Holbein’s Greatest Masterpiece

Holbein’s Greatest Masterpiece
(Tudor  Writer’s Group. Work of Fiction)


King Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger
King Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger

King Henry VIII 

I pace through my chamber like a frustrated lion, caged. I should be hunting, spending time with my sweet Jane. “God’s Blood Master Cromwell! Do you think sir that I keep you for what is easy? Must I do all myself?”

Even the Duke of Norfolk quails before my rages, but this lad from the smithy merely bows his head. I approach him, my spittle would spray into his eyes were he only to raise them. “I said all of them! Every sketch, every copy, every damnable trace of that treacherous woman!” He murmurs some assurance, and I turn away.

He raises his head and says, “Master Holbein…” I fling my finely wrought silver cup at the abomination on the wall as I turn and roar, “Enough! Tell Master Holbein he will have opportunity to paint my likeness again soon enough!”

Sweating in the warm spring air, I tug at my silks. Sitting heavily, I rub my leg. It is ulcerous again, damn doctors. Catherine knew a poultice, ah but she is gone too, the old harridan. Master Secretary begins again, “His Grace the Archbishop..”

I raise my hand, quieted at the thought of Cranmer, how heavy his heart is, and why not? To hear all this sins of that woman would weigh on anyone’s soul. “I will speak to the Archbishop myself. He must be made to see that it is right. That I am right. She wove her spells around him too, and we must bring him around.”

Cromwell is smiling, he too is fond of my Archbishop. “You talk to him to, Tom. Ah, Tom! My most devoted Cromwell, we will bring him around, won’t we? Surely? In time?”

I am exhausted. I am not the man I was three years ago. That witch and her treasonous lovers have seen to that. But now there is Jane. And soon it will be as if Anne Boleyn never existed. “Go now, Master Secretary. Do not tarry. See to this affair quickly, and quietly. And do not rest until it is done!”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

I stand upon the spot I must to illuminate the spectacle. Underneath the two Frenchmen, the ambassadors who forever lurked upon the Queen’s favor, there it be — the damn skull, upon the flooring that Kings are crowned upon no less. That oddity was the Lady Anne’s idea, yes the Lady Anne. All titles stripped today at trial, the wench is just that, a woman who bedded His Majesty and gave him a bastard, just like her sister. Once she conjured up this insanity, His Grace chimed in. He always does. “Master Holbein, if Her Majesty insists on the skull, do at least hide it. ‘Tis of the devil.” Those two when together, the Archbishop and the Queen, forever made my head ache mighty, partners in crime I do swear. Their reformation? Feed every vagrant and urchin in Christendom. Noble yes, but the riches belong to the crown, how spent His Majesty’s pleasure. How was I to counsel him to part with riches so easily begot? Who do these two think I be? A wizard? Do they think I wave a mystical wand like Merlin to move the King’s mind? Good God, man. Get real. King Henry VIII knows his own mind. And now his pleasure be to erase the Lady Anne Boleyn from this earth, all signs of her gone. I think this painting can be salvaged, but the other — God forgive me, the masterpiece straight from God’s hand to Holbein’s — must go.

“Just paint the damn thing, Master Holbein. Many a crown to you if His Majesty favors. Mayhaps he will take you on as court artist.” Master Hans Holbein, he be a genius, God’s talents blessed upon him. His Majesty took one look at the two frogs in their finery standing there, the globes, the quadrant, the torquetem, the sundial, the Lutheran book — my idea that — the lute, His Grace’s crucifix from Cambridge, and even the damn skull, and did hire the brilliant man from Augsburg just like that. “My devoted Tom, call that man to court. I want a portrait just as this be, with my Queen big with my heir in her belly and me in my finest cloth of gold. Go now, no tarrying good man.”

The portrait, the most beautiful portrait ever painted in Christendom, do we really have to burn it? My God, sinful that. The portrait of the Frenchmen hanging over yonder be a sketch in comparison. Well I be heading to hell in any case says the Bishop of Rome, so best be me do the deed — but how do I tell His Grace? I cannot allow he first learn from the King. The man be prone to tears, and best they not fall upon His Majesty. The letters from Master Morice, they tear at mine heart that His Grace suffers, riddled with heartbreak, riddled with guilt, riddled with shame. Need I go to Lambeth to break this gently? Mayhaps so. Yes the man is a quandary at times, but at court we really do just have each other. There be no one else I trust save His Grace and Sadler, and if he be smart, after Morice, there be best no one beyond me. God, if anyone smells his Lutheran bed warmer be his wife and not merely his favorite lay, the man’s head will roll same as those that shall in the morn’.

