An excerpt from Sudden Death
Jean Rombaud had the worst of all possible tasks on the morning of May 19, 1536: severing with a single blow the head of Anne Boleyn, Marquess of Pembroke and Queen of England, a young woman so beautiful she had turned the Strait of Dover into a veritable Atlantic. The notorious Thomas Cromwell, chief minister to Henry VIII, had brought Rombaud over from France for this express purpose. In a curt missive, Cromwell asked that he bring his sword—a piece of miraculously fine craftsmanship, forged of Toledo steel—because he would be performing a delicate execution.
Rombaud was neither beloved nor indispensable. Beautiful and immoral, he drifted coldly in the tight circle of very specialized workers who thrived in the Renaissance courts under the blind eye of ambassadors, ministers, and secretaries. His reserve, striking looks, and lack of scruples made him a natural for certain kinds of tasks known to all and spoken of by none, the dark operations that have always been unavoidable in the conduct of politics. He dressed with surprising good taste for someone with the job of killer angel: he wore expensive rings, breeches lavishly trimmed with brocade, and royal-blue velvet shirts unsuited to a bastard, which he was in every sense of the word. Cheap gemstones were braided with gypsy panache into his gold-streaked chestnut hair, the gems filched from mistresses conquered with the various weapons over which God had granted him mastery. There was no knowing whether he was silent because he was clever or because he was a fool: his deep blue eyes, which turned down a little at the corners, never expressed compassion, but they never expressed any kind of animosity either. Also, Rombaud was French: for him, killing a queen of England was less sin than duty. Cromwell had called him to London because he believed this last quality made him a particularly hygienic choice for the job.
It wasn’t King Henry who had arranged for his wife’s death by Toledo sword rather than by the lowly blow of the ax that separated her brother’s head from his neck on the accusation he had slept with the queen, a sin that earned him the record sum of three death sentences: for lèse-majesté, for adultery, and for degeneracy. No one—not even the notorious Thomas Cromwell—could bear for such a neck as hers to be hacked by the coarse blade of an ax.
On the morning of May 19, 1536, Anne Boleyn attended mass and made her confession. Before she was turned over to the constable of the Tower so her body could be cleaved apart, she asked that her ladies-in-waiting alone be given the privilege of cropping her heavy red braids and shaving her head. Most of the surviving portraits, including the sole copy of the only one reportedly painted from life—now part of Hever Castle’s Tudor portrait collection—depict her as the owner of crimped and significant locks.
It seems that the royal bedchamber had a dampening effect on King Henry’s libido, such a champion was he in extramarital affairs—and such an underperformer in his royal reproductive duties. No one knew this better than the marquess of Pembroke, who had managed to conceive by him after a single day in the country, while he was still married to his previous queen. They’d had a daughter as lovely as the marquess herself, for whom the monarch professed the thunderous affection associated with homicidal types. So Anne Boleyn approached the scaffold conscious of the statistical odds that her daughter, Elizabeth, would reach the throne, as indeed she ultimately did. Boleyn delivered herself into martyrdom with a show of calculated cheer. Among her last words, pronounced before the witnesses to her death, were: “I pray God save the King, and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never.”
What is it about nudity, in theory the great equalizer, that excites us? In their naked state, only monsters should turn us on, and yet it’s the very sameness of our nakedness that we find arousing. The ladies who accompanied Boleyn in her trials had pulled back the collar of her gown to reveal her neck before escorting her to the scaffold. They had also removed her necklaces. They didn’t feel that the removal of her veil and tresses marred her beauty in the least: she was just as lovely with a shorn head as she was with hair.
The bluish gleam of her neck quivering in anticipation of the blow triggered an emotional response in Rombaud. According to one witness, the mercenary was kind enough to make an effort to surprise the lady lying there bare from her shoulder blades to the crown of her head. With his sword raised high and ready to come down upon the queen’s neck, he asked carelessly: Has anyone seen my sword? The woman twitched her shoulders, perhaps relieved that some chance occurrence might spare her. She closed her eyes. Vertebrae, cartilage, the spongy tissue of trachea and pharynx: the sound of their parting was like the elegant pop of a cork liberated from a bottle of wine.
