The Prophecy That Doomed A King

Richard White is a graduate of Ohio University, Carleton University, Wheaton College and Wycliffe College, Toronto. He has degrees in history, journalism, communication and divinity.

He was incensed, in fact all in Friar William Peto’s religious order were incensed. The patroness of the Grey Friars of Greenwich,  Henry VIII’s wife,  Queen Catherine of Aragon was being abused. Maybe not physically, but certainly in every other way possible.  The Queen, a faithful and godly woman,  was a victim. She was held hostage to Henry’s numerous affairs, denied access to her friends, moved forcibly from residence to residence preventing the public from visiting her, and kept from her daughter Mary for months. Friar Peto knew all this. He was the Queen’s confessor, and her daughter’s confessor.  Peto was irate and he was going to say something about it. His opportunity came when he was chosen to preach at the Easter Service in Greenwich. Henry and his mistress Anne would be there. It was Sunday March 31st, 1532.

Henry VIII had come to Greenwich to relax, to escape the filth and stench of London. Worse, the Pope had resolutely refused to grant him a divorce against a martially faithful Queen. Day after day, envoy after envoy, advisor after advisor his will was thwarted. Greenwich seemed to be the place to escape all this, until Friar Peto stepped into the pulpit.

Peto surveyed his congregation and began. Although it was Easter morning, he preached from 1 Kings 22, the story of the corrupt Israelite king, King Ahab and his wife wicked Canaanite wife, Jezebel.  He drew clear parallels between Ahab and Jezebel on the one hand, and Henry and his mistress, the pregnant Anne Boleyn on the other.  Each king had been unfaithful – Ahab to his God, Yahweh, Henry to his God and the Church.  Each had been led astray by a wicked woman – Jezebel who enticed Ahab to worship the Canaanite gods, Anne who beguiled Henry with the writings of Europe’s heretical Protestants.  Each king had gathered false advisors around him, and each king would be judged by God.

Henry was fuming. After the service Henry he berated Peto, his voice growing louder, the threats growing increasingly dire.  But Peto was fueled by disgust and he gave back as good as he got. He decried Henry’s adulteries. He denounced Henry’s mistress, the woman the public booed, calling her a “whore” and a “Jezebel.”  Then Peto struck Henry with two prophetic judgments, as though coming straight from God.

He leaned into the king’s face, his words sizzling between his teeth.  If Henry didn’t repent God would take his dynasty from him.  If he didn’t make things right with the Queen, Henry would suffer the same fate as Ahab, saying “The dogs will lick your blood as they did his,” a clear reference to 1 Kings 22:37-38 where stray dogs had gorged on his blood after Ahab was slain in battle.   Witnesses gasped. No one ever spoke like that to Henry, at least not publicly.  Henry’s face flushed. The bully had met his match. He stormed off.   

Henry didn’t repent. He ordered his personal chaplain to preach a sermon the following Sunday, a rebuttal of what Friar Peto had said. He did, heaping lavish praise on Henry, but the  congregation didn’t buy it.  Some of the Grey Friars shouted him down.  Their warden,  Friar Elstow climbed onto the church’s rood-loft where he called the preacher a liar, a puppet who cared more for his king than he did his God.

Henry didn’t relent. Friars Peto and Elstow were imprisoned for several months in Lambeth Palace, and then exiled to the Continent.  He feigned reconciliation with the Queen then promptly divorced her in 1533, married Anne, broke with Rome, and began to entertain some of Europe’s leading Protestants in the court.  England’s Protestant Reformation was launched. But what about the two prophecies? 

Unlike Ahab, Henry died in his bed January 28, 1547.  He was 55, hugely obese, in excruciating pain from ulcerated his legs,  probably suffering from diabetes, emotionally unstable and delusional due to repeated concussions from his many jousting matches, and devoid of friends.  Peto had prophesied an end to Henry’s dynasty, and sure enough, like King Ahab’s, Henry’s line would struggle to survive. Anne Boleyn, miscarried two male children.  His third wife Jane Seymour, died a couple of days after giving birth to his only legal male heir, Edward VI.  Edward never married and died childless.  Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary, died childless. Henry’s Protestant daughter, Elizabeth never married and died childless.  Ahab’s kingdom fell to his enemies. Portentously, the Tudor line died out and was followed the House of Stuart from Scotland, a nation Henry had been at war with almost his entire reign.

What about the more grisly prophecy ?  Henry died the last few days of January. Almost two weeks later, on February 14,  1547 the funeral procession left the Palace in Whitehall to the Chapel in Windsor Castle 25 miles away for burial.  His golden-draped casket was crowned with a stunningly life-like effigy that lay on a massive cart with a canopy many storeys high.  The procession had 250 hooded and robed torch bearers and a 1000 horsemen. Banners lined the route with images of the saints, priests sprinkling the hearse with holy water as it moved, and bishops performed masses for his soul.  The road was repaved.  Then the unthinkable happened.

Eight miles from London, Henry VIII’s funeral procession stopped for the night at Syon. Syon had a bloody and sinister history, once the site of a splendid monastery, it was one of the religious communities Henry had brutally suppressed.  He had executed a priest there.  

That night a bishop said a mass for Henry’s soul, and then as if Fate’s dark shroud descended on it,  Henry’s lead casket began to leak. A putrified bloody fluid was leaking out.  A rotting stench drove people back.  Plumbers were called in to solder the seams,  and then, as happened to the biblical Ahab, a dog crept underneath the cart to lick up the blood. 

Henry was laid beside his third wife, Jane Seymour in St George’s Chapel. Queen Catherine’s status had been demoted by Henry to Empress Dowager of Wales, a title she staunchly rejected.  She died in isolation in 1536.  An autopsy showed signs of having been poisoned. She was 50.  She was buried in Peterborough Cathedral, and over her tomb hung a banner that said  “Humble and Loyal.”

Friar Peto stayed in touch with the disgraced Queen, and returned to England when her daughter, Mary Tudor, ascended to the throne in 1553.  He became a bishop and a cardinal and spent his final days in a convent in Greenwich, where he died in 1558.  He was forever known as the friar who prophesied against a king.

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