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Theatre in Elizabethan times

Life in Elizabethan London

Maps of Elizabethan London

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About this book

Elizabethan Mysteries

  • The exciting sequel to adventure mystery Rogue’s Gold, set in the cut-throat world of Elizabethan England.
  • After a varied career, John Pilkington began writing radio plays in the 1980’s, followed by theatre plays, television scripts for the BBC and a non-fiction book, before writing Rogues’ Gold, his first children’s book.

When a series of unexpected disappearances and suspicious accidents start occurring at the Rose theatre, it looks like a group of rival players may be targeting Lord Bonner’s men. And things really start to hot up when a mysterious fire threatens to send their plans up in smoke. Can boy actors Ben Button and Matthew Fields settle their differences to discover just who’s behind these dirty – and increasingly dangerous – tricks?

Read an extract


Chapter One

It was all Master Shakespeare’s fault. If he and his company hadn’t been doing so well, Ben
Button and the rest of Lord Bonner’s Men would never have had to move.

Lord Bonner’s players stood around on the stage of the Old Theatre in Shoreditch, by Finsbury Fields, just north of the city. Apart from the dozen or so men and boys, the big circular theatre was empty. The galleries and the stage were roofed with tiles, but the rest of the building was open to the sky. It was a sharp winter’s morning, and the players’ breath hung in the air like steam. Some stamped their feet to keep warm.

Ben wore his winter jerkin over his new crimson doublet. All the company had been given new clothing, in the deep red livery of their patron Lord Bonner. Their old clothes had become worn out with travelling during the summer. For Ben Button, the touring was already a memory. Now they were back in London for the winter. All had looked well when they started performing an old favourite, The Legend of Robin Hood – that is, until the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had opened nearby at the other Shoreditch theatre, the Curtain. The Lord Chamberlain’s was the most important acting company in England. Their patron was not only rich and powerful – he was the Queen’s cousin. And Lord Bonner’s Men had soon found themselves facing some stiff competition.

“The Taming of the Shrew – a Comedy.” Bonner’s leading player, Hugh Cotton, was holding up a torn playbill. It advertised a new play by one of the Lord Chamberlain’s men, William Shakespeare, who had come to London as an actor and was now a successful playmaker.

“It’s packing them in – you can hear the laughter from Moorfields.” Solomon Tree, the company’s glum-faced comic, was at his gloomiest this morning. “And what are we doing? Robin Hood again!” Solomon was playing Friar Tuck, and made no secret of the fact that he was tired of his role, as he was of the heavy padding he wore to make himself look fat.

“We should revive another play – one with plenty of action!” Gabriel Tucker, the company’s specialist in villain roles, spoke up quickly. The little man was playing the Sheriff of Nottingham, and had grown a bristly moustache which twitched whenever he was agitated. It was twitching busily now.

Ben noticed that his master, John Symes, was silent. Since he lodged in John’s house as his prentice, Ben knew how worried his master had been of late. As the company’s manager and one of its main players, John had bills to settle: for costumes and props, as well as rent for the Old Theatre, not to mention the company’s wages. And the gate receipts for Robin Hood had been falling badly. In fact, all the actors wore anxious looks, Ben thought. It seemed that desperate measures were needed. But glancing at John again, Ben felt a surge of hope – for he had an idea that his master had something up his sleeve. Despite his cares, John had seemed more cheerful this morning as they walked the short distance from their house to the theatre. Ben waited.

“Very well, my friends…” John addressed the whole company. “I wanted to tell you sooner, but I couldn’t – not before everything was settled. But now I think it is. I was across the river yesterday, talking with Henslowe. I believe I have the solution to our troubles.”

The others stirred. Philip Henslowe was a man of business who owned another theatre called the Rose, on Bankside, south of the River Thames. Southwark, as it was properly called, was known as a rough area. But a lot of people went there for amusements of one kind or another. The Rose had been built seven or eight years back, and was drawing big crowds. London’s theatres just seemed to get busier and busier.

“Don’t tell me we’re moving across the river!” Will Sanders, the company’s bookkeeper, was grumpy as usual. “I’ve just taken new lodgings, up the lane!”

“Let the man speak, master moaner.” Hugh Cotton caught Ben’s eye, and winked. It seemed he too had a notion that better news was on its way.

“Henslowe says he can give us a month’s lease at the Rose.” John paused to let his words sink in. “I know that’ll be hard for some of you, crossing the river each day – or even moving lodgings…” He looked at Will. “But I don’t think you’ll mind too much, when you hear the rest of my tale.”

There was silence. Now Ben saw that John was holding back a smile, and knew he had been right: a bigger surprise was coming. He felt a pang of excitement.

