The Coningsbys were a new family. They could not trace their line back to the Norman Conquest. They were lawyers who had made their fortune after the Wars of the Roses had destroyed many of the old families and Henry VII had looked to the law rather than arms to consolidate his power. Worse, they had bought their estate rather than having fought for it.
Many felt that the world was going to hell and the Coningsbys were part of the reason. Even worse, as far as people who believed everything should remain the same were concerned, the Coningsbys had bought Hampton Court, a fine house in north Herefordshire, from the Lenthalls. Now the Lenthalls had been a fairly humble family themselves but Sir Rowland Lenthall had been knighted by Henry V at the battle of Agincourt for bravery on the field.
When the family fell on hard times along had come these new people and bought them out. Inevitably there was a great deal of resentment. Despite this, Thomas Coningsby was proud of his place at the court of the young King Henry VIII. It was a vicious place, with all kinds of skulduggery that would make a politician of our own day look like an angel. But, with his lawyer’s training, Thomas felt he could more than hold his own amongst the other arrogant and spiteful courtiers.
The young Henry was not the fat and hideous figure of his later years, but a tall, handsome fellow who loved excelling in all forms of sport from jousting to wrestling. It was here that Thomas saw his chance. Despite being a lawyer he was fond of sport as well and good at it. The oldsters could go on about their deeds in the past. He could wrestle with Henry and ride out with him, each with a falcon on their arm.
Here he could have the confidence of the King while the old fools had to stay sitting by the fireside. Where most politicians go wrong is that they assume dictators like yes men around that will fawn on them and agree with everything they say. Well, stupid ones might do but clever ones, and whatever else Henry was he was a clever one, also like people who will stand up to them and give them good advice. What dictators really like above all other things is staying in power and they know that good advice is one of the things that they need to do so.
Thomas understood this and did not always agree with Henry in everything that he said, but he watched him closely and soon knew where he could stand up to the king and when he should hold his tongue. What he did see was that Henry prized his athletic ability above all other things, so in sporting contests he made sure that he let Henry win, which gave him the space to be more adventurous in discussions of policy, which Thomas prized more. He gave Henry a good contest always, but somehow the king just managed to win.
So Thomas became a trusted companion. When he stood up to the king he was held up as a paragon of virtue to the old lords, which must have pleased them immensely. In what passed in those days for the locker room, when the king changed his shirt after exercise, they discussed the weighty affairs of state and Thomas reflected that, as a nobody from Herefordshire, he had not done too badly.
Several years went by and Thomas managed to acquire ever greater power and influence. So it might have gone on and Thomas might have been ennobled if he had not relaxed. That is the problem of always being in the same room as a tiger, you start to take it for granted and slip off guard.
Perhaps it was that Thomas just got tired of loosing in their sporting contests. Perhaps it was because he grew to increasingly disdain the man who had not seen through his stratagem. Whichever it was it would cost him dear. Running was not one of the popular pastimes. A gentleman did not run; he had a horse if he wanted to move quickly. Peasants might run when they are being ridden down by the enemy but a gentleman stands and fights to the last. Perhaps it was the need for novelty, because a court is always in need of novelty, but one day Henry suggested that the king and he should have a race around the tilt yard at Whitehall, the loser to buy a hunting dog for the winner.
Thomas accepted, he could do nothing else. At the drop of another courtier’s hand they set off. Within a few yards Thomas realised that he had made a mistake because already Henry was falling behind, his unhealthy lifestyle (as they would say now) was catching up with him. This put Thomas in a quandary. In a wrestling or archery contest it is really quite easy to let the other fellow win without it appearing too obvious. It is not so easy in a running race.
If Thomas slowed down the king and the other members of the court would see it. From how he had dealt with others he knew Henry hated anyone go easy on him because it detracted from his skill. He kept a steady pace, hoping he would hear the king gaining on him but, when he looked behind, the king was a good ten yards further back and struggling badly.
There was nothing for it but to carry on. Thomas did so, reaching the finishing line only slightly out of breath and waited for what seemed like eternity while the king jogged up. It was still several minutes before he had enough breath to speak. “Well done sir. You have bested me.”
“It is of no significance.”
“Yet it was very well done. You will have your hound sir.”
“Your majesty is most generous.” “I am indeed sir, for the hound I have in mind for you. One of my own bloodhounds.”
There was a stir of uneasiness among the assembled courtiers that Thomas also felt. “And because I like my courtiers to show their craft to the full I have another idea. Why not race the dog and show what an amazing runner you are.”
“Your estates are at Hampton Court are they not? I also have an estate of that name. Let the race be between the two. Because I am a generous man you can have the advantage of a full day before the hound is released, but be warned Thomas, the only way I can get my hounds to run is by not feeding them. I would not let it catch you.”
So Thomas’s doom was sealed. The next morning, at dawn, he was brought to the gateway of Hampton Court beside the Thames and told to run. He did so and he ran for ten days and nights, his servants bringing him food and drink, only sleeping for odd moments when he could not keep going any longer, at any moment expecting to hear the baying of the hound behind him.
He had almost reached the gates of his own mansion when he finally heard that awful sound. Despite desperately pushing forward the hound caught him just as he entered the great gates. Before his men could beat off the hound Thomas’s neck was bitten and an artery severed.
An old painting of a hound still hangs on the wall at Hampton Court and if any owner allows that painting to be removed it is said that a terrible fate awaits them, though no one now remembers what fate that might be. On a still night people staying at the court have heard the baying of a distant hound, its terrible cries coming ever closer and sometimes also the sounds of running feet as Thomas Coningsby for eternity still tries to get to his home before the thing hunting him.