Anne twisted in the sweat-soaked sheets, attempting to escape her unseen attacker. Her hair clung limply to her forehead. The long, dark strands stuck to her damp skin and snaked themselves around her, pulling and strangling. She fought her sheets and moaned in the dark. Her body ached, hot with fever, she hung on the edge of a nightmare. Her mind teetered between the worlds of wakefulness and sleep, between delusions and dreams.
Was that Henry nearby, she wondered. She thought she sensed him near. She heard low warm laughter in her ears making her tingle and flush. The knight shade from her imaginations’ depths wrapped itself around her, and licked at her flesh, setting her alight with flame. The demon pressed in closer, looming over her, it’s invisible hands tightened around her throat. Her world closed in on itself.
She could not breathe. She could not elude it’s spell, she ignored her fear which emitted only from an angel’s whisper at the rim of her consciousness… She could so easily succumb and slip off into the warm shadows which muddled her thoughts and blinded her reason… It held her firmly in its grip and poured it’s acid kiss into her throat. All the breath went out of her. She was falling, descending into the abyss. In a moment of primal terror, Anne knew she was dying, and her very soul being pulled down into hell …her whole body jerked in rejection. She opened her eyes and came face to face with a fire-eyed devil. It’s unmoving, red-coal eyes bore into her, burning away at her core. It’s affixed grin was horrid and was at once, rapturous, putrid and ravenous. The devil’s mouth glistened as a forked tongue worked over Anne’s cracked lips as it’s jagged, rotten teeth gnashed and threatened to devour her soul. It revolted, and chilled her to the bone. She was caught paralysed for a moment as she stared into that terrifying, forbidden and corrupting countenance. Anne screamed.
She sat bolt-upright in bed, her thin white chemise, saturated with perspiration, was plastered to her chest and her face was wet with hot tears, which still flowed down her red cheeks. The fever was broken, the demon gone. She was alone in the dark now, except for a maid servant whose silk dressing gown swished softly, making a soothing sound as she mopped Anne’s brow. Pungent smells of sickness, and the smoke of incense and oils meant to keep that devil at bay, permeated the hot, thick air and assaulted her senses. A wave of nausea threatened to overcome her. Her mouth was so dry it was sealed together, her tongue felt too big. Some of its skin stayed affixed to the roof of her mouth when she tore it from its spot to choke back the bile that burned her throat, bringing the unwelcome vision flooding back, fresh in her mind. With great effort, she pushed the image out of her pounding head, closed her eyes and collapsed back on the pillows, exhausted.
With sure hands, her clever gentlewoman cradled Anne’s face and pressed a glass to her lips, pouring the cooling liquid very slowly. It seemed to cut like a knife. Anne coughed and spit and sputtered on the first trickle but reached out and clasped the drink with both hands and gulped it all down hungrily before letting go and passing back into the dream world, but this time into a deeper, more peaceful sleep. Instead of rousing Anne to change her wet gown and bedclothes, in a wise effort to conserve the last of Anne’s energy stores, the maid stuffed crumpled dry linen cloths, peppered with healing herbs, into the top of Anne’s gown and in the bedding around her to whisk the moisture away from her body and then left her at ease. She was weak and would need time to rest and recuperate. But it was now clear, where others had died, Anne would live.
Despite the early hour and rather nasty weather, a private dispatch carrying this news was to be immediately sent, and carried better than fifty miles by one of the king’s own messengers.
For several days, Butts had been posted at Hever Castle, hosted comfortably enough by what was left of the dwindling lower staff of the blighted house. There it had started with a maid and since spread quickly. Many had already perished, including the young nobleman, William Carey, the ladies’ brother-in-law. It was said that one might be merry at dinner and dead by supper, such was this affliction that it killed very quickly. People died where they stood, some in just moments, while for others it took only as much as a day. Once laid low with it, those who survived the day were likely to live, but half of everyone got sick and half of those who got sick, died …and died quickly. “Stoup knave and know thy master” the pestilence seemed to command.
Sir William Butts had done what he could for them all. In addition to the traditional prayers and anointing oils already provided by somber clergymen, the physician prescribed herbal potions, treatments and protections based on what he had been told about the lady’s specific condition by a lone stone-faced serving woman, and what he knew of his own profession and of this deadly ailment …commonly called ”the sweat”.
