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The Mirror and the Light (Corpus Christi | Part 1)

June–December 1538

Wyatt has followed the Emperor from the shores of Spain to Nice, where Charles has disembarked to meet the Pope and the King of France. Their meeting is like some ill-starred conjunction in the heavens, which we could forecast but not prevent. Early June, Wyatt is in England, pacing a room at St James’s. The Lord Privy Seal, sitting in a splash of weak sun, follows him with his eyes.

‘I saw Farnese,’ Wyatt says. ‘Close enough to spit. With Polo leaning on his shoulder, conspiring in his papal ear. I should have spitted him on my dagger, and carried home his collops.’

Wherever the Emperor goes, Wyatt jolts after him, with his household of twenty or so young gallants: all armed, all poets, all lovers, all dicers. From Nice, Charles has sent him home with an enticement. If Lady Mary will marry Dom Luis, he will settle the duchy of Milan on them: Milan, his greatest prize, over which he and François have fought for years.

‘But he will never give up Milan,’ Wyatt says. ‘Not this side of the Last Judgement. And they are asking for an outrageous sum with Mary. The king should offer two-thirds.’

Always a good rule of thumb: knock a third off, see what answer you get. Wyatt says, ‘But then I don’t know if the king intends to let Mary go. Or if he even intends to marry himself, or is just playing a game with them all, and keeping Hans employed.’

He shrugs: I do not know anything.

‘I hate Spain,’ Wyatt says. ‘I would prefer the lowest cell in Newgate. And I cannot understand the Emperor. I cannot read him in any language. I hear the words he says, but nothing that lies between them. His face never changes. Sometimes he admits me every day. Sometimes I arrive and his servants shut me out. I think, have I committed some breach of manners? Is it reasonable to stand outside his presence chamber two days, or three, or until they sweep me out with the rushes? If I am told to quit his realm, do I pay my bills and leave my compliments, or do I run in the clothes I stand up in?’

‘It is prince’s tricks,’ he says. ‘Three days in a row Henry gives the French a private audience. Then he ignores them for a week.’

‘When he shuts me out I write my dispatches. I translate Seneca. I keep no company with women, whatever you hear, but with a skin of bad wine and the gospel. In Spain the women are cloistered. Husbands kill you on suspicion. If the Earl of Worcester were Spanish, you and his wife would be skewered and mouldy in your graves.’

‘I never had to do with Worcester’s wife,’ he says. ‘But it is just as when I say “I am not a Lutheran.” Nobody believes me.’

‘The Inquisitors in Toledo think all Englishmen are Lutherans. They have tried to put spies in my house. They offered money to my servants. Letters were stolen.’

‘I have warned you, lock up what you write. Prose or verse.’

Wyatt looks uneasy. ‘At first I thought it was you.’

He would not deny it; he has a man with Wyatt, as he has men with Gardiner in France. He sighs: ‘It is as much for your protection as anything else. My agents would not steal your letters, only read them at your desk. I am surprised at the freedom the Emperor gives the Inquisitors. Do not provoke them. You should show your face at Mass.’

‘No greater beadsman,’ Wyatt says. ‘I can mop and mow to an altar with the best of them.’

Heresy knows no borders, the Inquisitors declare. No traveller of any nation is exempt from our enquiries. And what could the King of England do, if they threw his envoy in a dungeon? He could make representations; but meanwhile, they could have bored a needle through our envoy’s tongue, or pulled out his fingernails.

A clerk comes in with a sheaf of papers. ‘From Sir Richard Riche, my lord. He said, never hesitate, but go straight in. This will rejoice Lord Cromwell, he said.’

He says to Wyatt, ‘I am augmented. I am to have the priory at Michelham. Gregory and I are writing our names on the chalk hills of Sussex. You too will have your reward.’ Even if posthumously, he thinks.

Wyatt watches the clerk out. He sits down. ‘Last year in France – Henry does not know this – Pole approached me. He sent presents. And a letter, wrapped around a flask of good wine.’

‘And?’

‘I read the letter. Francis Bryan drank the wine.’

‘Ah, Francis. How did he take to Nice?’

