Authors: Matthew Reilly
Ascham had not just taken her far to the east—beyond the borders of Christendom, into the very heart of the lands of the Moslems, the great city of Constantinople—he had also exposed the future queen to many dreadful perils as they became privileged witnesses to the most remarkable event never recorded in history.
When she finished telling me her tale, my queen lay back on her pillow and closed her eyes. ‘Long have I wondered if I should tell anyone of those days, but now all of the other participants are dead and soon I will be, too. If it pleases you, Gwinny, write down my words, so that others might know how a queen like me is formed.’
And so I make this my task, my final task on her behalf, to commit to writing her exact words and recount to you, dear reader, the marvellous things—the terrible things, the terrifying things—she beheld over the course of that secret journey in 1546.
IN MODERN CHESS
, the rooks are presented as castles anchoring the four corners of the board, but it was not always this way.
In fact, the name ‘rook’ derives from
, the Persian word for chariot. Pawns were footsoldiers, bishops were elephants, knights were mounted cavalry, and speeding along at the edges of the board were the swift and deadly chariots.
But as times changed and the game spread from Persia to Europe, chess pieces began to reflect the social hierarchy of medieval Western Europe. Thus the chariot became a castle. It was still a powerful piece, able to race down the board in a single move and control entire ranks, but the original reason for its fleetness of foot was lost.
Still, in its own way, the rook-as-castle remains an excellent example of chess pieces reflecting medieval society, for many a king of those times was judged by the strength and grandeur of the castles he kept.
Chess in the Middle Ages
Tel Jackson (W.M. Lawry & Co., London, 1992)
I thank God that I am indeed endowed with such qualities that if I were turned out of the realm in my petticoat, I were able to live in any place in Christendom.
QUEEN ELIZABETH I
I WAS LIVING AT
Hatfield House in Hertfordshire when the invitation arrived at court in London. It was delivered to Hatfield a day later, accompanied by a typically curt message from my father to Mr Ascham.
Truly, it was a wondrous thing.
It was printed on the most exquisite paper, crisp card with gold on its edges. Written on it in shining gold ink (and in English) was the following:
IS EXALTED MAJESTY
ULEIMAN THE MAGNIFICENT,
ALIPH OF THE SONS
AND DAUGHTERS OF ALLAH
ULTAN OF THE LANDS OF THE OTTOMANS
LORD OF THE REALMS OF THE RomanS
THE PERSIANS AND THE ARABS
ERO OF ALL THAT IS,
PRIDE OF THE GLORIFIED KAABA
AND ILLUMINED MEDINA, THE NOBLE
JERUSALEM AND THE THRONE OF EGYPT,
ORD AND RULER OF ALL THAT HE SURVEYS,
IDS YOU MOST WARM GREETING
S ESTEEMED KING OF ENGALAND,
OU ARE INVITED TO SEND
YOUR FINEST PLAYER
OF THE GAME KNOWN AS SHATRANJ
LUDOS SCACORUM, ESCHECS, SCHACHSPIEL
SCACCHI, SZACHY OR CHESS
TO COMPETE IN A TOURNAMENT
TO DETERMINE THE CHAMPION
OF THE KNOWN WORLD
I snorted. ‘For a great sultan who is lord and ruler of all that he surveys, his English is lamentably poor. He can’t even spell
Still holding the note, Mr Ascham looked up at me. ‘Is that so? Tell me, Bess, do you speak his language? Any Arabic or Turkish-Arabic?’
‘You know that I do not.’
‘Then however lamentable his English may be, he still speaks your language while you cannot speak his. To me, this gives him a considerable advantage over you. Always pause before you criticise, and never unduly criticise one who has made an effort at something you yourself have not even attempted.’
I frowned at my teacher, but it was impossible to hate him even when he chastised me so. He had a way about him. In the way he carried himself, in the way he spoke, in the way he chastised me: gentle but firm.
Mr Roger Ascham was thirty-one then, and in those days—long before he wrote
, the work for which he became rightly famous after his death—he was already one of Cambridge’s most celebrated instructors in classical Greek and Latin.
