It is 1771 and the world’s greatest power, the rising British Empire, is facing problems at home and abroad. Its traditional allies in Europe, fearful of its wealth and ambitions, have turned against it, while across the Atlantic the protests of its colonies against its clumsy use of its power are getting harder to ignore.

James Rassendyll, the young papist earl of Burlesdon, may be one of the wealthiest of his class, but he lives a life excluded from public service and office because of his religion. Now as King George’s government finds itself at a loss in dealing with the powers of Europe an unexpected and irresistible opportunity is offered him, to take up a senior diplomatic post for his king in the Holy Roman Empire, where his religion is a qualification and not a disability. He has however other qualifications, and one of those is his parentage. For across the border from his new embassy in Munich is the Kingdom of Ruritania, where he knows he should not go, but he and his young staff are sucked into its mysterious life all the same, and powers beyond their comprehension will use them – and even the great empire they represent – as their tools in an even greater struggle.

In The Service Of Princes


James Rassendyll handed over his shotgun and game bag to his butler as he entered the Hall. It registered as he did so that the man Wilkins was looking agitated, something a servant of his experience rarely ever did. James took a mental breath.

‘My lord,’ Wilkins began, ‘your foreign gentleman ...’

‘Oh God! What’s he done now?’

‘Nothing er … explosive, my lord. Not this time. But he decided to ignore your warning about Yapley Mere.’


‘He took a flat boat from the hythe out on to the broads after breakfast with no more than a lad from the stables. It was just after you went out. He’s not back and lunch is ready to serve.’

James groaned. ‘Oh … dammit! I’d forget lunch were I you, Wilkins. Once he’s off in the wild any distractions – like tonight’s ball for instance – will conveniently slip his mind, even though I told him it was specially got up in his honour. We’ll have to go looking for him. Who knows the mere best amongst the gardeners? Send down to Lacock the bailiff and have a party put together and tell them to find another boat. I’ll meet them down by Stalham Broad outside the park on the Yarmouth road and we’ll search from there.’

James watched Wilkins’s stolid figure disappear with his game bag in the direction of the kitchens and once he he’d turned the corner let out his irritation with an explosive ‘God Almighty!’ Then he subsided into another sigh and collared a passing footman. He asked for a coffee to be sent in the drawing room, along with his least best clothes. He stood at the parlour windows while he waited, sipping from the new porcelain service, East India Company wares arrived from Greenwich only that week, white with little blue mandarins and their ladies on tiny wooden bridges amongst pagodas.

An hour later, as the bell of Burlesdon church rang out for noon across the misty fields, James strolled down to the jetty of Stalham Broad, at the edge of his park. A group of estate workers hunched their shoulders and put their knuckles to their foreheads in the customary rural salute and ducked their heads to his lordship, the fifth earl of Burlesdon.

‘Well now, you men. Are we all set? That you, Stephenson? Excellent. One of my guests has gone astray in Yapley Mere. He’s overdue and I rather fear for his safety, him and the stable lad he persuaded to accompany him.’

Stephenson, the water-bailiff of Hickling Hundred, scratched his head. ‘What were he a-doin’ orf, me lord? No place to wander into ... not an’ expect to wander out orf arterwards anyways.’

‘Indeed. The man’s something of an enthusiast on the subject of plants, and the temptation of what bizarre species he might find in our marshlands here was simply too much for him. I believe he is able to swim, at least.’

Stephenson shook his head sadly. ‘Warn’t help him none, me lord, not an’ he wanders into the Salley Mire.’

The party of five clambered aboard the flat-bedded skiff, two men taking the poles and Stephenson directing their way. It was a grey day in May, and the morning fog still lingered, coiling through the reed beds. The sun was no more than a pale disk glimpsed through overhanging willows and shreds of mist, and the air struck chill. Burlesdon Hall stood dramatically on a last green rise before East Anglia sank into the threaded watercourses and pools of the Norfolk Broads, which stretched east of the Hall for eight miles before you reached the shingle beaches and cold waters of the German Ocean, which could be seen glinting on the horizon from the upper galleries of the Hall. Canals and dykes were beginning to tame the Broads in some parts of the county, but not here in Yapley Mere, which the Burlesdon estate valued for its duck shooting and reed beds and so made a point of conserving.

The mere was a dreary place in such a mood, and James found it uncannily quiet that day, apart from the occasional creaking bark of moorfowl from the reeds and the clatter of ducks startled into flight from their hiding places.

‘Should have brought my gun,’ James grumbled to himself.

‘There sir! A boat,’ called out a man from the front. Out of the mist appeared a smaller skiff with a single figure in it, the stable boy, who hailed them with what appeared to be great relief.

‘Ah sirs! Thank God.’

‘Where’s the Dutch gentleman?’ James called over.

‘He went orf wading into the mere a while agone, me lord! Left his clothes, went over the side and just headed down that a-way with a bag slung over his shoulder.’

‘What! The damnable ...!’ James snarled, as his men exchanged glances while Stephenson rolled his eyes and shrugged.

‘He’s heading towards the mire then, me lord,’ he observed meaningfully.

