David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HENRY VIII: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 2

— 1.2 —

King Henry VIII, leaning on Cardinal Wolsey’s shoulder, walked into the Council Chamber of the palace in London. Sir Thomas Lovell and some other nobles accompanied them.

Henry VIII sat on a throne on a dais. Cardinal Wolsey sat on a lower level on the King’s right side.

The King then said to Cardinal Wolsey, “My life itself and its most vital essence — the heart — thank you for this great care you have taken of me. I stood in the line of fire of a fully loaded conspiracy, and I give thanks to you for suppressing it.”

He then ordered, “Let be called before us that gentleman of Buckingham’s. In person I’ll hear him confirm his confessions, and he shall again relate point by point the treasons of his master.”

Outside the room, someone shouted, “Make way for the Queen!”

Queen Catherine entered the Council Chamber, accompanied by the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk. She went to the King and kneeled. King Henry VIII rose from his chair of state, raised her up from her kneeling position, kissed her, and then moved her beside him.

Using the royal plural, Queen Catherine said, “No, we must continue to kneel. I am a petitioner to you.”

“Arise, and take a seat by us,” King Henry VIII said. “You don’t need to ask me to grant half of whatever you want because you have half of our power. The other half, before you ask me for it, is granted to you. Tell me what you want, and it is yours.”

Queen Catherine replied, “I thank your majesty. The point of my petition is that you would love yourself, and in that love not leave unconsidered your honor or the dignity of your office. What I want is what is best for you, and it will not require that you lose your honor or the dignity of your position.”

“My lady, continue speaking,” King Henry VIII said.

“I have been solicited, not by a few, and by those of true and loyal disposition toward you, to inform you that your subjects have a great grievance and are in great distress. Tax levies have been sent down among them that have flawed the heart of all their loyalty to you.”

She said to Cardinal Wolsey, “Although, my good Lord Cardinal, they vent reproaches most bitterly against you as the putter on of these extortionate taxes, yet the King our master — whose honor may Heaven shield from being soiled! — even he does not escape being the target of impolite and rude language, yes, such language as breaks the sides of loyalty, and almost appears in the midst of loud rebellion.”

“Not ‘almost appears,’” the Duke of Norfolk said. “It does appear, for upon receiving these notices of taxation, all the clothiers who make woolen clothing, no longer able to maintain their many employees, have laid off the spinsters who spin the wool, the carders who comb the wool, the fullers who beat the wool to clean and thicken it, and the weavers. These unemployed people, unable otherwise to make a living and compelled by hunger and lack of other means to maintain life, in desperation are daring the event to the teeth — they are accepting the dire consequences that follow from rebellion. They are all in uproar, and danger is their servant!”

“Taxation!” King Henry VIII said. “Where? And what kind of taxation? My Lord Cardinal, you who are blamed for it alike with us, do you know about this taxation?”

Cardinal Wolsey replied, “If it pleases you, sir, I know only of a single part — one person’s share — in anything that pertains to the state. I am only the most conspicuous among those who march along with me. In other words, I am only one man among other men, although I am the most conspicuous among those men.”

Queen Catherine disagreed: “No, my lord. You know no more than others, but you bring to pass things that are known by everyone who marches along with you — by others in your council. You originate things such as taxes that are not wholesome to those who don’t want them and yet are forced to pay them.

“These exorbitant taxes, about which my sovereign wants to have information, are very pestilent to those who bear them. In bearing these exorbitant taxes, the back is sacrificed to the load — people are sacrificed because they are considered less valuable than the taxes they pay.

“People say that the exorbitant taxes were devised by you, Cardinal. If that isn’t true, then you suffer too hard an exclamation of outrage against you.”

“Still talking about exorbitant taxes?” King Henry VIII said. “What is the nature of these taxes? What kind of taxation is this? Let me know that.”

Queen Catherine said, “I am much too bold in testing your patience, but I am emboldened under your promised pardon.”

King Henry VIII had already promised to give her whatever she wanted.

Queen Catherine continued, “The subjects’ grief comes through tax commissions, which compel from each a sixth of his wealth, to be given up without delay; and the excuse given for this tax levy is your wars in France.

“This exorbitant taxation makes mouths bold. Tongues spit their duties out, and cold hearts freeze their allegiance within them. Your subjects’ curses now live where their prayers did, and it’s come to pass that your subjects’ tractable, compliant obedience has become a slave to each incensed will.

“I wish that your highness would give that matter quick consideration, for there is no more important business than this.”

