The story of The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, re-written by Liz Kershaw with an additional imagined narrative. Published in The Parish Magazine in 12 parts and here in 6.
Part 1 of 6
An elderly man sits by an open window looking out at the moon. It is summer, and the evening air is sweet with hay and blossom. Across the meadow, he can hear the Teme’s gentle progress and far off, the warning call of a goose. The man is Francis Godwin, Bishop of Hereford, and he has left the heat and dirt of the city for Whitbourne, for his summer palace with its cool rooms and clean, rush-strewn floors. He would like to take a walk by the river in the moonlight, but his joints are stiff and his feet swollen with the dropsy. His body is rooted in this place, at this time, the year of our Lord 1632*, but as he stares up at the moon, he wonders whether there might be other ways to roam: he has a fine, sharp mind, an imagination he has chained for too long. He allows that mind to wander away from Herefordshire and all the tethers of duty; to rise above England with its quarrelsome King and his Catholic wife; above the Earth and onwards, light as a swan feather, towards the high bright moon.
The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin
Dear Reader, allow me to introduce myself: Domingo Gonsales, nobleman and adventurer, a proud Spaniard of the true Catholic faith. I am a short man, but I have proved myself the equal of anyone for bravery and resourcefulness so please read on, and you will discover my extraordinary story.
I was born in Seville in 1552 and was studying for the Church until I heard news of the Duke of Alva’s expedition to the Low Countries to quell the heretical Protestant rebels. I sold my books and belongings, borrowed twenty ducats which bought me a little nag, and travelled thriftily (at least for a nobleman of my status) until – you will be appalled to hear – I was attacked near Antwerp by a pack of cursed Calvinist Sea Beggars! They took my horse and money and, thus prevented from joining the Duke, I had no choice but to enter the service of a Frenchman. My detractors gave out that I was his horse-keeper’s boy, but my place was honourable, and my Frenchman was very glad to have a Spaniard of my quality about him. He furnished me with a fine horse, and armour, and put me to service writing his letters (after I had mastered the French tongue, a task I accomplished swiftly as I have a talent for languages as you will see). If I did indeed dress my own horse now and then – what of it! I will stand up to anyone who mocks me for it.
As I told you, I am a resourceful fellow and was soon out of service and off to the Duke of Alva again. It happened like this, dear Reader: I encountered an enemy horseman, a lusty tall fellow, and contrived to shoot his horse so that it fell on his leg. Although he called for mercy, I viewed it as my duty to my King and country to ensure my own safety and dispatched him there and then as he lay pinned on the ground, most courageously. He carried a fat purse of crowns and when I reached the Duke’s court and showed this round as my own, the nobles were ready enough to know me. The Duke took me into his service, and favoured me, although he enjoyed jesting about the smallness of my person more than I found palatable. After all, my size is the work of God and should not be dishonoured, and I am living proof that great and wonderful things may be performed by the most unlikely bodies, if the mind is good and the person has the blessing of our Lord.
Well, I framed myself as best I could to stomach the Duke’s merriments and journeyed with him back to Spain. By the time I was reunited with my parents my funds had increased to some three thousand crowns and in seeing this, my mother and father suddenly lost their displeasure that I had abandoned my studies to go to war and greeted me with great joy. They found me a wife in the daughter of a wealthy Lisbon merchant to swell my fortune further and I lived then in Spain, well and most contented for many years.
And, at this, Bishop Godwin puts down his pen, rubs his eyes and wonders where his little Spanish Catholic has come from. Is there some hidden part of himself that cleaves to the old religion? When he was a student and the Armada breasted the Channel, had he secretly yearned for the enemy to win? He has no answers, but he is old, and wary, and knows he must be careful if he chooses to voyage on with the proud Spaniard in his puffed doublet and hose. Godwin thinks of the burnings and denouncements of the last decades, still so alive in old memories. He thinks of the change stirring now in England’s fragile calm. He blots the paper, conceals it within the pages of an ancient ledger and brushes it gently with dust.
*We have no way of knowing exactly when Godwin wrote his book, but it is believed it was towards the end of his life.
