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King By The Wrath Of God








"Who dares interrupt us?" cried the king, as with headlong step he
returned to the chamber--"who dares speak of mercy?"

"I dare!" said a young lady, who, pale, with distorted features, in
frightful agitation, now hastened to the king and prostrated herself
before him. "Anne Askew!" cried Catharine, amazed. "Anne, what want you
here?"

"I want mercy, mercy for those wretched ones, who are suffering yonder,"
cried the young maiden, pointing with an expression of horror to the
reddened sky. "I want mercy for the king himself, who is so cruel as
to send the noblest and the best of his subjects to the slaughter like
miserable brutes!"

"Oh, sire, have compassion on this poor child!" besought Catharine,
turning to Henry, "compassion on her impassioned excitement and
her youthful ardor! She is as yet unaccustomed to these frightful
scenes--she knows not yet that it is the sad duty of kings to be
constrained to punish, where they might prefer to pardon!"

Henry smiled; but the look which he cast on the kneeling girl made
Catharine tremble. There was a death-warrant in that look!

"Anne Askew, if I mistake not, is your second maid of honor?" asked the
king; "and it was at your express wish that she received that place?"

"Yes sire."

"You knew her, then?"

"No, sire! I saw her a few days ago for the first time. But she had
already won my heart at our first meeting, and I feel that I shall love
her. Exercise forbearance, then, your majesty!"

But the king was still thoughtful, and Catharine's answers did not yet
satisfy him.

"Why, then, do you interest yourself for this young lady, if you did not
know her?"

"She has been so warmly recommended to me."

"By whom?"

Catharine hesitated a moment; she felt that she had, perhaps, in her
zeal, gone too far, and that it was imprudent to tell the king the
truth. But the king's keen, penetrating look was resting on her, and she
recollected that he had, the first thing that evening, so urgently and
solemnly conjured her to always tell him the truth. Besides, it was no
secret at court who the protector of this young maiden was, and who had
been the means of her obtaining the place of maid of honor to the queen,
a place which so many wealthy and distinguished families had solicited
for their daughters.

"Who recommended this lady to you?" repeated the king, and already his
ill-humor began to redden his face, and make his voice tremble.

"Archbishop Cranmer did so, sire," said Catharine as she raised her eyes
to the king, and looked at him with a smile surpassingly charming.

At that moment was heard without, more loudly, the roll of drums, which
nevertheless was partially drowned by piercing shrieks and horrible
cries of distress. The blaze of the fire shot up higher, and now was
seen the bright flame, which with murderous rage licked the sky above.

Anne Askew, who had kept respectful silence during the conversation of
the royal pair, now felt herself completely overcome by this horrible
sight, and bereft of the last remnant of self-possession.

"My God, my God!" said she, quivering from the internal tremor, and
stretching her hands beseechingly toward the king, "do you not hear that
frightful wail of the wretched? Sire, by the thought of your own dying
hour, I conjure you have compassion on these miserable beings! Let them
not, at least, be thrown alive into the flames. Spare them this last
frightful torture."

King Henry cast a wrathful look on the kneeling girl; then strode
past her to the door, which led into the adjoining hall, in which the
courtiers were waiting for their king.

He beckoned to the two bishops, Cranmer and Gardiner, to come nearer,
and ordered the servants to throw the hall doors wide open.

The scene now afforded an animated and singular spectacle, and this
chamber, just before so quiet, was suddenly changed to the theatre of
a great drama, which was perhaps to end tragically. In the queen's
bedchamber, a small room, but furnished with the utmost luxury and
splendor, the principal characters of this scene were congregated. In
the middle of the space stood the king in his robes, embroidered with
gold and sparkling with jewels, which were irradiated by the bright
light of the chandelier. Near him was seen the young queen, whose
beautiful and lovely face was turned in anxious expectation toward
the king, in whose stern and rigid features she sought to read the
development of this scene.

Not far from her still knelt the young maiden, hiding in her hands her
face drenched in tears; while farther away, in the background, were the
two bishops observing with grave, cool tranquillity the group before
them. Through the open hall doors were descried the expectant and
curious countenances of the courtiers standing with their heads crowded
close together in the space before the doors; and opposite to them,
through the open door leading to the balcony, was seen the fiery,
blazing sky, and heard the clanging of the bells and the rolling of the
drama, the piercing shrieks and the yells of the people.

A deep silence ensued, and when the king spoke, the tone of his voice
was so hard and cold, that an involuntary shudder ran through all
present.

"My Lord Bishops of Winchester and Canterbury," said the king, "we have
called you that you may, by the might of your prayers and the wisdom of
your words, rid this young girl here from the devil, who, without doubt,
has the mastery over her, since she dares charge her king and master
with cruelty and injustice."

