The King's Deception: A Novel by Steve Berry
I tell you my seat hath been the seat of kings.
I will have no rascal to succeed me, and
who should succeed me but a king.
JANUARY 28, 1547
KATHERINE PARR SAW THAT THE END WAS APPROACHING. ONLY a few more days remained, maybe a mere few hours. She’d stood silent for the past half hour and watched, as the physicians completed their examinations. The time had now come for them to deliver their verdict.
“Sire,” one of them said. “All human aid is now in vain. It is best for you to review your past life and seek God’s mercy through Christ.”
She stared as Henry VIII considered the advice. The king, prone in his bed, had been uttering loud cries of pain. He ceased them and lifted his head, facing the messenger. “What judge has sent you to pass this sentence on me?”
“We are your physicians. There is no appeal from this judgment.”
“Get away from me,” Henry shrieked. “All of you.”
Though gravely ill the king could still command. The men quickly fled the bedchamber, as did all of the frightened courtiers.
Katherine turned to leave, too.
“I bid you, good queen, to stay,” Henry said.
They were alone.
He seemed to steel himself.
“If a man fills his belly with venison and pork, with sides of beef and pasties of veal, if he washes them down with floodtides of ale and wine that never know neap.” Henry paused. “He will reap his tares in a black hour. He will be none the happier for his swollen estate. That, my queen, is how it is with me.”
Her husband spoke the truth. A malady of his own choosing had consumed him, one that had rotted him away from within, slowly extinguishing his life’s core. He was swollen to the point of bursting, incapable of exercise, no more motion in him than a hill of tallow. This man who in youth was so handsome, who leaped moats and drew the best bow in England, who excelled in jousts, led armies, and defeated popes—now he could not even jostle a lordling or raise a hand with pleasure. He’d become big, burly, small-eyed, large-faced, and double-chinned. Swinish looking.
“Sire, you speak ill of yourself without cause,” she said. “You’re my liege lord, to whom I and all of England owe absolute allegiance.”
“But only so long as I breathe.”
“Which you continue to do.”
She knew her place. Stimulating a controversy between a husband and wife, where the former possessed all of the power and the latter nothing, was a dangerous sport. But, though weak, she was not without weapons. Fidelity, kindliness, a ready wit, her constant care, and brilliant learning—those were her tools.
“A man may sow his own seed a thousand times,” she said. “If he take heed to avoid the plague and live otherwise well and hale, he may stand like an oak at the end and leap like a stag who still lords over his herd. That is you, my king.”
He opened his bloated hand and she laid hers within. His skin was cold and clammy and she wondered if death had already begun to take hold. She knew him to be fifty-six years old, having reigned for nearly thirty-eight years. He’d taken six wives and fathered five children that he acknowledged. He’d challenged the world and defied the Catholic Church, establishing his own religion. She was the third woman named Katherine whom he had married and, thanks be to heaven, it appeared she would be the last.
And that gave her heart hope.
No joy had come from being mated to this tyrant, but she’d fulfilled her duties. She’d not wanted to be his wife, preferring instead to be his mistress, since his wives had not fared well. No, madam, he’d said to her. I look for you in the higher role. She’d consciously showed no enthusiasm at his offer, remaining dull to his royal gestures, mindful that as Henry had grown older heads had fallen faster. Discretion was the only path to longevity. So, with no choice, she’d married Henry Tudor in a grand ceremony before the eyes of the world.
Now four years of marital agony were approaching an end.
But she kept her joy to herself, her face masked with concern, her eyes filled with what could only be perceived as love. She was skilled in holding older men’s hearts, having nursed two previous husbands on their deathbeds. She knew what sacrifices the role demanded. For the king she’d many times laid his stinking, ulcered leg upon her lap, applying fomentations and balms, calming his mind, relieving the pain. She was the only one he would allow to do that.
“Sweetheart,” the king whispered. “I have a final duty for you.”
She gave a nod. “Your Majesty’s faintest wish is the law of this land.”
“There is a secret. One I have kept for a long time. One my father passed to me. I wish it passed to Edward and ask you to do such.”
“It would be my honor to do anything for you.”
The king’s eyes closed and she saw that his brief respite from pain had ended. His mouth opened and he cried, “Monks. Monks.”
Terror laced the words.
Were the ghosts of clerics sent to the flames thronged around his bed, jeering at his dying soul? Henry had laid waste to the monasteries, seizing all of their wealth, punishing their occupants. Ruins and corpses were all that remained of their former grandeur.