This is a work of fiction, but the images referred to all exist as did all the characters and the executions to which they refer. Like other writers of historical fiction, I have taken events as my skeleton and dressed it with the clothes of a possible event, placing imagined words into the mouths of my characters to entertain and perhaps inform the reader about the life of an artist employed at the court of Henry VIII. A previous version of this short story appeared on Tudors Dynasty Website as part of Rebecca Larson’s Decameron 2020 project.
13th February 1542
Susannah and Margaret were sitting either side of the roaring fire in the upper room of the Horenbout house. Their husbands, John Gwilim and Lucas Horenbout, had gone to the Tower to witness yet another beheading of yet another of the king’s wives.
“Do you remember Anne Boleyn?” Susannah asked. Margaret was watching her sister-in-law cradling her sleeping toddler, Henry, on her knee. Margaret remembered meeting the two Horenbout siblings when they first came to London in the early 1520s. That was about the same time that Anne Boleyn’s star was rising at court.
“That I do, Susannah.” Margaret pulled her shawl tighter round her shoulders. It was snowing and the chill north-east wind was finding its way through every crack in the house, chilling the air in this upper room as draughts shimmied their way across the floor, the cold breaths of air pulled in by the heat of the fire. “That was the first time I saw your brother. I knew then Lucas were going to be my ‘usband.”
“I think the feeling was mutual.”
“What made your father bring your family to London?” Margaret was curious why the famous family of Flemish illuminators had left come to London.
“Wolsey had made father an offer of employment when the good cardinal had come to the Regent’s court in 1521, but father turned him down because the workshop was doing well and father was already Margaret of Austria’s court artist. With such a steady career, status and good income, would you have wanted to throw it all away to come to England?”
“So what changed ‘is mind?” Margaret soft accent and the way she dropped her ‘h’s showed she was a Londoner through and through. Margaret’s husband, Lucas, was a few years younger than his sister and his recall of those times was of being an apprentice and learning the illuminator’s art, not of the world of the sophisticated court of the Regent of the Netherlands. Margaret was curious to hear why Gerard Horenbout had changed his mind from Susannah’s lips.
“Luther!” It was Susannah’s turn to reminisce, but these were disturbing memories. Margaret waited for the other woman to continue. It took some time for Susannah to gather her thoughts.
“Luther’s teachings against the Church were causing a religious rift right across northern Europe and father wanted us all to be safe and to be able to continue working as artists. Luther and Zwingli wanted the beautiful interiors of churches to be painted white and anything that even hinted at Catholisism to be destroyed. So many beautiful altarpieces were being destroyed and illuminated books of hours being burnt. Not to mention people rioting and fighting each other because of what they believed. And when the authorities caught them, being burnt as heretics. England seemed to be very safe. King Henry had just written his Defence of the Faith and the Pope had given him the title of Defender of the Faith. England appeared to be the bastion of the Church of Rome and for us, as artists and illuminators, father knew we would have a place within the good Cardinal’s court at the very least. Your family were so kind to us when our mother died and father decided to return to Bruges.” Susannah’s voice still carried elements of her Flemish dialect, but she was now so fluent in English that she even dreamt in the language. She had learnt to speak, read and write German, and to read and write latin as a child, but French or English had never been required.
“’’aving got the pair of you married off, I don’t think your father ‘ad much else to keep him ‘ere, what with you both being employed in the royal library. And besides, 1529 was a difficult year, what with the king determined to divorce Queen Katharine and the Cardinal dying on his way back from York. To my mind, Wolsey’s death was a bit too convenient. Being a man of God I cannot believe ‘e was ill, or that ‘e took ‘is own life.” As she finished speaking, Margaret leant forward and put another log on the fire.
“Don’t let anyone hear you say that. They may repeat it to ears that are not so kind as ours.” Susannah had often thought the same. Wolsey had not managed to secure the much desired royal divorce, and had subsequently been accused of praemunire, which was tantamount to treason. After his death there had been rumours that perhaps the good cardinal had been shuffled off this earth before his time because the king wanted to avoid a trial and inevitable backlash of war from the Emperor and other crowned heads of Europe because the English king had found a Cardinal guilty of treason, which carried the mandatory sentence of death. Who had started these rumours was not known, but to repeat such gossip courted danger and possible imprisonment. No one wanted to upset the king, especially these days, now that all the worst traits of the king’s character were becoming more obvious day by day.
