As today is the anniversary of the death of King Henry VIII in 1547, Beth von Staats, Tudor Life magazine contributor and author of Thomas Cranmer in a Nutshell, has written a very moving piece of fiction about Henry VIII's final days from the viewpoint of Thomas Cranmer. I do hope you enjoy it.
It is time for the Lord to act; they have frustrated Your law. ~~~ Psalm 119:126
26 January 1547
"Denny broke the news to His Majesty today, Your Grace. The King's suffering nears its end. We feared to wait for you, for even traveling from Croyton may lead to His Majesty passing from this world unknowing, unable to make peace with his God."
I look to Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, his words said with gentle softness, and nod. Sir William Paget rests his hand on my shoulder as I speak. "Sir Anthony is a blessing to His Majesty, his task noble. O Lord do strengthen him in these dark days, I pray."
Sir Anthony Denny, how can ever we thank his noble service? The loving care he provides His Majesty is saintly, though an evangelical he is in truth. Master of the Stool to a dying monarch, though an honored title, is thankless indeed, no earthly reward sufficient. This man's services to the realm are as taxing as any warrior, as any a ghastly vocation in all Christendom. Not many would abide it if the truth was known. Who could blame? His Majesty's wounds ooze pitifully I am told, the stench bending to spew many a man. Though riches and property are Denny's earthly rewards, God will reward him further still. Yes, we are justified by the Lord by our faith alone, but there must be God's cherished love for the likes of this. After a quiet moment of reflection for His Majesty's trusted servant, I startle slightly, Sir William Paget, my closest layman ally since dearest Cromwell, my Earl of Essex died, breaking the blaring silence.
"Your Grace, my Lord of Hertford and I know you pain more than any man. We see it plain. You look exhausted from prayer, obviously not taking time for nourishment or to direct your privy servant to shave your growing stubble. Even thus, we must speak plain and plan for dear Prince Edward's ascendancy to kingship."
His Majesty no longer able to chide me, I shall never shave again -- a clean face the vestments of clergy governed by the Antichrist. Do I admit my stubble is of my choice? No, let the tongues wag later. I look up and swallow hard. "Though the task heartbreaking, yes we must. Do carry on, good man."
My Lord of Hereford readies to speak, and I rise my hand to halt him. I desire first to hear from dearest Paget, a man with no blood between my beloved Godson and the crown. He begins to falter, stumbling on his words. “Master Secretary, speak what you must. You are among the trusted few you can.”
"Your Grace, the Council His Majesty has commanded... It is doomed to failure I fear. We must find a way around it."
The poor man seems relieved to finally speak his peace. I'll allay him further. "Yes, you state the obvious, dear man. Per His Majesty's expressed commands, no man must ever resign the council, no man ever relieved of duty, no matter the travesty. This shall lead to chaos I fear, one man against another, turmoil and manipulations rather than good judgment ruling this very realm."
I look to both men who are nodding in agreement. I venture on. "Here is our chance gentlemen, our chance we long awaited to rid this realm of idols, relics, the very Eucharist itself. This must not be delayed by the indecisiveness that ruling by council would bring. Souls are in the balance."
Both men are stunned cold, Paget's mouth hung open wide. My trusted secretary Ralph Morice instead smiles knowingly.
"Hear! Hear! You changed your stance on the Eucharist, Your Grace? Since when did you reach this revelation?" asks my Lord of Hertford.
I am determined these men finally know my mind, but the particulars need not be so clear. Bishop Ridley, my beloved personal chaplain and I decided finally upon it. That be that. "Dearest Cromwell, may he rest with the peace of what is to come, did teach me, and these be his very words. 'There be no need for reformist martyrs, Your Grace. Wait for the opportunity, then seize it. Until then, keep your thoughts and ambitions close.' He spoke truth, because here I still stand despite the great efforts of myne enemies, now much to accomplish for God's glory, for the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."