While all around him the war against the disease seemed lost, he’d overseen the care of a handful of stricken nobles, including the ladies’ own father and brother, but he waited only for the outcome of this one afflicted gentlewoman’s battle. Butts fate was tied to the lady’s survival and he knew it. The king had been fairly specific on the matter.
Now, he and his best horse thundered through the mud, in the direction of the king, the clap of hooves keeping time with the rain. Bearing glad tidings in dark times and sure of a promising reward, King Henry VIII’s second-best doctor did not dally with a hired man, but, instead, wasted no time in delivering the invaluable news himself, that the king’s mistress, Anne Bolyen, survived the sweating sickness.
“THOMAS!”, bellowed the king.
Better than half a dozen male heads turned in response to the name. It amused Henry, and though he pretended not to take notice, his eyes twinkled. From his cushioned seat at the current center of his world, he spied his man descending the rough-hewn stairs from the more private quarters in the upper rooms containing the temporary royal offices and, in the squat tower, one larger room with a newly-added state bed. Built partially into the side of an ancient cliff, the seaside outpost was mostly protected by natural features, and it’s previous tenants had never had need of a fortified wall, but in anticipation of the King’s arrival, all areas of weakness were identified and a fence of wood spikes was hastily erected in their stead.
The voice of the king reverberated happily against the stone slab floor of the great hall in the outlying country estate. Like others of the brief stops he’d made lately, a wealthy baron had offered up the little place, in a moment of haste, for its use as a safehouse to his terrified monarch and a very abbreviated court, each hoping to find favor with his sovereign.
In late spring, the first waves of death had forced Henry to interrupt the usual state progress and sent him fleeing from the evil mists of London with his queen and, for the moment, forsaking his mistress, who for a time had been forced to remove herself and make her quarters in the tiltyard galley when the ladies of court were struck including the king’s own sister. But when the illness struck his household, the king had torn himself from their midst and immediately fled.
Henry fled from Hampton Court Palace parting ways with Anne, his mistress, there. The king went to Waltham Abbey, with his queen, to pray and later removed further to Hunsdon house. They continued on from there to other safehouses, one after the other. Henry traveled north and east towards the sea while Anne went south, home to Hever.
Since then, it was said, he had hardly laid his head more than two nights upon the same bed, in a terrified effort to avoid the insidious disturbance. This house at the seaside now served her king in his time of need.
This violent disorder was, truly, no respecter of station, of gender, or of age; it wiped out whole households. It was thought to spare women more than men, so that the reports of his mistress’s humoral imbalance had come, not only as a shock which devastated Henry, but also with some embarrassment, since he had abandoned her, and all the court, in his fright. Instead he had sent her words of encouragement saying, “It hardly ever strikes women”… but if any preference were shown by the affliction it was for the gentler constitution of the gentry, who seemed to suffer and die in numbers which out-paced those of the poor.
It was with the gladdest heart that good Henry had received word of his beloved’s recovery. Of course, Doctor Butts had not been admitted directly into the king’s presence but the message had been passed on by the one favored pageboy still allowed to serve his master. It was received by the most grateful king, who had hidden his misty eyes. Both the boy and the doctor would, in time, feel the fullness of the king’s generosity.
Henry’s call for Thomas quieted the buzz of the small but eclectic crowd of physicians and other indispensable peoples loosely scattered about him. Henry waved off the two doctors fussing about his person applying a poultice and a simple dressing to one calf, Henry tugged his own garter back into place, neatly covering the troublesome spot.
The most essential and capable ladies and gentlemen of the court milled around the edges of the great space nearest the intricately woven tapestries, whispering together, many nibbling at bits of sweetmeats picked from heavily laden tables, while others lazed about on the king’s fine furniture conversing and gaming quietly in small groups. Gentlefolk, though not many in number, spilled out of the little great-hall and into the covered open-air corridor, opposite the only staircase. It’s eves were still pouring rainwater from the recent storm that had pursued them here like a great dragon, though when they set out from town, it had been clear enough. In contrast to the gray sky which threatened further deluge, each person cut a more brightly colored and flamboyant figure than the last, ‘cept the king in the midst of them all, whose costume was beyond any comparison.
