[EVEN after declaring himself supreme head of the Church in England, Henry VIII still claimed to be a Catholic, and retained the title of "Defender of the Faith," which the Pope had given him in his earlier years. The result of this peculiar condition of things was that if a man was a Protestant and agreed with Luther, he might be burned as a heretic; while if he was a Roman Catholic and acknowledged the Pope as the head of the Church, he might be beheaded as a traitor.
In the story from which the following scene is taken, Anne Askew, maid of honor to the queen, has burst into the royal presence to beg for mercy for several persons who are about to suffer death by fire.
|The Editor. ]|
"MERCY!" repeated the king, "mercy, and for whom? Who are they that they are putting to death down there? Tell me, forsooth, my lord bishops, who are they that are led to the stake to-day? Who are the condemned?"
"They are heretics, who devote themselves to this new false doctrine which has come over to us from Germany, and who dare refuse to recognize the spiritual supremacy of our lord and king," said Bishop Gardiner.
"They are Roman Catholics, who regard the Pope of Rome as the chief shepherd of the Church of Christ, and will regard nobody but him as their lord," said Bishop Cranmer.
"Ah, behold this young maiden accuses us of injustice," cried the king; "and yet, you say that not heretics alone are executed down there, but also Romanists. It appears to me, then, that we have justly and impartially, as always, punished only criminals and given over the guilty to justice."
"Oh, had you seen what I have seen," said Anne Askew, shuddering, "then would you collect all your vital energies for a single cry, for a single word—mercy! and that word would you shout out loud enough to reach yon frightful place of torture and horror."
"What saw you, then?" asked the king, smiling.
Anne Askew had stood up, and her tall, slender form now lifted itself, like a lily, between the somber forms of the bishops. Her eye was fixed and glaring; her noble and delicate features bore the expression of horror and dread.
"I saw," said she, "a woman whom they were leading to execution. Not a criminal, but a noble lady, whose proud and lofty heart never harbored a thought of treason or disloyalty, but who, true to her faith and her convictions, would not forswear the God whom she served. As she passed through the crowd, it seemed as if a halo encompassed her head, and covered her white hair with silvery rays; all bowed before her, and the hardest natures wept over the unfortunate woman who had lived more than seventy years, and yet was not allowed to die in her bed, but was to be slaughtered to the glory of God and of the king. But she smiled, and graciously saluting the weeping and sobbing multitude, she advanced to the scaffold as if she were ascending a throne to receive the homage of her people. Two years of imprisonment had blanched her cheek, but had not been able to destroy the fire of her eye, or the strength of her mind, and seventy years had not bowed her neck or broken her spirit. Proud and firm, she mounted the steps of the scaffold, and once more saluted the people and cried aloud, 'I will pray to God for you.' But as the headsman approached and demanded that she should allow her hands to be bound, and that she should kneel in order to lay her head upon the block, she refused, and angrily pushed him away. 'Only traitors and criminals lay their heads on the block!' exclaimed she, with a loud, thundering voice. 'There is no occasion for me to do so, and I will not submit to your bloody laws as long as there is a breath in me. Take, then, my life, if you can.'
"And now began a scene which filled the hearts of the lookers-on with fear and horror. The countess flew like a hunted beast round and round the scaffold. Her white hair streamed in the wind; her black grave-clothes rustled around her like a dark cloud, and behind her, with uplifted axe, came the headsman, in his fiery red dress; he, ever endeavoring to strike her with the falling axe, but she, ever trying, by moving her head to and fro, to evade the descending stroke. But at length her resistance became weaker; the blows of the axe reached her, and stained her white hair, hanging loose about her shoulders, with crimson streaks. With a heart-rending cry, she fell fainting. Near her, exhausted also, sank down the headsman, bathed in sweat. This horrible wild chase had lamed his arm and broken his strength. Panting and breathless, he was not able to drag this fainting, bleeding woman to the block, or to lift up the axe to separate her noble head from the body. The crowd shrieked with distress and horror, imploring and begging for mercy, and even the lord chief justice could not refrain from tears, and he ordered the cruel work to be suspended until the countess and the headsman should have regained strength; for a living, not a dying person was to be executed: thus said the law. They made a pallet for the countess on the scaffold and endeavored to restore her; invigorating wine was supplied to the headsman, to renew his strength for the work of death; and the crowd turned to the stakes which were prepared on both sides of the scaffold, and at which four other martyrs were to be burnt. But I flew here like a hunted doe, and now, king, I lie at your feet. There is still time. Pardon, king, pardon for the Countess of Somerset, the last of the Plantagenets."