Both men smile broadly, my words most welcome indeed. My Lord of Hertford tries to speak once more. I again raise my hand to stifle him, then placing my finger before my lips to make my point. "Master Secretary what are your recommendations then?"
"Despite His Majesty's expressed commands, this realm must have a Lord Protector. I know his mind. The king fears the power of one man may undermine the ascendancy of a child, lest we forget the poor sons of King Edward, fourth of that name."
Both Hertford and I nod in agreement, as he speaks truth. I motion Paget continue.
"His Majesty is wise to think such, but I see no other way. The boy is but nine years old. Governance cannot be frozen nine long years by the inevitable debates and posturing of several men who lack like mind while we wait for Prince Edward to mature from child to king. I urge the realm be ruled by a Lord Protector, with a supporting Privy Council, the very men His Majesty trusts as he made known."
Before Herford can speak, I cut him off. The idea put forth must not be viewed as his, as to do so may later unravel his very credibility. Does Hertford not know why I stifled him thus far? "His Majesty is wise, but I do agree with you, dear man."
I look to Hertford once more and inquire with all earnestness. "My Lord of Hertford, of all the men in this realm, you are most suited to be Lord Protector. You share the very blood of our beloved Prince soon king. You adhere to the true religion, and you are wise of governance."
He smiles broadly, but I am not done. "Before I thrust my wholehearted support, do tell me what your goals as Lord Protector would be?"
He squirms just a little, good. I am Archbishop of Canterbury, duty bound to His Majesty still. If I sway from the king's intentions once God takes him home, I must be sure all be in the best interests of Prince Edward, who I then owe my full allegiance and submission, as is God's Holy Word in the Book of Solomon.
"Your Grace, myne foremost goal and obligation is to raise Prince Edward to be our Empire's first great Protestant King, of course. You may select his religious scholars, while I will attend to his worldly education. He is a bright child, with much potential to be the grandest king in all Europe, in all the world. I desire most to bring England to the true religion, while also growing our wealth and knowledge among the people. We must also prepare for any wars upon our shores. Alas, I believe we owe to the poorest in the realm, the wretched souls. They suffer much."
Ah, the man speaks true, though I knew he would. "And what would you need from me and the clergy, my Lord?"
"The liturgy for the Church of England, stated common in all religious houses throughout this glorious realm, ever church, every abbey, all clergy sermonizing same. O Lord make it so.", says Lord Hereford with all conviction.
Paget and I smile broadly. Dearest Cromwell held great hope for this young man, not without just cause I do see. I ask my dearest secretary, Ralph Morice, whose gracious silence holds my utmost trust, to pour us all some wine. With His Majesty on his death bed, this be no time for toasts. I merely sip upon the claret, and speak most humbly. "You have my support, dear man. My Lord, all you ask I will do most diligently. God is my witness."
Hertford leans over, placing his hand gently upon my arm. "And what then do you need from me, Your Grace? If the council agrees, and I become Lord Protector of this realm as you suggest, what may I do to ease your way as head of the clergy?" he asks in devout sincerity.
I pause. This must not go unsaid. My promise is my solemn oath, our vows God's truth. I try and speak casually, as if what I state next is as mundane as discussing abbey finance. I breathe in deep, blow the breath out and begin. "I do confess I already wrote to my wife Margarete in Nuremburg and stated my desire she prepare to come home to me, along with my daughter. Both I pine pitifully for since the Six Articles became His Majesty's truth."
I stunned Hertford and Paget again, catching both completely off their guard. Hertford's eyes grow wide, while Paget nervously smiles. What skips through their minds is known but to them and God. I sigh, and dear Ralph Morice motions I be out with it. "All I ask for me and for the clergy of this realm is that my family finally be allowed to live our lives openly, as example to the world of God's scriptural truth, and as the greatest desire of myne heart."
Ralph Morice smiles approvingly. My confidences he holds close, bless his soul. My Lord of Hertford shakes his head disbelievingly and clears his throat as we all await a response to my simple request of basic dignity.
