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The Autobiography of Henry VIII
With Notes by His Fool, will Somers a Novel
By Margaret George
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1986 Margaret George
All rights reserved.
Yesterday some fool asked me what my first memory was, expecting me to lapse happily into sentimental childhood reminiscences, as dotty old men are supposed to enjoy doing. He was most surprised when I ordered him out of the room.
But his damage was done; and I could not order the thought out of my mind as easily. What was my earliest memory? Whatever it was, it was not pleasant. I was sure of that.
Was it when I was six? No, I remember when my sister Mary was born, and that was when I was five. Four, then? That was when my other sister, Elizabeth, died, and I remembered that, horribly enough. Three? Perhaps. Yes. It was when I was three that I first heard cheers — and the words "only a second son."
* * *
The day was fair — a hot, still, summer's day. I was going with Father to Westminster Hall to be given honours and titles. He had rehearsed the ritual with me until I knew it perfectly: how to bow, when to prostrate myself on the floor, how to back out of the room before him. I had to do this because he was King, and I would be in his presence.
"You never turn your back to a king," he explained.
"Even though you are just my father?"
"Even so," he answered solemnly. "I am still your King. And I am making you a Knight of the Bath today, and you must be dressed in hermit's clothes. And then you will re-enter the Hall in ceremonial robes and be made Duke of York." He laughed a little dry laugh — like the scudding of leaves across a cobbled courtyard. "That will silence them, show them the Tudors have incorporated York! The only true Duke of York will be my son. Let them all see it!" Suddenly he lowered his voice and spoke softly. "You will do this before all the peers in the realm. You must not make a mistake, nor must you be afraid."
I looked into his cold grey eyes, the color of a November sky. "I am not afraid," I said, and knew that I spoke the truth.
* * *
Throngs of people came to watch us when we rode to Westminster through Cheapside. I had my own pony, a white one, and rode just behind Father on his great caparisoned bay. Even mounted, I was scarcely any taller than the wall of people on either side. I could see individual faces clearly, could see their expressions. They were happy, and repeatedly called blessings on us as we passed.
* * *
I enjoyed the ceremony. Children are not supposed to enjoy ceremonies, but I did. (A taste I have never lost. Did that begin here, as well?) I liked having all eyes in Westminster Hall on me as I walked the length of it, alone, to Father. The hermit's robes were rough and scratched me, but I dared not betray any discomfort. Father was sitting on a dais in a dark carved seat of royal estate. He looked remote and unhuman, a King indeed. I approached him, trembling slightly, and he rose and took a long sword and made me a knight, a member of the Order of the Bath. In raising the sword, he brushed lightly against my neck, and I was surprised at how cold the steel was, even on a high summer's day.
Then I backed slowly out of the hall and went into the anteroom where Thomas Boleyn, one of Father's esquires of the Body, was waiting to help me change into my rich red ceremonial robes made especially for today's occasion. That done, I re-entered the hall and did it all again; was made Duke of York.
* * *
I was to be honoured afterwards, and all the nobles and high- ranking prelates were to come and pay homage to me, recognizing me as the highest peer in England — after the King and my older brother Arthur. I know now, but did not understand then, what this meant. The title "Duke of York" was the favourite of pretenders, and so Father meant to exact oaths of loyalty from his nobles precluding their later recognizing any pretenders — for, after all, there cannot be two Dukes of York. (Just as there cannot be two heads of John the Baptist, although some Papalists persist in worshipping both!)
But I did not understand this. I was but three years old. It was the first time I had been singled out for anything of my own, and I was hungry for the attention. I imagined all the adults would cluster about me and talk to me.
It was quite otherwise. Their "recognition" consisted of a momentary glimpse in my direction, a slight inclination of the head. I was quite lost in the forest of legs (for so they appeared to me; I scarcely reached any man's waist) which soon arranged themselves into clusters of three, four, five men. I looked about for the Queen my mother, but did not see her. Yet she had promised to come. ...
A bleating fanfare announced that the dishes were being placed upon the long table running along the west wall of the hall. It had a great length of white linen upon it, and all the serving dishes were gold. They shone in the dull light, setting off the colour of the food within. Wine servers began to move about, carrying huge golden pitchers. When they came to me, I demanded some, and that made everyone about me laugh. The server demurred, but I insisted. He gave me a small chased silver cup and filled it with claret, and I drank it straight down. The people laughed, and this caught Father's attention. He glared at me as though I had committed a grave sin.
Soon I felt dizzy, and my heavy velvet robes made me sweat in the close air of the packed hall. The buzz of voices above me was unpleasant, and still the Queen had not come, nor any attention been paid me. I longed to return to Eltham and leave this dull celebration. If this were a festivity, I wanted no more of them and would not envy Arthur his right to attend them.
