The Mirror and the Light (Ascension Day | Part 1)

Spring–Summer 1539

‘Call-Me wants a picture of the king,’ Rafe says. ‘We must get one on the first boat. He needs to show it to Christina.’

Does Call-Me know his business? It seems perilous, to open a gap between a young girl’s fantasy and a man who is past his prime. But then, she must have heard Henry described, by those whose pleasure it is to rip up her dreams.

He sits with Rafe and goes through a sheaf of drawings. Sometimes a child emerges from behind the king’s eyes: an alert little boy, who expects the world to do him pleasure. Henry owns more than a hundred looking-glasses. If they had a memory, we could send one that reflected the prince as he was at Christina’s age: tumbling curls, broad shoulders, damask skin.

Henry rides up to Waltham to see his little prince. Edward’s limbs are firm and sturdy. No spells or conjurations have withered him. His pallor he gets from his mother, his shy blue eyes and pointed chin. His coats are of tawny and crimson, his winter gowns lined with miniver and trimmed with ermine. He makes full use of his Christmas present from the old Earl of Essex – a rattle combined with a bell. The Earl of Essex is stone deaf.

Every dispatch from Wriothesley reassures us that yes, he knows his business. He visits Christina in her chambers hung with damask and black velvet. The atmosphere is hushed: our handsome envoy whispers to her, enticing. The king’s character, he tells her, is naturally benevolent. In all his reign, few have heard angry words fall from his lips.

Christina’s colour rises, Call-Me says. She looks as if someone has tickled her.

Majesty, he advises, take her on any terms: you cannot do better.

But Call-Me is chagrined that the courtiers in Brussels do not understand his lineage. They imply that anyone who serves Cromwell must be of base degree himself. He assures them that he is proud to walk behind the Lord Privy Seal, carrying his pen, ink and paper. He doesn’t mind their aspersions, he says.

Rafe says, ‘He does mind, really.’ Call-Me has always been touchy, quick to take offence; easily rattled, and proud of his good blood. But the new year has begun well for him, because he has laid hands on that coveted master-spy, Harry Phillips.

How did this happen? Phillips has simply walked into our embassy and handed himself over. He craves Henry’s pardon for anything he has done or seemed to do against England and Englishmen. Now he is ready to tell the truth about his life, and is able to lead us straight to Master Traitor Pole. And then, Wriothesley believes, Phillips can be interrogated and turned, sent back into Europe to work our will – drawing the king’s enemies gradually towards him, then spilling them into the hands of the executioner.

Call-Me’s dispatch has scarcely been read at Westminster when he is obliged to write a follow-up. Though placed under guard, Harry Phillips has absconded in the night, taking with him a bag of money belonging to our English delegation.

Call-Me has spent four futile months standing in anterooms and absorbing insults, and now a trickster has gulled him. He is eaten up with humiliation, gnawed with anxiety till he knows if the king and council blame him. He should bear the blame, of course. But his fellow envoys write home on his behalf: for God’s sake, comfort him, my lord Cromwell – he will be ill if you do not give him a good word. Never was son so anxious to please his father, as Mr Wriothesley is to please you.

Perhaps it will be a lesson to him, Rafe says, not to think he has the most penetrating wit in Europe: to realise he can be as big a fool as the rest of us.

It is a cold winter. No sooner have floods abated than the first snows blanket us. In the warmth of Toledo, the Emperor and the King of France ratify their treaty. They mean this concord to last their lifetimes, they say, and they swear to make no agreement with England – marital, military – without the support of the other. Which will not, of course, forthcome. Who can deal with an excommunicate king? No Christian man can give him bread if he is starving – let alone provide him with a wife.

Henry’s subjects are now released from their obedience to him. The Pope reminds the faithful that for sectaries and schismatics, the normal rules are suspended. You may break your contracts with them and seize their goods. All Englishmen abroad, whether students, merchants or ambassadors, are at risk of arrest. It is true there has been no formal declaration of hostilities. But it feels like war. The King of Scots is preening himself; he thinks that if France invades, they will partition the kingdom and give him the north, if not the whole.

