Thomas Chaloner’s Ninth Exploit in Restoration London
The sinking of the pride of the navy in the Thames starts an investigation that leads to a group dedicated to changing the government of England beyond all recognition.
In 1665 England is facing war with the Dutch and the capital is awash with rumours of conspiracy and sedition. These are more frenetic than normal because of the recent sinking in the Thames of one of the largest ships in the navy – a disastrous tragedy that could very well have been caused by sabotage.
As an experienced investigator, Thomas Chaloner knows that there are very few grains of truth in the rumour mill, but the loss of such an important warship and the murder of Paul Ferine, a Groom of the Robes, in a brothel favoured by the elite of the Palace of White Hall makes him scent a whiff of genuine treason.
As well as investigating the murder, Chaloner is charged with tracking down the leaders of a fanatical sect known as the Fifth Monarchists. However, he suspects that the order for him to infiltrate the group is intended to distract him from uncovering some unsavoury facts about Ferine and his courtly associates. Then, as he comes to know more about the Fifth Monarchists and their meetings on High Holborn, he discovers a puzzling number of connections – to both Ferine’s murder and those involved with the defence of the realm. Connections that he must disentangle before it is too late to save the country …
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7 March 1665
His Majesty’s Ship London was a magnificent sight as she sailed down the Medway from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham. Carrying some eighty guns, she was one of the largest ships in the navy, and the Admiralty expected her to play a crucial role in fighting the Dutch – war had been declared two weeks before. She was the flagship of Admiral Sir John Lawson, and would sail up the Thames to collect him from Queenhithe, after which she would join the rest of his fleet in the Channel.
London had always enjoyed a special relationship with the city after which she was named, so the crew was looking forward to taking her there, relishing the opportunity to show off her exquisitely painted woodwork, new bright sails and gleaming brass cannon. There were three hundred seamen aboard, and those not on watch had contrived to be out on deck, proud and trim in their best embroidered jackets and snowy white trousers.
There was also a smattering of passengers – a few of the Admiral’s relations making the journey between Chatham and Queenhithe as a treat. They would disembark in the city, after which London would revert to a fighting machine. The festive ribbons that fluttered from her masts would be taken down, her crew would exchange their smart, shore-going rigs for working clothes, and all would be battened down ready for combat.
Captain Jeffrey Dare, in command until the Admiral boarded, ordered the mainsails set and London heeled over as the wind caught her, a sharp bow-wave hissing down her sides. He was glad to be away at last, although he was concerned about the failing light. He had intended to get underway at dawn, but there had been some wrangling over paperwork with the dockyard’s commissioner, and it was noon before the matter had been resolved.
Wind sang in the rigging as London picked up speed, a joyful sound that drove the petty frustrations of the refit from Dare’s mind. He smiled. It was good to feel the deck alive under his feet again, and although he thought the King and his Privy Council were insane to declare war on a powerful maritime nation like the Dutch, he was eager to do his duty. And at least they had had the sense to put the Channel Fleet under Lawson, not some clueless aristocrat who had never been to sea. The Admiral might be a rough-mannered, salty-tongued braggart, but at least he knew his way around a ship.
Thoughts of Lawson reminded Dare of the two large chests that had been brought aboard earlier that day. Did they really contain the Admiral’s bass viols, as Commissioner Pett had claimed? Dare had been astonished to learn that Lawson was interested in music: no matter how hard he tried, he could not imagine that gruff old seadog engaging in anything so cultured.
He had challenged Pett about the weight, too. The boxes were extremely heavy, and he was unconvinced by the explanation that Lawson had purchased a new kind of instrument made of metal, so they would not lose their tone in the damp sea-air. But the Admiral’s luggage was none of Dare’s business, especially now, when the ship was underway and he had duties to attend.
He bellowed a complex stream of orders that changed London’s course as she flew out of the mouth of the Medway and into the Thames Estuary. She responded immediately, like the good ship she was, and he was pleased both with her and her crew – the Dutch would not know what had hit them when London met them in battle!
