Getting Ahead

A Tudor Comedy With Beer, a Monkey, and a Severed Head

It was a bit of a cock-up, absolutely, I’ll be the first to admit that. Everyone was nice about it afterwards, even laughed, but I was fined, and I was flogged (although it was by Lax William, who, thankfully, has the softest touch of all the punishers). Even so, my sister Mary spent many hours applying the balm that Wiggins the apothecary gave me for my wounds. But that’s neither here nor there. The real point I’m trying to get to, I guess, is that I learned my lesson. Oh yes. I will never again stop to have a drink while making a delivery. Never. Again. I’m just grateful that we managed to get that bloody head back, that’s all.

I’m still a bit confused as to how the whole thing happened. What should have been a simple stop and drop turned into such a drama! I blame Clive. He’s the apprentice to the Chief Design and Layout Master at Ludgate. It was a step towards the position he’d dreamed about, that of Display Master at London Bridge. His ideas have been grand for as long as I’ve known him, and I knew everyone would know his name someday.

My name is Henry and I’m an apprentice to Corpus Couriers, the couriers to royalty. Our motto is “We won’t cost you an arm and a leg”. Or “A fraction of the body for a fraction of the price”. Let me explain.

It was the second year of the reign of the new queen, Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. Evil, wicked times. There was lots to keep us busy. Mary was a harsh ruler., just like her father, who I’m proud to say my family served for many years. My mum was such an admirer that, not only was she treasurer of the Henry VIII fan club, she named both my brother and me Henry (we actually referred to my older brother by his middle name, Edward, otherwise it got confusing). During Henry’s reign over 30,000 people were accused of treason and… well… taken care of, as was appropriate to their station in life, obviously.

I remember explaining what happened to them to my mother. I probably shouldn’t have chosen dinner time to do so.

“So the nobles of the highest rank are beheaded, clean and simple.” I took a drink of ale and wiped my mouth with my sleeve, suffering a look from my mother in the process. “Lesser men, for women are always burned at the stake for decency’s sake, are drawn to the place of execution and hanged until they’re barely alive.” I took a bite of beef and swallowed before continuing. “Then they’re cut down and those bits of them that made them men are cut off while they watch, a symbolic gesture illustrating the end of their family line. Then the good part happens.”

“The good part?” My mother’s face was a faint shade of green.

“The traitor is cut open and his organs pulled out in front of him. Intestines, liver, and finally the heart.”

My mother held up her hand. “Enough. Thank you for the lesson, explained so vividly while we eat.”

I smiled grimly and ate the rest of the meal in silence. I still thought of the end of the process however. After the organs were pulled it was a matter of protocol: the head was removed, and the body cut into four pieces, each one sent to a different gate around London, to be displayed upon the walls or stuck on a spike to serve as a warning to anyone thinking twice about attacking the city. That’s where my Guild comes in.

Someone has to deliver those body parts to the different locations. You can’t just leave a page or message boy to do that sort of task. We were the Worshipful Guild of Delivery Men (Special Unit). We’ve had a place in history since 1286, when Edward Longshanks needed a few items disposed of. The following year, the Worshipful Guild of Designers came about, which is the Guild Clive belongs to. You see, although the members of MY guild excelled at delivering body parts to various locations (we even had a guarantee: “Your order on time or it’s free!”), we weren’t very good at displaying them. And research has shown that body parts displayed on sharp sticks, or hanging from gates so the heads rattle when the gate is opened is a much more effective deterrent than body parts just dumped on the ground or scattered around in front of the gate. That was the designers’ role, and some, like Clive, took to it with a vigour unimaginable to most. But he also had a sense of humour with it as well. It was his idea to string all the hands up together next to the gate, so that the slightest breeze made them knock on the door together, causing the gatekeeper no end of grief! I have to admit, I admire someone who enjoys their work as much as Clive does. But back to the story.


It was an ordinary day, the sun was shining, birds were singing, and martyrs were burning. There was a slight breeze, and I remember the smoke from the Smithfield auto-da-fés carried for miles. I was secretly hoping that there might be some hot coals left later that night, so I could roast pigeons for my dinner. Sadly, this was not to be. There was an extra special event that day. A certain Thomas Wyatt was to be executed, and the head had to be delivered. Due to an increase in the number of heads available for display these past few months, more and more were being sent to gates which normally had only lesser appendages to contend with.

