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!"





John Heywood King Henry The Eighth facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Feedback