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William Kingston: Constable’s Dues

June 12, 2013

Sir William Kingston, much like George Cavendish, comes close to rating a co-author credit in almost every work of Anne Boleyn fiction published. About sixty years old in 1536, he had served the Crown his entire life, fighting on the Anglo-Scottish border, assisting in Cardinal Wolsey’s arrest, signing the nobles’ petitions to the Pope for the annulment of Henry VIII’s first marriage, and finally being appointed Constable of the Tower of London — an appointment which still exists today, albeit in considerably diminished form and with a more extravagant uniform. These days the biggest perquisite enjoyed by the Constable is one free barrel of rum per year, but according to the “Tower of London Fact Sheet” sitting in front of me, a Tudor Constable was raking in “Constable’s Dues” hand over fist. In addition to receiving a portion of the cargo of every ship which was proceeding upstream, including “oysters, mussels, cockles, rushes and wine”, the Constable was entitled to 6s 8d a year from sprat fishermen and was also the lucky recipient of any animals that fell off of London Bridge, along with a 1d fine per foot of said livestock. In return, he took charge of the Tower’s population — both the willing and unwilling portions — and was answerable with life, limb and estates for the safe confinement of all prisoners. It goes without saying that when asked to report on the daily conduct and conversation of a particular prisoner, he obliged with lengthy and cruelly detailed letters, which is how almost five hundred years later we know that Anne raved, that she joked about the accused men having to make their pallets instead of ballets [ballads], that she feared what Francis Weston would say about looking to dead men’s shoes, that she said the king must be testing her and swore that the skies would refuse to rain until she was freed.

Unlike Cavendish, who was writing of Anne’s earlier career and from a distance of thirty years, Kingston’s five letters to Cromwell were written in the thick of events, while Anne and the seven arrested men were still in the Tower of London and Master Secretary and others were extremely interested in the precise details of what she was saying. These letters provide virtually all the extant information on what Anne said and did during the last eighteen days of her life, and the conversations have been quoted and re-quoted — in fact, it would be easier to make a list of books that don’t contain at least a few lines from Kingston than to make a list of those that do. For this we can thank Samuel Weller Singer, who in 1825 published a somewhat-corrupted but still valuable edition of Cavendish’s works, along with copies of Kingston’s and Edward Baynton’s letters to Cromwell (you can read them on the sidebar, in Metrical Visions, pp. 217-229). A generation later, the inevitable Agnes Strickland quoted liberally from them in her account of Anne’s life, disseminating them to a much wider audience than Singer’s and benefiting future novelists immensely.

Two of the most notable extracts come from the very beginning and close to the very end of Anne’s imprisonment. Just after her committal to the Tower, Kingston wrote of her panicked talk as she entered:

I hear, sayd she, that I shuld be accused with iij men; and I can say no more but nay, withyowt I shuld oppen my body; and ther with opynd her gown, sayeng O Norres, hast thow accused me, thow ar in the Towre with me, & thou and I shal dy to gether: and, Marke, thou are here to. O my mother, thow wilt dy for sorow, and meche lamented my lady of Worcester, for by cause her child dyd not store in hyr body, and my wif sayd what shuld be the cawse, she sayd for the sorrow she tok for me: and then she sayd M. Kingston, shall I dy with yowt justis; & I sayd, the porost sugett the kyng hath had justis, and ther with she lawed. (p. 218)

On the day before her death, having spent time praying with her almoner (and Kingston having commented on her protestations of innocence “I suppose she wyll declare hyr self to be a good woman for all men bot the kyng”), Anne “resayved the gud lord” and sent for Kingston to ask a question.

At my commyng she sayd, M. Kyngston, I hear saye I shall not dy affore none, & I am very sory ther fore; for I thowth then to be dede and past my payne. I told hyr it shuld be now payne it was so sottell. And then she said I hard say the executioner was very gud, and I have a lyttle necke, and put her hand abowt it lawyng harteley.