"Of course, Your Grace. Celibacy is of pagan thought, not God's. It has no place in England's clergy. We shall build a truly evangelical realm, together."
The weight lifts off my shoulders, carried these many years. "Thank you, my Lord."
Hertford rubs his fingers through his beard and adds, "I had no idea Your Grace, none. You kept your secret close indeed. My spies had no word of it."
Both Ralph Morice and I then smile broadly, releasing the tension thick in the midst of us. I motion to Morice. "Besides my trusted secretary, only dearest Cromwell knew, and he took the secret of my wife and daughter with him to the scaffold."
I offer with a nervous laugh in all good humor and chide, "The Lord Privy Seal's spies be much better than yours, my Lord."
The King's Secretary, always astute and thorough, chimes in to break the moment of my humble confessions. Mayhap he desires the subject closed, awkward that it be. Paget, yes he is wise. Let's do move on, O Lord I pray.
"Your Grace.... My Lord, we must not forget the dog in the Tower. What do we do with Norfolk if His Majesty is called home to the Lord before the execution? His Majesty is fading, and the deed is not set for two days hence," states Paget.
I allow my Lord of Hertford to speak his peace. If he is going to be Lord Protector, let him start now. Norfolk, both he and Gardiner, along with Bonner and their lot did upend my dearest Cromwell, and nearly me but for the grace of His Majesty's heart, his warnings and his signet ring gifted to save me. I wish the toad dead. God forgive me.
"I pray His Majesty lives so his commands unfold, but if God calls him home, I do think we move cautiously. Blood on the hands of new governance will not sit well with the people of this realm. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, will languish in The Tower until he shrivels and rots on to death. To kill him outright may spurn insurgency. We need that not."
My disappointment is obvious, but I say nothing.
"I am sorry, Your Grace. Revenge must not be our priority. The time is not right. With any luck, Norfolk will give us just cause later, once we secure the trust of Parliament and the people."
I nod approvingly. "Yes, no decision best be made in anger. My resentment and desire for revenge I will atone. I shall seek God's loving forgiveness this night in my prayers."
I look to these three fine men, one the King's trusted secretary, another mine, and God willing of council agreement, yet another my beloved Prince Edward's, soon king, steadfast protector and say simply, "God's will be done."
In the midst of life, we are in death... Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy... Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be like unto his glorious body. ~~~ Thomas Cranmer, The Book of Common Prayer
28 January 1547
"Your Grace, Praise the Lord you are here. His Majesty is fading quickly. Though he speaks not, he lives still."
I place my hand gently on the arm of Sir Anthony Denny. The man looks racked, as if languishing in Tower many a year, tortured without end. "Go take rest, good man. God knows you need it."
He drops his eyes to the floor. "His Majesty asked for you, Your Grace, near his last words. He desires your presence when he slips on to God."
My beloved Sir Anthony, without his intercession along with mine trusted secretary, I would surely had been devoured by the wolves long by now. I tap his shoulder. "Look at me, good man."
As he raises up his gaze, I say simply, "The King and I weathered many a trial and tribulation together. I need no words to know his heart."
Denny attempts a faint smile, and I gaze through to his soul. "This be God's will, aye God's will, dear man. From all evil, from all sin, from all tribulation, the good Lord will surely deliver him. Have faith, and His Majesty will too."
I sigh as I pat his arm gently. "Now let me go do what must be done."
He nods and motions toward the door. I find my courage with God's loving grace and quietly enter. The rank stench of His Majesty's wounds hits me like the blunt end of a lance in a joust. I seek quickly a piss pot, spewing forth all within. My innards not satisfied, dry heaves overcome my every being.
"Your Grace... Your Grace...," I hear through my misery.
Finally, I look up and one of His Majesty's tormenting doctors begins helping me to my feet, whilst another washes my face and stubble with a wet cloth.
"Rub this pungent poultice under your nose, Your Grace. It will help what ails you by masking the odors."