Sleep can be an elusive companion for an old man. Godwin wakes, as he often wakes now, too early, when the mist is low upon the Teme and birdsong is swelling into chorus. He ponders on his life and wonders whether he could have chosen a different path. In 1596, when Gonsales had joined the Duke of Alva and ridden off to war, what had he, Godwin, been doing? Studying, secreted with his books in a room in Exeter, milky light coming cold through a high window to mottle the soft vellum under his fingers. He had made a safe life, solid in the established church, the son of a Bishop, the husband of a Bishop’s daughter. He had scratched away at his staid Catalogue of the Bishops of England and gained the approval of the Queen. He had survived, and perhaps that was achievement enough.
Dear Reader, fate intervened in my fortunes again. I fell out with a kinsman and this disagreement grew until we went alone to fight it out to the death with our rapiers. The likelihood of victory was against me, as he was a man of great strength and tall stature, but what I lacked in height and power I supplied with courage, and my nimbleness outranked his size. I killed him and found myself forced to flee to Lisbon as an outlaw, lurking in hiding until I might seek an acquittal.
In this year of 1596, a certain Spanish Count returned from the West Indies and became the accidental cause of my later adventures and the means of eternalising the name of Domingo Gonsales for ever! Read on, dear Reader, and you will learn of my discoveries. You will see men fly from place to place in the air; you will be able (without the movement or work of any creature) to see messages sent in an instant many miles off and receive answer again immediately; you will be able to tell your thoughts to your friend even when you are remote from them. Reader, you will be told of so many wonders, but far, far above these, you will learn of a New World more incredible than all the ancient and modern philosophers could ever have dreamed of.
I have burned to tell my tales for so long, but one should always, in these dangerous times, be circumspect. I have waited until the statesmen pronounced how the knowledge and use of such matters might stand with the policy of our country. I have waited until the Fathers of the Church assessed whether the publication of my discoveries might prove prejudicial to the true Catholic faith. Of course, my only motivation in telling my story is to further the common good and I have no expectation of glory or of any temporal, less honourable, reward, but I know I might be misjudged and felt it wise to be discreet.
But, dear Reader, to go forward now with my narration. You will remember that I had killed a man in a duel? Well, the Spanish Count, late of the Indies, made much of this man’s death, insisting he was beloved kin to him, although he made it clear that if I were to give him a thousand ducats, his grief might be lessened enough to stop seeking vengeance. I disliked the thought of beggaring my wife and two sons and decided on a different course. I found a carrack bound for the East Indies and, taking two thousand ducats with me, escaped him and voyaged off to trade.
I prospered very well in the Indies and spent my stock of coins on jewels which I sent home and heard that they had yielded ten times the purchase price. I followed after them but fell grievously ill and would, I think, have died on the ship had we not reached the paradise of St Helena.
It is a miracle of nature that such a little piece of land as St Helena should arise in the middle of a huge and tempestuous ocean. It has a very good harbour on the south side, and many Portuguese buildings, including a pretty chapel with a tower and a bell. There is a fresh brook nearby, and walks lined with oranges trees, and lemons, vines: all the fruit one might imagine, except apples. There are garden herbs and vegetables and crops – and so many animals: domesticated cattle, fowls, goats, swine, sheep and horses, and game birds beyond imagining. I was most interested in a certain type of wild swan – which become essential to my tale, as you will see – that are numerous in the months of February and March, but which then vanish in the manner of our own cuckoos and nightingales and are no more to be seen.
I was set ashore on this island with a blackamoor servant, Diego, to attend me, and I rested for a year recovering my health. Diego lived at the west end of the island in a cave so that we could have separate hunting areas. If one had a lean patch, the other would invite him to dine, and we soon needed a system of communication. I tamed a team of partridges and a fox, using them as messengers to Diego with notes tied round their necks. Eventually, I made Diego move to a promontory on the north west part of the island, within sight of my house and the chapel and we signalled to each other using a system of my invention and this, dear Reader, was the first of my intelligent devices, as you will see.
To be continued…