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A lone falcon circled the colorless sky above the River Thames, high at first, then dropping lower to gaze at the waterfowl bobbing amid anchored shallops and ships on the murky water. White swans arched their necks, posing for the other, lesser birds. Ducks and geese wagged their wings but did not make to fly. Perhaps they didn't care to, or perhaps they didn't know they could. Regardless, they seemed dully content to probe the filthy river for fish and insects to fill their bellies yet another day. It was the falcon alone that could see them for what they were and what they were not. It tilted its head haughtily and rose up again.
The regal bird passed over the grand Whitehall Palace beside the river and turned down by one of the many arched windows of the palace's chapel, where King Henry VIII and his mistress, Anne Boleyn, knelt upon cushions before an elegantly carved, marble altar topped with golden chalices and crosses to receive Mass from the king's chaplain. Up the falcon flew again, beyond the palace, over cottages, stables, and taverns, to an area much poorer, much less tended than the king's palace.
A simple church stood on a muddy knoll, flanked by a stone wall and a cemetery filled with cracked and tipping gravestones. The falcon landed on the church's windowsill. Inside, Mass was being performed to a congregation that was plainly dressed and poorly groomed.
At the wooden altar, separated from the worshippers by a rood screen, priests and altar boys went about the sacred ceremony. Nooks in the walls held statues and images of the saints, illuminated with the glow of burning tapers.
The congregation kneeled on the floor, for there were no seats. One at a time, the worshippers crept forward to receive the sacraments from the chanting priests.
"Suscipe, sancte Pater, omnipotens aeterne Deus..."
As the falcon watched, the door to the church blew open, and a cluster of young men, laughing and cuffing each other on the shoulder, poured into the chapel.
"Deo meo vivo et vero...," the priests continued in monotonic voices, ignoring the young men.
The congregation scowled at the intruders but returned their attention to the service.
"In spiritu humilitatis, et in animo contrito..."
The apparent leader of the gang shoved his hands against his hips and crowed, "Fuck the pope!"
There were gasps about the chapel, but the men only seemed encouraged by the shock and disapproval. They stomped about, pushing the kneeling supplicants out of the way, blowing out the tapers, and knocking the painted statues from their nooks.
An ashen-faced priest shook his finger at the ruffians. "For the love of God! Good people, I beg you to stop. This is a sacred ceremony."
The apprentices laughed more loudly, and the ringleader strode through the open door of the rood screen, sending altar boys scattering.
"Fuck off, you fat overfed priest!" the ringleader shouted. His entourage cheered. One of the others picked up a small statue and jabbed it with a sharp pin.
"Look at that! You see? They don't bleed! They're just fucking wood!"
The ringleader grabbed the bowl holding the Body of Christ from the priest and declared, "What is this?" He turned the bowl over, scattering the bits of unleavened bread.
Women and children hugged each other, pulling tightly together and away from the intruders. Men held their wives and glared at the apprentices.
"Please," said the priest, "go away! Leave us alone."
Several angry men stood and moved in unison toward the ruffians. Seeing they might soon be outnumbered, the apprentices backed toward the door. The ringleader bounded over the railing of the screen with a howl, and joined his friends.
"You should be ashamed!" declared the priest. "This is sacrilege!"
"No," shouted the ringleader. "It's the future!"
With a final, echoing roar, the apprentices ran from the church.
The falcon blinked, stretched its wings, and rose above the din.
"Tell me, Mr. Cromwell," said the king. "How are the improvements to Hampton Court proceeding?"
Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII's secretary, stood to the side as Henry considered himself in the large looking glass. Two grooms, dressed in black with the red Tudor rose embroidered on the breast of their jerkins, sprayed the king from head to toe with bottles of lavender flower water. The drapes in the king's bedchamber were pulled back, allowing an intense stream of sunlight into the room. The light danced on the floor, the mirror's surface, and the king's dark hair, surrounding his head with a crown of light.
"Well, Your Majesty," Cromwell said, "work has already begun on the new great hall."
"And the new palace at St. James?"
"It already boasts some fine lodgings for Your Majesty. And sixty acres of nearby marshland have been drained, to make a park stocked with deer for your greater commodity and pleasure."
Henry held up his hand to stop the grooms from spraying the waters. He stared silently at the mirror, taking in his appearance. He was a handsome man; none could deny it. A handsome man with incredible power. A man to whom all men of England, in their most secret of hearts, compared themselves, and with whom all women, regardless of station or age, imagined themselves abed.
"When the royal manor house at Hanworth is refurbished," Henry said, "it is to be presented to the Lady Anne Boleyn."
Cromwell nodded. Henry dismissed the grooms, and turned from the mirror. His head tilted slightly. "Are you married, Mr. Cromwell?"