I saw Father standing somewhat apart, talking to one of his Privy Councillors — Archbishop Morton, I believe. Emboldened by the wine (for I was usually somewhat reluctant to approach Father), I decided to ask him to allow me to leave and return to Eltham straightway. I was able to approach him unobtrusively as I passed the clots of gossiping nobles and courtiers. My very lack of size meant that no one saw me as I moved closer to the King and stood back, half-hidden in folds of the wall-hanging, waiting for him to cease talking. One does not interrupt the King, even though one is the King's son.
Some words drifted to me. The Queen ... ill ...
Was my mother, then, prevented by illness from coming? I moved closer, straining to hear.
"But she must bury this sorrow," Morton was saying. "Yet each pretender opens the wound anew —"
"That is why today was necessary. To put a stop to all these false Dukes of York. If they could see how it hurts Her Grace. Each one ... she knows they are liars, pretenders, yet I fancied she looked overlong at Lambert Simnel's face. She wishes it, you see; she wishes Richard her brother to be alive." The King's voice was low and unhappy. "That is why she could not come to see Henry be invested with his title. She could not bear it. She loved her brother."
"Yet she loves her son as well." It was a question disguised as a statement.
The King shrugged. "As a mother is bound to love her son."
"No more than that?" Morton was eager now.
"If she loves him, it is for what he recalls to her — her father Edward. Henry resembles him, surely you must have seen that." Father took another sip of wine from his huge goblet, so that his face was hidden.
"He's a right noble-looking Prince," Morton nodded, so that his chin almost touched his furred collar.
"I give you his looks. Edward had looks as well. Do you remember that woman who cried out in the marketplace: 'By my troth, for thy lovely countenance thou shalt have even twenty pounds'? Pretty Edward. 'The Sun in Splendour' he called himself."
"Whereas we all know it should have been 'The King in Mistress Shore's Bed,'" Morton cackled. "Or was it Eleanor Butler's?"
"What matter? He was always in someone's bed. Remember that derisive ballad about 'lolling in a lewd love-bed'? Elizabeth Woodville was clever to exploit his lust. I do not wish to belittle the Queen's mother, but she was a tiresome old bitch. I feared she would never die. Yet we have been free of her for two years now. Praised be God!"
"Yet Henry — is he not —" Morton was clearly more interested in the living than the dead.
The King looked about him to make sure no one was listening. I pressed further into the curtain-fold, wishing myself invisible. "Only a second son. Pray God he will never be needed. Should he ever become King" — he paused, then lowered his voice to a whisper as he spoke the unspeakable words — "the House of Tudor would not endure. Just as the House of York did not survive Edward. He was handsome and a great soldier — I grant him that — but at bottom stupid and insensitive. And Henry is the same. England could survive one Edward, but never two."
"It will never come to that," said Morton smoothly. "We have Arthur, who will be a great king. The marks of greatness are already upon him. So learned. So stately. So wise — far beyond his eight years."
"Arthur the Second," murmured Father, his eyes dreamy. "Aye, it will be a great day. And Henry, perhaps, will be Archbishop of Canterbury someday. Yes, the Church is a good place for him. Although he may find the vows of celibacy a bit chafing. Do you, Morton?" He smiled coldly, a complicity acknowledged. Morton had many bastards.
"Your Grace —" Morton turned his face away in mock modesty, and almost saw me.
My heart was pounding. I pressed myself back into the curtains. They must not ever know I was nearby, and had heard. I wanted to cry — indeed, I felt tears fighting their way into my eyes — but I was too insensitive for that. The King had said so.
Instead, after I had stopped trembling and banished any hint of tears, I left my hiding-place and moved out among the gathered nobles, boldly talking to anyone I encountered. It was much remarked upon later.
* * *
I must not be hypocritical. Being a prince was good sometimes. Not in a material sense, as people suppose. Noblemen's sons lived in greater luxury than we did; we were the butt-end of the King's "economies," living and sleeping in Spartan quarters, like good soldiers. It is true we lived in palaces, and that word conjures up images of luxury and beauty — for which I must take some credit, as I have worked hard to make it true, in my own reign — but in my childhood it was otherwise. The palaces were relics of an earlier era — romantic, perhaps, steeped in history (here Edward's sons were murdered; here Richard II surrendered his crown), but decidedly uncomfortable: dark and cold.
Nor was it particularly adventuresome. Father did not travel very much, and when he did he left us behind. The first ten years of my life were spent almost entirely within the confines of Eltham Palace. Glimpses of anything beyond were, for all practical purposes, forbidden. Ostensibly this was for our protection. But it had the effect of cloistering us. No monk lived as austere, as circumscribed, as dull a life as I did for those ten years.
