The french executioner, p.1
The French Executioner, p.1C. C. Humphreys
Praise for The French Executioner:
‘Falling somewhere between the novels of Bernard Cornwell and Wilbur Smith, C. C. Humphreys has fashioned a rollicking good yarn that keeps the pages turning from start to finish’
John Daly, Irish Examiner
‘A brilliant, brutal and absorbing historical thriller on the real-life figure of Jean Rombaud, the man who beheaded Anne Boleyn … The experience of Humphreys as a playwright, fight choreographer and actor are all evident here. It is cut and thrust all the way, with dazzling duels, bruising battles and moments of terror following each other at a breathless pace’
Steve Craggs, Northern Echo
‘… how he fulfills his mission is told with enormous zest in this splendid, rip-roaring story … a fine addition to the tradition of swashbuckling costume romance of which Robert Louis Stevenson is the incomparable master’
George Patrick, Hamilton Examiner
‘…an entertaining read – a charming page-turner’
David Evans, Edmonton Journal
Barry Forshaw, Publishing News
‘There were lots of things to learn in it, historical things which were very well observed. It’s good fun’
Anna Raeburn’s Pick of the Paperbacks, Open Book, Radio 4
‘Humphreys has spun a thrilling yarn that gallops across France, Germany and Italy’
Sally Zigmond, Historical Novels Society Reviews
The idea for this story first came to me as I worked out in a gym in Vancouver, Canada, in 1993. I was doing a shoulder press, facing a mirror and studying my form. This internal dialogue followed:
(Lift weight) ‘God, I’ve got a long neck.’
(Lower) ‘If ever I was to be beheaded, my neck would be a really easy target for an axe.’
(Lift) ‘Or a sword. Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword.’
(Lower) ‘Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand.’
The seed was sown, and it soon sprouted. I wrote a short story, a little horror piece that required no research. I worked on it for about a week, then abandoned it. I had already written one play which had won a local competition and I was about to be commissioned to write another. A third was to follow. I was, just barely, a playwright. No way was I a novelist. That was too big a mountain to climb.
Other images came to me over the next few years, other fantasies (I remember yelling ‘Fugger!’ at my surprised wife on an island once). We moved to London, England, where I’d grown up. My career as an actor waxed and waned. I toyed with a fourth play. Then, in a cottage in Shropshire in the autumn of 1998, I realised why this most recent play wasn’t working. It wasn’t the story I needed to tell. I needed to tell the story of Anne Boleyn’s executioner.
I researched for about a month. I’d bought books over the years that I thought would be useful if I ever came to write the novel, but had never read them. I read them now. Reformation Europe by G. R. Elton I’d studied before at A level and it gave me the background, along with War and Society in Renaissance Europe 1450–1620 by J. R. Hale. A World Lit Only by Fire by William Manchester was wonderful on mindset and sixteenth-century smells. Religion and the Decline of Magic by Keith Thomas reminded me how very different people’s beliefs were the best part of half a millennium ago, in a world where magic was ever present. The Galleys at Lepanto by Jack Beeching taught me battle tactics and slave conditions.
When the month was up I decided that, though I needed to learn a lot more, what I needed most was my characters to start telling me their stories. After twenty-three years as an actor I was grounded in Motivation: Why does he want to do this? What stops him achieving it? How does he feel then? What does she want now, and who is stopping her getting it? It’s the same writing plays – objectives running into obstacles create action.
The great thing about a minor figure in history is that no one knows much about him. I discovered that Anne Boleyn’s executioner was named Jean Rombaud, that he lived in St Omer near Calais, that he killed with a sword – far quicker and cleaner than the axe, and so the kindest stroke in a brutal world – and that Henry VIII paid a great deal of money to bring him over as a final favour to his soon-to-be ex-wife. That was all there was to know about him.
Anne, of course, was different. Many books have been written about her, who she was, what she did. She was important. Without her, Elizabeth would never have been born and England might still be a Catholic country. Nearly everyone I asked had heard of Anne Boleyn. And nearly half of them knew she had a six-fingered hand.
So I began with a rough cast of characters, ideas of their journeys through the novel, a few images. I love film, the power of a striking visual. As a young reader I always loved epics, the more adventurous the better. I decided that since this was my novel I would put into it everything I loved. I have always been a storyteller, so many of my characters are too. I was my school’s sabre champion at sixteen; I became an actor so that I could leap around with swords. In Canada, I became a fight choreographer in theatre. So I wanted lots of swashbuckling and derring-do. Battleaxes and slingshots and scimitars. I like visionaries, kaleidoscopes and altered states of consciousness. Fortunately, I found my research dovetailing almost perfectly with these imaginative desires. I was writing an adventure, not an historical document, but it all seemed possible. And who really knows what happened back then anyway?
Here are a few examples of my images and ideas coinciding with character and history (and one example where it didn’t quite and I kept it in anyway).
The Fuggers They truly were the greatest banking family in Europe. They bought the Emperor-ship for Charles V. And bankers did have their hands chopped off by vengeful, bankrupt knights.