I gladly comply and trade one putrid scent for another, but it be bearable, thank the Lord. A tad weak at the knees still, I look around. Six men gaze upon me as if I am Jesus Himself. I venture, "Is there any more you can do to ease the king's suffering?"
They sway their heads to and fro, looking down as if ashamed of their incompetence. I wave them off dismissively. "Then go, please. No more is needed for now. God be with you."
One of the doctors offers, "I wish to stay and attend to you, Your Grace. This room sickens the strongest of men."
I say softly, thankful for his kindness, "His Majesty and I must be alone, but you may wait just outside, good man. I will gratefully call upon you if need be."
I smile as he nods and the doctors retreat, and then turn to His Majesty. My heart fills with both love and mourning at the sight of the great man, God's king on earth. Grotesquely swollen, liquid leaching from every pore, my stomach readies to spew once more, but the Lord lovingly intervenes and I settle. A comfortable chair placed beside the king's majestic bed for my benefit, I sit upon it and then rest my hand upon one of his, my fingers resting upon the very signet ring that once saved myne very life. "I am here, Majesty. It be myne honor you beckoned I come."
I feel him hold on to my hand, though weakly, with purpose. His Majesty, he knows I am with him. Praise be to God. If he knows I am here, surely he knows God is too. Surely he will trust in the Lord in his last moments. His Majesty's soul will be saved with my help, and with a grateful heart my last service will be done onto him.
Though His Majesty did once make me promise in a small moment of weakness after Queen Jane passed over to the Lord, there will be no last rites, no extreme unction. We are brought to the Lord by our faith and faith alone. For the last fortnight, I dwelt, worried, and prayed most earnestly. Do I follow His Majesty's expressed wishes? Do I keep my promises to him?
In the morning light of conscience last night, God gave me His answer. Yes, we are brought forth to the Lord by our faith and faith alone. This is God's truth, and no man can overrule Him, not even my noble Majesty to whom all else I submitted, even at the expense of myne own values and conscience, his word always supreme.
Overcome with emotion, tears well. I am unashamed. His Majesty saw my tears before, the last time when first meeting after dear Cromwell breathed his last, brought forth to the Lord by his faith and the ax. Few words were spoken. The letter already written and sent, he knew my heart.
"Your Grace, what is done I had to do. From this day forth, I rule the council. I trust no man but you, no man." From that day on, I lived in fear I would lose that trust and tread with the caution of a man hunted, my faith and truth kept close to save my very skin to await what now lays ahead -- a new day, a new dawn, a Protestant England.
I venture carefully, speaking softly as a church mouse. We are alone with God, but are we really? "Majesty, as scripture says in the Book of John, 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.' Do you trust in our Lord God?"
Silence blares as loud as canon fire. No sign tells me. "Please Lord, let him hear me. Let His Majesty answer, Lord. I beseech you."
I try once more. "Majesty, with all your heart and soul, do you trust in our Lord God, all faith in him?"
God and His Majesty answer my prayers. The King squeezes my hand, weakly yes, but his answer clear. Relief washes over me. His Majesty's soul is saved through the strength of his faith by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. God be praised.
"Do pray with me Majesty if you can. Thoughts be words, and whether old Greek, Latin, German or English, whether Tyndale, Erasmus, Luther or the Bishop of Rome, all say the same from God's Holy Word. 'For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them'."
I find my courage once more. No papal prayers will come from my mouth. No Roman Catholic teachings will taint His Majesty in his journey to the Lord. I look to the holy oil, chalice, wine, bread and rosaries left on the night table for my use. No, there is no need for them. There will be no penance, no anointing, and O Lord I praise you, no final Eucharist. I stand, bending so I may still hold His Majesty's hand and pray simply. That is all one needs, nothing more.
