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 monthly parts.
Our Man in the Moone – 1
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.
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.
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.
And, at this, Bishop Godwin puts down his pen and rubs his eyes. It is late. He has voyaged far with Gonsales on this moonlit night and his mind is filled with the roar of the sea against the bows of a carrack, the lush scents of fruit trees on an island in an ocean. He wonders where his little Spanish Catholic has come from: is there some 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 and thinks perhaps that he should destroy the pages he has written – but then, he thinks of the proud little Spaniard in his puffed doublet and hose and is not ready to bid farewell. But old age has made him wary. He 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 thinks how his imaginings must be hidden. He blots the paper and conceals it within the pages of an ancient ledger and brushes it gently with dust. Gonsales is wise. One should always, in dangerous times, be circumspect.
We have no way of knowing exactly when Godwin wrote his book, but it is believed it was towards the end of his life.
Our Man in the Moone – 2
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. His mind is unquiet: for the first time in his long life he is beginning to question the path he has chosen. In 1596, when Gonsales was deserting his studies to go to war with the Duke of Alva, what had he, Francis Godwin, been doing? He remembers his life then, 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. His course had been marked early: the son of a Bishop, the husband of a Bishop’s daughter. It had been the safest life he could make, solid in the established church, scratching away at his staid Catalogue of the Bishops of England to make his reputation with the Queen. He wonders if there might have been another way if he’d had the courage to look for it. But now at long last he is taking a risk so contrary to the tenor of his life; his heart flutters when he thinks of the dangers of his enterprise. He picks up his pen, lowers it, raises it again and writes. Little Gonsales struts and preens and catches at his imagination and he will not let him go.
Dear Reader, you left me puzzling over how I might communicate with my servant Diego. Well, at night, I set up a light in the bell tower: a large room, white-washed inside and well glassed so that even a small lamp reflected over a great distance. Diego also had a lamp and I devised a code of covering and uncovering the lights to signal our thoughts and intentions. In daylight, we used smoke or dust, and I decided that this system might prove very profitable for mankind if used rightly, as a message might dispatch in an hour where a messenger would have taken days. In truth, I am an extraordinarily intelligent and resourceful man.
The wild swans I mentioned before fed on fish and birds and were odd creatures with one foot bearing talons, and the other built webbed, as a normal water fowl. I took some thirty or forty young of these birds, and reared them by hand, partly for my own recreation and partly because I already had the germ of an idea how to use them. I taught them to come to me on the signal of a white cloth, and by the time they were three months old I began to train them to fly with cargos, and if Diego called them by raising a white sheet, they would carry bread or meat to him, and would return to me similarly loaded.
I began to wonder whether these birds might be joined together to bear a greater burden, even, to enable a man to be carried in the air safely. I experimented but found that unless they could be prevailed upon to rise all at once, the first to rise would be discouraged at the great weight and give up. I used my ingenuity and soon devised a machine of pulleys and corks trying it out with a live lamb, and how I envied it as the first living creature to make such a flight!
I yearned to be carried into the air myself and to have the honour of being the first man to fly. I told Diego that the Gansas – as I was now calling my swans – would not be strong enough to carry him as he was at least twice my weight. So instead, I placed myself and all my valuable goods on the top of a rock at the mouth of the river, asked Diego to signal them with the sheet, and my birds – some twenty-five in number – rose as one and carried me over to him, around a quarter of a league distance.
How my heart swelled with joy and admiration at my own invention! How often did I wish myself back in Spain then so that I might fill the world with the fame of my glory and renown! Every hour I longed for the Spanish fleet to arrive and take me home with them, but they were delayed, and then as their carracks were weather-beaten and their crew sick and weak, they stayed to refresh themselves on our island for one whole month, and I had to subdue my impatience, and wait.
I confided the details of my flying engine device and Gansas to the Admiral of the fleet, being the only way to persuade him to allow so many large and greedy birds on board his ship. There was a risk that he might murder me and claim to our noble King that the invention was his own but if I had left my birds behind, I am sure I would never have found their like in all Christendom again. In the event, I was never to know how he might have used me before we arrived in Spain as we were intercepted, with disastrous results.