‘Then let’s get after him,’ barked the earl.

Their skiff got under way and coasted on through the mist. ‘Henry!’ James began to call out, occasionally varying it with an ‘Answer, damn your eyes!’

Eventually Stephenson exclaimed ‘Over there, me lord!’

James peered into the mist and caught a patch of red among the reeds, which as the skiff approached proved to be the flaming head of hair of a man up to his waist in water, intent on something beyond the reed bed.

As the skiff rattled into the reeds, the man turned, apparently bemused. ‘Ach, lieber Jimmy, was machst du hier, wie spät ist es?

‘Goddammit, Heinz. It’s well past noon. We wondered where in hell you were. Didn’t I warn you about this place?’

The man gathered himself, shifting to English. ‘And you didn’t say half enough, dear fellow. This is a ... a wonderland!’ He looked blissfully around him at the grey waters, the dripping trees and dank wreaths of mist. ‘Here, look Jimmy!’ He indicated a strange growth along the sediment of the bank, looking like nothing other than a pile of green velvety play balls. ‘It’s Cladophora aegagropila!’ he declared. ‘I have no idea what you English call it. But it’s the same as old Knowlton discovered in your province of Yorkshire some forty years ago. What wonders there are on your very doorstep!’

‘Mossballs,’ contributed a deeply amused Mr Stephenson.

Ach so!’ the German nodded. ‘Mossballs. That is your country name. I must make a note of that, thank you sir. Now, shall I take a cutting?’ he mused.

‘Well, when you’ve made up your mind, perhaps we can get back to the Hall, Heinz!’

‘Hmm? Ah yes. Your fête this evening. Lieber Jimmy, shouldn’t you be back there making arrangements to stun your guests with your hospitality rather than out here running after me? No matter. Perhaps I have enough for today, but I must be back here tomorrow. We do not have places such as this wondrous fen back home, you know. And what do you call it in your barbarous dialect? A ... bog! I expect familiarity has produced indifference to its marvels amongst your people, but I must be here again tomorrow.’

‘I’ll be most glad to assist the gentleman, sir,’ smiled Stephenson.

James let out a long sigh. ‘That would relieve my anxiety considerably.’


As he waited for his guest of honour in the front morning room, James took the opportunity to further distract himself from his anxieties by talking to his estates steward, for more was at issue this evening than his social duty to what James called his ‘country’, the area of the county of Norfolk where the Rassendyll landed interest was dominant, between Happisburgh on the coast and the market town of Walsham.

James knew he was lucky to have attracted the man’s services as his steward. Reginald Cubbit was from a local gentry family. He had taken his degree at Cambridge and had a small property of his own towards Norwich. A whole aisle full of dead Cubbits were buried in Epworth Church where a dozen wall monuments going back to Queen Elizabeth’s glorious reign praised their virtues and orthodox piety. Land speculation was already even bck then then in the Cubbit blood. The first Cubbit had made his fortune buying up at a discount the fields, houses, mills and woodland formerly belonging to several small Norfolk monasteries grabbed by the officers of King Henry VIII for their master.

Estate improvements were the obsession of Reginald Cubbit, esquire, of Priory Manor, East Walsham. All the man thought and talked of – dreamed of too, James wouldn’t be surprised to learn – was the enclosure of commons, the digging of canals and experimentation in crop rotation. He was quite fierce on the virtues of turnips and clover. Cubbit was never happier than when he was raising petitions to parliament, chairing agricultural associations and stumping across fields with parties of land surveyors. He had been a justice of the peace on the bench of the Norfolk Quarter Sessions since he was 23 years of age. So though he was James’s employee and man of business – and, he had to admit, not the most amusing of company – Cubbit the estate steward was nonetheless an educated man, a gentleman of substance and perfectly fit for that evening’s company.

‘So, Reggie dear fellow, a good turn out is coming tonight, I believe?’

‘Full capacity, my lord. There’s some interest in your Dutch guest. I take it that “His Excellency the Count of Elphberg” is simply his travelling name. A dip into the copy of the Almanach de Gotha they have in the Norwich subscription library told me there was no such dignity in the Holy Roman Empire, or anywhere else for that matter. The ladies are intrigued.’

‘Oh, Heinz prefers to travel light in the matter of dignity. He’s a bona fide royal highness, the younger son of His Majesty the King of Ruritania, so the ladies have every right to be intrigued.’

‘And how did you get to know such a man, my lord?’

‘It was at Oxford, Reggie. Prince Henry turned up from Tübingen for a year’s study in ’63, and we shared rooms at St John’s. We got on somehow, though God knows we have little obviously in common. Still, I suppose he more than anyone is responsible for one of the problems we’re experiencing here.’

‘How’s that, my lord?’

‘His lot are Catholics, Reggie, and he attended the house of refugee Jesuits in Osney when we were at St Johns. I went along and ... well, you know the rest. So here I am an earl of high estate and dignity but unable to hold any office or sit with my peers in parliament, which of course removes me from any influence in the affairs of our nation. Just now I could regret my youthful idealism, when we need to push through the bill for the enclosure of Stalham Common, and many of the commoners ain’t too enamoured on principle with me, the papist earl of Burlesdon. So tonight we have to woo and charm the Protestant squires of Hickling Hundred, and even poor Heinz needs to play his part. He can be very charming, y’know.’