"Yes. I have a wife and son."
"You must present them to me one day."
Henry walked to Cromwell and put his hand on the man's shoulder. His expression was hard, but then it softened. "I have made a decision to admit you to the Privy Council," he said, "as our legal advisor."
Cromwell's breath caught at the announcement, but he did not let the surprise register on his face. He was never a man to let his emotions show. Such was weakness.
Sir Thomas More, King Henry's chancellor, strolled through the corridors of the court in his black robes, moving purposefully as courtiers bowed and stepped out of his way. He glanced at some of them briefly, acknowledging their deference.
A face in the crowd caught his attention. It was the Imperial ambassador to England, Eustace Chapuys. Chapuys was a tall man, with a cap of curly hair and a prominent nose, dressed in brown brocade trimmed in pearls. More hesitated as Chapuys bowed, but he continued walking. Chapuys fell in step beside the chancellor.
"Ambassador Chapuys," said More without looking at the man. "I thought you had abandoned us."
"I did. Or tried to." Chapuys took a breath and his voice lowered. "But, in all conscience, how could I ever abandon Her Majesty? She is the most gracious and wonderful woman in the world. And the saddest."
"I agree with you."
The ambassador's voice dropped even more. "So does the emperor. He has written this letter of encouragement and support for your efforts on her behalf." He held out a folded paper. More, shocked, glanced about and pulled Chapuys into an alcove.
"I beg of you not to deliver it to me!" More whispered through clenched teeth. "Although I have given more than sufficient proof of my loyalty to the king, I must do nothing to provoke suspicion...considering the times we live in."
Chapuys quickly tucked the letter back into the folds of his jacket.
"I don't want to be deprived of the liberty which allows me to speak boldly," continued More, "in private, about those matters which concern your master. And the queen."
"I understand. You need say no more," Chapuys replied.
"Remember I have already offered my affectionate service to the emperor."
Chapuys nodded. He remembered. More strode away toward the king's quarters, fresh sweat caught beneath his arms and at the brim of his cap.
As More entered the king's private chambers, Thomas Cromwell was on his way out. Each bowed to the other. More approached the king, who stood with his arms crossed in the center of the room, and stooped low. He was not looking forward to this conversation, for it would be painful for them both.
"Sir Thomas," said Henry evenly.
"Majesty." More stood, his gaze meeting the king's.
"I must tell you," said the king. "I have received a petition from the members of the House of Commons, complaining about the cruel behavior and abuses of the prelates and the clergy, touching both their bodies and their goods." His lips pursed. "Thomas, people are asking for freedom from clerical rule. The members implore me to establish my jurisdiction over the church. In that way, I can bring all my subjects, both clerical and lay, into perpetual unity."
"Your Majesty knows very well that I have always condemned the abuses of the clergy, when they have been brought to light. As your chancellor, I've worked hard to eliminate them, and purify our Holy Church..."
"You know where I stand," More said. "You have always known. I'm fully acquainted with the frailty of we poor worldly men. That is why I cannot condone the newfangled version of private belief and personal grace." The rhythm of his speech picked up; he could not help himself. "For me, the Church is and always will be the permanent and living sign of God's presence, sustained by inherited custom and maintained by tradition. It is a visible, palpable community, not just a few 'brethren' gathered in secret rooms."
Clearly the king heard the fervor in More's voice. Henry strode away across the floor, hands drawing into fists. He turned back, his face darkened. "Then you will speak out against me?"
More shook his head. "My loyalty and love for Your Majesty is so great that I will never say a word against you in public, so help me God."
The king did not challenge this declaration of devotion, but his expression told More that His Majesty was not quite convinced.
The dining room of Thomas Cromwell's home was filled with laughter and convivial conversation. Though not as elegant as the royal dining chambers, the room was nonetheless impressive, with oak paneling, a marble fireplace, and a massive wrought-iron chandelier bearing countless white candles.
Seated before a spread of roast duck, vegetables, and freshly baked breads, Cromwell and his guests, George Boleyn, son of Thomas Boleyn, and the poet Thomas Wyatt -- young, ambitious men both -- drank fine wine from pewter tankards. Servants moved in and out a rear door, bringing even more food on broad silver trays -- meat pies, roast tongue, broiled fish.
The dining room's main door opened, and another young man entered the room. He was dressed modestly in gray and black.
"Mr. Cranmer," announced Cromwell, standing and motioning the visitor to the table while flicking his fingers to send the servants out.
"I'm sorry to be late, Mr. Cromwell," said Cranmer, removing his hat and bowing respectfully. "It's unforgivable."
"Nonsense," said Cromwell as he shook his visitor's hand. In turn, Cranmer nodded at the other two men. "We haven't begun to dine. It's very good to see you."
