The story of how Henry VIII extracted himself from the most dangerous crisis of his life by lying to his subjects and betraying honest men who had put their fate in his hands is essentially the story of Robert Aske.
A lawyer and fellow of Lincoln’s Inn in London, Aske was one of several sons in a modestly distinguished family in the north of England. His father, a landowning knight, was related by marriage to the mighty Percy clan. His maternal grandfather had been a baron, and Robert himself, early in his career, had served as secretary to the Percy who was then Earl of Northumberland. He was thirty-seven years old early in October 1536, when he set out from his Yorkshire home for London and the opening of the autumn term of the royal court at Westminster. It was a routine business trip of a kind that Aske had been making at this same time of year almost since boyhood, first as a student and then as a practicing attorney, and he had no reason to expect anything out of the ordinary. If he had started several days earlier, he would in all likelihood never have left the smallest mark on history.
Upon crossing the Humber River into Lincolnshire on or about October 4, Aske found himself in the midst of something extraordinary. Just two or three days before, a spontaneous protest had erupted in the town of Louth and begun spreading across the county. The trouble was triggered by reports that a group of royal commissioners was approaching and was not only shutting down monasteries but confiscating the treasures (chalices, processional crosses, and the like) of parish churches. The situation was developing with startling speed: by the time Aske arrived on the scene, some of the commissioners had been taken prisoner by the protesters and set free after being given a list of demands that they were to deliver to the king. The people wanted an end to the suppression of monasteries, punishment of Thomas Cromwell’s notorious henchmen Legh and Layton, an end to the subsidy recently levied by Parliament, and the removal from office of Cromwell, Thomas Audley, Richard Rich, and a number of bishops including Cranmer. The demands made no mention of the king’s claim to supremacy—to object to that was to commit treason—but obviously they arose out of opposition to the entire royal program of ecclesiastical reform. That the impulse behind the uprising was essentially religious and deeply conservative was underscored when the people of Horncastle near Louth raised a banner that was soon adopted wherever the rebellion spread. It showed the eucharistic host, a chalice, and a figure of Christ bearing the five wounds of the crucifixion.
Aske, who would have been recognizably a member of the gentry, was taken into custody by the protesters. This was in no way unusual: in its origins the rising was an eruption of the pent-up fears and frustrations of the common people—to the extent that the initial outburst at Louth had a leader, that leader was a shoemaker named Nicholas Melton—and from the start the participants displayed a desperate hope of recruiting men educated enough to articulate their case and respectable enough to get a hearing from the authorities. Wherever such men fell into the hands of the demonstrators, they were threatened with hanging if they refused to swear “to be true to almighty god to christ’s catholic church to our sovereign lord the king and unto the commons of this realm so help you god and holy dam and by this book.” It was a rough way of finding leaders but surprisingly effective. And the rebel oath, innocuous enough when considered without context, would have been heavy with significance for the people of Lincolnshire—and no doubt for the king and his people, too, when they learned of it. It acknowledged not just the church but the CatholicChurch, the king but none of his lieutenants. When coupled with the demands that the demonstrators had already sent south and would be repeating many times in the months ahead, the words of the oath lost all ambiguity. They were a call for a full restoration of the old ways and the removal and punishment of those—the king alone excluded—who had undertaken the work of destruction. There is nothing surprising about the exemption of the king from criticism; anything else would have been astounding. In a society where the person of the king was quasi-sacred, at a time when the idea that the king derived his authority from God was winning wide acceptance, the humanly natural inclination to blame unpopular measures not on the sovereign himself but on his counselors and deputies was becoming more pronounced than ever.
The fact that a number of the individuals who were coerced into taking the oath quickly and voluntarily became prominent in the rising is one indication of the extent to which people at all levels of society, gentry and nobility included, were in sympathy with its aims. Aske made himself one of the most prominent of all, galloping about Lincolnshire to help spread word of the movement. Within days the rebels had tens of thousands of men in the field and took possession of the city of Lincoln. Divisions, however, soon appeared. The common folk were eager to push on toward the south, where they would have greatly outnumbered the few thousand troops that nobles loyal to the king were finding it possible to muster. But the gentry among them, perhaps mindful of how much they stood to lose in an unsuccessful contest with the Crown, insisted on waiting for Henry’s response to their demands. That response, when it came, was chilling. The king denounced Lincolnshire as a “brute and beastly” place (he had never seen it, never in his life having visited the north), ridiculed the rebels for presuming to offer advice on how to rule, and ordered them to hand over their leaders and return to their homes. Failure to comply would result in “the utter destruction of them, their wives and children.” Behind all this was the threat—to the rebels it would have appeared to be the imminent threat—of an attack by the forces of the king. The dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk and the Earl of Shrewsbury were all known to be assembling troops, and though they were experiencing severe difficulties—not least the unwillingness of many of their own liegemen to suppress a rebellion the aims of which they heartily supported—the rebels were probably unaware of any of this. Suffolk, who was closest to Lincoln, found himself unable to muster more than a thousand men. He would have been overwhelmed if the rebels, at least sixteen thousand of whom carried weapons of war, had advanced without delay. But the rebels had delayed and thereby lost their momentum, their leaders were quarreling confusedly among themselves, and for all they knew they stood on the brink of annihilation. Frightened and discouraged, they disbanded and began to head for home. Their rising had collapsed without encountering serious opposition.