‘He gambled,’ Wyatt says, ‘as ever. The town stank like Hell, it was crammed to the rafters with papists, but Francis thrives on it. He plays for high stakes with the chancellors of great men, their familiar creatures, and he sleeps with their women. I could not prosper without him. I would learn nothing.’ Wyatt hesitates. ‘It seems to me I could approach our man Pole. I could contrive a meeting.’

He nods. ‘But remember no one has authorised you to make contact. I have not. The king has not.’

Wyatt curses. ‘When I am face to face with my opportunity, must I refuse it? What am I to do – send back to Westminster for instructions? Has Henry no faith in my judgement? If he wants an envoy, he should send who he trusts, and trust who he sends. And if he wants words and no deeds, let him choose some other man. I would kill Pole as soon as look at him.’

‘Well, that would terminate your embassy, for sure.’ He averts his face. ‘As it is, Henry will send you back, no matter how you squall.’

‘Then do one thing for me,’ Wyatt says. ‘Call home that runt Edmund Bonner. He has trotted after me from Spain into France and I swear the next time we take ship I will overboard him.’

The fat little priest is newly popular with the king. ‘We sent Bonner to help you against the theologians. We thought he would strengthen your embassy. We meant well, I swear it.’

‘I would rather live in a rats’ nest than lodge with him. I have never met a man so quick to take offence, and so quick to give it. He makes me sweat with shame. I do not understand why either you or the king would promote such a ball of tallow.’

He is silent on that. ‘You would not like to go to France instead? To replace Gardiner? I mean to put some friend as ambassador in his place.’

Wyatt smiles, as if puzzled. ‘I am that friend?’

There is a tap at the door. It is Dick Purser. He pulls off his cap. ‘Master, the present from Danzig is here.’

He slaps his hands on the desk. ‘Alive?’

‘Three alive. Let us hope not all of them after one kind. None of us are minded to pick them up and see if they have pintles.’

‘I’m coming,’ he says. And to Wyatt, ‘We are done?’

‘If you knew the long empty days when I talk to you in my head …’

‘Then stay to supper.’

‘And the long empty nights,’ Wyatt says.

The presents from Danzig are sad huddles of fur, their eyes bright hostile points; they shiver as if they have a fever. ‘Get them in the pond,’ he says, dismayed.

Wyatt peers down at them. ‘What are they? Beaver?’

‘Not seen since our grandfathers’ time. I want to breed them. Fishermen will be against it.’

He shrugs. It’s always the wrong bits of the past people want back. With their dams, these busy animals can divert and slow the waters of streams likely to flood. No human ingenuity can match theirs, and it is a pity they were ever hunted. Wyatt says, ‘What else will you bring back? Wolves?’

We do not need more predators. We do not need wild boar, though they make good sport. But we need to keep our rivers in their courses, and we need to plant trees, if we are going to cut them down at the present rate: for timber frames for merchants’ houses, for palaces for princes; for ships to sail against the Pope and the Emperor, and all the world in league against us.

In the long twilight Wyatt says to him: ‘I have learned one thing in Spain. They have a poison so virulent that one drop on an arrowhead can kill. I wonder if I should get some for our purpose.’

‘Oh, I would sooner an honest murder,’ he says. He pictures Pole felled on the highway, his minions fleeing like piglets from the butcher. ‘I think of cleaving his cardinal’s hat in twain. Slicing his pate, as Becket’s was sliced.’

Outside the window rises an English moon, yellow as a slice of Banbury cheese. Wyatt says, ‘I must get down to Allington and see about my affairs. I do not have your skill in choosing deputies to guard my interests. My son is fifteen now, and if the worst befell, what have I to leave him?’

‘On paper you are rich.’

‘Oh, paper,’ Wyatt says. ‘I think it was not by a serpent, but by paper and ink that evil came into the world. Such lies are written of me, in and out of cipher, that I think, this time Thomas Cromwell will show me the door. But you do not.’

He does not answer. Wyatt says abruptly, ‘I want to see Bess Darrell.’

‘If the Courtenays were to be at their house in Horsley, the king’s business might take you that way. She has wit enough to meet you day or night.’

Wyatt has never mentioned the phantom child who saved his life. But its absence hovers, a mild haze, behind Wyatt’s shoulder where his guardian angel skulks.