Haakon I am half Norwegian and I love the sagas, so I had to have a Viking figure. I have also studied the runes, the Norse system of divination. I have one of Haakon’s runes – UR – tattooed, uh, somewhere on my person. And I wore a silver axe around my neck for about fifteen years.
Beck I love Shakespeare, women dressed as men. I also played a Jewish zealot in the Biblical-Roman TV epic A.D. – Anno Domini. I am probably the only member of British Actors Equity who knows how to use a slingshot. And since you still see them used today, in news footage of riots from Jerusalem, why not in 1536? (I still have my slingshot.)
Giancarlo Cibo Entirely made up, and I’m probably libelling the Archbishop of the time as well as Pope Alexander whose bastard son Cibo could not have been. But I needed a debauched, Borgia-like prelate and I always wanted to go to Siena. So, for my second draft I did and rewrote accordingly.
Dancing a galliard The captain of a galley did dance a galliard going into battle, except it happened at Lepanto in 1571.
St Anthony’s Fire I have long been fascinated by this phenomenon. The last recorded instance of this mass hallucination was in the eighteenth century – or so I thought. Then I found a book called The Day of St Anthony’s Fire by John G. Fuller which described in detail the hallucinogenic horrors that swept over a town called Pont-Sainte-Esprit in France in 1951. The poisoning is caused by ergot, a fungus that grows on rye and from which LSD is derived. Eating ergot-infected bread was like taking ten or more doses of LSD.
Kaleidoscopes The idea of a Black Mass within one within a dungeon was a wonderful image. But my editor wishes me to point out that kaleidoscopes weren’t invented until 1816. Then again, modern research is showing that Caravaggio must have used camera lenses to paint his hyper-realist paintings in 1600, so there!
Finally, a definite example of wrong history. The siege of the Anabaptists in Munster took place in 1535,
There are many more incidents in the novel that come from my fascinations or, in some cases, my experiences. I would be happy to answer any questions on them. For now, though, I’d like to end by thanking some people without whom I would not have written this novel. All women, strangely. Or perhaps not.
Firstly, there is my wife, Aletha, who encouraged me when I began, pushed me when I faltered and forgave the odd peculiarity of behaviour in the name of research. The time when she came home to discover me leaping around the hall with an umbrella trying to behead imaginary chickens comes to mind.
Next, my wonderful agent, Anthea Morton-Saner at Curtis Brown, who took me on because of this novel and has proved again and again the truth of the old dictum: Get an agent!
I’d also like to thank Jane Wood, publishing director at Orion, who turned my fantasy into reality and made me believe that I might have more than one book in me by giving me an advance for two.
Penultimately, there’s Rachel Leyshon, my editor, who not only will drink beer with me but whose penetrating notes and brilliant eye guided me on my final edit to help me achieve my true vision, and whose enthusiasm for the story continually reassured this self-critical newcomer.
Finally, there’s one person without whom nothing would be possible. Anne Boleyn. She must have been quite extraordinary. I hope I’ve done her justice. And whoever it is who places a bunch of white roses on her tombstone in the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London every 19 May, the anniversary of her death, I would like to thank them too.
C. C. Humphreys
London, February 2001
Praise for The French Executioner:
Part One: The Vow
One: The Gibbet
Two: The Fugger
Three: The Execution
Five: To The Victor, The Spoils
Six: Orgies And Axes
Seven: Winged Slaughter
Eight: Heretic’s Revenge
Ten: Unsafe Harbour
Part Two: Holy War
One: At Sea
Three: The Sea Fight
Five: The Black Mass
Seven: The Palio
Eight: At The Sign Of The Comet
Part Three: The Reckoning
Four: The Judas Kiss
Five: Old Enemies
Six: The Taking Of Munster
Seven: The Scattering Of The Quest
Nine: The Healer
Ten: Last Stand
Eleven: The Reckoning
It was unseasonably cold for a late May night, but the gibbet’s former occupant was too dead to care and his replacement too unconscious. It was the three men-at-arms who grumbled about it, and though the removal of the skeleton from the torso-shaped cage required some strenuous snapping and pulling, they were not grateful for the warmth of the exercise. With their prisoner finally wedged in and the cage’s key replaced on its hook, they returned to their horses. Pressing themselves against the warm flanks, the soldiers brushed the gibbet’s leavings from their cloaks, and grumbled still.
‘Such a beautiful night.’ The voice came silky and warm from beneath folds of cloak and fur, the breath a steady stream into the frosty air. ‘Look, a comet! In Siena we’d say: there’s another virginity gone.’
There was a laugh, as silken as the voice, followed by a cough. A piece of red cloth dabbed at the lips.
Heinrich von Solingen turned towards the man who had just spoken, the man whose every command he obeyed. Heinrich was confused. He liked things ordered and simple. They had got what His Holiness wanted. Wrapped in velvet, it rested now in His Holiness’s saddle bags. Confusion made him angry and bold enough to question.
