My blood ran cold, but it had nothing to do with the chilliness of the misty river. No, the imposing, ghastly sight of the severed heads perched upon the railings of London Bridge was the cause of my discomfort. The oars scything through the murky river of the Thames that morning disturbed the slumbering swans. The sombre-looking oarsmen were fitting for such an occasion.
Westminster, the location for my so-called trial was now far behind us, and Traitor's Gate beckoned. And what was my crime you may ask? I spoke up in a moment of intoxication, protesting the innocence of Lady Jane Grey, an innocent sixteen-year old girl, who for no fault of her own is imprisoned in the tower.
Edward VII’s older sister Mary, a staunch Catholic was proclaimed as the rightful Queen, an event Lord Protector John Dudley the Duke of Northumberland had dared to challenge. To alter the succession by marrying one of his five sons to the Protestant granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, Lady Jane Grey, had drastically backfired. Her father, the Duke of Suffolk had tried in vain to proclaim to the public that Mary was indeed the rightful Queen of England, but alas, his words were futile, and he is now imprisoned in Beachamp Tower, along with Jane’s husband, Guilford Dudley.
I cannot disguise my fear as I glance over my shoulder at the gory sight. I too am but a child, merely a few months older than Jane, born two days after the death of Thomas More. I am but a poor man, who inherited my father’s tailoring trade, after both he and my mother were victims of the plague. My months of philandering with the local wenches and my love of mead ordained my woeful predicament. Sarah, a mere serving wench stole my heart, and I saw a thriving future for us, but what a fool I was. It transpires that her tongue is looser than mine, and word travelled swiftly of my drunken objections.
The shout of one of the oarsmen interrupted my numbed thoughts when the portcullis was raised noisily, disturbing the nearby wildlife. Two guards seized me and I was dragged from the boat and led through the courtyard, amid the sneers and insults of the onlookers, who were dressed in their finery.
The musty stench as I was marched up the spiral steps was unpleasant, but that was nothing to what lay ahead. The damp cell was furnished with a bed, a table, and a stool. A festering chamber pot reeked of urine, and left me wondering which other poor mite had occupied this dungeon before me.
. My jailors left me alone and I perched on my stool, peering through the rusty bars of my cell, eyeing Tower Hill through the mist. Surely, I would only be here a short time, and this mistake would be rectified when they realised I was but a poor tailor. I lay on my decaying bed and closed my eyes, welcoming sleep, hoping this nightmare would end.
I was woken abruptly by the filthy hands of a toothless man, who shook me.
“Wake up, you treasonous bastard. Dinner is served.”
I sat up,ntook in the nauseating body odour of the jailor, and realised the chamber pot was not as bad as I initially thought. I gazed at the brown liquid and the mouldy bread and suddenly my appetite had vanished.
The jailor, with his long greasy hair and dribbling lips, sneered at me. His attire was certainly not of a nobleman; in fact, I’d seen better-dressed paupers.
The jailor was curious. “So pray, who are you that our Queen finds worthy enough to lock you up in the tower? It is beneath the dignity of the tower to be used as a lock up for a commoner. Newgate Prison not good enough for you, sire?” he mocked.
“This is a mistake. My trial was a farce and all will be cleared up in time. I’ll not be in here for much longer, you’ll see.”
“Ah! You imbecile. Tonight will be your last sighting of the moon. You’re to be beheaded at first light.”
“You mock me, you scoundrel. Away with you, cruel jailor.”
“You don’t know, do you? You really don’t know… Were you sleeping at your trial?”
It was then that I realised this oaf was not lying. True, I was in a stupor throughout the trial, and I was in a state of awe as I took in the grandeur of the occasion, not acknowledging the jumbled words of the noblemen.
The jailor spoke. “A word of advice, friend. The executioner is to visit you in the morning. Cross his palm with silver and your death will be swift…otherwise…”
“But, I have no money. It was taken from me after my arrest.”
“Then your death will be slow. I’ve known the executioner take up to five blows with the axe before severing the head.”
I grimaced as I listened to the gory details. “Please leave me, jailor; I wish to be alone.”
“I'm curious. What was your crime?” he asked.
“Mead was the reason for me being here. Mead and the love of a woman. I proclaimed Lady Jane Grey as the rightful Queen, and that is my crime. That girl should be released.”
“You haven’t heard, friend?” he sneered.
“Lady Jane was beheaded yesterday… I must admit to feeling sympathy for the girl. She fumbled around as she was blindfolded, enquiring how the execution was to be carried out. I’ve seen many beheadings, and every one apart from this one was met with hearty cheers. Yesterday, the crowd was silent. I think for you the cheers will return.”
Understandably, I could not sleep that night and remained standing on my stool, watching the beautiful night pass. I was grateful for the clear night, as the stars and the moon were a great comfort. My soup lay untouched, and sat alongside the human waste inside the chamber pot.
Night turned to day and I glimpsed the sun appear on the horizon, illuminating the daunting sight of Tower Hill, the subject of so many horror stories I had heard. I smiled and recalled all the great people who had taken the walk I was about to; some of them unjustly so.
The rattling of keys disturbed me and I turned to face a large man, attired in a leather waistcoat, his bulging arms bare. I examined his weather-beaten face and expected to see evil, but was surprised by his friendly visage. His jet-black hair was unruly and his stare was not intimidating. His yellow teeth appeared with his smile, and his rancid breath added to the pollution of my cell.
“A good morrow to you, friend. I gather you know who I am?”
I nodded, and my eyes filled with tears as I realised the time was approaching.
“Don’t worry, lad. I’m good at what I do. Have you something you wish to give me?”
“I have nothing. They took away all my money.”
The executioner snarled. “That I’m afraid is not the answer I was looking for.”
“Please. Have you not an ounce of compassion in you? I’m innocent, and if given another chance, would still stand by what I said. Lady Jane did not deserve to die.”
“Lady Jane, did you say?”
“Yes. I spoke up for her and that is why I’m here.”
The executioner softened. “I’ve lost count the number of heads I’ve held aloft, but Lady Jane’s I regretted. That young girl was so brave and did not squeal as others did. I made a clean cut as she requested. It’s the least I could do for her… Now, I must go. The sun is coming up and I have an audience to entertain.”
“Wait! Will my death be swift?”
He regarded me for a moment and nodded. “Aye, lad, your death will be swift.”
I was determined to go bravely as I was led through the jeering crowd. There were so many, all struggling to get a better view of my death; most of them probably unaware who I was or what my crime was.
I walked in time to the drumbeat, my numbed legs carried along by the momentum. My clothes were saturated with perspiration, even though it was a chilly morning, and I felt my bowels loosen as I fought to retain my dignity. I ascended the rickety steps and approached the hooded executioner, who grasped his enormous axe.
“I hope your axe is sharp, executioner.”
“My name is John and my axe is I’m afraid blunt… You see, I've been informed of who you are.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sarah is my daughter.”
A blindfold was put over me and I fought for breath, trying to recite a prayer as I was helped to my knees. Above my heavy breathing, I heard my name mentioned when the charges were read out to the eager audience. My dignity was finally lost when my bowels emptied. I fought to control my weeping.
“Die like a man. Put your head on the block, lad,” whispered the executioner.
I groped for the block with my trembling hands and rested my head on it, before stretching out my hands.
“Our father, who art in…”