According to the fashion he popularized, preferring them for their versatility, his sleeves were puffed and great swaths were cut into the gold fabric to reveal the perfect, clean, white dressing gown beneath. Lace edged his sleeves and ruff, while white hosen were held in place by great gold garters tied with silk ribbon, showing the king’s huge calves to their fullest advantage, as he was wont to do. His great gold doublet was festooned with rubies. His many jewels flashed and danced in the combined light of the huge hanging candelabra, the firelight emitting from the roaring flame in the central great hearth and the twilight silver of a midday tempest. Together they animated and magnified their wearer making him appear to be gloriously aflame. The king shone, a red-gold sun in the dusk of day.
This outward display of ease and contentment of king and court hid a nervous under current. Yes, these were the noblest of the realm,and representatives of the most powerful families. But in this very much reduced court, they were those most able and necessary to the service and preservation of the king during a sojourn into the country… No, a mad dash from court to escape the fate that had, as a boy, claimed the king’s own brother… and so many others before and since.
Again, the “sudor anglicanus” or “English sweat” ravaged the kingdom. Henry knew how the disease was rumored to have come to England with his father and his men when they came ashore, and out of obscurity, to claim the throne of England from Richard III, the now shamed usurper. But Henry knew it was seen by closeted Yorkists as clear proof of the illegitimacy of the Tudor regime and of God’s own disapproval. No matter how buried and dead this claim, it was known to Lord Stanley’s troops before the battle of Bosworth, and even despite King Henry VIII, the victor’s son, being named “Defender of the Faith” nearly a decade ago, the thought rankled still, as the “new acquaintance” once again ravaged rich, poor, man, woman and child. And as he remained without a male heir.
Understandably, he struggled to maintain his happy mood under the circumstances and spying Thomas had done his countenance further good. On the very fringes of his state, the little fortified keep was hardly a castle, but no expense had been spared in preparing it, in an astonishing flurry, to be worthy to receive the king. The roof was patched, all the drafts sealed off and the walls reinforced and newly whitewashed. The rushes were brushed out and new freshly strewn. Every stone was washed and every corner dusted. Every nook and cranny was covered over in intricately woven fabrics and filled with shining vestments useful protective, religious and decorative.
This had been accomplished in hours, rather than days, in anticipation of the hurried arrival of the king. The news of the king’s intention to lodge had arrived by dispatch sent only hours ahead of the entourage. And it came with orders that it should be left abandoned to the soul, fires lit, food made ready, and the warden’s keys left to be taken over entirely by the king and his own staff, that no man or woman should remain about that did not, themselves, travel with the king.
The hunting lodge sat nestled between two harbors, far away from London, which was at the moment, in the throes of rampant outbreak of plague and “swat”. In sharp contrast to the choking filth of the city sprawl, here a salty breeze constantly brought in clean, new air from over the waters. Here Henry had planned to shelter, and to pray for the preservation and return of his people’s health, and to hunt the nearby wetlands… but hunting had proven impossible since for days the rains had come down in sheets, refusing to let up, and leaving the animal trails muddy, flooded and often impassable by horse. And, so the bored king called,
“Thomas!”, cutting into the thoughts and breaking the reverie of that same said ‘Thomas’ as he descended the stairs from the private upper rooms…
“Come, Good Thomas, and enjoy a game with me!”
King Henry smiled broadly, finally some quarry caught. He spoke to the plain, but well and neatly dressed man who now approached, Sir Thomas More. Henry thought that perhaps if Wolsey, who had taken ill with the virulent sweat like so many others, should prove unable to continue in the task… He’d be sore to lose the wiley Wolsey but in that sad case, he might just cause a stir by raising More, to Lord High Chancellor, a post held only by clergymen.
More, who was Speaker of the House of Commons and privy councillor, had become particularly useful because many of Henry’s most important men of court, like Wolsey, lay ill themselves, or suffered closest relations who lay dead and dying. Having some considerable previous experience on the matter, it had initially been Wolsey who’d advised the king and council on what precautions to take while the sickness ran its course. As Cardinal Wolsey’s secretary, More assisted and continued his efforts to protect their monarch.