Jean Rombaud refused the bag of silver coins that Thomas Cromwell offered him when the job was done. Addressing the whole gathering, but looking into the eyes of the man who had schemed until he unseated the queen, he said that he had agreed to do what he had done to spare a lady the vile fate of dying under an executioner’s blade. He made a sideways bow to the ministers and clergymen who had witnessed the beheading, and he returned straight to Dover at full gallop. Earlier that morning, the lord high constable had packed the categorical braids of the queen of England in his saddlebags.
Rombaud was an avid tennis player, and this seemed sufficient payment: the hair of those executed on the scaffold had special properties that caused it to trade at stratospheric prices among ball makers in Paris. A woman’s hair was worth more, red hair more still, and a reigning queen’s would command an unimaginable price.
Anne Boleyn’s braids produced a total of four balls, which were by far the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance.
The Boleyn Balls
Scarcely had Jean Rombaud disembarked at Franciscopolis— such was the ridiculous name of the port of Le Havre until the death of King Francis I—before he began to spread the rumor that he was in possession of the darksome braids of Anne Boleyn and that he would make tennis balls with them that would at last gain him entry to the closed courts, where the nobility sweated through one shirt per game, five per set, and fifteen per match. He had always felt that his fresh-washed lion’s mane gave him the right to hardwood and tile: to play for sport rather than money.
By the time the ball maker delivered the four most bewitching balls in the history of Europe, a multitude of buyers had approached Rombaud, offering prices out of all proportion to the size of his treasure: one hundred cows, a villa in Provence, two African slaves, six horses. He declined all invitations to discuss, except that of Philippe de Chabot, minister to the king.
To this negotiation he brought only the fourth ball, a bit smaller and more tightly wound than the others, which from the start he had decided to keep for himself as an amulet. He brought it wrapped in a silk cloth, deep in his purse, which for greater security he had sewn into the lining of his cloak.
Chabot received him in his bedchamber as he was being dressed. It wasn’t the first time they had met. Jean Rombaud had prepared a brief discourse that didn’t skimp on the honeyed rhetoric of a sloe-eyed villain, and which progressed from pleading to blackmail. The minister didn’t ask him to sit, nor did he allow him to make his case. He didn’t even turn to look at him, focused as he was on his servants swaddling him in linens and velvets. What do you want for the balls of the heretic pig, he asked, staring intently at the point of his shoe. I’ve brought one with me as a sample, replied Rombaud, drawing it clumsily from his cloak. The minister brushed a wisp of cloth from his knee, ignoring the object that the executioner held out to him reverently from across the room. We are assured, said Chabot without turning to look at the ball, that they are authentic, because the ambassador of the king of Spain tried to secure the braids for his own conjurations and flew into a rage when he learned that the trophy was on its way to France. I want neither money nor possessions, said Rombaud. The minister lifted his palms in a gesture conveying both interrogation and exasperation. I want a modest title and a position in the royal court as master of fencing and tennis. It can be arranged, but first bring me the balls. I want the king himself to grant me both things; I want it to be in the presence of witnesses and I want him to look me in the eye. The minister glanced at him for the first time, raising his eyebrows in ironic puzzlement. The king is a little busy taking back Savoy, he said, but we’ll call for you when he comes through Paris; the balls will make a nice treat for him; bring them with you the day my messenger commands you to appear at the Louvre.
Seventy-three days later, Jean Rombaud was received by King Francis I in the Salon Bleu, which was crammed with members of the court, petitioners, and financiers. The future fencing and tennis master was wearing a pompous fitted costume that he’d had made for the occasion. For once in his life he was rid of his intolerable three-day beard, and he had combed his bejeweled hair into a tail that he thought was elegant—and in its gravedigger way, it was, though possibly too Spanish for the salons of the king of France.
