Jean via Brueghel (detail from The Peasant Dance)
Jean via Brueghel
(detail from The Peasant Dance)

For to him they entrusted the task of penetrating the disguises and intrigues of those who menaced them; not the least of Owen’s talents was that he never underestimated the skill of the Earl of Salisbury and others who countered his objectives. In the cold war of the sixteenth century Owen emerged as a man to whom desperate exiles looked to make their residence in Hapsburg territories the safe haven it was meant to be.

The Spanish Elizabethans

Albert Loomie


“Aye. They were my men.” Richard Helmsley gave a handful of stuivers and groeschen to the watchmen and turned to leave the alley. “The big one was Braathuis and the small one Edgewine. That coin should be enough coin for a burial and marker.”

Jean lifted his eyebrows as Richard exited the alley and entered into the busy Brussels street. Richard nodded and answered the unasked question. “It’s them. I knew those two to be entirely worthless, but I thought even such as they would be able to handle one fat man. Apparently I was wrong. Though, from the signs, they did at least draw blood.”

The two men set off down the street, dodging around a cart carrying firewood. They created an interesting contrast, the two of them. Richard, tall and skinny with black hair, was well dressed in black velvet doublet and trunks cut with red. He stepped delicately around the pig shit so as to smudge his new boots, elaborately stitched in the latest fashion, as little as possible. A sword with well worn hilt hung at his side. Jean was short with an amazing collection of boils on his face. When he spoke, which was infrequent and short, missing teeth made black holes in his mouth. Some sort of mange had been at work in his hair which was tufted and an odd orange color. A broad bladed knife, almost a cleaver, hung at his belt.

“See the boss?”

Even though he knew it to be futile, Richard tried once again to instill the proper respect into his henchman. “Sir Owen is not my ‘boss’ and he should be referred to with more respect. He is my patron. I owe him my fealty.”

Jean reflectively dug a pinkie into his ear, rummaged around, and brought it out yellow smeared. “Fealty like loyalty, right?”

Richard sigh silently. “Something like, yes. But more. We have sworn together before God, Master Owen and I. I obey him and he protects me, gives me a place in his service.”

“And we go see him now?”

“Yes, I must report to him what has happened and that Nick the heretic is still in the wind.”

The alley where Nick had killed Edgewine and Braathuis was just inside the old walls of Brussels. The city had expanded in recent decades outside those medieval confines and that expansion was encircled by yet another set of walls. The two men made their way down Gelderstaat, towards the center of the city and Hugh Owen.

As they walked past a church, St. Lawrence by the statue of the saint above the door, the sound of sung Latin wafted through the air, audible above the dueling cries of a water seller and a knife grinder. Richard slowed his step and placed his hand on Jean’s shoulder. “I have the feeling that this chase is going to be hard and bloody. I must gird my soul with prayer.”

Jean hunkered down in the shade of the church wall, next to a beggar whose rags were artfully arranged to reveal a missing foot and hand. “Wait for you.” The beggar’s glare bounced off of him like rain off the roof of a shithouse.

Richard paused before the door of the church, removed his hat and his gloves, placing them in his hat. He then entered and crossed himself with water from the font. In the peaceful gloom, he moved to the rear of church and knelt. The smell of incense, the chanted Latin was a balm to his soul. The hymns washed over him and filled him with the comforting knowledge that he was fighting for something bigger than himself, the knowledge that he was part of something so old and so holy. How could the heretics, the Lutherans, the Calvinists, all those damned free thinkers try to tear down all this beauty? All they had to offer was grim self-righteousness and ugliness. And that ugliness took the form of the iconoclasm riots years previous, the beautiful stained glass windows broken into splinters, delicately carved saints torn down and smashed. But now, all of that was painted over and made beautiful again, an offering to a loving God. He prayed and made his soul and his work a similar offering.

Much refreshed and smooth in his soul and sure of his purpose, Helmsley left the church. He snapped his fingers at Jean and pulled on his gloves. “Come. Now we go attend upon my master.”

At this time of day, Hugh Owen was usually found in his rooms at the Sign of St. Michael, in the cheese market. The line of carts bringing in both milk and cheeses to the market from the dairy farms outside the walls held them up for a brief while.

Helmsley and Jean entered the inn by a side entrance. Jean glanced in the direction of the common room and Helmsley nodded. They parted and Helmsley went up the stairs and down the hall. Helmsley stopped in front of the door and caught his breath. He rapped his knuckles on the door and was bade enter.

Owen was seated on the other side of the long table on which he conducted his business. Piles of paper, stacks of books, reports from his various agents with their translation from cipher attached to them made the top of the table entirely unseen. The room was lit by the window behind Owen and a number of candelabras stuck with guttering candles on the table.