To his great distress, More’s own beloved daughter, Margaret, had also suffered, and it was said that the lady recovered from her extreme stupor only because of the enema administered to her at the direction of her loving and learned father.
It was now late June and all but one of the king’s privy chamber had been robbed of their good health and few, if any, of the great families were wholly untouched by death left in its absence.
For the moment, few were welcome nor disposed to the king’s presence. This allowed for More to shine in the king’s service during the recent outbreak, he’d served as a private secretary to the king, a go-between the king and most all of his affairs, writing and sending many missives and decrees over the previous weeks. He was a man particularly favored by the jovial, complicated king.
Thomas was one of his most clever statesmen… perhaps the most clever. Thomas, like Henry, was a thinker, and many nights they passed in good company together watching the stars and discussing, in earnest, life’s great questions.
Unlike the king, Thomas was humble. He never spoke out of turn nor allowed himself to be shown, through any prowess, the equal of the king. Thomas had a way of lending his own genius to the king seamlessly and without notice. He suited the king with his deep mind, thoughtful nature and constant manner. Something about Thomas comforted the king, and made him feel that his ideas were his own though Thomas often led the king to make conclusions. Thomas would lay out all the details of an issue and the king would, like a child reaching first achievements, triumphantly fill the gaps. The slightly older man had come up more meanly than most of Henry’s court, and his well-hidden, yet endlessly fruitful shrewdness was his greatest treasure. Henry prided himself on being an astute judge of character and he valued Thomas most highly.
Thomas quickly closed the space between them and swept into a low exaggerated bow, presenting himself formally into the king’s presence. Henry pretended to ignore the expected gesture but answered it by shoving the adjacent chair out from under the table with his foot, and waved grandly, indicating that Thomas should sit.
“It’ll be Mad Queen’s chess today, Thomas. Woman shall have the run of the board, as she has had in the world!”
He masked his obvious relief at the recent recoveries of his dearest sister and his favorite mistress.
“Because I’m having a good run… too good a run! I haven’t lost a game this fortnight, and I suspect I need a more apt partner if I am to continue to maintain any skill in the game, at all!”
Henry threw his head back and roared with laughter at his own joking observation, drawing a true smile and warm, indulgent chuckle from More. He knew Henry believed himself to be a far superior player than most at court, and this was not mere conceit, for why should he not be? He was King and he did play quite often… when he was indoors, at least.
As the king spoke, Thomas took the proffered seat. He had his own deep concerns that he too wished to forget for a moment. Between them, already waiting, was one of the royal household’s many beautiful chess sets, this one’s reddish black mahogany contrasted beautifully against the finest ivory inlay, for even while in self imposed exile, a king must live in some style. It sat atop the king’s personal game table, itself a small but lavish affair designed with only two in mind. The chess sets’ delicately carved pieces gleamed, reminding Thomas of things sharp and dangerous. Thomas’s smile faltered only imperceptibly as he pushed the thought away.
Thomas loved the king, but Henry was a dangerous man… no, not a man..a KING! And since coming into the king’s service, Thomas’s life itself often seemed to have become a dangerous game typified by this very moment. He was caught, caught in a conundrum, for he should not beat the king and risk souring his mood and good feelings, nor would it do for Thomas to lose and seem too foolish. A draw, Thomas thought, would be too tiresome and tedious to be hoped for or desired. And so he decided it best to give the king as good as he gave.
“Thank you, Your Grace, And I praise Heaven that this day finds you in good spirits, though trapped indoors by poor weather and too recent threat of malody.”
Thomas greeted the king, while his open hand gestured to the two perfect rows of chessmen opposite meant for himself, suggesting the King should move first.
“Well, now, with so good company, Thomas, I do find my spirits equivalent to their measure!”
The king spoke as he thoughtlessly moved the first pawn into play
“With that, I bask in highest praise, Highness.” said Thomas.
“But I shouldn’t like to fall from heights such as those, however, I, too, am grateful that together, we shall while away some of this dreary day and with a game of strategy to chase dull cobwebs from our minds. Alas, I shall forever endeavor to deserve such favor!”
More’s eyes twinkled, and his voice cracked with mirth, finding so much humor in the truth.
