John Pilkington’s short story, A False Hawksman, is taken from Royal Blood, the HWA collection of Tudor-era stories by well-known historical fiction writers. He says: “The Thomas the Falconer books have proved to be my most successful historical series. I’m very fond of Thomas and was keen to bring him back, choosing a pivotal moment in Tudor history.”
In the heat of August, 1585, an array of tents and bright pavilions had appeared in the Great Park surrounding the gleaming palace. Nonsuch: Queen Elizabeth’s favourite, built by her father King Henry, ten miles from the stink of London in the sweet air of Surrey. Within its decorated walls, with their octagonal towers where the royal standard flew, the Queen sat in close conference with her councillors, along with the Dutch envoys. The word was that something important would emerge soon. But whatever it was, this period of idleness couldn’t end quickly enough for Thomas Finbow, falconer to Sir Robert Vicary of Petbury.
It had taken two days of hard riding to get here: sixty miles from Berkshire, merely for his master to mingle with courtiers and perhaps receive a nod from Gloriana herself. Sir Robert had chosen to bring his falconer along, only to find that, when not closeted inside the palace, the company was eager to hunt the deer which roamed plentifully about the Park.
Thomas found himself one of only a handful of hawking men, most of whom spent their time gaming or wandering the huge camp of attendants and followers who thronged about the monarch on her summer progress. Standing outside the makeshift falcons’ mews – a small tent he was obliged to share with the boy, Ralph – he was thinking of home. On his gauntlet, hooded and still, sat his master’s favourite falcon, the mighty Dowsabel.
“Shall we exercise the birds now, Thomas?”
Ralph appeared from behind the tent with a tercel on his own wrist, lacing his breeches with the other hand.
“I’d have gone half an hour back, if I hadn’t been waiting for you,’ Thomas told him. ‘What kept you, apart from pissing?”
“There’s a fellow wants to join us,’ Ralph said. ‘He’ll be here anon – a hawksman, name of Fitch. I don’t know him, but he knows of you, he says. Then, who hasn’t heard of Thomas the Falconer?”
“Enough,” Thomas muttered, embarrassed. “And I’ve not heard of your friend Fitch, either. I’m heading eastward… yonder, on the Banstead road. And I won’t wait any longer – this lady needs to spread her wings and soar.” He indicated Dowsabel. “So does your master’s bird, by the looks of him.”
As if in agreement, the smaller male falcon on Ralph’s wrist twitched and ruffled his feathers. Crestfallen, the boy lowered his gaze. He was an innocent, Thomas thought, but no real harm in him… whereupon, a shout from nearby made both of them turn. Approaching, with a bird perched on his arm, was a wiry, neat-bearded man wearing a broad grin.
“Ralph.” He nodded a greeting to the boy. “And Master Finbow, I would guess?” He stuck out his free hand. “I’m honoured.”
After a moment Thomas took the hand, feeling its clamminess. Then, it was a hot day… he glanced at the man’s bird, and frowned: it was no falcon, but a goshawk.
“You mean to accompany us?’ Thomas asked in a sceptical tone. ‘That hawk needs a wood to hunt in, or a brook to follow – we’re for high ground.”
“It’s no matter.” The man’s smile remained fixed. “I’d give much just to walk with you, Finbow. They say your knowledge of our sport is sans pareil – shall we stroll?”
He waited, while Ralph nodded eagerly, keen to show off his acquaintance with Sir Robert Vicary’s falconer. Thomas sighed, and gave a nod.
They walked for a mile along the Banstead road, then veered off through open country, where the ground rose. Larks chirped and fluttered in abundance. There was a copse on the hill ahead of them, where Thomas had a mind to lose their companion. For some reason he found himself disliking Fitch, and had resisted the man’s attempts at conversation. And, he was certainly a talker.