The two bishops drew nearer to the kneeling girl; each laid a hand
upon her shoulder, and bent over her, but the one with an expression of
countenance wholly different from that of the other.

Cranmer's look was gentle and serious, and at the same time a
compassionate and encouraging smile played about his thin lips.

Gardiner's features on the contrary bore the expression of cruel,
cold-hearted irony; and the smile which rested on his thick, protruding
lips was the joyful and merciless smile of a priest ready to sacrifice a
victim to his idol.

"Courage, my daughter, courage and prudence!" whispered Cranmer.

"God, who blesses the righteous and punishes and destroys sinners, be
with thee and with us all!" said Gardiner.

But Anne Askew recoiled with a shudder from the touch of his hand, and
with an impetuous movement pushed it away from her shoulder.

"Touch me not; you are the hangman of those poor people whom they are
putting to death down yonder," said she impetuously; and as she turned
to the king and extended her hands imploringly toward him, she cried:

"Mercy, King Henry, mercy!"

"Mercy!" repeated the king, "mercy, and for whom? Who are they that they
are putting to death down there? Tell me, forsooth, my lord bishops, who
are they that are led to the stake to-day? Who are the condemned?"

"They are heretics, who devote themselves to this new false doctrine
which has come over to us from Germany, and who dare refuse to recognize
the spiritual supremacy of our lord and king," said Bishop Gardiner.

"They are Roman Catholics, who regard the Pope of Rome as the chief
shepherd of the Church of Christ, and will regard nobody but him as
their lord," said Bishop Cranmer.

"Ah, behold this young maiden accuses us of injustice," cried the king;
"and yet, you say that not heretics alone are executed down there,
but also Romanists. It appears to me then that we have justly and
impartially, as always, punished only criminals and given over the
guilty to justice."

"Oh, had you seen what I have seen," said Anne Askew, shuddering, "then
would you collect all your vital energies for a single cry, for a single
word--mercy! and that word would you shout out loud enough to reach yon
frightful place of torture and horror."

"What saw you, then?" asked the king, smiling. Anne Askew had stood up,
and her tall, slender form now lifted itself, like a lily, between the
sombre forms of the bishops. Her eye was fixed and glaring; her noble
and delicate features bore the expression of horror and dread.

"I saw," said she, "a woman whom they were leading to execution. Not a
criminal, but a noble lady, whose proud and lofty heart never harbored
a thought of treason or disloyalty, but who, true to her faith and her
convictions, would not forswear the God whom she served. As she passed
through the crowd, it seemed as if a halo encompassed her head, and
covered her white hair with silvery rays; all bowed before her, and the
hardest natures wept over the unfortunate woman who had lived more than
seventy years, and yet was not allowed to die in her bed, but was to
be slaughtered to the glory of God and of the king. But she smiled, and
graciously saluting the weeping and sobbing multitude, she advanced to
the scaffold as if she were ascending a throne to receive the homage of
her people. Two years of imprisonment had blanched her cheek, but had
not been able to destroy the fire of her eye, or the strength of her
mind, and seventy years had not bowed her neck or broken her spirit.
Proud and firm, she mounted the steps of the scaffold, and once more
saluted the people and cried aloud, 'I will pray to God for you.' But as
the headsman approached and demanded that she should allow her hands to
be bound, and that she should kneel in order to lay her head upon the
block, she refused, and angrily pushed him away. 'Only traitors and
criminals lay their head on the block!' exclaimed she, with a loud,
thundering voice. 'There is no occasion for me to do so, and I will not
submit to your bloody laws as long as there is a breath in me. Take,
then, my life, if you can.'

"And now began a scene which filled the hearts of the lookers-on with
fear and horror. The countess flew like a hunted beast round and
round the scaffold. Her white hair streamed in the wind; her black
grave-clothes rustled around her like a dark cloud, and behind her,
with uplifted axe, came the headsman, in his fiery red dress; he, ever
endeavoring to strike her with the falling axe, but she, ever trying,
by moving her head to and fro, to evade the descending stroke. But at
length her resistance became weaker; the blows of the axe reached her,
and stained her white hair, hanging loose about her shoulders, with
crimson streaks. With a heart-rending cry, she fell fainting. Near her,
exhausted also, sank down the headsman, bathed in sweat. This horrible
wild chase had lamed his arm and broken his strength. Panting and
breathless, he was not able to drag this fainting, bleeding woman to the
block, or to lift up the axe to separate her noble head from the body.
[Footnote: Tytler, p. 430] The crowd shrieked with distress and horror,
imploring and begging for mercy, and even the lord chief justice could
not refrain from tears, and he ordered the cruel work to be suspended
until the countess and the headsman should have regained strength; for
a living, not a dying person was to be executed: thus said the law. They
made a pallet for the countess on the scaffold and endeavored to restore
her; invigorating wine was supplied to the headsman, to renew his
strength for the work of death; and the crowd turned to the stakes which
were prepared on both sides of the scaffold, and at which four other
martyrs were to be burnt. But I flew here like a hunted doe, and now,
king, I lie at your feet. There is still time. Pardon, king, pardon for
the Countess of Somerset, the last of the Plantagenets."