He stands up. ‘I shall not see you again before you sail. I wish you a swift passage. I hold you in my prayers.’

They walk out together into a warm misty evening. At the gate Anthony is sitting with the porters. He is a melancholy sight, his hollow chest, his bowed head, his spindly legs stuck out in front of him.

‘Anthony, I thought you were in Stepney.’ To Wyatt he says, unnecessarily, ‘This is my fool.’

Anthony is wearing his working suit of stripes and patches. Wyatt passes him with a glance, and as the fool raises an arm in salutation, his silver bells chime.

Wyatt leaves to resume his embassy just after the feast of Corpus Christi. On 21 June he writes from the dockside at Hythe. No ship can leave, the winds are so stiff. All day it has been blowing, and it means to blow all night, but tomorrow, the mariners say, it will have blown itself out. Early, he hopes to set sail.

He, Lord Cromwell, thinks back to their parting: Wyatt’s eyes begged him to say, you need not go back to Spain, I will plead you have done your utmost. But Henry would answer, ‘I will be the judge of that.’ The king knows Wyatt’s uses. He is able to read sighs, construe by contraries. His word is just what a diplomat’s word should be: as clear as glass and as unstable as water.

Wyatt thinks himself shrewd, but he does not grasp what friendship is, as the world goes now. Friendship swears it will stand and never alter, but when the weather changes men change their coat. Not every man has a price in money: some will betray you for a kind word from a great man, others will forswear your company because they see you limp, or lose your footing, or hesitate once in a while. He says to Rafe and to Call-Me, I urge you both, undertake no course without deep thought: but learn to think very fast.

The Emperor and François, in the absence of the English envoy, have made what they call a Ten-Year Truce. It is well into July before he, Cromwell, can obtain a copy of the terms. Then he and all the councillors see how little England has been regarded. Wyatt writes to him, ‘The king has been left out of the cart’s arse.’ That makes him laugh, the thought of Henry sacked and tied for market, forgotten in a farmyard and forlorn in the rain.

Our official reaction to the treaty is disbelief. Instead of the Ten-Year Truce we call it the Ten-Minute Truce. Henry says, ‘Why does Charles think the King of France will keep faith with him, when he does not keep faith with me? He has broken every ancient agreement between his realm and ours. The King of France and the King of England have always delivered up each other’s rebels. So why has he not delivered up Pole?’

He, Lord Cromwell, sighs. ‘Gardiner has ill-served us in that regard. It is high time he came home.’

‘When he does, send him to his diocese,’ the king says. ‘We do not want him near our person.’

All my envoys have let me down, Henry complains. They know how peace threatens our interests, and yet they could not stop it. ‘Francis Bryan said he would trap Pole. But he has disappointed me. Like you, Cromwell.’

If the treaty lasts our peril is extreme. Charles has always seen himself as conqueror of Constantinople. But quicker would be conquest of England, and with France as his ally it would be simple enough and cheap. Only consider the friends he has waiting for him, as soon as he sets foot on our soil: the old Plantagenet families, with their retainers armed and ready. Pole’s people, the Courtenays.

Wyatt has been deceived by the Emperor. England has been deceived by both Emperor and France. Henry is furious. Nothing will console him but theology.

A delegation comes from the German princes, with high hopes of friendship, of compromises that will allow our churches to make common cause against the devil and the Pope. The king’s team of negotiators includes Robert Barnes, who is familiar with the Germans and with whom they make good cheer. But also it includes the Bishop of Durham, Cuthbert Tunstall, fetched down from his see in the north to strengthen the hand of those who say, ‘Slowly, slowly, sometimes no change is best.’

Tunstall is a subtle man, experienced, congenial. It is dismaying how the king favours him, conferring with him as he rides from house to house; he does not let the godly Germans get in the way of his hunting. Dr Butts says, I suppose we should allow the king to ride, while he is able. But at every house where he intends a stay, Butts situates a surgeon.

The Lutherans tell Henry, your Majesty well knows we have made a League; it is not to attack anyone, only to secure us against the Emperor. If you will take part, you can be our head, we will make you Protector of our confederacy.