The men around our king live by what they call honour: skill in arms, prowess on the battlefield. Their appetite is not slaked by the cutting up of northern rebels, or the attrition of border feuding. Norfolk calls war business. ‘If we have business with the French,’ he says, or ‘Should some business with Charles ensue …’ Now church bells are cast into cannon, ploughshares beaten into swords, the cross of Christ becomes a bludgeon, a club to beat out the brains of the opposition. What’s ink in Whitehall is blood in the borderlands, what’s a quibble in the law courts is a stabbing in the streets. Mild monkish blessings are turned to curses, and the giggling of courtiers tails off into an uneasy hush. Each man is watching the other, for signs of treason, signs of weakness. You cannot greet the world in the morning with anything less than ferocity, or by evening you will be destroyed.

It is not our custom in England to maintain a standing army. Using former church revenues, we could raise one. But then Henry would want to use it, as monarchs do, to carry war beyond the seas: which, Master Secretary says, is a thing I will never permit. For our defence we can mobilise swiftly. Ready cash oils the wheels. The best men are appointed in every region, to draw up muster rolls, build beacons, recruit gunners, captain ordnance. Can our friends in Cleves, the king asks, send a hundred expert cannoneers?

The king’s ships stand in the Thames: the Jesus and the John Baptist, the Peter, the Minion, the Primrose and the Sweepstake, the Lyon, the Trinity, the Valentine; the Mary Rose and the Mary Boleyn. The king’s tabletop is papered with charts and plans. He draws forts and blockhouses, and he, Cromwell, sends out surveyors to map the coastline. All the maps are to be sent to the king. He dreams of laying them out in Westminster Hall, a pattern of these islands.

The message to the world is: we can withstand a sudden invasion, and we can sustain a long war. He, Cromwell, writes letters into Europe, explaining the recent executions. Every prince will understand that the dead men were dynasts; Henry is keeping his line safe. Within a year our country will be a giant fortress, guns trained on the sea lanes: more like a castle than a realm.

A castle is a world in little. Everyone inside it must work together. If it falls it is because it is betrayed from within. The Duke of Norfolk rides north, to stamp out sedition where the king’s writ is weakest: a querulous old man, taking to the winter roads. ‘Take your time,’ he advises: he, Lord Cromwell.

‘I’ve no choice, have I?’ Norfolk snarls. But then he turns, relenting: ‘Look here. When you write to me, you need not address me as “your Grace”. It doesn’t seem fitting these days. You being what you are.’

He bows. Perhaps Norfolk has received a prompt from the king? ‘Most humbly I acknowledge your lordship’s condescension.’

But, he thinks, I won’t start calling you Tom. He never sees the duke with a sword at his side, without imagining himself run through: ‘Beg pardon, Lord Cromwell, was that your heart?’

The king says, ‘Ask the German princes what they will do for us, if we find ourselves under attack. Ask them to send engineers. If they must send more scholars, naturally we will receive them, but our need is for fighting men.’

You can hire soldiers, of course. The king’s father hired the army that knocked the throne from under Crookback. They will fight as long as they are paid or rewarded with plunder, but they will not stir one foot unless they hear the chink of coin. He, Cromwell, puts out scouts through Germany and Italy. He is not interested in a poxy rabble of Irishmen or Scots, only in proven captains from nations where war is a science.

This winter the council sits every day. The king presides, except when he rides off in person to inspect the Channel ports. The exigency has given him a new briskness, a vigour. ‘My lords, I am weary of reading long letters. You must digest them for me. Unless they come from my brother kings, when I shall read them entire.’

The King of Scotland sends his compliments, and asks for a lion. A lion! ‘The temerity of the man!’ the councillors exclaim. ‘The presumption!’

‘I have plenty of lions, I suppose,’ the king says mildly, ‘in the cages at the Tower. I would not refuse to do him pleasure. My lord Cromwell, will you see to that?’

Someone laughs, and stifles the laugh. Any odd tasks, the king always says they are Cromwell business. And they always are.

The king’s council is smaller now. It is compacted to an effective body, so there are no makeweights. But every man who sits has a strong will and strong interests. The king begs for concord amongst his advisers. But Henry himself cannot walk a line: he leans violently one way, then violently the other, and it takes a robust man to support him. Intemperate councillors fail. We have all seen Gardiner flouncing from the royal presence, looking like a plaice, with his mouth turned down and his underlip thrust out.

The king’s temper is no mystery. The astrologers say it is his moon in Aries that makes him explosive, confrontational – but really what matters is the state of his leg. Some days it hurts more, some days less, but there are no days it does not hurt at all. As the king’s doctors remark, the ailments of great men have too little credit, when their lives are passed in view. They inherit thrones, but so much else. When the Emperor speaks, his words rattle like pebbles in the cavern of his overshot jaw. François is paying for his sins: he has lost so many teeth to the mercury cure that his wishes are expressed as spit, and his parts are ulcerated in a fashion that would repulse the lowest whore.