“By my life, this is against our pleasure,” King Henry VIII said.

Cardinal Wolsey said, “As for me, I have gone no further in this than by a single vote. That taxation was not imposed by me but by the learned approval of the judges of the council.

“If I am traduced and slandered by ignorant tongues, which know neither my capabilities nor me as a person and which yet want to be the chronicles of my actions, let me say that it is only the fate of a high position and the rough thicket that virtue must go through.

“We must not refrain from doing our necessary actions just because we are afraid to encounter malicious censurers — malicious censurers who always, as ravenous fishes do, follow a newly outfitted ship, but benefit no further than vainly longing.”

Sharks can follow a ship in hopes that it will sink and they can dine on sailors, but a newly outfitted ship is in good repair and unlikely to sink. Or sharks can follow a newly outfitted ship that has just set out on a journey in hopes of eating tossed-overboard food garbage, but a ship that has just set out on a journey will probably have no food garbage to throw overboard.

Cardinal Wolsey continued, “Envious, malicious, and critical commentators, who are forever weak and deficient, often call our best accomplishments either not our accomplishments, or no accomplishments at all. Such commentators praise our worst deeds, which have a grosser quality, as being our best deeds.

“If we shall stand still out of fear that any action we take will be mocked or carped at, we would take root here where we sit, or sit as if we were only statues of statesmen.”

King Henry VIII said, “Things done well and carefully exempt themselves from fear; the outcome of things done without a precedent is to be feared. Have you a precedent for this levy of taxes? I believe that there is not any.

“We must not rend our subjects from our laws, and stick them in our will. We must treat our subjects lawfully and not subject them to any unlawful whims.

“A sixth part of each person’s wealth? That is a contribution to make one tremble! Why, if we take from every tree its small branches, bark, and part of its timber, although we leave it with a root, with the tree thus hacked, the air will drink the sap and the tree will die.

“To every county where this excessive tax is disputed, send our letters, giving free pardon to each man who has denied the force of this commission to levy excessive taxes.

“Be sure to look after it and do it. I give it to you — Cardinal Wolsey — to take care of.”

Cardinal Wolsey said to his secretary, “Let me have a word with you.”

He then said quietly so that no one but the secretary could hear him, “Let there be letters written to every shire about the King’s grace and pardon. The aggrieved commoners harshly think of me. Let it be noised abroad that through our intercession this pardon and this repeal of the excessive taxes come.”

Cardinal Wolsey used the royal plural — “our” — when talking to the secretary. He was careful not to do that when the King and Queen and other high-ranking people could hear him.

Cardinal Wolsey added, “I shall soon advise you further in the proceeding.”

The secretary exited.

The Duke of Buckingham’s former surveyor entered the room.

Queen Catherine said to King Henry VIII, “I am sorry that the Duke of Buckingham has incurred your displeasure.”

“It grieves many people,” King Henry VIII replied. “The Duke of Buckingham is a learned gentleman and a most marvelous speaker. No one is more indebted for having been born with good qualities. His education is such that he may prepare and instruct great teachers, and never seek for aid beyond himself.

“Yet it is important to note that when these so noble qualities shall prove not well directed, the mind growing once corrupt, they turn to vicious forms, ten times more ugly than they ever were beautiful. Noble qualities used to plan and perform evil actions become ugly.

“This man is so accomplished, and he was listed among wonders. We, almost with ravished listening, could listen to him talk for an hour and it was as if not even a minute had gone by.

“He, my lady, has used the graces that once were his in monstrous habits and given them monstrous appearances, and he has become as black as if he were besmeared in Hell.

“Sit by us; you shall hear — this man who is to give testimony about him was his trusted official — things about him to strike honor sad.”

He ordered, “Tell the Duke of Buckingham’s surveyor to recount the treacheries he has previously testified about. We cannot regard those treacheries as too little — lacking in loyalty and morality, and not deserving severe punishment — or hear too much about them.”

Cardinal Wolsey said, “Stand forth, and with bold spirit relate the information that you, most like a concerned subject, have collected as evidence by watching the Duke of Buckingham.”

“Speak freely,” King Henry VIII ordered.

The Duke of Buckingham’s former surveyor replied, “First, it was usual with him — every day it would infect his speech — that if the King should die without leaving behind a legitimate child, he would arrange things to make the scepter his. These very words I’ve heard him utter to his son-in-law, Lord Abergavenny. And to Lord Abergavenny he swore a menacing oath that he would get revenge upon the Cardinal.”