And that was fitting, as Father had determined that I must be a priest when I grew up. Arthur would be King. I, the second son, must be a churchman, expending my energies in God's service, not in usurping my brother's position. So, from the age of four, I received churchly training from a series of sad-eyed priests.
But even so, it was good to be a prince. It was good for elusive reasons I find almost impossible to set down. For the history of the thing, if you will. To be a prince was to be — special. To know when you read the story of Edward the Confessor or Richard the Lionheart that you had a mystic blood-bond with them. That was all. But enough. Enough for me as I memorized reams of Latin prayers. I had the blood of kings! True, it was hidden beneath the shabby clothes, and would never be passed on, but it was there nevertheless — a fire to warm myself against.CHAPTER 2
I should never have begun in such a manner. These jumbled thoughts cannot stand as a passable collection of impressions, let alone a memoir. I must put things in some reasonable order. Wolsey taught me that: always in order. Have I forgotten so soon?
I began it (I mean this journal) in a vain attempt to soothe myself several weeks ago while suffering yet another attack from my cursed leg. Perhaps I was so distracted by the pain that I was incapable of organizing my thoughts. Yet the pain has passed. Now if I am to do this thing, I must do it properly. I have talked about "Father" and "the King" and "Arthur" without once telling you the King's name. Nor which ruling family. Nor the time. Inexcusable!
The King was Henry VII, of the House of Tudor. But I must not say "House of Tudor" so grandly, because until Father became King it was not a royal house at all. The Tudors were a Welsh family, and (let us be honest) Welsh adventurers at that, relying rather heavily on romantic adventures of both bed and battle to advance themselves.
I am well aware that Father's genealogists traced the Tudors to the dawn of British history, had us descended directly from Cadwaller. Yet the first step to our present greatness was taken by Owen Tudor, who was clerk of the wardrobe to Queen Catherine, the widow of Henry V. (Henry V was England's mightiest military king, having conquered a large portion of France. This was some seventy years before I was born. Every common Englishman knows this now, but will he always?) Henry and the French king's daughter married for political reasons and had a son: Henry VI, proclaimed King of England and France at the age of nine months. But Henry V's sudden death left his twenty-one-year-old French widow alone in England.
Owen's duties were such that he was in constant company with her. He was comely; she was lonely; they wed, secretly. Yes, Catherine (daughter to one king, wife to another, mother of yet a third) polluted — so some say — her royal blood with that of a Welsh rogue. They had two sons, Edmund and Jasper, half-brothers to Henry VI.
But Catherine died in her mid-thirties, and Owen's sufferance was up. Henry VI's Protector's Council ordered "one Owen Tudor the which dwelled with the said Queen Catherine" to appear before them, because "he had been so presumptuous as by marriage with the Queen to intermix his blood with the royal race of Kings." Owen first refused to come, but later came and was imprisoned in Newgate twice, twice escaping. He was elusive and supremely clever. After his second escape he made his way back to Wales.
Once Henry VI came to maturity and discarded his Protector, he treated Owen's two sons kindly. He created Edmund Earl of Richmond, and Jasper Earl of Pembroke. And Henry VI — poor, mad, sweet thing — even found a proper Lancastrian bride for his half-brother Edmund: Margaret Beaufort.
To recount these histories is like unravelling a thread: one means only to tell one little part, but then another comes in, and another, for they are all part of the same garment — Tudor, Lancaster, York, Plantagenet.
So I must do what I dreaded: go back to Edward III, innocent source of all the late troubles. I say innocent because what king does not wish an abundance of sons? Yet Edward's troubles, and those of the next generations, stemmed from his very prolificness.
Edward, who was born almost two hundred years before me, had six sons. A blessing? One would have thought so. But in truth they were a curse that echoes to this day. The eldest, Edward, was called the Black Prince. (Why I do not know, although I believe it was from the liveries his retainers customarily wore. He was a great warrior.) He died before his father, and thus his son, Edward's grandson, came to the throne as Richard II.
Now Edward's other sons were William, who died young; Lionel, Duke of Clarence, from whence ultimately sprang the House of York; John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, progenitor of the House of that name; Edmund, Duke of York (later the heirs of Clarence and Edmund married, uniting those claims), and finally Thomas of Woodstock, ancestor of the Duke of Buckingham.
It happened thus: Henry, son of John of Gaunt, deposed his cousin Richard II and was crowned Henry IV. His son was Henry V, who married the Queen Catherine Valois, who afterwards married Owen Tudor.
Excerpted from The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George. Copyright © 1986 Margaret George. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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