He is repulsed by François himself. In Paris his new Bibles have been seized and his printers warned off. He thought he had bribed enough people to keep the Inquisitors at bay. Now, perhaps, they expect him to pay a ransom for the type? Perhaps he will, as he has paid out so much already. He calls in Ambassador Castillon, and asks that François, as a favour, release the unbound sheets. Perhaps the day may come when François wants a favour in turn?

In letters home Castillon begs for his recall. He is afraid that, if hostilities break out, Henry and Cromwell will kill him. He refers to ‘the king and his milord’ – as if there is only one milord in England.

Meanwhile he, the Vicegerent, arranges to set up his print shop at Greyfriars, where he can walk in and see what is done day by day. It will be safer, if slower. In one bad week, he says to Rafe, your life’s work can be shot out of the water.

Around Candlemas, coming in to the king, he finds him sitting at twilight over his books; Henry raises his head and looks at him with a faint puzzlement, as if he has never seen him before. Then the king seems to shake himself and says, ‘You look cold, Thomas, come to the fire. I was thinking that sometimes we should pray together. How do you pray, my lord? Do you begin with your Pater Noster, or do you repeat a psalm, or do you say words of your own devising?’

He looks closely at the king and sees the question is not a trap. He says, ‘I praise God as master of our ship. No tempest will sink us.’

The king grants licence for one John Misseldon, alchemist, to return to England from his stay beyond the seas. He may practise his craft as long as he does not resort to the dark arts. ‘Sooner or later,’ he warns the king, ‘all such men grow desperate, and then they turn to necromancy.’

I also, he thinks. I sit at my desk day after day, waiting for the cardinal to whisper in my ear.

Before February ends we are locked into crisis. Only Lord Lisle does not seem to know it. John Husee, salt-sprayed from the crossing, drips into his waiting chamber. ‘Husee,’ he says, ‘since Edward Seymour has been in Calais, I begin to form a picture of how your master falls short.’

‘You know he is not well,’ Husee says awkwardly.

‘Ill enough to be replaced?’

‘No, no, please …’ Husee says.

He takes pity on the man. ‘I shall send over my nephew Richard to help him.’

‘If it please you,’ Husee says, ‘Lord Edward, Master Richard – they would be described as gospellers –’

‘Lord Lisle objects to that?’

If war breaks out, Calais is the first place the enemy will attack. I should go myself and take charge, he thinks. But I don’t want to find that, in my absence, the king has panicked and called Norfolk back from the borders, or put a plaice in my seat at the council board.

France and the Emperor give notice that they are withdrawing their ambassadors. Chapuys comes to see him privately, twitching with tension. ‘Do not take it as an act of war, I beg you. The Emperor is recalling me only because I know your English manners, and can advise the Duchess Christina – how she should order herself, when she comes over to England to be crowned.’

When he, Lord Cromwell, conveys this to the councillors, the whole table bursts into laughter. Only Call-Me, and perhaps the king, still believe Christina will ever be his bride. Officially, talks are still open. But the Emperor is imposing conditions that make the match impossible. When the duchess’s servants visit Wriothesley these days, they flit in by owl-light.

He says, ‘The Emperor wants Chapuys back so he can report on our war preparations. But before we release the ambassador, we should make sure we get Wriothesley home safe.’

‘Hostages!’ the Lord Chancellor says. ‘Oh, Mother Mary! What about Wyatt in Spain? I hear the Inquisitors are at his back.’

He has Wyatt’s letter in his pocket. Our ambassador writes, I am at the wall. I cannot endure till March.

He goes home. His leg is aching and his people have made a special stool to set it on. ‘Decrepit,’ he says to his nephew Richard.

He sees himself from without, a miniature on vellum: Lord Cromwell in his Later Years. A Flemish tiled floor, a chequerboard of blue and gold; a red velvet gown and inside it a hunched invalid. Richard leans over his chair, a hand on his shoulder. ‘What if you are not in your first youth? I shall be glad if at your age I am as sound.’

Christophe says, ‘Compare with the king! My lord Admiral, he has been ill since Christmas. Norferk, he is shrivelled like a dried bean.’

