This is Chapter Five, the penultimate part of my account of the Council's history. We've reached early modern times; Marco Polo, universities, banks, and people with an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. For the introduction and contents, go here.
As a major trading port and communications hub, Venice was an ideal location for the mediaeval Council to prosper.
Consilium Custodum Venetiarum - Watchers' Council of Venice AD 1268 - 1563
In that ignominious fashion, the Council's leaders found themselves in Venice. They made the best of things - a cynic would say they tried to make it seem that it was their idea to move there all along. After all, Venice offered many of the advantages that had originally attracted the Council to Antioch. It was a wealthy, powerful and cosmopolitan city, sitting at the centre of a wide network of communication routes. Venetian galleys sailed all over the Mediterranean, and even beyond into the Black Sea and the Atlantic. Venetian merchants ventured even further afield - a year after the Council reached Venice, in 1269, two brothers named Niccolò and Maffeo Polo returned from a journey all across Asia as far as Beijing. To the astonished Watchers, this was a name out of fairytale: the idea that the Council once had members in far-off, almost legendary China was considered little more than an idle story. Nevertheless, when Niccolò's son Marco set out to repeat the journey his father and uncle had taken, the Council did commission him to ask if there were any secret societies or religious orders in China calling themselves the "Shadow Brotherhood" or "Watchers' Council". (If there were, Marco didn't discover them.)
Although after the rise of the Roman Empire the Council regularly used the name Consilium Custodum - a direct Latin translation of Boulē Phúlakōn - it did not become its official title until, ironically, over 800 years after the sack of Rome. To mark its relocation - intentional, they claimed - to Venice, the Council also changed its name at the same time.
The loss of so many treasures in the sack of Antioch was a constant shame and reproach to the Council. Fortunately, their foresight had allowed many of their valuable resources to be saved, although the fact that they were scattered all around the Mediterranean and Middle East made studying or using them difficult. Arguments raged over whether to try and bring everything together in one place again, or if a decentralised policy would actually be better for the Council in the long term. No final decision was ever reached, although inertia meant that most of the regional collections stayed in place, as those in charge of them naturally resisted seeing their precious libraries taken away to Venice. Still, there was a consensus that the Council should try to recover any of its treasures which had slipped out of its control over the centuries, and recover them by purchase, persuasion, theft or brute force.
To do this required wealth, of course; and the seaports of Northern Italy in the High Middle Ages were a perfect place for this. The Council's international network of contacts gave it a privileged position with regard to trade. Some Watchers even took to engaging in commerce directly, sponsoring trading voyages to distant lands and taking their share of the profits (and using the opportunity to search for magical tomes and artefacts in the markets and bazaars of their destinations). Others among their colleagues regarded such activities as a vulgar distraction from their real mission, but even they were not above doing the occasional favour or passing on privileged market information to outsiders in return for suitable remuneration. All this made the Council extremely rich. While they used some of their wealth to buy land, which was the socially approved course of action in the Middle Ages, they had no real desire to become feudal overlords with all the political obligations that imposed. Instead, they invested in the exciting new industries that were emerging in Lombardy at the time: banking and commerce and trade.
The 13th century in Europe also gave rise to a new development that would influence the Council's future policy: the development of independent centres of higher education and learning such as the universities of Bologna, Paris and Oxford. These were still naturally influenced by the Catholic Church - an organisation the Watchers' Council had a difficult history with, and kept at arm's length from - but were not under its control. While some Watchers were jealous of these new institutions and saw them as rivals, others welcomed the creation of centres of scholarship which could assemble their own libraries at their own expense, and attract teachers and researchers from all over Europe. And so the Council decided to engage with the new universities, encouraging its members to join them to benefit from their facilities. They could also keep an eye out for bright students who might be worthy of being offered a place in the Council, giving it fresh blood and new ideas - on the other hand, they could also watch for people researching into black magic or forbidden texts, and take measures to stop them.
The result was that during its time in Venice, the Council became far more involved with and a part of the world around it, with a network of connections and contacts and allies and favours owed that made it extremely wealthy and powerful. Nevertheless, its position was a vulnerable one. The Council's history and roots were in the Middle East, which was now under Muslim domination, but its headquarters and most of its personnel were living in Christian Europe. While the Council tried to stay aloof from such conflicts - and was aided by the fact that Venice, as a commercial city, had no interest in Crusading except insofar as it could make a profit out of it - it was nevertheless caught between two fires, in danger of being regarded as a traitor by either side. Worse, the Council practiced magic, something that could have them condemned as witches or heretics if the Church found out about them. That meant keeping a low profile, presenting one face to the world and another to themselves.
However, they managed to keep the balance successfully for several hundred years. The crisis eventually came in the 16th century, as the Reformation and Counter-Reformation tore Europe apart with religious wars, and remaining neutral was no longer an option.
In the year 1542, Pope Paul III set up the Congregation of the Holy Office of the Inquisition as a permanent body in Rome. Though not as brutal or unexpected as its Spanish counterpart, the Inquisition uncovered plenty of heresy. However, not all the people it examined were as harmless as your average 69-year old astronomer claiming that the Earth went around the Sun. No: some of the heretics the Inquisition uncovered were worshipping actual Hell-Gods and summoning actual demons. Such opponents were too much for mild-mannered Dominican friars to fight; so in 1554 at their request Pope Julius III secretly issued the Papal Bull Et Res Alius which set up the Holy Order of Saint Michael. The new organisation's vows were based on those of the Knightly Orders of the Middle Ages, the Templars and Hospitallars; and its purpose was to be the Special Operations division of the Inquisition. To seek out manifest Evil in the world and cleanse it with fire, holy water and the sword.
