This is another short story based on my interest in Medieval history, especially the voices of Tudor women. The Book of Henry is based on the idea of a book club. What would the past wives of Henry VIII say to each other if they ever got the chance to meet as a group?
I hope you enjoy it.
The Book of Henry
Twilight, August 1546 and the queen of England, Katherine Parr is prostrate on her bed, at Hampton Court Palace. The sixth and final wife of Henry VIII is alone, all servers and ladies dismissed. Her body shuddering in shock, Katherine needs time, she doesn’t yet know how much. But she knows she needs to compose herself and think.
Minutes tick by as her breathing slows. Noticing the hairs at the nape of her neck are upended Katherine wonders if the fire has been left unbanked, unattended to. In weary resignation, she turns to summon a server. But as she does so, she catches sight of a shadow before her, at the corner of her bed. Shaking her head to clear it, she glimpses another shadow moving around the bedpost to her right.
Rubbing tear puffed eyes, Katherine commands, ‘I did not give leave,’ thinking a soft-footed servant has returned without being summoned, ‘fire needs attention.’ Her voice laced with an authority she does not fully feel.
‘What witchcraft is this?’ A low, gruff voice from behind, accompanied by a tang of orange.
An intelligent and rational woman, Katherine Parr, has already used her wits this day to placate her husband Henry and save herself from the Tower. She doesn’t cry out but instead twists her body to locate the voice and its talk of witchcraft. Her ladies know better than to indulge, in this.
‘I ask again, what witchery is this?’
Breath suspended, Katherine discerns, a third shadow, emerging from the bedpost behind her left shoulder, her eyes follow the shape as it travels to join the other two, who have silently moved closer together at the foot of her bed.
As she scrubs at her eyes, each shadow takes on a more defined form, as though someone has outlined them with ink. It stretches credulity, but Katherine now discerns hoods, both the Gable style and the more modern French style, brocade skirts, a glint of diamonds, the hue of rubies and the sheen of pearl. Amongst them, Katherine swears she can see a diamond-studded B.
‘Who are you?
‘How have you summoned us?’
‘Why are we here?’
From each form a question and Katherine hears, the disdain in each one, but it is not for nothing that she is Queen.
‘Katherine Parr.’ She pauses, gathering her thoughts, ‘Queen of England, wife to Henry VIII.’ Whatever is going on, Katherine is still very much alive, and if she can face down Henry, she can do the same with these phantoms. These supposed spectres from his past.
‘How can I have summoned you? She straightens her back, though her throat tightens.
‘Why are you in my chamber?’ Presses clammy palms into the gold thread of her bedcovering.
What do you want from me?’ Inches closer to the foot of the bed.
‘Are you, really?’
If anyone is going to demand answers, it is her. Besides Katherine is far more afraid of the living than the dead.
It’s the third shadow, with the low, gruff voice and Gable hood that answers first, ‘Aragon, Katherine, first and true wife to Henry VIII. Does he yet live?’ Katherine hears a voice resonant with authority and pride.
‘God yes’ answers Katherine, as she watches pale fingers pick cursorily at beads hanging between folds of gown. She remembers well that Katherine of Aragon was a staunch follower of the old faith.
A second voice, ‘Boleyn, Anne second wife to Henry,’ this from the first shadow to appear at the foot of Katherine’s bed. In a higher-pitch but there is no mistaking the tone of command.
‘Indeed,’ the form of Aragon, observes, wryly.
Boleyn makes no reply but turns instead to the form that has thus far remained silent, ‘well milksop?’
Katherine knows who this must be, she recognises the well-worn term. After the fire and ice of Anne, Jane’s dullness as many saw it must have seemed to Henry, like a soothing balm on a fevered forehead.
‘Seymour, Jane, third wife to Henry VIII.’
Now Katherine Parr knows that she is somehow in the presence of three former wives of Henry, three deceased Queens of England.
But, by God, what wouldn’t she give, to be in the shoes of Anne of Cleves Henry’s fourth wife? Now styled as the king’s beloved sister and happily, installed at Hever Castle. In any case, where is Catherine Howard? If she has somehow conjured up and called forth three dead wives, why not his deceased fifth wife too?
She is about to ask, when Aragon, speaks again, ‘do you love and honour him?’
Impertinent, and not a question, she is prepared to answer fully. Even in the privacy of her bedchamber, even to a phantom. Though Katherine wonders if, of all his wives, did Katherine of Aragon, love him best? It was still rumoured that her heart had broken in the end.
‘He is my king.’
‘Do you love and honour him?’ the form of Aragon, expands, leans in, Katherine senses impatience and hesitates as she pictures the bulk of her fifty-four-year-old husband, the stink of the rotting flesh from his leg filling her nostrils.
‘He is my lawful husband.’
‘Do you love and honour him?’ Accompanied by a shaking of Gable hooded head, as though Aragon is wondering why there is no straight answer to this?