“Richard. Was it as you suspected?” Between them, they used English, their first language. Owen’s English had the lilt and rhythm of his native Wales. He was a middle aged man dressed in modest clothing.  He kept his beard shaved close and neat. To look at him, he was just an older man, maybe a clerk or tutor, some kind of pen pusher hoping for a pension. Helmsley passed many of them in the street every day and spared them no second glance. But he knew that Hugh Owen was well worth a second glance. Such a second glance would reveal a strength, determination, and piercing intelligence that was well at odds with Owen’s fusty exterior.

Helmsley made his bow and straightened. “Indeed it was, Master Owen. The bodies were those of Edgewine and Braathuis. I freely admit I was wrong. I was certain that those two could handle a simple back-stabbing.”

Owen waved his hand, dismissing Helmsley’s contrition, forgiving him. “And it is easy to underestimate Nick. After all, look at how long he cozened us. Cozened me, and me thinking that my years as an intelligencer made me a better judge of men. Well, pride goeth, as the prophet says. A valuable lesson and one that can never be learned too many times.”

Still smarting at his failure, Helmsley proffered some positive intelligence. “Here’s a bit of good news. Judging from the signs, my man Jean avers that Nick did not emerge from the fight unscathed. Not a mortal wound, but a serious one, nonetheless.”

Owen saw the implications immediately. “So he’s still in the city.”

“‘Tis likely. And there are few boltholes that can afford him the help that he’ll need. I’ve placed men on the most likely.”

“His mistress?”

“Aye. And she, I feel, is where he’s gone to ground.”

“Smartly done, Richard, smartly done.” Owen gestured to one of the chairs before his desk. “Sit, Richard, please sit. At this point, we cannot press the Widow Corneliuszoon too strong, for she has many protectors among the merchants of this city. But if this state of affairs continues, well then, her protection will be nothing against the might of His Most Catholic Majesty.”

Seating himself, Helmsley arranged his cloak and sword to their most artful advantage, brushed some church floor dust from the knees of his hose. “If he’s there and tries to leave, my men will let him get to a quiet spot and then take him. Is there any urgency in keeping him alive?”

“He should be offered the chance but your men shouldn’t take too many chances with their lives.”  Owen sat back in thought and then picked up a sheaf of parchment from the top of his desk. From the scrawled symbols and crossed out letters, Helmsley could see that it was the deciphered contents of some report. “One positive result from the death of your two men is the proving of this new source of intelligence. If Nick had not been guilty of working for the heretic Queen and her thrice damned Moor, as the source stated, he would not have cut down your men and run.” Owen put the sheaf of papers back down on the table and tapped it with one finger. “This Sebastian, for it is thus that this intelligence is signed, he has access to the highest reaches of the English government. Here, and in previous letters, he has given accurate accounts of the debates within the Privy Council itself.”

Helmsley leaned forward in his chair. “And you sent Anton Broussard to Antwerp to follow up on the other intelligence that this new source, this Sebastian, provided? Has Broussard reported back yet?”

“He hasn’t returned, but is expected back shortly. If he also has met with success, then this correspondent indeed has access to the most pure intelligence I have seen in many a year. And with Walsingham dead and his own damnable spies in disarray, we may see a great deal of success in our struggles against that outpost of heresy that is England.”

“Do you think that I’ll be returning to England soon?”

“It’s possible. I’ll need to see what’s in the packet that Broussard’s bringing and if it’s good, then you, I, and Master Richard in Antwerp will decide what will be the profitable course to take.“

Someone knocked on the door. Owen glanced towards it. “Ah. Late as usual.” He raised his voice. “Enter.”

A Spanish officer came in. He looked to be an Estado coronel, staff officer, probably attached to the household of the Captain-General. Helmsley rose from his chair and moved to one side. The officer walked across the room to stand in front of Owen’s desk. He gave a slight bow to Helmsley and a deeper one to Owen and then began to speak in Spanish. Helmsley’s answering bow was not acknowledged.

Helmsley’s Spanish wasn’t good enough to keep up with the rapid back and forth, his best languages were French and Flemish, but he thought he understood the gist. The officer was enquiring as to when Owen would be sending his next aviso, report, to the court of the King at Madrid. He wanted to make sure that some specific intelligence was included. The Spaniard was in full spate, with Owen nodding and reassuring him, when he stopped and cut his eyes towards Helmsley. Then Owen was questioned as to the appropriateness of Helmsley’s presence.

Owen’s face grew still and his eyes cold. He switched to English. “Whatever you can say to me, you can say to this gentleman. He is Sir Richard Helmsley, and has been been high in my service for many years, ever since he left his native country in search of a refuge where he might worship in peace.”

