1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 26

Chapter 13

Brussels, The Spanish Lowlands

“So the Spanish tried to kill the Pope? And did kill John O’Neill in Rome?”

Thomas Preston, oldest officer among the Irish Wild Geese who served in the Lowlands, and Maestro-de-campo of the eponymous Preston Tercio, stared back at the group which had summoned him and delivered this shocking news. Seated at the center was Fernando, King in the Low Countries and brother of Philip IV of Spain. To his right was Maria Anna of the House of Hapsburg, Fernando’s wife and sister of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria. And sitting to one side, but in the largest, most magnificent chair of all of them, was the grand dame of European politics herself, the Archduchess Infanta Isabella, still an authority in the Lowlands and aunt of both Fernando and Philip. And therefore, Preston’s employer for the last twenty years. Oh, and then there was Rubens, the artist and intelligencer, sitting far to one side of the power-holding troika that ruled here in Brussels.

Maria Anna leaned forward slightly. “Colonel Preston, I assure you, my husband would not tell you such things unless they were true.”

“Your Highness, I apologize. I did not intend that response as a sign of doubt, but of disbelief. It is shocking news, to say the least.”

Fernando nodded. “To us, also, Colonel. And that is why we asked you to meet us alone. It may cause, er, unrest in the Irish tercios, if it comes to them as rumor. Coming from you, however, we might hope for a different reception.”

Thomas Preston shifted in his suddenly-uncomfortable seat. “Your Highness, the reception might be somewhat different — but not as different as if it came from one of the Old Irish colonels.”

Maria Anna’s eyebrows raised in curiosity. “‘Old’ Irish?”

“Yes, Your Highness. My family name, as you are probably aware, is not an Irish name at all, but English. That makes us Prestons ‘New’ Irish, associated with the old, pre-Reformation landlords who eventually married into the Irish families. We are often wealthier than our Old Irish neighbors — which makes us suspect to begin with, I fear — but no amount of money will ever equate to having ancient Gaelic roots, to being one of the families whose names are routinely associated with the High Kingship’s tanists –“

“The tanists?” Maria Anna echoed.

It was Isabella herself who answered. “The royal families of Ireland designate one of their number as chief among them. And it is usually from among these that, in elder times, the current king’s successor — the tanist — was chosen.”

“Ah,” breathed Rubens, “so this is why Hugh O’Neill the Elder was known as ‘The O’Neill’. He was the chieftain of that dynasty and all those subordinate to it.”

“That is my understanding, but I suspect that Colonel Preston would add details I have missed or misunderstood. Most pertinent to our concerns, though, is that there are — or were — only two scions of the royal houses remaining free, outside Ireland, who had clear entitlement to becoming tanists of the vacant throne: the recently deceased John O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and Hugh O’Donnell, the Earl of Tyrconnell.”

Attainted Earls, my grace,” added Rubens.

“Yes, yes,” she replied testily, “so the English have it. The same English who just happened to steal Ireland from its own people, and whose attainting of its few remaining nobles is merely the conclusive legalistic coda to their campaign of usurpation and rapine. It is not as if any legitimate monarch on the Continent, Catholic or Protestant, cares a whit for the juridical rationalizations of England’s theft of a whole nation. But let us return to Colonel Preston’s point. The Old Irish will, unfortunately, not hear this news as well from him as they would from one of the survivors of their royal families. But there is nothing to be done about that. The last O’Neill, who is not directly in the line of titular inheritance, is Owen Roe, and he now commands the Pope’s new bodyguard. The last O’Donnell is my godson, Hugh Albert, and he is — ” She paused, either catching her breath or mastering a quaver in her voice: Preston could not determine which. ” — is engaged in other matters and unable to return at present.”

Preston sat straighter. Whereas John O’Neill had been insufferable, and Owen Roe tolerable, Hugh O’Donnell had been a good fellow: clever, a shrewd soldier, well-educated, well-spoken, and without regal airs. So why the hell wasn’t he here? He’d disappeared in April, and now, when he was needed most —

“Colonel Preston,” Fernando articulated carefully, as if aware that he would have to reacquire the mercenary’s attention before continuing.

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“I should add that news of the Earl of Tyrone’s death, and the attempt on the Pope’s life, are only precursors to the primary reason I asked you to join us today.”

“Precursors, Your Highness?”

“Yes. Firstly, I welcome you to share your opinion on how your men will receive the news. This is material to the next matter we must discuss.”

“Well, Your Majesty, I am not one to make predictions, especially not in regard to my own somewhat mercurial countrymen. But I feel sure of this: ever since news came that Urban had been forcibly removed — rather, ‘chased out’ — of the Holy See, and was being actively pursued by Borja’s own cardinal-killing Spaniards, every one of my senior officers has expressed their support for Urban. When they learn that Borja and his Spanish army tried to murder the Pope and killed John O’Neill while he was trying to rescue an up-timer and his pregnant wife . . . Well, let’s say my biggest concern will be to make sure that they don’t start picking fights with our ‘comrades’ in your own Spanish tercios.”

Fernando raised a finger. “You happen to have used an interesting turn of phrase, Colonel Preston. In fact, those Spanish tercios are not mine, they are my brother’s. They are on Spanish payroll, direct from Madrid.”

