For John Felton, last night was a cycle: whispered arguing with his wife, tears, rosary beads, repeat. Their knees stiffening together on the kneelers in their private chapel as Thomas and Frances were abed.
“They’ll say it’s treason.”
“I love my Queen and country. This is love.”
“They won’t see it that way.”
“Well, it’s true.”
More tears, more beads, more arguing. More tears, more beads, more arguing. The matter was settled, more by attrition than persuasion, when the sun’s rays peered through the windows. He embraced his wife in the chapel. He was eager to begin before his bravery faltered, but would give his wife her due. His bag had several parchments, each copies of the same Latin text beginning “Regnans in Excelsis…” Under them were a rope of rosary beads made of knots, a hammer, and a handful of nails. On top there were several more parchments, irrelevant legal documents scooped up from around his study. John started away from his manor in Bermondsey Abbey. He intended to cross the Thames and meet his friend William Mellowes. His co-conspirator. Funny saying it now. Before, that word had always been a jest. William was a solicitor who supervised young barristers-in-training at the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, where they would meet to coordinate this plot. After less than an hour’s walk John came to the gatehouse at the bridge.
“State your business.”
“I’m meeting some solicitors at Lincoln’s Inn.”
“What’s in your bag?”
John pulled out several of the legal papers, with text so dense and visually dull the guard became reflexively incurious and allowed him through. As he passed through the gatehouse, he saw the heads on pikes that gruesomely instructed passers-by in the finer points of the law. They were too high to see clearly, but John could have sworn one was his old parish priest. He shuddered.
Before long, he was across the Thames. He wove his way through crowds of tradesmen, sailors, soldiers, clerks, and pickpockets, all of them hemmed in by rows of timber-framed houses, until he passed through the gates of Lincoln’s Inn. Inside the campus, ambitious students walked to and from the library and the dining hall, fretting about their exams and theorizing about entertainingly twisted legal conundrums. John feared his embroidered silk-and-wool black doublet would draw undue attention. It was as plain as a noble could get away with, but it was still much finer than the academic gowns that rustled around him. Fortunately, his short stature and plain face (or perhaps the self-absorption of the young men around him) made him sufficiently invisible. He made his way across the stone walks and meticulously scythed lawns to the dining hall, where more young men, satisfied as they could be with breakfast porridge, began to trickle out of the hall to their next class or court session. At the far end of one of the tables, his co-conspirator William spotted him and called him over. William wore a fellow’s cap and gown, but was more easily distinguished in rank from the undergraduates by his being older and fatter.
“Good to see you, Felton! Glad you could come.”
“Don’t call me Felton!
“Oh, right. Forgot, Sorry.”
“Now, erm, how is my ‘ward’ progressing in his studies?”
“Your what? Oh, right! He’s in his dormitory now, perhaps you would like to visit.
“Yes, that would be wonderful.”
William guided John to the dormitories, passing by those of the students, the bachelors, and the fellows, to one towards the back of the campus reserved for visiting fellows. Inside the building, William walked confidently through a memorized series of turns to a corridor that was little used, where a small room was laid out for John. There was a bed with a fellow’s cap and gown neatly arranged on top. A small wooden end-table with a drawer could store the contents of his bag, if the parchment were folded. John thanked William, put the gown over his clothes, and laid on the bed to nap.
His sleep was fitful and unsatisfying, frequently punctured by nightmares that delivered him to wide-eyed, fearful contemplation. The gown let John walk about the Inn unnoticed, though it was slightly too long and kept one hand occupied constantly pulling it up. But he could at least attend the dining hall for dinner unmolested. He ate a bit of bread and cheese, but the pit in his stomach was not from hunger.