“From what I hear, the Queen’s Council are hoarse with debating, day after day,” he volunteered. “Those Hollanders must try their patience – bog-hopping bastards. They’re here to beg, I heard – to try and squeeze money out of the Queen. I’d lay crowns she says no to them. She’d be wise to keep out of their war – let them fight the Spaniards by themselves, I say. A pox on the lot of them!’’
“I forgot to ask who you serve, Master Fitch,’ Ralph piped up. ‘Are you from around these parts?”
“In a manner of speaking, I am,” Fitch answered, in offhand fashion. “Once served the Earl of Arundel. Died five years back, a sad loss.”
They climbed the slope to the copse, whereupon Thomas slowed his pace. “You might want to let that goshawk loose in the trees, see if she can bring down a few pigeons,’ he said, turning squarely to Fitch. ‘Ralph and I will go on, find some open ground. Our birds are not partial to cover.’
‘Indeed?’ Fitch’s smile slipped a little. ‘That’s a pity. It’s hot, and I’d dearly like to take a rest. I’ve a costrel of good sack here, I had a mind to share.”
Thomas eyed him. “I’ll stick to ale,” he replied, patting his own flask. “Mayhap we’ll meet with you again, back at the Park.”
His meaning was plain, but Fitch wasn’t having it. “I’ll keep with you fellows,” he said. “I like company when I’m out hawking.”
“As do I,” Ralph put in. He was sweating from the uphill walk. “And I too would like a drink… can we not take a breather?”
But Thomas ignored the boy, for something about Fitch troubled him. He had noted the man’s manner, the way his arm occasionally drooped, causing the goshawk to shift uneasily – something a hawking man should never do.
“When did you last water that bird, master?” he asked casually. “He looks thirsty.”
“Why, he drank this morning,” Fitch said. “Don’t trouble yourself about him.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows. “You mean her, don’t you?” And when the other merely blinked: “Might I ask who you’ve borrowed her from?”
Fitch said nothing, but looked away. Ralph showed surprise, for he too knew that the goshawk was too large for a male. He waited, until Thomas addressed him.
‘”’ll go on,” he said. “You can take a breather, if you like. You serve Sir Marcus, not my master.” He named Sir Robert’s old hunting companion Sir Marcus Brooke, who had chivvied his friend into attending the Queen’s progress. Being a favoured courtier these days he was privy to the inner circle at the Palace, while Sir Robert was not.
“Well, I’ll not tarry long,” Ralph said. “I’ll catch you up.”
Thomas turned to go – and as he did so, he caught an expression on Fitch’s face; it looked like one of quiet satisfaction.
Now he was uneasy, as he trudged through the small wood and beyond, onto ground without tree cover. He mulled the matter over for another half hour, until a hare flew up from the long grass and bounded away, startling him. He shook himself: he should be thinking of Dowsabel.
He stopped at last, murmuring softly to the bird, then slipped off the hood and loosed the jesses from his gauntlet. When he lifted his arm, the great falcon spread her wings and soared. Soon she was floating high above, a speck against the shimmering blue sky. He watched her with a pride that only falconers knew… then it hit him.
It’s not my company Fitch wanted, at all, he thought. It’s the boy’s – why would that be?
Suddenly, his mind was busy. The Earl of Arundel was once his master, Fitch claimed. Arundel had been a Catholic, Thomas knew, though not known for disloyalty… surely that meant nothing? But there was more: Fitch’s demeanour, the fact that he was clearly no hawksman – nor had he answered when asked how he came by the bird. All of that, and Thomas’s plain Downland instinct, told him something was amiss – and he had left the foolish young Ralph to drink with the man.
He waited until Dowsabel dropped like a stone, diving upon a hapless skylark. The bird squeaked and fluttered aside, but too late: in seconds it was carrion, hanging lifelessly from the falcon’s claws. Rising quickly, she bore her prey back to Thomas, dropped it at his feet and, when he held out his arm, settled peacefully upon the gauntlet.