"Pardon, sire, pardon!" repeated Catharine Parr, weeping and trembling,
as she clung to her husband's side. "Pardon!" repeated Archbishop
Cranmer; and a few of the courtiers re-echoed it in a timid and anxious
whisper.

The king's large, brilliant eyes glanced around the whole assembly, with
a quick, penetrating look. "And you, my Lord Bishop Gardiner," asked he,
in a cold, sarcastic tone, "will you also ask for mercy, like all these
weak-hearted souls here?"

"The Lord our God is a jealous God," said Gardiner, solemnly, "and it
is written that God will punish the sinner unto the third and fourth
generation."

"And what is written shall stand true!" exclaimed the king, in a voice
of thunder. "No mercy for evil-doers, no pity for criminals. The axe
must fall upon the head of the guilty, the flames shall consume the
bodies of criminals."

"Sire, think of your high vocation!" exclaimed Anne Askew, in a tone of
enthusiasm. "Reflect what a glorious name you have assumed to yourself
in this land. You call yourself the head of the Church, and you want to
rule and govern upon earth in God's stead. Exercise mercy, then, for you
entitle yourself king by the grace of God."

"No, I do not call myself king by God's grace; I call myself king by
God's wrath!" exclaimed Henry, as he raised his arm menacingly. "It is
my duty to send sinners to God; may He have mercy on them there above,
if He will! I am the punishing judge, and I judge mercilessly, according
to the law, without compassion. Let those whom I have condemned appeal
to God, and may He have mercy upon them. I cannot do it, nor will I.
Kings are here to punish, and they are like to God, not in His love, but
in His avenging wrath."

"Woe, then, woe to you and to all of us!" exclaimed Anne Askew. "Woe to
you, King Henry, if what you now say is the truth! Then are they right,
those men who are bound to yonder stakes, when they brand you with the
name of tyrant; then is the Bishop of Rome right when he upbraids you
as an apostate and degenerate son, and hurls his anathemas against you!
Then you know not God, who is love and mercy; then you are no disciple
of the Saviour, who has said, 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse
you.' Woe to you, King Henry, if matters are really so bad with you;
if--"

"Silence, unhappy woman, silence!" exclaimed Catharine; and as she
vehemently pushed away the furious girl she grasped the king's hand, and
pressed it to her lips. "Sire," whispered she, with intense earnestness,
"Sire, you told me just now that you loved me. Prove it by pardoning
this maiden, and having consideration for her impassioned excitement.
Prove it by allowing me to lead Anne Askew to her room and enjoin
silence upon her."

But at this moment the king was wholly inaccessible to any other
feelings than those of anger and delight in blood.

He indignantly repelled Catharine, and without moving his sharp,
penetrating look from the young maiden, he said in a quick, hollow tone:
"Let her alone; let her speak; let no one dare to interrupt her!"

Catharine, trembling with anxiety and inwardly hurt at the harsh manner
of the king, retired with a sigh to the embrasure of one of the windows.

Anne Askew had not noticed what was going on about her. She remained
in that state of exaltation which cares for no consequences and which
trembles before no danger. She would at this moment have gone to the
stake with cheerful alacrity, and she almost longed for this blessed
martyrdom.

"Speak, Anne Askew, speak!" commanded the king. "Tell me, do you know
what the countess, for whose pardon you are beseeching me, has done?
Know you why those four men were sent to the stake?"

"I do know, King Henry, by the wrath of God," said the maiden, with
burning passionateness. "I know why you have sent the noble countess to
the slaughter-house, and why you will exercise no mercy toward her. She
is of noble, of royal blood, and Cardinal Pole is her son. You would
punish the son through the mother, and because you cannot throttle the
cardinal, you murder his mother."

"Oh, you are a very knowing child!" cried the king, with an inhuman,
ironical laugh. "You know my most secret thoughts and my most hidden
feelings. Without doubt you are a good papist, since the death of the
popish countess fills you with such heart-rending grief. Then you must
confess, at the least, that it is right to burn the four heretics!"