Richard says, ‘Christophe, respect your betters.’

Christophe says, ‘One fears for Call-Me. Suppose they kill him? Or drop him in a deep dungeon?’

This has occurred to him. They could lock the boy in Vilvoorde where they kept Tyndale. Richard Cromwell says, ‘You used to have a plan of that fortress. Would we send a troop of men to break him out?’

They glance at each other, turn away again. Probably not.

He limps along to the Tower, where in a broad and pleasant room, a pale fire in the hearth, he converses with Gertrude, Courtenay’s widow. For a woman who has just lost her husband to the headsman, she is self-possessed: dry-eyed, and eating almonds from a platter. ‘No doubt you fortified yourself with prayer?’ he says. ‘You cannot have been surprised. You knew everything my lord Exeter said and did against the king. You were in his inner councils.’

‘A woman has her own soul to save,’ Gertrude says. ‘Her husband will not do it for her.’

‘Do you know the traitor Pole is now in Spain?’

She offers him an almond. ‘Why would I know?’

‘He is with the Emperor, urging a crusade against his native land. Then he will go to France again, urging the same. So he turns about and about, snared in his treason.’

Her gaze drifts over his shoulder, as if the wall is more interesting.

‘Our ambassador in Spain has begged to return home, but they say, “Tarry, Mr Wyatt.” The Inquisitors have begun a process against him. You would not like to be in Wyatt’s place.’

‘Why would I be? I am not a heretic.’

‘Once they detain a suspect he cannot answer to the charge, because he is not allowed to know what it is. Nor is he told who has laid information. He is tortured by methods – well, my lady, I would not sully your ears. In Castile these days, every soul lives in fear.’

‘They have nothing to fear from the Holy Office,’ she says. ‘Not if they are good livers, and go to Mass.’

‘They fear their neighbours. Old enemies bring each other down.’

Her eyes move over him. She sees the king’s councillor: a genial man, comfortable in his skin. She doesn’t see the other man, whom he keeps short-chained to the wall: the man for whom the work of forgetting is strenuous, who dreams of dungeons, cavities and oubliettes. Such men are subject to uprushes of fear which wake them in the night; when they are frightened, they laugh.

‘My lord,’ she says, ‘where is Bess Darrell?’

Judging by her tone, she does not know Bess’s evidence helped to ruin her family. He says, ‘She is in a happier place.’

Her hand flies to her throat. ‘God forgive you – you have not killed her?’

‘Do you think I am a brute?’

He is interested in her answer. She says, ‘I have wondered why I am still alive myself. They say you do not like killing women, but you killed Anne Boleyn.’

‘You do not quarrel with me for that, I suppose?’

‘If you are trying to bargain – if you were thinking of trading me, for Mr Wyatt – I am afraid that the Emperor might not …’

‘Perhaps you and Margaret Pole?’ he says. ‘You are right, madam. You make little weight on the scales. Your son is of more interest.’

She looks up. ‘Please do not take him from me.’

‘When the Emperor decides on his policy to England, we hope that he will consider your welfare, and that of your boy. He says he is always solicitous for the old blood of England.’

She says, ‘The Holy Maid – you remember her? You blame me still, because I had dealings with her. I swore then and will swear now, I meant no malice.’

She begins to cry. He gives her a handkerchief. ‘You know I have lost little children. My lord husband used to fault me – “Heirs frail as they are, the times so cruel, one son is not enough.” She, the Maid – she said she would speak to Our Blessed Lady. She claimed her prayers were heard.’

He remembers Barton on a public scaffold, her broad countrygirl’s face chafed by the wind, and a crowd of Londoners gaping up at her. He remembers Thomas More by his side, huddled into a cape and rubbing his raw blue hands; it must have been a winter like this. He says gently, ‘Well, they weren’t, were they? But thank you for telling me this. The king may think better of you than he does now. A mother’s heart. He will understand.’

She blows her nose. He says, ‘If you have anything else to tell me, I think confession would ease your soul. About Thomas More, for instance. Or Bishop Fisher.’

‘Why? They are dead.’

‘In Rome they talk about them as if they had just left the room.’

They take a cup of wine together, served in silver as befits their rank. He takes a courteous leave. A guard takes his arm and guides him down a twisted stair to where an Irish monk squats on straw. Taken on the sea with letters to the Emperor, the prisoner is waiting for the pains of Purgatory to commence. If invaders come, the king’s Irish subjects will let them in by the back door.