“Finely done, mistress,” he breathed. In a moment he had slipped the hood over her head, secured the jesses, bagged up the lark and started off, back towards the wooded hilltop.
Before he knew it, he was hurrying.
He found Ralph in the copse where he had left him, fast asleep. There was no sign of Fitch. Roughly he shook him awake, smelling the drink on his breath. Finally the boy stirred, groaned and opened his eyes.
“By Jesu,” he muttered. “That wine was strong… where’ve you been, Thomas?”
“Never mind me,” Thomas said. “What of your tercel?” But when the boy raised his arm to point, he was relieved. The bird was perched on a branch, hooded and calm.
“Where is he?” he demanded, turning back to Ralph. “That fellow Fitch – where’s he gone?”
“I don’t know.” Sluggishly, the boy sat up. “We were going to catch you up…”
“Nothing… we had a drink and a talk, and another drink… what’s the matter?”
“What did he want?”
Ralph blinked at him. “How do you mean?”
“I mean, what did he want from you,” Thomas said, looking hard at him. “For he’s not a hawking man – even you could see that.”
The boy made no reply, merely dropped his gaze. He was hiding something, and Thomas knew it. Drawing a calming breath, he reached down, grasped Ralph’s arms and hauled him to his feet. “Come, tell me,” he said. “You’re not in trouble – or not yet. But you must share what you know.”
For a moment the young falconer seemed to debate with himself. “It was naught, really,” he admitted finally. “He wanted me to ask my master about the Dutch envoys, in the palace. He’d heard Sir Marcus trusts me, how he likes to talk when we’re out flying the birds…”
He broke off; suddenly, he looked ashamed.
“And then what?” Thomas persisted.
“He promised me a sovereign, if I brought him private news from the council… anything tasty, about the Dutchmen, he said.” In alarm, he looked up at Thomas. “I didn’t say I would,” he added. “I only drank with him…”
He stopped, for Thomas was already turning away.
“Look to your bird,” he said shortly. “I’m going to make speed – you should wait on your master when you get back to the palace, and tell him all.”
And before Ralph could answer he was gone, breaking into a trot with Dowsabel still on his wrist, her talons digging hard into the thick leather gauntlet.
He came upon Fitch in a beer tent on the edge of the encampment, minus his borrowed goshawk, in company with half a dozen idlers who were already the worse for drink.
Having placed Dowsabel safely in the mews and recovered his breath, Thomas pushed through the noisy drinkers until he stood facing the man, who gave a start. But at once, his familiar grin was in place.
“Master Finbow – well met! Will you take a mug with me?”
“Might we have a talk?” Thomas enquired in a flat voice. “In private, that is.”
But if Fitch was uneasy, he would not show it. “How so?” he returned, lifting his eyebrows. “I’ve no secrets from my friends here – until we start dicing, that is.”
He gave a chuckle, which his companions took up, one or two of them throwing unfriendly looks at Thomas.
“Well, I think you do – have secrets, that is,” Thomas said. “Concerning what passed between you and the boy, earlier… shall I go on?”
Fitch hesitated, but seeing that Thomas was determined, he sighed and gave a nod. Handing his mug to one of the other men, he muttered something about a small matter of business and stepped away. But as he began to make his way through the throng, Thomas gripped him firmly by the elbow. Once outside, he steered Finch around the side of the tent to its rear, where they were hidden from view.
“I knew you weren’t a hawksman,” he said. “For a moment, I suspected you meant to rob us – until I pieced it out. When I found the boy, I learned all I needed to.” He eyed the other grimly. “Who’s paying you to snoop?”
Finch was taut now, the last traces of his smile gone. He seemed to be weighing his chances, eyes darting about. Like Thomas, he carried no weapon other than a poniard at his belt. At last he drew a breath, and said: “What’s your wage, back in that bog-hole you come from, Finbow? Your master’s a bumpkin, from what I hear… more interested in his dogs and horses than aught else. Would you be averse to having some proper money in your hand… twenty crowns, say?”
