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This one comes from the Douai Diaries – the rather miscellaneous manuscript books chronicling, mostly in Latin, the day-to-day life, struggles and correspondence of William Allen’s band of English Catholics exiled in France. Allen built an English college in Douai, first – and when he was thrown out of what was, back then, Hapsburg land, moved the whole establishment to Reims, where it remained from 1578 to 1593. There he continued to instruct and ordain Catholic priests to send back in England as missionaries. A good deal of martyrs, plotters and fanatics passed through the colleges of both Douai and Reims…

Anyway, here is an entry from the Autumn of 1580, translated from the original Latin:

On the last day of October one Johnson, a player, came to us. When questioned thoroughly, he answered with scant consistency, nor is he known to any of our Catholics. As soon as he was given some money, he left.

A fascinating little story. Who is this Johnson? A harmless mooch, hoping for a few free meals? Clearly, Allen’s people did not think so, since they questioned him thoroughly. Well, I suppose they would question thoroughly everyone, fearing that Sir Francis Walsingham might infiltrate some spy in their numbers – and still it didn’t work too well, because we know of several such plants…

Clearly, Johnson failed to convince the questioners – and, even worse, he could claim no sponsor, so to say, among the community of Catholic exiles of Rheims. They must have wondered at his story: a spy come to insinuate himself into the Collège Anglais would have, at the very least, a better story to tell, wouldn’t he? A player seemed a rather unlikely candidate for priesthood anyway. So they offered him some money to see, I imagine, whether he would still try to remain. It must have been a relief to see him grab and coins and run.

So we can likely think that Johnson was no worse than a mooch, after all – and not a very sharp-witted one, either: of all the sob stories to tell Allen’s pious exiles, that of a player strikes me as the least promising one. And of course, the strangeness of it seems calculated to spark off all sort of stories…

As it is, this tiny entry, with the thorough questioning, the lack of connection with the exiles, and the feeling of general suspicion, inspired a few scenes for the third installment of Tom Walsingham’s mystery-cum-espionage adventures.

One of this days, though, I might go back, and tell one Johnson’s tale.