He asks the gaoler, ‘Is he talking?’

‘He cracks on he only speaks Irish.’

‘Send to Austin Friars. We have interpreters.’

He takes a breath. He walks in on the prisoner, holding the letters salvaged from his purse. Lucky he did not think to cast them into the sea.

If Wriothesley were here he would break the cipher in ten minutes. Wyatt, no doubt, would do it in less. But while they are in the Emperor’s hands, it is quicker to break men.

By an order from Brussels, English ships are detained in Lowland ports. But Spanish merchants are leaving London, and he knows how quickly panic spreads among traders; they may speak in different tongues, but money talks to them all.

The king says, if they hold my ships, I will hold theirs; I will board any Spanish vessel in our waters.

There is another way, he says; not better than your Majesty’s, but supplementary. He issues a fiat to lift dues and taxes on resident foreigners – put them on par with Englishmen. That, he believes, will induce aliens to see out this storm in harbour, and not to pack their wives and chattels on the next boat.

Call-Me reports a rumour that the young Duke of Cleves has been poisoned by agents of Rome. For God’s sake, Mr Wriothesley writes, implore our royal master to be careful who comes into his company or near his person. And you, sir, you be careful too.

Ambassador Chapuys is limping. ‘You. Me. Your king,’ he says. ‘You would think it was a nation of cripples, Thomas. It’s the climate.’

‘It rains as much in Brussels.’

Eustache concedes that. ‘I will not be capable of riding to Dover. I must arrange a horse litter –’

‘Allow me to take care of it. And your baggage too.’

The ambassador bows. They sit down to Lenten fare. Chapuys has little appetite. England has never been a popular posting: the barbarous tongue and, as Chapuys says, the weather. But when he imagined the end of his embassy, he imagined an orderly withdrawal, and the customary present from the king. ‘What do you hear of young Wriothesley?’ he asks. ‘I have written most earnestly – and Thomas, I am telling you the truth here – I have said to Brussels, “Do not for God’s sake mistreat this young man, who is a great favourite both with the King of England and with my lord Cremuel.” I trust they will heed me and your boy will soon be on the road.’

The aim is to have Call-Me pass through the gates of Calais as the ambassador’s ship docks. At some point, unseen, the two should pass each other. ‘Just as long as you do not steal away by night,’ he says to Chapuys. ‘I do not want to have to put soldiers outside your house.’

The ambassador holds up his hands. ‘I would not be sitting here, if I intended any such practice. Only I would not have chosen to leave before my successor is inducted. There is such scope for misunderstanding.’

Chapuys is to be replaced by the Dean of Cambrai: a good fellow, coarse-fibred and plain-spoken. He will probably misunderstand everything, and certainly misunderstand the king. ‘I have often pitied you, Cremuel,’ Chapuys says. ‘Henry is a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense. But at least you can meet him face to face. You can see what he makes of what you are telling him. With my master at such a distance, I always fear I will be misunderstood. Or that those who have the good fortune to come into the Emperor’s presence will exercise the art of interpretation against me. You lack old friends. I mean, men of great family. I do not come from a place as low as yours. But you know how it is – I am the boy who always had to send the money home. I have had a little luck, and I have striven to the utmost of my talent. But in the end I cannot help but feel that much of my career has been like yours, Thomas.’ He folds his napkin. ‘Accidental.’

Christophe and Mathew come in and clear dishes. Chapuys stares at Mathew. ‘Boy, did I not see you at Horsley?’

‘Horsley, sir?’

‘The Courtenays’ house, in Surrey. As I think you know well.’

‘Mathew came to me from Wolf Hall,’ he explains.

‘I am more concerned with where he has been since. And how a waiting-boy comes to speak French, though with such a countryman’s accent I can hardly understand him.’

‘He is a quick learner,’ he says easily. ‘I am sending him to Calais soon, where he may polish himself up a little.’

Mathew is so shocked he treads on Christophe’s foot. ‘Oaf,’ Christophe mutters. ‘Bon voyage.’

‘You mean, you are sending him to Calais where he may spy on Lord Lisle.’ Chapuys sighs. ‘Well, I must …’ He crosses himself, murmuring a Latin grace. Painfully he levers himself to his feet, and gathers his gown as if he feels a draught.

He, Lord Cromwell, extends his hand. ‘I trust that when you reach the other side you will not complain of your treatment?’

