Behind the Scenes of Tudor Fiction: an Excerpt and Dissection
To examine some of the techniques common to all Tudor fiction, I offer here a small fragment of my own unpublished Tudor novel, Boy King – not only to show that, like all the authors I mentioned in my survey, I, too, felt the magnetic pull of that period and that family, but also to give me an opportunity to throw a spotlight on some of the joists and underbeams of the scene, in a way I couldn’t do with somebody else’s work.
Here’s the setting: a messenger from a group of German princes – namely Maurice, the Elector of Saxony, the Marquis of Brandenburg, the Duke of Mecklenburg, and the Landgrave of Hesse – has been shown into Edward’s presence in order to convey the wish of those princes that Edward finance their planned rebellion against the Holy Roman Emperor Charles. It’s October, 1551. Edward is 14 years old.
******The messenger was surprised when the guard pulled the chamber’s heavy oak door shut behind him; he’d expected the guard – and perhaps a few of his fellows – to remain in the room during his audience with the young King. He turned back to look at the boy, taking in the rich but unostentatious vest and hose he wore, the head bare and covered in wavy auburn hair, the restless shifting on a chair that was richly enough carved but certainly no throne.“You have my leave to begin,” said the King, and the messenger noticed the boy’s voice had already changed and was fairly deep, though nasal.
“Should I wait for your advisors, Your Grace? I have come a long way.”
The young man’s face was not handsome, at least not in any German way, but in response to this comment, something collected on its features that was as bad as any beauty in the world. The messenger almost gasped, realizing his misstep.
“I use advisors when I need advice,” the King said. “I need only ears to listen to a messenger, provided the messenger in question is willing to speak his piece, instead of lecturing princes on how they go about their business.”
Bowing low, the messenger begged forgiveness, and when a curt nod granted it, he began:
“Your Grace, I represent the Duke of Mecklenburg, the Landgrave of Hesse, the Marquis of Brandenburg, and the Elector of Saxony, and I come to tell you, they are worried, and they seek the reassurances only Your Grace can supply. They’re worried that by embracing the new faith – as all pious men must do – they will be brought up against the Emperor and his Papist insistences. They worry what they may have to do, should it come to that.”
“Does their worry have a price attached to it?”
“Your Grace, the Honor of the True Church has no …”
The boy made a strange lateral gesture with his left hand, like he was directing how level a table must be. The messenger wasn’t sure the King even realized he was doing it. “So then it’s my goodwill you talk about. Very well. I honor the True Church more than anyone, so of course the princes you represent have my goodwill. Done? If there’s nothing else …”
“No, no, Your Grace,” said the messenger hurriedly, thoughts racing. He had seen self-assured young people before, but he had seen nothing like this. It angered him that he had been so poorly advised, and he fought to keep the anger out of his voice. “If goodwill alone were all my lords required, they would not be worried, since they have the goodwill of the risen Christ, as well as that of Your Grace. But …”
“But the risen Christ has no Exchequer. So you have a number for me after all. I won’t ask for it again.”
“400,000 thalers. Your Grace.”
For a moment, Edward’s pale face slackened into an expression dreaming sleepers sometimes wear. The messenger tensed, for he found the look impossible to interpret, and then it was gone.
“What will that buy me?”
The question was too simple and asked just a bit too hurriedly. It was the messenger’s first indication that he was, after all, still dealing with a child. “Their goodwill. And their assurities of a like amount, should you ever require it from them under similar circumstances.”
“Similar circumstances?” the King said, with a tang of mockery at the back of his repetition. “By which you mean war, huh? Your lords don’t need 400,000 thalers to disagree with Charles. They need it to fight with Charles. That they need it up front means they’re planning to fight him, and that you’re here at all means they’re hoping I’ll join them. Have I missed anything?”
“Nothing, Your Grace,” said the messenger, who felt as though he were standing naked in a rainstorm. Whatever this creature up on the chair was, it certainly didn’t require the presence of advisors. All the testimony of encounters with the boy’s father hadn’t seemed credible to him at all, until now, when such credit may have come too late.
Edward leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, pointing his whole body forward. He’s had instructors on the exercise-yard, the messenger thought, noticing the fluidity of the movement. Perhaps it explained why the guards weren’t in the room. “I think you’re wrong, sir,” the King said. “I think I have missed something, and I think you know what it is.”
The messenger stood completely still. He had never been made to feel this way by any man; that it was a boy no taller than his breast doing it now flattened his thoughts.
