The scarlet peacock, p.1

The Scarlet Peacock, page 1


The Scarlet Peacock

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The Scarlet Peacock

  The Scarlet Peacock

  David Field

  © David Field

  David Field has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

  This edition published in 2017 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

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  To which court?

  To the King’s court?

  Or to Hampton Court?

  The King’s court

  Should have the excellence

  But Hampton Court

  Hath the pre-eminence

  (John Skelton, 1453 – 1629)

  Table of Contents


  Tom, Tom, the butcher’s son


  The clerk ascending


  The King is dead: Long live the King


  Affairs both foreign and domestic


  His honours thick upon him


  Affairs of the heart


  Pride before a fall


  Feathering the peacock


  ‘To the King’s Court – or to Hampton Court?’


  The Field of the Cloth of Gold


  A variable wind


  The Italian progress


  The insolence of office


  The King’s great matter


  Kill the rat and starve the flea


  A very public humiliation


  The road to York and oblivion


  Tom, Tom, the butcher’s son

  Ten year old Tom Wulcy groaned as he looked down Edmund Pountney Lane and saw them waiting for him. The second time this week, and he could guess why. He looked back towards the doorway of the Grammar School’s new home in Felaw House, hoping that headmaster John Squyer would honour the firm undertaking he had given to Tom’s father, Robert, to put an end to the bullying, but he was nowhere in sight. Tom could, should he choose, go back inside and find him, but that would only make things worse. As it was, Tom now had to answer to Thomas Howard and his escort of ruffians for the special commendation he had received that morning from the Abbott of Blackfriars, during the daily Mass of Our Lady with which every school day began at six in the morning. It was hardly Tom’s fault that his Latin was better than that of many ordained priests, and one day he might put it to good use. In the meantime, he had to pay the price for his cleverness at the hand of the one who seemed to resent it most.

  He kept his eyes on the muddy ground as he walked with resignation around the rutted pools dotting the laneway leading to the river bridge that carried the main thoroughfare across the Orwell into the southern village of Stoke. It was less than half a mile to his home in St. Nicholas Street, and Bess would no doubt be preparing the supper ahead of his return, under the stern eye of his mother Joan. But by the time he reached home – assuming he was in any state to walk by then – he would be a sorry sight as usual, and his father would put the household off their repast with his raving and shouting about the injustices wrought upon the merchant classes by the sons of the nobility who had nothing better to do.

  Thomas Howard was the same age as Tom Wulcy, but there the resemblance ended. Tom was inclined to plumpness, and very disinclined towards martial arts, whereas Thomas Howard took his position as the son of the Earl of Surrey, and the grandson of the Duke of Norfolk, very seriously, and was already to be found in the tiltyard that had been set up in the grounds of the family seat at Framlingham, although he boarded with his Tilney relatives in their palatial house in Ipswich’s Cornhill during school weeks. Whereas the young Howard looked every inch the steely-faced knight that he would no doubt become in due course, Tom Wulcy looked more like an angelic altar boy than a knightly squire. Thomas was tall, dark and lean, whereas Tom was short, plump and light auburn in both hair and countenance.

  ‘Cross yourselves - here comes a priest,’ Thomas Howard yelled sneeringly, while the henchmen on either side of him smiled in polite appreciation of his humour. They looked to be grown men, and in these uncertain times one could hardly blame the Earl for allocating two of his squires to ensure his son’s safety in the rude streets of Ipswich; however, it was to be doubted whether he would approve of the purpose to which they were now being put, given his reputation for Courtly chivalry.

  ‘I am no priest yet,’ Tom replied as politely but assertively as he could, ‘but will I even now pray for your soul, should you be about to perjure it by attacking a defenceless boy, and you with a stout entourage withal.’

  Howard’s fox-like face darkened, and his eyes narrowed as he waved to his two companions with a dismissive gesture without breaking his glare at Tom.

  ‘Stand off a pace. I can deal with this Papal pudding without need of any bodyguard.’

  Tom stared him down.

  ‘You will, as usual, dispose of me with ease, given that your power comes from the strength of your arm. But since mine comes from the depth of my learning, may I at least be permitted to place these books which I carry down on the ground before I join them less graciously?’

  ‘Why should I not deprive you of them, since they are, according to you, the source of your power?’ Howard demanded.

  ‘For them to be of any value to you, you must first learn to read,’ Tom smiled back in that superior manner of his that always infuriated his enemies, ‘and since you can barely do so in your native tongue, of what value to you would be a Latin discourse on the Stations of the Cross?’

  One of Howard’s retainers sniggered, then straightened his face immediately as his young charge whipped round with a threatening glare. Thomas turned on his heel and walked quickly towards Tom, red in the face.

  ‘A pox on the Stations of the Cross! A pox on your heathen Latin, and a pox on you – butcher’s son!’