I have sene mony men & also wemen executed and at they have bene in grete sorowe, and to my knowlege thys lady hathe meche joye and plesur in dethe. (p. 229)

Anne’s words are still quite compelling and make good if grim reading, but today I’m less interested in her words than in Kingston’s — the faceless, reporting half of the conversation. Kingston appears in a lot of fiction but seldom gets fleshed out even to the extent that George Cavendish does. He’s essentially a glorified spear carrier whose job is to feed Anne her cues and then clump off the stage. Occasionally he’s given a few extra lines or actions which aren’t in his letters — gestures which have become less sympathetic over the last few centuries. “Your Grace, no doubt, will long survive this trial,” he reassures her in Anne Boleyn: A Dramatic Poem (1826) — an assurance the real Kingston would doubtless have regarded as extremely risky. “Be not downcast; while there’s life, there’s hope,” he tells Anne in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1861) — eleven years earlier, in Anne Boleyn: A Tragedy (1850) he reassures her that “Time may relent, and make all well erelong / Your slight constraint shall not seem bondage to you.” Shortly afterwards, when he tells her that he’s forbidden to carry any messages for her, she demands “Are you a tool?” “Ay, but a feeling one,” Kingston tells her, and his sympathy for her is plain.

His sympathy for her has diminished somewhat but not disappeared by the time of The Favor of Kings (1912) when Kingston momentarily hesitates in telling her about her brother’s arrest. “An aversion to further scenes — perhaps a wasteful emotion of pity for the queen — made him shirk the task of enlightening her further.” Twenty years later, in Anne Boleyn (1932) Kingston has dwindled to a remorseless functionary, who “had orders to trap her and report her every word, no matter what madness uttered …. Every word must be written to Cromwell. They had so little evidence that even looks were precious.” In Anne Boleyn (1957) Kingston is “bearded and sharp-eyed, pitiless as stone.” In The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn (1997) Kingston’s refusal to carry letters for her is attributed to his hitherto unknown political conservatism: “The Constable’s loyalties lie with Princess Mary, and before, with Katherine, so he will grant me no favors that might restore my power.” The Queen of Subtleties (2004) offers a bit more depth; Kingston is simply embarrassed in Anne’s presence and has no idea of the right way to speak to her. And considering who she was, why not? Anne, in a lively moment, decides it can’t hurt things to offer him some refreshment from her meal.

“This is particularly good,” I said of some pie.

“Oh.” Interested, he accepted a slice. He didn’t stop eyeing me, though; seemed wary of me. Probably he thought I should be crying. Well, sometimes I had been; but I couldn’t cry all the time. Or so I thought.

As soon as he asked, “You’re bearing up, then?” and I nodded, about to say that I was well-fed, warm, in good company, my throat closed and tears began again.

He looked mortified, of course.

Similarly awkward but somewhat helpful is the Kingston of At The Mercy Of The Queen (2012) who offers Anne a few sleeping draughts to help her get through the night. But through all of these different incarnations he remains curiously flat and devoid of interest. Even in The Concubine (1963) in which most of the supernumerary males develop at least a mild crush on Anne, Kingston remains aloof. The sole exception to this is The Queen’s Confession (1947) which is, so far, the only book I’ve read which not only gives Kingston a mild crush on Anne but also gives a basic rundown of what exactly the Constable of the Tower does:

In the brief time while she had been under his charge he had grown to pity her because she was so brave, and he had loathed having to act the spy. Only his wife’s urging and the knowledge that others had heard had led him to repeat the woman’s half-mad talk of Weston saying he loved her and how she had denied him….

But what could he do? He was the king’s servant and must obey; yet there were times, as now, when he wished he were not constable of the Tower, for all the wealth it brought him. And that wealth was much. From every boat going to the city with a cargo of rushes he must be given as much as could be held in two arms; from each carrying oysters, cockles or mussels he must be given a wicker basketful; from each Bordeaux ship, or any other with a cargo of wine, one flagon from before and one from behind the mast was his … Prisoners, too, paid gold for the privilege of being locked up, and this queen should bring a goodly sum, more than a duke’s twenty pounds; but even thought of money could not lighten the darkness of Master Kingston’s heart as he waited for the queen’s return.

