The Mirror and the Light (Broken on the Body)
London, Autumn 1537
What is a woman’s life? Do not think, because she is not a man, she does not fight. The bedchamber is her tilting ground, where she shows her colours, and her theatre of war is the sealed room where she gives birth.
She knows she may not come alive out of that bloody chamber. Before her lying-in, if she is prudent, she settles her affairs. If she dies, she will be lamented and forgotten. If the child dies, she will be blamed. If she lives, she must hide her wounds. Her injuries are secret, and her sisters talk about them behind the hand. It is Eve’s sin, the long continuing punishment it incurred, that tears at her from the inside and shreds her. Whereas we bless an old soldier and give him alms, pitying his blind or limbless state, we do not make heroes of women mangled in the struggle to give birth. If she seems so injured that she can have no more children, we commiserate with her husband.
In the long summer days, before her seclusion begins, Jane walks in the queen’s privy garden. All traces of Anne Boleyn, who occupied her rooms before her, have been erased, and a new gallery, with a view of the river, built to connect Jane’s rooms to the royal nursery. Her condition can in no wise be compared to Lady Lisle’s. The creature inside her is alive and kicking. It stirs and flutters, you can almost hear it complain: here I am stifled beneath my dam’s skirts, while the trees are in full leaf and the living stroll across the lawns.
As her time of delivery approaches, a woman will lay out a fortune for a thread of Mary’s girdle. In labour she will pin prayers to her smock, prayers tested by her foremothers. When the smock is bloodied, the midwife will plaster the parchment against the skin of her domed belly, or tie it to her wrist. The perspiring woman will sip water from a jug over which her friends have recited the litany of the saints. The Mother of God will help her, when the midwives cannot. Eve undid us, but Mary by her joys and sorrows helps us to salvation: the pearl without price, the rose without a thorn.
When Mary gave birth to her Saviour and ours, did she suffer as other mothers do? The divines have sundry opinions, but women think she did. They think she shared their queasy, trembling hours, even though she was a virgin when she conceived, a virgin when she carried: even a virgin when redemption burst out of her, in an unholy gush of fluids. Afterwards, Mary was sealed up again, caulked tight against man’s incursions. And yet she became the fountain from which the whole world drinks. She protects against plague, and teaches the hard-hearted how to feel, the dry-eyed to drop a tear. She pities the sailor tossed on the salt wave, and saves even thieves and fornicators from punishment. She comes to us when we have only an hour to live, to warn us to say our prayers.
But all over England virgins are crumbling. Our Lady of Ipswich must go down. Our Lady of Walsingham, which we call Falsingham, must be taken away in a cart. Our Lady of Worcester is stripped of her coat and her silver shoes. The vessels containing her breast-milk are smashed, and found to contain chalk. And where her eyes move, and weep tears of blood, we know now that the blood is animal blood and her eyes are worked on wires.
There is a great book that tells you what to do when a royal birth is pending. It is in a clerk’s hand but the marginal notes were made by Margaret Beaufort, the old king’s mother. Having been at court in the reign of King Edward, and witnessing the birth of his ten children, she was clear that the Tudors should adopt the same protocol.
‘That creak-kneed saint,’ Henry says. ‘She had me in terror when I was a child.’
‘Still, we must carry through her ordinances, sir. Ladies do not like any change.’
His new daughter Bess keeps him informed of all that passes in the queen’s chambers. Gregory does not like to be parted from his bride, but these are no ordinary days, and besides, he has already done to her all a groom hopes to do. Edward Seymour becomes more taut-featured by the day, as expectation works on him. He goes down to Wolf Hall to hunt. The game is excellent this year, he writes: my dear friend Cromwell, I wish you were here.
It has been a dangerous summer. For fear of plague the queen keeps a reduced household. The king lives separate at Esher, also with small state. A messenger called Bolde, who goes daily between Rafe and the Cromwells, is taken with an unknown distemper and must be isolated till he improves or dies. Rafe has often instructed Bolde face to face, and so the king suggests he avoid the court; but then Henry forgets and asks irritably, ‘Where’s young Sadler?’
For God’s sake, Rafe writes, do not let the king forget me, or some rival steal into my place. From my years of discretion you have nourished, brought me up and admired me. Do not let me slip and slide now.