Through the summer the teams are locked in conference. Rafe Sadler takes minutes and relays them to the king. He himself, Thomas Cromwell, keeps a distance from their unsuccess. He knows the king will never agree that clergy may marry, or that laymen should receive Christ as both bread and wine. We cannot agree on the nature of Christ’s body, what is fact and what is allegory, what is human and what is divine. Can God be baked into bread? When we consume the host, why do we not hear the cracking of his bones? Is he still God, when he churns in our guts? And what if a dog eats him, is he still God then?

Corpus Christi is a miracle. It is a mystery. Once consecrated, the host contains your God, alive: the wine is his blood. You cannot hope to understand it but you must believe it. And if you fail to believe it you must keep quiet, because your failure can kill you.

The Germans do not enjoy their summer. They complain there are rats pounding across the floor of their lodgings, and where they sleep is next to the kitchen, so they are afraid their clothes smell of smoke and burnt fat. He could lodge them himself, but he would not go so far. He would not go far at all with Brother Martin. He is sending young men to study in Zürich, his mind drawn by the teaching of the learned doctors there. Hugh Latimer says the God of England worketh all, and under Him worketh Cromwell. But he keeps his eye on the prize: the English Bible. With this good book in your hands, God speaks to you as your father and mother spoke, as your nurse: and if you cannot read, others will read it for you, in this close, this loving, this familiar tongue.

The king has given permission for the Bible – what remains is to create and distribute it. He needs one to each parish, placed where the people have access. He needs copies by the thousand, not by the dozen. His friend the scholar Miles Coverdale takes charge of a revision, aiming to print in Paris. The French printers are the quickest in Europe. But the Inquisition operates there too.

Formerly he would have printed in Antwerp. But Charles is the master of those territories and Charles is in his killing vein. You sit down with his ambassadors, with Mendoza, with Chapuys; you pass a pleasant evening, you talk about books, you enjoy good food and a little music. But never forget: their regime buries women alive.

When the German doctors go home in September, it is with the king’s praise for their piety and learning. They should come back, Henry says; the door is open. That month he, the Vicegerent, makes new ordinances for the church. An end to pilgrimages. An end to the Angelus bell, which causes the people to kneel in the fields. No lights burning before statues or pictures. The images themselves remain, except the idols that the people furnish with oatcakes and ale; and the spangled, red-lipped Virgins who wear silver shoes when poor women go barefoot.

In autumn, too, he brings in a way of counting people. Each parish must start a register to record baptisms, marriages and burials. From now on his countrymen will know who they are and where they come from, who their cousins are and what their grandfather was called. Uncle Norfolk and his peers have heralds to tell them their lineage. The Poles, the Courtenays, the Veres and the Talbots, they have arms and devices. Their ancestors are buried beneath their own effigies, and even before noblemen learned to write, they had tame priests to record their lives. But the butcher or ploughman, the shepherd or shoemaker’s apprentice – for all he knows, he might have grown in a wood like a toadstool.

His friends ask: ‘What do you hear from Antwerp, from your lady daughter?’

He turns the conversation. He does not want to talk about Jenneke. He thinks, I may not be much of a father but she knows where to find me. If she sends a message it will reach me. Vaughan’s people will send it on the shortest route. But the Cromwell name is no protection to her, rather the reverse, and her faith – if she believes we are living through the last days – is a danger to him and to all her kin.

In high summer, he follows the king on his progress through Kent. At Dover they meet Lord Lisle, come over to importune the king about abbeys. ‘Talk to Riche,’ the king says, bored.

‘Riche?’ Lord Lisle says. ‘There never was such a dip-pocket as he! He wants a shilling to say good morning to you!’

‘He’s a lawyer,’ the king says, ‘how else do they make their shillings?’

The king is at his ease with Lisle, who was a kindly uncle to him when he was young. But Lisle’s hair of Plantagenet red has faded to russet and now to grey, and age has dimmed him. ‘Well, Cromwell,’ he says; and pats himself down, as if he were looking for a coin to offer. ‘I have your letters daily,’ he says, ‘but we do not often encounter, do we?’

‘Sadly not,’ he says. ‘I trust her ladyship is mended?’

Lisle manages a doleful smile. ‘Her belly is down at last. Poor soul, I never saw a lady more disappointed with her condition.’

‘I want to buy her land at Painswick,’ he says. ‘I will make her a good offer.’