Aske, meanwhile, had crossed back into Yorkshire, where the population was now aware of what was happening on the other side of the Humber and itself beginning to boil over. He threw himself into introducing some measure of order and organization where otherwise there would have been chaos, persuading the towns through which he passed to take no action until they received a signal from him—the agreed signal being the ringing of the church bells. When on October 10 the signal went out and the Yorkshire rising began, Aske issued a proclamation stating that its purpose was “the preservation of Christ’s church … and to the intent to make petition to the King’s highness for the reformation of that which is amiss in this his realm.” He declared himself “chief captain” in his part of the county, and by October 16, the day on which ten thousand armed rebels entered the city of York, they were using the name that he had given their movement: the Pilgrimage of Grace.
As word of what was happening spread, people all across the north began to join in. The movement quickly became bigger than it had been before the collapse in Lincolnshire, with perhaps as many as thirty thousand rebels advancing southward toward the royal stronghold of Pontefract Castle. On October 20 the castle’s garrison surrendered without a fight. The pilgrims had with them Edward Lee, the archbishop of York, though whether he had joined or was a prisoner is not clear. Most were mounted and armed, and as they moved on to Doncaster they encountered the Duke of Norfolk at the head of a force that they outnumbered by nearly four to one. Aske, by now established as the movement’s spokesman and public face, found himself in an immensely strong position. There was every reason to think that if his men attacked they could roll over Norfolk’s eight thousand troops and be on the outskirts of London within several days. Meanwhile King Henry, whose situation was far more dangerous than he understood, was cursing the pilgrims as “false traitors and rebels” and demanding that his nobles attack and destroy them without delay. From start to finish he regarded the Pilgrimage as an unforgivable insult to his dignity as monarch. He despised the participants and was interested in nothing but revenge.
But Norfolk, the man on the scene, had to deal with reality. The pilgrims sent him a new but not-much-changed version of the same demands originally presented in Lincolnshire: no more closing of moniasteries, the removal of Cromwell and Cranmer and Rich, et cetera. Norfolk met with their representative on Doncaster Bridge and offered a deal: he himself would take the pilgrims’ demands—which they were now calling “articles”—to the king along with two of their representatives, who would be allowed to explain themselves to Henry in person. Meanwhile the armies on both sides were to disband. Norfolk, aware of how weak his position was and that many of his own soldiers were not to be relied upon in this extraordinary situation, was stalling for time and hoping that somehow the rebels could be talked into withdrawing without a fight, perhaps even into disbanding as had happened in Lincolnshire. He had the king’s grudging permission to agree to whatever the rebels asked, but only for the sake of delay. There was never any thought, certainly not on the king’s part, of actually keeping whatever promises might have to be made. The pilgrims were appropriately skeptical. They agreed only to meet again with Norfolk early in December, after he had returned from conferring with the king, warning that they would not do even that unless their safety were guaranteed.
On December 2 Aske and other Pilgrimage leaders assembled at Pontefract to prepare for another round of negotiations. In the intervening weeks the rank and file had grown restless—just keeping so many thousands of men fed would have been impossible except for the willingness of farmers across the north to contribute livestock and other foodstuffs to the cause—and Aske had had his hands full holding them together. At Pontefract he was again the most conspicuous member of the leadership (some historians suggest that he was to some extent a front man for more important personages who preferred for their own safety to maintain a low profile), drawing up a new and more comprehensive set of articles for presentation to Norfolk and, through him, to the king. As before there was much emphasis on reversing the religious reforms of the past several years, strengthened now with an explicit call for an end to the separation from Rome, and a number of striking new items were added. The pilgrims wanted the legitimacy of Henry’s daughter Mary restored, the statute that allowed the king to choose his successor repealed, and a new Parliament summoned to meet not at Westminster as usual but in the north—specifically at York or Nottingham. Their articles went into considerable detail where the proposed Parliament was concerned: they called for less royal involvement in the selection of the members of Commons, less control over the business of Commons by officers of the Crown, and more freedom of speech for members. Finally they demanded a full pardon for everyone involved in the rising.