The Spanish officer deigned to look at Helmsley, taking in the clothes. His English was only moderately accented, the Castilian lisp missing entirely. “My matters concerns details of the work that you do for his most Catholic Majesty. It is perhaps not a discussion best suited for one who is merely a co-religionist.” He turned to face Helmsley more directly. “I mean no offense, senor. I have nothing but the utmost respect for one such as you.”

    Owen’s tone became dry. “And I was going to mention, Don Yglesias, that Sir Richard has served me faithfully these many years in my work as intelligencer. He is a full participant in the work that we do in the name of his Majesty. Many times has he returned to the land of his birth, carrying messages to and fro, in many different guises. So please, seat yourself and relate to us how we can help you. I have no doubt that Sir Richard will be able to afford us the most useful of advice.”

The Spanish nobility trained its members in the most strict etiquette. That training came to Don Yglesias’ aid and he showed his discomfiture only in the slight tightening of the skin around his eyes. He turned to Helmsley and executed a bow that, in its floridity, became a subtle insult in itself. “Senor Helmsley. I find myself abashed. Please accept my most profound apologies.”

Helmsley decided to play the bluff Englishman. His bow in return was brief and unadorned with any extra gestures. “Nay, Don Yglesias. There has been nothing to apologize for. We are both soldiers fighting for the same cause. I cannot take umbrage from a brother in arms.”

Don Yglesias nodded at him. “You are too kind. Again, I most profoundly apologize for my rudeness and stupidity. Your forgiveness shows you to be the most Christian of gentlemen.”

“Nay.” Helmsley waved a dismissive hand. “Not so much a gentleman as yourself. I am merely an honest English farmer, here in Flanders fighting for my faith. I cannot be compared to such an hidalgo as you.”

The back and forth went on for some minutes more, until Don Yglesias bowed one last time and seated himself across the desk from Owen. He adjusted his gloves and carefully didn’t look at the Welsh spymaster. “You speak of trust, Senor Owen. I hope that does not become your downfall. Why just this very day, I have word of someone in your service who was unmasked as a turncoat.” He glanced out from underneath his eyelashes to judge the effect of his barb.

Owen took a minute, straightened some of the papers on his desk, then looked up and gazed straight at the Spaniard. “I trust just enough for my task. Which is to say very little. The viper that you speak of has been exposed and is to be shortly crushed under my boot. He was never trusted with much and has damaged our cause not at all. In fact, his unmasking has provided the bona fides of a new intelligence source close to the heretic queen herself. So you may assure the Governor-General and the Council in Madrid, both, that my efforts are as strong as always and grow more and more successful with each passing day.” He paused and collected himself. “And now to the business at hand.” He leaned forward and placed a sealed and sewn up parchment packet on the edge of his desk, closest to Don Yglesias. “This is the report on English efforts to discover the location of His Majesty’s fleet. I anticipated your concerns and it contains all the intelligence that you were just discussing.”

The Spaniard took the packet but did not tuck it away. He weighed it in his hand speculatively. “And my superiors will be much encouraged to hear of your successes, Master Owen. This report, is this one of the successes that you speak of?”

“Yes, it is. The English are looking at all the wrong ports and have no idea where the fleet is. Their attention, the attentions of those bastard sea dogs, Drake and Hawkins, is entirely on Portugal. They are filled with the thoughts of the possible rewards that would come from placing that pretender Lopez on the throne.”

“Then this is good news, indeed! Such positive intelligence will gladden the Captain-General; he has been downcast lately with the news of the reverses in France.” Don Yglesias rose to take his leave. “Master Owen, I wish you luck in your pursuit of those who have betrayed you. I know that I shall soon hear word of your triumphant success.” He bowed to Owen and then turned to Helmsley. “Sir Richard, I salute you as a fellow soldier in service of His Most Catholic Majesty.” They exchanged bows. The Spaniard left and the two men were left looking soberly at each other.

Owen broke the silence first. “You heard what he said, and more importantly, what he did not say. They know about Nick and how long he was in my service. That whoreson has cast all that I have worked for into doubt, all the years of working my way into the trust of the Spanish. He must not be allowed to escape, Richard.”

“He has no chance. We know where he is holed up. We have watchers on the house. There is no chance that he can get out of Brussels.”

There was no give in Owen’s eyes. “Make sure that he does not.” And then he softened. A bit. “We are close to a great triumph here, with this new intelligence flowing from the heretic court. Once Broussard gets here, we’ll be able to make serious plans.”

Helmsley smiled in agreement. “They must be going mad, over there in London. The Moor dead and their spies captured.”

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