The king does not want to be without Cromwell, as the mornings grow misty and the first chill lies on the air. Come and be near me, he says. Spend your days with me. Maybe just, to keep to the rules, sleep under another roof at night. He obeys. He makes sure to talk every day about young Sadler, how he misses the light of the king’s countenance. He writes to Edward that his visit to Wolf Hall will have to wait. The king calls him Tom Cromwell. He calls him Crumb. He walks through the garden at Esher, his arm about his councillor’s neck, and says, ‘I have hopes of this child. If I could have three wishes, like a man in a tale, I would wish for a prince, bonny and well-doing, and I would wish for myself to live long enough to guide him to man’s estate. Do you think you will make old bones, Crumb?’
‘I don’t know,’ he says frankly. ‘I have a fever I brought home from Italy. They say it weakens the heart.’
‘And you work too hard,’ Henry says: as if he were not the cause of the work. ‘If I die before my time, Crumb, you must …’
Do it, he thinks. Draw up a paper. Make me regent.
‘You must –’ Henry breaks off: he breathes in the green air. ‘So soft an evening,’ he says. ‘I wish summer might last for ever.’
He thinks, write it now. I will go back in the house and get paper. We can lean against a tree and make a draft.
‘Sir?’ he prompts him. ‘I must …?’
We can seal it later, he thinks.
Henry turns and gazes at him. ‘You must pray for me.’
They ride and hunt: Sunninghill, Easthampstead, Guildford. The king’s leg is better. He can make fifteen miles a day. In the mornings he hears Mass before he rides. In the evenings he tunes his lute and sings. He sends love tokens to his wife. Sometimes he talks about when he was young, about his brothers who have died. Then his spirits rally and he laughs and jokes like a good fellow among his friends. He sings a ditty Walter Cromwell used to sing: O peace, ye make me spill my ale …
Where did he hear that? No women are assaulted in the king’s version, and the words are cleaner.
On 16 September Jane takes to her chamber to rest and wait. Dr Butts is waiting too, but he and the other doctors will keep their distance till her pains begin. What usages the women have among themselves, we dare not enquire. As our preachers make it clear, we do not prohibit statues of our Lord’s mother, nor prayers directed through her. She is our intercessor, our mediatrix at the court of Heaven. Only remember she is not a goddess but human, a woman who scours pots and peels roots and brings the cattle in: surprised by the angel, she is weighed down by her gravid state, and exhausted by the journey before her, the nights with no certain shelter.
From behind the papist virgin with her silver shoes there creeps another woman, poor, her feet bare and calloused, her swarthy face plastered with the dust of the road. Her belly is heavy with salvation and the weight drags and makes her back ache. When night comes she draws warmth not from ermine or sable but from the hide and hair of farm animals, as she squats among them in the straw; she suffers the first pangs of labour on a night of cutting cold, under a sky pierced by white stars.
Two of our best men, Dr Wilson and Mr Heath, are sent to Brussels to the renegade Pole: experienced negotiators, they are to convey to him that the king’s offer holds – if he will return to England and live as an honest subject, he can be pardoned yet. He, the Lord Privy Seal, is unsure how long the king’s offer will last, and whether it is an efflux of generosity or an arrant deception. But he instructs the envoys as he himself is instructed, counselling them to give the traitor no title but ‘Mr Pole’.
He says to Wolsey, ‘How do you like it, this upstart calling himself the Cardinal of England?’ But his dead master has no opinion.
The queen is two days and three nights in labour. On the second day, a solemn procession of city worthies wends to Paul’s to pray for her, and the people join them, standing in the street with their beads, some kneeling, some crying out for pardon for the king for denying our Holy Father in Rome; some saying he is the Mouldwarp, and will see no offspring, and others proclaiming that Lady Mary is his heir, because she is the child of a true princess. The city officers move among them, taking some into custody. But most are let go before curfew, their ignorance pardoned. This is not a week for whipping, or cutting off ears.
Some doubt the efficacy of prayer at such times. Why should God spare one woman and not another? But by the time forty-eight hours have passed, what is there but prayer? If the king’s child is lost, nothing will persuade him that it is mischance. Kings are subject to fate, not luck. Accidents don’t happen: dooms overtake them. Gregory says, if the king does not like the outcome he will quarrel with God again. He may tear up his own ordinances, and the gospels now in press may never see the light of day.