As I head out to the docks, I look upon His Majesty’s barges. Yes, it still stings. The Lady Anne gifted His Grace a beautiful barge upon his consecration. She gifted him prayer books, gold chalices, a jeweled cross on a heavy gold chain, even a necklace for his bed warmer. Does the Lady Anne know? Did he trust her with that? Mayhaps, she would hold it close — for him. The Lady Anne always did like him better them me. Always studying scripture together, reading Tyndale together, joking together, laughing together, praying together, supping together, and His Majesty never did bat an eye. Truthfully he had no need to. His Grace does love the Lady Anne — not in a romantic way, as his cherishes his wife, but more like a kindred spirit. In all ways spiritual, they think as one. I was out numbered on that, well, until His Majesty and I, who in all ways governance think as one, decided the Lady Anne must go.

The ebb and flow of the barge, rowers in unison pushing us all down the Thames, brings me back, yes back to the creation of the exquisite portrait, yes back to a time when His Majesty loved her, yes back to a time when all seemed to be going as planned. My mind is full of them, Master Holbein, His Majesty, His Grace, and the Lady Anne…

King Henry VIII

The king is in high spirits today.”Good Day Master Secretary! Master Holbein! Shall we set this affair in motion?” We bow, and he quickly raises us up.”Where is the queen? Trying yet another gown, I’ll warrant. No matter, there is something I would discuss with you before she arrives.”

Retrieving a small box from one of his gentleman, he remembers something, “Norris, go fetch me my father’s dragon, you know the one, the silver one from my chamber. I would have it in this portrait.”

Turning back , he smiles conspiratorially, “Now, gentlemen, I know that the queen has been forever changing her mind about her jewels, so I have had something new prepared for her.” Opening the box, he beams,” See how the table diamond in the center and the emeralds catch the light?’

He turns serious a moment ,”We must do all we can to please her in this. Anything she wishes, just do it. The fancies of a woman with child can be quite capricious! Still, she is carrying your prince, and I will not have her upset.”

Extending his royal hand, he addresses the artist, “Master Holbein, I have this ring that my father wore in his likeness. I would like it quite visible, a symbol of the past here in this portrait of the future.” And again, his good mood emerges, shaking his finger in mock reproach.

“Master Cromwell! I see your stack of papers, sir! Oh no, so this is your plan! To hoist your business upon me while I am trapped in pose!”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

Master Holbein, oh how he humors me. The man gives me a glare, his opinion of the King’s command made plain. He then walks up to His Majesty and takes the gaudy ring, hovers over the table set with cloth of silver adorning it, and plops the thing willy-nilly. As he fumbles around sorting out where to place the accumulating barrage of special trinkets, I nod my head to acknowledge the King’s chide and smile broadly. “Why yes, Majesty. Sign and stamp the parchment towards the end, and I be Duke of Wellington, just like that.”

We both laugh at such a silly thought, and even the ever serious Master Holbein snickers, the dog. I add… “Yes Majesty, the last parchment anoints Will Somers Bishop of Pembrokeshire. What say you sign these, and I be off then?”

King Henry VIII

“Pembrokeshire you say? What says his Grace to that? I can see that you have me pinned down, Master Secretary. I suppose we can do some work, but the queen and I are composing a sonnet together, and I fear her wrath far more than yours!”

His face lights up as he spies his beloved, “Oh! there she is now! Anne, sweeting! Your beauty outshines the sun my dear! Come, see what I have for you!”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

Sweetling? I hold back a moan, just barely. His Majesty is brilliant, but the Queen’s manner be far from pleasing. As she approaches, the ever present maids in tow, I bow deeply in respect. I am good at that, bowing and removing my hat to the Lords and Ladies with royal blood — and the Boleyns. They know who really holds the winning hand. That’s all need be. The Queen replies with a glare and smug nod. What else be new? Does she forget who put her on the throne?  Whose pen made her reign law? I think not. Her dismissive treatment of me lays bare before all. I care not. After all, she is but a woman, and I be not my beloved Cardinal.

Anne, the Quene

As the queen enters, she smiles to her Lord and husband, “My darling… your words always touch my heart. I must say you look dashing and strong as always.”

Queen Anne looks at the table, and her eyes are lost in the magnificent jewels that are placed there. “My Love… it is not difficult to understand that those magnificent pieces are tokens of your love for me. I feel pleased…thank you my darling”.