‘His English is excellent for a Dutchman.’

‘He prefers to be called a “German” but don’t get him on that subject. He’s quite the linguist is Heinz, and he’ll tell you his Ruritania is not a German realm in any case, but Rothenian. It’s something of a bee in his bonnet. His bonnet quite buzzes with them, by the way.’

After Cubbit took himself off to monitor the flavoured ices, pineapples and other hothouse fruit which were being laid on for what was quite an ambitious buffet that evening, James shook his head as he recalled and listed to himself the many other reasons why Prince Henry of Ruritania and his family had complicated his life. As he looked in the tall mirror above the morning room’s mantelpiece, he removed the grey periwig he customarily wore, to uncover a head of flame-red hair, the exact shade of Prince Henry’s.


‘Well Jimmy, lieber Freund, what a pleasant evening! A most agreeable neighbourhood you have, and every one of those delightful young ladies wanted to be the countess of Burlesdon.’

‘Not every one, but I suspect most of the unmarried ones under thirty had their hopes, which I do not share.’

‘Why on earth haven’t you got marriage out of the way, yet? You’ll never avoid it, you know. There have to be more Rassendylls.’

‘And what about you?’ James rolled his eyes.

‘Oh, there are schemes. Vater is in negotiation with several Catholic princes with spare daughters. He rather favours Italy, since Mutta has so many contacts there. So Ferdy got married off to Beatrice d’Este, and they’re looking in the same direction for me. But with Ferdy no longer an anxiety, or at least that sort of anxiety, there’s no pressure on me.’

‘What’s up with Ferdinand then?’

‘He’s carrying on an unhealthy relationship with a different sort of love. That spell at the Prussian court did him no favours, and he and old Fritz became all too friendly. Vater of course wears a uniform well, but there’s nothing of the soldier in his soul. So our Ferdinand has become a very German military prince and rather fancies himself as the true successor of Henry the Lion. But he’s no cherven Elphberg.’

‘No what?’

Henry took a turn at rolling his eyes. ‘Jimmy my dear, you really should try to be more of a Ruritanian. It’s a Rothenian phrase much beloved of the common folk. Ferdy is no “Red Elphberg”, as our grandfather was. He’s a Black Elphberg, and they do not catch the national imagination.’

‘Unlike you, Heinz.’

Henry shot James a sharp glance. ‘And not just me, mein lieber Bruder.’

The pair were leaning on the balustrade of the rear terrace of the Hall in the cool of the early morning, the house still brilliantly lit up behind them, though the last of the guests had departed. There was a long pause before James replied.

‘Heinz my dear, the scandal of my birth is not unknown in my country, but few know the facts and no one talks of it. That we have the same father has brought me one huge benefit, which is the fact we are brothers, but other than that nothing. I cannot forget that the fourth earl of Burlesdon did a very decent thing when he asserted paternity of me on his deathbed, though he knew very well the child growing in my mother’s belly was not his own. I honour the man’s memory.

‘I never met him of course, and that’s largely because it was meeting my real father on Hounslow Heath in ’44 that was the death of him, not by sword stroke to be sure, but from pneumonia from a chill he caught that in the mists of that early January morning. So I may well be the son of King Rudolf III of Ruritania, but so far as the Court of Chancery is concerned I am the lawful offspring of George James Rassendyll, Earl of Burlesdon, Viscount Lowestoft and Baron Rassendyll in the peerage of England. And that’s the way it must be.’

The Ruritanian took his brother’s hand. ‘Our father is not without conscience on the subject, Jimmy. He knows we met at Oxford in ’63 and not infrequently since. He’s happy that we do, and somehow he gets to know about you, from me and others. He truly loved your mother you know. Masses were said for her at the royal abbey of Medeln after she died at Brighton two years ago, even though I do not believe she was Catholic.’

‘Mother was the hero in all this, she rode out the scandal and imputations, brought me up and made quite the success of my long minority. In fact she left me one of the wealthiest earls in England.’

‘Quite the queen of Ruritania she would have been, if the position had not already been occupied, for I was growing in my mother’s womb at the same time as you were in hers. I wonder how she would have got on with my dear Aunt Osra, the reddest of all the Elphbergs in more ways than one? You two should meet you know.’

James laughed. ‘I can assure you, Heinz, visiting Strelsau is the very last thing on my mind. Enough of this. Everything that could be said between us on the subject has been said. I should be more worried about the match between the gentlemen of Walsham and the gentlemen of Yarmouth on Stalham Common tomorrow. My guests at this evening’s ball were full of it.’

‘Ah yes. The cricket. And on that fine stretch of heath which you so wish to do away with. You have no conscience so far as the natural world is concerned, you English. I take it the purse of twenty guineas you’re offering to the winner is just another transparent attempt to win popularity amongst the minor nobility of this province?’


‘Do you know, Jimmy, had it occurred to you that these attempts to fit in may just hint that you don’t feel entirely at home here in your comfortable England with its beef, beer and plum pudding?’