It was a startling document. If implemented, it would have reversed virtually everything that Henry had accomplished since first deciding to divorce Catherine. By weakening his grip on Parliament, it would have moved England closer to democracy than it had ever been, or would be for centuries. It illuminates as nothing else does the depth of northern unhappiness with the innovations of the 1530s and popular awareness of just how completely the king and his men—Cromwell in particular—had not only the machinery of government but the law itself under their control. For Henry, of course, the articles were an abomination, an insult, a gross and unforgivable violation of his rights. To a man like Norfolk, too, a proud exemplar of the old warrior nobility, they were an affront, a despicable attempt by presumptuous commoners to overturn the natural order.
But even now, more than two months after the first explosion at Louth, Henry and Norfolk and the nobles allied with them had been unable to assemble nearly as many men as the pilgrims still had under arms at Doncaster. The king’s position was not unlike that of Richard III in 1485, when he attempted to rally his kingdom for what should have been the easy task of crushing the invasion of the first Henry Tudor. Richard had issued his call, but not enough men had responded because not enough wanted to save him. Now it seemed possible that, if the pilgrims marched, much of the kingdom would not only do nothing to impede them but might join them in bringing the second Henry Tudor to heel. Thus the king, despite being toweringly indignant, had no choice but to accept Norfolk’s insistence that there was no possibility of defeating the “traitors” by direct attack. It remained necessary to stall. And so on December 6, when a delegation of thirty Pilgrimage leaders (ten knights, ten esquires, and ten commoners) met with Norfolk as agreed, the duke accepted every demand. A new Parliament would be summoned, and once in session it would take up the pilgrims’ articles. Meanwhile no more religious houses would be closed, and those that the Pilgrimage had restored would be allowed to continue. The pilgrims themselves would be pardoned in return for returning peaceably to their homes.
At first blush this was a tremendous victory, but among the pilgrims there was skepticism. Doubters pointed out that the promised pardon did not apply to those involved in the Lincolnshire rising, that Norfolk had said nothing about when or even where the promised Parliament would meet, and that nothing had been put in writing except the promise of a pardon rather than the pardon itself. Under such circumstances, some argued, it would be madness for them to lay down their arms. Aske saw things differently. For him it was inconceivable that the king would not be as good as his word, would not honor promises made to loyal subjects who wanted only to free him from evil subordinates. When the promise of pardon was read aloud, Aske, to show his comrades that this was good enough for him, tore from his tunic the badge of their movement (like the banner, it depicted Christ and his wounds) and declared that he was captain no more and henceforth would wear no insignia except his king’s. It was effective theater: the other pilgrims removed their badges, the banners were furled, and within a few days a huge rebel army had melted away to nothing.
Then came the strangest episode of the entire affair. Aske received a letter from the king, inviting him to spend Christmas at court because “we have conceived a great desire to speak with you and to hear of your mouth the whole circumstance and beginning of that matter [the rising].” The letter repeated Norfolk’s assurances of “our general and free pardon, already granted unto you.” Aske accepted—such an invitation was an almost unimaginable honor—and found himself treated with stupefying friendliness all through his visit. At Henry’s request he wrote an account of the Pilgrimage, receiving from the king’s hands the gift of an expensive coat. When he returned to the north, he did so in the conviction that Henry was his ally, supporter, and friend. In the next few months he would repeatedly show himself to be the supporter and friend of a king who had concealed his hatred under a blanket of hospitality and was now waiting until it became safe to exact his revenge.
None of the other pilgrim leaders had been exposed to the king’s charm, and few were able to share Aske’s enthusiasm. What they saw, rather, was that a new year had begun and nothing was being done to put into effect any of the promises made at Doncaster. Cromwell and Cranmer and the other officials of whom the pilgrims had complained all remained at their posts, the Crown continued to collect its ten percent of every kind of church revenue (though this, too, was among the things the pilgrims wanted stopped), and government troops were being moved north to fortify strongholds. Aske wrote to warn his new friend the king that feelings were again running high, asking Henry “to pardon me in this my crude letter and plainness of the same, for I do utter my poor heart to your grace to the intent your highness may perceive the danger that may ensue; for on my faith I do greatly fear the end to be only by battle.” When he learned that former pilgrims were planning to attack Hull and Beverley, which were under royal control, Aske vainly begged them not to proceed and urged others not to join them. When the attacks failed and their leaders had been captured, Henry sent him a letter of thanks. Scattered and uncoordinated outbreaks of violence continued, each one sapping whatever strength and cohesion the remaining fragments of the Pilgrimage still had, and when eight thousand Westmorland men tried to take the city of Carlisle and failed miserably, it became clear that the movement was exhausted. Norfolk was able to move his troops into pilgrim territory, impose martial law, and begin a program of summary executions that quickly took scores and then hundreds of lives. Those monks who had returned to their suppressed monasteries at the invitation of the pilgrims were singled out for especially harsh treatment.