Thomas tensed, but said nothing.
“Come – let’s trade,” Fitch went on, with some urgency. “Twenty crowns to swear you never heard of me. Think what that can buy, while you’re stuck in this place. There’s a trugging tent not a stone’s throw from here – I’ve heard the whores are the best in Surrey. What do you say?”
“I’d say a score of crowns is a goodly sum to be throwing about,” Thomas answered, after a moment. “You’ve gone up a little in my estimation, from idle snooper to Papist spy, even. Who are your masters – the Spanish?”
He leaned closer to Fitch, though he no longer held his arm. The man was breathing faster now, eyes narrowed. Through his teeth, he said: “Twenty-five crowns, that’s my last offer… and will you kindly step back from me?”
A moment passed – but when the move came, Thomas was ready.
He sensed, rather than saw, Fitch’s hand fly to his belt, then caught the gleam of the dagger’s blade. But with a speed which took his assailant by surprise, he seized the man’s hand and bent it back with all his strength. There was a sickening crack, a howl, and the poniard fell to the grass. Soon Fitch was on his knees, hissing with pain as Thomas stood over him, keeping a grip on his shattered wrist.
“Posing as a hawking man is a poor cover, when you don’t even know a male goshawk from a female,” he remarked, breathing hard. “But bribing a wet-behind-the-ears lad like Ralph to gather tidings was a vile trick. I’ve a mind to pierce your guts here and now, drag you into the bushes and leave you for the foxes.”
White-faced, his breath coming in rasps, Fitch stared up at him.
“But on reflection, I think it’s best I find my master, hand you over to him,” Thomas added. “So – can you stand up?”
The tenth of August arrived, another warm day, and the camp was in a mood of excitement. The talks were over, the word was; people stood in groups or thronged by the palace gates, eager for news. The Queen would appear, some said. She would ride to hunting – first man to cry “God save your majesty!” might get a tip.
A herald came out, causing a flurry of excitement, then immediately went back inside. “They do that for a laugh,” one man said to Thomas. “Like to raise hopes, then watch everyone’s faces when they realise there’s no news.”
Thomas smiled. He was in good spirits, for Sir Robert had told him they would leave today. He was eager to be home: to embrace his young daughter Eleanor, to greet the Petbury folk – and check on the falcons, of course. He hoped the man left in charge of the mews had followed his instructions.
He was mulling that over, when rising voices brought him firmly to the present: several people, including a few well-dressed nobles, had emerged from the palace gates. People gathered about them, but Thomas was quickly alert: his master, followed by Sir Marcus Brooke, was striding towards him.
“Thomas.” Sir Robert greeted him affably enough. “Have you packed?”
“I have, sir,” Thomas said, before making his brief bow to Sir Marcus – who looked somewhat downcast, he thought. “When do we take our leave?”
“Within the hour, I hope… shall we move aside a little?” Drawing Thomas away from the nearest bystanders, his master turned and addressed his friend. “Time for a farewell cup of something before we part, sir?”
“Indeed.” Sir Marcus faced Thomas, nodded a greeting, then said: “I… we, I should say… we have reason to thank you, Finbow. As indeed would the whole of the Queen’s Council – if they knew everything, that is.”
He paused, cleared his throat, then added: “They’re weighed down with affairs of state – matters of the utmost gravity. We thought it best not to trouble them with anything too… awkward, at this time. You know what I refer to.”
Thomas gazed at him for a moment – then he understood.
“Of course, sir…” He glanced at Sir Robert, who was looking away pointedly. “Might I ask if Ralph, er…”
“Ralph has given me a full account of his deeds,” Sir Marcus broke in sharply. “I’ve yet to decide what to do with him.”
“If I may say a word on his behalf, sir: he’s green, but good-hearted. Easily swayed, perhaps, but he’ll learn… he has the makings of a good falconer.”
