London — May 1528
The Reign of King Henry VIII
The French Ambassador to the English court, Du Bellai, contemplated his young aide. The lad was barely seventeen, but he would grow older before this day was out…if any of them lived so long.
“Tell me again,” Du Bellai demanded. “And stop babbling. Speak clearly.”
The boy took a deep breath, then looked around with frightened eyes, as if that simple act might condemn him.
“One of the filles de chambre of Mlle Boleyn was taken ill. She was laid low very quickly. Mlle Boleyn called for her physician, who examined the girl and then spoke quickly to my lady. They both immediately left the chamber. I overheard the physician say he feared it was the Sweat.”
Du Bellai felt a cold hand squeeze his heart. It had been a dozen years since the last outbreak of the dreaded disease. Some called it the “Affliction of the Henrys,” for it first appeared at the start of the reign of Henry VII in 1485. It had caused great mortality and become known by its special symptom as the “sweating sickness.” Distinct from the plague, it was noted for its even more rapid and fatal course.
He had read the treatise, written in Latin, by Thomas Forestier concerning the 1485 epidemic, which included the description: “…the exterior is calm in this fever, the interior excited…the heat in the pestilent fever many times does not appear excessive to the doctor, nor the heat of the sweat itself particularly high…But it is on account of the ill-natured, fetid, corrupt, putrid, and loathsome vapors close to the region of the heart and of the lungs whereby the panting of the breath magnifies and increases and restricts itself…”
The young aide shook with fear, desperate to get away from this awful place. “The king and Mlle Boleyn have fled the city. All of my lady’s attendants have disappeared as well. The afflicted woman is dead. There is no one to remove her body.”
“You and I will remove the body,” said the ambassador.
The boy was horrified. “It will be a death sentence. I cannot.”
“Listen to me. You have already been exposed. Either you will get the sickness or you will not. But the body must be removed and burned at once.”
He grabbed the boy by the arm and dragged him back into Mlle Boleyn’s deserted apartments, pausing long enough to prepare face masks and to place garlic around both of their necks. When they reached the bedroom, the body of the young lady in waiting lay contorted on drenched bedding. Her face was white, characteristic of the terrible illness, and there were no outbreaks on her fair skin.
“Tear down those drapes,” he ordered the aide, who moved forward as if in a dream.
Together, they wrapped the body in the drapes, trying not to touch any bare skin that showed. They carried it and the remaining bedding out into the nearest courtyard, where they dumped it unceremoniously. They piled what wood they could find on top of it, saturated everything with lamp oil and set it ablaze.
As Du Bellai stood back, so as not to breathe in the vapors and smoke, his young aide scampered away, leaving him alone. It no longer mattered, and the ambassador could hardly blame him. He wanted to run as well, but believed it would do no good. He had read the history of the first outbreaks. It was thought that the Sweat might have been brought to England at the end of the Wars of the Roses by the French mercenaries Henry VII used to gain the English throne. Those mercenaries had seemed immune to the disease. He wondered if, by some miracle, his nationality might also save him.
As the woman’s body was consumed, he considered whether he ought to set fire to the entire palace…
London was in chaos. Tens of thousands lay dead from the outbreak of the Sweat. Anyone in the city who could afford to do so fled to the outlying towns, spreading the scourge even farther in the process. The first to flee—like rats leaving a sinking ship—were the royal family and its retainers. The common people were well aware that they had been abandoned to their fates. There was nothing new about this and they were resigned to it.
Those who had homes remained inside, appearing as necessary at their doors to thrust their dead into the streets, where they were picked up in carts by the lowliest workers in the city. Those who lived in the streets—and there were thousands of them—got drunk and roamed the cobbled byways in search of carnal pleasures to help while away their final hours. Despair was absolute. There was no treatment, no safe haven, no one to turn to for succor. The bodies piled ever higher.
A dozen miles outside the city, King Henry VIII sat in his tent in a farmer’s field next to a peaceful stream. Servants bustled about the clearing, raising more tents, building an enclosure for animals and posting guards to keep any of the sick or just plain curious, away. Henry’s wife Catherine had been out of the city when the great affliction broke out. Though he was king, his lot was cast with those who cared for him. He could not exist without the retainers he was so used to having around him. If any of them were already infected, then he would be too.
This included Anne Boleyn. It was a risk to be with her, for it was her chambermaid who had become ill. But Henry was infatuated by Anne. Nothing could keep them apart.
With uncommon foresight for one so young, Anne kept that fervor alive by refusing to submit to Henry until he divorced Catherine and agreed to marry her.
Now she sat beside him, stroking his forehead. “Do not fear, my Lord. The Sweat would not dare infect the King of England.”
“We know you are right, Anne. Still, we will stay here in the country until we hear that the danger is past.” He put his arms around her. “There is something else we have ordered.”
“It is a secret we wish to tell you—to show our love. Before the scourge fell upon us, we ordered a part of our treasures to be hidden. We have long believed this to be a worthy idea in the event of some terrible catastrophe as has recently visited our people. The city will soon be in riot, and there is no one to protect the king’s treasury.”
“Surely the people will be too sick to take advantage of such a situation—and they will fear your retribution.”
“That they should!” Henry’s fist pounded the arm of his chair. “But the safety of the royal fortune has long worried us. There are those in the court, foreigners and Frenchmen who would not hesitate to steal from us.”
She sighed. “I fear it may be true. But what can be done?”
He looked at her slyly. “We are not king for nothing, my lovely Anne. Only in recent weeks did our navy take possession of one of the richest Spanish galleons ever captured at sea. We have had this treasure hidden, along with other valuables from our personal collection. If the treasury is looted, there will be enough left to replenish our fortune.”
“What of the men who undertook this task for the king? In the chaos of the sickness, will they not seek to enrich themselves?”
“The men involved have been dealt with. And there is this to tell you, Anne. We intend to leave this treasure well and truly buried even after the pestilence passes, as a security for the realm.”
He pulled her close and whispered the location of the treasure. Her eyes gleamed at the confidence. She was privy to the most important secret of the realm. Placing her hands on Henry’s florid cheeks, she stared into his eyes. “You are a great king, Henry, and one day I will be your wife and have fine sons for you. Your people are fortunate to have a leader who looks to their future welfare.” She kissed him. “Pray, tell me, what does the future hold for me?”
“You have a beautiful head on your shoulders, Anne. It will have a roll all its own in the future of our country.”
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Genre – Thriller
Rating – PG
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