gunshot range of the enemy, Howard held a council of war on the Ark Royal and a plan of action was decided upon. Eight ships were speedily filled with pitch, tar, dry timber and anything that would easily burn. The guns were left aboard but were double-shotted so that they would explode from the intense heat.

Before midnight, the fire ships were lashed together and carried by the wind and a strong tide on their voyage. As the blazing vessels penetrated the cordon of fly-boats and pinnaces that guarded the galleons, the Spaniards flew into a panic and cut their cables. The pilotless phantom ships wreaked havoc and the Armada was forced back out to the open sea where it was at the mercy of the English.

Soon after dawn, battle was joined in earnest and it went on for almost eight hours, a raging conflict at close quarters during which the English showed their superiority over their opponents in handling their ships in difficult water. The Armada was stricken. If the English fleet had not run out of ammunition, hardly a single Spanish vessel would have escaped. As it was, the shattered flotilla fled northwards to face the horrors of a long voyage home around Scotland and thence south past Ireland.

More than five thousand Spanish lives were lost on the return journey. Medina Sidonia limped home with less than half the fleet which had sailed out so proudly. The English had not lost a ship and scarcely a hundred men. The first invasion attempt for over five centuries had been gloriously repelled. Catholicism would never lay at anchor in the Thames.

Weeks passed before the news reached England. Rumour continued to flap its wings and cause sleepless nights. It also flew across to the Continent to spread guileful stories about a Spanish victory. Bells were rung in the Catholic cities of Europe. Masses of thanksgiving were held in Rome and Venice and Paris. Rejoicing crowds lit bonfires in Madrid and Seville to celebrate the defeat of the heretic, Elizabeth, and the capture of the sea devil, Francis Drake.

Truth then caught up with Rumour and plucked its feathers.

Shocked and shamed, the Spanish people went into mourning. Their king would speak to nobody but his confessor. England, by contrast, was delirious with joy. When the news was made public, there was a great upsurge of national pride. London prepared to welcome home its heroes and toast their bravery a thousand times over.

The Queen's Head got its share of the bounty.


'It's agreed then. Edmund is to begin work on the play at once.'

'I've not agreed,' said Barnaby Gill testily.

'Nor I,' added Edmund Hoode.

'We must seize the time, gentlemen,' urged Firethorn.

'You are rushing us into it,' complained Gill.

'Speed is of the essence, Barnaby.'

'Then find someone else to write it,' suggested Hoode. 'I'll not be hurried into this. Plays take much thought and many days, yet Lawrence wants it ready for tomorrow.'

'I'll settle for next Sunday,' said Firethorn with a ripe chuckle. 'Call upon your Muse, Edmund. Apply yourself

The three men were sitting downstairs in Firethorn's house in Shoreditch. Barnaby Gill was smoking his pipe, Edmund Hoode was drinking a cup of water and the host himself was reclining in his favourite high-backed oak chair. A meeting had been called to discuss future plans for Lord Westfield's Men. All three of them were sharers, ranked players who were named in the royal patent for the company and who took the major roles in any performance.

There were four other sharers but Lawrence Firethorn had found it expedient to limit decisions about the repertory to a triumvirate. Barnaby Gill had to be included. He was a short, stocky, pleasantly ugly man of forty with an insatiable appetite for foul-smelling tobacco and sweet-smelling boys. Morose and temperamental offstage, he was a gifted comedian once he stepped on to it and his facial expressions could reduce any audience to laughter. It was for his benefit that the comic jig had been inserted into the play about Richard the Lionheart.

Professional jealousy made the relationship between Gill and Firethorn a very uneasy one with regular threats to walk out being made by the former. However, the two men knew that they would never part. The dynamic between them onstage was a vital ingredient in the success of the company. For this reason, Firethorn was ready to make allowances for his colleague's outbursts and to overlook his indiscretions.

'I do not like the idea,' affirmed Gill.

'Then you've not fully understood it,' rejoined Firethorn. 'What is there to understand, Lawrence? England defeats the Armada. You seek a play to celebrate it--and every other company in London will be doing the same thing.'

'That is why we must be first, Barnaby.'

'I'm against it.'

'You always are.'

'Unfair, sir!'

'True, nonetheless.'

'Why must we ape everyone else?' demanded Gill, bristling. 'We should try to do something different.'

'My performance as Drake will be unique.'

'Yes, there you have it.'


'I see no part in this new play for me.'

Edmund Hoode listened to the argument with the philosophical half-smile of someone who has heard it all before. As resident poet with the company, he was often caught between the rival claims of the two men. Each wished to outshine the other and Hoode usually ended up pleasing neither.

He was a tall, slim man in his early thirties with a round, clean-shaven face that still retained a vestige of youthful innocence. His curly brown hair and pale skin gave him an almost cherubic look. Hoode excelled in writing poems to the latest love in his life. What he found himself doing was producing hasty, if workmanlike, plays at a late that moved him closer to nervous collapse each time. The one consolation was that he was always able to give himself a telling cameo role with romantic interest.

How soon will you have something to show us, Edmund.'


'I'm serious about this.'

'So am I, Lawrence.' We ask you as a special favour,' purred Firethorn.

'You expect too much of me.' Only because you always deliver it, dear fellow.' He's wooing you,' warned Gill cynically.

'It will not serve,' said Hoode.

I have your title,' explained Firethorn. 'It will leap off the playbills along with your name. Gloriana Triumphant

'An ill-favoured thing, to be sure,' noted Gill, wincing. 'Be quiet, sir!'

'I'm entitled to my opinion, Lawrence.'

'You're being peevish.'

'I simply wish to choose another play.'

'Yes,' agreed Hoode. 'Another play by another author.'

Lawrence Firethorn regarded them through narrowed eyes. He had anticipated opposition and he had the means to remove it at a stroke. His chuckle alerted them to the danger.

'The decision has already been taken, gentlemen.'

'By you?' challenged Gill.

'By Lord Westfield.'

There was nothing more to be said. The company owed its existence to its patron. Under the notorious Act for the Punishment of Vagabonds, the acting profession had been effectively outlawed. The only dramatic companies that were permitted were those which were authorized by one noble and two judicial dignitaries of the realm. All other players were deemed to be rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars, making them liable to arrest. Lord Westfield had saved Firethorn and his fellows from that indignity. The patron's word therefore carried enormous weight.

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