This time the package was to go to Ludgate. I knew Clive would be thrilled so I secretly sent him a note in advance, alerting him that a great surprise was on its way. As I was only an apprentice, I didn’t do any of the deliveries myself, but I was by now advanced enough in my training to complete the necessary paperwork. When the order came through, I made sure that everything was ready, and all we needed was the horseman.

But fate had made other arrangements.

We’d waited so long for the pick-up rider, who never appeared, that we were now in danger of being late on delivery, and thus not being paid. My master wrestled with the decision, then turned to me.

“Henry,” he said, “you’ll pick up the package. You’re ready and you know the route.” He walked to his desk and collected a paper. “Here, take this note to the execut, erm, I mean to the worthy gentlemen in black at Tower Green, and he’ll hand you the package. You’re to bring it back here, you understand?” I excitedly assured my master that I could do the job, that I could be trusted, and thanked him for this opportunity.

You can’t possibly imagine my feelings as I rode from our humble but professional buildings on Watling Street to Tower Green. I was finally on my way. This was it. My chance to impress, to prove to my master I was ready to take on more responsibility. To show myself a man. I was exultant. I arrived in good time, and handed over the parcel docket to the only man dressed in black I could find. The hood he wore was a good indication I had the correct person.

“What took you so long? I have somewhere else to be. Do I look like I have all the time in the world to wait for delivery boys? I’m late for a support group meeting of the Executioners’ Guild you know.”

With a grunt he thrust a brown woven sack into my waiting hands. Its weight surprised me. I also hadn’t expected my stomach to lurch as much as it did when I climbed back into my saddle and heard the dull thunk sound the sack made as it hit the side of my horse’s neck. But I had to get back to Watling Street, where another rider would be waiting to carry out the next stage of the delivery.

Again, I made excellent time. I carried myself and my parcel back into the workshop with pride. Sadly, there was no one but my master to witness my triumphant return. There didn’t appear to be anyone else available to deliver the head to Ludgate, and my master was, quite frankly, deeply distressed. I should never have done what I did next. But I did, and then he did, and then I was off. I suggested to my master that I be the one to deliver the package. After all, I said to him, it was the simplest of stop and drops, and to a location of lesser importance. Now, if it had been London Bridge, well, there would be no question at all of my delivering, never mind even mentioning it. But it was Ludgate. Simple, plain old Ludgate. And all we had was simple, plain old me.

My master would have gone himself, were it not for his gout. I remember thanking God for that gout as I rode through the streets of London, imagining the people were admiring both my countenance and my mission, were envious of my calling, jealous of the importance of my place in the universe. Oh, I was guilty of the sin of pride, no doubt about it. And Father Fischer always warned us in his sermons that pride comes before a fall. What he never told us was just how great that fall could be.


It took longer than expected to reach Ludgate and it was close to dinner time when I arrived. I rode around for a while, trying to find Clive. When I finally located him, he was deep in discussion with a few of the other design men about what to do with the rare set of testicles that had been delivered earlier. Testicles were considered a challenge to the Design Guild, one to which Clive in particular rose. I managed to get his attention, and he broke away from the small group with an angry look on his face.

“Do you see what I put up with? Do you see what I have to work with?” he waved a dismissive hand in the general direction of the other designers. “They have no passion, no instinct for the process, not an artistic bone in their bodies, the lot of them. Jacques, that bloody foreigner, decides to display them by themselves, a kind of stand-alone piece with a backdrop of green linen cloth, symbolic of man’s alone-ness in the universe. Everyone ooh’s and aah’s him like he’s the second coming.”

Clive took a deep breath then continued. “But when Isuggest stuffing the appendage in the mouth of that guy,” here he pointed at an already spiked head, well on its way to being soup, “with the balls looped artistically over the ears, well, they all look horrified. I just can’t win.” He sighed, and then brightened a bit when he saw that I was carrying something.

“Is that what I think it is?”

“It is.” I smiled, and handed over the sack. My duty was done, the package had been delivered, and I could now think about getting something to eat.