He thinks of Eustache in his garden tower at Canonbury; the thundery evening when, quibble by quibble, a hair’s-breadth at a time, they edged the Lady Mary from wreckage to salvage. He remembers Christophe squatting at the base of the tower, his knife in his hand.

Richard Cromwell comes in. ‘Ambassador, your people are here.’

Chapuys hesitates. ‘Mon cher, I do not know when I shall return. Should we by some mischance, never again …’

‘Oh, none of that,’ he says. ‘We are stout of heart, Eustache, if not sound in limb.’

They embrace. The ambassador goes out, dispensing largesse to the household. He sits down at his desk. There is a letter from Carew’s widow Eliza, asking him to sort out her affairs. He owes her gratitude, he feels. Carew’s death has opened up opportunities to promote his own folk. When Richard comes back he asks him, ‘You would not like to go into the privy chamber, nephew? The king is sending Rafe to Scotland again, and I need people as close as I can get them.’

A clerk puts his head around the door. ‘Nothing from Wriothesley.’

‘We will not hear tonight.’ Any messenger on the road will be storm-lashed into shelter. Call-Me is in transit, we trust. He is at an inn: tallow candles, a cold bed; strangers’ faces; Imperial guards on the door.

‘I feel sorry for Chapuys,’ he says to Richard. ‘Going out into the rain.’

He feels someone has attached a weight to his heart. Not a big weight: just a small leaden bob, so he feels the drag. He turns back to his paperwork. He is occupied in setting up a new council, the Council of the West, to govern the parts beyond Bristol. He says to Wolsey – le cardinal pacifique – trust me, your Grace, I keep my mind on what I shall do come the peace. I am going to secure this German alliance for the king, and a bride.

Surely that will tempt the old ghost out? But the cardinal shows no sign of listening at all. He doesn’t even ask, what about Duke Wilhelm in Cleves? Is he dead of papal poison, as your man Wriothesley says?

He is not. He is alive and willing to talk.

The dukedom of Cleves-Mark-Jülich-Berg lies on both sides of the Rhine. Its ruler Wilhelm is twenty-two years old, and through his mother has a claim, which he is pressing, to the land and seacoast of Guelders: a claim which the Emperor disputes. Duke Wilhelm shows great independence of mind. He is a reformer, but not a Lutheran. His church is under his own control. He guards some of Europe’s vital trade routes.

He, Cromwell, sits down with the king’s council and lays before them certain facts. He introduces them to the substance called alum, without which we cannot dye cloth.

In our grandfathers’ time we bought alum from the Turk, who would never take cash alone, he wanted arms – thus equipping himself for war on Christians, using their own money. Then sixty years back a deposit was found at Tolfa near Rome, a deposit so rich that they say it will never run out till the Day of Judgement. The Vatican brought in the Medici to run the trade and invented a new and grave sin: trading in alum without a licence. Later it was Agostino Chigi, that prince of bankers, who ran the monopoly: and you should see the villa he built, on Tiber’s shores.

Now the Pope has us under his bale and ban. We need a source, we need a conduit, if our industries are not to collapse. We use alum in tanning, we use it in the manufacture of glass; doctors use it to heal wounds. The Spanish have a small supply. It is low-grade and anyway they will not sell it to heretics. But the ruler of Cleves, who has two sisters who want husbands, also has reserves of this treasure, which at its finest takes the form of crystals, huge clear crystals like jewels for a giant.

Perhaps alum is not the foundation for a love match. But members of the king’s council agree: you have reason on your side, Lord Cromwell.

So what about the young ladies themselves? They are of great lineage, descended from the royal line of France and from our own King Edward I. They are good girls, from whom their mother will be sorry to part. It is true that our visiting envoys have never been allowed to see them. They have been in their presence, but the virgins of Cleves are modest by custom; throughout the interview the sisters sit in silence under their veils.

When he arrives in the privy chamber the doctors are on their way out, the foremost carrying a flask of urine. The man wears an expression of pious gratification, as if he’s found the Holy Grail.

‘Come in,’ the king says. ‘I am exhausted from my travels, my lord.’

Over his embroidered nightshirt the king wears a jerkin lined with lambskins. His cap is pinned with a vast spinel, a purple stone with a glow soft as velvet. By his elbow stands a white basin containing his blood. The king’s eyes flit to the basin, then to his; he looks apologetic. Henry is a fastidious man and would probably not like to encounter a bowl of gore. But he, Cromwell, is as indifferent as a butcher.

‘Writs have gone out for the new Parliament, sir. I intend it will be a tractable one.’

He takes papers out of his bag, and a package. Henry’s eyes light on it. ‘What have you brought me?’

It is a work is called The Solace and Consolation of Princes, written by an adviser to the princes of Saxony. Henry turns it over in his hands. ‘A wife would be a consolation.’

‘If she brought us good allies, sir.’

The king falls to reading the book. But he interrupts him. ‘My friends at the Fuggers’ bank tell me Charles is raising cash.’

‘For soldiers?’

‘Yes. But to send into Barbary. They say he will not leave Spain himself. The Empress is having a child and he is concerned about her. She is subject to fevers, as your Majesty knows.’

The king is silent. No doubt his mind has slid elsewhere, to those worrying days of women’s confinements: to Katherine, to Anne, to Jane. At last he says, ‘Did you hear the Earl of Wiltshire is dead?’

Thomas Boleyn. ‘God assoil him. I hear he made a good Christian end.’ He pauses. ‘Will your Majesty bestow his title elsewhere?’

‘Well, he leaves no son.’ Henry barks with laughter and shuts the book. ‘George Boleyn is forgot.’

Not by me, he thinks. I sometimes dream of him, as I saw him last in the Martin Tower: his seeping tears, and his hands shaking, naked without their rings. He says, ‘Cleves agrees to send pictures of the young ladies. But their painter is sick, so there may be a delay. From what I hear, it is no wonder they keep the Lady Anna veiled. They say in beauty she excels the Duchess Christina as the golden sun excels the silver moon.’

‘Steady,’ the king says. He laughs.

‘I think if we send new envoys, the ladies will show their faces.’

‘I am sending Dr Carne. And Nicholas Wotton.’

He is surprised. He did not know the king had planned so far. Neither man could be called a friend of his. Henry is watching him. ‘I am glad of it, sir. They will not be partial. We can all trust their reports.’

He stops, because the young fellow Culpeper is oozing in, Howard ears pricked. ‘May it please your Majesty,’ Culpeper says, ‘the doctors have sent me. May I take the basin of blood?’

Outside, Jane Rochford is waiting for him. ‘Any nearer to a queen?’ She has a bag with her. ‘This is for you. From my lord father.’

‘A book?’

‘Of course, a book. What does my father ever send, but a book?’

‘It might have been a venison pasty. The older I get, the more I hate Lent.’

He glances at her face, as he takes out the present: her discontented mouth. She says, ‘We want to know which of the sisters he will choose. Unless he means to have them both?’

She is waiting. He turns over the leaves. It is Niccolò Machiavelli’s book, and inside is a note from Lord Morley, suggesting he shows it to the king; he has marked the most interesting passages, he says, by drawing a hand in the margin.

‘Well?’ she says.

‘I read it years ago, when it was still in manuscript. I shall write and thank your lord father, of course.’

‘Not “Well?” about the book,’ she says. ‘“Well?” about the princesses. Which one will he take? They say one has brown hair and one blonde.’

‘I hope I shall not be called on for the Judgement of Paris.’

‘Go for the blonde, is my advice.’

He hands the book to Christophe. ‘His tastes may have changed.’

She looks at him as if he is simple. ‘I do not think blondes go out of style. By the way, the Howards sent a little lass called Katherine, to see if we would have her among the new queen’s maids. Succulent and plump, and I doubt she has passed her fifteenth year.’

‘Send her away.’

‘As you wish. Though I think you could win her from Uncle Norfolk if you winked at her and gave her an apple. I never saw a simpler maid – a little rosebud mouth hanging open, like a suckling at the teat. What shall I say to the Howards?’

‘Put them off. Make sure she does not show her face till I have the marriage contracts signed.’

‘I hear the Duke of Cleves has asked for the Lady Mary’s portrait. It is time she made herself useful. And from what I hear, the most useful thing she could do is marry a German.’

‘We do not send pictures of our princesses abroad. It is not our custom.’

She tilts her head. ‘You invent customs very readily.’

He bows, as if she were complimenting him. It is the only thing to do, as he cannot well give her a slap. He says, ‘Duke Wilhelm’s envoys know Mary’s virtues and qualities. They have seen her.’

‘But not when she has toothache,’ Rochford says gaily.