"Mr. Cranmer," said Wyatt, his cup poised at his lips. "You're a man of the cloth, I believe?"
"Yes, sir. And are you not a poet, Mr. Wyatt?"
Wyatt grinned. "That's the least of my sins, Mr. Cranmer. You may take my confession after supper."
"I wouldn't," joked Cromwell. "It would certainly turn your hair white!"
The men laughed, and Cranmer took a seat beside Wyatt. Cromwell held up the flagon of wine, and Cranmer nodded appreciatively. Cromwell poured a tankard for his newest guest.
As Cranmer tasted the wine, Cromwell leaned forward on his elbows and rubbed his chin with his thumb. "Before you arrived," he said, "we were discussing the progress of the Convocation of Bishops, which, as you know, is now sitting at Westminster to decide whether the king is to be made head of the Church."
Wyatt and George sat back in their chairs. Wyatt crossed his arms.
"In the absence of the Duke of Norfolk," continued Cromwell, "His Majesty has wisely appointed George Boleyn here to negotiate with Their Graces."
George nodded. "I find most of the bishops accommodating. Of course, there are a few stubborn exceptions."
Cranmer put his cup down. "Bishop Fisher, I assume?"
"May I ask who else?"
"The archbishop himself, Warham, after years of being perfectly pliable, has suddenly become rather intransigent."
"That's because Warham's old," explained Wyatt. "And consequently closer to his Maker, to whom in due course he must explain himself."
Cromwell tapped the tabletop. "It should be a simple matter to explain that he helped liberate his Church from superstition, religious falsehoods, and clerical greed."
Wyatt raised his cup. "Touché."
The men smiled in unison. Cromwell passed the flagon for all to refill their tankards.
"By the way," George asked Cromwell, "how is our friend the Duke of Norfolk?"
"The king has sent him away, to York. He hates it." Cromwell took a long sip of wine. It was the best his household had had in years, warming his throat and his belly. "He invited me to stay with him. He wrote me a rather teasing letter, saying that if I didn't, quote, 'lust after his wife,' then he could easily supply me with 'a young woman with pretty proper breasts.'"
The men laughed again, and Cromwell shouted for the servants. The rest of the food was delivered to the table, and the men changed the subject of their conversation.
The blare of horns and roll of tabor drums cut the air of the magnificent Great Hall at Westminster, and all in attendance craned their heads and shifted about to see the monarch's arrival.
"All arise for the king!" called the chamberlain. He banged his staff and those who were not already up, stood, and bowed deeply.
King Henry entered the room dressed in blue doublet and silver-threaded coat trimmed in ermine, his crowned head cocked back. To the king's right walked Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk and Henry's friend and companion since childhood. To the king's left was Thomas Boleyn, the new Earl of Wiltshire. Several paces behind the king, moving with the nobles of second rank, walked George Boleyn, and following up the procession, in official scarlet robes, was Thomas More, his face stoic save for the slight pinching at the corners of his eyes.
The king took the dais in a broad stride and sat upon his throne to gaze out at the gathering. Archbishop Warham, an elderly man of bent body and spotted cheeks, stood at the front of the crowd. Beside him was Bishop Fisher, arms steady at his side, his mouth a tight line across his face.
Drumming his fingers on the arms of his throne, Henry studied his subjects. "My lords," he said at last, "and Your Graces. We have come here among you to hear your response to the charges and responsibilities laid against you. You are generally charged with supporting the authority of the late Cardinal Wolsey and the Bishop of Rome, against those of your own king and country."
Bishop Fisher, clearly disgusted, shook his head at the remark. Though many in the room had been dabbed with sweet waters prior to coming before the king, More could smell sour tension in the air.
The king linked his fingers together. "Some among you may suppose that I am here to seek personal advantage. It is not so. As your king, I am commissioned to restore a right order on earth and assert the immunities and princely liberties of our realm and crown. This is my sacred duty, sealed before God by solemn oath at my coronation."
No one spoke. No one nodded.
Henry trained his eyes on the old archbishop next to Fisher. "What is your conclusion, Archbishop Warham?"
"Your Majesty," Warham replied in a rasping voice. "Before I deliver it, I give way to His Grace the Bishop of Rochester."
Henry's eyes narrowed, but he nodded.
"My lords," Fisher said, stepping forward and turning to address his fellows.
"We have been asked to admit His Majesty as supreme head of the Church in England. Unfortunately we cannot grant this to the king without abandoning our unity with the Holy See of Rome. If we are to renounce the unity of the Christian world and leap out of Peter's ship, then we shall be drowned in the waves of all heresies, sects, schisms, and divisions."