Katherine feels hot breath on her cheek, sees a mouthful of diseased teeth, and presses on, ‘as a subject loves their king, their sovereign lord.’ A drawn-out hiss and then a sigh and Katherine wonders if her answer has finally satisfied this phantom of Aragon.
The forms of Seymour and Boleyn remain silent, swaying slightly.
Then there is a half hiccup, half sob from behind Katherine’s right shoulder and as she twists to find the source, she sees a fourth shadow. Without a word, it disincorporates. Dissolves from head to toe. Catherine Howard had been present, all along.
‘That didn’t take much,’ a scornful Boleyn.
‘She is but a child,’ a murmur from Seymour.
Katherine turns back to the foot of her bed, Catherine Howard in life, had been married to Henry for less than two years. A young girl of seventeen who had caught the king’s eye and then paid dearly for her foolishness. No matter, she needs to learn what she can from these three who have lived and died through Henry, ‘what must I……?’
Aragon interrupts with, ‘do what you must to survive.’
I’ve done that and more thinks Katherine, as she recalls her last encounter with Henry. Her sobs, her pleading and her complete abasement to his will.
‘Outlive him,’ comes back from the form of Boleyn, as it wanders across to the wall-hangings, as though to stroke them.
‘Ah, yes,’ Seymour’s form trails behind Boleyn as it places both palms above its collar bone, ‘you had such a little neck, as I recall.’ A soft voice from Seymour, but there is no hiding the determined acidity in its’ tone.
‘What more can I do?’ Katherine asks, ‘how long must I keep, going?’
‘Give him a son,’ travels back from Boleyn at the wall-hangings.
‘I gave him a son.’ A murmur from Seymour, her form drifts back to the edge of the bed to face Katherine, ‘did you?’
Katherine’s, ‘no,’ overlays the ache that of all those present she is the only one who has never borne a child, ‘he has but one male heir.’ Her voice trails off.
‘Ahh,’ this one sound from Seymour denotes pride, ‘I see.’
The fact that she alone has delivered to the king a son, a legitimate male heir to the throne fills the stillness in the room. It is the form of Boleyn that breaks it with a hiss, as it skims across the room to face Seymour.
‘I gave the king a son,’ Seymour’s words, weighed and measured, are laid out in the space between them.
All three turn to Katherine Parr, ‘does he live?’
‘What about Elizabeth?’ A sharp interruption from Boleyn, if milksop’s progeny is alive, why not hers? Aragon is not far behind, ‘Mary?’
Katherine Parr sighs at the shift in conversation, she had worked hard to bring all of Henry’s children to court. ‘All three live,’ she hesitates, ‘all three are legitimate.’
‘None are bastards?’ Aragon, cuts in, direct, to the point. Katherine hears the incredulity in her voice the whole issue of bastardisation had dogged the final years of Aragon’s life.
Katherine Parr chooses her words with care, ‘all are in line, of succession,’ her voice factual, tone neutral. But before she can say more, the form of Aragon turns to Boleyn, ‘after all that, you still could not give him a son?’
More a statement than a question, but delivered with such cold derision that Katherine wonders, at how it must be to carry this burden of bitterness and hurt, beyond the grave?
‘No.’ The form of Boleyn shrinks back, ‘a daughter only.’ Looking closely, Katherine notices the drooped head as the form continues. ‘She was naught but three when I left her.’
There is a tap, a noise outside the door to Katherine’s inner chamber, then it is filled with her ladies fluttering in like trapped butterflies.
‘The king wishes to see you.’
‘He’s on his way.’
They move swiftly towards Katherine.
The spectres, retreat.
‘He needs your comfort, your reassurance.’
‘More?’ Croaks Katherine. ‘Even now?’
No one answers though Katherine notices the forms of Boleyn and Seymour skim across to the tapestries. Aragon follows at a more sedate pace.
Competent, her ladies attend to their Queen, ‘he can’t see you like this.’ Katherine stands mute as they comb her hair, ‘he may want to spend the night.’ She is still as they dab rose water about her neck, ‘he’s anxious to see you.’ She stands statuesque as they arrange a fresh robe around her, ‘ah, that’s better.’
They know how close their Queen had come to being arrested.
Then there is no time, Henry is here.
Katherine makes her obeisance. ‘My lord.’
Exhausted, drained she knows she cannot show anything other than complete joy and reverence at being in his presence.
‘Now, we are perfect friends again…’ Katherine waits, head bowed as the king continues. ‘We can share an evening.’ Henry smiles, ‘I may even stay the night?’
Katherine pauses before answering. ‘Of course.’
‘I would think you would want to spend this night with me?’
Katherine realises that her response has not been fulsome enough. She hears the petulance in the, me.
Forcing her head up, lips turned to smiling and praying that her eyes are sparkling, Katherine spies Boleyn and Seymour nodding at her, she catches a fresh tang of orange before answering Henry, ‘with all my heart.’
Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
The Taming of the Queen – Philippa Gregory
Anne Boleyn A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir
Word count: 1798