“Thanks for the advance warning. I need to make a good impression. With Jacques around, it’s getting more and more difficult. But with this,” he held up the sack, “I can re-establish myself. Listen, do you want to get a bite to eat, maybe a drink? Thanks to you I was able to get some preliminary sketches done, I’d love to show them to you. Besides, you need something to set you up for the ride home.”

I was thinking that exact thing and readily agreed. We walked a few blocks to Clive’s favourite haunt, The Stanley Arms and ordered the house speciality, lamb hotpot, with a flagon of ale each. While we ate, we discussed our respective workplaces, our families, and life in general. Finally, curiosity got the better of Clive and he opened the sack to take a look.

“Ohhh, brown hair, disappointing. I’ve got a display idea in mind, but I need a red-head. Maybe we can dye the hair a bit.” Clive was thinking out loud.

“What do you mean, “we”?” I asked. “There’s no we, there’s you, who has the head, and me, who is going home shortly.”

“Oh come on, I was kidding. Where’s your sense of humour?” He was smiling, conciliatory, but I knew he wasn’t joking about the colour of the hair. I agreed to another drink, just the one though. I had to get back to Watling Street; I knew my master wouldn’t relax until he knew the package had been delivered successfully.

Two hours, and five ales later, we were merry. We were loud, obnoxious, and more than likely irritating our fellow patrons.

Clive turned to me, sombre and solemn. Listen, I really want to thank you again for the heads up, it’ll really make a difference to my career, give me a head start on Jacques, help me to get ahead.” By the time he got to this last one, the façade of seriousness had crumbled, and he was creasing with barely contained laughter.

“Well, it’s the least a friend could do. I want to see you as head of your guild someday.” I couldn’t help it, it was like a morbid contagion.

“I want that too,” Clive replied. “I’d be happy to be making headlines for a change.” The start of a low guffaw noise had barely escaped Clive’s lips before he forced it back.

The tears had started forming in the corners of my eyes, and I knew it wouldn’t take much to start them flowing. I indicated to the server that we needed more ale “without the head, if you please.”

That was it, we both roared. The server went off to get our drinks, shaking her head and scowling.

“Geesh, you wouldn’t get that sort of service at the King’s Head.”

“Okay, if that’s the way you feel, we’ll head off soon.”

“Right then, I’ll pay our bill here, you go on ahead.” Clive was nearly bent double, and his face had turned a marvellous shade of red.

“Wait, wait, our server is heading back this way with our next round.”

This went on for some time. The other tavern-goers thought us mad, and were alarmed at first. But when they saw we were harmless, they left us to ourselves. We’d been there for nearly three hours when I finally persuaded Clive that I really had to get home. My master would be tearing the place apart out of sheer panic by now. I stood, shakily, patted my pockets, and started walking towards the door. I was stopped by a cry from Clive.

“The sack, you’ve still got the sack!” Clive was looking directly at me.

“No, no I don’t. I gave it to you at the gate. You brought it with you, you put it by the table leg.”

“Well, it’s not there now. Are you sure you don’t have it?” He was looking more concerned now, our earlier jocularity gone.

I held up both hands to show Clive I wasn’t carrying anything. I went back to the table and helped him look around. The sack was definitely not there. We asked a few of our neighbours, but no one had seen anything. We were missing a head.

“I definitely gave it to you,” I reminded Clive.

“No, I’m sure you had it, I only peeked at it, you were the one looking after it, and you were the one responsible for it.” Clive was getting nervous now.

“I gave it to you, I’m sure I did. I only deliver, what you do with it after is your concern.”

“Well, if that’s the case, you must have the docket I signed, as proof the package was delivered.”

Clive was now more than just nervous, he was looking for someone to blame. That someone, it appeared, was me. I’d have to deal with the personal implications later. The fact is, Clive was right. I hadn’t got him to sign anything at all, I’d just handed him the sack. In the excitement of Clive’s earlier argument with his fellow designers, and the prospect of nearby food, I’d forgotten to follow the correct procedure. No matter what really happened, it was me who was to blame.

Clive saw this fact register on my face, and softened a little. “I’m sorry, Hal, I panicked. I didn’t mean anything personal at all.”