One of Prince Henry’s many eccentricities was his willingness to travel without servants. ‘Do you actually have a household, Heinz?’ James laughed at him as his carriage bore them smoothly past Newmarket along the new turnpike from Norwich to London.

‘What is so amusing, Jimmy? A grandson and namesake of Henry the Lion had no choice but to be commissioned into the Kungliche Leibgarde at the age of fifteen, and as an ensign and lieutenant I found the standards of military servants criminally incompetent, as well as criminal. I was astonished how the lower orders make free with their master’s possessions and expect to get away with it. So I took care of my own horse and gear. The men, I found, respected me all the more for it. Then when I headed off to Tübingen I took no servant with me, and didn’t notice the lack. In the world outside there are laundries, barbers, inns, livery stables and cookshops all there to meet a man’s needs.’

‘But Heinz! A prince who polishes his own boots! Don’t you have a house back in Ruritania?’

‘As it happens, I don’t. I have a suite in the Marmorpalast of Strelsau, which the royal household looks after, and I work in the libraries of the Rudolf University and the Strelsau Residenz when I’m at home. I expect that once the marriage question is resolved there will be a settlement for the sake of any children, but till then I am a happy, vagrant prince. Mind you, it would be nice to have somewhere to put my books. Currently I’m storing them in the Palais du Bâtard.’

‘The ... where?’

‘The former house of one of our relatives, my dear. Wilhelm, count of Strelsau, a scandalous bastard child of our great-grandfather Rudolf II’s sister, the Princess Sophia Charlotte, who ended her days as abbess of Medeln. Old Willi died some twenty years back without heirs, and his estate on the Altstadt reverted to the Crown. The house has been mostly empty since, and I have some hopes of eventually getting hold of it myself. It’s a pretty little place just up from the famous Fenizenhaus of Strelsau, the same architect designed both I believe.’

‘Do you actually have an income, Heinz?’

‘Oh yes. I am a charge on the State, which votes me an annual subsidy rather more generous than my needs require. I imagine it’s pitiful compared to your resources, however.’

‘You’d have to talk to my man Cubbit about that. But the third earl bought heavily into East India stock and it’s paying handsomely still, though our properties in Kensington are rivalling it these days. Then there’s the profits of the estates in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, which remain high with the price of corn the way it is. Cubbit is consolidating our former leaseholds into large farms at high rents. You should talk to him about it, he’ll be joining us in London. That’s why he’s so intent on abolishing the old common fields in our manors and enclosing any common he can prove I have rights to. Mother on the other hand was interested in stock companies when she had the running of the estate, and so I own shares in shipping and canal companies, mines in Sweden and a whole portfolio of miscellaneous investments. All good, but it makes me vulnerable the way things are.’

‘Vulnerable? How so?’

‘When I came into the estate in ’65 and converted to Catholicism I opened myself up to all sorts of disabilities. I pay a double land tax, which irritates poor Cubbit no end, and he’s had to compound for an exemption with the Chancery to frustrate wilful and baseless prosecutions by ill-wishers. I am the wealthiest Catholic peer in the land by far and so quite a target for the ill-disposed and anti-papist. I am as a result a great benefactor of the legal profession.’

Henry shook his head. ‘The few Lutherans in our Catholic realm have it a lot easier.’

James snorted. ‘It puts some shade round the edges of what they mean by “the liberties of a freeborn Englishman” to be sure. Fortunately my fellow peers in parliament have been scandalised enough to promote a bill to prevent this sort of thing happening, which gives me some hope of better times. So tell me Heinz, what do you propose doing in London?’

‘It’s the usual, Jimmy, books and plants. King George is a scholar of sorts, I hear, so I have hopes that the King’s Library will be opened to me and his famous garden of Kew House too perhaps. The collections of exotic flora there are astonishing, I’m told.’

‘There’s not much other reason to be in London at the end of June, dear fellow,’ James chuckled. ‘Parliament’s gone to the country and the season’s long over. It’s only this enclosure business that brings me down here, for the lawyers are still in their chambers. Are you looking for an audience with the king? He’ll be out at Windsor.’

‘I don’t think that will be a good idea. We Elphbergs have no happy history with the Guelfs. Grandfather’s fault of course. He offered sympathy and hospitality to the old Stuart pretender when the French turned against him. He recognised the poor fellow as King James III and VIII of Great Britain for over a decade. Vater had a lot of ground to make up with the court of St James when he came to the throne.

‘And another consequence of that misstep was your good self, dear fellow. That’s why Vater was in London. He met your mother on an embassy to London in grandfather’s last year after his stroke, when Vater was Prince Regent of Ruritania. That was before she married the fourth earl, and it was quite the grand passion in its day, the great love of his life I believe, but she was promised to Burlesdon and the marriage went ahead. But Vater was back in England both in state and incognito several times in the early forties. They couldn’t keep away from each other. And so you were conceived. Tragic but how do they say nowadays? Ah yes … very “romantic”.’