“’tis such gossip and rumour that has brought about Katharine’s death, and she was a queen.” Susannah knew the bare bones of how Henry’s fifth wife had fallen from grace, but not the detail.
“No, not this time. There was written evidence that young Katharine was not as pure as a queen should be when she goes to the bed of the anointed king. There were love letters between her and Thomas Culpeper. She was a flighty thing, but ‘er guilt was provable, unlike that of Boleyn’s. Now that was a case of evidence being overheard – or manufactured, more like.”
There was a sudden increase in the cold drafts at floor level followed by the noise of several pairs of boots tramping up the stairs. Considering the dangerous nature of their conversation the women held their breath. The door opened and Margaret’s husband Lucas, Susannah’s husband John Gwilim and last, their mutual friend, Hans Holbein, entered. Holbein closed the door behind him and joined the other two men standing with their backs to the roaring fire to warm their legs and rubbing their hands. Margaret leant forward and thrust the mulling poker deep into the yellow coals. Mulled wine was what was needed to warm them all and the jug and mugs stood prepared. The expressions on the men’s faces were grim.
“So ‘tis done then.” Susannah was the one to break the mournful silence that had settled over the room.
“Aye, she was a defiant little thing at the last.” Gwilim paused. “Considering ‘ow she ‘ad screamed when she was taken to the Tower and ‘ad to be helped to the scaffold, ‘er last words were surprising.”
“Go on then, husband. What were they?” Susannah was morbidly curious to know how anyone could be defiant when facing the axe man.
Lucas, now feeling warmer, drew up a settle so the three men could sit directly in front of the fire, while Margaret prepared the large jug of mulled wine. The air became scented with the smell of cloves and nutmeg and just a hint of cinnamon as the hot poker spluttered as it hit and warmed the contents of the jug. Five earthenware beakers, filled to their brims of the hot wine, were handed out.
Lucas gathered his thoughts. He was still not sure how he felt about this morning’s beheadings. He and Holbein had stood and sketched the two women as they came to the scaffold and who had gone to their deaths. Even though he had not liked Lady Rochford, he had felt for her because she had been the second one to kneel to the block. Her last sight of this world would have been of the spreading wet pool of blood of young queen Katharine.
Taking a long pull on the hot wine, John Gwilim leaned back. “Katharine said that although she dies a queen of England she would rather be the wife of Culpepper.”
“No!” the women chorused, shocked at the boldness and defiance of that statement. They wondered who it would be that told Henry these words. Margaret had witnessed many executions on Tower Hill and, without exception, all the condemned had acknowledged the justice of their punishment and asked for forgiveness of their sins and for betraying their king.
“I suppose she had nothing to lose by declaring her love for Culpepper.”
“His head is stuck on a pike and she would have seen that as she entered the watergate.” Lucas held out his mug for more wine. “History will tell that she asked for the forgiveness of the king, but perhaps those who heard will repeat her true words, but it won’t be those words that are told to Henry.”
“You have to wonder why Henry is so fond of parting the heads from the shoulders of those who cross him.” This time it was Holbein who spoke, his voice was still heavily accented despite him having been in England for the better part of eighteen years.
‘’’e does it because ;e can, Hans.” Gwilim said softly. “It makes them that might think King ‘enry’s too old to rule or that they have a better claim to the throne, think twice.”
“Remember that ‘enry’s father was none too sure about the legitimacy of ‘is claim, which was why ‘e married Elizabeth of York. You would ‘ave thought that ‘aving the daughter of Edward IV as your mother would allay any fears you ‘ad on that score.” Margaret knew she was talking out of place, but her husband, Lucas, had never been one to treat a woman as a mindless minion, respected both her mind and her talent. She too was an artist, but she was not as good as either her husband, or her sister-in-law, Susannah.