I accepted his apology, and we sat down again. We had to come up with a head, and soon. Strangely, considering the seriousness of our present situation, the only thought I had was ‘I’m glad we’re putting our heads together’. I thought better of sharing this with Clive. We needed an idea. Things like missing heads get noticed. While we thought about what to do next, we ordered another round. After a few false starts, Clive shrieked and jumped up. “I’ve got it! I know where we can get one!”

“Where? You can’t mean the bodies in the pits? You couldn’t pay me enough to go there, all that disease, we’d never survive!”

“No, I thought of that, but you’re right, the air is filled with the presence of all manner of fatal illness. What I have in mind is this.” He leaned over and quietly whispered his plan.

“You’re not serious? If we got caught, it’d be our heads Jacques would be displaying.” I shook my head. It was madness. Surely a plan as ludicrous as this one was certain to fail? But the more we discussed it, the more I realised that this was our only hope. We had no other choice. We had to do it. We settled our bill and went to get Clive’s horse. Together we rode to my home in the city. For this to succeed, we needed my sister Mary’s help.


My sister was a widow, her husband having been killed fighting in a battle for King Henry. She was named after the current Queen, and worked in the kitchens at the Tower, preparing last meals for condemned prisoners. Thankfully for us her talent with food had attracted the attention of one of the yeomen warders, who would do almost anything for one of Mary’s salmon pasties.

I made Clive wait outside the office on Watling Street, and went in to reassure my master that all had been successful. The package had been delivered, and I was so pleased with the opportunity that he had given me that I stayed at the gate for a drink with a friend. My boss looked at me suspiciously, then grinned and heaved a sigh of relief. He shook my hand and congratulated me on a job well done. He was so happy I felt bad about lying. But I figured if the plan worked out, all would be okay, and he would never learn the awful truth.

I joined Clive outside and we rode quickly to my home. My parents were out visiting an elderly neighbour and my brother Henry-Edward was working late at the Cheese Guild. Mary greeted us and ushered us into the kitchen where she started preparing a snack.

“Mary, we have urgent business to discuss with you. We need your help.”

She put down the knife she was using to slice bread and sat down, looking worried.

“Henry, what trouble are you in? You know if there’s any aid I can give, I’ll do so gladly.”

We didn’t want to involve her any more than necessary, so we only told her that we needed to gain access to the Tower after dark. Tonight. Mary, to her credit, thought better of questioning us and simply agreed to help. The three of us set out on foot and shortly arrived at the front gate of the Tower. Mary left us waiting to one side, and went on ahead to speak to the yeoman on duty. We watched from a short distance, and saw her draw from beneath her cloak a small bundle, which seemed to greatly please the man. She gestured for us to join her, and we were all admitted. We quietly made our way to the kitchen, Mary’s domain. She grabbed a few things, and we set off again, this time towards the yeomen warder’s cottages. Again, she asked us to remain in a hidden alcove, cautioning us against any noise. We watched her knock on a door, and enter. A few minutes later she re-emerged and came over to us.

“Okay, your way will be clear for a short time. I’ve bribed my admiring warder with his favourite snack, which will keep him away for a while. You don’t have long, I’ll be waiting for you in the kitchen. I don’t know what you two are up to, but I wish you God’s speed with it.”

We left Mary sitting on a bench a short distance from the cottages, and headed towards the main tower, and our goal.

“What will we put it in?” I asked. Funny, it hadn’t occurred to me before.

Clive stopped dead in his tracks and turned around slowly. He looked blankly at me. “Damn.”

“Listen, we can just tie a rope around it, can’t we? I mean, how hard can it be to lead a monkey?”

We agreed to try, hoping there was a bit of spare cord in the menagerie. What was a monkey after all? Like a small child we reckoned. A small, furry, mute child. It was dark and most of the animals were asleep. We quickly found the monkey cage, and located the keys hanging on a peg nearby. Clive let himself in, while I kept an eye and ear out for any guards. So far, so good. Then came the screeching. And Clive’s screaming. I ran towards the cage, and found Clive lying face down in the cage, blood streaming from numerous cuts, and a monkey, keys in hand, jumping up and down on top of my friend.