When a messenger arrives with word of “the harlot’s” condemnation, Kingston blazes out that she is “no harlot!” before recalling that the messenger might also have reports to write, and pretends it was a misunderstanding.

The real Kingston, as one reads his letters — or the fragments of them which survived the Cottonian fire — does not come across as a man who would justify this romantic portrait; rather he sounds both meticulous and harassed. Anne, in her terror, was exhausting company — “for won owre she ys determyned to dy, and the next owre meche contrary to that,” Kingston himself writes of his volatile captive. Except for the crack on May 18th about Anne possibly confessing herself a good woman for any but the king, he says nothing about his opinion of her actual guilt or innocence. When Anne declares that it will never rain until she’s released from the Tower, Kingston writes afterwards, “I pray you it be shortly by cawse of the fayre wether. You know what I mayne.” Whether he actually said this to her or whether this was a joke to Cromwell it’s hard to tell. For all of his letter-writing, Kingston’s personality is hard to pin down — in real life as much as in fiction.

This is his major contrast with Cavendish. Even in the small role he usually plays, fiction usually manages to endow Cavendish with a personality. Whether loyal to a fault, melancholic, a bit simple-minded, all three, or something else, it’s always derived from Cavendish’s representation of himself in his Life of Wolsey, where his political opinions are made clear and his personality can be felt by the reader, albeit filtered through hindsight and the natural tendency of a writer to remember the best of his own actions. Kingston’s advantage as a source over Cavendish is that was writing at the time events were happening and so there was no space for memories to become distorted or forgotten. His great disadvantage, as it’s easy to forget, is that he was writing to Cromwell and in no way free to give his own unfiltered opinion about anything if it deviated from official requirements. In this way he was much less free than Cavendish, writing safely in Mary’s reign about someone whom nobody on either side cared about any longer and whose supporting players were mostly deceased.

In The Creation of Anne Boleyn, it is argued that Kingston was “an absurdly literal man” who thought that Anne meant only the pain of the sword when she talked of being “past my pain”, and who, when he told Anne that the poorest subject of the king had justice, was showing himself much less astute than than Anne, who was “too smart to fall for the official PR.” That’s certainly possible. A man who had benefited so much from the system in power would have a powerful motivation not to look behind the curtain, so to speak, and to let his reality be determined by the opinions of those to whose good offices he owed his living. And yet, I do wonder about him. His remark about praying for her release since they needed rain has a certain dry humour about it. Furthermore, the famous line about how “the poor subject the king hath, had justice” is not necessarily a statement of blind belief in Tudor justice so much as a masterpiece of evasiveness. It didn’t answer her question in the slightest (she was hardly the poorest subject of the king, after all) and yet it was faultlessly loyal. One gets the feeling, on reading it, that it was his stock answer to a question which he had doubtless heard in some form many times before.

But ultimately this is to speculate. The result of Kingston’s restraint is that while the information he provides is golden, it comes at the cost of his own personality. Officially without any opinion except for the one required, he’s been repaid in fiction by becoming nothing more than a bland mouthpiece for his superiors. Occasionally he gets a sentence or two of description, trying to give him some individuality, but even the extended try in The Queen’s Confession doesn’t quite convince. But whatever his private opinions or intentions, his exhaustive description of Anne’s last days has left behind a vivid impression of what she was like, and for that he cannot be commended enough.

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From → Brief Lives

2 Comments
  1. Clare permalink

    I think you actually get a little bit more of the flavour of Kingston as a human being from what he writes about George Boleyn. He genuinely seemed to care about George’s distress and made 3 attempts to intervene on his behalf over his debts, once to the King and twice to Cromwell. I’ve always found that quite poignant.

    • sonetka permalink

      You’re right! I was thinking mostly of him in relation to Anne, but he did advocate pretty strongly for My Lord of Rochford’s conscience. I wonder if extreme punctiliousness was his way of expressing his sympathy for George in particular or if he treated all of his prisoners (the grander ones, anyway) similarly. Telling Anne that the pain was subtle may not have been terribly comforting, but it was an attempt to be.

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