The Great Sectarian Wars of the 1500s left madness in their wake, flowing like a poisoned chalice upturned in the years following Henry Tudor’s humiliating defeat and grisly demise at the Battle of Bosworth Field, and the incumbent Richard III’s failure to convince anybody that there was a morsel of legitimacy to this new dawn of the Plantagenet dynasty. For four subsequent decades vast quantities of human life were expended as the two armies continued to hack and chop and swish and swosh at one another until the great fields of the land were saturated crimson from the flow of blood, leaving but one certainty of outcome; that the eventual victor would preside over a significantly diminished population.
As the conflict stretched on through the early sixteenth century big things began to change in Europe and it developed deep religious dimensions. At the dawn of the fourth decade it became apparent that the armies of the younger Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, were leading the way both militaristically and on the ideological front, with his bold post-Reformation ideas, and that the campaign of Richard III was as ailing as the man himself, who had sustained injuries in battle but not been able to do so with unity within his forces.
Eventually Richard, the last in the Plantagenet bloodline, was disarmed at the Battle of Starkwood Forest and, as he scrabbled around for his sword, disembowelled by a Tudor knight and beheaded for good measure, leaving his armies in disarray and Tudor as the only credible king. He was crowned days later in an opulent ceremony that was in some ways celebratory – it was a delight to many that the veil of warfare had been lifted – but bore the uncomfortable, inescapable subtext that many in the land were unhappy to serve under the new regime; to which the lives lost by many of their loved ones were a throbbingly tangible testament. Nevertheless, the new king set about dismantling many of the institutions he thought archaic, particularly endeavouring to weaken the hegemony of the Catholic Church on public life, and appointed a cabinet to help him steer the course of the nation.
But it was not to last. Henry Tudor had born many sons but no legitimate ones; merely a litany of bastards, who had sprung prolifically from his loins as he traversed the breadth of the British Isles, engaging in all manner of murderous carnage and leaving a little bit of himself somewhere near the site of each battle. As the decades crept on and the war grew yet bloodier and more mired in ecumenical debates, Henry had become tired and fatigued, and prone to joking with his advisors that he was not a fighter but a fornicator, then having them executed if their response was insufficiently deferential to both his battlefield nous and his lovemaking prowess. Although, as a consequence of social status, it did not hinder his fornication, by the time the Great Sectarian Wars were won, Tudor was drastically overweight and plagued by gout and, although one struggles to think why, syphilis. Less than a month after the Battle of Starkwood Forest, he died suddenly of a heart attack, sparking a constitutional crisis.
“But did we not already simply disavow all that is constitutional when we seized the throne by military force?” argued Lord Alastair Bairnstead at the heated cabinet meeting that night. He had been considered by many to be the closest of Henry VII’s senior advisors to his own ideology.
“No, not at all!” responded a younger councillor, Sir Anthony Galveston. “Are you suggesting that the most constitutional action would be to return a Plantagenet to the throne?”
“I did not for a second dispute the moral purpose of the war,” boomed Bairnstead, “I merely wished to illustrate that where we find ourselves now as officials of the land, without a king nor the significantly reformed constitution upon which – under his guidance – we had been working, is somewhat of a quandary. There is no proper thing to do.”
“Then in lieu of constitutional propriety we must do what is pragmatic and right,” said Galveston. “in the name of the national interest; of stability and prosperity.”
“Beelzebub’s britches!” the elderly Lord Arthurs slammed his fist on the round table. “Bastard upon bastard produced by that confounding man, and not a single one fit for the throne!”
“An oxymoronic statement, Lord Arthurs,” Bairnstead replied. “A bastard by definition cannot be fit for the throne, and I can think of no civilised society – even those touched by the Reformation – where that is the case.”
“But,” Galveston interjected. “Must the succession necessarily be by hereditary means?”
“Please do elaborate,” Bairnstead was curious.