  With a single straight-armed punch from his left fist, he sent Tom sprawling into the mud, his valued books skidding across the wet ground in all directions. Tom waited for the kicks that never came, and slowly and painfully picked himself out of the puddle in which he had landed, wiping the mixture of cow’s urine and sheep droppings off the seat of his tunic and the top of his hose as best he could. Thomas Howard burst out laughing, and turned to his hired bullies as he encouraged them with a gesture to copy the taunting verse he invented to celebrate his noble victory, adapting the words of a popular nursery rhyme.

  ‘Tom, Tom, the butcher’s son,

  Filthy hose on his big fat bum.’

  The verse was repeated several times as Tom retrieved the scattered volumes and scurried off down the street, wincing and hiding his face from curious passersby as he heard Howard’s companions copying the words, no doubt apprehensive of the consequences of disobeying an order from their lord’s son.

  Muttering to himself, Tom surveyed the damage to his clothing as he walked. Not that his attire was in any way grand; the sumptuary laws would have denied him the right to sport colours in his doublet such as the reds and blues that the Howards favoured. His short school doublet was – or rather had been, until it landed in a puddle of ordure – light brown, and his now stinking hose a darker shade of the same colour. Both were robust garments suitable for school wear,
and they were made in the town from the fine wool worsted for which its craftsmen were famous.

  Plain or not, his garments were not for playing in puddles with, and his mother would, when he got home, no doubt give him the benefit of another of her homilies on thrift. His father would go red in the face and curse when he learned how Tom had come to be in that state, and all in all the supper would be ruined. It was Tom’s favourite meal, since for breakfast he had but a slice or two of the excellent nutmeg flavoured manchet loaf that Bess cooked so expertly in their small home oven, while ‘dinner’ at school rarely rose above stale fruit. But supper would normally involve generous slices of lamb, pork or even beef, washed down with small beer, and food was one of Tom’s favourite indulgences, along with the occasional mug of spiced claret supplied to his father by one or other of the various religious houses dotted around the town.

  He looked up anxiously towards the jettied upper floor of the generously dimensioned family home, in case either of his parents was gazing out of one of the lead-mullioned windows to witness his return from school. Satisfied that he was unobserved, he slipped down the side passage to the external kitchen constructed in the rear garden ground, to minimise the risk to the main structure should the oven go on fire. The pigs in the garden area were grunting and snuffling contentedly as usual on the offal thrown from the kitchen door earlier in the day, and he could see Bess bent diligently over the bench on which she was cutting out baked pastry into pie crusts, while young Dickon turned the spit on which the lamb carcass was basting nicely.

  Tom’s plan was to discard his soiled clothing in the kitchen, leaving Bess to hand it over to the washerwoman who called twice a week. He would then need to enter the main house by the scullery door clad in only his undergarments, slide stealthily up the back stairs to his upper chamber overlooking the rear garden, and present himself at the supper table freshly attired, in the hope that no-one, least of all his father, would notice the change in his dress from earlier in the day when he had left for school just as the sun was rising over Harwich.

  Unfortunately his parents had chosen that time to inspect the kitchen for rats and other vermin, and as he slipped quietly through the open door it was his mother who spoke.

  ‘There you are, Tom, late as usual. And no doubt seeking some treat from Bess ahead of supper – little wonder that you grow so plump. And what in God’s name is that smell?’

  His father appeared from behind her with a knowing grin.

  ‘Did you fail to make the jakes in time, boy?’

  ‘No father,’ Tom confessed, realising that there could now be no pretence. ‘In truth it is a fine mixture of cow’s piss and sheep shit, which is to be found in abundance in the streets of this noble town.’

  ‘Such vulgarity!’ his mother protested, then in a more kindly tone enquired ‘Did you slip over?’

  ‘Nay, more like he was pushed,’ his father observed as he took a closer look at the bruising around his son’s nose and eye socket. ‘Was it young Howard again?’

  Tom nodded his confirmation as his father gave vent to his wrath.

  ‘The Devil take these arrogant sons of earls and high lords! They besport themselves around the nation in their finery, riding down the humble toilers in their haste to do the bidding of this king and that king, holding themselves higher in their own esteem than those whose honest labour and wisdom in commerce brings much wealth into the nation. Where would my high and mighty Duke of Norfolk and his whelps be without the fleeces and finished garments that depart daily from St. Mary Quay bound for Holland and Burgundy? Where the Earl of Surrey and his impudent brat without the leather goods that supply half the nobles of France?’

  Fearful that his intemperate words might be repeated in less sympathetic ears by house servants who might earn a shilling by reporting them, Joan Wulcy attempted a change of subject.

  ‘May we not complain to the bailiffs?’

