Saturday, April 5, 2014

Knox's first job--teaching squirrelly boys

An excerpt from THE THUNDER (pictures from Knox's Edinburgh below)

Chapter one

Dead Bishop’s Castle

I was born in a castle. Hugh Douglas, Laird of Longniddry, was my father, and the only home I had known was the Douglas ancestral keep. Yet it makes too free with veracity to call it a castle. It was not a proper castle, one queens and fine ladies strut about within. In truth, it was a damp, smelly, crumbling fortified house, more akin to a vertical stone casket than a lavishly appointed bishop’s castle.

Here in late April, 1547 I found myself—for good or ill—hemmed in by the fortification of St. Andrews Castle, a proper castle, a veritable palace bedecked for a bishop, now a dead bishop. Much of the luxury of the place, so it seemed, had died with him. Cowering behind the crenellation that day, I mentally attempted to calculate the thickness and stoutness of the stones that made up the dead Bishop’s battlements facing the town. I breathed shallow so as to avoid the full force of the pinching odors of amassed humanity that hung palpably in the air.

The town rumbled with activity: shouting men, bawling oxen straining at their carts laden with timber and stone, and with victuals for the soldiers, spades and barrows, and laden with other things—cannons, barrels of gunpowder, ball, shot, and the like—ordnance, I’d heard it termed. Above all, there were the shouts and cries of men. My shallow breathing, in truth, came less from the stench and far more from gnawing anxiety at the deadly preparations surrounding me and St. Andrews Castle.

With a shudder, I turned my back on the cacophony and eased myself away from the scene. Crossing the paving stones of the inner-court of the castle, I mounted a narrow stairway that led up to the battlements of the dead bishop’s castle jutting into the North Sea.

As I climbed, I tried to divert my eyes from the blackened stones of the blockhouse that contained the Bottle Dungeon. My abhorrence for enclosed places sent a shudder down my frame. The place was a veritable hell hole, a constricting cavern into which condemned prisoners were lowered on a rope, there they crouched amongst the putrid filth of former occupants, surrounded by the foul scratching and gnawing of rats, there to await the rack or the stake. For Mr. Wishart, as I had often heard, it had been the stake.

I broke into a run on the last few treads, leaving the dungeon behind me. Through a notch in the wall, I squinted into the distance where the gray water met the gray skyline. I’d heard talk that the Queen Regent had petitioned the French to send their navy, thereby hemming us in by both land and sea.

Since first hearing of her scheme, I often studied that horizon, my mind troubled. But as with other days, I saw no ships bearing toward St. Andrews in the grayness—not today. Perhaps they would not come. Navies were in much demand these days, so I had been told. Perhaps the French were occupied with busting down other castles, too busy for St. Andrews.

Inching my feet forward, and steadying myself with my hands against the stone battlements, I eased closer to the edge. With my eyes clamped shut, I breathed in the salty air and listened to the foamy shying of the surf. I felt a lurching of my insides as I forced my eyes open and looked down the castle wall direct into the sea. My fingernails clawed the stone edge. A gull hovered in the breeze above me, wings spread wide in flight but going nowhere. It mocked me with its screeching. Far below, and surrounding three sides of the castle, the frigid North Sea pummeled the walls. In the backwater of that pummeling, the sea churned like boiling tar in a vast caldron. My stomach did much the same.


For an instant my heart halted—so it seemed--and then thundered back to life. I nearly sank to me knees in fright.

“George, where’ve you been?” asked my brother. “And do be tending of your eye balls, lad. They’re a-bulging out of your head again. I swear, one of these days you’ll be making them so wide and gogglee they’ll come a-popping out of your sockets like when farmer McAllister is wringing the necks of his chickens and--”

I’d heard this all before and cut him off. “Francis, if you do that sort of thing again, I’ll end up tottering clean over the battlements and splitting my crown on them rocks. And if there’s anything left of me, I’ll be drowned and battered in the sea. It’ll be all your doing, Brother.”

”And eaten by a haddock,” he added, clamping me on the back in what he intended to be a good-natured gesture, but one that I felt nearly launched me over the wall. “You’re always fretting yourself, George. Eyes goggling out of your head. That’s your problem.”

There was no denying of what he said. For weeks now I had felt myself in a perpetual state of fretfulness.

“Now, you must come along with me,” he continued. “Master Knox’ll be expecting us in the chapel for our lessons.”

“There’s time,” I said.

“Which is what you always say,” said Francis. “Which is why you’re always late.”

“I’ll not be late.”

This being besieged was all a game to my brother Francis and Alexander Cockburn our childhood friend and fellow student. To me it was no game. Dutifully, I began following him down the narrow stone stairs.

“Why did they do it?” I blurted after him.

Francis stopped and turned slowly toward me. He heaved a sigh. “If you don’t ken the answer to that, you’ve gone daft. ‘Why did they do it?’ you ask. They did it because fornicating Cardinal Beaton was a monster. His vows of chastity notwithstanding, his holiness fathered no less than seven bastard offspring. If anyone in God’s universe had it coming to him, Beaton did. That’s why they did it.”

“Who counted?”

He scowled and shook his head. “Counted what?”

“His… well, his offspring?”

“Brother, there you’ve gone and clean missed the point again,” he said....

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