“What if we were to conduct some variety of plebiscite in order to decide upon the next monarch? I appreciate that, in the past, matters of such severity have not tended to rest upon referenda but, as we have discussed, we find ourselves facing a seemingly implacable constitutional quandary…”
“Yes, I see, although, of course, the vote would have to be conducted within this chamber.”
“ENOUGH OF THIS HERESY!” Lord Arthurs rose to his feet. “To elect a monarch would far exceed the brief bestowed upon us by the late Henry Tudor! It flies in the face of God. I ask you, gentlemen; what of the divine right of kings?”
“That is all well and good,” said Galveston. “But may I ask whom, in this case, our Lord has deigned to anoint?”
“I must say,” gobbled Bairnstead, dousing his meat in gravy. “these wooden trenches are a most wonderful innovation. Bread always has a tendency to grow rather sodden.”
“Yes, indeed. We live in an enlightened age, my Lord,” laughed Galveston, who had invited his fellow cabinet member to his place of residence, Granita Manor, for a banquet of some intimacy. “Now, I believe we have some matters of grave importance to discuss.”
“My head aches for all these constitutional wranglings,” remarked Bairnstead with some levity, before his facial expression turned dour, “although, might I say, I relish the chance to discuss said matters out of earshot of such walking anachronisms as Lord Arthurs.”
“Ah, but in good time we shall have to make even Lord Arthurs come around to our perspective. What we require in the event of this…contest is a strong, united front; a certain clarity of intent; a coherence.”
“I think I am following you,” Bairnstead raised his eyebrow, “in that those of us who wish to continue the work begun by Henry Tudor must go about doing so with a strong sense of purpose.”
“We are in agreement, then,” Galveston sipped his wine, “but now I ask you to bear with me whilst I say something you may find objectionable.”
Bairnstead shot him a scowl.
“I wish to request,” Galveston continued “and, again, you will have my full understanding if you do not react to my suggestion with any great charity. I implore you, however, to hear me out. What I wish to request is that when the time comes to decide upon our new monarch, you do not put yourself forward, and instead support my own candidacy.”
Bairnstead stared at him for a while. Astonished by the temerity of the younger man, he broke eye contact, stared down at his food and limply sloshed his gravy about.
“Are we not both modernisers?” declared Galveston, continuing to push. “Could I, on the throne, not accomplish great things, with you as my closest advisor? Nobody among the cabinet commands the respect you do. To have your endorsement would further legitimise my efforts and pave the way for the culture of innovation we both wish more than anything to ferment! Do we not live an enlightened age? And does this age not demand the leadership I can provide, but not at the expense of your ideas? I have spoken to most members of the cabinet. The support is there. However, if we were to oppose one another, it would divide those who at heart are with both of us. I implore you not to let the devil fool with the best laid plans, as is his cursed wont. Greatness is calling out to us, and it demands fulfilment.”
Galveston concluded his monologue and smiled at Lord Bairnstead, seeming rather pleased with himself. He took a somewhat larger gulp of wine and shovelled some meat down this throat as Bairnstead ignored his food, shaking silently in his seat. He seemed quite angry, which Galveston thought reflective of the persuasiveness of his rhetorical techniques. They did not talk for minutes; enough time that it is significant when one is keeping the company of only one other person.
“You know what they say about you,” huffed Bairnstead.
“Pray tell, what do they say about me?”
“That you are a Plantagenet in Tudor clothing.”
“And what on earth is that supposed to mean?”
“It does not matter. It is unfounded and untrue. But it is said.”
“Then I ask you again, what on earth is it supposed to mean?”
“I suppose that you are not so different from the rulers of the past.”
“In which case I have another question; when a significant swathe of the populace does not see our claim to the throne we took by force to have any credibility whatsoever, is that really so bad?”
Lord Bairnstead had indeed given much thought to the way a new monarch might command the loyalty of a divided people. Although he was sure most people would have not the slightest idea who he was, those who did recognise him by name or sight would readily associate him with the two decades he had spent by the side of Henry VII, culminating in the integral role he played in the month-long reign of the only monarch Tudor by blood rather than mentality. Bairnstead was known throughout the court as a formidable operator, but maybe Galveston was right that his own brand of affable charisma could easier break through its walls and resonate with the wider populace; and, if he was not seen as too bold, too radical, then that gave him more scope to be both, under an auspice of custodial pragmatism. Bairnstead was furious – his seniority to Galveston in all its facets spanned age, experience and social standing – but he had begun to see an opening.
“I have,” he uttered solemnly, “two conditions. If these are agreed upon, you shall have my full support when the cabinet come to vote on…” he hesitated, “…this matter.”
“I am listening.”
“Firstly, I demand full control over economic matters; over the imposition of taxes and levees on the landed gentry and, in some cases, those of lower social class. I shall have the final say over trade strategies both domestic and international. And, what’s more, I shall have full autonomy to do so and shall not be hindered by your executive power. Does this sound agreeable to you?”
“Certainly,” said Galveston through gritted teeth. “You are renowned for your economic thought.”
“Excellent,” Lord Bairnstead clasped his hands together. “Now, I am most curious as to what you will make of this second caveat.”
“Please, do tell.”
“It is that at a certain juncture, once you have ruled for a number of years – let us not get into specifying at this point in time how many exactly – but, after a number of years, you will abdicate the throne, in the event of which I assume power in your place.”
“A number of years.”
“Yes. We can give it further thought. Things will change, especially as our vision for a society is developed. It makes little sense to wed ourselves to some arbitrary date at a point this early. But these are the conditions upon which my endorsement rests. Consider them. But know that I have as much right to the throne as you or any other man, and I will not be marginalised.”
“I think,” said Galveston, “that we may have struck upon a deal.”
Sir Anthony Galveston ran unopposed and was rewarded by the cabinet with an overwhelming vote of confidence. Lord Bairnstead was as he always was; superficially on the side-lines, but close enough to influence the action. And now he was closer than ever. Whilst this peculiar kind of king basked in the glory of his mandate, Bairnstead drew up an ambitious new economic strategy that would free up trade with the continental nations and expend resources on searching the world for heretofore unearthed territories from which to extract more. Whilst Galveston put a fresh face on the new programme, Bairnstead was toiling in the bowels of the treasury doing the dirty work; taxes were drawn up, regulations were imposed, and monasteries sold off in bulk. Roads were built, mines were discovered, or at least more efficiently exploited, and the sphere of finance and banking expanded.
Six years passed; six years of relative stability and deepening prosperity. After seven decades of bloodshed the majority of people were, frankly, a bit tired out, and few seemed to have all that much rebellion in them. Not many people were even too concerned that the new monarch did not have the purity of blood that comes from centuries of inbreeding. The new arrangement seemed to be working, but something was simmering inside Lord Bairnstead; a sense that he could only ever hope to be eclipsed by the King, who had rather begun to take advantage of the goodwill that had been evidenced when he offered him the deal that night over dinner.
One night he was called to King Anthony’s chambers (how ridiculous the King’s name sounds, he mused treasonously) but he was not there; in his place were his advisors Lord Henderson and Sir Alan Strathclyde.
“Where is His Majesty?” Bairnstead had not seen the King for two weeks as in that time he had been engaged in talks around the country.
“He will be here shortly,” said Lord Henderson. “Please sit, Alastair.”
“I am a man upon whom much depends, Lord Henderson” Bairnstead paced. “I would prefer to make this brief in order to retain my dependability, and also that the King would be in attendance.”
“He will be here,” rejoined Henderson. “He permitted that we commence proceedings in his absence.”
“Lord Bairnstead,” said Strathclyde. “I must begin by telling you that it is of paramount importance to His Majesty that on the matter we are about to discuss he has your wholehearted backing.”