“Out with it, Master Symes!” Simon Jewell was finding it hard to bear the suspense. He was the best of the new actors the company had hired this winter: a stocky man with a beard trimmed to a dagger-point. But he was grinning at John. The others too had caught the whiff of good news. And now, with the air of a magician, John Symes reached inside his padded doublet and drew out an important-looking document. As he unfolded it, there were some sharp intakes of breath: at the foot of the document was the royal seal.

“It’s from the Master of the Queen’s Revels.” John held up the paper. “Lord Bonner’s players are ordered to play at Whitehall Palace, on December the twenty-sixth.” His smile broadened. “So, a month’s run at the Rose should give us plenty of time to work up a new play. What do you say?”

Ben gasped, as a stunned silence fell. Each year the Queen spent Christmas at one of her royal palaces – Whitehall, or perhaps Richmond or Greenwich – for twelve glorious days of feasting and entertainment. A company of players was always commanded to attend – which meant a handsome fee, not to mention the thrill of performing in a splendid palace before the most important people in England. Until now, Lord Bonner’s Men had never been called to play at the Christmas Revels. It was an honour that all the acting companies craved.

At once the players turned to one another, talking excitedly. Ben, who was standing near Solomon and Hugh, was about to speak – when he felt a sudden stab of pain in his side. But even as he whirled round, he knew what – or rather who – had caused it: Matthew Fields. Sure enough, he found himself face-to-face with his fellow boy actor: a blond, freckled lad who stood a couple of inches taller than Ben.

“What’s the matter, Buttonhead?” Matt Fields seemed surprised. “You look like you’ve had
a nasty shock.”

But Ben’s anger rose: he knew how good Master Fields was at playing innocent. “You stabbed me!” he said.

“Stabbed?” Matt looked puzzled. “You’re letting your imagination run wild, Buttonhead—”

Then he broke off with a grunt, as Ben’s hand shot out and grabbed him by the wrist. “I know it was you,” Ben said. Despite being shorter, he was as strong as Matt. He was a country lad after all, and ever since he was seven or eight years old he had helped with the hardest of tasks, like harvesting. Now he watched Matt squirm as gradually his hand was forced upwards. Ben made him unclench it – and there in his palm was an iron brooch from one of the costumes Matt wore, with its pin open.

“Let go of me!” Matt flushed, and glanced round to see if anyone was watching. “I was only larking about, Buttonhead—”

“And stop calling me that!” Ben retorted. “Or I’ll start calling you Fly-spot.”

Now it was Matt’s turn to get angry. The other boys at the last company he had belonged to, the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, had mocked his dark freckles, saying it looked as if someone had swatted flies on his face. When Matt had joined Lord Bonner’s company at the start of the winter, Ben had tried to make him welcome, and did not use his nickname. But that was before he and Matt decided they didn’t like each other, which took less than a week. They had been at loggerheads ever since. Now Matt seemed to make life difficult for Ben, every chance he got.

“You call me that, and it’ll be worse than a pinprick next time,” Matt hissed. “You might find yourself tripping over onstage, and falling on your face in front of everyone!”

He wrenched his wrist from Ben’s grasp – then without warning, with his other hand he seized Ben by the throat. Ben grabbed his hand and both boys began to struggle, no longer caring whether anyone noticed. Whereupon there was a shout, and a pair of strong arms clasped Ben from behind. Someone else took hold of Matt and pulled him away.

“Enough!” Hugh Cotton, who was holding Matt, frowned at Ben over the other boy’s shoulder. “Are you two ever going to get along?”

Neither Ben nor Matt spoke. Solomon Tree, who was holding Ben, grunted in his ear, “What was it? Marian again?”

The players often joked about how Ben and Matt had fought hard for the best boy’s part in Robin Hood: not the romantic role of Maid Marian, but that of the Sheriff’s wife, which had the best lines. Ben had lost the argument and been told to play Marian. But like the professional he was, he took his part with good grace, and gave his best. Matt, on the other hand, instead of being grateful for his role, mocked Ben whenever they went onstage.

“It was nought, Master Sol,” Matt said, meeting the tall comic’s eye. “A bit of ribbing that got out of hand, is all…”

“What do you say?” Hugh Cotton was watching Ben. He knew well enough who was likely to blame.

Ben looked hard at Matt. But it was not in his nature to tell tales, nor to expect anyone else to fight his battles. He gave his answer quickly.

“It’s nothing. We were both overexcited – I mean, with playing for the Queen, and everything.”

Hugh exchanged a glance with Solomon, before the two actors let go of Ben and Matt. Others whohad been looking in their direction now turned away. The words Christmas Revels seemed to be on everyone’s lips.

“Overexcited?” Solomon Tree’s gloomy expression was back. “I don’t know why. It’s just another audience, royal or not.” He brightened a little. “A new play, though… That’s good. At least I won’t have to act the fat friar much longer.”

Ben took a couple of long breaths to calm himself, just as he always did before he went out on the stage. Turning away from Matt, he went to join the others in celebrating their good news. But as he walked towards John Symes, his master’s earlier words struck him with such force that he stopped in his tracks. John saw him, and came forward.

