The Stars, Medicine and Mathematics
in Elizabethan England
By Paul Walker
After many false starts, astrology became a focus for my first work of historical fiction – State of Treason. William Constable is a scholar and competent in all three areas listed in the title of this post. I should declare now that, unlike our hero, I hold no faith in astrology.
Astrology had a significant influence as a way of explaining and controlling the life of Elizabethans. Natal astrology was used to examine and predict events based on a birth chart. Medical astrology was used to determine an individual's weakness, diagnose illness, and prescribe cures. It was a prerequisite to healing and taught in every major university. It was not always clearly distinguished from astronomy, which described the motion of the stars and their influence on tides, weather and navigation.
Expertise in astrology is the declared reason for William’s summons to Sir Francis Walsingham. He also has a reputation as a mathematician, surveyor of the movement of the stars and their use in the navigation of ships. He uses the latter skill as an excuse to meet with a group of men who plan an ambitious adventure to the New Lands and raids on Spanish treasure ships. He does this as an unwilling investigator into a conspiracy that threatens the state.
The art of navigation developed rapidly in the sixteenth century in response to explorers who needed to find their positions without landmarks. Instruments were used to determine latitude, but longitude required accurate timepieces and these were not yet available. A cross staff was in common use in the mid sixteenth century to calculate latitude. The major problem with this was that the observer had to look in two directions at once - along the bottom of the transom to the horizon and along the top of the transom to the sun or the star. A more advanced instrument was the Davis Quadrant or backstaff. One of the major advantages of the backstaff over the cross-staff was that the navigator had to look in only one direction to take the sight - through the slit in the horizon vane to the horizon while simultaneously aligning the shadow of the shadow vane with the slit in the horizon vane. The shadow staff in the book, invented by William, is an imagined forerunner of the backstaff.
Enough of the background – now to the writing. Weaving real characters and events into the plot was the first challenge. Walsingham was always going to play a part as Elizabeth’s spymaster. John Dee was a fascinating character whose expertise in astrology and mathematics made him a natural, if unseen, foil for William as his estranged mentor. I took particular delight in incorporating John Foxe as a character who forms an unlikely friendship with William. A renowned Puritan and author of Book of Martyrs (a bestseller at the time), Foxe was also thought to have a kindly and forgiving manner. I came to John Hawkins and Humphrey Gilbert, famous privateers and explorers, later in plot development to complement William’s invention of a navigation instrument for ships. Hawkins was rewarded for his aid in uncovering the ‘Ridolfi Plot’ against Elizabeth. Some questions remain about the true nature of his part in this affair and his continued friendship with the Spanish Ambassador.
A recent blog post by Annie Whitehead considered how to write convincing dialogue for her novels set in Anglo-Saxon England. You can read it HERE! She makes a convincing case for a compromise between true Old English and modern understanding. So it was with State of Treason. I wanted to create prose and dialogue, which captures the essence of authentic Elizabethan life without disturbing the reader’s flow and the need for a glossary. After a few experiments I found that this came most naturally by writing first person in the historic present. Time, readership and feedback will tell if I have succeeded in the attempt.
State of Treason
By Paul Walker
William Constable is a scholar of mathematics, astrology and practices as a physician. He receives an unexpected summons to the Queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham in the middle of the night. He fears for his life when he spies the tortured body of an old friend in the palace precincts. His meeting with Walsingham takes an unexpected turn when he is charged to assist a renowned Puritan, John Foxe, in uncovering the secrets of a mysterious cabinet containing an astrological chart and coded message. Together, these claim Elizabeth has a hidden, illegitimate child (an “unknowing maid”) who will be declared to the masses and serve as the focus for an invasion.
Constable is swept up in the chase to uncover the identity of the plotters, unaware that he is also under suspicion. He schemes to gain the confidence of the adventurer John Hawkins and a rich merchant. Pressured into taking a role as court physician to pick up unguarded comments from nobles and others, he has become a reluctant intelligencer for Walsingham.
Do the stars and cipher speak true, or is there some other malign intent in the complex web of scheming?
Constable must race to unravel the threads of political manoeuvring for power before a new-found love and perhaps his own life are forfeit.
This short excerpt is the first occasion when our hero, William Constable, has a meeting with Helen Morton that goes beyond formal exchanges. He is investigating the claims from a cipher held by Sir Francis Walsingham that the Queen has a hidden illegitimate child. Helen is a herbalist and William uses the examination of a possible cure for his mother’s illness as an excuse for conversation.
When we have eaten our fill, I ask John if he would like to accompany us to my room of medicines. He demurs and says he will rest before further study. The chamber is small and compares badly with the drying room at the Morton’s.
Helen says, ‘As to your mother, we are of one mind; her trouble is a blockage in the belly, which may harden her stools and hinder their passing.’
‘You are direct in your assessment. I had thought the same, but her discomfort began more than thirty days past and she has had some relief, although the stools were compacted. Do you discount a malign growth in her middle?’
‘The possibility should not be ignored, but we would suggest a curative for a more compliant blockage before further causes are considered. Your mother has not passed stools for seven days and that is too long a delay.’
She has a confidence and frankness that is both appealing and bothersome. My talent as a physician is questioned by a young woman, but I must remember that I have other reasons not to dismiss her advice. Besides, am I too proud to admit she may be correct? The health of my mother is at stake and I should be grateful for another opinion, no matter the source.
I say, ‘I have treated her with rhubarb root and ginger, would that not provide relief?’
