt, with aid from Álvaro de Bazaar’s galley, Don John’s men were able to take the Sultana killing Ali Pasha in the process.

Against the wishes of Don John, Ali Pasha was beheaded and his head displayed on a pike. The sight of their commanders head had a severe impact on Ottoman morale and they began withdrawing around four in the afternoon. Uluj Ali, who had success against Doria and captured the Maltese flagship Capitana, retreated with sixteen galleys and twenty-four galliots.

Aftermath & Impact.

At the Battle of Lepanto, the Holy League lost 50 galleys and suffered approximately 13,000 casualties. This was offset by the freeing of a similar number of Christian slaves from the Ottoman ships. In addition to the death of Ali Pasha, the Ottomans lost 25,000 killed and wounded and an additional 3,500 captured. Their fleet lost 210 ships, of which 130 were captured by the Holy League. Coming at what was seen as a crisis point for Christianity, the victory at Lepanto stemmed Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean and prevented their influence from spreading west.

Blood-Red Goblet

Like the previous adventure, Jacob Bell’s exploits are woven into the fabric of the following historical events.

The Throckmorton Plot – November 1583

The Throckmorton Plot, was named after Francis and Thomas Throckmorton, sons of the Catholic Sir John Throughout and nephews of Sir Nicholas Throughout, the English ambassador in France and of Katherine Throughout, wife of Robert Winter of Huddington.

Sir John Throughout, trained as a lawyer, was employed in the Court of Requests and became Justice of Chester.  He was a staunch Catholic and was Mary Tudor’s personal lawyer who sat as MP for Old Sarum in her first parliament in 1553.  She gave him the manor of Feckenham where he built a house.  He married Margery Puttenham, sister of George Puttenham, author of “Art of English Poetry.”

Throughout was made Vice-President of Council of Wales under Elizabeth but there were complaints about him in Wales and in Feckenham where he was accused of illegal enclosures and felling of timber.  His nephew Arthur Throughout wrote in his Diary that Sir John was accused of negligence, ignorance and erasing or wrongly certifying a record.  He was dismissed, deprived of the posts Mary gave him, committed to Fleet prison, his estates were sequestered and he was fined £1,000 (he died soon after).

On the 15th.February,1579 Sir John and Francis Throughout were brought before the Privy Council and committed to the custody of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s.  From 1572 Francis had been a student at Hart Hall, Oxford, a college which was predominantly Catholic.  He was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1576 and married that February.  While under house arrest he was not supposed to meet anyone except the Dean but heard mass at various places in London.  On the 21st.February,1576 his cousin Arthur Throughout went to Court to speak to his friend Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester on Francis’s behalf and Francis was freed but bound to appear before the Council within 12 days – he got his licence to marry that day.

In the 1580’s Bernardino de Mendoza became Spanish ambassador in London, replacing Guerau de Spes (there was no English ambassador in Spain).  Mendoza was blind in one eye and a former soldier turned diplomat, very anti-Protestant and an Anglophobe who dreamed of the day when Elizabeth would be burned at the stake as a heretic in St. Peter’s Square, Rome.  He set up a network of spies consisting of English Catholics, Flemish merchants and hired informers which operated even after he had been thrown out of England and from the Escorial and reported the execution of Mary Stuart on 23rd.March,1587 about a month after it occurred.  He complained sea-faring was left to the English because Andalusia was too fertile, the people grew wine, oil and fruit and led an easy-going life (the Roman historian Livy had described them as “maxime imbelles” – most un-warlike).  Mendoza suggested banning English ships from Spanish ports and said Elizabeth was building ships without ceasing and making England master of the sea.

Mendoza became the focus of English opposition to Elizabeth, even to the extent of providing Spanish pensions to disaffected Catholics who heard masses in the embassy under diplomatic protection.  Mendoza took it upon himself to be adviser to Mary Stuart and joined conspiracies against Elizabeth, planning a Spanish invasion of England with the Guises and Esmé Stuart, Duke of Lennox in which Francis Throughout joined, sending letters to Mary Stuart.

Throughout provided Mendoza with a list of all possible harbours and good landing-places for Guise’s troops with notes about the local situation and those Catholics who were likely to help.