So, inevitably, was Robert Aske. With the north subdued, Henry was free to remove the mask of conciliation. Aske and other Pilgrimage leaders, members of the nobility among them, were arrested and put on trial in York. Norfolk, in a nice touch of sadism that brings to mind his own prominent role in the trial and sentencing of his niece Anne Boleyn, arranged to have Aske’s brother put on the jury. The defendants were found guilty on two counts of treason, first for conspiring to deny the king his “dignity, title, name, and royal state … of being on earth the supreme head of the English church,” second for trying to force the king “to summon and hold a parliament and convocation.” Aske pointed to the fact that he had been pardoned both by the king and by Cromwell and had done nothing to oppose either of them since his pardon, but that counted for nothing. The convicted men were transferred to London, where they were condemned to death. Most of them, along with two abbots and three priors caught up in Norfolk’s dragnet, were hanged, drawn, and quartered at Tyburn. Aske alone was hauled back to York and hanged there, not by rope but in a tangle of chains around his body so as to make his death a slow agony of exposure and dehydration. His body was kept on public display until nothing remained but bones. The population was paralyzed with fear, the king more firmly in control than ever.
Henry’s triumph was capped with glorious news: Queen Jane was pregnant. The joyful couple departed on a celebratory summer progress, keeping well clear of the north in spite of a pledge Henry had made to show himself to his subjects there. It was left to Norfolk to complete the subjugation of the northern counties, and to Cromwell to resume the destruction not only of the smaller monasteries but, more broadly, of anyone refusing to align himself with the new English church. In May, the month of Aske’s death, the Crown’s choice as new prior of the London Charterhouse formally recognized Henry as supreme head and signed the house over to him. Twenty of the house’s monks and lay brothers, broken by the two years of harassment that had followed the execution of John Houghton, gave up their resistance. The ten who refused were chained up in Newgate Prison and left to starve in their own filth. By mid-June half of them were dead, and by September only one remained alive. The sole survivor was then moved to another place of confinement, where he clung to life so tenaciously that at last he had to be butchered. With that single exception, however, Henry and Cromwell were able to eliminate the last of the Carthusians by allowing them to perish slowly, horribly, and in deepest obscurity, avoiding the kind of anger that would have resulted from the public execution of such transparently innocent men.
One of the most striking aspects of King Henry’s reign, his determination to make all of his subjects change their beliefs exactly as he changed his, became more painfully awkward with the passage of time. Complete uniformity would have been unachievable under any circumstances during the decades of Henry’s rule; even if he had remained Roman Catholic and wanted his subjects to do the same, the ideas of Luther and the other continental reformers would have attracted English adherents and made doctrinal strife unavoidable. But Henry had compounded the discord in breaking with Rome, accelerating the process by which his subjects came to be divided into a multitude of contending sects, and his subsequent insistence on conformity made the situation impossible. By the time of his third marriage three religious factions were numerous or influential or both. One—the only one acceptable to the king—was made up of those many people who welcomed or at least had no objection to the break with Rome but wanted to retain their traditional beliefs and practices (the sacraments, for example, and the idea of purgatory). Another, probably larger, stood by the entire conservative package including the leadership of the pope. Finally, definitely smallest in numbers but afire with the zeal of the continental Reformation, was the circle for whom the whole of the old religion was superstitious nonsense that had to be swept aside in order for a simpler, purer Christianity based on the inerrancy of the Bible to become possible. To arrive at a single set of doctrines acceptable to all three of these groups would have been impossible, and the king’s inextinguishable hopes of imposing uniformity, after he himself had done so much to create division, were both ironic and doomed. His efforts in that direction would have been pathetic if they had not also been so tragically destructive. They were yet another reflection of Henry’s infantile belief in himself as a flawlessly wise ruler.
Late in 1536, annoyed that the dissemination of his Ten Articles had failed almost completely to settle the many roiling questions about what England was now supposed to believe, Henry turned the problem over to the bishops, instructing them to produce a more comprehensive, less ambiguous set of answers. But the bishops themselves were divided. At one extreme were men like Stephen Gardiner of Winchester, John Stokesley of London, and Cuthbert Tunstal of Durham, conservatives who almost certainly regretted the break with Rome and hoped to retain as much of the old ways as possible. At the other end of the spectrum there stood, for example, Hugh Latimer of Worcester, who went so far in his rejection of tradition that even other militant reformers accused him of heresy. The debates in which the bishops tried to decide how to carry out the king’s instructions were long and contentious and never came close to achieving agreement. The result of the bishops’ labors, a document whose official title was The Institution of a Christian Man, was less a thought-through compromise or a coherent response to the many questions stirred up by the establishment of an autonomous national church than a semidesperate packing together of incompatible, sometimes conflicting positions.