‘In mild cases it may be sufficient. Rosamund is of the opinion that your mother requires a more robust remedy. There is a better solution, but we must retrieve this from our drying room. We have a consignment of dried plums from France, which Rosamund swears will offer the quickest relief. A dozen of these should be taken each day, with two pints of small beer.’
I note that Rosamund has fallen asleep in her chair. Her head is slumped at an awkward angle. I suggest we move her to an easier position, but Helen says she often dozes in this fashion. I have not heard of dried plums as the essence of a curative for blockages, but I thank her and make an arrangement to call for them the next day. I have no great hope for Rosamund’s advice, but calculate that they could do little harm, and I will continue with the rhubarb and ginger as a companion treatment. I ask Helen if she would like to examine the books on herbs and medicines in my library. She glances at the sleeping figure and hesitates before murmuring her assent.
I leave the door to my library chamber open to avoid any claim of impropriety. She gazes around the tables and shelving, then picks idly at the books and papers as she wanders.
‘You are a strange man, William Constable. I would not have expected a friendship with Doctor Foxe, who is noted for his fierce views on religion.’
‘Nor I, lady, but as you will have noted, he is not forceful in his opinions and has a quick mind on more mundane subjects.’
She agrees that he was pleasant company at the table and appears to have a kindly nature. She holds the corner of a chart and wrinkles her nose. ‘Do you find these star charts are helpful with your treatments?’
‘They are in many cases, but I do not hold fast to the belief that astrological charts show the entire truth about the nature and inclinations of a person. I have a fascination with the skies and study them so that we may also know our place on this earth.’
She says, ‘Have you cast a chart for Doctor Foxe?’
‘No, that would stray too far from his puritanical beliefs, although he does not dismiss their use out of hand.’ I pause then add, ‘Would you like me to draw a chart for you? It would be harmless and you could regard it as an entertainment.’
She widens her eyes, then purses her lips. She turns her back on me and walks to the far corners of the chamber, feigning interest in the books and charts. When her thinking is finished she faces me and clasps her hands in front of her skirts.
‘I will ask my father. It would be improper to do this work without his blessing.’
‘Of course, my lady. I will seek permission from your father when I call at your house for the dried plums.’ It seems that her high spirits and directness are joined with practical sense in knowing the bounds in behaviour that should be observed. ‘May I know your date and place of birth so that I may prepare an outline of the work?’
Her nose wrinkles again. It could be a sign that she disapproves or that she is considering my request. Whichever, I begin to find this mannerism… appealing.
She says. ‘I suppose it would not hurt. It was the seventh day of August in the sixtieth year. The place was Maldon in Essex. I am told that my mother retreated from the plague in the city for her confinement.’
There is a lurch in my middle and my skin prickles. I hope that this does not signify a reddening in my face. The date matches the one on the captured natal chart, but this cannot be… She talks of her mother’s confinement. My intention was to dismiss a small, nagging thought and now I am faced with magnified complexity. Is it coincidence, or could Helen be the ‘unknowing maid’?
‘Is something amiss, William?’
‘No… no, lady.’ I stammer and must guard against unnatural behaviour. She has called me by my given name and I wonder if this is a sign of growing trust. ‘May I call you Helen in return?’ She bobs her head and smiles her agreement. I continue, ‘I was contemplating the remedy of dried plums. I have not read of such a cure for blocked innards.’
‘It is in no book or paper that I have read. Rosamund had it from a goodwife in Finsbury Fields and it has been tried with some success.’ She pauses and eyes me with curiosity. ‘You have an open mind, William, and it does you credit. I was anticipating that you would deny an unusual remedy not known to you because of your superior standing as a physician.’
My surprise at the revelation of Helen’s birth date is soon forgotten as we exchange stories of our younger days, our education and the loss of a parent. Our discussions flow freely and it is plain that we both find enjoyment in each other’s company. She was close to her mother and loved her well, but she was sickly for as long as Helen could remember and often confined to her bed. I sympathise and probe a little until I learn that her mother was two years younger than her father. She would have been aged thirty-eight years at the time of Helen’s birth, and while this is not past child-bearing, it would be a rare age for a first child. My conversation with Helen is overlong and Mistress Hilliard comes with a message from her escort to say that she must leave before the light fades. I am resigned to conducting further examinations of Helen’s history and a sense of guilt at my subterfuge is mixed with pleasure at the thought of more time in her company.
*Giveaway is now closed.
*Giveaway is now closed.
Imagine that you are the young daughter of a titled, wealthy merchant in Elizabethan London. You are at dinner with a small group of people of similar status. A young man pays you particular attention and obviously fancies you. How would you reply to his compliment?
‘This is a fine syllabub, but I will wager its taste cannot compare to the sweetness of your lips.’
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State of Treason
Paul Walker inherited his love of British history and historical fiction from his mother who was an active member of the Richard III Society.
State of Treason is the first in a planned series of Elizabethan spy thrillers. The plot is based around real characters and events in London of the 1570’s. The hero, William Constable, is an astrologer and also a sceptic. He is also a mathematician, astronomer and inventor of a navigational aid for ships. The distinction between astrology and astronomy was blurred in the sixteenth century.
The second book in the series will be published in October 2019.
Paul is married and lives in a village 30 miles north of London. Having worked in a number of universities and run his own business, he now divides his time between non-executive work for an educational trust and writing fiction. His writing is regularly disrupted by children and a growing number of grandchildren and dogs.
Connect with Paul: Twitter.