My name is Minstrel and I’m a black and white spaniel bitch. I was born in the household of the Lady Anne of Cleves, who was married for a short time to King Henry VIII as his fourth wife. He called her his ‘dear sister’ afterwards and she visited him at Court. On one of those occasions I went with her, still a spindly puppy then, and the King quite took to me. I do seem to have that effect on many humans, even if I do say so myself. The Lady Anne, who was a good natured and very easygoing woman, promptly left me with him.
For an ever-hungry canine the immediate vicinity of enormous Bluff King Hal was a most rewarding place to be, for he never went short where food of an extremely succulent nature was concerned. There was always plenty of golden-brown, high crusted mutton pies, plump roasted chickens and turkeys alongside a totally mouth-watering chine of beef, all accompanied by big jugs of steaming giblet gravy. The King tossed a choice hunk of meat or a piece of rich pastry to me whenever I caught his eye, though I never did see him throw bones over his shoulder as people would later claim he did. I soon began to fill out from wolfing down such lavish fare.
There came a January day when King Henry had been ill in bed at the Palace of Whitehall for over a week. There were visits from the bitter Lady Mary, his daughter by first wife Catherine of Aragon; the red-haired Lady Elizabeth, his child by the beheaded Anne Boleyn; and his son and heir Edward, who was thin and pale. That night, as His Grace slept uneasily, I lay in a shadowy corner by the big wall hanging in the royal bedchamber, which was lit by just the glow of the fire and a couple of flickering candles. Will Somers, the King’s fool, was dozing near the curtained bed. I liked Will, who never failed to give me playful attention when I presented myself for some. I had come to think that our often tyrannical and much feared master was closer to the honest and devoted Will, a mere servant in the eyes of many, than any other person. Will had sat for most of this blustery winter day beside the ailing King, who had awakened but briefly two or three times since the middle of the afternoon. Now all was quiet and I decided to get comfortably settled down myself. I was about to stretch out where I was, for I had avoided sleeping by the fire since a log had crackled loudly while I was drifting off and sparks had leapt out, when the door was opened - slowly and sneakily, it seemed to me…
When Edward Seymour and his brother Thomas, uncles of Prince Edward through their late sister, came in, I was inclined to start barking, but I had seen Thomas kick a dog quite viciously, for he was a nasty piece of work under that jovial manner, so I made no noise and stayed still, watching the pair from my dark corner. Edward, his greedy eyes hard as pebbles, hurriedly put a finger to his lips after noticing the slumbering Will. Thomas, quickly realising the situation, remained silent. Edward took something Thomas handed to him and moved across to where a silver goblet, containing the concoction Dr Tom Wendy, the royal physician, had prepared for the King, stood on a small table by the bed. He had his back to me now so I didn’t actually see what he was up to, but I detected the sound of the liquid being stirred. Something had surely been added. The door opened again and the brothers hastily made sure they would be seen looking down at their former brother-in-law with concerned faces. Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who always seemed a kind man, joined them. I think his voice woke up King Henry, who tried to move and gasped. He was obviously in pain. Cranmer, genuinely anxious about him I’ve always believed, picked up the goblet and held it to His Grace’s lips. The King suddenly grasped it himself and completely drained the contents…
At his funeral in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, the royal widow, Queen Katherine Parr, watched from a high closet as he was lowered to join his third wife, Jane Seymour, or so I heard Will Somers telling one of his cronies. It was Will who returned me to Lady Anne of Cleves at Richmond Palace.
A few weeks later a visitor called to pay his respects to the Lady Anne. He was an old man with long silver hair, wearing a black cloak and carrying a silver-topped walking stick. He gave his name as the Bishop of Tardis. Lady Anne received him in her normal casual way and offered a glass of wine, which she always called ‘good cheer’. The old fellow drank with enjoyment and revealed with amusement that he had once thrown a parson’s nose at King Henry. The Bishop then patted me on the head and commented on how friendly I seemed. The Lady Anne smiled and agreed that I usually was, then repeated a story Will Somers had told her. I had, she revealed, always got up and hurried off whenever Thomas Seymour approached. During my last days at Whitehall I had behaved just the same towards his brother Edward, now Lord Protector of England as his nephew the new King was only a boy.
The old man’s searching gaze was on me as I remembered what I had seen on the night before King Henry died. The Bishop didn’t speak, so why could I hear his voice in my head?
‘So that’s why you avoid them, is it?’ he commented.
I stared at him, cocking my head to one side. ‘You can read my mind!’ I thought in reply.
‘Just a little gift of mine.’ He stroked my ears. ‘Don’t fret about those power-hungry Seymours. They both came to a bad end, you know, for other reasons.’
I was puzzled. He made it sound like something that was already history. He was right about those scheming brothers, though, as it turned out. They both lost their heads to the axe, three years apart. Treason, I expect it was. It usually is, apparently.
What is treason, anyway?