James sighed. ‘They corresponded right up to her death, you know. I was going to ask you what to do with the letters she had from our father. They never met again after ’44, but they did find ways to exchange letters. I say, you must stay with me in London, Heinz. Park Lane’s just a few minutes’ walk from the Queen’s House where I believe the king keeps his books.’

The prince laughed. ‘Of course I’ll stay with you, lieber Jimmy. The alternative is quartering myself on our ambassador, and I failed to notify the good Graf von Kornburg that I was in England. He would be most upset at the discourtesy. It could lead to quite a frosty stay.’


Burlesdon House on Park Lane had been built as a marriage gift for the late Dowager Countess Frances, as her son sadly reflected. He did not find it a congenial or happy house, and his brother scoffed at the sparsely filled shelves of its library.

‘It’s been barely lived in, Heinz,’ he replied. ‘Mother hated the place, she took it as an accusation. There was no call for it until I came of age, but then I went papist and that made the London season for me something of a hollow joke. Still the address has its uses. We can go to the chapel of the Bavarian mission for mass this Sunday! It’s just down Warwick Street. And look!’ He waved around one of his newsheets laid out on the reception room console. ‘The Advertiser says Johann Bach is still offering Saturday evening concerts in Hanover Square. Don’t you rather venerate the man’s late father?’

‘A god to all organists, Jimmy. I must make use of your harpsichord here. I hope it’s been tuned. I’m out of practice on keyboards. It will be my first purchase whenever I get my own house, believe me.’

James laughed as he rang for Wilkins, who had travelled down from Norfolk with them in what amounted to a cavalcade of three carriages, with outriders and grooms. It was not for show, but because the London house was empty of servants other than a caretaker, and so a domestic staff of cook, maids and footmen had to travel down with the earl. He left Henry to his own devices and made an inspection of the principal rooms of the house.

‘The place is getting to be dilapidated, Wilkins,’ he judged.

‘Yes, my lord. But we don’t retain enough staff here to do more than dust the rooms. I notice damp on the walls of the dormer rooms, and broken panes. Pigeons were nesting in one room. They quite startled a maid I sent upstairs with bedding.’

As they returned to the entrance hall from their tour of inspection, the butler presented James with a silver tray on which was stacked a surprising number of cartes d’adresse. ‘When did these arrive, Wilkins?’

‘The Daily Advertiser announced your arrival in the city yesterday, my lord. There were several cards here before we even arrived, and a number of others were left early this morning.’

James sorted through the cards as he went to rejoin Henry, who was frowning at the harpsichord as he tapped several keys and listened to the response. ‘I seem surprisingly popular in the capital,’ he remarked. ‘I suppose the arrival of an earl when most of the peerage is going in the other direction would be noticed.’

He took a chair at the library desk and sorted them into two piles, the ones needing no more than a return card in acknowledgement and the others a handwritten signature, which was an invitation to the recipient to turn up in person. He rang for his writing case.

‘Good heavens!’ he called over to Henry. ‘Here’s a one! And damn me if he’s not scribbled a few words on it too.’

‘What’s that, Jimmy?’

‘Lord Rochford’s sent around his card.’

‘And what’s special about that particular lord?’

‘He’s His Majesty’s Secretary of State for the Southern Department.’

‘Ah. A sort of Foreign Minister, yes? D’you know the feller?’

‘Never met him.’ James took on an apprehensive look. ‘Oh dear. It might well mean he knows you’re in town, Heinz. His department deals with the Catholic powers. Here, take a look.’

Eyebrows raised, the prince scrutinised the card. He shook his head. ‘No, I think my incognito is intact. The Advertiser didn’t announce me in any of my guises. The Count of Elphberg remains a figure of dark mystery in this foreign land. Look what he’s written: Wishing to meet at your soonest convenience. R. It’s you he wants to see, and it appears he’ll even come to Park Lane for the privilege. Best reply at once. Perhaps it’s about the Catholic relief bill. Not that he can solicit your vote in the Lords, as you have none.’

‘True, but on the other hand I do have one means to influence the government, though I’ve not used it to date. Cubbit was saying it’s why the Lord Chancellor was happy to compound on the matter of prosecutions on such easy terms. Such is our eccentric system of governance in these islands that a suspect papist peer controls ten parliamentary seats in East Anglia and the Midlands, and the Tories would not like it if I swung my weight behind the opposition. Ironic eh?’


William Nassau de Zuyelestein, 4th earl of Rochford, Secretary of State for the Southern Department, was apparently an amiable soul, with a gift for putting people at ease. Prince Henry made himself scarce and went to feed the ducks in St James’s Park, ‘... which, dear brother, I much prefer to shooting them dead and piling up mounds of the poor creatures, as you do.’

After a good deal of amiable conversation over coffee about the season just past, the present state of the court and the doings of common acquaintances, Rochford eventually put down his cup and said ‘Now Burlesdon, I expect you’re wondering what brought me to your doors, eh?’

‘I was assuming, sir, there was more to it than a social call. Am I to understand that it’s my interest in parliament you wish to discuss?’

The older man pursed his lips. ‘Acute sir, acute. I will confess that the ministry would feel somewhat more secure were your friends in the Commons informed of your good feeling towards Lord North.’