He tucks Lord Morley’s gift under his arm. The king has nothing to learn from Niccolò’s book. But it may pass an hour for him, when his leg is giving him pain.

When Mary is asked whether she would like to marry into Cleves, she says she will do as her father tells her, but that given her choice, she would rather stay in the land of her birth and remain a virgin. It is a modest answer, which no one can fault.

When he gets home Richard Riche is waiting. ‘Ricardo,’ he says, ‘I shall want your help preparing for the Parliament. We shall be working long hours.’

‘When do we not?’ Riche says, like a man rising to the challenge. ‘I hear Wriothesley is to sit for Hampshire?’

‘I think he deserves it, after his travails abroad. I look for his return every day.’

‘A pity he did not have better success, and bring back a bride. And Bishop Gardiner is the king’s man in Hampshire – it will offend him, to have a rival.’

He nods: that’s the idea.

‘And young Gregory to sit – do you think he is ready? Forgive me, but your ill-wishers are bound to raise the point.’

‘The business is great. The hours are long. I do not see it as an occupation for old men.’

Riche offers papers. ‘Would you cast an eye? It is the pension list for the surrender at Shaftesbury. You always said the abbess would fight till the last ditch. But we have found a sum to buy her off.’

We should not begrudge. It is a rich house. He runs a dry quill down the list. There is the name he is looking for: Dorothea Clancey. ‘Do you know if the ladies have decided their future?’

‘Not our business, sir.’ But then Riche softens. ‘I look back fondly on our ride to Shaftesbury. I always think it a pleasure to be in your company for a day, my lord – and a privilege too. I relish to see how your lordship transacts business among all sorts and conditions of people. I am the better instructed, and I profit by it.’

Pleasure and profit. What could be more fitting for Richard Riche? The door is flung open. Christophe erupts into the room. ‘Look who!’

‘Call-Me!’ He opens his arms wide. The traveller, muddy from the Dover road, falls into them.

‘We lost sight of you!’ He hugs him. ‘Chapuys wrote to me from Calais – I think it was to say you were on the seas, but his words were all washed by salt water.’

‘As mine,’ Call-Me says. With his glove of red Spanish leather, he knocks a tear from his cheek; plucks off his hat, with its sweeping ostrich plume, and throws it down on the desk. ‘Sir, I cannot tell you how glad I am to see your face. Twice or thrice I made sure I was dead. I did not know what to wish for – that the king would fall in love with Chapuys and hold him till my escape, or that he would boot him into a boat, so I might start for home.’

‘It was the time between that we feared.’ Rafe is standing in the doorway. ‘When you were dissolved – neither here, nor there, nor in Heaven nor on earth.’ He crosses the room, and kisses the hero’s cheek. ‘Welcome home, Call-Me.’

Riche is looking at them puzzled: as if they were a tribe of Indians, at some feast of theirs.

‘Oh, and the knave Phillips!’ Call-Me exclaims: as if he must get it over. ‘Sir, you could not reproach me more than I reproach myself.’

‘Be at ease,’ he says. ‘A man like Phillips is an affront to God and reason. If I had been on embassy at your age, I am sure I should have been deceived, if only out of zeal for my country’s good.’

Riche says peevishly, ‘My lord would rather have Wyatt safe home than you. Wyatt has things to tell him.’

‘Oh?’ Wriothesley says.

‘Schemes for how we might set Italy in a roar,’ Riche says. ‘In Toledo he has the envoys of all nations in and out of his lodging and he spins them like a whipping top. Venice goes out of the back door, Ferrara comes in the front, while Mantua hides under the table and a Florentine up the chimney. He hears so many intrigues he says his skull is splitting. But he will not spill the facts except in secret to my lord.’

‘Oh,’ Wriothesley says. Richard Cromwell comes bounding in, hallooing like a houndmaster, and pounds him with his fist. Call-Me pounds him back, till Rafe says, ‘Wriothesley, go home to your wife!’

‘I should.’ Call-Me blushes. He glows. He picks up the ostrich-feather hat and sweeps the air, and catches a candle in its arc.

It is Richard Riche who steps forward and pinches out the damage. ‘Digits of iron,’ he says diffidently.

The papers from Shaftesbury lie unattended. When the boys have gone, he stands over them, moving his forefinger over the name of the cardinal’s daughter. The air smells of burning plumes. He picks up his pen and signs her off.