The Vatican, March 1588
Felice Peretti, otherwise known as Pope Sixtus V, stood swaying before the stack of rolled Bulls.
They were neatly arranged like a cord of wood, alternating short and long sides, their lead seals hanging down like a row of puppy tails.
“Ah,” he said, eyeing them with great satisfaction. They seemed to radiate power. But one thing was lacking: his blessing.
Raising his right hand, he spoke in sonorous Latin: “O sovereign God, hear the prayer of your servant Sixtus. Acting in accordance with my office as the vicar of Christ, his representative on earth, who has the power to bind and loose, to forgive sins or withhold forgiveness, I have pronounced judgment on that wicked woman of England, the pretender queen. She is hereby excommunicated from the body of Christendom until such time as she repents. In order that those living under her rule do not go down into damnation with her, we bless the Enterprise of England. Aboard the ships of the great Armada will go these Bulls of excommunication and sentence upon Elizabeth, the pretender queen of England, calling for her deposition, in order that her subjects may be rescued from her impiety and perverse government. They will see the happy light of day when Christ’s avengers set boots upon English soil. There they will be distributed to the faithful. Merciful God, we ask this in the savior’s name, and for his Holy Church.”
The sixty-eight-year-old pope then slowly circled the pile, making the sign of the cross and sprinkling it with holy water. Then he nodded to the Spanish envoy standing quietly to one side.
“You may transport them now,” he said. “The Armada leaves from Lisbon, does it not?”
“Yes, Your Holiness. Next month.”
Sixtus nodded. “They should arrive in plenty of time, then. You have waterproof canisters for them?”
“I am sure they will be provided. King Philip thinks of everything.”
* * *
The whip cracked and snapped as it sought its victim.
I could see the groom cowering in the bushes, then crawling away in the underbrush as the whip ripped leaves off a branch just over his head. A stream of Spanish followed him, words to the effect that he was a worthless wretch. Then the face of the persecutor turned toward me, shining with his effort. “Your Majesty,” he said, “why do you keep my whip?”
It was a face I had thought never to see again—that of Don Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador I had evicted from England four years earlier for spying. Now he rounded on me and began fingering his whip as he walked toward me.
I sat up in bed. I could still smell the leather of the whip, lingering in the air where it had cracked. And that smirk on the face of Mendoza, his teeth bared like yellowed carved ivory—I shuddered at its cold rictus.
It was only a dream. I shook my head to clear it. The Spanish were much on my mind, that was all. But . . . didn’t Mendoza actually leave me a whip? Or did we just find one in his rooms after he hurriedly left? I had it somewhere. It was smaller than the one in the dream, useful only for urging horses, not punishing horse grooms. It had been black, and braided, and supple as a cat’s tail. Spain’s leather was renowned for its softness and strength. Perhaps that was why I had kept it.
It was not light out yet. Too early to arise. I would keep my own counsel here in bed. Doubtless devout Catholics—secretly here in England, openly in Europe—were already at early Mass. Some Protestants were most likely up and studying Scripture. But I, their reluctant figurehead, would commune with the Lord by myself.
I, Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England for thirty years, had been cast by my birth into the role of defender of the Protestant faith. Spiteful people said, “Henry VIII broke with the pope and founded his own church only so he could get his way with Anne Boleyn.” My father had given them grounds with his flip quote “If the pope excommunicates me, I’ll declare him a heretic and do as I please.” Thus the King’s Conscience had become a joke. But out of it had come the necessity of embracing Protestantism, and from that had grown a national church that now had its own character, its own martyrs and theology. To the old Catholic Church, I was a bastard and usurper queen; thus I say that my birth imposed Protestantism upon me.
Why must England, a poor country, be stuck with subsidizing three others—the French, the Dutch, the Scots—and facing Spain, the Goliath champion of Catholicism? God’s teeth, wasn’t it enough for me to defend and manage my own realm? The role was a sponge that soaked up our resources and was driving us slowly but inexorably toward bankruptcy. To be the soldier of God was an expense I could have done without.
Soldier. God must be laughing, to have handed me his banner to carry, when all the world knew—or thought it did—that a woman could never lead troops into battle.