‘You would be more sure of it, sir, were I happier with his lordship’s willingness to see the disabilities imposed on those of my faith relaxed.’

‘Blunt sir, blunt,’ Rochford smiled ruefully. ‘The king however has his views, and the defence of Protestantism is one principle he requires of his ministers. However, you will observe that the prime minister has not endeavoured to prevent the bill going forward, even if perhaps he cannot speak out openly on the issue. Politics is about what is possible, my lord. However that is not in fact why I’m here.’

‘Er … really?’ James was momentarily taken aback.

‘No sir. It’s not your helping the ministry which is on my mind so much as how you may help your country.’

‘Please go on, sir.’

‘I thank you for your patience, my lord. I know you’re a well-informed man, Burlesdon, and so you will know something of the present state of Europe. Let me summarise, and then I’ll explain to you how you can help. Now you’ll know Great Britain came out very well from the late war. We stripped the French of their colonies, and our Prussian ally did quite as well in Germany. So much to the good, but it’s left us in something of a quandary. Our former allies see us perhaps as no longer a friend, but a future threat, and it’s becoming infernally difficult to restore any favourable balance on the continent and set up new alliances of interest.

‘My predecessors did their best but we’ve found that since ’63 we cannot strike up any useful new coalition. In the old days it was easy enough. Everyone feared and hated the Bourbons. But now it seems they fear and hate us. It keeps me awake at night, Burlesdon, it really does. You may recall the business over the Falklands last year, when the Spanish seized the islands.’

‘Yes indeed, sir,’ James replied.

‘I was Northern Secretary last year,’ Rochford continued, ‘and the Falklands should come within the Southern department, but His Majesty was kind enough to defer to me on the subject. Weymouth, who was then supposedly in charge – and please note my frankness – is an indolent scoundrel who is now out of the ministry, thank God. The point is that I had been ambassador to Spain in my younger days and I knew that the family alliance between the Bourbons of Paris and the Bourbons of Madrid was not as monolithic as it appeared. So we prepared a war fleet and recalled our man from Spain. When King Louis dragged his heels about responding in his Spanish cousin’s support Madrid became rather less militant about holding on to the islands. And in January they finally backed down, both sides disarmed and the Spanish sailed away, leaving us in charge of those grey, cold and distant islands, much good may they do us.

‘So all well and good, but it did bring home to the ministry many of our present weaknesses, and I don’t just mean our lack of reliable allies. One of them is our poor intelligence about many parts of Europe, Spain of course, but Italy and the southern states of the Empire are particularly ill-served. Yet if we are to build up a new alliance, the Empire is one of those areas where we must exert ourselves, especially now Prussia quite plainly is no longer our friend. With me so far, young man?’

‘Yes sir, but how does this concern me?’

Rochford settled back in his armchair and stared at James for a few moments. ‘The thing is this, sir. I now currently run both departments of state and in effect I am sole Foreign minister in the cabinet. His Majesty and Lord North have granted me a year to reform our diplomatic service, and I am earnestly looking for men of weight and promise who can raise our game in the dangerous years ahead of us.’ He paused and his stare became more intense. ‘How, my lord, does the prospect of becoming your country’s envoy to the Elector of Bavaria and the Imperial Diet strike you?’


‘My goodness!’ exclaimed Henry when James explained the nature of the interview. ‘Du lieber Himmel! But you’re a Catholic and you told me you cannot swear the necessary oaths, were you to accept the offer.’

‘Which was the first point I made to Rochford, of course. But it seems that when the government wishes to turn a blind eye to the disability it can, especially when the recusant earl in question controls ten seats in the House. The ministry will quietly push an unopposed act of indemnity through parliament, allowing the king to consent to the appointment without requiring the oath of me, should he agree.’

‘Should he agree? Hasn’t he consented?’

‘There are apparently reservations on his part. He was set against the appointment being at the level of ambassador, and argued that I should be appointed simply as envoy extraordinary. That way I would be the government’s representative and not the sovereign’s. The ministry pointed out that an earl could not accept a lesser appointment than ambassador without an unacceptable loss of face.’

‘Quite right! So I assume insisting on the demotion was the king’s way of trying to make it impossible for you to take up the ministry’s offer of the position in Bavaria.’

‘I think it was his first gambit, but he compromised after it was explained to him that Bavaria would be the lowest ranked of the ambassadorships. So I can be ambassador but I’m not to expect the Order of the Bath.’

‘You couldn’t take it anyway as a Catholic.’

‘Ah yes, but like others of our faith I may be offered the minor distinction of Knight Bachelor, which can be accepted as a secular honour, like a medal, and the king does not have to administer it.’

Henry gave his brother a considering look. ‘So your appointment may yet happen, and I see that you want it to, Jimmy.’

‘I suppose I do. I’m twenty-seven years of age, Heinz, and I have decades of public uselessness ahead of me in this country. It’s depressing. But this is a way that I can make some use of the good fortune that life has put my way and justify myself to me – and a very harsh critic he is too.’