Throughout was arrested because he went so often to the French embassy.  The French ambassador was suspected but it was Mendoza who was behind it all.  In November Francis wrote to Mendoza in code on the back of a playing card which he threw out of a window in the Tower of London where he was imprisoned, telling him he had denied all knowledge of the list, assuring him he would die before accusing his fellow conspirators.  He was racked and confessed he had contacted Lennox through his secretary at the French embassy and betrayed the earl of Northumberland and the Lords Henry Howard and Charles Paget.  Paget had been in exile but slipped into England and had been hidden in Arundel Castle.  Paget and Charles Arundel fled overseas, Northumberland was sent to the Tower where he later killed himself.  Francis Throckmorton’s brother, Thomas, was helped by Lady Arundel to escape overseas, another brother George was imprisoned in the Tower with Francis and on his release, went into exile abroad with his brother Thomas living on Spanish and Papal pensions.  In June 1584 Francis begged the Queen’s pardon and mercy, he was allowed to meet his mother and his wife and was then executed.  The Spanish ambassador Mendoza was expelled.

The Babington Plot – 1586

Although Sir Anthony Babington is named as the main plotter in this attempt to depose Queen Elizabeth and set Mary Stuart on the throne, it was far from being that simple. In order to understand it, we must look at how the recruitment of Babington took place and its implications.In 1586, Anthony Babington was enlisted by John Ballard in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and, with help from agents of Spain and the Pope, to release Mary from her captivity at Chartley Hall.

Ballard, educated at Cambridge and Rheims, was among the Catholic priests sent to England in 1581 as a part of the Catholic missionary efforts. He probably returned to the continent in 1584 to consult with clergymen of the Catholic Church and to make a pilgrimage to Rome.

In 1585, however, Ballard was in England again, visiting the Catholic faithful. In Mar 1586, Ballard met John Savage, an ex-soldier who was involved in a separate plot against Queen Elizabeth. Savage admitted to Ballard that he had sworn an oath to assassinate Queen Elizabeth a resolution made in 1585 after consultation with three friends, Dr. William Gifford, Gilbert Gifford and Christopher Hodgson.

Later that same year, Ballard returned once again to the continent to meet with Charles Paget and the Spanish Ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza(1578-84), who was implicated in the Throughout Plot and exiled in 1584.

Since the papal bull of 1571, King Felipe II of Spain and his Ambassador Mendoza, were always prepared to assist English Catholics who plotted the overthrow of Elizabeth. Ballard reported to them that English Catholics were prepared to mount an insurrection against Elizabeth, if they could be assured of foreign support. It is difficult to determine whether Ballard’s report of English Catholic opposition to Elizabeth was accurate. Nevertheless, Ballard did receive general assurances from Paget and Mendoza that support would be available. Ballard was also instructed by Paget and Mendoza to return to England to secure commitments on the part of leading English Catholics.

Before the end of the month, Ballard was back in England and recruited Anthony Babington. Unknown to him, Walsingham was already aware of Ballard’s activities and was monitoring his coded correspondence. He thus became aware of Babington from the time he was recruited. Walsingham used two agent provocateurs, Gilbert Gifford and Bernard Maude. They were able to manipulate to Catholic dissidents, John Savage and John Ballard who were outspoken against Queen Elizabeth and believed that the killing of a tyrant was lawful because of the Papal Bull.

Gifford had been recruited in 1585 to re-establish communications with Mary Stuart which had been stopped by Walsingham after the Throughout Plot. Gifford had been arrested on his return to England and under the threat of torture and the promise of rich rewards, he became a double agent. As a double agent, Gifford was known as No. 4 in London and used many aliases, such as Colerdin, Pietro and Cornelys.

Although Walsingham had ensured that Mary could no longer receive correspondence, he recognized that she could hardly then be found guilty in plots that she was unaware were taking place and more significantly, had not approved. Walsingham and Gifford, therefore, devised a new channel of correspondence for Mary that could be carefully scrutinized by Walsingham and yet, would appear secure to Mary and her supporters.

Walsingham had recently moved Mary to Chartley, under the supervision of the Puritan Sir Amyas Paulet. For over a year, Walsingham and Paulet had ensured that Mary had no contact with her agents overseas. To re-establish a channel of correspondence, Walsingham and Gifford arranged for a local beer brewer to act as the facilitator. The brewer would move letters in and out of Chartley by placing them in a watertight casing that could be placed in the bunghole of a beer keg. The mechanics, therefore, were really quite simple yet sufficiently clandestine not to arose suspicion. With the method for conveyance established, Gifford approached Charles de l’Aubespine, Baron de Chateauneuf and the French Ambassador to England, described the new plan to him and requested the first correspondence that should be sent to Mary. Chateauneuf gave Gifford a letter and thus, the whole arrangement began.

