Solomon Kane and Tudor Paranoia – Part One

Robert E. Howard made it plain, in his stories of the somber Puritan adventurer and brilliant swordsman, that Kane had a streak of paranoia. He described Kane’s motivation to wander, seek adventure, and impose his own brand of justice as “a strange paranoid urge”. In the fragment “Hawk of Basti”, he ascribes that compulsion to both Kane and Jeremy Hawk. “Both of these men were born rovers and killers, curst with a paranoid driving urge that burned them like a quenchless fire and never gave them rest.”

It’s certainly true that Kane sees – and finds – wicked enemies everywhere. Unlike some fanatics, though, he does not look for witches and heretics who exist mainly in his fevered imagination. Kane’s enemies of God and man are real enough – merciless bandits and pirates, cruel barons, hideous predatory winged harpies, dead men walking to prey on the living.

In that respect, oddly enough, he’s more down-to-earth and mentally healthy than the average man of his time. A valuable book by Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason In Tudor England – Politics and Paranoia, explores this aspect of the sixteenth century. Tudor mentalities had a cast very like that exemplified in our day by the conspiracy theorist. It was, to quote Smith, “the conviction that things are never as they appear to be – a greater and generally more sinister reality exists behind the scenes – prompting, manipulating, but always avoiding exposure to the footlights … the presence of evil.”

Shakespeare, raised in Tudor England, showed this attitude in a number of his plays. Before Henry V wars against France, he has to deal with three traitors at home (not just one) – Cambridge, Scroop of Masham, and Grey, who “Confirm’d conspiracy with fearful France; and by their hands this grace of kings must die, if hell and treason hold their promises … ”

The ultimate Tudor villain is probably Iago, trusted ensign of the honest (but thick) Othello. Playing the part of a loyal, true-blue fellow, he deceives not only Othello but everybody else, until the very end, when his appalled wife exposes him, and is murdered for her trouble. He doesn’t need a motive to betray and destroy; the one he mentions in his soliloquy isn’t particularly strong or convincing. (He’s heard a rumor that Othello has cuckolded him, but he doesn’t take it particularly seriously or seem to really believe it.) Iago is malicious and deceitful by nature; he takes delight in tormenting his fellow man.

Real life in the Tudor milieu abounded in back-stabbing smilers with knives. It was especially characteristic of the climbers and rivals at court, desperate for patronage, willing to flatter, lie, dissemble and slander to gain it. Beware of false friends, fathers told their sons. Love no man; trust no man. Always look for their hidden purposes. They are bound to have some. Common aphorisms ran: “He that never trusteth is never deceived”, “It is better to suspect too soon than mislike too late”, and “Although all men promise to help you … they will be the first to strike you and to give you the overthrow.” Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, who should have known, wrote that “the number of evil-disposed in mind is greater than the number of sick in body.”

Almost more remarkable than the number of schemers and traitors was the self-destructive incompetence they showed. Reading the details of their plots, and the way they messed them up, you’d almost think they intended to get caught. One possible explanation, though it sounds facetious, is that they’d been driven crazy with impatience and frustration. For ambitious men who wanted to rise, in the Tudor milieu, there was only one way; to attach themselves to a powerful patron. Trying to attract such men’s notice meant hanging around, bowing and scraping, running messages, taking unlimited amounts of crap, having their hopes endlessly deferred and their expectations never met. Bitter and disappointed fellows were ripe for reckless treason. If they hadn’t been unscrupulous to begin, they were pretty sure to become so.

Gregory Botolf was a perfect example. Glib of tongue, more imaginative and quick-thinking than stable, he became chaplain to the English Deputy of Calais, Lord Lisle, in the reign of Henry VIII. Calais was England’s last possession in France, seething with intrigue, Catholic conservatives, Protestant reformers, and double agents. It was like a sixteenth-century Cold War Berlin. Gregory Botolf decided to sell out to Rome. For an advance payment of 200 crowns and a promise of more, he hatched a scheme for betraying Calais to the Catholic forces of the continent. When Calais was crowded with strangers at the time of the herring market, Botolf’s co-conspirators would open the gates and Botolf himself would assail the walls with five hundred men.

Nobody but a hyper-imaginative loon would have believed for a second he could overcome the Calais garrison and then hold the port with half a thousand men.

