Preparing for the Worst
Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king, who will no more be admonished.
FOR THE TWENTIETH CENTURY Henry's death is merely an oft-recorded fact--two o'clock on the morning of January 28, 1547--for his contemporaries, however, it was a deeply frightening proposition, something between an intellectually accepted possibility and an emotionally explosive probability. To within a month of his death, the King was still goading his great body into action, riding to the hunt, appearing in his chair, being carried from palace to palace, and ignoring his doctors' pleas for rest and quiet. It was difficult to imagine that such a sovereign was really dying, but if ministers were to survive they had to prepare for the political vacuum which would inevitably follow the old King's death. A legal heir to the throne existed, but the source of human power was terminating and no one as yet had clear authority to step into the breach. This fact alone added an almost Stalinesque quality to the final scene.* No plan was secure, no prediction reliable, no friendship dependable so long as the unknown at the core of political life remained: exactly when would Henry die? Only when the central question had been answered could its corollaries--who would speak for the boy King and what changes would ensue--be meaningfully stated, for both propositions were dependent upon the men who managed to retain their positions by the side of a dying but unpredictable monarch.____________________