"Pardon, sire, pardon!" repeated Catherine Parr, weeping and trembling, as she clung to her husband's side.
"Pardon!" repeated Archbishop Cranmer; and a few of the courtiers reechoed it in a timid and anxious whisper.
The king's large, brilliant eyes glanced around the whole assembly, with a quick, penetrating look. "And you, my Lord Bishop Gardiner," asked he, in a cold, sarcastic tone, "will you also ask for mercy, like all these weak-hearted souls here?"
"The Lord our God is a jealous God," said Gardiner, solemnly, "and it is written that God will punish the sinner unto the third and fourth generation."
"And what is written shall stand true!" exclaimed the king, in a voice of thunder. "No mercy for evildoers, no pity for criminals. The axe must fall upon the head of the guilty, the flames shall consume the bodies of criminals."
"Sire, think of your high vocation!" exclaimed Anne Askew, in a tone of enthusiasm. "Reflect what a glorious name you have assumed to yourself in this land. You call yourself the head of the Church, and you want to rule and govern upon earth in God's stead. Exercise mercy, then, for you entitle yourself king by the grace of God."
"No, I do not call myself king by God's grace; I call myself king by God's wrath!" exclaimed Henry, as he raised his arm menacingly. "It is my duty to send sinners to God; may He have mercy on them there above, if He will I am the punishing judge, and I judge mercilessly, according to the law, without compassion. Let those whom I have condemned appeal to God, and may He have mercy upon them. I cannot do it, nor will I. Kings are here to punish, and they are like to God, not in His love, but in His avenging wrath."
"Woe, then, woe to you and to all of us!" exclaimed
Anne Askew. "Woe to you, King Henry, if what you now
say is the truth! Then are they right, those men who
are bound to yonder stakes, when they brand you with
the name of tyrant; then is the Bishop of Rome right
when he upbraids you as an apostate and degenerate son,
and hurls his anathemas against you! Then you know not
God, who is love and mercy; then you are no disciple of
the Saviour, who has said, 'Love your enemies, bless
them that curse you.' Woe to you, King Henry, if
matters are really so bad with you;
"Silence, unhappy woman, silence!" exclaimed Catherine; and as she vehemently pushed away the furious girl she grasped the king's hand, and pressed it to her lips. "Sire," whispered she, with intense earnestness, "sire, you told me just now that you love me. Prove it by pardoning this maiden, and having consideration for her impassioned excitement. Prove it by allowing me to lead Anne Askew to her room and enjoin silence upon her."
But at this moment the king was wholly inaccessible to any other feelings than those of anger and delight in blood.
He indignantly repelled Catherine, and without moving his sharp, penetrating look from the young maiden, he said in a quick, hollow tone: "Let her alone; let her speak; let no one dare to interrupt her!"
Catherine, trembling with anxiety and inwardly hurt at the harsh manner of the king, retired with a sigh to the embrasure of one of the windows.
Anne Askew had not noticed what was going on about her. She remained in that state of exaltation which cares for no consequences and which trembles before no danger. She would at this moment have gone to the stake with cheerful alacrity, and she almost longed for this blessed martyrdom.
"Speak, Anne Askew, speak!" commanded the king. "Tell me, do you know what the countess, for whose pardon you are beseeching me, has done? Know you why those four men were sent to the stake?"
"I do know, King Henry, by the wrath of God," said the maiden, with burning passionateness. "I know why you have sent the noble countess to the slaughter-house, and why you will exercise no mercy toward her. She is of noble, of royal blood, and Cardinal Pole is her son. You would punish the son through the mother, and because you cannot throttle the cardinal, you murder his mother."
"Oh, you are a very knowing child!" cried the king, with an inhuman, ironical laugh. "You know my most secret thoughts and my most hidden feelings. Without doubt you are a good Papist, since the death of the popish countess fills you with such heart-rending grief. Then you must confess, at the least, that it is right to burn the four heretics!"
"Heretics!" exclaimed Anne enthusiastically, "call you heretics those noble men who go gladly and boldly to death for their convictions and their faith? King Henry! King Henry! Woe to you if these men are condemned as heretics! They alone are the faithful, they are the true servants of God. They have freed themselves from human supremacy, and as you would not recognize the Pope, so they will not recognize you as head of the Church! God alone, they say, is Lord of the Church and Master of their consciences, and who can be presumptuous enough to call them criminals?"