If the Lord Privy Seal were on Jane’s threshold, he could catechise her doctors as they pass in and out. But the messenger Bolde has died, and he dare not go to court lest he carry infection.
He occupies himself with monastic pensions, and with writing to Tom Wyatt, now with the Emperor. Wyatt has been found out in a careless error. He has failed to present to Charles the letters sent by the Lady Mary, in which she describes her present state of unhindered bliss, and stresses she is and always will be her father’s servant. It’s strange, Wriothesley says, because Wyatt doesn’t make mistakes, does he? Or not simple ones.
It is hard to explain. But he and Wriothesley have covered for Wyatt, so Henry knows nothing about it. We do not want Wyatt’s embassy to fail. Wyatt above any man can feel out the Emperor’s intentions. This peace that Charles and François are supposed to be making: do they not need a mediator, arbitrator? Better they should ask England, than turn to the Pope. We need, somehow, to force our way into the process.
Anyway, treaty or no, Emperor and France will fight no more this year. Winter will soon be here. Nor will the north country rise.
Though the Hydra was never a fair opponent. It lurked in caves, and could only be killed in daylight.
Jane gives birth on 12 October, at two in the morning. The courier makes good time and they wake him with the news. ‘Man or maid?’ he asks, and they tell him. By eight o’clock all London knows it. At nine o’clock they sing Te Deum at Paul’s. It is St Edward’s Eve, and the child will be named for the saint. Rafe has been ordered back to court. The queen’s official letter goes out in his hand, phrased as if she had gripped the quill and scrawled it herself: grace of Almighty … a prince, conceived in most lawful matrimony … joyous and glad tidings … universal wealth, quiet and tranquillity of this whole realm …
Tranquillity? All day they fire off guns at the Tower, as if to puncture the clouds. There are feasts in every alley. The generous merchants of the Steelyard get the poor folk drunk on beer. The horns, bagpipes and drums continue long after dark. He thinks, Rafe should have printed ‘most lawful matrimony’ in big red letters: especially for those copies that travel, bound with silk tags and weighty seals, to the papal court, to France and to the Emperor. He whispers to the air, ‘Shall I read it aloud, my lord cardinal?’ For who knows if ghosts can read? The cardinal is quiet: not a chuckle. The air is empty: not a stir.
Now all the lords of the kingdom gallop to share the glory. They head to Hampton Court for the christening, but they must leave their retainers at home. The plague is in Kingston and Windsor. Movements are restricted. Even a duke must manage with only six men to guard and serve him. Strangers are barred. Delivery men must quit the precincts as soon as they have dropped off their loads, and the royal nursery be scrubbed out twice a day.
The queen is upsitting, the women say. She has lost much blood but she is bright-eyed. She says, ‘Are there quails? I am very hungry.’ A light diet, madam, they urge. Jane tries to clamber out of bed, white feet feeling for the carpet. No, no, no, they say, putting her back: not for days and days, madam.
There are rumours the king will make earls. That he himself will be Earl of Kent, or Hampton: an old title revived, or a new one created, for Honest Tom. On the day of the christening the queen is carried in a chair into the public spaces of the palace. The christening itself, by tradition, is another event the king and queen do not attend in person: they are in the precincts but not at the font. I am tired of these traditions, he thinks. It is time they were turned out of doors. It is traditional to rob travellers as they come down Shooter’s Hill: is it laudable therefore?
It is an evening ceremony. Henry is enthroned, Jane by his side, and receives his liegemen, their congratulations, prayers and presents. He inventories the presents and gives them to the Wardrobe to carry away, or consigns them to the Jewel House, or notes that a certain gold cup or chain should go to the mint to be examined and weighed. The nobility of England process, with prayers and tapers, towards the Chapel Royal. They have swaddled Jane in furs and velvet, and before he joins the procession he sees her hand thread out and push away the wrappings from her throat, as if they irritated her. They have placed a prayer book on her knees, but she does not look at it. From time to time she says a word to the king, and Henry cranes forward to hear her. He sees her turn her head to the window, away from the blaze of banked candles, as if she would rather be outside in the autumn night.
