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His last sleep, 1547
Death of a hero - or a Nero?
(Hello, this is Histories, a weekly email exploring first-hand accounts from the corners of history… Do please share this with fellow history fans and subscribe to receive it in your inbox for free. Next week, by the way, I’m trying an experiment. See below!)
“I will first,” said the king, “take a little sleep; and then, as I feel myself, I will advise upon the matter.”
Exactly 475 years ago today as I write this, the date being 27th January 1547, a giant of British history (metaphorically, but also literally – by this time he apparently had a 54-inch waist) spoke his last known words – if we can trust the source, of course. Once again, reaching back this far is a little tricky.
I have found numerous biographies of Henry VIII which refer to the scene below, which took place at the Palace of Whitehall, but few give the source – biographies nibble from other biographies before them, like fleas. But Alison Weir’s Henry VIII: King and Court (Vintage, 2008) has better references than most, although even then only tersely names John Foxe (c.1516–1587) as the source. Anyone interested in Tudor history will recognise him as the author of Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perilous Days, Touching Matters of the Church, better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. This is a major source for early Protestant English history, published in multiple editions (first in Latin, in 1554, and then in English from 1563 onwards) and based on Foxe’s collecting of countless documents of the era. But as with most writers at that time, he took even less care than the modern biographers I refer to above to credit his sources. The main editions of his text are all online here, and I have tracked down his account of the last days of Henry VIII to its first appearance, in the 1570 edition.1 This was only 13 years after the king died, so its veracity is at least plausible. You’ll have to judge for yourself!
And thus closing up this eighth book with the death of King Henry the Eighth… I shall intermit a few words touching the death of the said King Henry… who, after long languishing, infirmity growing more and more upon him, lay from St. Stephen’s day… to the latter end of January. His physicians at length, perceiving that he would away, and yet not daring to discourage him with death, for fear of the act passed before in parliament, that none should speak any thing of the king’s death (the act being made only for soothsayers, and talkers of prophecies,) moved them that were about the king to put him in remembrance of his mortal state and fatal infirmity; which when the rest were in dread to do, Master Denny [Sir Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool – the king’s closest confidant], who was specially attendant upon him, boldly coming to the king, told him what case he was in, to man’s judgment not like to live; and therefore exhorted him to prepare himself to death, calling himself to remembrance of his former life, and to call upon God in Christ betimes for grace and mercy, as becometh every good Christian man to do.
Although the king was loth to hear any mention of death, yet perceiving the same to rise upon the judgment of his physicians, and feeling his own weakness, he disposed himself more quietly to hearken to the words of his exhortation, and to consider his life past; which although he much accused, “yet,” said he, “is the mercy of Christ able to pardon me all my sins, though they were greater than they be.” Master Denny, being glad to hear him thus to speak, required to know his pleasure, whether he would have any learned man sent for to confer withal, and to open his mind unto. To whom the king answered again, that if he had any, he would have Dr. Cranmer [Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury], who was then lying at Croydon. And therefore Master Denny, asking the king whether he would have him sent for, “I will first,” said the king, “take a little sleep; and then, as I feel myself, I will advise upon the matter.”
After an hour or two the king, awaking, and feeling feebleness to increase upon him, commanded Dr. Cranmer to be sent for; but before he could come, the king was speechless, and almost senseless. Notwithstanding, perceiving Dr. Cranmer to be come, he, reaching his hand to Dr. Cranmer, did hold him fast, but could utter no word unto him, and scarce was able to make any sign. Then the archbishop, exhorting him to put his trust in Christ, and to call upon his mercy, desired him, though he could not speak, yet to give some token with his eyes or with his hand, that he trusted in the Lord. Then the king, holding him with his hand, did wring his hand in his as hard as he could; and so, shortly after, departed, after he had reigned in this land the term of thirty-seven years and nine months, leaving behind him three children, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth.
A surviving letter from the Earl of Sussex, written a few days later, reveals that Henry “departed at Westminster upon Friday last the 28th of this inst. January about two of the clock in the morning”. (The death was in fact kept secret for a few days, and Edward VI was proclaimed king on 31st January.) The king is dead. Long live the king.
That new king, of course, was only nine years old at the time. We also have Edward’s own journal,2 which rather neutrally reports:
After the death of King Henry the Eighth, his son Edward, Prince of Wales, was come to at Hertford by the Earl of Hertford and Sir Anthony Browne, Master of the Horse, for whom before was made great preparation that he might [be] created Prince of Wales, and afterward was brought to Enfield, where the death of his father was first showed him, and the same day the death of his father was showed in London, where was great lamentation and weeping; and suddenly he proclaimed king.
Do look out for Histories next week – I’ll be exploring a collection of 19th century diaries and letters by an interesting character of the era, and inviting you to join in via a great new app, Threadable, which offers an interesting new way to interact with texts. Watch this space!