Thomas Cromwell reports to Henry VIII on the response to the plague. (With some apology to Hilary Mantel).

 

It has been my duty this day to bear dread news to our good King Henry, the eighth of that name, that plague has once again beset this fair England. His Grace claims that his understanding of these matters is without peer and when I explain, with the help of an astrolabe, how the pestilence has spread across those parts of the globe now under civilised governance he nods sagely, seemingly full of knowledge and wisdom. Yet when I explain that he must keep the span of a jousting lance betwixt his royal personage and all others at court, he asks how will it be possible for him to lie with Mary Shelton, Jane Rochford and many of the other noble ladies who attend on the Queen his wife (Anne Boleyn at time of writing, yet whose name he inexplicably omits from his litany of lust). He agrees with alacrity however that avoiding the men of the court is essential. I am forced to concede that distancing the King from ladies of the court is probably an unrealistic goal.

I then ask him to sign a royal proclamation for the closure of theatres, taverns and brothels – he queries the decree and asks if it is not a rash measure that might cause playwrights with too much time on their hands to behave irresponsibly by, for example, brawling in taverns or even writing sonnets. I have to concur that this may indeed be a danger but suggest that creativity can still be fostered even when audiences are not present. His attention, brief and unsteady at the best of times, is captured by his latest favourite at court. He avers that the musician Mark Smeaton seems ‘a goodly sort of youth’ as he’s offered to give the Queen lute lessons in the privacy of her apartment at any time of day or night. On top of this dubious news he informs me that Master Smeaton is encouraging him with his royal compositions. This saddens me deeply as I remember well my old mentor and friend the late Cardinal who, after listening to one of his Grace’s compositions, voided black blood and took to his deathbed from whence he never rose again. The King continues, insisting that if he must socially distance from the ladies at court and his wife (about whose name he again appears vague) he shall use the time well in the glory of God and his muse to compose more of that music that gives such delight. He asks if I remember Greensleeves his big hit from three years ago and which is still oft and repeatedly played by the lute player in the ante-chamber as supplicants do hold their station, awaiting his answering of their call to his presence. They say it doth stay in their minds like the worm that insinuates and burrows itself into the ear and there doth remain most miraculously for many days. Only a keen desire to keep my head upon my shoulders restrains me from mentioning that the music in the ante-chamber is the reason Ambassador Signor Chapuys has not attended court for many weeks and in consequence we are like to be soon at war with the Holy Roman Empire.

To bring good cheer to his Grace at this time of national calamity, I request his signature on the warrants for the beheading of some minor nobles who are now surplus to requirements. He shows great interest in this and demonstrates an oft concealed tender, caring side to his nature, seeking reassurance there will be proper social distancing between the nobles and their executioner. I commend his Majesty on his concerns and confirm that the executioner will perform his office with an extended axe which, though not allowing as accurate a stroke, possibly requiring four or five attempts to separate the nobles from their heads and send them to their reward in heaven, will provide surety of health for all concerned.

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