“Ever since Edward IV came to the throne, there were rumours that ‘is father wasn’t who everyone assumed ‘e was.” Gwilim tossed this little gem of ancient gossip into the conversation and the three royal artists looked at him in astonishment. Coming from Europe, Lucas, Susannah and Holbein did not know all the tittle tattle and rumours of the parentage of Edward IV. “My father told me that King Edward was so different from ‘is black hearted brother Richard, that it was obvious they did not come from the same stable, so ‘tis no wonder that Richard ‘ad Edward’s two sons clapped in the Tower after their father’s death in 1483, and because their father was a cuckoo in the royal nest was why they disappeared.”
“I did not know that.” Holbein was surprised. “All I know is that Henry is fickle. Look how he treated Anna of Cleves. She is a pretty woman despite what he says. She’s clever too – probably one of the most politically aware of all of Henry’s wives, which is why she has survived.”
“Unlike the other Anne!” Lucas snorted.
“Oh yes, Mistress Boleyn certainly had a very high opinion of herself.” Susannah remembered the hefty slap she had received because Queen Anne had not liked a sketch Susannah had done of the two year old Princess Elizabeth. “She was far too free with her thoughts and often made Henry look foolish with her quick tongue. When she got that crown on her head she would have done well to remember that a queen is supposed to set the example for all women to follow and not act like some high and mighty spoiled child.”
Lucas nodded in agreement. He had not had very much contact with Queen Anne, or any of the king’s women. His sister, on the other hand, had not needed a chaperone to be in the company of a queen and had painted both the king and his first queen many times, as well as the young Princess Mary. The tiny portrait miniatures of the king that he created on documents and other manuscripts, and the stand alone ones Susannah had made of the queen and princess, had set a fashion that had quickly caught the imagination of those at court and they supplemented their royal salaries by painting the courtiers who came to them. Margaret’s father often benefitted from being asked to design and make a locket for the eventual portrait, so the whole family benefitted.
Lucas turned to his tall German friend. He had taught Holbein how to mix pigments the way illuminators did and now Holbein was making a small fortune painting these portrait miniatures of the German merchants of the Stijlyard and their wives. Holbein had painted portraits of both Susannah and Gwilim as a wedding present in 1539.
Lucas, by contrast, had created the illuminations on two of the most important legal documents of Henry’s reign so far. The Liber Niger that was kept in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, was the new book of the Tudor Knights of the Order of the Garter commissioned in 1534. There had been many a discussion regarding the design. Tiny portraits of all of Henry’s twenty five knights were included, but that was where the innovation stopped. Despite his having had the Bible translated into English, the king was at heart, a traditionalist. The ancient Order of the Garter went back to 1348 and the reign of Edward III. To honour Edward’s queen, Philippa of Hainault, Lucas had studied her effigy on her tomb, sketching her head from every angle and had included her portrait in the document. Queen Anne had moaned that she should have been the one to have her portrait in this new book, but Henry had stood his ground, telling Lucas that he did not want some future fool assuming the king had been so arrogant as to ignore the original founder of the Order and his wife, especially since Anne had not yet given him a son. It was only right and proper to portray Edward III’s queen since she had given her husband seven legitimate sons and four surviving daughters. Anne had, as yet, only produced a daughter. Lucas remembered that Henry had been very insistent on this point. Reflecting on what had happened to Anne within two years of completing this work, Lucas often wondered whether the king had begun to tire of the constant demands made by his second wife even back as far as 1534. Despite the illuminated queen Philippa having a medallion around her neck with the initials A R on them, anyone with any knowledge of how queens signed themselves would know that this did not stand for Anna Regina. Even though Anne had been anointed, her official signature, like that of all queens, was Anne the Quene. Even when Queen Katharine was regent, she never used the word ‘regina’. To do so implied she was a queen by right of birth and even with the greatest stretch of the imagination, no one could call Anne Boleyn that. There never had been a queen by right of birth in England and besides, the heir to the throne had been the Princess Mary who at least had the royal blood of Spain flowing in her veins and was related to the powerful Hapsburgs. Despite Mary being declared illegitimate, many, including all of those in the room, had thought of her as the legitimate heir to the English throne until Prince Edward had arrived.