‘Good, Jimmy. I approve of course. And I’m sure the wildlife on your estates will be delighted you’ve found something to do other than stack their shot-riddled bodies in pyramids. You can count on my help, and you’ve now given me every excuse to make a stay in England through this summer. I shall write to Vater with the news. He’ll be intrigued I do not doubt. You’ll be just the other side of the River Ebrendt from him. You’ll be well placed to visit us in Ruritania, you know.’

‘Hmm. And that’s a thing too. Rochford made a quite open reference to my “close family connections” in that part of Europe, as he was remarking on my advantages for the post, that and my ability to speak German, French and Italian. I chose not to follow up that remark, just complimented my mother’s upbringing, the expense she went to find tutors and her refusal to send me to Eton College, for which I remain very grateful having met the results of such an education when we were at Oxford.’

‘Still, the fact that Rochford plainly regards your parentage and religion as qualifications for the post cannot be other than good, and to me it betrays a government which wants to distance itself as far as it can from the prejudice and enmity of a dark past. I am hopeful. For the sake of your fellow Catholics you must take it up.’

‘I am determined to, and I will resist feeling slighted by the king’s evident desire to keep his new ambassador at arm’s length. I shall have to go out to Windsor to kiss the royal hand in due course. I wonder if it will be done at a private audience? Rochford says it will be early in the new year, after parliament opens at the end of January, so I have six months to get myself ready.

‘It’s up to me how much I’ll spend on the embassy above the government subsidy, which is I think another reason the ministry looked towards me. It’s accepted that missions to foreign capitals depend for their success on the vanity of their ambassadors and their willingness to subsidise their households at their own expense. Wealthy peers can do that and also compliment the self-importance of their foreign hosts. So I must think about staff and servants beyond what the government will pay for. I must cut a dash.’

Henry laughed. ‘So what then? Luxurious carriages, Worcester porcelain, silverware, all created specially for Lord Burlesdon’s celebrated 1772 mission to Munich!’

‘Don’t mock, Heinz dear. It’s the sort of thing that’s expected. I tell you what though. I intend to recruit private secretaries of my own, and I count on your contacts to help me find talented youths who’ll raise His Britannic Majesty’s embassy in Bavaria above the common run.’


The hackney that James had hired rattled its way to a stop as it reached Charing Cross and the head of the Strand after a stuffy ride from Hyde Park. The reek of horse dung was strong that muggy summer afternoon in London, and inescapable here, for he and Henry had alighted at the great Palladian gates which opened through the Portland stone walls of the Royal Mews, where King George kept his coaches and carriage horses.

Prince Henry looked around him with some interest. ‘So these are the English king’s stables and Reitschule? Rather more impressive than what our father has built over the old Kitchen Court of the Residenz of Strelsau, though the architecture is of much the same style I think.’

The prince scanned the busy street, scenting the air like one of James’s bloodhounds. ‘Ahah! I believe our man is to be found this way!’ he called. He started briskly off up the Strand past Northumberland House and then led them in a perilous dodge across the busy street between rumbling drays and trotting riders.

James and his brother found themselves at the narrow entrance passage to a street running gently down to the gates of a timber yard beyond which the masts of barges moored at the Thames quays could be seen. The city bustle abruptly faded away behind them as they emerged out of the passage and out between the brick rows of a quiet side street.

‘I believe it is that house there on the left, Jimmy,’ Henry indicated.

They paused. ‘Er … should I hand in my card at the door?’ James suggested.

The prince chuckled. ‘Unnecessary I believe. I sent a note around and he answered favourably. There the man himself is up there, though perhaps he sleeps.’

James looked up across the road to first floor of a house in the centre of the grey brick row. The row had full length windows on that floor and a long iron balustrade behind which, in the case of the house carrying the number 26, was a bulky man splayed out on an armchair set in the central window.

‘Heinz, the man is nude and visible to the entire neighbourhood,’ James remarked.

‘Yes, I believe he does that. He calls it “air bathing” and insists it is very healthy for the human frame. In this weather you can see his point, but I’m told he’ll do it in midwinter just as readily.’

‘I’m surprised the parish constables haven’t hauled him off.’

‘As I said, Jimmy, Dr Franklin is a formidable fellow. I have long wanted to meet the Universal Genius of Philadelphia, and there he is in all his unadorned glory.’

The man in the window was not asleep it seemed. He heard them down in the street and sat up, reaching for a banyan draped over the back of his chair while hallooing back into the house. ‘Mrs Stevenson! We have visitors!’

The lady in question admitted James and Henry, taking their hats, and ushered them into the front reception room. They remained standing since the gentleman himself had not arrived. When he did, now fully dressed, James was impressed by the upright stature of the man, erect despite his age and portly frame. Dr Franklin was a man of great presence and physical strength for his age, which seemed to be in the mid sixties. The hair on his high domed forehead was thinning, but he wore no wig. His eyes were blue and hooded and, James thought, calculating.

He bowed to both men, giving a rather deeper inclination of the balding head to Prince Henry, and offered them seats. His landlady followed in with tea, as their host expressed his deep pleasure at such distinguished visitors, and at such a tediously quiet time of the year in London.