‘I don’t see why we are here, my Lord. Why didn’t we just kill the Frenchman back at the inn?’
‘I think you tried, didn’t you?’
‘I mean after, when he was unconscious.’
The smaller figure shifted in his saddle. Moonlight fell on a sharp forehead, a long straight nose, fleshy lips. There was a touch of something sad in the silkiness now.
‘Really, after what he did, we should have tried him as a heretic then given him to God’s redeeming fire. Alas, the time is not right for his story to be told abroad. So we give him here, into God’s hands.’
‘But my Lord Archbishop—’
The blow surprised Heinrich because the Italian was neither young nor, he thought, especially strong. Pain contradicted that impression.
‘I’ve warned you about using my title in a public place.’
‘I am sorry, my Lord, but there is only the prisoner and my men—’
The hand emerged again from within the cloak and moonlight glinted on heavy rings, which explained the blood now running down Heinrich’s chin.
‘Enough! You are a fool and I another to let you question me. There may be a gibbet keeper nearby who would recognise the rank. And your men did not know it till now. I must think. Get them to find the keeper.’
A curt command and the three soldiers began to search where they could, yet there was little there: a bare crossroads a league beyond a village with neither tree nor bush nearby. Little for the full moon to shine upon but the dangling, vaguely human iron form, the cross-beamed support and the midden of gibbet filth on which, in six parts now, sprawled the cage’s last tenant.
The men reported their failure.
‘Very well.’ The Italian coughed, a gout of blood caught in the swiftly raised cloth. There was little he could do now; and even if the keeper did lurk and had somehow heard Heinrich’s indiscretion … Well, how could a creature of such an occupation threaten a Prince of the Holy Church?
Giancarlo Cibo, Archbishop of Siena, decided he could take the risk. He didn’t take many – it was how he survived the hurly-burly of life back in Italy after all. He wouldn’t take another with Heinrich’s men. Heinrich would have to deal with them himself, later, a fitting punishment for his indiscretion. Perhaps incorporating some unusual methods. The Archbishop would like to see that. It would truly upset the surly German. The Archbishop would like to see that too.
‘Put double the usual coins in the offertory. Let’s pay the keeper well,’ he said, all silk and smoothness again.
Ducats were dropped into a small box at the base of the gibbet, and Heinrich went back to join his men. There he listened to his blood drip onto the pommel of his saddle, kept his silence, and watched from a distance as the Archbishop pushed his horse right up to the gibbet.
The Italian leant forward until it looked as if he was almost kissing the cage’s iron-slatted face. Until he could feel the breath of the man inside on his own lips. The man’s breathing was erratic; Heinrich’s men had beaten him badly when they finally felled him. Not surprising, as the Frenchman had killed two of their number and incapacitated two more, his strange, square-headed sword dancing graceful and deadly among the suddenly leaden-footed Germans. Heinrich had said it was an executioner’s sword, much favoured in France as a more humane way of despatching traitors, if their rank and purses deserv
‘Why did you do it, Jean?’ Cibo whispered into the cage. ‘A belief that it could heal, like the bones of St Agnes? Is that what you thought she was, Jean, a saint and martyr for the new religion? Or was it gold? The most powerful relic in the world would have fetched more than you could have earned in a lifetime of headtaking.’
The unconscious man had no answer for him, beyond his shallow breaths. The Archbishop studied the face before him. Features somewhat finer than was common among the French, a smaller nose, thick black hair now slick with the blood and sweat of the fight. It was ordinary. He was always surprised when ordinary men did extraordinary things.
‘I do wonder about you, Jean. Sadly, I will never know. But it’s mine now, a greater weapon than any executioner’s sword for myself and for Mother Church. We’ll have to see how best we two can use it.’
And with that, Cibo turned his horse and broke straight into a gallop. He was proud of his horsemanship and his steeds were trained to respond to his instant whim. The Germans were surprised and, with Heinrich bellowing orders, followed as swiftly as they were able.
Such was the speed of their departure, such their pleasure in forsaking that dismal place, that no one even glanced back at the gibbet cage and its new occupant. If they had, they would have seen that the first effects of their beating had worn off.
Jean Rombaud, master executioner and recent slayer of Anne Boleyn, had woken up.
The first thing to be done, he knew, before opening his eyes, was to tally the injuries. He had learnt on a battlefield to take stock blind, because moving without knowing who’s around you could mean ending up worse off.
Begin with the chest, breathe a little deeper. Christ preserve me, there’s pain, maybe a rib broken, others bruised. The taste of iron. Probe with the tongue. No, shit! Two more gone. Worse than the ribs, that. Ribs heal, but teeth left on battlefields across Europe made it harder each day to chew meat. One leg curled up under – the pain of constriction, or a break? Among the many blows, a memory of being kicked on the shin. Kicked hard.
The French Executioner by C. C. Humphreys / Mystery & Detective / Actions & Adventure have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes