The Mirror and the Light (Ascension Day | Part 3)

When you get back, Walter and his boys are still bellowing. You are astonished. You thought it was three in the morning. You expected dowsed lights, shutters, padlocks. But there they are, still roaring away: Come kiss me! Nay! By God ye shall …

The door opens. ‘Thomas? Where been?’

You don’t answer.

Walter sounds as outraged as you were, when Wilkin fouled the highway. ‘Don’t you turn your back on me!’

‘Christ, no,’ you say. ‘He’d be a fool and short-lived, that did that.’

Walter raises his hand. But something – perhaps his own unsteadiness, perhaps something in your eye – makes him back off. ‘I’ll be right with you, lads,’ he shouts.

They’ve reached the part where they rape the maid. Walter will be required to imitate her cries. Now have ye laid me on the floor …

Walter’s eyes are bulging. He points. ‘Thee, Thomas, in the morning.’

‘Thee anytime. Now?’

The knife is next to your heart: ready for use. Though you could lie down and slumber. You could fall at his feet: Father, I have sinned …

‘Walt!’ some dolt roars. ‘Come back in!’ Out rolls the squinting knave and claps his father’s shoulder, lays hold of him by the collar. The door slams. He watches the place where his father isn’t. From behind the door, a flurry of shrieks, as the maiden cries for her mother.

One day soon he will be indefeasible. One day he will drag Walt into the light of day, and fell him in common view, the good folk of Putney watching: and if they care to come from Mortlake and Wimbledon, they will find it worth their while.

‘Father, I am ready,’ says Noah’s son in the play. Axe have I, by this crown, as sharp as any in all this town. I have a hatchet, wonder keen, To bite well, as may be seen …

Then Noah and his sons make a ship. And sail forth, on God’s tide.

In his fever, he thinks the Archbishop of Canterbury arrives. Cranmer, not Becket: even so, it might have been a dream. When he sits up, ‘John Husee is without,’ they say. He groans. He has a band of negotiators working on the purchase of Lisle’s property at Painswick. Lisle bleats they have neither heart nor conscience, but what does he expect? They’re lawyers.

Lisle wants special treatment, from high and low. He has owed the king money for ten years, and humble men too. He owes his grocer, Blagge. The drapers Jasper and Tong supply him no longer. People in the city complain to him about Lord Lisle’s debts, as if he ought to pay them.

Help me out of bed, he says. He sits in a chair, wrapped up against April. ‘Give out that I am better. Is Norfolk back for the Parliament? And Suffolk? Is Mr Wriothesley come up? And is Gregory here?’

‘Master Gregory has been and gone away again.’

He has missed St George’s Day, the chapter of the Garter. The recent executions have opened vacancies among the knights. They tell him William Kingston has been elected, an honour long deserved.

He says, how stands Bishop Gardiner? Has he fallen in with the king, or out with the king, these few days while I have been lying sick?

Christophe says, ‘Gardineur – what does he know, sir?’

‘Less than he thinks.’

‘You are sharp this morning,’ Christophe says. ‘But in your fever you groaned and said, “Stephen Gardineur knows.”’

Stephen went down to Putney. He truffled about in the mud. He said, Cromwell, I know more of you than your mother knows. I know more about your past than you know yourself.

‘And is Thomas Boleyn truly dead?’ he asks. ‘Or did I dream it?’

‘As dead as his daughter.’

In the access of his fever he had seen Anne the queen, walking to the scaffold, the wind pawing her. He heard her final prayer, ripped away from her lips, and he saw the veiled women who steadied her for the headsman: saw them step away, and lift the hems of their garments clear.

Gregory comes back once he hears he is awake. Gregory Cromwell, member of Parliament: grass-green velvet with a curling black feather in his cap. He says, ‘Father, the new French ambassador and the new Imperial ambassador visit each other every day. They walk with their arms linked, billing like turtle doves. But what we hear is, the traitor Pole finds cold entertainment with the Emperor.’

Reginald Pole cannot understand why Charles does not place the conquest of England at the top of his list. Charles tells him wearily, I am only human. And there is only one of me. And I can only lead one army at a time. Any season, I must be ready against the Turks.

But the Turks are the enemy without, Pole pleads. And the English the enemy within. Should they not be dealt with first?

Charles says, ‘Bless you, Monsieur Polo: if we wake tomorrow and the Turk is at the gates of Vienna, will you say the enemy is within, or without?’

