The Kiss of the Concubine
By Judith Arnopp
By Judith Arnopp
28th January 1547.
It is almost midnight and the cream of the English nobility hold their breath as King Henry VIII prepares to face his God.
As the royal physicians wring their hands and Archbishop Cranmer gallops through the frigid night, two dispossessed princesses pray for their father’s soul and a boy, soon to be king, snivels into his velvet sleeve.
Time slows, and dread settles around the royal bed; the candles dip, and something stirs in the darkness … something, or someone, who has come to tell the king it is time to pay his dues.
28th January 1547, Whitehall Palace.
It is almost midnight and January has Whitehall Palace clenched in its wintery fist. The gardens are rimed with frost, the casements glazed with ice. Like a shadow, I wait alone by the window in the silver-blue moonlight, my eye fixed on the bed.
The room is crowded, yet nobody speaks.
I tread softly among them. The flickering torchlight illuminates a sheen of anticipation on their faces, the rank odour of their uncertainty rising in a suffocating fug. Few can remember the time that went before, and both friend and foe balance upon the cusp of change, and tremble at the terror of the unknown.
I move through the heavily perfumed air, brush aside jewelled velvet sleeves. At the high-canopied bed I sink to my knees and observe his face for a long moment. He is changed. This is not the man I used to know.
They have propped him on pillows, the vast belly mountainous beneath the counterpane, and the yellow skin of mortality’s mask is drawn tightly across his cheeks. There is not much time and before death can wipe his memory clean, I speak suddenly into his ear, a whisper meant only for him. “Henry!”
The king’s eyes fly open and his eyeballs swivel from side to side, his disintegrating ego peering as if through the slits in a mummer’s mask.
He knows me, and understands why I have come.
He whimpers like a frightened child and Anthony Denny steps forward and leans over the bed. “Your Majesty, Archbishop Cranmer has been summoned; he cannot be long now.”
Henry’s fat fingers tremble as he grips the coverlet, his pale lips coated with thick spittle as he tries to speak. I move closer, my face almost touching his, and the last rancid dregs of his breath engulf me. “They think you fear death, Henry. But you fear me more, don’t you, my Lord?”
The sound is unintelligible, both a denial and a greeting, but it tells me what I need to know. He recognises and fears my presence. Those assembled begin to mutter that the king is raving, talking with shadows.
I sink into the mattress beside him and curl my body around his bulk. “How many times did we share this bed, Henry?” His breathing is laboured now and sweat drips from his brow, the stench of his fear exceeded only by that of his festering thigh. I tighten my grip upon him. “Did you ever love me, Henry? Oh, I know that you lusted but that isn’t the same. Do you remember how you burned for me, right to the end?”
I reach out to run my fingertip along his cheek and he leaps in fright, like a great fish floundering on a line, caught in a net of his own devising. One brave attendant steps forward to mop the king’s brow as I continue to tease.
“Poor Henry. Are you afraid even now of your own sins? To win me you broke from Rome, although in your heart you never wanted to. Even the destruction of a thousand years of worship was a small price to pay to have me in your bed, wasn’t it?”
Henry sucks in air and forgets to breathe again. A physician hurries forward, pushes the attendant aside and with great daring, lifts the king’s right eyelid. Henry jerks his head away and the doctor snatches back his hand as if it has been scalded.