Lisle is amused. ‘You think you could do with a slice of Gloucestershire, do you? Sussex does not satisfy your appetite? Majesty, is there no stopping these new men?’

‘I hope not,’ the king says. ‘I rely on them, sir.’

Lisle rocks back on his heels. ‘I don’t know that we’re selling.’

The king laughs like a boy. ‘Uncle, what a lot you don’t know!’

Henry is in an affable mood, though he is drawing up plans to build forts. I will talk to anyone, he says – talking is cheap, unless it involves the meeting of kings, and even that, he suggests to François, might be managed in a quiet way: why don’t we rendezvous outside Calais? He is still eager to inspect French brides. Perhaps François could bring a selection?

François, his tone dry, says that he sees no point in a meeting. Henry says, ‘Cromwell, François is in breach of his treaty obligations. He owes me four years’ pension. Tell the French that if they do not disburse I will invade them.’

The councillors, alarmed, scurry after him: ‘Cromwell, tell them no such thing!’

Another day, ‘Call Chapuys in,’ the king says. Multiple marriages are on the table: if Mary takes Dom Luis, not only will we throw in young Eliza as a makeweight, but Lady Margaret Douglas can wed some ally of the Emperor, perhaps in Italy. The king will also offer Mary Fitzroy, his dead son’s widow. Chapuys and Mendoza are invited to the palace at Richmond to spend a day with Lady Mary. Once again Mary performs on the lute. Chapuys reports, ‘She speaks fondly of her friend Cremuel.’ He adds in a low voice, smiling, ‘She seems confident you will save her from any unwanted bridegroom.’

With the visit, Mendoza’s mission is over. The king gives him a farewell banquet. ‘The Emperor has paid his London expenses,’ Chapuys says, sulking. ‘And no doubt rewarded him richly. Whereas months have gone by when I have not seen a penny, and am forced to take out loans.’

But now, the French and Imperial ambassadors are meeting and comparing notes, not just about the meanness of their princes but about the games played by the English king and his ministers. They say, our sovereigns are allies now, so why not we? ‘We are issued more news of the infant Edouard,’ Castillon says. ‘We are told he has four teeth. We are terrified, Cremuel.’

The king says, let the ambassadors know I mean to talk to the Duke of Cleves, about his sister. Let us stir them up a little, alarm them. Let them understand, Cromwell, that a match with Cleves has many advantages for me.

As our prince approaches twelve months of age, it is time to appoint his dry nurse. That done, with Mr Wriothesley and on a spare sheet of paper, he works out how to spend the king’s revenue. He wants twenty thousand marks for the repair of harbours and castles. For the comfort of the poor and sick, Henry will need to refound the hospitals that the monks used to run, and he will need ten thousand marks to get that under way. Then he plans to ask for five thousand marks for employing men without work to mend the highways.

‘You do not give up that notion,’ Wriothesley says.

He tried it before and Parliament would not support it. The king was more favourable. It becomes any prince to look after those without resources, and find them an honest life. Though probably, he says to Mr Wriothesley, King Arthur never occupied himself with such matters. In his day, castles repaired themselves, and all beggars were Christ in disguise.

Our man in Brussels, Hutton, is dead. Mr Wriothesley must get over there, the king says: help Hutton’s widow wrap up her affairs and travel back to England, and get himself into the confidence of the Emperor’s regent, the Queen of Hungary. The regent likes a handsome man, and Mr Wriothesley is both handsome and eloquent. And it is time for Hans to get on the road again. With him goes Philip Hoby of the privy chamber, to play the lover on his monarch’s behalf. He must set forth Henry’s qualities: his liberality, his clemency, his peaceable nature. Is Philip well-briefed? He, Cromwell, draws him aside.

‘Philip, when you go to see one of these ladies – French, Imperial, it is indifferent – you must seem, when you are ushered into her presence, to be silenced by utter astonishment. Your eyes must dart away from her, as if in panic; and then slowly, slowly – as if you hardly dare do it – you must raise your eyes to her face.’

‘Yes, I see,’ Philip Hoby says.

‘And then, once again, you look away. But this time, as if it pained you to do it. Drop your gaze, Philip, and look at your boots, and make a heavy sigh.’

