Once upon a time – well, 'once upon a time' when Henry VIII was just on the throne, and before he started cutting off his extraneous wives’ heads – there was a tiny kitten who was born on a scrap heap outside a dirty little village in the south of England. There was no way this kitten should have survived; it was abandoned almost immediately by its mother, left for dead... and, to be brutal about it, that should have been that.
As Henry himself may have said, whilst throwing an extremely well gnawed haunch of venison over his shoulder towards his pack of eager hounds, survival of the fittest, y'know.
However, the kitten dragged itself onto the high road and was lying there, near death, when all at once there came a great trampling and trotting and viewing and hallooing. It was a company of the newly crowned and no longer ‘Prince Hal’s’, but rather The King’s Men, on their way to a great tourney in the North. The villagers all came to gawp and gape as the pages and squires scurried to water the horses and get their masters wine and refreshments to break their fast.
A young page saw the kitten and went to kick it – not out of cruelty, you must understand, but to put it out of its misery – when a great voice stopped him, and he felt a hand on his shoulder. ‘Why would you not try to save the creature first?’ inquired the voice. ‘Well, sir, it looks more like kindness to let it go to God’, said the boy. ‘I disagree’, said the voice, whom the boy could not see the owner of, as the hand was preventing him from turning around. ‘I believe that every living thing deserves a chance at life before we consign it to the possibility of heaven’.
The boy was confused. A possibility of heaven? If you were good, you had to get to heaven yes? However, his was not to question why; the voice told him to get the kitten some milk and bread, look after it and take it with him on the journey, squeezed him briefly on the shoulder, and disappeared. The boy, who was after all a page and thus trained to obedience, did as he was told. The kitten ended up looking like a very small (and very loudly purry) barrel, and it promptly went to sleep in his saddlebag.
The boy never did find out who the voice had been. But he and the kitten – soon known as Leo The Lionheart, for his habit of killing ‘infidels’ or rats before they had a chance to strike sleeping knights – became fast friends, and the page’s rise to squire and then knight came about more rapidly than he would have imagined. It was almost as if the day The Lionheart came into his life had been a lucky omen – if he believed in that type of thing.
Eventually, the boy – and you must understand, to go through his kind of training meant being of noble birth – took his place at court. He was very shy, and not inclined to the kind of bawdy blathering that the others of his age indulged in. They would have been seen as quite the odd pair, he and The Lionheart, if he had not been intensely brave, and coincidentally able to knock the teeth sideways out of anybody who questioned his - shall we say - ‘manhood’.
Plus, The Lionheart bit.
By this stage, Henry had become slightly less the young dashing prince and more the stern and running towards stout king – but there were still signs of that merry eyed boy he had once been. So when our friend and his cat – yes, Leo of course was there – were eventually presented to him and his Spanish Queen, the King’s eyes brimmed with mirth.
‘God's wounds!’ he exclaimed, ‘is this a lion I see before me? Do you seek ennoblement for this fine defender of the realm, my Lord Robert?’ (for this was our hero’s name).
Robert finally realised whom the voice belonged to, not unkindly telling him to keep the cat alive some twelve years before. He was astounded, but realised that the King awaited his reply.
‘Why yes, Your Grace, I do.’
There was an intake of breath around the court at this presumptive behaviour, except from the Queen, who looked as if this whole interchange was of absolutely no interest to her (NB future Mrs H Tudors: not wise) – and the King himself, who grinned.
‘And why is this? What possible service could a humble animal have performed to merit a rise to the ranks of my most devoted and noble men? A mere beast, not even of the field, who neither reaps nor sows?’
Robert looked squarely at the King.
‘Because, Your Grace, if every living thing deserves a chance at life, doesn’t every living thing also deserve a chance at bettering its station in said life? And as for what service Leo has provided – well, last night he recognised that the wine destined for your bedchamber was poisoned. He sniffed it and knocked it over, whereupon we had a mouse be doused in it – and the mouse died.
‘He has performed this service for you three times now, Your Grace. Because Leo indeed has the heart of a lion’.
Henry turned very white, then very red. The entire court held its collective breath. Robert felt the whisper of the axe's blade as it slowly descended on his and Leo’s necks, and squeezed his cat to the point of Leo saying ‘ouch’, loudly and ostentatiously, in Tabbyese.
‘It seems that you paid a great deal of attention all those years ago, my Lord Robert’ said Henry, quite calmly, and everyone exhaled. The Duke of Suffolk had a coughing fit and rapidly left the throne room before the king’s mood could change. ‘Not only did you listen to my words, but you listened to the intent behind them. Please bring your cat, and yourself, forward, and kneel’.
Robert of course did so. Leo refused to kneel. He sprawled at Henry’s feet. On his back, with his legs in the air.
Henry grinned again.
‘Leo the Lionheart, I now name thee Lord Leo of The Tower, Keeper of the King’s Person, Royal Ratter and Privy Council Cat. I would say arise but I doubt I would be obeyed. Lord Robert, I hereby appoint you to my Privy Council and ask you to become the head of my Personal Guard. You, I think, may manage to rise’.
Robert was astounded. He had a feeling that this may all end in tears, at least for him, because the King’s moods were what were then known as mercurial – but how wondrous that Leo was being recognised for the loyal and clever creature that he was! What gratitude he felt that Henry had not let him ‘put him out of his misery’ all those years before!
Henry waved them both away. Robert bowed out backwards. Leo sauntered fatly away, occasionally stopping to lick his behind and have a bit of a sniff up the ladies’ frocks. Sometimes, Robert reflected, it was uncanny just how much like the sovereign that cat actually was.
Amazingly, perhaps because every time he was prone to contradict Henry’s wilder ideas (mainly concerning the lady Anne Boleyn, who had just popped her minxy little head up – not yet off), Leo would headbutt him in Privy Council sessions – Robert thrived. But of course, by this stage, Leo was a ripe old age – and one day, sadly, Robert found him peacefully, permanently asleep in the sun of the winter garden at Windsor, his legs in the air and his fat tummy looking glossy and content.
There was a half chewed rat by his side.
Robert cried great tears of loss and gratitude for his wonderful companion. When his page asked him very timidly if he was not ashamed to be seen weeping in public – ‘for he is but a cat, my Lord!’ – Robert turned and took the boy to his quarters. There he gave him one of Leo’s most recent great-grand offspring (Leo was a cat that Henry would have been proud to call ‘son’, or in fact, possibly be slightly jealous of in terms of his procreational abilities).
This is what he said:
‘A cat is never just a cat. A cat is a friend. A cat is an adviser. A cat will tell you when you are a bad master with naught but a simple look. A cat will always be there to warm you. And if you are very lucky, a cat will look at a king – and make you see the value of every life’.
With that, Robert walked away, and with the King’s permission, left the court and retired to his estate in the country.
He died at the age of 82. All that was on his tomb?
‘A cat may indeed look at a king – and if a king is wise, he will look back at a cat.’
A furry tale - or should that be furry stomach? - ending.