Cardinal Wolsey said to King Henry VIII, “Please, your highness, note this part of his dangerous plan. His wish that you would die not having come true, his will is most malignant to your high person and it stretches beyond you, to your friends.”

By “your friends,” Cardinal Wolsey meant himself.

Queen Catherine said, “My learned Lord Cardinal, speak with Christian charity.”

King Henry VIII said to the surveyor, “Speak on. On what grounds did he think he had a title to the crown if I should die without a legitimate child? Have you heard the Duke of Buckingham say anything about this point?”

The surveyor said, “He was brought to believe this by a vain prophecy of Nicholas Hopkins.”

“Who is that Hopkins?” King Henry VIII asked.

The surveyor replied, “Sir, he is a Carthusian friar, the Duke of Buckingham’s confessor, and he fed him every minute with words of sovereignty.”

“How do you know this?” King Henry VIII asked.

The surveyor replied, “Not long before your highness traveled to France, while the Duke of Buckingham was at the Rose, his manor within the Saint Lawrence Poultney parish in London, the Duke asked what the Londoners were saying about the journey to France. I replied that men feared the French would prove to be perfidious, to the King’s danger. Immediately, the Duke said, it was something to be feared, indeed, and he said that he feared it would prove the truth of certain words spoken by a holy monk ‘who often,’ he said, ‘has sent messages to me, wishing me to permit John de la Car, my chaplain, at an appropriate time to hear from him in person about a matter of some importance. This monk made my chaplain swear under the seal of confession that he would utter to no living creature except to me, what the monk told him. Then, with solemn trust, the monk, with pauses, said that my chaplain should tell me, the Duke, that neither the King nor his heirs shall prosper. Tell him to strive to gain the love of the common people because the Duke shall govern England.’”

Queen Catherine said, “If I know you well, you were the Duke’s surveyor, and you lost your office because of the complaints of the tenants. Take good care that you don’t make charges against a noble person because of your anger — you will spoil your nobler soul. I say, take care. Yes, I heartily implore you to take care.”

“Let him continue his testimony,” King Henry VIII said.

He then ordered the surveyor, “Continue.”

“On my soul, I’ll speak nothing but truth,” the surveyor said. “I told my lord the Duke that the monk might be deceived by the Devil’s illusions and deceptions, and that it was dangerous for him to think about this so much that he believed the monk’s prophecy, leading him — the Duke — to create some plot that was very likely to cause trouble. He answered, ‘Tush, it can do me no damage.’ He then added further that if the King had died as a result of his recent sickness, the Cardinal’s and Sir Thomas Lovell’s heads would have been cut off.”

“Ha!” King Henry VIII said. “So foul? There’s evil in this Duke of Buckingham.”

He then asked the surveyor, “Can you say anything further?”

“I can, my liege.”

“Proceed.”

The surveyor began, “Being at Greenwich, after your highness had reproved the Duke about Sir William Blumer —”

King Henry VIII interrupted, “I remember that time. Sir William Blumer was my sworn servant, but the Duke retained him as his sworn servant. But go on. What happened then?”

The surveyor replied, “‘If,’ said the Duke, ‘I for this act had been committed to prison, as to the Tower of London, I thought, I would have played the part my father meant to act upon the usurper King Richard III. When Richard III was at Salisbury, my father petitioned him to be allowed to come into his presence. If that petition had been granted, my father, pretending to show his loyalty by kneeling before Richard III, would have put his knife into him.’”

“A giant traitor!” King Henry VIII said.

Cardinal Wolsey said to Queen Catherine, “Now, madam, do you think his highness can live in freedom, with this Duke of Buckingham out of prison?”

“May God mend all!” Queen Catherine said.

“There’s something more you want to say,” King Henry VIII said to the surveyor. “What is it?”

“After the Duke talked about his father and the knife, he drew himself up to his full height, and with one hand on his dagger and the fingers of the other hand spread out on his breast, he raised his eyes and thundered a horrible oath, whose tenor was this: If he were ever evilly treated, he would outgo his father by as much as a performance does an irresolute purpose. His father had merely planned an assassination, but he would commit one.”

Using the royal plural, King Henry VIII said, “There’s the Duke of Buckingham’s goal — to sheathe his knife in us. He has been arrested. Call him to an immediate trial. If he finds mercy in the law, it is his; if he can find no mercy in the law, then let him not seek mercy from us. By day and night, he’s a traitor to the utmost height.”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

***

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