It was never tested, anyway. Philpot, one of the men in the plot, fell prey to patriotic conscience, and Botolf talked too freely while travelling to fix the final stages of the attempt. He also sent Philpot a letter, and gave it to a couple of English strangers who were going back to England by way of Calais, to deliver for him. A more stupid act for a man in his position would be hard to imagine. The English ambassador at Ghent opened the letter, and Philpot confessed out of guilt and fear, though which of those two disastrous turns of chance happened first isn’t clear. Everybody was arrested and interrogated, everybody talked, after which Botolf, Philpot and four others were hanged, drawn and quartered.


Those conspirators were fairly low-ranking fellows in Tudor society. We might expect that Sir Thomas Seymour, brother of Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of the Realm, would have been more rational. We might … but we’d be mistaken.

When Henry VIII died at the beginning of 1547, and his nine-year-old son succeeded him, Thomas Seymour rose into political prominence as King Edward’s uncle. Seymour’s brother, named Edward like the boy king, had the titles Duke of Somerset, Earl of Hertford, Viscount Beauchamp, and Lord Seymour, along with now being Lord Protector of England. Oh, yes. He was Lieutenant General of the Armed Forces and a Knight of the Garter for garnish.

His younger brother Thomas was jealous. He’d become a Knight of the Garter himself, due to family influence, he was a baron, and he was Lord Admiral of England, but that didn’t hold a candle to brother Eddie’s offices and titles. Thomas caused a scandal and quite a bit of outrage by marring Catherine Parr, the late Bluebeard king’s last wife. Catherine and the Duchess of Somerset couldn’t stand one another, but the real problem was Thomas Seymour’s raging touchiness. He saw everything his brother and his brother’s wife did, said, or organized, as a calculated affront to himself.

Catherine died in 1548, and Thomas chiefly showed his grief by moving heaven and earth to get hold of her inheritance, especially her jewels. His brother the Protector kept tight hold of them on the grounds that they were the property of the Crown. Thomas reacted by trying to hamstring his brother in Parliament; by working to turn the boy-king’s mind against the Protector; and by trying to increase his own power by scheming to marry one of the king’s sisters – either Mary or Elizabeth, he didn’t mind.

He also considered the idea of actually kidnapping the young king. Thomas Seymour was losing his grip on reality in a red fog of suspicion and persecution mania, there’s little doubt of that. Being desperate for money and armed followers to put his grandiose schemes into effect, he borrowed all he could, then resorted to piracy and blackmail. (He wasn’t the only Tudor official of high rank to collude with pirates by any means.) He obtained money from Sir William Sharington, Vice-Treasurer of the Royal Mint. Sharington had been embezzling on a big scale, and Seymour found it advantageous to help him conceal his thefts, though considering Sharington’s open extravagance, God knows how either of them could have hoped to go on hiding the truth.

It was exposed. Thomas Seymour’s wildly unrealistic plot to kidnap the king, with the help of thousands of armed retainers he didn’t have — and couldn’t have paid for — came out shortly thereafter. He went to the scaffold in March 1549.

This blogger thinks that in our time he’d be awarded a white jacket with very long sleeves instead.

The above half-baked jealous conspirators lived and died shortly before Solomon Kane was born. That is, they did if my estimate of his birth date as 1554 – about a year into Bloody Mary’s reign – is a good one. It was also the year of the popular rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. The revolt had been provoked by Mary’s intention to marry King Philip of Spain, a prospect that made even English Catholics fearful. They didn’t want the Inquisition in England. Wyatt and his conspirators might have succeeded, if it hadn’t been for Wyatt’s overconfidence and arrogance – both of which are paranoid traits.

For Mary Tudor I have considerable sympathy, as anybody must who knows enough about her. The daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, she was a studious, bright and sensitive girl who had been used as a political pawn since childhood, promised in marriage to this, that and the other potentate as policy seemed to dictate. As a woman, being a devout Catholic, she was haunted by what, to her, was the horror of her father’s divorce from her mother and breach with the Papacy, which led to England turning Protestant. She believed with all her heart and soul it was her duty to atone for his crimes by bringing England back to the Catholic fold, which led to her marrying Philip, and to the trials and burnings of over three hundred Protestants.