The initials on the locket had been an afterthought to placate mistress Boleyn after a particularly venomous exchange between husband and wife. Henry had asked Lucas to come up with something that might placate his difficult wife. They were not particularly large letters and it was unlikely that anyone would even notice them. The only persons who might look at this new book were the Knights of Garter themselves, and if any of them noticed, they knew that to comment could be detrimental, if not terminal, to their career at the Tudor court. The Duke of Suffolk was the only knight who might say something about it, and it would be to him, Lucas, never directly to the king. Charles Brandon was no friend of Anne Boleyn. That the initials were still there rankled with Lucas and he wondered if he could erase them without anyone noticing, when he had a spare moment.
Lucas wondered whether Mistress Boleyn had ever realised that the only reason Henry had her anointed as his queen was because she was pregnant at the time of her coronation and the astrologers all said the baby was a boy. Lucas had been privy to the royal couple’s secret wedding in the January of 1533, because Anne had commissioned a portrait of herself to give to the king as a wedding gift. That marriage had, in his eyes made the king a bigamist. However, bigamy seemed to be tolerated by this monarch. Had not his own brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, once been a bigamist before his marriage to the king’s sister?
The other document Lucas had been commissioned to do that year was the Valor Ecclesiasticus and that had been Cromwell’s commission for an illuminated letter and banner for the front page. Here Henry was seated on his throne surrounded by members of the commission who appeared cowed by the royal presence. The illumination carried across the top of the page, with all the symbols and emblems of the Tudors displayed in glorious colour, with silver foil making the shield with the cross of St George glitter in candlelight. It would eventually go black as the foil oxidised, but by then they would all be long dead. The document listed all the monetary values of the religious houses in England and Wales and that was a very great amount. Queen Anne had wanted the money to be invested in education, but Thomas Cromwell had had other ideas. The royal coffers were empty. At least he had managed to keep any reference to her off this document as it was a Cromwell commission, not a direct one from the king.
“Husband, how does the young prince?” Susannah asked, her voice intruding into her brother’s reflections of past commissions. The king had stood as godfather to Gwilim and Susannah’s son Henry, hence the baby’s name. Gwilim was often sent to the prince’s household on errands, so was best placed to know how the child fared.
“He does well enough.” Gwilim replied. The warm wine was good and he was feeling more relaxed after witnessing the horrors of this morning’s events. Ever since he had married Susannah they had enjoyed a good style of living. She had much to thank him for as she had been virtually penniless when they had married. Her previous husband’s will should have left her in good stead, but John Parker had been married before and his relations had challenged his last will and testament successfully in the courts. That still rankled as Gwilim was sure that the judge had found in favour of Parker’s relatives because Susannah was a foreigner. It has been Thomas Cromwell who had introduced Susannah to him and had convinced Gwilim that being married to Mistress Susannah would not be a bad thing for both of them.
“John Gwilim! Shame on you for not telling us ‘ow young Prince Edward thrives.” Margaret chided. “It’s these snippets of news from the royal nursery that keep us women ‘appy, especially since Queen Jane died so quick after ‘is birth.”
Holbein chuckled. “Mistress Horenbout, I’ve just painted the prince’s portrait as a gift for the king, and I can confirm that the young prince is very robust. You could say that he has his carers around his little fingers.”
“What you are really telling us is that he’s a spoiled brat.” It was Lucas’s turn to laugh. It was well known that the five year old Prince Edward did very much as he liked and was not allowed to be disciplined for even the slightest misdemeanour.
“Oh yes, very much so. He’s got his father’s chubby face and his little eyes – how do you say in England – are like a pig’s.”
“Hush Hans. What if what you say about the prince reaches the king’s ears?” Susannah warned. “You’ve only just got back into Henry’s good books after the Cleve’s portrait fiasco!”
Holbein nodded, but he did not care. It was not the king who was giving him work, but the Comptroller of the Royal Household. The last commission that had come direct from the king had been in 1540, just after the second royal divorce. That had been for a portrait miniature of the teenage queen who had just gone to the block, charged with adultery and treason.
“How is it that all those you’ve painted, except Dame Anna, have died? It is as if your brush has the touch of death.” Lucas teased his friend.