He is in the procession: he is of it, amid the hot breath and scent of herbs. Gertrude Courtenay has the honour of bearing the babe at the font. Her husband the Marquis of Exeter stands next her, and the Duke of Suffolk. ‘Well done, Crumb,’ Suffolk says. He is handing out the same compliment to every man, as if the whole of England had set the seed. ‘Well done, Seymour.’ The young Lady Elizabeth travels in Edward Seymour’s arms, a jewelled vessel of chrism in her hands; she looks about her, and when something interests her she bucks in Seymour’s arms and kicks his ribs. Nicholas Carew and Francis Bryan, his brother-in-law, stand by the font with ceremonial towels; from Bryan’s eye-patch, a lewd green wink. Tom Seymour holds a cloth of gold over the babe, embroidered with the arms and achievements of the Prince of Wales. The prince himself is a sweet nut in a shell; you take it on trust he is there, at the centre of the yards of tasselling and fringing and furs. He must be heavy, for Gertrude falters, and Norfolk, jostling her elbow, steadies the baby’s head – in that single moment expert and tender. Then the duke grins around the company with his yellow teeth: masters, you see my exile is over? The birth will reconcile all quarrels.
The font has been mounted on a plinth. The great men and their wives in the body of the chapel cannot see much, their view blocked by a canopy and the bodies of those who are even greater than they are. He is one of this number; the Lady Mary, who is godmother, is at his elbow. In a murmur she speaks to him: ‘My heart rejoices for my father’s sake. I feel a burden is lifted. I am lighter today than I can ever remember.’
She thinks, no doubt, I will never be queen now. The prince is robust and likely to live, and no reason why Jane should not give us a Duke of York, and many more princes to follow. Mary says so, pious, and he does not know if she means what she says.
He bends his head to speak below the music: ‘Do you know we are to have a new French ambassador?’
The trumpets shrill. Mary mouths something, shakes her head. ‘Louis de Perreau, the Sieur de Castillon. As soon as he arrives he will come to you to pay his respects. He will revive the project of your marrying the Duke of Orléans.’
‘But Mendoza is still here!’ she says. ‘Offering Dom Luis.’
‘Yes, but Mendoza does not have the authority to conclude anything. So your father has told him he is wasting our time.’
Mary looks away. The procession is re-forming. It is almost midnight. Tapers are carried before them, as they retrace their path through the palace, to unravel, to fall back into their separate orbits, earl and earl, duke and duke, taken to bed by their own people. A day or two later the news comes of what rewards the king will give, and he finds he has been left out. Edward Seymour is to be Earl of Hertford. Tom Seymour is knighted and promoted to the king’s privy chamber. Fitzwilliam is to be Earl of Southampton. Cromwell remains Cromwell.
Why Fitzwilliam, above him? Old friendship, no doubt: old usage. Fitzwilliam has sense and wit, speaks plain and to the point. But without a clerk at his elbow he is like Brandon, he cannot spell the days of the week. How will such men as he engage with sophisters like Gardiner, like Reginald Pole, who have spent their lives in the business of chop-logic? Whereas he, Lord Privy Seal, is no scholar, but will thrash through any text and give you the gist. If you set him to orate, he will do it extempore. Bid him draft a law and he will draw it tight as a miser’s purse.
Mr Wriothesley says, ‘Are you disappointed, sir? If your services were properly requited, you would be a duke.’
‘And after all,’ Richard Riche says, ‘you have the income to sustain such a dignity.’
‘You have the Garter, sir,’ Rafe says. ‘It should be enough for a rational man.’
He combs back through his recent dealings with the king. It is Pole, he thinks: I did not have him killed when I said I could, nor did I bring him bound and whimpering to Henry’s feet. Nothing a minister does, or fails to do, escapes the king. Like a judge or a keen spectator at a joust, he notes when a blow goes wide or when a lance is broken on the body. He sees his council in session, observing like a man from a watchtower as battle commences and blood spreads across the field. He grants latitude to his ministers – yet he sets a hedge of expectation around them, invisible but painful as blackthorn. You know when you have brushed against it.
Two days after the christening the queen is reported fevered and nauseous. The doctors go to and fro, and as they come out the priests go in. We thought when the child was born the waiting was over, but the waiting comes now.
