Jakome’s tiny kingdom occupied a strategic position in a contentious Europe. Buffeted by hulking neighbors, Spain to the south, France to the north, it was peopled by a tribe that claimed to be in a pristine pre-Visigoth state. The peoples of the lowlands, overrun again and again, were mongrels. The Navarrese considered that they conserved the undiluted blood of, according to legend, the offspring of Tubal, son of Japeth and Noah’s (the Noah) grandson.
This was the mountainous territory to which the first Iberians had been driven by multiple waves of invaders. It had intermittently been subdued by foreign forces, but the people had never reconciled themselves to outside governance.1 Belligerence was their birthright, but active resistance did not suit them; their revolt consisted of pugnacious inertia. In the end, it was not worth the effort necessary to bludgeon them into a true submission.
At this time the political situation was benign. The annexation of Haute-Navarre by Castile (not yet Spain; a whole-peninsula patria was not yet a fact, though it was on the monarch’s wish list) would have added little to Phillip’s wealth, and he had his hands full courting more desirable hold-outs.
France, a far more centralizing and homogenizing state, was divided into more than twenty provinces and sovereign territories. French unification was proceeding apace, but the Gallic way was to expand through dynastic alliance and that possibility seemed comfortingly remote. Prince Bittor could in no way be considered a ‘catch’ for the mighty Valois.
A harsh climate and a thin soil provided a poor living; the economy was built on sheep: wool, sheared, spun, and woven into cloth, and on the item for which the region was best known, its ewe’s milk cheese. The only city, a settlement of five thousand defiantly situated on the side of a precipitous hill, was a warren of cramped, gable-roofed houses and narrow streets. An upper town and a lower town, held together and also separated by a system of walls, housed a crafty populace – you never lost the feeling of being watched from behind every curtain – who greeted you and cheated you with the same show of hearty welcome.
They communicated with a great deal of gesticulation, seeming to convey what they would not suffer to be plainly spoken, affording them the opportunity to un-say what had never been clearly articulated. A visitor often gained an impression of approval and agreement, only later to understand that no accord had been achieved. This was a place to be gotten to, and gotten through, unless you had business to conduct. Everything was too close together, except when it was too far apart. There were better places to be than in the wind-battered hills of Haute-Navarre. For the inhabitants, it was all they knew, and all they cared to know. It was home.
The notion that Haute-Navarre was lusted after by the adjoining giants had a grip on the national soul that would not be relaxed by any amount of rational rebuttal. Foreigners were suspected spies (why else would they be there?) and every innkeep tried to sell information to perplexed patrons, while simultaneously badgering them for loose-lipped intelligence. The nobility followed suit, only demanding a vastly higher price. The king himself was above the game but, due to his odd behaviors, was reckoned (by neophyte diplomats, not by old hands) a master at it.
His interactions were erratic, composed one minute, shockingly disputatious the next. One ambassador wrote home in frustration: “When I see him engaged against any person whatsoever, I wish myself in Calcutta.”2 All of this, of course, is no more than an amusing footnote to the more dangerous animosities of the day.
Actually, the fear of being stripped of their autonomy was validated by certain distressing behaviors. The eastern branch of the predatory house of Hapsburg, based in Austria, was always trying to nibble at French territory by means of secret alliances or sudden, petite invasions. The equally greedy Spanish branch had the same policies, to create small sovereignties within nominally French territory which would be in reality fiefs of the Spanish crown.3 (Spain, far more laissez-faire in dealing with its constituent parts, would have been the preferable, though still irksome, master.) So far, Haute-Navarre had been let be as a haven to which traitors might withdraw while they negotiated a pardon for their latest crime, and as a neutral site in which a risky proposal might be advanced quietly.
France and Spain were both hereditary enemies of England, but Spain posed the graver threat. The crown of Castile housed nearly eighty percent of the inhabitants of the peninsula and, fueled by treasure from New Spain, Spanish America, had become an imperial powerhouse the like of which the world had never seen. Sly held his nose and pushed for counterweight ties to Paris. [He was glad to claim kinship with Castile4 when it suited him. Spain claimed to be “the most enlightened region of the world,” a hotbed of scholarship producing innumerable important written works. He counted himself among the letrados, the lettered elite. Sadly, he did not live to see the publication of the greatest of Spanish novels, Don Quixote, in 1605.]5
The expansionist rivals concurred on this: the English were not only heretics, they were masters of artifice, to the detriment of stable relations with their European cousins. Diplomats gossiped freely about strategies for an overdue comeuppance. It was an open secret that Spain was preparing to invade the British Isles. The question was how, when, and where.
Sly was subjected to diatribes against his homeland and was forbidden by the king to respond to them. Beneath his veneer of sophistication he was pure, insular English. When he could take no more knocks, he would grumble to Jakome, “I have a tongue in my head, I guess, and I guess I know how to use it.”
The king would admonish him, “You have a brain in your head also, and a good one. It cannot but instruct your tongue to lie still.” And the cat, although spitting mad, would hold his temper and make nice with men he detested.
- Haute-Navarre is fictitious, although the country of Navarre did exist in this period.
- This comment was made about Elizabeth I by ‘a French ambassador’ according to several sources.
- These remarks are scavenged from one or another bio of Henry of Navarre, which are currently boxed up in my crawl space. I’ll dig out a title by and by.
- Historically correct or not, from here on I refer to the conglomerate kingdom as Spain.
- Sly spoke excellent Spanish. Basque was the language of home and hearth, and of the judiciary, but Spanish was the parlance of intellectual life even here. Speaking of Spain by Antonio Feros, Harvard University Press, 2017.