Flowers and rushes on the walls of rooms (painted with oils or size) gave way to tapestries which could ‘be made from all sorts of material, such as velvet, damask, brocade, brocatelle, Bruges Satin, caddis’.

The Structures of Everyday Life

Fernand Braudel


It was a normal business day and Frau Margritte Cornieliuszoon was attending to her correspondence in her counting room. A letter of credit for Donati et Cie. The bill of lading for the last shipment north to Amsterdam to be checked against a coded invoice. On her desk, the pile of items to be dealt with grew smaller while the pile of items dealt with grew larger as time passed. The sunlight through the window moved across the room. The movement of the sun was accompanied by several different sounds. The rustle of paper, the click of an abacus, the scratch of a quill, ‘gritte’s breathing, all were audible as the sunbeam made its progress across the room. Its light made the bright colors of the tapestry glow for a time. Then the polished doors of the cabinet gleamed brown as the light traversed them. Henryk felt the warmth on his shoes and enjoyed how the light contrasted the brown leather with the green tile upon which he stood. He waited for the right moment and then cleared his throat.

She was in the midst of writing a letter to a group of bankers in Bruges, checking her latest intelligence on the position of the English pound against the Spanish escudo, when her majordomo, Henryk, cleared his throat. She put down her notes, finished writing her sentence, then looked up to where he was standing in the doorway.


“There is a man asking to see you, Frau. Well dressed. Polite. Possibly from the Court. From the British Isles, by his accent. He says his name is Hugh Owen.”

She carefully set the letter aside and gathered the loose pages of her notes together. She took care to make sure that they were all facing down. She thumbed through the letters and memorandums in both piles, double checking that none of them referenced overtly illegal business. She was pleased to note that her fingers did not tremble despite the apprehension gathering in her stomach.

So now is the time for me to make my decision. I was hoping I might have had longer.

Despite her thoughts, she knew that she had made her decision some time before. Now all that was left was to gain as much profit from the event as possible. And avoid as much harm as possible.

“Please, show him in.”

Hugh Owen was a middle aged man with a beard shaved close. His clothes were nice, somewhat expensive fabric, not the most expensive, but tasteful nonetheless. So, ‘gritte was surprised to note that he was a bit disheveled and stained. Nothing of any great moment, a sleeve beginning to become untied, hose spotted with something that might be blood. Those who knew, in Brussels, had many different opinions of Hugh Owen, but one thing all agreed on, he was a neat and tidy man. So to see him even the slightest bit undone warned ‘gritte in the loudest of tones. She was glad that she had decided to dress with extra care this day; it might give her the slightest of edges. Any edge would be more than welcome.

So she folded her hands on top the papers on her desk and summoned a carefully calculated smile; businesslike, yet welcoming, no hint of a challenge, ladylike. “Good day, Mynheer Owen.”  

“Frau Cornieliuszoon, thank you for seeing me.” His bow was polished and elegant.

“I am honored that someone so high in the regard of His Excellency, The Duke, would visit a mere widow woman such as myself. Please be seated. Would you take some wine? I have recently received a fine vintage of Rhenish.”

He seated himself in the chair upholstered in blue velvet opposite her. He held his hat in his lap. Though middle aged, he showed no signs of age or infirmity. He smiled, his eyes looking kindly at her. “Some wine would be most welcome.”

“Henryk. Please bring some wine.” The majordomo bowed and left the room.

“I’m afraid that I must be honest and not fall into the sin of vanity, Frau. I am not so high in his Excellency’s favor as you make me out to be. Some day soon, I pray that might be the case, but not at this moment.”

“It might be that you are taking the virtue of modesty to an unwarranted degree, Master Owen. You and the services you provide for His Excellency are known among those who need to know.”

Henryk entered the room with a bottle of wine and two goblets on a silver salver. He placed them on the small table between ‘gritte and Hugh, poured the wine, then retreated out of the room. Hugh sipped from his goblet and nodded appreciatively.

“This is, indeed, a fine vintage. You have excellent taste. Such has been remarked upon to me by various people. They also remarked upon your business acumen, so surprising to find in the fairer sex. My dear friend, Richard Verstegan in Antwerp, has had several opportunities to use your shipping company and has spoken very highly of the professionalism of your men. These facts tell me that you are a highly intelligent woman, Frau Cornieliuszoon. You undoubtedly know why I am here.” His eyes were no longer as kind as they had been. His gaze was intent, bordering on the cold. The fencing part of the conversation was over.