And yet, if I could have wished anything more for him, it would have been that he were more handsome. He was of average build and average height and in a world of rich young colts with broad shoulders, hard features and the imperiousness of inherited wealth, this made him seem small, soft, harmless. He had a big round nose, hangdog brown eyes and oversized ears that he kept covered with a mop of thick brown hair. I once overheard someone say that at a society ball, not a single one of the young ladies accepted his polite invitations to dance. I cried for him when I heard that. If those silly ladies only knew what they were missing.
But while I shed tears for him over it, he didn’t seem to mind. He was more interested in the art of learning and he pursued that passion with a ferocious intensity. In fact, he displayed a deep intensity of concentration in almost
he did, whether it was practising his beloved archery, debating matters of state, reading a book or teaching me. To learn, as far as Roger Ascham was concerned, was the noblest of all endeavours and it was an
He was, quite simply, the most curious man I had ever met.
Mr Ascham knew all manner of strange arcana, from theories about the ancient stone circles on the Salisbury Plain to the latest scientific methods in medicine and mathematics. And what he didn’t know, he sought to find out. Whether it was the visiting Astronomer Royal, the king’s surgeon or a travelling tinker selling a miracle cure, Mr Ascham would always probe them with pointed questions: asking the Astronomer Royal if Amerigo Vespucci’s claims about using the moon and Mars to determine longitude were valid, asking my father’s surgeon why certain plants caused certain kinds of rashes, or asking the tinker if he was aware that he was a quack.
Such was Mr Ascham’s knowledge of so broad a range of subjects, it was not unknown during his time at Cambridge for professors in
disciplines to come to his rooms to confer with him on areas of their own supposed expertise.
For in a world where people claimed to find higher wisdom from God or the Bible, my dear tutor prayed at the twin altars of knowledge and logic. ‘Everything,’ he once told me, ‘happens for a logical reason, from the downward flow of streams to illnesses to the actions of men. We just have to find that reason. The acquisition of knowledge, the sheer pleasure of finding things out, is the greatest gift in life.’
On one well-known occasion, after a local boy prone to foamy-mouthed fits died suddenly and the local abbot attributed the event to the boy’s possession by Satan, Mr Ascham asked to see the lad’s brain. Yes, his brain! The dead boy’s skull was cracked open and, sure enough, Mr Ascham found a white foreign body the size of an apple lodged in his brain. Mr Ascham later told me in reference to that event, ‘Before we blame the supernatural, Bess, we should exhaust all the natural explanations first.’ The abbot didn’t speak to him for a year after that. Not everyone shared Mr Ascham’s pleasure for finding things out.
And then, in the prime of his university career, he had come to teach me, a mere child, the third in line to the throne. Even at that tender age, it had struck me that the remarkable Mr Roger Ascham was wildly overqualified to be tutoring a girl of thirteen, even if she was a princess. I wondered why. What did he see in me that no-one else did?
In any case, this exchange between us about the Moslem sultan’s use of English was not unusual. I was wrong and he was right—again.
We turned our attention back to the invitation. It added that the chess tournament would take place in one month’s time in the Sultan’s capital, the ancient city of Constantinople.
Accompanying the invitation was a note from my father, addressed to Mr Ascham.
I understand that your associate, Mr Gilbert Giles, was the finest player at Cambridge. Would you please inquire as to whether this is still the case and if it be so, dispatch him to me at once. No less than the reputation of the corpus christianum requires our best man at this tournament.
By the way, I appreciated your efforts in the matter of Cumberland’s son. They did not go unnoticed.
In those days, it was more than just Christendom’s reputation that was at stake: the Moslem sultan was threatening Christendom itself.
His empire spread from Persia in the east to Algiers in the southwest and had recently crossed the Danube. Eight years earlier, in 1538, the Sultan’s navy, led by the brilliant Barbarossa, had done the previously unthinkable: it had defeated a European fleet—a ‘Christian alliance’ of ships—at Preveza. This Christian alliance, assembled by Pope Paul III himself, lost over forty ships, more than 3,000 prisoners, and, after paying 300,000 gold ducats in reparations to the Ottoman sultan, a large portion of Europe’s pride.