But the king had demanded action, and the bishops had done as well as anyone should have expected considering the depth of their differences. Most of them wanted to satisfy the king, certainly; they were all too aware of what could befall any cleric who failed to do so. But on both sides of the doctrinal gulf were men prepared to fight if perhaps not to die in defense of their beliefs. In the absence of specific royal guidance, with nothing to fall back upon but their own divergent convictions and their impressions of what Henry was likely to find acceptable, ultimately they had little choice—unless they could find the courage to do nothing—but to give everyone some voice in what they finally produced. When they finished in mid-July, no one could be entirely comfortable with what had been accomplished. Though the Institution was in many respects conservative—upholding, for example, the validity of all seven sacraments, whereas the earlier Ten Articles had specifically recognized only three—the most conservative bishops were neither satisfied that it was conservative enough nor confident of how the king would react to it. The evangelicals hated much of it; Latimer wrote to the king to protest that the Institution should not be printed until cleansed of Catholic “old leaven.” It was offered to the king and Cromwell as a working draft, and accompanied by a timorous request that they review it and decide whether the bishops could tell the world that it had royal approval. They got no answer. When it appeared in print in September, it contained a most peculiar preface in which the bishops abjectly “confess that we have none authority either to assemble ourselves together for any pretence or purpose or to publish any thing that might be by us agreed on and compiled.” This preface asked the king to approve or amend what the bishops had done as he saw fit. Printed with it was a curious message from the king himself, declaring that he had not found time to read the book but had merely “taken as it were a taste of it.” From that day to this The Institution of a Christian Man has been better known as the Bishops’ Book, an unofficial title that makes clear that it should not be taken as a guide to the beliefs of the supreme head of the Church of England because, according to the head himself, he had little idea of what it contained. How anyone could have regarded such a work as worth printing, how anyone could have expected it to be of the slightest value even to subjects eager to be scrupulously faithful to the royal theology, surpasses understanding. Perhaps Cromwell or Henry assumed it must be close enough to the king’s truth to be of some use for the time being.
When he did read it at last, some three months after publication, the king was not at all happy with what he found. Much of it was obviously calculated to please and surely must have done so. The bishops had explicitly denied the supremacy of the pope and asserted that of the king, declared the king to be accountable to God only, and warned that nothing could justify rebellion against him (a reflection of the fact that they completed their work shortly after the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace). The only legitimate way of seeking relief from political oppression, their book said, was to ask God to change the monarch’s heart. Henry entered more than 250 comments in the margins of his copy. Many of these were challenges and objections that led him into a debate with Archbishop Cranmer, who had used his influence as primate to inject his own increasingly evangelical views into the text. In the end, of course, Henry’s opinion was the only one that mattered. No doubt to Cranmer’s intense disappointment, a new edition was prepared with all passages that referred favorably to justification by faith expunged. The new version also affirmed belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Such changes were inevitable considering the king’s conservative approach to almost all questions of doctrine, but in 1537 he was also affected by what the Pilgrimage of Grace had revealed about popular attachment to the old religion. He had been given reason to proceed carefully in separating the mass of his subjects from the faith in which they had been raised.
Some of Henry’s changes rose out of that contempt for almost everyone except himself that had become an integral part of his character. The Bishops’ Book as first published had asserted that God sees all men as equal; the king inserted a clarification to the effect that equality must be seen as “touching the soul only,” whatever exactly he might have meant by that. A passage about the duty of Christians to attend to the needs of the poor was amended to exclude from charity those “many folk which had liever live by the graft of begging slothfully”—easy words for a man who since adolescence had been able to regard the wealth of all England and Wales as his to do with as he wished and had rarely in his adult life been obliged to do anything he didn’t want to do. Because Henry kept a court astrologer, he deleted astrology from the bishops’ list of superstitions to be shunned. He also deleted a passage stating that rulers have a duty to “provide and care” for their subjects, and changed a warning that rulers in forcing their subjects to obey must act “by and according to the just order of their laws” so that it applied only to those acting in the ruler’s name, not to the ruler himself. Some of Henry’s changes were difficult even for Cranmer to swallow. What the archbishop found particularly irksome was the king’s rewriting of the First Commandment (where, in an absurd anachronism, he inserted the name “Jesu Christ”) and the closing words of the Lord’s Prayer. That Henry felt no hesitation in changing such ancient and supposedly divine texts is perhaps the most striking evidence we have of the heights to which his arrogance could rise, his exalted view of his own place in the hierarchy of the living and the dead.
Between the first appearance of the Bishops’ Book and the point where Henry found time to undertake its improvement, there occurred an event that he himself would have considered among the greatest of his life and reign. At two in the morning on October 12, after a labor of more than two days, Queen Jane gave birth to a healthy son. Henry was not present for the birth, having fled days before to his residence at Esher to escape an outbreak of plague. Upon receiving the news he rushed back to Hampton Court, ordering celebrations that soon had bells ringing from every church tower in England and the guards at the Tower firing two thousand rounds of artillery. Henry was said to have wept when he held his son for the first time. Almost exactly ten years had passed since he first undertook to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon, and at last, at forty-six, he had his heir. Amid great precautions aimed at keeping the plague out of the palace, the boy was baptized on October 15. He was given the name Edward, less in honor of his grandfather Edward IV than because he had been born on the eve of St. Edward’s Day. His godfathers were Thomas Cranmer and the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk. His godmother was his half-sister, the recently humbled and rehabilitated Mary. The baptismal oil was carried by the four-year-old Elizabeth. She in turn was carried in procession by Queen Jane’s brother Edward Seymour, who, being now the uncle of a future king, was shortly made the Earl of Hertford.
