But wait—September of what year?
Certainly 1588, the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, is the obvious choice. Presumably Sir Oliver, knighted for his deeds in that battle, returns home and the novel begins to unfold.
But a closer look makes this conclusion highly unlikely. Oliver returned home on August 31 1588 after being knighted, and as of that date "there was as yet no sign" of any feud between Sir Oliver and Killigrew [Chapter IV of The Hounds of God]. It seems doubtful, though not completely impossible, that matters could then deteriorate so far in at most a couple of weeks. Furthermore, Sir Oliver spent part of the fall of 1588 in Spain with Sir Gervais Crosby, a fact that is nowhere mentioned in this novel but surely would be if The Sea-Hawk took place that same year.
We get more information from the ages of the principles. We know that Oliver and Lionel are approximately five years apart ("At the time Oliver was seventeen and Lionel twelve", Chapter 1.II). We also know that Lionel is "in his twenty-first year" at the start of the novel, meaning that Oliver is in his twenty-sixth year. But Oliver received the accolade in "the twenty-fifth year of his life" [Chapter 1.I]. Similarly, Rosamund is seventeen at the beginning of this novel, but is "not more than sixteen years" when Oliver returns from London after being knighted [The Hounds of God, Chapter IV]. These arguments are not decisive, but they again push us to consider dates a bit later than 1588.
We arrive on firmer ground by looking at the date of Easter. In Chapter 1.VI we learn that on a day in "late March" in the year after the opening, there is "but a week" to Easter. Therefore Easter cannot have occurred later than April 7 in that year. Easter occurred on 19 April 1590 and on 26 March 1592, ruling out 1589 as the opening year and making 1591 a little dubious (since March 19 isn't really "late March"). 1592 is similarly impossible. This leaves 1590 as the most likely opening year, though 1588 and perhaps even 1591 are not eliminated.
The conclusive piece of evidence comes from much later in the book. We are told in three places that the moon is full on Sakr-el-Bahr's return to Algiers. (In Chapter 2.VI the moon comes up near sunset, and Chapters 2.XII and 2.XIV explicitly mention the full moon.) As we will see, that date was June 29 just shy of six years past the start of the novel. On 29 June 1594 the moon was at last quarter, on 29 June 1597 the moon was a few days before new, but the full moon of 8:21 PM Algiers time on 29 June 1596 settles the matter firmly in favor of 1590.
For completeness, we cite two other pieces of information that are less useful for dating. In Chapter 2.IV we read that the famous raid of the Barbary rovers upon Baltimore, which took place on 20 June 1631, was "some thirty years" after Rosamund's abduction. This puts the opening of the novel in 1595, definitely too late. Fortunately "some thirty years" is indefinite enough to cover a lot of ground. (1595 itself is impossible since Easter 1596 was on April 11.)
Finally, Jasper Leigh in planning with Lionel [Chapter 1.VI] says that six days before Easter in the year after the opening there is no moon at eight PM. But this is nonsense, since Easter by definition takes place on the first Sunday after a full moon. Six days before Easter the moon is invariably full or nearly full, rising at or just before sunset, and by eight there must be a moon blazing in the sky. I suspect that Master Leigh simply wants to close the deal and is not really worried about the success of the trepanning, since he intends a doublecross anyway. (The definition of Easter here is only approximate but is close enough, especially as it was calculated in the sixteenth century.)
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Copyright © 2007 Larry Denenberg