Her motion was different once she was in less sheltered waters, and she began to pitch and roll; Dare grinned when several passengers made a dash for the rail. Normally, he would have tacked immediately, but the wind was capricious that day, and to the east lay the Nore, the hidden, shifting sandbanks that had brought many an unwary ship to an ignominious end. Wisely, he deferred until he was certain the danger was past.
He happened to glance landwards as London passed the little village of Prittlewell, a low huddle of cottages strewn along a bleak, muddy shore. Fishermen and their families had gathered on the beach, tiny figures who brandished their hats and waved joyously. Some of the crew waved back, as did those passengers who were not retching. Dare felt a surge of pride, knowing what a noble sight London must be, with her great press of canvas billowing white against the dark pebble-grey of the sky.
The delay in leaving meant they had missed the tide, so Dare climbed up to the crosstrees – the beams that attached the rigging to the mast – wanting the better view that height would provide. From that elevated perch he could really read the water – interpret the ripples and changing colours that warned of currents, shoals and contrary breezes. It was an undignified thing for a captain to do, but Lawson did it, and what was good enough for that staunch old mariner was good enough for Dare.
He fixed his eyes on the course ahead, and shouted directions that would alter their bearing a fraction. It was not really necessary, but there was no harm in working the crew after so many weeks in dock. The wind made his eyes water; it was much colder aloft that it was below, with a brisk south-westerly blowing.
Suddenly, there was a tremendous crack, followed by an explosion, and the ship heeled violently to one side. The lurch was so great that it almost dislodged him from his precarious perch, and for a moment, he could do nothing but flail about in a desperate attempt to regain his balance. He glanced down as soon as he was able, and was horrified to see clouds of billowing smoke and bodies in the sea, bobbing and lifeless.
With a tearing groan the main-mast behind him began to topple, taking with it a mass of sail and several shrieking sailors. Dare did not understand what was happening. They could not have run aground, because they were in the middle of a wide, deep channel. Had the powder magazine exploded then? But how? No one should have been down there, and it was locked anyway. With a shriek of protesting timbers, London listed farther to starboard. Dare swung in the air for a moment, then lost his grip to cartwheel sickeningly towards the churning brown water below.
On shore, the villagers of Prittlewell watched in stunned disbelief. One moment, London was ploughing with silent grace up the river, her sails full and fat, and the next she was tilting heavily to one side, belching smoke. Corpses littered the water around her, while tiny splashes of white showed where the occasional survivor was frantically struggling to stay afloat.
‘Launch the boats!’ bellowed Jeremiah Westcliff, Prittlewell’s oldest and most experienced fisherman, the first to recover his wits. ‘Hurry!’
He had to shove some of his shocked neighbours to bring them to their senses, but then all was action and urgency as brawny arms heaved the little crafts into the waves. Once away, the villagers rowed for all they were worth, sinews cracking and breath coming in agonised gasps. Terrified screams and a gushing fountain of water told them that London was going down fast. They intensified their efforts, summoning every last ounce of strength to send their boats skimming across the grey-brown water.
But their labours were in vain: by the time they arrived, the ship had gone. The fishermen leaned on their oars, panting hard as they gazed helplessly at the bodies that floated everywhere they looked. The dead would not stay long, of course: the tide was never still, and Father Thames was already tugging some of his gruesome cargo away from the scene of the disaster.
Yet there were survivors. Several clung to a mat of cordage and spars, while a few more flailed in the water. The villagers began to pull them out, but their number was pitifully small.
‘Twenty-four,’ Westcliff eventually reported to the only officer they had found, identifiable by his fine blue coat. ‘How many were aboard?’
‘More than three hundred.’ Dare’s face was grey with shock. He had no idea how he had survived his fall, although the lower half of his body was numb and he wondered whether death might claim him yet. When his eyes were drawn back to the horrible swirling wreckage and the bodies of his sailors, he hoped it would. ‘What happened?’
Westcliff shook his head uncomprehendingly. ‘One moment London was going along as proud as Lucifer, and the next she was blown to pieces. Were you carrying much powder?’
‘One magazine was full,’ Dale replied hoarsely. ‘But we were going to load the others in Queenhithe.’
‘Then it was an accident,’ surmised Westcliff. ‘A tragic, dreadful accident.’
‘No,’ whispered Dale. ‘It was not.’