The celebrations continued, but two days after her son’s christening Jane was taken ill and soon was in gravely serious condition. Henry departed on a long-planned hunting trip—it was, after all, the start of the season—but returned to court on the evening of October 24 after receiving word that his wife had hemorrhaged and was not expected to live. She died that midnight of causes that can never be known with certainty. It has often been stated that a cesarean section had been performed to save her child after two days and three nights of fruitless labor, but this cannot be the case; a cesarean meant certain death in the sixteenth century, and though it is hardly inconceivable that the court physicians would have sacrificed Jane to save their master’s heir, in the days following Prince Edward’s birth Jane was expected to recover and appeared to be doing so. A more plausible explanation is that she died because part of the placenta had been left inside her womb after she gave birth. By a sad irony, midwives of the kind who assisted at almost all deliveries in Tudor times, and who were well schooled in such practicalities as removal of the placenta, had been excluded from the royal birthing chamber. Only physicians of the loftiest reputation had been permitted to attend the queen. The state of academic medicine being what it was in the sixteenth century, such worthies probably knew less about the realities of childbirth than any experienced midwife. Henry left Hampton Court and went to Windsor Castle. Three weeks later, when the queen’s embalmed body arrived at Windsor for interment, he moved again, this time to Whitehall. It would be ungenerous to doubt that his grief over the death of his wife was as great as his joy over the birth of a son, but his recovery appears to have been swift. In rather short order he was reported to be in good spirits—“in good health and merry as a widower may be”—and to be scheming with Cromwell about where to find his next wife.
One would have thought that Henry might be a satisfied man by this point. He was definitely the most feared, and arguably the most powerful, king in the history of England. Not only the government but the church were his to command. His word was law, almost literally, and his word was religious doctrine as well; no noble or bishop would have dared to contradict him. And now at last, on the threshold of what in his time was old age, with a lifetime of self-indulgence taking its toll on his mighty physique, there was a male heir to the throne. Suddenly it was at least possible that the Tudor dynasty, which just recently had passed its fiftieth anniversary, might have a future. A lesser man than Henry might have decided that, having done as much as any of his predecessors and far more than most, he had done enough. A better man might have decided that he had shed enough of his subjects’ blood.
But Henry was Henry, nothing better and nothing less, and he was far from satisfied. The Pilgrimage of Grace, in bringing to a halt the closing of monasteries in many parts of the north and making it possible for some of the expelled monks and nuns to return to their houses, had given rise to rumors that members of the various religious orders had encouraged and even helped to lead the rebellion. (The possible truth of such stories remains beyond reach. Nothing in the way of conclusive evidence exists one way or the other.) That had given the king and Cromwell an excuse to resume and broaden their attack on monastic establishments generally. The closing of the smaller houses was soon completed, and the attention of the agents of the Crown was turned to the larger, richer houses. Parliament having passed no law that permitted confiscation of establishments whose income exceeded £200 per annum, the royal commissioners reverted to using fear and greed to extract “voluntary” surrenders. This proved to be difficult in places, but usually not impossible. Over all the houses there hung the memory of those the Crown had already killed. Such memories were freshened by the execution, between March and May 1537, of the uncooperative abbots of Kirkstead, Barlings, Fountains, and Jervaulx, the prior of Bridlington, and an unknown number of the members of their communities. It is hardly surprising that, learning of these killings and finding themselves exposed to the questions, accusations, insinuations, threats, and promises of Cromwell’s commissioners, most of the houses gave up the struggle. No decision could have been more rational: those who signed most speedily received promises of pensions—very handsome pensions in the case of the senior officers of the largest houses, along with new positions and sometimes even grants of land—while the only possible result of refusal was a death that could do nothing to stop the suppression process. The surrendered lands and buildings became the property of the Crown. So did everything inside the buildings—the accumulated treasure of the centuries. All the money flowed into the Court of Augmentations, from which Richard Rich parceled it out under Cromwell’s direction.
In March 1538 the leg ulcers that by now were making Henry’s life an intermittent agony began to block the flow of his blood. There may have been a clot in his lungs as well; he became unable to speak, barely able to breathe. For a week and a half he lay near death. But then, with a speed that surprised his physicians, it all passed, and he was up and active again. He had eight years and eight months more to live. They would be memorable years—as eventful as those that had come before. They would be extravagantly wasteful, they would be bathed in blood, and they would bring military and financial disaster.
