The defeat of Spanish Armada is one of the major turning points in the history of Europe, indeed the world. But what would have happened if the Armada would have reached the shores of Britain?
In “Ruled Britannia” by Harry Turtledove, King Philip II has placed his daughter Isabella and her consort on the British throne, and they have been ruling the isles for 10 years with the dreaded Inquisition and the help of the Irish. But now, Philip is on the verge of death, and the old (surviving) advisers of the imprisoned Queen Elizabeth feel that the time is coming to get their freedom back.
Central to their plan is William Shakespeare, whose famous plays have made him the darling of the crowds. He is charged by Lord Burghley to write a play which will rouse the common Briton to take up arms against their conquerors. At the same time, the Spanish want a fitting tribute to their Great King, and there is none better than William Shakespeare who can write a play about the greatness of His Most Catholic Majesty.
So now, the fate of two queens and two kingdoms rests on the words penned by a man who can’t decide which play he wants to perform. And the success of the plot, if it materializes, depends on the actors and men who are vain or simple, timid or courageous, oblivious to the danger, or relishing it; in short, the men as common as the audience who applaud and cheer them from the foot of the stage.
Although he is the central character in the novel, William Shakespeare is still a common man. Like most people he does not want to risk his life by going against the conquerors, and conforms to their customs and rites just to be safe from the Inquisition. And although he would not spy on his neighbours, the only time he attacks somebody with something except words is when his life is in danger. In short, the only difference between him and the man on street is his prodigious talent. So it is quite ironic that the same talent thrusts him in the centre of conspiracy, spy games and possibly, “treason”.
If you are looking for a hero in traditional medieval mould, Senior Lieutenant Lope Félix de Vega Carpio would be the one you should read about. A soldier who came to Britain abroad San Juan with the Armada, he is a brave man, fond of English plays and English women, perhaps not in that order (told you he was the typical medieval hero). As an English speaker and a fan of Shakespeare (and Marlow and others), he has full “backstage” access. Not to mention, he is a play-writer himself, his Spanish plays being praised by the Queen herself. He is looking forward to play a part in “King Philip“, and plays a reluctant spy looking for any conspiracy amongst the actors.
Imaginary characters like Cicely Sellis (a “cunning woman”) stand shoulder to shoulder with characters like Kit Marlow, Lord Burghley, Robert Cecil, acting as the “supporting” cast. Indeed, many times they show more courage than the reluctant hero. The nobles, like Lord Burghley work in the shadows at the back, while Good Queen Bess does not appear till almost the end, placing the two playwrights against each other, though only one is fully aware of it.
It is only in last few days that I have heard the name of Harry Turtledove, and the place he holds amongst historical fiction writers. Given my current condition, I am a bit loathe to start any of his series, but I must say that “Ruled Britannia” lived up to all that hype, and then some more.
If you like the historical fiction genre, or want to start in it, this is one book I will definitely recommend.
Quote of The Day:
No epilogue here, unless you make it;
If you want your freedom, go and take it.
– William Shakespeare (Boudicca)