The executioners and the two ladies-in-waiting helped her to undress. Above a red petticoat, she was wearing a red satin bodice that was trimmed with lace. Its neckline was cut appropriately low at the back. When she put on a pair of red sleeves, she was clothed all over in the colour of blood.

Her eyes were now bound with a white cloth embroidered in gold. The cloth was brought up over her head so that it covered her hair like a turban. Only her neck was left bare. She recited a psalm in Latin then felt for the block and laid her head gently upon it. The executioner's assistant put a hand on the body to steady it for the blow.

There was a rustle of straw as the axe was lifted up by strong hands, then it arched down murderously through the air. Missing her neck, it cut deep into the head, drenching the white cloth with blood and drawing involuntary groans from an audience that was watching with ghoulish fascination. The axe rose again to make a second glittering sweep, slicing through the neck this time but failing to sever the head from the body. With crude deliberation, the executioner hacked through the last few royal sinews.

The ceremony was not yet complete. Stooping down to grasp his trophy and exhibit it, the masked figure stood up and cried in a loud voice: 'Long live the Queen!' Gasps of horror mingled with shouts of disbelief. All that he was holding was an auburn wig.

The head parted from its elaborate covering, fell to the platform and rolled near the edge. From beneath her red skirts, a frightened lapdog came scurrying out to paddle in the blood that surrounded its mistress. Its pitiful whimpering was the only sound to be heard in the great hall.

Everyone was struck dumb. As they gazed at the small, shiny skull with its close-cropped grey hair, they saw something which made them shudder. The lips were still moving.

Chapter One

The queen's head swung gently to and fro in the light breeze. It was an arresting sight. Wearing a coronet and pearls in red hair that was a mass of tight curls, she had a pale, distinguished face with a high forehead, fine nose and full lips. Her regal beauty had an ageless quality that was enhanced by a remarkable pair of eyes. Dark, shrewd and watchful, they managed to combine authority with femininity and-when the sun hit them at a certain angle-they even hinted at roguishness. Nobody who met her imperious gaze could fail to recognize her as Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.

Bright colours had been used on the inn sign. Enough of the neck and shoulders was included to show that she was dressed in the Spanish fashion, with a round, stiff-laced collar above a dark bodice fitted with satin sleeves which were richly decorated with ribbons, pearls and gems. A veritable waterfall of pearls flowed from her neck and threatened to cascade down from the timber on which they were painted. The same opulence shone with vivid effect on the reverse side of the sign. Royalty was at its most resplendent.

London was the biggest, busiest and most boisterous city in Europe, a thriving community which had grown up in the serpentine twists of the River Thames and which was already thrusting out beyond its boundary walls. Poverty and wealth, stench and sweetness, anarchy and order, misery and magnificence were all elements in the city's daily life. From her high eminence in Gracechurch Street, the queen's head saw and heard everything that was going on in her beloved capital.

'Ned, that gown will need a stitch or two.'

'Yes, master.'

'You can sweep the stage now, Thomas.'

'The broom is ready in my hand, Master Bracewell.'

'George, fetch the rushes.'

'Where are they?'

'Where you will find them, lad. About it straight.'

'Yes, master.'


'It was not our fault, Nicholas.'

'We must speak about that funeral march.'

'Our cue was given too early.'

'That did not matter. It was the wrong music'

Nicholas Bracewell stood in the courtyard of The Queen's Head and took charge of the proceedings. Noon had just brought the morning's rehearsal to a close. The afternoon performance now loomed large and it threw the whole company into the usual state of panic. While everyone else was bickering, complaining, memorizing elusive lines, working on last minute repairs or dashing needlessly about, Nicholas was concentrating on the multifarious jobs that had to be done before the play could be offered to its audience. He was an island of calm in a sea of hysteria.

'I must protest most strongly!'

'It was only a rehearsal, Master Bartholomew.'

'But, Nicholas, my play was mangled!'

'I'm sure it will be far better in performance.'

'They ruined my poetry and cut my finest scene.'

'That is not quite true, Master Bartholomew.'

'It's an outrage!'

The book holder was an important member of any company but, in the case of Lord Westfield's Men, he had become absolutely crucial to the enterprise. Nicholas Bracewell was so able and resourceful at the job that it expanded all the time to include new responsibilities. Not only did he prompt and stage manage every performance from the one complete copy that existed of a play, he also supervised rehearsals, helped to train the apprentices, dealt with the musicians, cajoled the stagekeepers, advised on the making of costumes or properties, and negotiated for a play's licence with the Master of the Revels.

His easy politeness and diplomatic skills had earned him another role-that of pacifying irate authors. They did not get any more irate than Master Roger Bartholomew.

'Did you hear me, Nicholas?'

'Yes, I did.'

'An outrage!'

'You did sell your play to the company.'

'That does not give Lord Westfield's Men the right to debase by work!' shrieked the other, quivering with indignation. 'In the last act, your voice was heard most often. I did not write those speeches to be spoken by a mere prompter!'

Nicholas forgave him the insult and replied with an understanding smile. Words uttered in the heat of the moment were normal fare in the world of theatre and he paid no heed to them. Putting a hand on the author's shoulder, he adopted a soothing tone.

'It's an excellent play, Master Bartholomew.'

'How are the spectators to know that?'

'It will all be very different this afternoon.'


'Be patient.'

'I have been Patience itself,' retorted the aggrieved poet, 'but I'll be silent no longer. My error lay in believing that Lawrence Firethorn was a good actor.'

'He's a great actor,' said Nicholas loyally. 'He holds over fifty parts in his head.'

'The pity of it is that King Richard is not one of them!'

'Master Bartholomew-'

'I will speak with him presently'

'That's not possible.'

'Take me to him, Nicholas.'

'Out of the question.'

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