Her Majesty carries a book in her hands, her illuminated prayer book. She passes the beautiful book to one of her ladies in waiting, Lady Wyatt. As soon as she takes the book from the Queen, both ladies smile to each other. After a nod from her Majesty, Lady Wyatt walks towards Cromwell. The Queen glares at him with pride, “There Master Cromwell. This is a token of my Faith to be preserved, and a symbol of our duty with this realm, to restore and keep the truth of God.”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

I nod in acknowledgment and hand the exquisite prayer book to Master Holbein. “Do decide where you would like this placed good man.” He gives me the damn evil look of his in obvious annoyance. “Your Majesty, the prayer book is enchanting, as is your exquisite gown and jewelry.”

King Henry VIII

The king is like a child, pleased that he surprised the queen once again. His Majesty likes surprises, and of course, he delights in the sighs and coos of his wife. He beckons Norris, holding out his hands to receive the Tudor dragon. “Very good, Harry! Pray, did you encounter my Lord Archbishop?”

Norris murmurs something, and the king turns to ask,”Master Secretary, you did summon him like I commanded?” He nods affirmatively. “Good. He must be delayed then. If it were any other man, I would guess it is a woman who keeps him long so often.”

Setting the dragon on the table, the King glances around for his warship — yes, a warship. The Mary Rose, pride of his navy is to be included in this masterpiece of Tudor symbolism. “Please set the scene as you would see it Master Holbein.”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

I laugh at the King’s words of the Archbishop. “Aye, yes Majesty. His Grace was summoned indeed. I do believe he gets caught up in his vestments rather than wenches.” We all laugh heartily at that, even the Queen.

Then, I need say this, as I know the King suffers much. “Majesty, I am touched by your tribute to your sister, our beloved Queen of France and Duchess of Suffolk. I pray her health improves each night before I rest my head.”

His Majesty, nods. “I pray a’mighty too, my devoted Tom. I pray a’mighty, too.”

Master Holbein pokes me, the poignant moment interrupted, and murmurs in my ear, “This will cost you dearly for all these additions to the plan, Master Cromwell. I do not work for farthings.” Holbein then huffily heads back to arrange all the treasured items. Returning back to me, he whispers, “This not be what we agreed to. These people make my head throb.”

“Just do as they ask. You’ll have your crowns, ” I chide.

Anne, the Quene

Queen Anne is enjoying the moment, now standing beside her husband. She watches as the treasures to be immortalized in the painting are carefully arranged. “This for sure will be Master Holbein’s greatest masterpiece.  It will be something more than just a painting, for there is much of us in it… There will be profound meaning.”

The queen smiles then she looks with curiosity as the usher enters. When she sees who approaches after him, the Queen smiles again with more joy. “Finally, His Grace is here. Welcome… welcome.”

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

His Grace, always in good spirits, bounds into the inner chambers with great pleasure. He bends a knee, and the Queen bids he rise. “Majesties, do forgive my tardiness. I came upon a poor urchin, so I prayed for and blessed the child.”

His Grace looks around the room, taking in the beauty of their Majesties’ finery and the treasures Master Holbein so oddly arranged. “The Lord is pleased, Majesties. Never have I seen such beauty.”

He peers over to Master Holbein. “This will be a masterpiece for the ages — from God’s hand to yours. Lord make it so.”

He smiles broadly, takes the Queen’s hand in his and gently kisses it. “Your beauty and grandeur will be set plain for all through the ages, dear friend — my consort to the greatest King in Christendom. God’s will be done.”

King Henry VIII

“Well met Your Grace! I want that you would bless this endeavor of ours. Call the eyes of God to the image of His will!”

From a pocket, King Henry produces a beautiful jeweled rosary.”‘T’was my mother’s,” he smiles, laying it reverently across the bow of his model ship.

The King is blind to the ironic glances between the rest of us. His Grace frowns slightly at the remnant of Papist superstition. Still, the King adored his mother. It is fitting. “Anything else? Are we ready?” His Majesty is impatient to begin, to be done and off hunting with Brandon, no doubt. “Shall we begin? Anne darling, have you nothing else to add? Only say it, my queen, and it shall be done.”

Anne, the Quene

The Queen gently takes the hand of her husband in hers and smiles to him. “Nothing else my love…all that means and represents us are already well presented.” After one glace of love and a smile, Queen Anne looks at Master Holbein with a smile on her face. “We are ready Master Holbein. We are under your guidance now.”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

Master Holbein walks slowly over to His Majesty and motions with his hand with grand flair that the King stand just behind and aside a beautifully carved wooden chair. I stifle a laugh as His Majesty follows Holbein’s directive gesture as if commanded. “Like this Master Holbein?”

The artists shakes his head. “No! Move over just like this, Majesty,” he chides to my great entertainment. “There, very good.”