Philip is unable to help himself; he makes one.

‘Next, you stammer through the courtesies. But once again, lose your composure. You pat your person, you search your bag – “Ah, here is my brief!” – all the time, you are aquiver, Philip. You take out your letter. Your fingers fumble. You read: “My master says”, and so forth, “Our council asserts …”’

‘I keep losing my place, do I?’

‘Then you cast the paper aside, as a thing you scorn. You burst out: “Madam, I must speak. Reports allude to the brightness of your eye, the sweetness of your lip, the freshness of your youthful complexion. Yet those reports fail to capture even a particle of the loveliness it is now my privilege to behold.”

‘At this point, Philip,’ he says, ‘you must put your hand on your heart. What she must perceive is, “Ah, this envoy is in love with me!”

‘She will smile on you. She will pity you. Look abashed, but let her draw you out. “Alas, madam, you are for princes, not for such a humble man as I be. Yet I could be consoled, if I saw you Queen of England – matched with so noble, so puissant, and so benign a prince.” While she is fluttering, move quick. Get her to agree to a portrait.’

‘Get Hans in,’ Philip says. ‘I see.’

He claps him on the shoulder. ‘I have faith in you.’

Rafe says, ‘Sir, now I have heard how these things are managed, I am surprised you have no wife yourself. I am surprised you have not a thousand wives.’

Late summer he rides down to Lewes to see Gregory and his grandson. Plague has not only prevented the king’s visit but forced his son’s household from the abbey site. But Gregory has refuges within a few miles, a choice of quiet and commodious manor houses. The baby thrives. The marriage, one judges, is happy. Poor Jane is lost, but her sister keeps her value. The young prince needs good uncles and protectors: Edward Seymour remains a councillor, and his brother Tom is in the privy chamber.

If Gregory still thinks about the misunderstanding over his bride, he shows no sign of concern. Father and son ride out together in the evening, the sun a perfect crimson orb above the line of the downs. The sky has become a mirror, against which the sun moves: light without shadow, like the light at the beginning of the world. Gregory’s chatter stills; the creak of harness, the breathing of the horses, seems to muffle itself, so they move in silence, outlined against silver, tall against the sky; and as the upland fades into a pillowy distance, he feels himself riding into nowhere, a blank, where only memory stirs. He thinks of those who he has known who have died by fire, as if they have fallen into the sun. Little Bilney; the sour and obstinate Tyndale; the young and tender John Frith.

When they ride down to their supper, the light is the colour of pigeons’ feathers. He hands over his horse and puts on his public face. The gentry of east Sussex must be entertained, both early and late. Bess is a practised hostess, having filled the role for her first husband. Gregory is ebullient, good company, but still eager to listen and learn; his eyes travel often to his father’s face. ‘I wish Richard were here,’ Gregory says. But Richard is setting up his household in Huntingdonshire, augmented by several abbeys. Around November, he thinks, I shall want Richard myself, to help me at the Tower.

At the end of August he arrests Geoffrey Pole. He is the youngest of the tribe and the least trusted – by his family, by his prince, and by himself.

He is in no hurry with Geoffrey. He is housed in circumstances that befit a gentleman who is cousin to the king. He is sure Reginald Pole can read the signal he sends. Reginald still has time to save his family. He can come home, and meet Henry face to face.

In the meantime he consults his memory and his files. He looks out reports from people close to the Poles: chaplains, servants, messengers and go-betweens. He sifts through papers from the days when the false prophetess arose in Kent and was entertained by the Courtenays. He combs through his transcript of the talks he had with Francis Bryan, two years back when he held him in the Tower. Francis is a mine of implication. His least word is a treasure trove of hints for the suspicious mind.

He is preparing to bring down two of the richest and most noble families in England. They have land all over the southern and western counties. If the Emperor invades he will set one of them on the throne: either Montague, Pole’s brother, or Henry Courtenay, the Marquis of Exeter. If they choose to make Mary queen, it will be for her mother’s sake; they will marry her into one family or the other, and make her their puppet, dancing between them.

The grandees of England claim descent from emperors and angels. To them, Henry Tudor is the son of Welsh horse-thieves: a parvenu, a usurper, a man to whom oaths may be broken.