James could tell that Henry was itching to get past the social niceties and stuck into the learned and technical discussions that amused and absorbed him, and which in this case were likely to take up much of the rest of that humid afternoon, with James as the bemused audience. It was role he often filled with his brother, and to be fair, did not resent that much. He had learned a lot by it in the past.

‘And how long have you been living in London, Dr Franklin?’ he asked.

‘Since the year ’57, my lord,’ came the reply. ‘I arrived to further the struggle of the estates of Pennsylvania against the present tyrant of the colony, the son of William Penn and unlike his father a thoroughly despicable fellow who reneged on his father’s faith and lives in unearned luxury out in Buckinghamshire on the profits of his extortions across the ocean.’ He paused to calculate. ‘Resistance to the tyranny of that family has absorbed my energies now for over half my life, since Governor Logan appointed me clerk to the Assembly in ‘36. I wish I could say my efforts have had any particular success, but the king’s ministers here in London cannot be got to attend to the injustices of so far away a place and Thomas Penn can hide behind his royal charter and in the thickets of the Common Law.’

‘And have you been back home since, sir?’

‘Duty called me back to Philadelphia for the House elections of 1764, my lord, when I thought that I might persuade my fellow colonials to petition the Crown to appoint a royal governor over the head of Thomas Penn, but it did not go well, and soon I was back in London, where I now am most of the time, butting my rather prominent forehead against the wall that is the indifference of His Majesty’s ministers to the grievances of his American subjects.’

James frowned. ‘Ah well, doctor, as you may well know, the colonials of North America are not the only body of his subjects who suffer under that sullen indifference.’

The old man frowned. ‘I think you allude to his Catholic subjects, my lord? Well sir, you see there the outsize effect of theological squabbles on the conduct of civil society where the only real consideration ought to be that one should love one’s neighbour, wouldn’t you say?’

Catching the increasing signs of impatience from his brother, James had mercy on him and shifted the subject. ‘Do you travel abroad in Europe sir?’

The man chuckled. ‘Europe these days tends to visit me.’ He inclined his head to the incognito prince. ‘The learned and ingenious foreigner in England will make it a point to tread the cobbles of Craven Street to my front door. But to answer your question, I was in the Empire some six years ago, and found to my surprise a very fine country. I went to take the waters at Pyrmont, visit correspondents in Hanover and thence travelled down the Rhine into Bavaria. I even passed out of the Empire briefly into the kingdom of Ruritania where I addressed the Philosophical Society of Strelsau. And there I heard of a very learned royal imp with a growing reputation as a natural philosopher.’

Prince Henry smiled. ‘The imp at the time was regrettably in Glottenburg visiting his aunt. A pity. I hear your paper on the organic origins of coal was a revelation. I’ve devoured it since in print. With the good earl’s permission I would much like to pursue the subject, and indeed I have with me some pamphlets of my own on the subject of fossilised plant life which I wish to give you. I understand you read German with facility, sir.’

Four hours later Dr Franklin bowed his visitors out of his home, having talked on a dozen subjects more or less without halt. He had offered James the unusual experience of seeing his brother as the junior partner in a learned conversation.

‘What a scholar,’ breathed Henry as they walked back up to the Strand.

‘He could certainly talk, and well,’ James responded. ‘A good deal of it even made sense to me.’

Henry laughed. ‘Oh, poor Jimmy! Was it too bad?’

‘Did he really invent those metal strips that ward off lightning bolts from church towers? Cubbit had them installed last year on the corner turrets at Burlesdon Hall.’

‘Lightning rods to carry the force of the firebolt down into the earth? Yes, he did. Though wise old Father Procopius of Znojmo in Moravia, who I visited the year before he died in ’65, had a good claim to have published the theory first. But Dr Franklin and his good friend Priestley have perhaps done more between them than any other to unveil the great mystery of electrical forces in the ether.’

The pair wandered back along King Street and Whitehall to St James, where they dined at White’s, though they found it nearly deserted in the off season. James observed sourly that the food was better than Burlesdon House could offer, and at least the gambling tables were empty.

As they talked over wine, James confided to Henry that his conversation with the American had strangely unsettled him, and not in any philosophical sense. When asked why he was hard put to explain himself. ‘Look at it this way, Heinz my dear,’ he eventually concluded, ‘talking with the good Dr Franklin brought home to me how vast and complicated are the forces which buffet the British empire which I will be representing to the German princes. It is not as powerful as it may look to such as them. Irish rebels, suspect Catholics, dissident colonials in America and elsewhere eat away at its foundations. Its own internal contradictions and the vast distances that its rulers must contend with make it fragile.’

‘You think it’s set for a tumble?’ His brother gave him a sharp glance.

‘So I fear, and maybe Rochford thinks so too. I wish I was better informed about a lot of things, and not just natural philosophy. My lack of experience of national life does not make me the best possible representative of King George.’

Henry rolled his eyes. ‘My dear fellow, your king is represented in Strelsau by that amiable dunderhead Windlesham. It’s a low standard you’re setting yourself up against in his case. But if you’re feeling so down about it, we really must find you the best assistants in your mission we can, mustn’t we. I think I may be able to help.’