Early one morning in August 1535, during the wettest year that anyone could remember, a twenty-nine-year-old gentlewoman and her maid boarded a wherry from a wharf outside their riverside home at Butts Close, Chelsea, and were rowed three miles along the River Thames to London Bridge. It was the most convenient, if expensive, way to travel: the fare was two shillings, three if the oarsmen had to row against the tide, the equivalent of a week’s wages for a bricklayer or the price of six whole salmon or a dozen hens. This summer, it took courage to leave the sweet fresh air of the countryside for the foul smells and contagion of the city, since flooding and overflowing drains had triggered recurrent outbreaks of plague. Hundreds of Londoners were to die, encouraging the wealthier citizens to shut up their houses and evacuate their families to the countryside until the epidemic abated. Henry VIII, now forty-four, beginning to put on weight and ever fearful of death and disease, had already left with his queen, Anne Boleyn, for a summer of hawking and hunting in the Severn Valley in Gloucestershire. His chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, accompanied them with his greyhound, but had no time for sport. His priority was paperwork, not pleasure.
London Bridge was one of the city’s major landmarks. Spanning twenty stone piers, each sixty feet high and thirty feet thick, it stood on the site of an ancient timber river-crossing first established during the Roman occupation of Britain and rebuilt by the Anglo-Saxons, when it was supported by piles and broad enough for two wagons to pass each other. The later stone bridge, begun in 1176, had taken thirty-three years to complete. Continuous structural repairs were needed because of storms and fires and the excessive weight of more than a hundred shops and houses crowding in over the carriageway. In 1481 a house toppled over the side, drowning five men. Since the bridge doubled as a fortress protecting the city from rebels or invaders, it boasted a tower on each side of its disused central drawbridge with a portcullis and fortified gatehouse at its more vulnerable southern end.
When the wherry reached its destination, the women paid the oarsmen and climbed the thirty or so wooden steps up from the river towards the fish market. They attracted no attention; so hazardous was it for boats to pass under the arches of the bridge given the rapid currents and the narrowness of the gaps between the piers, passengers routinely disembarked here, if necessary continuing their journey from the other side.
The gentlewoman was dressed in a black gown more suitable for winter than summer. She had large brown eyes, a haunting sorrow and looked ten years older than she really was. Everyone would have guessed she was in mourning. Her wedding ring, clearly visible, was set with a ruby, and she may have worn her favourite pectoral or medallion, in which case passers-by would have made out the image of St Michael, the keeper of paradise, fighting with Lucifer in the shape of a dragon. The maid carried her mistress’s purse and a basket, not surprisingly since they seemed to be about to purchase fish.
Except that the women turned onto the bridge and kept walking until they reached the north tower before the drawbridge. Looking up, they would have noticed four stones with ‘Jhesus’ carved on them in large antique lettering. However, their gaze was fixed to the dozen or more skulls on poles protruding from a ledge of the parapet, parboiled and coated with tar to protect them from scavenging by the circling, screaming gulls. (Traitors’ heads were displayed from the north tower until 1577, after which they were moved to the tower above the gatehouse at the Southwark end.)
This wasn’t the gentlewoman’s first visit; she’d been here perhaps as many as a dozen times recently. When she’d first come, she’d recognized several of the skulls. One belonged to John Houghton, Prior of the London Carthusians, another to Bishop John Fisher of Rochester. Both had been executed for treason after refusing to swear an oath to the legitimacy of Anne Boleyn’s marriage to Henry and after denying the king’s revolutionary new claim to be the Supreme Head of the Church in England. For his loyalty to Rome, Pope Paul III had created Fisher a cardinal a month before his trial. His red hat had arrived at Calais, awaiting delivery across the Channel. Henry, spiteful, vengeful, indignant at the news, placed an embargo on the hat. Then, laughing uproariously, he promised Anne Boleyn that he’d teach Fisher a lesson once and for all. ‘Let the Pope send him a hat when he will,’ he exclaimed, ‘but I will so provide that whensoever it commeth, he shall wear it on his shoulders; for head shall he have none to set it on.’
The maid knocked at the bridge-master’s door, which opened to admit the women. After a brief conversation, the maid unclasped the purse and handed over some coins. In return, she received a skull, gently wrapping it in a linen cloth before placing it in the basket. The women immediately left and returned to Chelsea.
The gentlewoman was Margaret Roper, her maid Dorothy Colley, and the head they had surreptitiously recovered that of Sir Thomas More, Margaret’s father, executed just over four weeks earlier. More, famous for his wit and charm, had won a European reputation as the author of Utopia. Henry had invited him to Court to serve as his secretary and intimate adviser before turning vindictively against him. Like Houghton and Fisher, he’d been interrogated by Cromwell and tried and convicted of high treason by a special court commissioned by Henry to destroy men he’d come to regard as enemies of the state. The difference was that, whereas Houghton and Fisher had contradicted the royal supremacy and Fisher had campaigned openly against Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, Thomas More had kept silent. He’d neither defended the papal supremacy nor denied the king’s. He’d even offered to acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the lawful queen (but not Henry’s lawful wife) and her children as heirs to the throne. He’d been a conscientious objector, holding fast to his opinions, but as far as the official record went, always keeping them to himself, staunchly professing his loyalty to the king as head of state. The closest he came to the abyss before his trial was to say: ‘in my conscience this was one of the cases in which I was bounden that I should not obey my Prince, sith [i.e. since] that whatsoever other folk thought in the matter . . . yet in my conscience the truth seemed on the other side.’
After More’s execution, his head too had been boiled and tarred and set up on London Bridge. The custom was that it would remain there for between a fortnight and six weeks, when it would be taken down to make room for other heads. The bridge-master, as for everything else he did, had a system. As new heads arrived, he moved the old ones along the row until, when they reached the end of the line, he threw them into the river. Margaret had been carefully watching their progression. She tracked her father’s skull along the row, identifying it by a missing tooth. As she stared up at these heart-rendingly gruesome relics of people she had known, she couldn’t but have realized the bitter irony of the lines in the Latin grammar book she’d been reading with her children. The book by Robert Whittinton, a friend of one of her father’s early mentors, set the following translation exercise:
More is a man of an angel’s wit and singular learning. He is a man of...