Henry has intended to move back to Esher, to spare work for his reduced household, and he does not know whether to go or stay. The queen weakens and is given the last rites. It does not mean she will die, Henry says: the sacrament is given to strengthen her. Overwrought, he paces and prays and talks. It is true that his mother, when her last daughter was born, lay ill for a week and lost her fight. But it is also true that his sister Margaret, near death for nine days in childbed, recovered and is now stout and hale and likely to be amongst us for years yet. The superstitious sort say that it was because her husband the King of Scots made a pilgrimage to St Ninian’s shrine at the Galloway coast; they say he went on foot 120 miles. I would walk to Jerusalem, Henry says, but pilgrimages are vain: God keep Jane, if I cannot.
Certain priests about the king make a note of his words, with time and date: the king says out of his own mouth, though pilgrimages are vain, anointing is a sacrament. Last year the seven sacraments were reduced to three, and now we are back to seven; it seems the four that were lost have been found again. The bishops have said so in their book. Or have they? It is difficult to know. It is always going back to the printer, for corrections and additions. They call it the Bishops’ Book, but soon, laymen grumble, each bishop will have his own. You used to know what you had to do and what you had to pay out, to guarantee eternal bliss. But nowadays you can hardly tell feast from fast.
He, the Lord Privy Seal, has no remit to be in the queen’s part of the palace, and if he were, no one would tell him what was going on. He returns to St James’s, to the house in the fields that Henry has lent him, away from infectious crowds. Later his daughter-in-law will say, in the last hours Jane did not always know us. Then at times she did know us, and would try to sit up, and we would give her thin wine to sustain her, but she spilled more than she drank.
The prince sucks well at his wet nurse, the sick woman is told. He is to be Earl of Cornwall, as well as Prince of Wales. She signifies with a nod of her head that she is content.
When he lived in Florence the Portinari family showed him a Nativity, painted for them in Bruges some twenty years back. It is a painting with doors, which open on winter. Within its span, time collapses and many different things happen at once, that could not happen in an unblessed human life. In the painting the past is present, the future happens now. Mary was untouched by man, and so remains; yet once, and now, and always, the angel stands over her, the holy spirit batters her heart, her side, her womb. At the centre of the picture the helpless babe lies on earth, new-born, white as a grub, and shepherds and angels have fallen back to give space to the new mother, while up on the hill, the still-pregnant Virgin greets her sister, St Elizabeth, and on another eminence, far in the future, Mary and Joseph and the donkey trundle towards Egypt.
Who can look at this picture and believe this Blessed Lady suffered labour pains? She looks solemn, impressed by what she has produced. Wrapped in red, attending her, is Margaret of Antioch, the patron of childbirth, and at her feet is the dragon that, at an earlier stage in her career, had swallowed her. Here is the Magdalene with the spikenard jar; here St Anthony, with bell. The shepherds, with their peasant faces, can hardly contain their excitement. The whole of our future is compressed between their joined hands. The angels are not young. They look shrewd; their wings shimmer with peacock eyes. The three kings are coming over the hill. Their journey is almost over, but they don’t know it yet.
It is a lie, he thinks: the painless birth, the safety of Egypt, the piety of the kneeling patrons who have painted themselves into the story. He believes the king wants to scramble onto a fast horse: away he spurs, over that same mountaintop, where out of sight a new day dawns, where the past has ceased to repeat itself, caught up in a loop, a stitch, a noose. He left Katherine at Windsor and went hunting and never came back. At Greenwich with Anne he rose from his seat at the tournament, mounted his horse and rode to London, with Henry Norris beside him. He strode away and took the horse’s bridle, he mounted up and he never glanced in his wife’s direction, he never saw her again. He leaves his queens, before they can leave him.
Henry’s entourage, a small riding household, are alert for his departure. Yet he stays, when hope has gone. At eight o’clock, 24 October, he goes to the queen’s bedchamber and takes his last look. Her breathing labours. The doctors withdraw, their art and craft failed. What is a woman’s life? It is dew in April, that falls on the grass.
At St James’s, very late, they bring in a letter: ‘It is from Norferk,’ Christophe says. ‘Written this eve, his messenger says.’ He drops it as if it were soiled.