Thomas More noticed dissent in the crowd, whispered complaints by those who felt it best to agree with the king's position. The murmurings grew louder as Fisher continued to speak.
"I say to you, the acceptance of regal supremacy over our church would represent a tearing of the seamless coat of Christ asunder!"
Many of the clergy nodded at this, and their voices rose to tangle with those who disagreed with Fisher. The king leaned forward on his throne, his eyes widening in furor.
"Your Grace!" cried the chamberlain, pounding his staff on the floor. "We will have your judgment!"
The bishop grew silent. More let out a breath and gave the circumstance up to God.
All eyes fell upon Warham.
"I will put this proposal to Convocation," Warham said carefully, "that Your Majesty has a new title, which is Supreme Head of the Church and Clergy of England..."
The king stared at the old archbishop, waiting for the rest of the proposal.
"But I add the caveat, 'so far as the law of Christ allow.'"
The king did not move, but his gaze traveled the room, taking in each of the clergy. More felt the appraisal on him, searing like a brand, and then felt it move on.
"Those in favor?" asked Warham.
No one in the room spoke. Henry frowned.
Warham cleared his throat. "Very well," he said. "Qui tacet consentire videtur. Whoever remains silent can be assumed to agree."
Still, no one spoke. Some of them looked at Fisher as if for direction, but he merely crossed himself and lowered his head.
The bishops had given assent, though unwillingly.
Henry sat back in his throne. More could see the king was not pleased, though he had gotten what he had wanted. Well, al- most all.
* * * *
But ever the nearer he was,
The more he burned --
The nearer the fire, the hotter, as all this company knows...
Anne Boleyn placed her hand upon the page, upon Chaucer's epic, and wondered about poets and their understanding of the human heart and desires. She thought for a moment that should she have been born a man, she would have liked to have penned such thoughtful words.
But, she thought, should I have been born a man, I would not have found my heart's desire, Henry!
She reclined on her window seat, book against her knees, one finger twisting a strand of hair. Warm sunlight blanketed her lap.
Not an hour of the day passed
that he said not to himself a thousand times,
"Goodly one whom I labor to serve as best I can,
Now would to God,
Criseyde, you would pity me before I die!"...
Movement in the room brought her from her reverie, and she sat up, startled. It was Henry, smiling down at her. She put the book aside and began to rise.
"No. Stay like that," said Henry. He knelt and kissed her bare shoulders. "You're so beautiful. So very...desirable." He lifted her face to his and kissed her fully. "I need to possess you utterly."
Anne felt his heart, his soul, his desire burning in his hands, in his lips. She returned the kiss, hungrily, then threw back her head and moaned softly. A fire erupted in her belly and her private place, a dreadful, delicious ache that demanded to be acknowledged, to be tended. She drew her legs around the king's waist, and he threw up her skirts.
The king groaned loudly, his teasing, insistent hand traveling up her leg toward the center of her longing. "I can't wait!" he whispered through his teeth.
But then Anne drew his face up to hers with one hand, and his probing fingers down and away with the other. She closed her legs and brushed down her skirts. "Oh, my love," she panted. "Just a little longer, and then..."
Henry snarled and raised his eyes Heavenward as if in divine surrender, but then laughed. He gathered his lady in his arms and tucked his cheek against hers.
After a long, tender moment, he said, "I am made Head of the Church."
"So it has happened!" Anne exclaimed. "Now you can do as you will!"
Henry nodded, kissed Anne's cheek, and stood to leave. "I'm going to tell Cromwell to have some apartments in the Tower refurbished. Every queen of England stays there before her coronation."
Anne blew her king a kiss and, with a dramatic bow, he left the room. Wrapping her arms about her waist, she imagined they were her lover's arms, there forever, never to leave her.
There was a cough. Anne turned to see her father standing in the rear doorway, looking very unhappy.
"Papa! What's wrong?" she asked. "Don't you want to celebrate?"
Thomas Boleyn scowled. "It's far too early for that. The bishops were not really defeated. By default, they voted to make the king head of the Church, but only 'as far as the law of Christ allows.' You don't have to be a clever lawyer to know that 'the law of Christ' may be used to invalidate the vote itself."
Anne's breath caught. "It was all for nothing?"
"No, not for nothing. The principle has now been effectively conceded by most of them. As George told me, their resistance and recalcitrance really stem from only one man, that bloody Bishop Fisher."
Anne picked up her book, stared at it, but then tossed it aside in frustration. Her father walked over and touched her hair. "So," he said, "if he can be...persuaded...to act properly, then I trust our quarrels will soon be over. And we shall indeed have cause to celebrate."
Copyright © 2008 by Showtime Networks Inc. and Peace Arch Television LTD