“Who are you to talk to me in this manner?” boomed Bairnstead. “What matter can be so important that every soul under the sun is briefed on it before I?”
“Please, Alastair,” implored Henderson smarmily. “His Majesty wants you to know that you are still at the heart of the process of government in this country.”
“Then why does His Majesty in his infinite wisdom not impart these messages upon me himself?”
“That is enough,” said the King, standing in the doorway. “We must turn our attentions to the genuinely pertinent issues at hand.”
“Get these clowns out of here!” Bairnstead roared.
“Leave us, gentlemen,” the King ordered, and as Henderson and Strathclyde exited the chamber he told Bairnstead what they already knew. “We are invading Spain.”
“You are aware I am not a man for jest.”
But the King was serious. He paused.
“That would not be consistent with my fiscal plans.”
“It must be,” said the King, “for it is already decided upon. I have felt as such for around a year. The dossier of intelligence compiled by Sir Alan makes for compelling reading. I shall consult the cabinet, but it shall be a matter of how rather than if.”
“And why was I not told of this sooner?”
“Remember the words of the late Lord Arthurs; do not try and exceed your brief, Alastair. It will only end in ignominy and indignity.”
“Your brief is my brief,” Bairnstead spat. “What of the promise of abdication? Of setting the stage for my premiership? What of our deal?”
“I urge you now to remember the words of the very much alive Lord Bairnstead; it would make little sense to wed ourselves to some arbitrary date. Our arrangement is working out well, do you not think? Why should we cut it down in the prime of its life?”
“I want a date, Anthony!” Bairnstead slammed his fist on a table.
“Please, Lord Bairnstead,” the King smirked. “the proper deference, if you will. I am the King, after all. You should know; you nominated me.”
Although invasions of the heathen world passed by with much regularity and little fanfare, the invasion of Spain was the electrical pulse that jolted the people out of six years of peacetime bliss. If you were a young man, it became extremely likely that setting foot in the street could mean being press ganged into national service and packed off southwards by sea, never to return. As you can imagine, this meant bad things for the traditional nuclear family. Few were sure there was a good reason for the invasion beyond that the monarch said so, and the concept of monarchy had been somewhat demystified of late, so this carried less weight. Although the conflict overseas remained in a virtual deadlock, the constant worry lingered that Spain might launch an invasion of their own. People were unhappy, but, due to a crackdown on treason, they seldom discredited the government by raising their voices in opposition; they just went off and died, which was basically as bad. Dark days began to befall the nation and, whilst the economy continued to grow, rumblings of discontent emanated from a number of directions, including the royal court.
“It is time,” said one lord to another. “to consider a change of leadership.”
“I have my assumptions already, but please elaborate.”
“The man on the throne is there because we put him there, and if he no longer commands our confidence it is my personal view that,” he lowered his voice, “we have every right to depose him, especially if we begin to feel he is losing the public trust.”
“Yes, but who should take his place?”
“Let us not be unnecessarily radical. Lord Bairnstead is the only one.”
But the coup was unsuccessful, and Bairnstead – whose defence was that he knew nothing of it – was forced to grin and bear it as the men who had cheerfully lobbied for his coronation were taken to the stocks and beheaded (evidently they had underestimated the potency of executive power, even without the divine right or a family tree that ran in a straight line.) But this display of authority did not calm the divisions in the court, as the rival sects surrounding the King and his chancellor tightened ranks, evoking memories of the decades of civil war. Bairnstead, as if to prove beyond doubt his credibility and, of course, dependability, accelerated his economic project, working his subordinates into a frenzy ensuring that as much as possible could be done as quickly as possible, on the off-chance that any of them were about to be executed. Communications between he and the King broke down almost completely, but whilst he would curse his name and rue the day he ever offered him his support, he would quietly note that the monarch had not yet made any visible moves to usurp him. Just the one; the ultimate usurpation, that was enough.