On cue, His Grace takes the Queen’s arm and guides her to the chair. Her maids brush back the flowing cloth of silver and cloth of gold gown so she may sit more comfortable. “Majesty, allow me to guide your way, ” says the Archbishop.

She looks to him and smiles warmly. “Thank you, Your Grace.”

Master Holbein commands once more. “Your Majesty, place your hand upon the Queen’s shoulder. Yes, just like that. Now, relax and stay as you are.”

His Grace comes back with me. The sight before us takes our breath away. He whispers, “My heart is full, Master Secretary. The Lord fills the room, fills them whole.” I nod in agreement. His Grace speaks truth.

King Henry VIII

“Wait! We have forgotten! My son will be head of his church as his father is! Your Grace, please, something of yours, it would be a great favor.”

The King loves Cranmer. The man can do no wrong. Never once has he born the brunt of a tirade, nor the icy cold of Henry’s displeasure. The king encourages, “If you would be so kind, Your Grace.”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

His Grace bows at His Majesty, “You honor me, Your Majesty. I am touched.”

What is he doing? His Grace turns to me and says in quiet sincerity, “Your ring, Thomas. Please, good man.” I struggle to pull the thing off and hand it to him. His Grace, oh how he humbles me. He walks over to the table and looks at the display carefully. Gently he opens the Queen’s prayer book, finding the page of the scripture he so desires. Once satisfied, he rests my ring upon it.

Holbein murmurs, “I like that. I like it much.”

I snicker quietly, “That be Wolsey’s ring, good man.” Holbein laughs in his sleeve. “Does His Grace know?”

“Hush man, I will tell him later… after the portrait be done.” He laughs lightly. “Shhhh…. the Queen, she notices it not. Say nothing.”

We wait for the king to react. Holbein and I dare not breathe. The king loves Cranmer, and Wolsey was as a father to him before he fell.  “I know that ring. Thomas, your master is with us still sometimes, do you feel him?”

I glace at the Queen smugly, “Oh yes, Majesty. He is with us always. I learned all I do and all I not do from His Eminence.”

As if it were not he, but some other monarch who hounded my Lord Cardinal to his death, the king states, “It is good, very good. We are ready.”

Anne, the Quene

The Queen’s reply is a mere smile, one that is not of joy, but the smile that a Queen always gives in the name of duty rather than personal satisfaction. “What can I say? What pleases his majesty pleases me as well. We are indeed ready”.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer

His Grace adds simply, “Bless the King and Queen of England and their heir growing strong, and grant your artistry flow through Master Holbein abundantly.”

Secretary Thomas Cromwell

“Master Secretary! Master Secretary!!!” I am startled upright by Ralph Morice, calling me as the barge is tied to the dock by Lambeth’s beautiful spring gardens.

“Good afternoon, Master Morice,” I say simply. He guides me off the barge and we begin walking through the gardens towards Lambeth Palace, the scent of irises whiffing through the light spring breeze.

“Do tell me, good man. How be His Grace?” I ask.

Ralph Morice places his hand on my arm, my cue to stop walking before entering the Palace. “He be distraught, Master Secretary. Thanks be to Lady Margarete. Her strength builds him so he can do what he must. His Grace pines for the Lady Anne, and he be dwelling on gaining His Majesty’s blessing to hear her last confession.”

“The King will allow it,” I offer. “His mind is set to destroy all signs of her, though. This morn’ I was commanded to arrange the destruction of all with her emblems, her gowns, her silver, her tapestries, even the two Holbein portraits… you know, the one of the Queen in the black velvet… and God forgive me, the masterpiece of them both.”

Morice looks back at me stunned, swallowing deep to compose himself. “That portrait be of God’s own hand, Master Secretary. To burn it is of Satan.” I nod in agreement.

“You came to tell him?” I nod again and offer, “I thought it best. His Majesty is in mind to, but let the tears flow before the King speaks his peace.” Looking to the ground in shame, I add, “The portraits are burned already, done before the Archbishop could talk me out of it, before talking me into what would risk us both. Reginald Pole calls me the Emissary of Satan. Mayhaps I am.”

And what of the Archbishop’s Godchild? What then shall the child have of her mother?” Morice chides.

I open the rolled parchment from under my arm, nestled to keep it safe. “Here, Master Morice. I done brought this for His Grace to hold for Elizabeth. God forgive me, it be the best I could do. Guard it close, and God in heaven, keep it as secret as the Archbishop’s wife.”

“Lady Margarete thinks you a rouge, Master Secretary. His Grace knows different. I think him wise.”

Written by:
Beth, Cyndi and Mercy