In theory, the Watchers' Council and the Holy Order of Saint Michael should have been on the same side. They were both dedicated to protecting humanity and fighting evil, after all. Unfortunately, the monks of St Michael didn't see it that way. The more they uncovered about the Council, the more horrified they became. This was an organisation with roots in the pagan East, friendly to Muslims and Jews and Protestants. Its members studied sorcery and practiced witchcraft. And worst of all, they regularly kidnapped innocent young girls and summoned demons to possess them, turning them into inhumanly powerful monsters to slay their enemies! This could not be endured. The Watchers' Council was pure evil, and must be rooted out to the last depraved heretic, scourged and cleansed.
The Council had faced opposition many times before, of course; but this was the first time they had ever been targeted so directly and personally by a powerful human organisation dedicated to their destruction. Their initial reaction was fear and surprise; they didn't know how to react, and many of them were captured. The Michaelites were supposed to give them a fair trial and then hand them over to the local secular government for punishment, but few of them bothered with such niceties. The Watchers were so clearly evil, why waste time with a trial? If any of them turned out to be innocent after all - unlikely but possible - then God would know His own. Some Watchers tried to fight back, but they were conflicted: they and the Michaelites were supposed to be on the same side, and why couldn't these fanatics just see that? Others tried bribery and string-pulling, which had worked so well before; but the Holy Order of St Michael was dedicated to its duty and subject to no Earthly authority except the Pope himself. An open appeal to the governments or people of Venice or Italy as a whole was ruled out; after all, the Council really did practice magic and study pagan gods, and making the fact public would be rather counter-productive.
After a decade of persecution and loss, the Council saw it had only two choices. Either abandon its scruples and fight the Order head-on, sending the Slayer to kill humans who honestly believed they were doing their sacred duty; or admit the fight was lost and retreat. The second course was humiliating, granted; but in the end the Inner Council decided it was the only honourable choice. That left the question of where to go. Some Watchers proposed returning to the Council's original homeland in the Middle East, which was now under the domination of the Ottoman Empire and thus safe from the Pope's shocktroopers. However, for all that it self-identified as an international organisation with ties to no single nationality or religion, most of the individual members of the Council now saw themselves as European. Europe was where their wealth and property was, where they had contacts in the worlds of commerce and academia, where their homes were. Syria and Iraq now seemed exotic foreign places to them - and for that matter, the Ottomans were aggressive and warlike, and would not necessarily offer a friendly welcome to their new guests.
There was an alternative suggestion, however. Away in the far north of Europe, Queen Elizabeth of England had just declared her nation a Protestant state and sent defiance to the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope had responded by excommunicating her and telling all her subjects it was their religious obligation to rebel and overthrow her - a threat which backfired by arousing the patriotic anger of the English people and causing them to stand firm behind their Queen and their Protestant Church of England. On the basis that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the Watchers expected that Elizabeth would give them a warm welcome if they asked for sanctuary from the Pope's minions in her kingdom - especially if they sweetened the deal by offering the use of their commercial network and put their wealth at her service.
While the Watchers were not overly enthusiastic at moving to cold, rainy England instead of warm, sunny Italy, at least it was better than Iraq. Some people in England even spoke decent Latin; they had an excellent university at Oxford, and Cambridge wasn't altogether bad either. While the island had always been something of a backwater, that was starting to change. The recent invention of ocean-going ships and the opening of new Atlantic trade routes was starting to shift the pattern of European and world trade; and some of the more farsighted of the Council's commercial experts speculated that one day England might even outstrip Venice in wealth. Getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, might be a wise investment for the future.
The result of these deliberations was to begin negotiations with Elizabeth's government - a slow process, since letters took an average of 24 days to travel between Venice and London. At the same time the Council made preparations to transfer its headquarters to its new home. They could not, of course, entirely abandon their network of field Watchers and Potentials in Catholic Europe, let alone their extensive commercial contacts and investments. Therefore, an elaborate cover operation was put in place. The Council located an actual coven of warlocks, mostly bored young nobles dabbling in sorcery, but committing some genuinely nasty deeds such as human sacrifice. Normally, the Slayer would have been sent to kill them all; but instead the Council decided to offer them a deal. Contact was made by a Watcher posing as an Eastern sorcerer offering membership in an ancient conspiracy, along with dark magic secrets more powerful than anything the aristocrats had ever dreamed of. They believed the story (it was, after all, not too far from the truth) and before long were injudiciously boasting to their friends that they were the European branch of the Watchers' Council, an ancient Babylonian Order of demon worshippers. Encouraged by their patron, they set up a grand ceremony to summon their demon god, on All Saints' Eve in the year 1563.
Their patron never showed up. Instead, a strike team from the Holy Order of St Michael, acting on a tip-off, raided the ceremonial grounds. Most of the sorcerers were killed; some were taken prisoner and put to the question. In their combined arrogance and desire to tell their tormentors whatever they wished to hear, they confirmed that they were the leaders of the Watchers' Council in Europe. The Michaelites were left unsure of just one thing: whether the Council’s patron, this mysterious "Eastern sorcerer", was a genuine representative of an organisation based in Ottoman or Persian lands, or simply the Devil taking on human form as a dark-skinned man - something their books told them he often did to tempt the unwary. Either way, it seemed that the Council was now decapitated, at least in the Christian realms where the Holy Order operated. While the Watchers probably had lesser followers scattered about, it was concluded that they were no longer a major threat and could be left to the normal Church authorities. The Michaelites could turn their attention to new challenges: their work was complete. Or so they thought.