"I!" exclaimed Henry the Eighth, in a powerful tone. "I dare do it. I say that they are heretics, and that I will destroy them, will tread them all beneath my feet, all of them, all who think as they do! I say that I will shed the blood of these criminals, and prepare for them torments at which human nature will shudder and quake. God will manifest Himself by me in fire and blood! He has put the sword into my hand, and I will wield it for His glory. Like St. George, I will tread the dragon of heresy beneath my feet!"
And haughtily raising his crimsoned face and rolling his great bloodshot eyes wildly around the circle, he continued: "Hear this all of you who are here assembled; no mercy for heretics, no pardon for Papists. It is I, I alone, whom the Lord our God has chosen and blessed as His hangman and executioner! I am the high-priest of His Church, and he who dares deny me, denies God; and he who is so presumptuous as to do reverence to any other head of the Church, is a priest of Baal and kneels to an idolatrous image. Kneel down all of you before me, and reverence in me God, whose earthly representative I am, and who reveals Himself through me in His fearful and exalted majesty. Kneel down, for I am sole head of the Church and high-priest of our God!"
And as if at one blow all knees bent; all those haughty cavaliers, those ladies sparkling with jewels and gold, even the two bishops and the queen fell upon the ground.
The king gazed for a moment on this sight, and, with radiant looks and a smile of triumph, his eyes ran over this assembly, consisting of the noblest of his kingdom, humbled before him.
Suddenly they were fastened on Anne Askew.
She alone had not bent her knee, but stood in the midst of the kneelers, proud and upright as the king himself.
A dark cloud passed over the king's countenance.
"You obey not my command?" asked he.
She shook her curly head and fixed on him a steady, pieicing look. "No," said she, "like those over yonder whose last death-groan we even now hear, like them, I say: 'To God alone is honor due, and He alone is Lord of His Church!' If you wish me to bend my knee before you as my king, I will do it, but I bow not to you as the head of the holy Church!"
A murmur of surprise flew through the assembly, and every eye was turned with fear and amazement on this bold young girl, who confronted the king with a countenance smiling and glowing with enthusiasm.
At a sign from Henry the kneelers arose and awaited in breathless silence the terrible scene that was coming.
A pause ensued. King Henry himself was struggling for breath, and needed a moment to collect himself.
Not as though wrath and passion had deprived him of speech. He was neither wrathful nor passionate, and it was only joy that obstructed his breathing—the joy of having again found a victim with which he might satisfy his desire for blood, on whose agony he might feast his eyes, whose dying sigh he might greedily inhale.
The king was never more cheerful than when he had signed a death-warrant. For then he was in full enjoyment of his greatness as lord over the lives and deaths of millions of other men, and this feeling made him proud and happy, and fully conscious of his exalted position.
Hence, as he now turned to Anne Askew, his countenance was calm and serene, and his voice friendly, almost tender.
"Anne Askew," said he, "do you know that the words you have now spoken make you guilty of high treason?"
"I know it, sire."
"And you know what punishment awaits traitors?"
"Death, I know it."
"Death by fire!" said the king with perfect calmness and composure.
A hollow murmur ran through the assembly. Only one voice dared give utterance to the word mercy.
It was Catherine, the king's consort, who spoke this one word. She stepped forward, and was about to rush to the king and once more implore his mercy and pity. But she felt herself gently held back. Archbishop Cranmer stood near her, regarding her with a serious and beseeching look.
"Compose yourself, compose yourself," murmured he. "You cannot save her; she is lost. Think of yourself, and of the pure and holy religion whose protectress you are. Preserve yourself for your Church and your companions in the faith!"
"And must she die?" asked Catherine, whose eyes filled with tears as she looked toward the poor young child, who was confronting the king with such a beautiful and innocent smile.
"Perhaps we may still save her, but this is not the moment for it. Any opposition now would only irritate the king the more, and he might cause the girl to be instantly thrown into the flames of the fires still burning yonder! So let us be silent."
"Yes, silence," murmured Catherine, with a shudder, as she withdrew again to the embrasure of the window.
"Death by fire awaits you, Anne Askew!" repeated the king. "No mercy for the traitress who vilifies and scoffs at her king!"
|by "Louisa Mübach" (Klara M. Mundt)|