John retired to his dormitory and clutched his beads, nervously and mechanically reciting paternosters and avemarias under his breath until the sun began to set. He opened his drawer and took the parchments, the hammer, and the nails. He put them in his bag and walked out of his room. He made his way off campus, past the gate early enough that leaving raised no particular suspicions. He then spent the evening walking around London, giving an impression of having somewhere to be, until only lamplight illuminated the streets. He walked in a large circle around the neighborhood of St Paul’s, intending to nail his reproof upon the church door. As he stood before his target, he trembled with fear of both God and man. He had to witness to his faith, the faith of the Body and the Blood, but to nail these words to the door of a Church seemed like a sacrilege in itself. He stared up at the spire, damaged in a storm by an electric warning from God and shoddily repaired with wood. He couldn’t go through with it.
John turned to go home, defeatedd and relieved, but stopped as he passed the gate of the Bishop’s palace. He stood paralyzed for a second, staring in renewed terror at his criminal opportunity. He would have died petrified if not for a surge of invigorating choler from no earthly gland that pushed him forward. He slapped the parchment onto the gate and began nailing in a mad frenzy: a seizuring, jittery hammer somehow found its mark every time.
The Bull had six statements from the pen of Pope Pius V:
- QUEEN ELIZABETH IS AN USURPER, OF BOTH THE CROWN OF ENGLAND AND THE CHURCH.
- SHE HAS EMBRACED HERESY, ABOLISHED THE MASS, AND DEPOSED THE CLERGY.
- CRIMES AGAINST THE FAITHFUL HAVE MULTIPLIED UNDER HER REIGN, AND SHE HAS REFUSED TO REPENT.
- WE DEPRIVE HER OF HER PRETENDED TITLE.
- THE ENGLISH NOBLES AND SUBJECTS HAVE NO DUTY TOWARD HER AND ARE ABSOLVED OF ANY OATHS TOWARD HER.
- COPIES SIGNED BY A NOTARY AND SEALED BY A PRELATE SHALL BE MADE AND DISTRIBUTED AND HAVE FULL FORCE.
At the bottom was a blob of wax sealed with the insignia of “PIVS PAPA.”
John ran as fast as he could back to Lincoln’s Inn, shaking all over. Two guards at the gate stopped him.
“What the hell is a fellow doing out this late?”
In response, John vomited as hard as he could onto the ground, as long as he could. A release from the tension of the past two days.
“Oi, he’s drunk. Get on in and get into your bed, idiot!”
John slept soundly in his room for the rest of the night. In the morning he went to the dining hall for porridge, the scholars giving him space on account of his breath. William came up to him.
“Eugh! What a night you must have had. How did it go?”
“I did one. I can’t do any more. I’m done.”
“I think one will be enough.”
“God forgive me.”
John went back to his dorm, shed his robes, and grabbed his bag. He left all its contents in the drawer, except the legal documents that bore his name. He walked as quickly as a noble could justify out the gate of Lincoln Inn. As he approached the bridge he could see a mob shouting around the gate of the Bishop’s palace. He tried as nonchalantly as possible to walk to the gatekeep of the bridge so he could cross the Thames. The guard attempted to strike up a conversation as he perused the contents of the bag.
“Have you heard what’s going on over there?”
“Some Papist nailed a letter to the gate of the Bishop’s Palace claiming Queen Elizabeth isn’t the real queen! Bunch of damn traitors trying to get Mary on the throne.”
He made his way back to Abbey, through the gate and up the garden path. His wife was sitting on the lawn as their children played. When she saw him, she immediately burst into tears and ran to embrace him, and he reciprocated.
At home, John kept a gold ring close by. It had three large diamonds arranged in a triangle. A gift for Queen Elizabeth. The next two days were spent in indolence and nervous pacing about the Abbey grounds. He should have somehow made the most of his time with his family, savoring every moment, but he couldn’t. Every family meal he spent distracted. But distracted with excitement now. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth would not be convinced. But he knew he loved her as his Queen. And he loved God as his LORD. And there need be no quarrel between the two. When he finally heard the mob outside the gate, he hugged his wife, his son, and his daughter, kissing them, all at once, as if with enough momentum a single kiss would touch every cheek. His wife sobbed, but there was a spring in his step. He grabbed the ring from off a nearby table, and walked out the gate to meet her.