“I said, I think you know what it is.”
“There, you got it! That’s the final item, isn’t it, Your Grace?”
It can’t be, the messenger thought. I am sure of every link in the chain. It can’t be.
“I fail to follow what you’re …”
“I’m pointing out, Your Grace, that you are, in fact, the Elector of Saxony. Maurice, if I remember correctly. And yet, you disguise yourself as a messenger and refer to yourself as if you weren’t in the room with me. Which makes me wonder why you would do such a thing.”
“Your … Your Grace, the Elector of Saxony …”
“You, you mean.”
The imposture that had seemed so vital was now choking the man, and as with most things that choke us, he gripped it instead of pushing it away. “Your Grace is mistaken …”
“No I’m not. You attended my father’s court once. You had yourself introduced. I saw your face. Tell me I’m mistaken and I’ll have that face whipped off the front of your head.”
The clear certainty that the King meant his threat recalled Maurice to himself. He stood as tall as he could and squared his shoulders, looked Edward straight in the eyes. “Your Grace is correct. Our cause is so vital, I couldn’t trust this envoy to a messenger. Even the most trusted might be bought by Popish gold.”
“Whereas you can be trusted entirely?”
“I … apologize for the ruse, Your Grace. I pray it does not hurt my case.”
“It doesn’t. It must have been fun in a way, disguising yourself?”
Again, the child inside the boy was speaking clearly, only now Maurice knew not to lie even slightly. “It was, Your Grace.”
“I’ll bring your case to my council, and you’ll have your answer back in Saxony. You may leave now.”
Maurice was just about to pull the door open and accept the escort of the guards when he turned around and looked at the lean figure across the room, at the King who was watching every move he made. “Your Grace, may I ask how old you were, when you saw me at your father’s court?”
“I was three. Almost four. Why?”
“No reason, Your Grace,” Maurice said, and he showed himself out.
*******You can see even in those thousand words many of the tactics Tudor writers love to employ, right? On 25 October 1551 Edward recorded in his diary that he was aware of “certain German princes” seeking his financial backing in the event of a break with the Holy Roman Emperor. Edward goes on to say that he referred the matter to the Lords at Westminster; he specifically appointed William Cecil and Secretary Wotton to get particulars from the messenger. Reading that entry in the diary, I imagined that since Edward refers to having his secretaries examine the messenger after he reveals that he knows the details, perhaps he met with the messenger first himself. Edward’s account is the only one we have, and it bears the supposition (however irregular it might have been in practice).And once I found a supposition the facts would bear, I had the basis for a one-to-one scene and was therefore off to the races! What was left was to craft what kind of Edward the poor messenger would encounter (that was my task throughout Boy King, and it’s every Tudor writer’s task). I started with the abruptness of Henry VIII, but then I mixed in a little of the cunning Edward would have needed to survive Henry’s court, and his own. I wanted a portrait of a boy forced to grow up way too fast, hugely bright, forced to be generally distrustful. To this I added just a dash of Jane Seymour’s sweet vulnerability.
As for the segment’s big surprise, well, that’s there not only because it’s nifty but also because it, too, can’t be counter-argued. For all we know Maurice really did visit Edward incognito – it sometimes happened (Henry VIII did it on numerous occasions – probably more than we know – although when he tried it later in life, he convinced nobody), and we don’t have records of Maurice’s movements precise enough to contradict it (and even if they ever surface, I’ll just cry “artistic license!”).
The problem of diction I handled by adopting the semi-formal tone I mentioned in my survey, although mine is a bit less formal than most. And the problem of exposition was handled by the setup of the scene itself; a messenger-scene has always been a godsend for dramatists, and it works equally well for novelists, since by its very nature it necessitates that characters exchange exposition. So I caught a break there! Other scenes in Boy King presented more of a problem, but I managed to find ways around the worst of it. At least I tried, unlike some of the authors in my survey, who’d have opened the above scene with Edward asking, “Now where’s Saxony again?” or “What’s up with the Emperor?”
But I should control my sarcasm. “What’s up with the Emperor?” is probably being written as we speak, doubtless on somebody’s cell phone.
Steve Donoghue was the cofounder of the Sei Mogli Review with Norman Douglas in Florence in 1921, a journal dedicated to the fusion of Italian imagist poetry and revisionist historical scholarship. It had a brief life. Today he hosts the blog Stevereads, which is doggedly dedicated to much the same thing.