THE SPORT OF KINGS
THE FATHER AT LAST OF A HEALTHY AND LEGITIMATE BABY boy, father also of a new national church that (if somewhat confused doctrinally) was free of any connection to Rome, Henry VIII found himself free to turn to fields still unconquered. It was almost inevitable that he would look exactly where he had looked when seeking to demonstrate his greatness at the start of his reign nearly three decades before: across the English Channel. The old dream of winning glory on the fields of France had never stopped burning in his breast.
But that dream had been a foolish one even in 1509, and it made no sense at all three decades later. Henry had succeeded his father at a time when it was all too easy for English kings to look down on the ruling house of France. Louis XII, product of the dynasty that had ruled France for some six hundred years, was entering his second decade as king then, and though not yet fifty he had already, much like Henry VII of England, slipped into a premature old age. After two marriages he remained sonless, and because France’s Salic law prohibited daughters from inheriting the throne, he seemed destined to be the last of his branch of the Valois line. When younger he had conquered much of Italy, but his successes there gradually came to nothing as his armies were driven out of both Milan in the north and Naples in the south.
The whole dynasty seemed to be in the last stages of entropy. Louis had come to the throne only because his predecessor, the Charles VIII who as a boy-king in the 1480s had been an admiring supporter of the first Henry Tudor’s invasion of England, died at twenty-eight (killed by striking his head against the stone lintel of a castle doorway) without sons, brothers, male cousins, or uncles. The family tree was so bare that the royal genealogists, in their search for an heir, had to explore branch after barren branch before finally declaring that the only grandson of a younger brother of Charles’s great-grandfather should be crowned as Louis XII. Louis as it happened was himself not only sonless but without brothers or uncles, so that his heir was a second cousin once removed, the boy Francis of Angoulême.
It must have seemed almost a joke, therefore, when in 1515 the Holy Roman emperor renounced the betrothal of his young grandson Charles of Hapsburg to Henry VIII’s sister Mary, and Cardinal Wolsey retaliated by arranging the princess’s marriage to King Louis. Mary was eighteen, an elegant and accomplished young woman of exceptional beauty. Her bridegroom, though a good man much loved by his subjects, was in his fifties and seriously decrepit, toothless and crippled with gout. If the courts of both kingdoms recycled tired witticisms about the dangers for old men of taking desirable young wives, in this case they were vindicated. Louis was dead within weeks of the wedding. It was said that he had been danced to death. “Danced,” perhaps, was a euphemism.
At the time of his death Louis was actually the youngest of the continent’s leading royal figures. Old Ferdinand of Aragon, embittered by the failure of his dynastic ambitions, still occupied the crown of Spain at sixty-three, and the fifty-six-year-old Maximilian of Hapsburg was in his third decade as Holy Roman emperor. Henry of England, after six years on the throne, continued to stand alone as the one youthful, conspicuously virile crowned head. All that changed abruptly, however, when Louis XII’s successor stepped onto the world stage. In Francis I, France had a monarch even younger than Henry (he was only twenty) and in every way his equal: tall and powerfully built, brimming with intelligence and vitality, ambitious to expand French power and to make his court a magnet for the leading intellectual and artistic figures of the day. (He would entice even Leonardo da Vinci to leave Italy for France.) Francis opened his reign by making himself the kind of authentic military hero that Henry had hoped but failed to become with his earlier invasion of France, attacking Milan and achieving an astonishing victory over a supposedly invulnerable force of Swiss mercenaries. Almost overnight he supplanted Henry as the most glamorous figure in Europe, and there flared up between the two kings a rivalry that would not be extinguished until the pair of them died only weeks apart. It was a contest of massive egos, fueled by resentment, jealousy, and pride. Ruthless in the pursuit of their own aggrandizement and indifferent to what that pursuit cost others, they would make war on each other so often, entering and breaking alliances so easily, that the military and diplomatic history of their reigns is a confused blur, far too complicated for brief description.