‘gritte took a sip of her own wine and unhurriedly placed it down on her desk. “I can think of several reasons why the chief English intelligencer for both the Duke of Parma and His Majesty in Madrid might wish to speak to me. As you said, I and my company have done business with Master Verstegan in Antwerp. This might be related to a new piece of business with him. More priests to be smuggled into Vlissengen, perhaps?”

Hugh made a tiny moue of distaste. “I am Welsh, actually, not English, if it please you.” He finished off his wine and placed the goblet back on the table. “No. No new business with Richard. Though, if I leave here with some distrust of you and your doings in recent past days, then there very well could be no new business for you in Antwerp. Ever.”

“Threats?” Her tone was polite and inquiring.

He shook his head. “Warnings only. An indicator of the seriousness of my intent.” He looked directly at her. “Nick Crossby is your lover. Several days ago, he left Brussels. Where did he go?”

“You come to my house looking like you’ve just been in a fight and ask me questions about my private affairs.” He twitched at that, straightened his cuffs. “You are very bold, unwelcomingly so.” She changed her frown to a questioning look. “By chance, those who spoke highly of my business sense, would the Guildmaster of the Brewers or Ridderschap van Tanger be among them?”

“Oh, yes, Frau Cornieliuszoon, there are those among the rich and powerful who have a high regard for you and would offer you protection should you so desire it. But I care not. For my power comes from two who are more powerful than your patrons.” Hugh’s voice rose and his tone became stern. ”My power comes from His Royal Highness Phillip the Second of that name and from God himself. I work for the advancement and triumph of Catholicism against foul Protestantism.”

He caught himself and eased back in his chair. “I beg your pardon. I did not mean to talk so. I am no Inquisitor.” Hugh took a breath and steepled his fingers together at his chin. “ And you are a good Catholic, are you not?”

Unfeigned indignation sharpened ‘gritte’s voice. “Of course! How can you doubt it?”

“Peace. I merely questioned to make my point. You are a good Catholic and your liaison with Crossby was untroubled because he was working for his Catholic Majesty to bring the True Faith back to England.”

‘gritte shrugged. “It did indeed come in useful on occasion to mention that fact to those who might cast a disapproving eye on who I would spend my time with.”

Hugh sighed. “One might even call him devilishly skilled as an intelligencer, Frau Cornieliuszoon. I am going to divulge certain facts to you to ensure your knowledge of the seriousness of the situation. Primus: Nick Crossby is not his real name.” Hugh lifted one finger.

‘gritte felt her stomach plummet.

“Secundus: I was not his chief employer.” Hugh lifted a second finger.

She knew what he was going to say before he said it.

“Tertius: He was a spy for that heretic Walsingham, a poison fanged serpent at my bosom. His real name is Nick Applethorpe.” A third finger was lifted.

Rage and fear duelled in ‘gritte’s chest. The mire that Nick had dropped her in was deeper and much more dangerous than she had thought. If she begged, she was dead. She thought as fast and as hard as she ever had in her life, weighed approaches and words, decided on how to play it in the time it took her to blink twice. “I have been unforgivably stupid. And yet I must ask you to forgive me. What can I do to make amends?” Her anger at Nick was tempered with anger at herself. Should have known. Should have suspected. Should have asked more questions. Should have known. While these thoughts and others chased around in her skull, she sat and awaited Owen’s judgement.

The bastard took his time, enjoying the power he had over her, undoubtedly eager to put her in her place. “I will ask you again. Where did Nick Crossby go when he left Brussels?”   

This was the crux of it. And Hugh Owen just had been very clear as to what she was risking if she didn’t answer truthfully.

And it’s not as if Nick’s coming back. I have to live and prosper here.

“He’s gone down the canal to Antwerp aboard one of my barges.” The words came surprisingly easy.

“Did he say whom he would contact, once in Antwerp?”


“Do you know his eventual destination?

She was very careful to keep her voice level and show no signs of guilt. Any weakness and this bastard would feast on her guts. “He did not tell me and I did not ask. Since he’s angered you in some way, I would assume that he is headed out of Hapsburg lands. Perhaps the Hansa ports. He would easily find work there.”

Finally, he nodded to himself, internal calculations solved to his satisfaction. “You are to put all of your resources at my disposal until Nick is brought back here. Men, money, connections, all. Alert your people in Antwerp for any word of Nick. If they see or hear of him, word to Verstegan immediately.”

“I will do as you say. May your hunt be successful.” ‘gritte took a sip of her wine to wash the taste from her mouth. Her betrayal of Nick had been less easy than the demands of profit and loss had suggested.

Hugh rose from his chair, bowed, and left the room.

‘gritte barely was aware of his words or departure. She sat there, staring unseeing at the sunbeam on the wall of her counting room, rage and shame fighting within her. Her eyes were dry.

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