This state of affairs continued until around a year after the aborted coup, when the King turned up unannounced one day at the treasury. He entered Lord Bairnstead’s chamber without knocking on the door, and found him buried in economic papers. Bairnstead looked up, noticed Sir Alan Strathclyde dallying in the doorway, and ordered one of his dogsbodies to shut him out.
“For what may I be of assistance, my liege?” asked the chancellor.
“It is time, Alastair,” the King sat down.
“It is time? Where are we invading now?”
“No, no, it is time that I abdicate. For ten years I have governed the land, but now there are things I wish to do outside of the offices of state.”
Lord Bairnstead sat speechless.
“Is this not the moment for which you have yearned?” asked the King.
“May I ask what becomes of me in your absence?”
“You will have my full backing to be my successor.”
“And what of the cabinet? Do I have theirs?”
“To the full extent of my knowledge, you will be unopposed.”
“And your inner circle; will they continue to undermine me?”
“I have not the time to reassure you of the loyalties of each and every one of my advisors, but Lord Henderson for one shall not be accompanying you, as he is bound for retirement. If you have no wish to work with him, I can release Strathclyde from my charge upon my abdication.”
“Yes, that would be appropriate,” said Lord Bairnstead. “May I ask why this decision has taken you such a long time to come to?”
“My dear Lord,” laughed the King, “a decade is nothing as far as a monarch’s reign is concerned. A word of advice for the years ahead; be more inclined towards flexibility of thought. As it stands, I believe you have a tendency to rather take to heart unwritten agreements made over dinner.”
“You will have left the country mired in a disreputable overseas war, and there are whispers at the treasury of an economic downturn brewing.”
“And to whose policy may the latter be attributed?” smirked the King. “It is your responsibility now to provide solutions to these issues. Cheer up, Alastair. For you are the king-in-waiting.”
Recession did indeed hit in the months following the new king’s coronation. Whilst industry was continuing to develop at a rapid rate, many were being left behind, and the numbers of the impoverished, the unemployed and the homeless and dispossessed continued to rise. Although he was no longer single-handedly dictating all fiscal matters, the even greater power of the executive meant King Alastair had an awful lot on his hands, and he began to find the responsibilities of the top job to be overwhelming and ravenous; eating more of him up every day he sat on the throne. He knew, however, that this was what he had long aspired to, and he could not blow his chance at greatness. He envied the smugness with which his predecessor had flounced about, radiating some God-given sense that it was only ever he that should have been in that position; as if the divine right of kings was superfluous beside the divinity of his own ego.
He still spent a lot of time at the treasury. As he attempted to shepherd his new chancellor through this bout of economic turbulence, he was visited by his advisor Sir Edward Milbank, who brought strange news.
“Your Majesty,” he lisped, “I bring word from His erstwhile Majesty, Lord Galveston.”
“What of that man?”
“He has converted to Catholicism, and shall soon be venturing to the Vatican City for an audience with the Pope.”
“What balderdash!” yelled the King. “Must he sabotage my project at every turn? After all I have done to engender the progress of the Reformation! This is too much, I tell you; too much. Summon my cabinet, for I wish to issue an executive decree,” upon which Milbank did so, and the men who could be roused squeezed into the main office of the treasury. “Gentlemen, at this point I think it would be wise to tell you that those of you labouring under the misapprehension that the Catholic Church is the one true faith are, in fact, incorrect, and must renounce their faith at once, as a consequence of the nationwide ban on Catholicism I have decided to impose.”
And so Lord Galveston, as he was now called, was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and burned at the stake; which, the King reflected, put them at about even with one another, as his years as king-in-waiting had killed him spiritually and singed his soul to cinders. However, when rumblings of further sectarian war began to emerge, cabinet decided they weren’t really up for another seventy years of butchery and poisoned the King in his sleep, at which point they decided that this new-fangled idea of electing a head of state was all a bit mad and it would be a lot easier to just ship some German inbreds over to sit idly on the throne as ornamental, decorative people whilst they made all the actual decisions .