Henry and Francis met for the first time in northern France at what came to be known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This happened in 1520, a year after the death of Maximilian vacated the office of Holy Roman emperor. Both regarded themselves as uniquely well suited to wear the most venerable crown in Europe, and so both had put themselves forward as candidates in opposition to Maximilian’s grandson Charles. But Charles, who by this time had inherited Spain and its vast dominions from his maternal grandfather Ferdinand, and Burgundy and the Low Countries from his father Philip the Handsome, had the advantage of being German like the secular and ecclesiastical princes who elected emperors. He increased this advantage by borrowing heavily enough to distribute even richer bribes than Francis. (Henry, though in earnest, was never seriously in the running financially or otherwise.) The 1520 meeting was supposed to be a kind of summit conference—Francis, anticipating war with Charles, was hoping for an English alliance—but it turned into something both more remarkable and less productive. Throughout most of June the two kings put on a competitive display of wealth and splendor on a scale never seen in Europe before or since. In Henry’s entourage were most of England’s nobility, most of the hierarchy of the church, more than five thousand men and women in all, along with nearly three thousand horses. Cardinal Wolsey’s party included twelve chaplains, fifty gentlemen, and 237 servants, Catherine of Aragon’s nearly twelve hundred people in total. Huge, ornate temporary palaces were constructed for the occasion by both sides, man-made fountains flowed with wine, and the days and nights were filled with jousts, tournaments, musical and theatrical entertainments, and feasting. Henry, sadly for himself, precipitated the best-remembered event of the whole gathering by jovially challenging Francis to a wrestling match and promptly getting himself thrown; it was a humiliation from which he never quite recovered. When the festivities were finished, nothing had been accomplished except an agreement under which Henry’s little daughter Mary was pledged to one day marry Francis’s equally little eldest son. Francis hoped that this would lead to the alliance that he craved, but it did nothing of the kind. In short order Mary’s parents promised her to her cousin Charles, and he rather than Francis became England’s ally.
A fourth young dynamo entered the picture in the same year as the Field of the Cloth of Gold when Suleiman the Magnificent became sultan of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which had already conquered a substantial part of southeastern Europe and was threatening to take more. From his capital at Constantinople he would cause much trouble over the following decades, but almost exclusively for the unfortunate Charles. Among the Christian monarchs it was Francis who proved the greatest cause of instability, largely because Italy was for him what France never ceased to be for Henry: a field of dreams, the setting for conquests endlessly envisioned but rarely achieved. French and Hapsburg armies fought in Italy from 1521 to 1525, with England providing Charles with substantial financial support up to the point where his forces achieved their great victory at Pavia and Francis was hauled off to Madrid as his prisoner. Henry saw Pavia as a gateway to the fulfillment of his dreams, an opportunity to eliminate France as a major power. Charles, he proposed, should help himself to great expanses of southern and eastern France while he, Henry, became king of what remained. The emperor, however, was a sensible fellow with little interest in conquest and less in glory, seeking only to hold on to what he had inherited. In any case he was virtually bankrupt by this time. He therefore declined to cooperate, which so disgusted Henry that he soon broke with Charles altogether and allied himself instead with France and the Papal States.
Reversals of this kind went on year after year. In the aftermath of Pavia, England, France, and the pope remained at war with Charles until the emperor’s aunt and Francis’s mother negotiated a separate peace that left England suddenly and frighteningly isolated. In 1530 the widowed Francis went so far as to marry Charles’s sister Eleanor, though not even that could slake his thirst for conquests in Italy. By 1536 he and Charles were again at war over Milan, but two years after that they agreed to a truce so alarming to Thomas Cromwell that, in his desperation to find Protestant allies, he arranged King Henry’s marriage to Anne, the sister of the Duke of Cleves. Nothing was ever really settled, and there continued to be no basis on which a lasting peace could be constructed. Francis remained as fixed as ever on the dream of driving the Hapsburgs out of Italy, and to accomplish that he showed himself willing to become the ally not only of Germany’s Protestant states but of the sultan Suleiman. Charles for his part remained determined to surrender not a yard of his patrimony.
All this was of incalculable value to Henry as he broke with Rome and embarked upon the destruction of England’s monasteries. If a real peace had been possible between Francis and Charles, a crusade by the continent’s Catholic powers to return England to the old faith might have become feasible as well. Certainly that was what Pope Paul III hoped for once he understood that Henry was never going to be coaxed back into the fold.
Henry should have been thankful to be left alone. He should have been content to leave the continent alone. But even now, with so much accomplished, it was not in his nature to be satisfied, and the very existence of Francis of France seems to have caused him torment. Though their two kingdoms were no longer even remotely equal in size, wealth, or strength—after the absorption of Brittany and Burgundy and other provinces, France’s population was six times England’s—for Henry the thought of being inferior in anything was unendurable. Early in his reign, in the Loire valley, Francis had started construction of the Château de Chambord. Twenty years later, in the late thirties, it was still under construction, on the way to its eventual total of 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces, eighty-four staircases, and more than a dozen different kinds of towers. Six months after the birth of his son, Henry decided that such a flagrant display could not go unanswered. He undertook a project specifically intended to surpass Chambord. The result was the stupendous Nonsuch Palace, the largest building ever seen in England up to that time, utterly unnecessary because not far distant from Hampton Court or Richmond or Greenwich or Whitehall or others of Henry’s many residences, so ornate with its hundreds of feet of high-relief sculptures of gods and goddesses and emperors and kings all surmounted by huge representations of Henry himself and the child Edward that after £24,000 had been spent it would still not be nearly finished.
Nor was that enough. Henry could never be satisfied, probably, so long as Francis remained alive and securely in possession of his throne. He would continue to wait, to watch for the opportunity to show himself the greater man.