He didn’t have to wait long in courtyards or antechambers: the king sent for him shortly after he presented himself, and showed a scarcely regal impatience to see the Boleyn balls. Jean Rombaud wasn’t allowed to deliver the lengthy address that he had prepared for this day either. Queen Eleanor approached to witness the great moment, trailing a train of ermine among the filthy boots of her husband’s men. Francis I’s eyes nearly glowed when he opened the carved wooden box that the mercenary had spent a fortune to have made—on credit, of course—and which had seemed magnificent at the inn where he lived but in the palace now looked small and paltry.
The king took one of the balls, weighed it with the calculation of a seasoned tennis player, squeezed it, and turned it in his hand. He pretended to toss it in the air and hit a serve with an imaginary racket. He felt the ball again, then discomfited his wife by putting his nose to it and inhaling deeply, revealing the urge—however remote—to lose himself in the braids that had been the downfall of King Henry and whose spell had snatched England from the pope. Looking at Rombaud, he said at last: They say she was beautiful, yes? Even with a shorn head, Your Majesty, were the only words the poor man was able to speak to his king. Francis tossed the ball into the air and caught it gracefully.He looked out over the salon, cleared his throat as if to request the attention he always had, and said: The new fencing master is rather more handsome than I’d been told; he’ll teach tennis at the court, too, so watch your daughters. The breath of polite laughter moved like a wave through the Salon Bleu. We grant him his request, said the king. He looked Rombaud in the eye: With privileges for life; we have spoken.
Rombaud’s trial was so short that by the time the wretch understood what was going on, he had been sentenced. He had been seized for high treason at the very doors of the Salon Bleu and found himself unable to explain how he, a Frenchman and a Catholic, had offered his services as executioner to the heretic King Henry of England. In the death warrant, which was drawn up in haste and signed in a courtyard of the Louvre by Philippe de Chabot, it was written that the fencing and tennis master possessed the nobleman’s right to have his throat slit without torture because the king had granted him privileges for life.
Lying on the ground, at the mercy of the soldier who was to perform the execution, the point of a sword pricking his neck, Rombaud wept. I understand, said Minister Chabot, that Anne Boleyn, a woman and a princess, didn’t shed a single tear the day you dispatched her as she lay helpless; if you give me the fourth ball, he added, I’ll let you go, and he motioned for the executioner to withdraw his sword.
The mercenary felt in his shirt and cloak and with shaking hand extracted a lumpy ball, the most dubious of those made with the remnants of the queen’s hair. Chabot put it in his pocket and said: Kill him.
The story must have traveled by word of mouth, since a bastardized version of it, based on elements of truth, lingered in the popular imagination. It’s very likely that the episode, turned upside down like everything that crosses the Channel, lit the lamp of inspiration in William Shakespeare’s head, since he chose to depict Henry V’s unexpected claim to all the territory of France in a lovely scene that reproduces the handing over of the ill-fated Boleyn balls.
In the play’s first act, King Henry receives a messenger from Louis of Valois, Dauphin of France, asking him to relinquish his claims to Normandy in exchange for the great treasure that he sends as a gift. The gift is a sealed barrel. The king asks the duke of Exeter to open it, and inside there are only tennis balls: a mockery of his political immaturity and lack of experience. Henry thinks it over and very coolly sends his thanks for the gift, saying: “When we have match’d our racquets to these balls, / We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.”
At the height of the Enlightenment, during an exchange of letters with Madame Geoffrin regarding the sale of his library to Catherine II of Russia, Denis Diderot describes how the preparations for his daughter’s wedding have left him in a state of financial strangulation: “At first, my wife and I thought that the match would go some way toward easing the pressure of our creditors, and now we consider ourselves lucky if it doesn’t kill us in the end. For me, Angelique’s engagement has been the story of Rombaud’s balls.”
That very night, at the back door of his workshop, the craftsman who had made the Boleyn balls received a bundle of the mercenary’s fire-bolt-chased chestnut hair.
Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Álvaro Enrigue.