History can paint stuff out. Can’t it?
Yesterday I had walked straight past an ancient picture of a man who looked like an alchemist, dressed in black, sitting in blackness, when one of the restorers called me back.
“Course,” he said to me confidentially, “you know who that is, don’t you?”
And I combed through everything I knew about the house I stood in. When that picture was painted, The Vyne – a beautiful house next to a lake in Hampshire – would have belonged to a man called William Sandys, a favourite of Bluff King Hal. He was a Knight of the Garter. He had served Henry’s father, and he hosted Henry and Ann Boleyn at the house once. A year after that he was escorting Ann to the Tower of London.
So: a key player.
“William Sandys?” I hazarded.
The restorer smiled conspiratorially. Here was an impossibly useful nugget of historical gossip to impart. He stopped brushing the gorgeous ceramic lamp on which he had been bent, and settled himself for a story.
“That,” he said, “is a man called Philip Chute.”
Now: those Chutes. They weave their way through the history books. Chaloner was a speaker in the House of Commons under Cromwell the Younger; John was a very close friend of Horace Walpole and sat on his ‘Committee of Taste’.
But Philip? Ah, he was a hidden Chute, a Chute whose story has not been told because Henry VIII could not be seen as, well, a bit of a Charlie. But Henry rewards those who get him out a bit of a hole; and so once he had done the deed history has not recorded, Philip Chute was a wealthy and important man for life, and his descendants after him.
Philip Chute was an important figure under the reigns of Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. He survived the broiling sectarian maelstrom that was England after Henry died, becoming Mary’s Comptroller of Customs and remaining as Governor of Camber Castle under Elizabeth. With one valiant deed, he had rendered himself impervious to harm.
But no-one could work out what that deed was.
It is still a bit murky today,to tell you the truth. To find out anything at all, you have to forsake the English history books, because historians value their heads. It is the French History Books which tell the story of the Siege of Boulogne.
Look over your shoulder from the Siege of Boulogne in 1544, and you may glimpse cloth of gold in 1520. Against all the rules, Henry had got a little carried away posturing with King Francis of France. He challenged him to a wrestling match: and Francis thrashed him.
Boulogne was a chance for payback. By the time Henry arrived the English occupied all the lands on the Boulogne coast, including the lower town and the old Roman lighthouse. But the upper town as a fortress with a drawbridge. And that would take a bit more battering.
So the Boulogners had this trick. They’d wait till it was quiet, then slam down the drawbridge as quickly as they could and charge out fully armed and attack the English, usually with satisfying results. And then they’d run back inside again and shut the door.
This happened a lot. And you would think the English would get used to it, but they didn’t. And when Hal arrived, everyone was flapping about welcoming him and suchlike that they were sitting ducks when the drawbridge slammed down and lots of French soldiers ran out.
Philip was a standard bearer: not a high rank at all. But he was close to Henry and all we can deduce from the French accounts is that Henry’s life was threatened, and the standard bearer saved it.
He was awarded many honours, although no knighthood (mustn’t risk the tale of Henry’s second thrashing at the hands of the French becoming public). And on his heraldic shield they included a device called the Broken Sword.
It’s everywhere at the Vyne: on walls, and weather vanes, and paintings. A reminder of something we don’t like to talk about.
The day the French thrashed Bluff King Hal. A second time.