"Heretics!" exclaimed Anne, enthusiastically, "call you heretics those
noble men who go gladly and boldly to death for their convictions
and their faith? King Henry! King Henry! Woe to you if these men are
condemned as heretics! They alone are the faithful, they are the true
servants of God. They have freed themselves from human supremacy, and as
you would not recognize the pope, so they will not recognize you as head
of the Church! God alone, they say, is Lord of the Church and Master
of their consciences, and who can be presumptuous enough to call them
criminals?"

"I!" exclaimed Henry the Eighth, in a powerful tone. "I dare do it. I
say that they are heretics, and that I will destroy them, will tread
them all beneath my feet, all of them, all who think as they do! I say
that I will shed the blood of these criminals, and prepare for them
torments at which human nature will shudder and quake. God will manifest
Himself by me in fire and blood! He has put the sword into my hand, and
I will wield it for His glory. Like St. George, I will tread the dragon
of heresy beneath my feet!"

And haughtily raising his crimsoned face and rolling his great bloodshot
eyes wildly around the circle, he continued: "Hear this all of you who
are here assembled; no mercy for heretics, no pardon for papists. It is
I, I alone, whom the Lord our God has chosen and blessed as His hangman
and executioner! I am the high-priest of His Church, and he who dares
deny me, denies God; and he who is so presumptuous as to do reverence
to any other head of the Church, is a priest of Baal and kneels to an
idolatrous image. Kneel down all of you before me, and reverence in me
God, whose earthly representative I am, and who reveals Himself through
me in His fearful and exalted majesty. Kneel down, for I am sole head of
the Church and high-priest of our God!"

And as if at one blow all knees bent; all those haughty cavaliers, those
ladies sparkling with jewels and gold, even the two bishops and the
queen fell upon the ground.

The king gazed for a moment on this sight, and, with radiant looks and
a smile of triumph, his eyes ran over this assembly, consisting of the
noblest of his kingdom, humbled before him.

Suddenly they were fastened on Anne Askew.

She alone had not bent her knee, but stood in the midst of the kneelers,
proud and upright as the king himself. A dark cloud passed over the
king's countenance.

"You obey not my command?" asked he.

She shook her curly head and fixed on him a steady, piercing look. "No,"
said she, "like those over yonder whose last death-groan we even now
hear, like them, I say: To God alone is honor due, and He alone is Lord
of His Church! If you wish me to bend my knee before you as my king, I
will do it, but I bow not to you as the head of the holy Church!"

A murmur of surprise flew through the assembly, and every eye was turned
with fear and amazement on this bold young girl, who confronted the king
with a countenance smiling and glowing with enthusiasm.

At a sign from Henry the kneelers arose and awaited in breathless
silence the terrible scene that was coming.

A pause ensued. King Henry himself was struggling for breath, and needed
a moment to collect himself.

Not as though wrath and passion had deprived him of speech. He was
neither wrathful nor passionate, and it was only joy that obstructed his
breathing--the joy of having again found a victim with which he might
satisfy his desire for blood, on whose agony he might feast his eyes,
whose dying sigh he might greedily inhale.

The king was never more cheerful than when he had signed a
death-warrant. For then he was in full enjoyment of his greatness
as lord over the lives and deaths of millions of other men, and this
feeling made him proud and happy, and fully conscious of his exalted
position.

Hence, as he now turned to Anne Askew, his countenance was calm and
serene, and his voice friendly, almost tender.

"Anne Askew," said he, "do you know that the words you have now spoken
make you guilty of high treason?"

"I know it, sire."

"And you know what punishment awaits traitors?"

"Death, I know it."

"Death by fire!" said the king with perfect calmness and composure.
A hollow murmur ran through the assembly. Only one voice dared give
utterance to the word mercy.

It was Catharine, the king's consort, who spoke this one word. She
stepped forward, and was about to rush to the king and once more implore
his mercy and pity. But she felt herself gently held back. Archbishop
Cranmer stood near her, regarding her with a serious and beseeching
look.

"Compose yourself, compose yourself," murmured he. "You cannot save her;
she is lost. Think of yourself, and of the pure and holy religion
whose protectress you are. Preserve yourself for your Church and your
companions in the faith!"

"And must she die?" asked Catharine, whose eyes filled with tears as she
looked toward the poor young child, who was confronting the king with
such a beautiful and innocent smile.

"Perhaps we may still save her, but this is not the moment for it. Any
opposition now would only irritate the king the more, and he might
cause the girl to be instantly thrown into the flames of the fires still
burning yonder! So let us be silent."

"Yes, silence," murmured Catharine, with a shudder, as she withdrew
again to the embrasure of the window.

"Death by fire awaits you, Anne Askew!" repeated the king. "No mercy for
the traitress who vilifies and scoffs at her king!"





Next: The Rivals

Previous: King Henry The Eighth



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