"Almighty God, look on this your servant, Henry, Eighth of this name, King of England, Wales, Ireland and France, Defender of the Faith, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
I look down upon His Majesty, emotions rising to the surface. Still weak at the knees and stomach churning from the stench of this dreadful place, I bend down further still and kiss his hand and then the signet ring that binds us. I whisper, "I will submit humbly to and serve with all earnestness and love my dear beloved Edward, Prince of Wales, your longed for and blessed begotten heir as I ever did you, Majesty. That is my solemn promise and vow."
Swirling through my mind come memories of our kinship though both trying times and glory, submission to his will often at the expense of my own, sometimes even at the expense of God's. Tears of both mourning and relief flow freely. My heart bleeds, yet finally rests with the knowledge that what comes next is God's will. I wipe my eyes with the sleeve of my vestments and compose myself before saying what I must. Alas, there be no point to fighting death any longer. God waits patiently. His Majesty's suffering long now many years, his faith is professed, his salvation assured.
I say simply, as mayhap he just needs a prod, "Now be the time to let go, Majesty. God's kingdom awaits."
Beth von Staats is a history writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. A life-long history enthusiast, Beth holds a Bachelor of Arts degree, magna cum laude, in Sociology from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. She is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website, QueenAnneBoleyn.com.
Beth's interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.
Image: Detail from the painting King Edward VI and the Pope by an unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery.
Such prose does nothing to advance the cause of history or scholarship. Talented writing aside, historical fiction belongs with the tawdry romance novels. While true that “concerning taste, there is no discussion” (degustibus non est disputandem), it saddens me when serious historical writers and scholars make room for and take seriously slanted and biased tales. They simply confuse an interested and open readership.
Info on the detail from the image shown in your article: “Edward VI and the Pope, An Allegory of Reformation” (NPG 4165, Anonymous, 16th century). Book: In “The King’s Bedpost: Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait” (1994, p. 72) by the late Margaret Aston.
It is quite simple: If the author knows the subject well, historical fiction *can* be an appropriate means to introduce history to those readers who prefer romance novels to history books.
And this you usually don’t find in history test books: “The rank stench of His Majesty’s wounds hits me like the blunt end of a lance in a joust. I seek quickly a piss pot, spewing forth all within. My innards not satisfied, dry heaves overcome my every being.” Surely the reader gets the picture. Beth von Staats didn’t write a tawdry romance novel.
Whoops, I meant “text books”, not “test books”.
Historical fiction well written and researched can stimulate the mind and bring the past to life. Poor historical novels can have the opposite effect and belong with the trash. However, tales of historical entertainment are an excellent way to introduce and explore ideas that may not be factual, but give us imagination about well it could have been this way. Controversial ideas can be played out and as long as things proven to be false are not pushed as fact, plus we remember they are fiction, then they are good escapism. Philippa Gregory for example raises some controversial and often contrary to the evidence ideas in her books which she believes. As long as one remembers to question her ideas and not accept them as fact, her books are enjoyable and entertainment. She weaves a good story. Historical fiction is mostly harmless. It’s when someone puts an idea that does not pan out as if it was a fact and doesn’t state this in the authors note that people get confused. Enjoy historical fiction and imagination, I do, just check anything that sounds odd against sources or biography.
I am writing an article about smells in Elizabethan England, specifically perfume, and I read somewhere that Henry VIII’s deathbed room was adorned with smells like rosewater to try and mask the odor from sores on Henry’s dying body. I was looking for a portrait to demonstrate this event, and searching “Henry VIII’s deathbed” found your article here with the image at the top but the National Portrait Gallery lists this image as that of the death of Edward VI (Not Henry VIII) but I did wonder if you knew whether or not that meant there weren’t any paintings depicting Henry VIII’s death? Is this story of his death bed being surrounded by fragrance to mask the smell just anecdotal? https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw00459/King-Edward-VI-and-the-Pope
I apologize! I read the image description at the bottom after I wrote my comment. I tried to edit it but cannot figure out how to do that. Thank you for any information on the rose water/flowers or other smell-deterrent he might have had in his room at his death.