“Ah! But you have only to endeavor for your king! Whereas, I must endeavor for all. What business but mine has kept you so long from court and your company so long from my table? I do believe, Thomas, I have grown quite accustomed to you telling me what I might think!” retorted the king good-naturedly, but drawing his hand from above a piece he’d intended to move before he spied Thomas’s furrowed brow.
“I would that that were true, milord, but my masters are many and my loyalties divided by God and woman, both wife and daughter…”
“… those mercurial descendants of Melisine, every one of the sex!” the king interrupted Thomas to finish his sentence, and, thinking of the worry he had suffered while his Anne was ill, continued his own monologue,
“They do beguile and so frustrate poor mortal man, divorcing him: husband, suitor, lover, brother, father or friend; from all reason, to do their bidding and to suffer for their whims, do they not!?! Woman, or better by her plain name, ‘woe to man’ as Adam, choked by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge still caught in his throat, rightly saw fit to call her!”
“ Ah!” the king continued his half-mock rant,
“But, of course, we must live a life in homage to the chivalric knights for they, the weaker creatures, are ever dependent upon the better nature of man!”
More chuckled at the king’s melodramatic tirade, knowing full well how affected by women the king’s affairs had always been. They fell into easy conversation about women, forgetting the need to avoid those stately topics which worried them both. Instead, they allowed that dreamlike haze which speeds up time when one’s mind is occupied to wind itself around them, shutting out the world as they played on, happily absorbed in good company and good game.
Tap, tap, tap… a lull had fallen on their conversation and the king now tapped the edge of the board with a finely-carved, mahogany prisoner of war…his only captured piece, a lowly pawn, sacrificed early on for position. This gambit, the king had not declined, and Thomas had since developed the board in his favor.
For a forgotten moment in which time stood still, the pawn kept time with the king’s thoughts as he frowned, pondering the board and considering, intently, his next move. Thomas sat back quietly giving his sovereign room to ponder his tactic.
The storm had picked up again and it now raged, full force. It cracked with lightning and blew gales through the open corridor and into the great hall, threatening the candles and obscuring what meager light remained of the waning day. While others scrambled to maintain order in the windy chaos, the storm which whirled around them went mostly unnoticed by the comfortable pair, their eyes already grown accustomed to the light from the hearth that fired up the board’s warm tones, setting the board alight and making the pieces seem to come alive and dance.
Suddenly, Henry’s position changed, grinning, he sat up more erect, and in a flourish he swept up both his king and his rook. He inverted their positions, and replaced them on the board. His king was now in a much more secure position, and his rook had taken a more developed, protective stance.
“I am ‘castling!’ Thomas! After the latest fashion! And here, I’ll claim it for my own this day! Is chess not the ‘Game of Kings’, after all, Thomas? Why should I not? And with the queen and bishop so improved since ancient times! I protest the king’s vulnerability! I insist. The king must have additional protections, and without undue haste! My clever friend, Thomas, you do not now deny your king the challenge he’s requested! And well met!” boomed Henry triumphantly, the broadest smile making itself the dominant feature of his face.
It was Thomas’s turn to laugh aloud, for though this move was quite familiar to Thomas, it’s legitimacy as a proper move was hotly contested, and oft detested, in all circles. The charm of his king was evident, that he’d considered this move. It showed his savvy, and irreverence to all precedent, brashly chosen and boldly done… always, to the King’s advantage. He could indeed be the most canny of kings! It was just short of cheating. The king would choose to use his power, however great or small, to make the decisive move, and to simplify, without thought to detail or decorum. That very thing which made him so endearing, also made him a deadly dangerous dear.
Thomas hid his thoughts, he understood that the king, having been threatened with a loss, would now surely win the game by pushing the very boundaries of the rules. Just as Thomas understood that now the king would undoubtedly marry his ‘Madame d’ Bulian’, and the consequences be damned. He would bend and break old rules and he would make new rules. He alone would rule. He would take power and have his way, both in private and in public, in great matters and in small. Henry would have his ‘castle’ and promote his pawn to a queen. The king would, indeed, win this game. He alone would rule.
By Tiffany Brown-Hernandez,
written proudly, and with much gratitude, for Rebecca Larson’s Decamaron 2020
© Tiffany Brown-Hernandez & Tudors Dynasty