She appears to have genuinely loved Philip, too – why, in my opinion, there’s no telling. He certainly didn’t return the feeling. He wanted England, not her, and he spent much of his time in Spain even after their marriage, despite her frequent impassioned and pleading letters for him to come back. She wanted to give him a child so much she had a number of phantom pregnancies. Each new discovery that it was a false alarm broke her heart again. With true sixteenth-century reasoning she supposed that God was reminding her England still resisted the Pope and the Church, and that if she burned more Protestants that obduracy would be broken and she would have the children she so wanted. And Philip’s love as well. As Lymond concedes to Philippa in Dorothy Dunnett’s novel Checkmate, “You are right, of course. This queen is not asinine. She is tragic.”

Yes. But she’s still the only English monarch to have gone down in history with the ultimately insulting nickname, “Bloody”. Sad queen or not, she had done a lot to earn it. Solomon Kane as a grown man was one of the many who detested her memory. “She hunted my people like beasts of prey,” he says harshly in REH’s fragment “Hawk of Basti”.

There were five chief rebel leaders in the 1554 revolt, all convinced Protestants; Wyatt himself, Sir James Croft of Herefordshire, Henry Grey, the first Duke of Suffolk, with his brother Lord Thomas Grey, and Sir Peter Carew, a Member of Parliament for the Kanes’ home county, Devon. The plan was for revolt to be raised in four counties at once, and then for the rebel forces to converge on London. They intended to depose Mary in favor of her sister Elizabeth, and have Mary marry Edward Courtenay, the Earl of Devon – another link with the Kanes’ country. If Courtenay was part of the plot (and he probably was, though not an active participant) then he was a glutton for punishment. His own father had been beheaded for insurrection in the reign of Henry VIII.

Carew’s attempt to raise Devon against Queen Mary (in January) fell flat. Once again, it appears with hindsight that he must have had paranoid delusions of grandeur to believe anything else. The common people of that county were strongly Catholic. They remembered that Carew had taken very harsh measures in crushing their Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549 – when the Protestant Book of Common Prayer was introduced. (Even the authorities thought he’d gone too far on that occasion.) The Protestant nobles, while disturbed by Mary’s marriage plans, weren’t willing to commit treason. They sat tight. A warrant was issued for Carew’s arrest, but he escaped to the continent, although two years later he was arrested in Flanders and returned to England, ignominiously, in a fishing boat. He wasn’t executed, however, merely held in the Tower for five months and then released.

The Kanes were Protestant, of course, and not just Protestant but staunch early Puritans. I’d speculate that Solomon’s father, Nathaniel Kane, was twenty-four at the time, young, devout, idealistic and stubborn. He was among the few who fell for Carew’s agitating and turned out in support.

His own father, Reuben, who had been a soldier in Italy as second-in-command to Hildred Taferal, a scion of the local gentry, told him bluntly to stay put and have nothing to do with the suicidal madness. Reuben and Hildred, believers in direct action, imprisoned Nathaniel in shackles in a cellar when he wouldn’t listen. He escaped. When the planned insurrection collapsed, he was arrested, but Hildred went to bat for him and even perjured himself with testimony that he had sent Nathaniel to spy on the rebels. Nathaniel had the sense to keep his mouth shut, and went home to his young wife in time to see Solomon born.

As usual, the plot had been exposed anyway. Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, was arrested and questioned. He talked to save his own skin. This had placed the rebels under urgent pressure to move or else cancel their plans. They might have been wiser to do the latter, but they did the former and met with failure. Sir James Croft saw it was hopeless and backed down. The Duke of Suffolk only managed to raise one hundred and forty men, and when Coventry refused to open its gates to him, he gave himself up.

Nobody except Wyatt got very far. Kent supported him, and the London train-bands deserted to him. Until then he was meeting with a certain degree of success. Then, euphoric and over-confident, he had the bad judgment to demand that the Tower of London be surrendered to him and Queen Mary given into his charge. The second condition especially was insane in its insolence. London turned against him and Mary, with a spirited speech and display of courage in the London Guildhall, rallied the capital in her support.

Wyatt, captured alive, was tortured ferociously in an effort to make him implicate the queen’s sister in the plot. Nothing could be proved, but Elizabeth was kept in prison and felt the cold shadow of the headsman’s axe. Wyatt was executed. The Duke of Suffolk, his daughter Lady Jane Grey, and her husband, were all beheaded. About a hundred rebels were hung, drawn and quartered.

Nathaniel Kane had been lucky to come out of the sorry business alive and free.

Art credit: Solomon Kane by Jeffrey Jones

Read Part Two