“I’m kept busy enough painting large portraits of those merchants at the Stijlyard and they are better and swifter payers than the keepers of the royal purse strings.” Holbein replied. His clothes told the world that he was a man of means. His cloak was lined with miniver and while he did not break the sumptuary laws by wearing velvet and ermine, he did wear the finest woollen hose, and the rest of his wardrobe was of the best fabrics and finest tailoring that money could buy and was allowed for someone of his rank. However, if anyone had visited him in his studio they would have found him dressed in a paint splattered cheap coarse linen shirt and breeches. He knew he was a messy painter when he was painting those large portraits in oils, and these oil glazes were difficult to get out of any material unless you soaked them in turpentine. The German merchants were often only in London for a matter of weeks so he had to work quickly before they left on another voyage. He always insisted on half the payment up front, and the rest on delivery before they left port, in case their ship foundered and they were drowned. It was expensive and long winded suing someone’s estate as most of them had all their assets in Germany, which meant he would never get paid. It was different when he was creating the portrait miniatures. Lucas and Susannah both wore smocks of silk and special caps that covered all their hair when they worked. At first Holbein had thought they were just being over protective of their art, but after one particular portrait ‘in little’ was spoiled because he had scratched his head and flakes of dandruff had fallen on the surface, he realised the sense in adopting their artistic uniform. Silk was easily washed and unlike wool or linen, did not shed any lint. Now he had taken to wearing a leather hat pulled down over his forehead to stop a repeat of the disastrous dandruff shedding. The other advantage of these miniature portraits, other than they were quicker to create than the large portraits, was their price. Two or three pounds was a lot more affordable than the big portraits.
“Really? Perhaps it is just those at court that you have captured on panel that you paint with a cursed brush.” Lucas was determined to keep Holbein defending his royal commissions. “How many is it now? First there was Mistress Boleyn before she married; then Cardinal Wolsey.”
“Yes, that’s so,” Gwilim added. “And Henry was very swift to remove any reminders of both of them almost immediately after Anne’s execution. I was in charge of the removal of all the carvings and stained glass at Hampton Court in the September of 1536 and the carpenters charged a pretty penny.”
“The Flemish glass makers tell me that the rood screen at the King’s Chapel in Cambridge is still intact.” Lucas added. “Perhaps all the references to Henry and Anne there have been forgotten by the king.”
“I still have my sketch of Anne as she went to the block.” Holbein look down at his hands. “That was a bad day.”
“Did you like her?” Susannah asked, rubbing her cheek as if it still stung from that slap given by the long dead queen so many years previously.
“She was a very interesting woman, but not very intelligent when it came to men. Cromwell admired her enquiring mind until she went against him over how the money from the monasteries should be spent.” Holbein continued. “But I’m not the only one who has painted a member of the royal family who is now dead. There’s an important one who we can remember from your portrait, Lucas.”
“Who’s that than.” Lucas held out his cup for some more wine.
“Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond.” Holbein reminded him.
“Oh yes, Henry’s bastard son. I’d forgotten I’d painted him.”
“So, it is not just me that could be said to have the brush of death, and you were summoned to paint him on his death bed.” Holbein raised his glass to his lips; the wine was still warm and fragrant. He was remembering just how many of those he had painted had died on the block. “Yes, I know you are going to add my portraits of Cromwell to your list, but I’ve just painted ANOTHER miniature portrait of his son Gregory, and I have recently completed a big portrait of his wife Elizabeth, so not everyone I paint ends up in a coffin.”
“Her sister did, and you painted her!” Susannah remembered the pall of gloom that had settled over the court after Queen Jane’s death only days after Prince Edward’s birth. Her sister Elizabeth had married Gregory Cromwell only weeks before the arrival of the little prince.
At that moment the door opened suddenly, making everyone jump.
“Oh, I hadn’t realised you had returned, father.” The Horenbout’s daughter, Jacomyne, stood in the doorway her painting smock draped haphazardly over her clothes. “I wanted mother’s opinion on the margins you wanted painting, but I see you are all busy.” Jacomyne started to pull the door closed.
“I would love to see them, Jacomyne. Bring them in so we can all take a look.” Lucas was keen to show off his daughter’s talents.
“When they are fully dry, father. I wouldn’t want them to get smudged.”
“Don’t embarrass her, brother.” Susannah turned to her niece. “We will come to the workshop after dinner. Will that be long enough for them to dry?” Jacomyne nodded, earnestly hoping the four artists would forget. Holbein and her father were the most famous artists retained officially at court and she did not want either of them to look at her work too closely. Her mother and aunt were another matter as they were not so nearly as sharp in their criticism. If she had known they were all together, she would never have come upstairs.
After dinner Margaret made more mulled wine and Susannah sat nursing her young Henry. She was looking forward to her toddler sleeping well now she had enjoyed a delicious meal and much wine. The five adults were the only ones still up, the rest of the household having retired after supper.
“Just out of interest, Lucas, do you think the Boleyn’s downfall was all Cromwell’s doing?” Gwilim had his own theories, but as a gentleman pensioner he was not as close to the inner court as his brother-in-law.
“I do, but what’s your opinion, Hans. Before I answer, I’d like to hear your views as you work closely with those who commission your designs for masques and Henry’s temporary banqueting halls, not to mention those fireplaces, bits of jewellery and clocks you design.”
The German leaned back and stretched his long legs. “Cromwell never confided in me about affairs of state. If you want to know what was in his mind, then you should ask Richard Riche.”
Both women shuddered at the mention of this name. Riche had once asked Susannah to paint a portrait of his wife and had never paid the bill.
“That man would sell ‘is soul for a barrel of ‘errings if ‘e thought it would further ‘is career.” Gwilim had no love for a man who had been instrumental in the downfall of so many loyal subjects including Sir Thomas More, Bishop Fisher and Lord Cromwell. “Luckily he does not ‘ave the king’s ear to the same extent as Suffolk.”
Lucas nodded. “Ever since I’ve been at court Suffolk has got away with not paying his debts until he is taken to court, and seems to get his way in virtually everything. He is the true power behind the throne.” He paused to wet his vocal chords, a fine dinner and more mulled wine was loosening his tongue. “ At one time he was a bigamist and, despite this being known, managed to avoid any retribution. Having got away with that, he then married the king’s sister without the Henry’s permission.”
“That was long before we came to England, brother.” Susannah hoped her intervention would hush her brother from saying more.
“Yes, Henry sent Brandon, as he was then, to bring his widowed sister home after the death of Louis XII. Personally, I think it was to get as much of Mary Tudor’s dowry back into the English treasury and out of the hands of Francis, than any thoughts of the well-being of his sister.”
“Perhaps it was to stop Francis from marrying Mary off to a political ally?” Margaret offered.
This time it was Susannah who answered. “When I painted her portrait, I remember her showing me the prayer book Louis had given her on their marriage. I think it was by Jean Bourdichon, but if not, then it was by another equally talented artist at the French court.” Susannah’s memories of Mary Tudor were of a kind and generous woman.
“Mary had been anointed queen of France, hadn’t she?” Margaret asked. She had been a very young woman in 1515 and remembered her father (one of the king’s goldsmiths) coming home from court the day that the king had received the news of his sister marrying Charles Brandon. It had taken all of Wolsey’s skills to persuade Henry not to order the newlyweds to be thrown into the Tower the minute they set foot back on English soil in Calais.
“Surely, if she were an anointed queen rather than a queen consort, she would have had to ask Brandon to marry her rather than the other way round?” Susannah asked.
“I don’t know, but I would assume so. No one would ask someone appointed by God to do anything, let alone ask them to marry them even if they were a woman. Mary ‘ad been anointed queen of France in the cathedral of St Denis, before God.” Gwilim was repeating what he had heard from a member of the French Ambassador’s entourage.
“She is supposed to ‘ave made the king promise that if Louis XII died and there were no children from ‘er marriage, then she would be allowed to choose ‘er next husband for ‘erself.” Margaret offered.
“That sounds more like one of those bits of information put out to flatten out any gossip about King ‘enry threatening to ‘ave them thrown in the Tower, or worse.” Gwilim replied.
“Suffolk was very quick to marry again after Mary died.” Susannah observed.
“Didn’t he marry his ward, the wealthy and very young Frances Willoughby just six weeks after Mary Tudor’s death?” Margaret asked. She and Lucas had been married some ten years when that had happened. The speed at which Charles Brandon had married the teenage girl had scandalised the court, especially since she had been promised to his son and heir, another Henry, named after his uncle, the king. “Apparently Anne and Mary hated each other.” Margaret added.
“That was because of Mary’s opposition to the royal divorce and apparently Anne criticised Brandon very publicly for his unnatural interest in his ward, young Catharine Willoughby. Some gossips at court at the time, thought that Brandon had already bedded the girl and Anne shamed him into marrying her.” Susannah added.
“Sister, do you think there was any truth in those rumours?” Lucas asked. “Was it his ward ? I’d heard Anne had accused him of wanting sex with one of his actual daughters.”
There was a sharp intake of breath at this exchange. Either way, the conversation was becoming dangerous if anyone were listening.
“Mary Tudor was very ill and away from court. We all know Brandon’s reputation when he thinks there is young flesh to be had, but I was not at court so it is only rumour I heard, but Anne’s very public criticism of him about having a prurient interest in very young woman in his care was enough to ensure his enmity.”
“Now Mary Tudor is one member of Henry’s family I would have liked to have got to know.” Like the others, Holbein was feeling very content. “However, after my return from Basle, my patrons were the Boleyns and as you say, they and the Suffolk’s were not friends. I owe much to the Boleyn’s for bringing me to the king’s attention.”
“Aye, that you do. It is your support for the reformists that stopped you from getting more royal commissions when you first came to England.” Lucas observed.
“Yes, at first, but my introduction was to Sir Thomas More, not the king of England, and I only had leave from the elders of Basel to remain in England for two years.”
“There you are, old friend. Sir Thomas More – another one of your patrons who went to the block!” Lucas could not resist another jibe at the number of Holbein’s patrons who had ended on a scaffold.
“But you weren’t the one to paint the first public portrait of the king! All of your images of him are hidden away in documents or those tiny portraits you create.” Holbein poked Lucas in the chest to reinforce his point. The wine continued to flow and the mood had become one of gentle playfulness. “Nor did you get sent to paint prospective brides to fill the royal bed when Henry was finally persuaded that he needed to have another brood mare to give him a spare heir.”
“And look what trouble that got you into my friend.” Lucas was enjoying their light hearted repartee.
“What do you mean brother?” Susannah interrupted the teasing. “Don’t forget I too was sent to Europe when Henry decided he wanted to marry Dame Anna.”
“That’s true. We ‘ad only been married three weeks and suddenly my wife was whipped away to spy on the Cleves court for Cromwell.” Gwilim was not serious about Susannah being a spy. That was a man’s work. He had reported enough over-heard conversations to Richard Riche himself to ensure that he and his wife continued to enjoy the privileges of being members of the court. John Gwilim was a very minor member of the royal household, but every now and again whispers not meant for his ears came in useful to pass to the king’s Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations.
“Gwilim, that was not the case! It was felt that because I speak a dialect sufficiently similar to that spoken in Cleves, I would be the best person to teach the new queen English.” Susannah had blushed to the roots of her hair.
“And it was because you could speak this dialect you could also understand what was being said around you.” This time it was Holbein who spoke. “Don’t worry Susannah, I too was asked to pass on anything I heard that might be useful. How else do you think Henry got to hear that the lovely Dowager Duchess of Milan would be happy to marry him, if she had but two heads.”
“As it was,” Susannah continued, ignoring the thoughtful expression on her husband’s face. He could think what he liked, but now Holbein had confirmed the real reason why she had been sent to Europe, she had to somehow retrieve the situation. “The Cleves women are very closely guarded well away from the male members of court – especially visitors, so I heard nothing of any use to Cromwell; but I was able to teach Anna enough English so she would be able to carry on a simple conversation with her prospective husband when she first met him.”
“Away from sight is the best place for women —” muttered Gwilim under his breath. He was looking at his wife in a new light. He had been joking when he said she had been Cromwell’s spy. Now it appeared it was standard practice for artists to repeat anything they saw or heard and she had never told him. It was something he would have to think about. He now realised he owed his new elevated position at court to his wife and not to his own talents. Cromwell had wanted Susannah married because that suited his purpose. That Gwilim had been manipulated by the late Earl of Essex hurt his male pride.
“What do you mean brother-in-law?” Margaret asked.
“Women should keep out of politics and not bother their heads with such things.” Gwilim growled.
“I suppose you would have us do nothing more than make your shirts, wash your dirty clothing, clean your houses, cook your meals and warm your bed!” The tenor of his response turned the mood in the room sour. Margaret was cross at the way John Gwilim had dismissed both herself and his own wife as if they were nothing more than servants.
“Gwilim,” Lucas intervened, intent on soothing the atmosphere. “we’ve just come from witnessing the execution of a young woman who didn’t think politically and did not appear to be very intelligent either. Anna of Cleves may well have had a sheltered upbringing, but look at how she handles Henry. She is one of the most politically intelligent people at court because she doesn’t have to be constantly vying for his favour, or is expected to produce an heir. The truth is, he trusts her. Think on it. We know he talks to Anna because she is very truthful. If you watch her, when she knows he won’t like an answer to one of his questions, she feigns she does not have the knowledge to answer him. If all women were like young Katharine Howard the world would be a very dull place – and look at the trouble she ended up in because she was not politically clever.”
“You have also forgotten something else, husband.” Susannah addressed John Gwilim. Her voice was low and Lucas recognised all the signs that his sister was angry beyond anything that was reasonable and braced himself for what she might say next. “Put yourself in Katherine’s shoes. Henry is a smelly, obese, lecherous, old tyrant who does not look in the mirror to see the truth. That was why Anna first reacted the way she did in Dover when he surprised her, but she quickly realised who the old man with his ancient ‘roaring boys’ and that other old lecherous old goat, Suffolk, really was. You should listen a bit more carefully to what I tell you. That meeting was not the disaster Cromwell had made it out to be. As the future queen of England, Anna was horrified to be invaded by a load of masked men and she thought she was being kidnapped. However, she very soon realised that if that were the case then the kidnappers would not be a group of old men dressed up in stupid costumes of a bygone age. Hence she was able to recover the situation and play Henry’s game. The true report, as it was reported back to her brother Wilhelm, was that Henry and she sat and had a long conversation. Remember – I was there!” Susannah paused for breath. “You men think you are all very fine and the king is so clever, but he is nothing more than a bloated carcass that has had its day. He still expects all women to open their legs whenever he passes so he can satisfy his sexual fantasies, then he goes on his way hoping nothing will come of such an encounter – and mostly nothing does come from his prick. Because Katharine was stupid enough to fall for the handsome Culpepper, suddenly she is a whore because she was pretty and young and because she wanted someone who wanted her. Culpepper was handsome. Perhaps they were in love? Think on this. Henry might be the king but the truth is, he can’t get it up anymore! The real reason Henry hasn’t got any more children is because he is impotent.”
Holbein rose. Revealing this truth was treason. Looking out of the window he saw the snow had stopped and the moon had risen making the night nearly as brilliant as the day. He picked up his fur-lined cloak and twirled it around his shoulders, before moving towards the door. With his hand on the door handle, he turned.
“I shall leave you to continue your musings.” Making a small bow of thanks to his hostess he turned to Lucas and Gwilim. “Perhaps in view of the king’s habit of killing people whom he thinks are talking behind his back, perhaps we should not repeat anything we have talked about tonight. Adieu my friends.”
College of St George, Windsor Archives.
Josephine Wilkinson; Katharine Howard: The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen; Amberley; 2016.
Heather Darsie; Anna Duchess of Cleves: The King’s Beloved Sister; Amberley, 2019.
Susan James: The Feminist Dynamic 1450 – 1600; Ashgate, 2009.
Steven Gunn: Charles Brandon: Henry VIII’s Closest Friend; Amberley 2016.
Bibliotèque municipale de Lyon
National Archives, Kew.
The Images referred to can be found in the following collections.
The Royal Collection Trust – Featured image is a Portrait miniature of an Unknown Woman, possibly Katharine Howard (1520 – 1542). RCIN 422293. by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497? – 1543).
©M V Taylor June 2020.