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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095

Jack Wilton is a page serving in the army of King Henry VIII of England when his adventures begin. While the English troops are encamped near Turwin in France, Jack pretends that he has overheard the king and his council planning to do away with a certain sutler, or civilian...

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Jack Wilton is a page serving in the army of King Henry VIII of England when his adventures begin. While the English troops are encamped near Turwin in France, Jack pretends that he has overheard the king and his council planning to do away with a certain sutler, or civilian provisioner, and he convinces the sutler that he ought to give away all of his supplies to the soldiers and then throw himself on the king’s mercy. Completely fooled, the sutler does just that. The king, enjoying the prank, gives the sutler a pension and forgives Jack.

Shortly after this escapade, Jack befriends a captain who forces Jack to help him get rich by throwing dice. Jack tires of his subservience to the captain and persuades the officer that the best means of getting ahead in the army is to turn spy and seek out information valuable to the king. The gullible captain enters the French lines and is discovered by the French and almost killed before he is hustled back to the English camp.

The campaign over, Jack finds himself back in England once more. When the peacetime duties of a page begin to pall, he leaves the king’s household and turns soldier of fortune. After crossing the English Channel to find a means of making a livelihood, he reaches the French king too late to enter that monarch’s service against the Swiss. He travels on to Münster, Germany, where he finds John Leiden leading the Baptists against the duke of Saxony. He observes a notorious massacre in which the Baptists are annihilated because they refuse to carry the weapons of war into battle.

After the battle, Jack meets the earl of Surrey, who is on the Continent at the time. Surrey was acquainted with Jack at King Henry’s court and is glad to see him again. He confides to Jack his love for Geraldine, a lovely Florentine woman. Surrey proposes that Jack travel with him to Italy to find her. Since Jack has no other immediate plans, he readily consents to accompany the earl.

Jack and Surrey proceed southward into Italy. As they travel, Surrey proposes to Jack that they exchange identities for a time, so that the nobleman can behave in a less seemly fashion. Pleased at the prospect of being an earl, even temporarily, Jack agrees.

Upon their arrival in Venice, the two are taken up by a courtesan named Tabitha, who tries to kill the man she thinks is the earl of Surrey, using the true earl as her accomplice. Surrey and Jack turn the tables on her, however, and cause her and her pander to be executed for attempting to conspire against a life. In the process, however, Jack unknowingly comes into possession of some counterfeit coins. When they use the money, Jack and the earl are seized as counterfeiters and are sentenced to death.

While in prison awaiting execution, Jack meets Diamante, the wife of a goldsmith; her husband has imprisoned her because he suspects her of infidelity. Jack has sex with Diamante after assuring her that by doing so she is avenging herself on a husband who does not believe in her chastity.

After a few weeks in prison, Jack and the earl are released; an English gentleman who had heard of their plight had secured the efforts of the poet Aretine to prove to the court that Tabitha and her procurer were the counterfeiters. Aretine also sees to it that Diamante is released from prison. She continues to be Jack’s mistress, and within a few weeks, after her husband dies of the plague, Jack marries her.

Jack decides to travel, and he and Diamante leave the earl of Surrey in Venice. Jack takes such pleasure from bearing the nobleman’s title, however, that he continues to do so. After some time, Surrey hears that there is another earl by the same name and goes to investigate. Learning that the double is Jack, Surrey forgives him, and they once again resume their interrupted trip to Florence. Upon arriving there, the earl issues a challenge to all the knights and gentlemen of the city; he hopes thereby to prove his love for Geraldine. The tournament is a great success, and Surrey carries off all the honors of the day. After that, Surrey and Jack part company, and Jack, still accompanied by Diamante, goes on to Rome.

In Rome, Jack and Diamante live with Johannes and Heraclide de Imola. During the summer, Signor de Imola dies of the plague. Shortly after his death, and before his corpse can be removed from the house, bandits break in and rape Heraclide de Imola and Diamante. Jack is overpowered by the bandits and unable to help the women. Heraclide kills herself after the attack. When police arrive at the house, they blame Jack for what has happened. He is unable to clear himself because the only other witness is Diamante, whom the bandits have kidnapped.

A banished English earl appears in time to save Jack from the hangman’s noose by producing witnesses to a deathbed confession made by one of the bandits. Jack is released and goes in search of Diamante. While searching for her, he falls through an unbarred cellar door into the house of a Jew, where he finds Diamante making love to an apprentice. The Jew, roused by the noise of the fall and Jack’s angry shouting at Diamante, comes into the cellar and accuses them both of breaking into his house and corrupting his apprentice. Under the law, they become the Jew’s bond servants. Jack is turned over to another Jew, the pope’s physician, to be used in a vivisection.

He is saved from this horrid death when one of the pope’s mistresses falls in love with him and uses her influence to secure him for herself. Diamante also falls into the woman’s hands. Jack and Diamante keep their previous relations a secret and wait for a chance to escape from the woman’s house. One day, while the woman is away at a religious festival, they run off, taking with them as much loot as they can carry.

Traveling northward, Jack goes to Bologna. There he witnesses the execution of a famous criminal, Cutwolfe, who had confessed to murdering the bandit who led the assault on Heraclide de Imola and Diamante months before. Moving on into France, Jack finds the English armies once again in the field, and he returns to King Henry’s service.

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