In this Parliament we will have a bill of attainder against Pole’s mother and against Gertrude Courtenay. They will be named traitors without need of further trial. He, the Lord Privy Seal, limps to the Parliament house and shows the silent assembly a figured vestment found in the possession of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. It quarters the arms of England with a pansy for Pole and a marigold for the Lady Mary, signifying their union; between them grows a Tree of Life. It was turned out of Margaret’s coffers, he asserts, by those sent to search her houses. He says, I always maintained that embroidery would get her into trouble.

Margaret Pole is moved to the Tower. The king is pleased to spare her life, for now. He thinks of all the times Margaret neglected to give him his title, making him plain Master Cromwell. She sees who is the master now.

He dreams of a disembodied self walking in deep woods. There are mirrors set among the trees.

When he drags himself to where the king is, papers in hand, he finds Gardiner there first. Gardiner says, ‘You look very ill, Cromwell. There is a rumour flying around that you are dead.’

‘Well,’ he says modestly. ‘As you see, Stephen.’

The king says, ‘I am feeling better myself. Is this inconvenience over, do you suppose?’

The fever, he means: the waves of nausea, the racking aches, the raging headache. ‘Majesty, I have some news from Cleves.’

He waits for the king to dismiss Stephen. But Henry only says, ‘Yes?’

‘I know the Bishop of Winchester has much in hand. Perhaps he would like to continue his day?’

But Henry makes no sign. Stephen seems to puff up, like a toad.

Deliberately he turns away from him, to address the king. ‘Duke Wilhelm would like to be assured of the dower arrangements for his sister and,’ he hesitates, ‘how she would be left, if your Majesty were to pre-decease her.’

‘Why does he think that likely?’ Gardiner asks.

He keeps his eyes averted. ‘Such arrangements are comprehended in any marriage contract. You cannot be so ignorant of the wedded state that you do not know that.’

Stephen says, ‘I imagine the lady would be struck to the heart. She would care more about the loss of the king’s person, than for any worldly advantage.’

He flicks a glance at Henry: he sees he is entranced by the bishop’s words. ‘That is why a bride’s kin make the contract, and in advance. So when she is new-widowed she does not weep herself out of her rights.’

Henry says, ‘I am known for generosity. Duke Wilhelm will find nothing to complain of.’

‘There is another matter,’ he says, reluctant. ‘Our man Wotton is writing to your Majesty. A little over ten years ago, a marriage was proposed between the Lady Anna and the heir of the Duke of Lorraine. Now –’

‘But that business was raised last year,’ Henry says. ‘When the contract was drawn the parties were but ten and twelve years old. No contract holds good until they affirm it, having reached a fit age. Therefore I see no impediment to our union. Why is the matter brought up again? I see the Emperor’s hand in it. He is determined I shall not wed.’

‘All the same, we had better see the paperwork,’ Gardiner says.

‘It seems to me,’ he says, ‘that Cleves would never have offered the Lady Anna if she were not completely free.’

Gardiner is stubborn. ‘I would like to see articles of revocation.’

‘It is my understanding that the marriage contract was written into a larger text, which was not formally revoked because it was part of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid …’ He closes his eyes. ‘I will ask someone to write it all down for you, Gardiner.’

‘And bring it before the whole council. Or it would be unsafe to go any further.’

‘Unsafe?’ Henry stares at him. He seems to be disputing his choice of word.

‘Unwise,’ Gardiner concedes.

‘In any event,’ he says, ‘though the king prefers Lady Anna, as being the elder and of meeter age, if there did prove to be an impediment, there is nothing against the Lady Amelia. And – here is good news – they are able to provide likenesses.’

Gardiner says, ‘I wonder where they found those, all of a sudden. I thought Cranach was ill.’

‘Perhaps he has powers of recovery,’ he says, ‘like me.’

‘How old are they?’

‘The princesses?’

‘The portraits,’ Gardiner says.

‘Recent, I am assured.’

‘But if our envoys have not seen either lady, how shall they swear to the likeness?’

‘They have in fact seen them,’ he says. ‘But they were somewhat cloaked and veiled.’

‘I wonder why?’

Henry says, ‘You see! Would not this delight the Emperor? Division among my councillors? Contention and strife?’

He and Gardiner face each other. The bishop is not there to discuss the king’s marriage. He’s there on God’s business, or so he would claim. The king wishes to make an act of Parliament to abolish diversity in opinion: by which he means, the expression of opinion. Gardiner has come to push him on six articles of faith laid before Convocation: to persuade the king to the Roman line, body and blood.

There is no doubt, his sickness has set back the cause of the gospel – his brothers too afraid and too disunited, without him, to present a firm front. Norfolk has placed a sycophant in the Commons as Mr Speaker. In the Lords, the duke himself crusades, bringing to the table these six articles and wrangling about them with every confidence – though he knows as much theology as a gatepost. Gardiner has whipped in the bishops who stick by ancient doctrine, and they conspire together from breakfast to supper, talking like rank papists and raising their glasses to toast old times. While the Lord Privy Seal is sweating in his sickbed, while he is writing letters all over Europe searching out allies and friends, while he is occupied in finding nearly fifteen hundred pounds a day to pay and victual the mariners who man the ships at Portsmouth – his enemies have stolen past him, and by the end of the Parliament, they will have six articles passed into law.

The king says, ‘My lord Cromwell, if that is all –?’

He bows himself out. Culpeper is attending; the boy slides up to him: ‘You need a seat, my lord? A cup of wine?’

He needs to hit somebody. He waves the boy back. When he gets home he is shaking with fatigue. He has forgotten how much bruising energy it takes to confront Stephen Gardiner. He throws his papers down. ‘Ask the German guests to come and see me. We will plan a feast. Send Thurston up.’

He talks as if his illness is behind him, but he knows it has not run its course. He prays the fever will weaken itself through successive bouts. It is vital that this summer he is by the king’s side, so he must be fit for long days of hunting. Every absent day he loses advantage. If kings do not see you they forget you. Even though nothing in the realm is done without you, kings think they do it all themselves.

Still: I am Vicegerent, he tells himself. I, not Stephen, am Chief Secretary and Lord Privy Seal. I am first in the king’s council and first in his estimation, and I am well able to wimble holes in the bottom of papist boats. Every day now is Ascension Day. However much Thomas Howard mislikes the scriptures, there will soon be Bibles enough for every parish: and I standing at the king’s side, handing them out. As for Gardiner, what does he truly understand, of the king’s mind and temper? What does he know of the revenue? What does he know of the defence of the realm?

On a fine day in May, assembling at dawn, the armed might of London passes before the king at Whitehall. There are some sixteen thousand men in array, and of them he has furnished fully one-tenth himself. He had intended to ride at their head, but weakness confines him to St James’s, where he watches from the back gate: but to bear him company the king sends John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain. Gregory and Richard on their white horses ride together: faces intent, armour blazing, the Cromwell flag rippling.

In Italy, he thinks, when I was a soldier, I picked up a snake for a bet. My comrades counted slowly, one to twenty, while I tightened my grip. The snake twisted in my hand and sank its venom deep into my wrist. But I gripped the noxious beast till I pleased to let it go. I took the poison and I never died. The witnesses stuffed my pockets with their money. And God damn the man who says I didn’t earn it.

When the days are fine, and the air sweet after Evensong, the king cruises up and down the river in the royal barge and shows himself to the people, his gold pilot’s whistle around his neck, on his face a beaming smile; his musicians follow in a second barge, playing drums and fifes. The people line the bank and cheer. Whit Sunday is observed with great ceremony, as in papist days. Richard Riche spends the holiday drawing up a huge list of the king’s debts.

News comes from Spain that the Empress is dead, with her new baby. The king orders full court mourning. St Paul’s is hung with black drapes and the banners of the Holy Roman Empire. The dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk lead the ceremonies. He stands as far from Norfolk as he can, without losing sight of him, or losing precedence.

Ten bishops attend, and Stokesley leads the requiem. Stokesley looks ill, he thinks: though since he is an old crony of More’s, he should have felt invigorated by those six pernicious articles in the bill. Every parish in London tolls its bells for the Empress, the unknown lady who has never set foot here. Far into the night they clang. Bats and demons whirl in the air.

Wyatt writes from Toledo that his bags are packed, and the Inquisitors, though reluctant, will part with him. But the Emperor has gone into seclusion in a monastery, to mourn his wife, so he must wait – he means to take formal leave, not scuttle away like some churl in debt. ‘Though he probably is,’ Rafe says. ‘In debt.’

Bess Darrell writes from Allington: Cromwell, where is Wyatt? Each hour seems like a year to me.

From Italy come reports of two comets seen on one day. Suppose one comet stands for the end of the Empress: what else does He have up his sleeve, the creator of the moon and stars?

Cranmer comes to see him. ‘I am clean amazed,’ he says, ‘I am perplexed, that Parliament could set back the cause of good religion. God’s ways are very strange, to have stricken you down just at this time.’

‘You can’t fault Gardiner’s timing,’ he says. ‘Or Thomas Howard’s.’

‘I am not sure …’ Cranmer struggles. ‘That is … one cannot wholly blame …’

‘You’re not going to blame the king, are you?’

Better blame Norfolk, and bishops Gardiner, Stokesley and Sampson, than wonder aloud whether Henry is weak or duplicitous or incapable of seeing his own interest.

‘Our friends from Germany are appalled,’ Cranmer says. ‘I have to defend our master to them.’

‘How do you do that?’ he asks, interested.

‘Where was Lord Audley in this? Opening and shutting his mouth like one of those wooden idols worked by strings. And Fitzwilliam – I thought he stood your friend.’

He no longer trusts Lord Chancellor Audley. He no longer trusts Lord Admiral Fitzwilliam. Count up the bishops and perhaps ten of them are sound. This is how the king has been able to put through a bill that, among other measures, requires married priests to abandon their wives, on pain of hanging. The measure is deferred a week or two, to allow farewells.

‘What will you and Grete do?’ he asks.

‘Part. What else can we do?’

‘And your daughter?’

‘Grete will take her back to Germany.’

It would be thought a sin, in other circumstances, to put a family asunder. Cranmer says, ‘We begged the king, put the question to the universities – we begged him to search the scriptures, and find where it is forbidden, for a man to have a life companion. I cannot understand him. It is he who insists, marriage is a very high sacrament, in existence since the world began. Then why does he deny it to so many of us? Does he think we are not men, as he is a man? And also, once the bill is passed, none of us will preach on the Blessed Sacrament, its nature. We dare not. We would not know what it is safe to say, without being tripped by the law and cited for heresy.’

This is what the king calls concord: an enforced silence. Bishop Latimer and Bishop Shaxton have openly opposed the king; they cannot continue in office. Cranmer says, ‘I have thought of resigning myself. What is the use of me? Perhaps I should pack my bags and go with Grete.’

‘You told me, in a similar case, I should take heart and take the long view.’

‘How long?’ Cranmer is shaken into bluntness. ‘Till he dies? Because for all that has been said and done these ten years, if we have lost Henry now, we have lost him for ever.’

‘He is not constant in error, is he? What is written on parchment may have no effect in practice. Any ordinance, any measure, I can delay, I can –’ he hesitates over the word ‘frustrate’ – ‘I can work with it,’ he says. ‘There is scope to walk all around these new articles of faith, and ease them in this direction or that –’

‘Except one,’ Cranmer says. ‘My wife and child are not subject to loose interpretation. They are either here, or in Nuremberg. They cannot hover between.’

‘You may see Grete again. If I can get the king his bride, we may be able to hold our heads up in Europe.’

‘I doubt the marriage will be made. We are alienating our friends.’

He shrugs. ‘I am running out of ladies. And in Cleves they are not Lutherans, after all. They may find it possible to live with this new order.’

‘What about your daughter?’ Cranmer says. ‘She cannot come here now, can she? Not and keep her religion?’ He does not wait for an answer: but before the eyes of the Vicegerent, as he paces, Canterbury starts to talk himself around. He is like a man retreating from a cliff edge: in despair he thinks he will throw himself down on the rocks, but then he feels the blue air bouncing him along to perdition, he feels the wind in his lungs, he sees the gulls flying below, he is blown like a feather to the brink, and then he digs his heels in, he grabs at the sparse bent shrubs, screws up his eyes and holds tight for his life. He says, ‘You will not hear me speak against the king.’

‘No one asked you to.’ He feels cold. He wants to put his head down on the desk.

‘I cannot think he means ill, or to distress his subjects. It must be his qualms, his scruples, are genuine, and they have tormented him, perhaps, more than we know.’

‘Perhaps,’ he says.

‘He has carried knowledge that has been a burden to him. He has looked the other way. He has spared me, for one.’

‘Our rulers count up our derelictions,’ he says. ‘They may say nothing, but they keep a secret book.’

‘We know what Christ requires of us,’ Cranmer says. ‘We know what charity is, and what obedience, and we know His teaching, blessed are the peacemakers. Much though I mislike it, I see that peace is what the king intends. All good subjects will follow him.’

‘Naturally,’ he says. ‘Or suffer.’

His ill-wishers say Hugh Latimer will be hanged before Christmas. He means to prevent that. But Cranmer’s wife will be on a boat before the week is out, and there is nothing he can suggest to hold her here.

Just in case there should be any mistake – in case any fool should take the king for a papist – we have a Water Triumph. A burning June day and, well wrapped up, he stands beside the new French ambassador, explaining the spectacle. Before the eyes of king and court, a galley full of Romans fights true-born English sailors. Cardinals are cast into the Thames, splashing and screaming, while drummers beat out a victory tattoo. The sun dances, the pipes blare, the papal tiara goes bobbing downstream. ‘By St Jude!’ Marillac exclaims. ‘I trust those fellows can swim?’

‘They were handpicked,’ he says, ‘at my request.’ He sighs. ‘One has to tell people every little thing.’

The king is cheering from beneath his canopy. The dukes are thundering their appreciation. Gallants are throwing money in the Thames.

‘Still, it is a good show,’ the Frenchman says generously. A barge is fishing up the combatants from the water. ‘Their costumes I think will not be able to be used again.’ He chuckles. ‘But what does Henry care? You have made him rich, have you not?’

‘You see our navy is building,’ he says. ‘I myself will be pleased to escort you on a tour of our southern ports, if you care to ride out now the weather is better.’

A diplomatic pause. He eyes the new ambassador sideways. He is not above thirty but said to be astute: shrewd enough to quit his country some years back, when there were whispers that he favoured Luther. He went east with his cousin, who was ambassador to the Turk, and was presently made ambassador in his turn; now, whether he regards his sympathy with reform as a youthful folly, or whether François has picked him as likely to get on with Cremuel … who knows? He says, ‘We English have to put on a show for you. We do not want to be overshadowed by your last posting.’

The gallants are surging away, in the king’s wake. They are going to cross to Southwark to see a bear baited.

‘They remember you well, in Constantinople,’ Marillac says. ‘You are spoken of.’

He stifles his surprise. It will be some random Englishman, another rover called Thomas.

‘By the way,’ Marillac says, ‘officially I am not here. I have stayed away in protest.’

‘I understand. I am often in two places, or no place. And I agree it is not a seemly spectacle, though you will admit it is entertaining. You know, I miss your countryman Dinteville, he was always so gloomy he made me laugh. I thought your king might send him again.’ He adds hastily, ‘We are glad to have you, of course, that goes without saying.’

Marillac turns to look at him, astonished. ‘You have not heard? Of the great disgrace?’

He thinks back, to when the late dauphin was poisoned. ‘I understood there was some slander spoken – but the family were cleared, surely?’

‘Oh yes, as far as that goes. But there was a further scandal. The whole house is undone. Sodomy, I fear.’

His heart sinks. ‘Where is Dinteville now?’

Marillac shrugs: who cares? ‘Italy, I think.’

Murder first, then sodomy. It sounds like something Gardiner would dream up, to ruin a foe. He thinks of the ambassador, muffled in his furs, splendid as Hans painted him: the broken lute string, the skull badge he retained in his cap. He says, ‘If he were here with us today, he would be shivering, and hastening home to a good fire and spiced wine.’

Marillac laughs. ‘We are well able for the weather. So, shall we row across and see the bear?’

When Parliament closes and before the court disperses, the king orders a dinner. Cranmer is to give it: he is to hold it at Lambeth Palace; Norfolk is to attend, and Stephen Gardiner; Cranmer is to do his office as archbishop, and reconcile all parties, sitting them down in amity and feeding them junkets.

It is the beginning of a hot summer, much drier than in recent years – you would say almost a drought, if it did not tempt Heaven to drench you. It seems sometimes as if it has been raining ever since the cardinal came down.

They are not far into the dinner when Gardiner accuses him of murder. The talk has turned to Rome, and to the city’s monuments and squares, its faded glories. ‘You were there when Cardinal Bainbridge died,’ Gardiner says, wiping his mouth. ‘Interesting, that.’ He says to the guests at large, ‘It was given out that one of the cardinal’s household poisoned him.’

He leans forward: ‘You know different, do you?’

Along the board, knives are set down; guests stop chewing to listen. Gardiner turns to Wriothesley; he’s young, he doesn’t know these things. ‘They arrested a priest, name of Rinaldo. They crushed his legs till the marrow seeped out – which does throw doubt on the coherence of his confession.’

He – the Lord Privy Seal – sits back and surveys Gardiner. He knows he is baiting him, and that he must not take the bait. ‘It’s twenty-five years, Stephen. Most of the people who know about it are dead.’

‘Bainbridge took ill at the dinner table,’ Gardiner says. ‘A powder in his broth.’

‘Yes,’ Norfolk says helpfully. ‘Like when Bishop Fisher was poisoned. When the cook was boiled alive.’

A murmur of distaste runs around the table. ‘We are losing our appetites,’ the Lord Chancellor objects.

‘The powder was bought in Spoleto,’ Stephen says. ‘I know the shop.’

He laughs. ‘And does the shop know you?’

Norfolk says, ‘What would be the rate for a murder among the Romans? Because this priest, Rinaldo … I suppose somebody fee’d him?’

‘Naturally,’ Gardiner says. ‘Bishop Gigli.’

He can see Norfolk’s memory working. He’s chewing the name, as if it were overcooked: Gigli, Silvestro Gigli. ‘Bishop of Worcester,’ Norfolk bursts out. ‘Wolsey’s crony.’

‘Exactly,’ Stephen says. ‘Wolsey’s chief friend in Rome. Once Bainbridge was removed, Wolsey was clear to be the next English cardinal.’

There is a silence: which he breaks, signalling to a boy for more wine. ‘Half the city wanted Bainbridge dead. The French hated him. The Florentines hated him. And he was in debt.’

‘You saw the books?’ Gardiner says. ‘Who let you in?’

The capons come in and the carvers do their office. In Rome, at the Pope’s table, the carver holds the meat skewered and swipes slices from it in mid-air; it lends an air of crisis to the mildest repast. He, Lord Cromwell, puts down his cup and turns to the guests, opening his hands, smiling: ‘I always assumed the Pope’s master of ceremonies killed Bainbridge. He hated him because he was English and was always genuflecting out of his place, or turning up with the wrong type of crozier. The Curia thought he was a barbarian.’

Cranmer, at the head of the table, is fidgeting. ‘How were you in Rome, my lord Cromwell?’

‘Private business. I didn’t know Wolsey then.’

Gardiner says balefully, ‘You always knew Wolsey.’

It was Corpus Christi, 15 June, when Bainbridge ate the broth and was seized with colic. The doctors purged him, and he was well enough to go out to supper that night. Would he want to miss the Cretan wine, the caviar, at Cardinal Carretto’s house?

Next day Bainbridge was raging about as usual and kicking the servants. It was not till 14 July he collapsed and died. They arrested the priest Rinaldo because Bainbridge was known to have struck him in public, and they saw he had a grievance.

After three days of torment in the papal dungeons, Rinaldo managed to get hold of a knife. He stabbed himself ineptly, though he did a better job than Geoffrey Pole. It took him a day or two to die, and then the Romans hanged his corpse in public. Before they quartered it, he saw it dangling – he, Cremuello the oltramarino, giovane inglese. Rinaldo had labels tied to his feet stating his crime. He had confessed that Gigli gave him fifteen ducats to kill his master, but that detail was not written on the labels. It would have blown a hole in the Vatican’s wall of secrecy. Bishops and cardinals slay each other, and humble men suffer for their crimes.

That summer was hot even by the Roman standard. At nightfall the very stones seemed to sweat, breathing out the day’s accumulation of lies. He himself moved through the heat, smooth and silent and untroubled. Since the snake bit him, something of its nature had entered his blood, and he could lie coiled till needed.

Norfolk says, ‘I was never at Rome. I knew Bainbridge, of course. He was choleric.’

‘Yes, and he was fifty or more,’ Cranmer says. ‘And he drove himself. Such men perish in the heat. Besides, I always heard the priest retracted his confession before he died.’

‘So who was the murderer?’ Stephen says.

Call-Me says, ‘You are seriously accusing Lord Cromwell?’

‘He was no lord in those days,’ Norfolk says.

No more was he. He can see himself now, at twilight, lurking in the Piazza Navona. Since he got his red hat, Bainbridge took himself seriously as a future pope, and set his stall out in fine style. He took a lease on Francesco Orsini’s palace, with easy access to the Vatican and the English Hospice where his countrymen lodged. The front was imposing, loggias, terraces; Bainbridge fitted it out with money from the Sauli bankers, and he owed the Grimaldi as well. Any number of people would have employed Cremuello to watch Bainbridge’s back gate, and several did; he split the intelligence between them, with attention to what they wanted to hear.

While lurking there he fell into talk with a street girl, teasing her about her hair. She had bleached it, but now it was grown out by a hand’s span. Your sable locks are just as good, he said, a novelty for Englishmen; we have enough of tow-heads. You’re English? she said. Jesu, one would not know it. So that is why you are watching the house of the English cardinal. Are you homesick for the sounds of your countrymen carousing? Watch presently, and some of them will come out and spew in the street.

Later that night she said to him, now I’ll tell you a thing. Romans, Tuscans, Frenchmen, English, Germans: all pay out for blondes. It is a shame for me and my sisters in the trade; we are born wrong. I would bleach it again, but after a certain point it falls out, and no man of any nation wants a woman who is bald.

She yawned. Well, that was nice, she said, you would like to do it again in a different position? By the way, if you want a job in the palace among your countrymen, I can get you in there. My cousin works in the kitchen.

She mistook him for a clerk fallen on hard times. After all, he dressed like one. He turned to her and negotiated the new position and its price. How had one the energy, in that heat? But you don’t feel it so much when you are young.

‘My lord?’ Wriothesley says

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘My lord bishop, I forget what you were saying?’

‘Wolsey,’ Stephen says deliberately, ‘had scarcely the grace to hide his hand in the murder. He and Bishop Gigli were fast friends, till they scrapped about who got Bainbridge’s vestments after he was dead. Wolsey wanted them packed up and sent to London for his use. When I was his secretary, I saw the letters in the files.’

‘You know what I think?’ Norfolk says. ‘We’re better off without cardinals, and proud old prelates such as we used to have. Now the archbishop here,’ he jerks his thumb at Cranmer, ‘at least he conducts himself humble-wise. You can tell by his countenance he spends his time at prayer, instead of browbeating noblemen and plotting their downfall and wrangling and cheating and embezzling. All of which were daily proceedings with Thomas Wolsey.’

‘My lord Norfolk,’ he says.

‘Yes, and promoting false knaves to positions of trust, and soliciting bribes, falsifying deeds, bullying his betters, and consorting with conjurers and generally thieving, lying and cheating –’

He rises from his place.

‘– to the detriment and ruin of the commonweal and the shame of the king.’

He has the duke in his grasp. He holds him at arm’s length. He could easily jerk him forward then kick his feet from under him.

Cranmer shoots to his feet. ‘For shame, Thomas, he’s an old man.’ He takes a grip on Norfolk’s coat and tries to pull him free, as if he were a pike on a gaff and he wants to put him back in the stream.

It is only when sweat starts out of the archbishop – or possibly tears – that he, Cromwell, drops the duke. Thomas Howard swears at him, a horrible oath like a gunner.

The servants come in. The meats are cleared. They sit glaring at each other over the ginger comfits.

‘Well,’ Stephen says, ‘I don’t know when I enjoyed a peace conference as much as I enjoyed this one.’

It is time for the king to quit London for the summer. He will go as soon as Parliament rises. The entourage will first lodge at Beddington, the pleasant house that belonged to Nicholas Carew. Then 7 July to Oatlands, from there to Woking.

Months, years have gone by, when Lord Cromwell has never thought of his early life; when he has pushed the past into the yard and barred the door on it. Now it is not Gardiner’s questions about Italy that trouble him: Italy keeps its secrets. It is Putney that works away at him, distant but close. When he was weak from fever the past broke in, and now he has no defence against his memories, they re-capitulate themselves any time they like: when he sits in the council chamber, words fall about him in a drizzling haze, and he finds himself wrapped in the climate of his childhood. He is a monk who descends the night stair, still wrapped in dreams, so that the shuffling feet of his brethren are transformed to the whisper of leaves in the forests of infancy: and like a hidden creature stirring from a leaf-bed, his mind stirs and turns, on a restless circuit. He tries to tether it (to now, this time, this place) but it will roam: scenting the staleness of soiled straw and stagnant water, the hot grease of the smithy, horse sweat, leather, grass, yeast, tallow, honey, wet dog, spilled beer, the lanes and wharves of his childhood.

He picks up his quill: the king could spend perhaps six days in Woking, where he, Lord Cromwell, could join him? Then to Guildford …

It is the night of the waning moon. He can smell the river, and the odour of the eel boy, who has beshitten himself. Eel boy slumps at his feet, too heavy to drag further. Thomas Craphead no longer knows what to do. A great and mortal weariness has overtaken him, a lassitude that trickles through him from brain to feet. So Craphead, clueless, had crawled home.

Walter and the boys went on drinking till his father fell snoring across a trestle table and at some dark hour woke and stumbled upstairs. You would expect he would lie snorting and sweating till noon. Perhaps Thomas Craphead counted on that and thought, while good folk are still abed, I will go out to the river and see if eel boy is alive or dead. See if he lies where I left him, or if someone has picked him up with the morning’s flotsam, returned him whence he came or fed him to swine.

But God knows what he thought. He woke hollow, shaking, empty of logic or plan. In the daylight he cleaned his knife again, but he left it down when he went into the brewery yard.

Never underestimate Walter, his violence and cunning. The first blow came from nowhere and stunned him. There was blood in his eyes and after that Walter could do what he liked. He did it with his feet and he did it with his fists, till he, Thomas, was a bleeding jelly on the cobblestones, and his father stood over him and roared, ‘So now get up!’

There is a stir in the air. My lord Privy Seal looks up from the king’s itinerary. Call-Me-Risley is here, flitting against the light in yellow. He throws himself into a chair and shouts for small ale. He fans himself with his hat. ‘Gardiner,’ he says. ‘Jesus! To accuse you of murder! Though if you did rid the world of a cardinal, what of it? It was in another jurisdiction, and a long time ago now.’

He says, ‘I’ll pull Stephen down. Just watch me.’

Call-Me eyes him. ‘Yes, I believe you.’

‘I’m doing these,’ he says. ‘Excuse me.’ He turns back to the paper. After Guildford, Farnham. Every town must be certified clear of plague before the king enters the neighbourhood. At the slightest suspicion, his route must be changed, so there must be extra hosts standing by, their silverware polished, their feather beds aired. ‘Farnham to Petworth? How far is that?’

‘Scant twenty miles cross-country,’ Call-Me says. ‘But more if it rains and you go round about.’

Twenty miles is what the king can ride, at present. ‘Do you know the king is planning a visit to Wolf Hall?’

Call-Me considers. ‘It is small, for his train.’

‘The Seymours will move out. Edward has it planned.’ He thinks of the shade of Jane, walking in the young lady’s garden; he thinks of her alive under the green trees, in her new carnation-coloured dress.

He frowns over the papers. ‘Suppose he rides from Petworth to Cowdray, to William Fitzwilliam? Then to Essex … Ah, here comes Mathew.’

Mathew carries in a bowl of plums and sets them down reverently. ‘The fruits of success,’ Wriothesley says, smiling. ‘I congratulate you, sir.’

He used to think that the plums in this country weren’t good enough, and so he has reformed them, grafting scion to rootstock. Now his houses have plums ripening from July to late October, fruits the size of a walnut or a baby’s heart, plums mottled and streaked, stippled and flecked, marbled and rayed, their skins lemon to mustard, russet to scarlet, azure to black, some smooth and some furred like little animals with lilac or white or ash; round amber fruits dotted with the grey of his livery, thin-skinned fruits like crimson eggs in a silver net, their flesh firm or melting, honeyed or vinous; his favoured kind the perdrigon, the palest having a yellow skin dotted white, sprinkled red where the sun touches it, its perfumed flesh ripe in late August; then the perdrigon violet and its black sister, favouring east-facing walls, yielding September fruits solid in the hand, their flesh yellow-green and rich, separating easily from the stone. You can preserve them whole to last all winter, eat them as dessert, or just sit looking at them in an idle moment: globes of gold in a pewter bowl, black fruit like shadows, spheres of cardinal red.

He says to Mathew, ‘You remember when we hunted at your old master’s house? The day the king lost his hat?’

Mathew grins. Who could forget the hunting party riding home, their faces baked like hams?

When the wind takes off a gentleman’s hat, his companions at once take off theirs. The courteous man says, put on your hats again, do not suffer for my sake. But the king, though he would not accept another man’s hat, never thought to tell them to cover; so they came home blistered and striped. He says, ‘You should have seen Rafe Sadler. His eyes were boiled in his head.’

Mathew says, ‘My friend Rob led a search after the king’s hat, but we found naught. He had St Hubert in his cap badge, and his eyes were real sapphires, so I doubt not we would have been rewarded had we found it.’

He picks up his pen. Returns to the royal summer. The king will go to Stansted, then Bishop’s Waltham, presently to Thruxton; then leaving Hampshire, he will ride west. In Savernake, Hubert squints down, entangled in branches. In high summer we will ride the same paths and he will see us as we are now: girth thickened, sins multiplied.

‘Mid-August,’ he writes. ‘Five days. Wolf Hall.’