I had to think quickly. Which wasn’t easy, considering that Clive was wailing “Get it off me, get it off me!” at the top of his voice, the monkey was shrieking in its own Godforsaken language, and the chance of discovery was getting closer and closer. I picked up the only thing to hand, a small wooden footstool, and heaved it with all my might at the creature. It staggered a bit, and slowly slumped to the ground beside Clive. Clive jumped up and ran from the cage. “Close the door, lock it, lock it! Leave the monkey! Leave the monkey!” he shouted.

“We can’t leave it like that, I need to see that it’s all right.” I was firm on this. The moral issue of harming one of God’s creatures aside, the fact was that if we left a dead animal in a locked cage in the Tower in the middle of the night, there would be an investigation. I approached the beast slowly and cautiously. It wasn’t moving. I had Clive hand me a broom that was lying nearby and poked the monkey with it. No movement. I poked again, harder this time. A sudden twitch and intake of breath made me run for the door in case I met a similar fate as Clive. We locked up, put everything as it was, and hurried back to where Mary was waiting for us.

“Good Lord, what’s happened to you?” Mary, alarmed, pulled Clive closer and inspected his wounds. He had red, raw scratches all over his face, arms, and hands. His shirt was shredded and the creature’s nail marks covered his back. The blood was slowly seeping through the cloth, and although it looked serious, we could see it wouldn’t be fatal. We helped him out of the Tower grounds and made our way back to my house. There was no way Clive was going home tonight; Mary would treat his wounds and he’d stay the night. We’d decide what to do tomorrow. Fortunately, my master had been so pleased with me, he’d given me the following morning to spend as I wished. I could accompany Clive back to Ludgate.

After Clive’s wounds had been treated, we spoke quietly at the main table. We decided that if inspiration did not visit us that night, we’d simply have to confess the next day, admit we’d lost the head, and accept the consequences. There was nothing else we could do.


The next morning we set out early, Clive anxious to get back to Ludgate and speak with his own master. As we approached the gate, we heard a commotion. A large group of people were gathered at the outside of the gate, staring up at something. We dismounted and continued on foot, the crowds preventing us from doing otherwise. We joined the other spectators and gasped when we saw what they were admiring.

“Isn’t it wonderful? Jacques’s done it again. Wonderful.” The compliments were all around us, we couldn’t seem to get away from them.

“Absolute genius.”

“I’ve never seen its like.”

“He’s sure to be the next Design Master, the only clear choice really.”

The last comment really hit Clive. He suddenly threw up his arms and let out the most anguished wail. He ran in small circles, waving his hands, and crying out. The he stopped, and just stared.

Up on the gate was a totally new display. It must have taken all night to complete, and it was astonishing, in more ways than one. Against a black background of roughly woven cloth were three heads. A blond head, a brunette head, and a red head. Our red head. What used to be our brown-haired head. It had been dyed red. The face had a smug look, like it knew it was participating in something important. You could smell the cumin used to keep the scavenging birds away. In the head’s mouth was what looked like a male appendage. And dangling from its ears were a pair of testicles, one on the right ear, one on the left.

The decibel level suddenly rose, and the crowd surged forward. Clive screamed again, and threw himself into the throng. There in the midst of an admiring throng, shaking hands and looking embarrassed, was Jacques. Seconds later, Clive launched himself at Jacques with such force as to knock the Frenchman and a few spectators to the ground. There was a scramble, fists were flying and legs were kicking. The gate guards finally managed to pull Clive and Jacques apart, but not until Clive got in an extra hard kick to Jacques’s shins.

“He stole my head, he stole my bloody head!” I’d never seen Clive more furious.

“Serves you right, you hack. You shouldn’t have been drinking, you should’ve been working. You’re not an artist, I am. You don’t deserve to be Design Master, I do.” He spat at Clive as he said this.

Both Clive and Jacques were led away and questioned by the gate guards. The offence was deemed serious enough for the local magistrate to be involved. As a result, the whole story came out, including my part. My master eventually forgave me, but not until after arranging for my flogging. And my fine. And sending me back to deskwork for the foreseeable future. Then he laughed. Said we all went through incidents like this, it would be a rare apprentice indeed who did NOT get himself into a spot of trouble while learning the ropes. But, he also added quietly, if anything like it ever happened again, I would be begging to be flogged, as the punishment he would mete out would be merciless.

So began my life in the perilous world of business.




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