  Even Tom knew that this would be fruitless, since his father stood in worse odour with those responsible for the good order of the town that the Howard family who all but ruled it without assistance. Robert Wulcy might well describe himself as a butcher, if asked, but his real wealth came from less worthy activities, and he was more frequently the source of complaints to the town’s two bailiffs than he was in the habit of lodging his own complaints with them. His pigs were forever escaping into the street, and the building two doors down from the Wulcy residence that he ran as an alehouse of sorts attracted the lowest sort of clientele, while its upper rooms were available for rent by the hour, and were infamous for their licentious assignations.

  ‘It were as well to let Tom change his apparel before the smell turns the meat sour,’ Robert observed. ‘As for the bailiffs, the less we have to do with them the better. Leave the matter with me, and let us discuss it further over supper.’

  The determined look on his father’s face as Tom sat down opposite his parents at the board in the centre of the main room on the ground floor, while their maid of all functions Alice fussed around them with trenchers, knives and wine jug, left no-one in any doubt that the matter had been resolved, at least in Robert’s estimation.

  ‘I have in mind to remove you from the Grammar School as of this very day,’ he announced as he cut himself a generous slice of lamb before Tom could account for it all.

  Tom took the occasion of his mother’s vexed snort, and his father’s defiant look, to help himself to a goblet of wine, before responding.

  ‘Dearest father, since learning is all I have to see me through my life to come, will it not best suit my enemies if I am deprived thereof?’

  His father smirked back with the facial expression that had evidenced many a previous triumph over a justice of the peace.

  ‘I said nought about depriving you of learning – simply that I will no longer be rewarding that oaf of a schoolmaster who cannot even prevent one ten-year-old being set upon by another. Your learning shall continue here in this house, under the tutelage of an ordained brother from Holy Trinity.’

  Tom smiled in appreciation. His best subjects were the classical tongues of Latin and Greek, and he had developed an avid interest in Divinity from the scholarly works on the subject that were the only texts of any length available in either tongue. There was an added advantage in a possible career in the Church, since it did not – so far as he was aware – involve riotous exercise.

  His mother would have preferred Tom to be schooled more in the mysteries of commerce, since Robert would not live forever, and she wished to spend her final days in the same comfort she had enjoyed since marrying Tom’s father. However, father and son seemed to be in happy agreement for a change, and the following morning a note was dispatched up the street to John Squyer to advise him that he was minus one pupil, but that Robert Wulcy would forego the balance of that term’s fees to recompense the headmaster for his inconvenience.

  The following Monday, Dom. James arrived at the house in St. Nicholas Street with a selection of elementary Latin and Greek texts, which they had exhausted by the middle of the morning, sending the astonished monk scurrying back to the monastery’s scriptorium for something more advanced. Three days later, almost in desperation, he sought an audience with his patron and confessed his dilemma.

  ‘Sir, there is not a brother in our holy house who could compare with your son in the classics or the more advanced theological philosophies. Say you he is yet but ten years of age?’

  ‘Yes, he’s ten,’ Robert confirmed. ‘But if you cannot teach him ought, then who can?’

  The monk thought hard, and his brow furrowed as he sought the most diplomatic words for the message he needed to convey.

  ‘It would involve greater expense to yourself, but to answer you truly there is but one place I could recommend, and that is the University of Oxford, whose fees are not light.’

  ‘The money is neither here nor there,’ Robert replied sternly. ‘When could he begin?’

  The holy brother smiled back diplo

  ‘There is also the question of his age. While the learned colleges do not scruple once a boy has reached the level of attainment of young Thomas, yet I have never heard of a boy of ten being accepted, regardless of his brilliance. I can of course make enquiry on your behalf, since I am conscious of the many and generous endowments that my humble house has received in the past, but … ’

  ‘Yes, yes,’ Robert cut him off testily. ‘And there shall be more yet, if you can secure a place of study for young Tom. Do not regard the matter of appropriate fees as a hindrance – either to your “humble house” as you call it, or to the university authorities. Just make it happen, brother.’


  On the first day of the Michaelmas Term, 1484, shortly after his eleventh birthday, and to the considerable amusement of fellow students almost five years older than him, Tom Wulcy took his seat on the study benches of Magdalen College, Oxford, at the start of one of the most distinguished careers as an undergraduate in Arts and Divinity that his tutors and professors could recall. Four years later, as he presented himself at the Bursar’s office for the preparation of his testament for the degree of Bachelor of Arts, he was asked how his name was to be correctly spelt. He thought for a moment, before advising himself that someone as learned as himself, who intended to rise to great eminence in the Church, deserved a more fitting name than the one he had borne thus far. At the same time, he owed his father everything.

  ‘Wolsey,’ he replied, then spelt it out for the Bursar to copy it onto the vellum.

  He smiled as he walked back out into the May sunshine and recalled the day when Tom Wulcy had been slammed into the mud by an ignorant oaf whose father was now lying in the Tower of London under an attainder. ‘Tom, Tom, the butcher’s son’ was known throughout Oxford as ‘the boy bachelor’, and was about to become ‘Thomas Wolsey, Bachelor of Arts’ at the unheard of age of fifteen.

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