August-September 1453 – Westminster Palace
The first inkling I had that something was wrong was when the king didn’t attend Mass that morning a week or so after Lammas. I knew he had returned from hunting the previous evening and could find no reason for his absence. As devout as he was, it was unlike Henry to skip Mass, but I was not unduly concerned. After returning to my chambers, I sent one of my attendants to find out if all was well, and the woman returned with the news that he was ill. She was unable to give me any specifics about his condition but said that Doctor Hobbes and three other eminent physicians from London were with him. Four physicians! This alarmed me. Generally Henry’s health was good. With two of my attendants trailing behind, I hurried to his apartment.
In the outer chamber a crowd had gathered composed of the concerned and the merely curious, the clergy who were never far from the king’s side, and those court satellites who were ever to be found underfoot whenever something was happening. Standing on tiptoe, trying to elbow one another aside, they blocked the door to the bedchamber so that an usher had to force a way through for me.
I was surprised and relieved to find the bed empty. Within the chamber were a few people: two monks kneeling at the foot of the bed, intoning prayers; the tall, almost cadaverous Duke of Buckingham; the squires and pages that generally attended the king and the four physicians distinguishable by their black robes and skullcaps clustered around a chair. They bowed and moved aside as I approached and I saw Henry sitting in the chair facing a window. At first glance he looked as if he was merely watching the rain hammering on the warped glass. A good sign, I thought. It cannot be serious.
“Your Grace,” I said, and curtsied. There was no response. “Henry,” I said a little louder. Still no response. None at all! I began to feel foolish. It was as if I were speaking to an inanimate object.
“Madam, it appears his Grace cannot hear you,” the Duke of Buckingham said. I looked at him uncomprehendingly.
And then I saw how the king’s eyes were unfocused, unseeing, fixed in an awful eerie stare that gave me a chill at the back of my neck. His soft white hands were curled loosely around a rosary like the hands of a sleeping child. A drop of spittle was hanging by a thread from his slack mouth. A page stepped forward with a napkin and smartly wiped the drool away without disturbing the unnatural sleep of his master.
Appalled and yet fascinated, I leaned down for a closer look. Our faces only inches apart, I stared into eyes so empty they appeared opaque, that give me back nothing but twin reflections of myself. Even at the best of times there was little intelligence in those eyes – not that Henry was simple, not in the usual sense – but they were mild, no fire in them, more like the eyes of a child not yet habituated to the unrelenting iniquity of his fellow man. His chin was his worst feature, being inconsequential and receding, with an unfortunate tendency to wobble when he was upset.
I turned to the physicians. “What is it? What’s wrong with him?”
The always-garrulous Master Hobbes, the court physician, stepped from among the rest and bowed. A brooch in the form of a caduceus adorned his black beaver skin hat. “Madam, Hippocrates established that diseases affecting the mind are caused by an excess of black bile. We require the council’s authorization to bleed his Grace as often as we feel necessary in order to restore balance to the humours of his body. Have no fear. We will not rest until we have affected a cure.”
“But what’s wrong with him?” I demanded, almost beside myself with anxiety.
Hobbes cleared his throat. “Permit me to present my colleague. Perhaps he can explain better than I. Your Grace, here is John of Arundel, warden of St. Mary of Bethlehem, and considered an expert in the field of um… well, I will let him explain.”
St. Mary of Bethlehem – a name to conjure images of horror! It was an asylum for the hopelessly insane, commonly called Bedlam, which stood in Moorfield just outside London. I had heard bizarre tales of the poor creatures who were incarcerated there, so lost in madness that they had to be shut away from the world. They were kept in cages, which were opened to the public for a small fee. Even members of the court took excursions there to torment the lunatics and mock their crazy antics. I was far from squeamish, but I had never relished the spectacle of human suffering and had not been tempted to go.
John of Arundel spoke using a waving digit to punctuate his words. “Your Grace, medical science recognizes five types of mental disease, none of which seems to fit his Grace’s condition. Melancholia, characterized as depression and lack of interest, and amentia, loss of mental faculties, come the closest and we shall certainly try the recommended remedies. But neither explains his Grace’s complete loss of mobility or speech, which would generally be regarded as bodily defects.”
I glared at them, the supposed professionals. “Are you telling me you don’t know what ails the king?”
“The human mind is a strange and wondrous thing, a far more mysterious apparatus than the body. While medical science is making great strides in understanding the functions of the body, the mind refuses to give up its secrets. We are wanderers in uncharted territory.”
What was he saying? That Henry was a lunatic like his French grandsire?
“Do something! Make him well!” I commanded, as if I could command such a thing.
Hobbes began his well-rehearsed speech, which might be titled ‘comfort for the worried family.’ I gazed at my husband’s face, illuminated by the window: pale, bland, with protuberant eyes and receding chin, a soft, weak face. Leaning down I gave him a good shaking, trying to shake some reaction out of him. “Henry! It’s me, Margaret! Speak to me!” I shouted in his ear. There was nothing. In all ways that mattered, he was not there!
“Come away now, Madam.” Buckingham was behind me. “Let me escort you back to your chambers and the care of your women.”
I suffered myself to be led away like a child, casting a backward look at the still figure in the chair, leaving him to the ministrations of his servants and the two monks who were importuning the Almighty for his speedy recovery. The physicians resumed their debate with much stroking of chins and bobbing and weaving of heads. They were fascinated by a medical anomaly none had encountered before.
The duke closed the door against the prying eyes of those who were crowding it. I kept my eyes lowered lest they saw the grief there. I had never been good at hiding my emotions.
When we were out of earshot of others, I asked the duke, who had been hunting with the king: “What happened, my lord? How came his Grace to be in this pitiable condition?”
“It was a strange thing. We were at Clarendon when he complained of feeling sleepy while at supper. Naturally, everyone thought he had merely overexerted himself at the hunt and he went to bed early. But the next morning when his servants tried to rouse him he was as you see him now. I can only put it down to the strain he has been under these last months.”
“Can he function at all?”
“Indeed. He can walk, sit, lie down, rise, but only when urged and aided to do so. He eats but has to be spoon-fed, drinks when a cup is pressed to his mouth. He’s like a puppet in the hands of his servants, can’t help them dress or undress him, and he’s incontinent. He recognizes no one, hasn’t spoken since this darkness descended on him and appears not to comprehend when anyone speaks to him.” Buckingham said all this with as little emotion as if reciting a list of needed supplies to a clerk.
“Holy Mother of God!”
“Whatever far place his Grace has gone to he is beyond our reach. I pray God he has found some peace there.”