He breaks the seal. I pray you to be here early to comfort our good master, for as for our mistress there is no likelihood of her life, the more pity …
He too drops the letter. Then he picks it up and gives it to the boy Mathew to file. His mind travels the road, the river. There is banked filthy mud, there is snow on the ground, there is thaw water running and the Thames overstraining its banks: the cardinal is at Esher, the Parliament is planning to ruin him, and he, a square plain figure in worsted, tries to keep his hat on his head and his head down, while the black north wind plunders and beats him like a thief, and rolls him nightly, howling, in a ditch.
‘What time is it?’
Christophe looks at him in pity: ‘You hear the midnight bell?’
He thinks, if Jane had married me, she would be alive now; I would have managed it better.
When he gets back from court he walks into his workroom and sits unspeaking at his table. Mr Wriothesley says, ‘You seem angry, sir?’
Call-Me has arrived with scant ceremony, tossing his hat down on a stool and rummaging in a chest for papers. Rafe says, ‘Who would not be angry, at the loss of so fair a creature? My lord considers her keepers to have been negligent. He believes they suffered her to take cold, and eat such things as her fancy dictated.’
‘I wish I had been at Hampton Court,’ he says. ‘When they told me to stay away I should not have listened.’
Wriothesley says, ‘Perhaps, sir, you are angry because you wish you had kept Gregory in reserve, where his marriage could do you most good. As the prince’s uncle he will of course be of consequence, but if the queen had lived, and given the king more sons, then you and all your house would have been great men for ever.’
Call-Me knocks together his bundles of papers and nods himself out. ‘I am going to write to Tom Wyatt,’ he says, turning and holding the doorframe. ‘He had better see to his duties, for I cannot do my duty if I cover for him any more. And I shall give him notice his dispatches make my head ache – there is no need to put every triviality in cipher.’
‘Right,’ Rafe says. ‘Save it for the big lies?’
Wriothesley says, ‘Wyatt scrambles his wits without point or purpose. Everything is a plot, to him.’
Rafe calls, ‘Close the door.’
They wait till they hear he has gone downstairs. Rafe says, ‘We must forgive him. I wonder how he would be if his wife had died, and not his son.’
He says, ‘He looks older. Or am I imagining it?’
‘I am very sorry for him. I remember when my first Thomas died. But even so …’
Wriothesley has entered into public duties, where you cannot let your private sorrows show, not even by an increased hauteur with petitioners, or impatience with women and underlings: still less with the Lord Privy Seal. He shrugs it off. He says, ‘I give thanks that Helen is safely delivered, Rafe. And I hope your new son will live to serve his prince as you have served the king, so happily and well.’
For Rafe has slipped back to his place at the king’s side, drawing only a distant nod and ‘All better at home, Sadler?’ It was the king himself, solicitous for a mother-to-be, who had advised Rafe to send Helen to Kent, away from the pestilence: but now he has forgotten to ask after her. Rafe’s child is a boy, and they are calling him Edward, but all other Edwards are naught, in the king’s exultation at his heir: he stands over the cradle, marvelling at what God has bestowed. But then he remembers the queen, a husk now eviscerated by the embalmers, tapers burning day and night around her bier, the prayers never ceasing, the syllables pit-pattering, the sorrows and joys of Our Lady, her mysteries, her worship and praise.
Already Jane’s household is being broken up. Her brooches and bracelets, her jewelled buttons, girdles, pomanders, her miniature pictures set in tablets; the Wardrobe takes them back, or they are given to her friends. Her manors and farms, her woodlands, chases and parks, go back to the king from whom they came, and her body, after her embalming and lying in state, goes back to God her maker. It is a long time since I first saw her, the king says, a lily among roses: I consider all the time wasted, till I made her my bride.
It is only two summers past that the king held her hand in the garden at Wolf Hall, her small paw swallowed in his palm: two summers since he, my lord Privy Seal, greeted her in a slippery dawn light, stiff and timid in her new carnation gown. This winter he will see the carnation cloth again, worn by Gregory’s wife, as she lets out her bodices to accommodate her growing child. Bess says she is not afraid. Jane was lucky and unlucky, she says: lucky to become queen of England, unlucky to die of it. They will always make ballads about her, Bess says. And the king will give her a magnificent tomb, he says, in which he may lie with her in time to come. But I would rather be alive, Bess says, than have a great name: would not you, Lord Cromwell?
Gregory says, ‘My lord father, who will you let the king marry next?’