On Thursday 21st June 1599, we embarked on our journey, but after two months at sea, we encountered an English fleet some ten leagues from the island of Tenerife. Our Spanish fleet carried five times the number of men and was well provided with munitions, yet we thought it wiser to flee – not to save our own lives (which a man of courage like Domino Gonsales cares nothing of) but the estates of many poor merchants. Our fleet then consisted of five ships: three carracks, one barque and one caravel. The English had three.
The English made a play for us and our Captain unwisely commanded the fleet to disperse. The caravel turned too hastily and damaged one of the carracks enough for the English to easily catch and enter her. The caravel sank, the barque escaped, another carrack was taken and then we came under attack. Our Captain gave direction to run aground on Tenerife saying that he preferred to save some of our lives and some of the goods and lose the rest, rather than surrender and commit all to the mercy of the enemy.
The sea was high, and I knew that the coast was full of hidden rocks so that our vessel could not hope to come near land before being torn into fragments. I tried to persuade the Captain to try the mercy of the enemy rather than lose his own life and those of so many brave men. He would not listen, and so I decided I had to shift for myself.
I concealed my jewels in my sleeve, harnessed the Gansas to my engine and climbed onto it, trusting (as indeed it happily fell out) that when the ship split my birds would not wait for their white sheet signal and would think to save their own lives and take off towards the land. When the carrack struck a rock and split, I loosened my birds’ reins and at the shock of the impact they all rose and carried me to land on the Island of Tenerife.
Now, I had pitched upon that part of the island where their famous high mountain El Pico begins to rise, and the slopes of this country are inhabited by a savage kind of people. Hours after my landing, they spied me, and, thinking me a great prize, made for me as fast as they could bearing long staves and weapons. Dear Reader, I knew that they were intent on cutting me into a thousand pieces.
I spied a white cliff on the side of the mountain which I hoped my Gansas might see as a signal and take off towards so that I might escape, so as quickly as I could, I put myself back on my engine and loosed the reins of the Gansas and they all took off in one direction. But what then? Prick up your ears, prepare yourself to listen to the strangest chance that ever fell to any mortal man!
My Gansas, like so many horses with the bit between their teeth, made not towards the cliff I’d aimed at but took me to the top of El Pico – some fifteen leagues above the level of the sea. When we set down, my poor Gansas fell to panting and blowing and gasping for breath so that I was afraid they might die. I thought it best to not trouble them for a while and had no notion of what would follow.
It was now the season that these Gansas were wont to take their flight away for the winter and I realised later that they must have been mindful of their usual voyage. As I prepared to unharness them they rose up, and having no higher place from the mountain top to make toward, to my unspeakable fear and amazement they struck bolt upright – and never left soaring up and up for the space of one whole hour. Towards the end of this time I saw that they were labouring less and less until – O incredible thing! – they stopped moving their wings but remained in the air as steady as if they were on so many perches. The reins slackened, but neither the engine nor I moved at all, merely stayed still as if we had no manner of weight. I found then by this experience that which no philosopher had ever dreamed of: that those things that we call ‘heavy’ do not sink towards the centre of the Earth but rather are drawn by a secret property of the globe of the Earth, just as lodestone draws iron. This was indeed a wonderful thing to know, but, O Reader, what magic there was to come!
Bishop Godwin is brought back to land by his servant’s step on the stairs. It is a surprise, to hear the creaks and groans of the old house breaking into the activities of the day when he is so far away. He thinks of Gonsales and Diego signalling across the bay and wonders whether he has wasted his God-given brain and its capacity for invention – for how might this system have helped armies to win battles and save lives? He feels his shoulders tense and shrugs to ease them. His gut is large and heavy, and he thinks what a thing it must be to soar free of this earth and fly. He closes his eyes and drifts up until he is high on a mountain, lashed to a device balanced on the snowy summit. He feels frost nip his nose and the beating of swans’ wings fills the thin pale air.