Walsingham was certainly aware of almost every aspect of the plot. By late 1585, he deployed his agents against all the major figures of the conspiracy. Gilbert Gifford spied on Morgan and Paget in Paris as well as Ballard and Babington. Barnard Maude reported on Ballard, until the conspirators discovered him sometime after Ballard had returned to England. Robert Poley carefully watched the French Ambassador as well as Babington. Moreover, there were most probably still other agents reporting to Walsingham on relevant matters. However, Walsingham did not yet have Mary’s written assent to all the details of the developing plot,  the crucial evidence he needed to bring Mary to trial.

Encouraged by a letter received from Morgan, Mary wrote, on 28 June, a letter to Babington that assured the conspirator of his status as her friend. Upon receiving this letter, Babington sent in reply all the details of the present plot. Babington informed Mary of the foreign plans for invasion; the plans of English Catholics for insurrection; and, his own plans to take six men in his charge to rescue Mary from Chartley accompanied by a hundred men, and to send Savage with another six men to assassinate Elizabeth.

It was unnecessary for Babington to inform Mary of these plans, but he did so probably seeking rewards for the men of his charge. On 18 July Mary replied; she commended and praised all aspects of the plot. The letter also contains her request for further details; and also counsels Babington on the importance that the plan be supported by a foreign invasion. On 19 July Thomas Phelippes, Walsingham’s leading codebreaker, copied the letter and sent it to Walsingham with a small picture of the gallows on its seal. Walsingham had his proof.

Mary’s two secretaries, Claude de la Boisseliere Nau (d. 1605) and Gilbert Curle (d.1609), were interrogated about the correspondence. Nau had taken down Mary’s letters in French and then Curle would translate them into English and put them into cipher. Curle was arrested and interrogated by Walsingham’s agents in Aug 1586 and testified that the letters were genuine. He was imprisoned for almost one year for his part in the plot. His colleague, Nau, had joined Mary’s service as a secretary in 1575 and was also responsible for Mary’s correspondence. Like Curle, he was interrogated in 1586. He was freed in September 1587 to return to France. Ballard was arrested on 4 August 1586. Under torture he confessed and incriminated Babington. On 20 September, Ballard and Babington were drawn and quartered in an especially cruel display. Queen Elizabeth was so appalled at this savagery that she ordered that Savage and the other four men should be hung.

Queen Elizabeth understood that to execute Mary, while it would preserve her own security in the interim, it would challenge the whole institution upon which her authority ultimately resided, creating a dangerous precedent. With the urgings of not only the Privy Council and parliament, but also the general populace, who were outraged by the plot.

After great hesitation, Elizabeth sent Mary to the block in 1587. News of her death was met in London with bonfires, bells, and feasting.


When Elizabeth I died in her seventieth year, some sixteen years after the execution of Mary Stuart, she did not officially name a successor. The story that she named Mary’s son, James VI of Scotland as her successor on her deathbed is, just that; a story. It is a myth, unsupported by any solid evidence, since by then, Elizabeth had lost the power of speech. James VI was proclaimed King, by a group of Nobles and Privy Councilors, at the gates of Whitehall Palace.

The Proclamation document was truly remarkable. It stated that James was rightfully King of England, because he was lineally and lawfully descended from Margaret Tudor, eldest daughter of Henry VII and sister of Henry VIII. This statement completely ignored Henry VIII’s will barring Mary Stuart from the succession. Instead, it was recognition of Mary Stuart’s claim, that she was the lawful successor to Elizabeth. This was a victory, far more conclusive than even Mary could ever have hoped to attain. It meant that since that time, every British ruler has been descended from Mary Stuart and their claim to the throne is derived from her and not Elizabeth Tudor.

Despite Mary Stuart’s eventual estrangement from Bess of Hardwick, the wife of the Earl of Shrewsbury, her jailer for many years, their families became inextricably linked after Mary’s execution, when Elizabeth Cavendish, Bess’s daughter, married Charles Stuart, Earl of Lennox. Another redoubtable woman of the Elizabethan era, Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury, or Bess of Hardwick as she was popularly known, left a strong legacy. She was famous for her building projects and two of her houses, Chatsworth and Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire, are very popular with visitors today.

Bess had high hopes that Arabella Stuart, her granddaughter, would one day take the throne of England, but this was not to be. However, a descendant from her line became our present Queen Elizabeth II. Among Bess’s other descendants are many titled families, including the Dukes of Devonshire, Norfolk and Somerset, Baron Waterpark and the Earls of Lincoln, Pembroke and Kent.

Although women in the 16th century had few legal rights, the fair sex certainly produced some of the most influential people of their times in Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart and Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury.

Peter Cooke, Yorkshire, November, 2010.