“I’m aware of that,” Sir Marcus replied. “And more…” This with a glance at Sir Robert: “I wanted to say, I feel sure I can count on your discretion in this matter.”
In silence, Thomas inclined his head.
“Well, then…” The knight was suddenly brisk. “My groom is readying the horses,” he said to Sir Robert. “We’ll take our leave indoors, before I head back to London… there’s wine and sweetbreads, I believe.”
Whereupon, with a last look at Thomas, he turned about and strode off towards the palace.
Both men watched him go, until the throng about the gates swallowed him. After a while Sir Robert faced his falconer.
“You did aright,” he said. “Though, as Sir Marcus made plain, we’re to keep it a tight secret. There’s no need for anyone to know that a spy was caught here, bold as brass, among the Queen’s most loyal servants. Naturally enough, none of Her Majesty’s courtiers would wish to alarm her. It, well…”
He hesitated, whereupon Thomas spoke up. “I see that, sir. It would reflect poorly upon the Queen’s bodyguards – let alone upon her intelligencers.”
Sir Robert gave him a wry look. “Indeed… especially since her spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham himself, has been here all along, as a party to the talks.”
A smile appeared to be tugging at his mouth. Finding a smile coming on himself, Thomas nodded. “I’ll find Daniel,” he said, mentioning Sir Robert’s groom. “Get Dowsabel caged, and tied on the horse… all will be done, very soon.”
“That’s well – ah, I almost forgot.” Sir Robert dug in a pocket, produced a gold coin. “A sovereign for you, from Sir Marcus. He wished you to have some small reward… a token, for your trouble.”
Thomas took it and voiced his thanks. “Can I ask after the man in question, sir?” he enquired. “The one who went by the name Fitch?”
“He’ll hang, of course,” Sir Robert said at once. “And soon. Committing a felony within the Verge is treasonous, as if he had designs on the Queen herself. His intent was to rob – the fellow’s a rogue and a thief, nothing more. Is that clear?”
“Of course, sir,” Thomas answered, straight-faced. Whereupon his master sighed and added: “Not that it matters anyway – his intent, I mean. He was too late… the treaty was written, and ready for signature. Now the ink’s dry, our course is set.”
With that he turned aside, and they parted.
Barely a half hour later, the Queen left the palace with courtiers and huntsmen about her, mounted on a fine chestnut mare. Men bowed, doffed their hats and cheered as the sovereign cantered past, acknowledging them with a smile and a wave. Jewels glittered on her embroidered riding gloves. Thomas stood with the groom, holding the horses while they awaited their master.
To their satisfaction, Sir Robert would not hunt, but had stuck to his resolve to head for home. All about the Park, men were dismantling the tents and booths, loading carts. The Court would break up by the end of the day and return to London. Now that the news was out, there was a much to be done.
The agreement was signed – the Treaty of Nonsuch, they would call it. Elizabeth had at last committed herself to sending troops to Holland: five thousand foot and a thousand horse, to aid the Dutch in their revolt.
The war with Spain had begun.
Royal Blood, the HWA collection of short stories set in Tudor times, is published as a paperback and an ebook. The ebook is on offer at 99p (and 99c) until 21 August, 2020. Read more about this compilation.
Nonsuch Palace by Joris Hoefnagel, 1582: via Wikimedia
Hawking party and water spaniels, after Turberville, from British Dogs, Their Points, Selection, And Show Preparation: via Wikimedia
Goshawk from The Booke of Falconrie or Hawking by George Turberville: via Internet Archive
Falcon Gentle from The Booke of Falconrie or Hawking, as above
Part of a hawking scene from The Booke of Falconrie or Hawking
Falconer from The Booke of Falconrie or Hawking
Nonsuch Palace from John Speed’s Map of Surrey (1610): via Wikimedia
Nonsuch Palace, Flemish School: via Wikimedia
The Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I: via Wikimedia
Sir Francis Walsingham by John De Critz the Elder, c1585: via Wikimedia