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.