Today, I am interviewing Master Thomas Hill, the main character of Andrew Swanston’s English Civil War novel, ‘The King’s Spy, set in Oxford in 1643.
Thank you for joining me, Master Hill, and hope you have had a sufficient rest after your sojourn at Oxford?
Thank you for inviting me, madam. It is a pleasure, and something of a relief, to be here.
1. Is the city as devastated as everyone says? I hear morale amongst the Court is low and many only manage to eat by dining with the King at Christ Church each night?
Oxford was a shock. Guns for gowns, soldiers for scholars. Appallingly overcrowded, filthy and wretched. Worst of all was to see such squalor side-by-side with the conspicuous extravagance of the royal court. Morale there shifts with the king’s moods while the townsfolk suffer.
2. Had you always seen yourself as a bookseller, or did life simply drift that way? Did you have other ambitions whilst you were studying at Oxford?
I had intended to stay in Oxford to continue my studies and perhaps go on to teach mathematics there, but when my father became ill I returned to Romsey to take care of him. When he died, I decided to stay. The bookshop makes a little money and allows me time for reading and writing. It suits me.
3. You were recruited to help King Charles because of your expertise in mathematics, yet you make it clear that you disapprove of the war, [not to the King, obviously] so how do you avoid being labelled a Royalist?
A difficult question and one which Margaret and I discussed before I went to Oxford and which I asked myself many times on the way there. I am firmly against this war which should never have started and has already cost thousands of lives. Who knows how many more will die before it is over? I would prefer not to be labelled either a royalist or a parliamentarian, but, on balance, I believe that England is best served by a monarchy. After all, we have had a monarch on our throne for centuries. The monarchy, however, like all of us, must move with the times, and I sincerely hope it will.
4. From what I have seen of 17th Century correspondence, no one appeared to use uniform spellings for most words. Does this make devising and breaking ciphers more difficult?
An interesting point. Variable spellings can cause problems, but no more than the use of deliberate mis-spellings and nulls (meaningless letters or symbols inserted to deceive the decoder). If one gets close enough to a full decryption, the last few words or letters can often be guessed.
5. You are devoted to your sister Margaret and your two nieces, and without giving too much away, you reach the end of your adventure with no romantic interest of your own. Is this a conscious decision due to wartime, or have you simply never had the inclination to marry?
I am no monk and I have had my moments! Alas, however, I have not yet met a lady willing to take me on as a husband. One day, perhaps.
6. Margaret makes a reference to the fact that you are well respected man in Romsey who ‘writes important pamphlets’ What would these be about and are they likely to attract unwelcome attention for you?
Dear Margaret is inclined to exaggeration. My modest efforts are chiefly on mathematics and philosophy. As you may know, I am a particular devotee of Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher who lived in the last century.
7. You are clearly a pacifist, and hate uselessness, violence and the waste of lives, and yet when the situation requires it you can handle yourself. Captain Fayne could attest to that. How does an Oxford scholar learn to defend himself so well?
Being smaller and lighter than most of my fellow students at Oxford, I quickly learnt to develop speed of hand and foot and to use them to my advantage. I took lessons in fencing and boxing and played tennis on the court at Merton. I only condone violence in self-defence or as a last resort. However, I know I have a temper which can get the better of me.
8. How difficult is it to remain objective when both Roundheads and Royalists are likely to invade Romsey at any time, threaten your family and disrupt your business and your life?
We have had experience of both sides in Romsey. As you suggest, my first loyalty is to my family and I will do whatever I must to protect them. I hope, however, that we shall not see bands of clubmen appearing in Hampshire. I know they too just want to safeguard their property and families, but I cannot condone their doing so by violence.
9. Margaret comes across as a woman who knows her own mind and has opinions about the current conflict. Do you encourage her thinking or wish she would keep her mind on less controversial subjects?
Our father taught both Margaret and me to think for ourselves. He often said we must learn how to think, not what to think. And if I may quote my favourite philosopher – ‘There is no conversation more boring than the one where everyone agrees’. Thankfully, Margaret and I often disagree. Long may it be so.
10. Do you educate Polly and Lucy in mathematics, philosophy and literature, or do you think they are better served learning only domestic skills?
My nieces are both bright children who want to know about the world they live in. I think they should let their curiosity take them in whatever direction they wish. Being able to bake a good pie is also a useful talent.
11. If I came into your private rooms above your bookshop, what volumes would I find on your personal shelves?
De Montaigne, of course, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Bacon. All of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and Chaucer. Also a much loved volume of local history with beautiful illustrations. I look at it often with the girls.
12. Your life was in danger more than once in Oxford, so if asked, would you welcome a chance to venture out of your bookshop again, or do you prefer a quiet life from now on?
My experience in Oxford has taught me to expect the unexpected and to take whatever comes. I have a feeling, however, that my life is unlikely to be a quiet one, however much I might like it to be.
13. What are your chances of crossing paths with Simon de Pointz in your next adventure?
I suppose that depends upon the outcome of the war. Simon is now in France with the queen. When and if they return, I hope we shall meet again. He is a most interesting and unusual man.
14. I take it we haven’t heard the last from Master Thomas Hill?
You most certainly have not.
Thank you for joining me, sir and of course for answering all my impertinent questions.