“You look troubled – are you not pleased by the tidings?”

Ben nodded. “Of course I am! But I’ve just remembered what you said, about us having to go to Bankside. We’re not moving from Hog Lane, are we?”

For Ben, the worst thing about going on tour last summer was having to leave the old hound Brutus, as well as John’s two lively daughters, Katherine and Margaret. Kate and Meg were like sisters to him now – or almost. He missed his real sister in Hornsey sometimes, as well as his younger brother and his mother. But John and Alice Symes and their girls were the closest thing to a family Ben had in London. The thought of having to leave them for a whole month dismayed him.

John smiled, and shook his head. “Let me set your mind at rest,” he said. “I already talked it over with Alice, and she was outraged. To think we would both leave home and move south – it’s out of the question. Anyway, Brutus would never let you leave!”

Ben gave a small sigh of relief, then saw that John’s smile had faded. His master gazed into the distance, as if his mind were already drifting across London, to the south bank.

“No – we’ll stay at Hog Lane,” John said. “And make our way over the river each day by the Bridge, or by boat.”

Suddenly he turned to Ben with a look of concern. “You’ve never been to Bankside, have you?”

“Only when we passed through, that day we started out on tour,” Ben told him. “With Tarlton drawing the cart.” Tarlton was the company’s old chestnut carthorse, for when they went travelling.

“Well, I wager you’ll get used to it,” John said.

“Only, it can be a dangerous place. Not much law and order down there, and some folk you’d do well to avoid.” He sighed. “You’d best stick close to me or one of the others, to begin with.”

Ben was quiet. He was thinking so hard about what John had said, he had almost forgotten Matt’s cruel pinprick, and the pain in his side was disappearing. He glanced round to see the other actors talking cheerfully, and his heart lifted.

Perhaps he would not be playing Maid Marian much longer, after all. Instead there would be a new role, in a new play – and he would be performing at the famous Rose, where he had never been before. And if Bankside was really as wild and dangerous as people said it was…well, Ben had to admit that instead of scaring him, the idea excited him a little.

In fact, it sounded like the start of another adventure.

John Pilkington

John Pilkington

John Pilkington worked at various jobs – in a factory, in offices, in a research laboratory, on a farm, and as a rock guitarist in several bands – before realizing he wanted to write. He took a degree in Drama and English, acted and directed in a theatre company touring schools, and then began his professional writing career with radio plays in the 1980s.

He has since written plays for the theatre and television scripts for the BBC. He is also the author of a series of historical crime novels, and a non-fiction book, "A Survival Guide for Writers". "Rogues’ Gold" is his first children’s book.

Visit the author’s website,, for more information.

Press Reviews

**** Four star review!
Betty Bookmark
The world of the Elizabethan theatre, and indeed London as a whole, is a well-defined one here, with everything relevant seeming realistic. Beyond that there is a nice way with character - the way Ben starts the book really disliking his stage partner Matt, but finds their combination a good one to get through the mystery, is a pleasantly unspoken change in circumstances, that adds to the feel of this being part two of a series well worth exploring.

The Book Bag book review website

"Traitor" is a fast-paced historical adventure with some engaging characters. The language used gives a historical flavour without being distracting. There is enough fighting and intrigue to keep the reader gripped, and a satisfying conclusion.

Write Away

In the second of the 'Elizabethan Mysteries' Ben's company, Lord Bonner's Men, are invited to play at the Rose Theatre and then to perform a new play in front of Elizabeth I on the 26th December. But things do not go according to plan when costumes are stolen, the theatre is nearly set alight and columns sawn through which would have meant a balcony collapsing when the theatre was full of people. A rival group, the Earl of Horsham's Men, is suspected after a stabbing on stage and Ben and another apprentice vow to find out who is behind the attempted sabotage. A fast paced adventure then ensues.

This is a story completely comfortable in its setting, not attempting to be the great historical novel, but a really good adventure set within the world of the Elizabethan theatre. The details of the life of a boy apprentice, the somewhat uncertain future of the players seeking patrons to survive, and the seediness of the lower life of Elizabethan London are all part and parcel of the story. Ben is a likeable character and his sidekick Matt, once an enemy, convincingly becomes a friend. The rest of the players emerge as clearly defined characters too and the competition act honourably for the most part. This is a well written historical adventure which will take the reader back to the first story while looking forward to the next one, learning much about Elizabethan theatre while doing so. The cover however is not representative as the sword play in the story is not in armour but play-acting on the stage, and the title is misleading - there is no traitor just an aristocrat jockeying for power but these are small quibbles. There is a map to guide the reader back and forth across the River Thames.
Books for Keeps - the Children's Book Magazine

"Enjoyable, twisty, gripping."
Rebecca Shaw - Student's review - Lancashire Book of the Year Award

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