Preston heard Fernando’s tone shift, heard it move from the full-voiced, natural cadences of a frank conversation into one laced with slower, quieter insinuations. Careful, now, Thomas. When a well-manicured Spanish gentleman starts addressing his topics on the slant, you can be sure there’s a snake in the grass somewhere nearby. “Yes, Your Highness,” Preston agreed carefully, “the Spanish are paid directly from Spanish coffers. Unlike us.”

Fernando smiled. “Precisely. Unlike you.” And then he looked down the table at Rubens.

Which told Thomas Preston that now he was going to hear the real dirt, the snaky facts of real politick that Fernando could not afford to utter with his own lips. That way, if later asked to admit or deny having mentioned those facts, he could offer a technically truthful denial. Kings: even the best of them had a bit of viper’s blood running in their veins. Thomas supposed they’d be dead, if they didn’t.

Ruben moved his considerable bulk closer to the broad, gleaming table at which they all sat. “Colonel Preston, given recent events, we are concerned that this year, when the time comes for our hired troops to renew their oaths to Spain, that there may be, er, resistance in your ranks, particularly.”

Preston waved a dismissive hand. “Then let’s skip the renewal of the oath. After all, it has no explicit term limit. The renewal is symbolic.”

“Yes, and it is a most important symbol. So, in order to preserve that symbol and yet also preserve the genuine loyalty of the four tercios of Wild Geese that are the ever-stalwart backbone and defenders of this realm, we have come up with a reasonable expedient: to simply change the oath.”

“Change the oath?”

“Yes.”

“In what way?”

“This year, when you take the oath, it will omit the reference to the Archduchess Isabella as being Philip’s vassal. You will take your oath to her as you have for twenty years, but without mentioning King Philip of Spain.” Rubens paused, his eyes sought Preston’s directly. “I presume you see the political practicality of this adjustment?”

Oh, I see it, painter. I see everything you hope I’ll see without your having to say it. On the surface, the change of oath was just to minimize any possibility of disaffection or departure arising from any mention of direct fealty to the increasingly unpopular King of Spain. But, there was an underlying subtlety which, Preston was quite sure, was the real intent of the change of oath. We’ll only be swearing fealty to Isabella. And, unless I’m much mistaken, to her nephew.

Rubens’ next words confirmed his suspicions. “However, as a precaution, we will not point out the fact — which could be easily misconstrued, of course — that, in agreeing to renew your oaths to Her Grace the Infanta, that your service is most likely to be commanded by her nephew, whom she has been pleased to confirm as the senior power in her lands. So, although you now also serve the King in the Low Countries, that additional, extrapolative detail will remain unadvertised. For the moment.”

Yes, for the moment. But Preston had been a pawn on the chessboard where kings played their games for many decades and could see where this political compass was pointing. With the oaths of the Wild Geese transferred directly to Fernando, their obedience and their fates were locked to him, not to Spain. Yes, technically Fernando was still a vassal of Spain, but how long that would continue was debatable. And so, when and if the Lowlands became fully and officially separate from the throne in Madrid, the Irish tercios would follow suit. And they would indeed comprise the loyal core of its army, since Philip’s tercios in the Lowlands would most assuredly not follow the same path. But, problematically, they would still be in the same country. Preston flinched at the thought of his tercio squaring off against their former Spanish counterparts. That would be a bloody, internecine business indeed —  

“Is this change in the oath acceptable to you and your men, Colonel Preston?” Rubens asked. His small eyes did not blink.

“I will have to put it to them. However, given recent events, I think it will not only be acceptable but preferable. However, they will ask a question I cannot answer: how will they be paid? Already, the reales from Spain are few and far between. If it wasn’t for the deal Hugh O’Donnell struck with the Frenchman Turenne, earlier this year, I don’t know what we would have done for food these past three months. But that supply is almost over — and truth be told, I was never comfortable with the arrangement.”

“And why is that?” Maria Anna asked.

“Because, your Highness, until France and Madrid cooperated at the Battle of Dunkirk, the French had been the enemies of this realm, ever threatening the southern borders of the Brabant. I should know; I spent many months in garrison there, over the years. And then suddenly we are at peace — but it’s a peace which is already fraying. So in taking bread from Turenne, we took bread from a past, and very possibly future, adversary of this court. I was not comfortable condoning it, but I was less comfortable seeing my men’s families starve. So when O’Donnell arranged it by serving Turenne along with sixty of the men of his tercio, I had little choice but to accept it. And, I must speak frankly, it brought trouble along with it.”

“Oh?” asked Rubens. “What kind of trouble?”

“French trouble, Your Grace. Their agents have been lurking around our camps, letting it be known that the king of France is hiring mercenaries, and can pay them in hard coin, not cabbages and watered beer.”

Rubens looked at the ruling troika. They just kept watching Preston. None of them blinked, but Maria Anna might have suppressed a small smile.

Rubens rotated one thumb around the other. “And have any of your men left our service for theirs?”

“No, but I worry that they may. I’ve heard rumors — rumors from this court — that some nobles here speak ill of us Wild Geese, say that we should be grateful for the scraps we’re given, and that some of us are already taking service with the French.”