In Canterbury, early July, he and the king had watched the new Becket play, devised by his man John Bale and acted by Lord Cromwell’s Men. Some are survivors from George Boleyn’s troupe. Some are young actors, not afraid of fresh plots, nor superstitious about putting new lines in the mouths of the dead.

Becket is England’s saint, more proximate than St George. He was a real man, unlike some saints destroyed this summer; he was a Londoner, native of Cheapside. Before he was born his mother dreamed the river Thames was flowing through her body. She dreamed that her baby was out of her already, and lay on a purple blanket, looking up at the roof; the blanket unfolded by itself, and overspilled the bed, and overspilled the room, and she walked backwards, holding its hem, until she was walking to the rim of the universe, among the moon and stars.

Some say Becket’s mother was a Saracen princess, but more likely she was a draper’s daughter. Her son came from nothing, and rose by the king’s favour to be Lord Chancellor, archbishop too. But once elevated he scorned princes, believing the old lie that popes are set above them; he thought all priests were above the law. When his king cried out against him, four loyal knights departed to Canterbury, to show him his errors.

These knights left their arms under a mulberry tree, and walked empty-handed to meet the archbishop. But finding him arrogant, hard-hearted and incapable of amendment, they picked up their weapons and pursued him into the cathedral, their metal feet ringing on the stonework. Becket could have hidden in the roof or crypt. Instead he stood by the altar of St Benedict, awaiting his dispatch.

The knights struck him with the flat of the sword, ordering him off holy ground. But Becket held up his hands and rolled his eyes to Heaven, swearing he would die where he stood. The first blow drew blood, which the archbishop wiped off with his sleeve. A second blow split his skull and brought him to his knees. He toppled forward, face down, and the broadsword of Richard le Breton swiped off the top of his skull. Then Sir Hugh de Morville planted his foot on the neck of the dying man, raked out the brains, and smeared them over the flags; adding, as a man of sense would, ‘Now he will not get up again.’

As soon as the townspeople knew the killing was done, they crowded into the abbey, wailing and crying out against the knights. The monks crammed the corpse in a stone coffin and buried it in haste. But they took care to mark the spot where Becket died. The miracles began after two days. Frozen arms jerked in their sockets. Cripples danced. Hot as a devil’s fart, word rattled around Europe that the knave was a martyr for our Holy Mother Church, whereas really he was a martyr for his own pride. Within two years the Pope made him a saint. The clamour for relics began. His blood, diluted so only the memory of it remained, was sold through the known world. The spot the monks had marked became his shrine. Even the lice from his hair shirt were sacred. Fifty years after his death his remains were placed inside a new and rich feretory, on a platform behind the high altar. Soon the faithful had plated the chest in gold and studded it with gemstones. The King of France gave a ruby the size of a hen’s egg. Queen Katherine was often a pilgrim here. The Emperor Charles has prayed to the bones.

As for the guilty knights, they went to Rome and grovelled. The Pope sent them to the Holy Land to serve, knowing they would never come back alive. Becket was a vengeful man and his rancour did not die with him. In a Kentish town where the folk had laughed at him, he caused a generation of children to be born with tails. And in another place where he had been slighted he banished all the nightingales, so that to this day their song is never heard, neither by lover nor poet.

Each season the people of Canterbury re-enact Becket’s death: it is the monkish version, because till now no other kind of history has been available. Crowds line the streets – excited, as if the tale might come out different this year. Hot pasties are sold. There are processions with drummers and pipes, and then the show begins. The knights get tuppence and some beer, but the lad who plays the saint gets a shilling, for the knights make him suffer, smashing him on the flags as the old archbishop was smashed. As Becket calls on Christ, a child crouching behind the altar squirts the scene with pig’s blood. The actor is carried away. Then everybody gets drunk.

September: he himself, Lord Cromwell, arrives in Canterbury and calls together the worthies. These are not easy times for you gentlemen, but you must know that the king hates your saint, and if you want to keep your town’s privileges you will show him your loyalty by keeping the streets quiet. It is true you will lose money when the pilgrims stop coming. But gentlemen, build up trade: don’t cry on my shoulder, when here you are in rich wool country, surrounded by great harbours. You cannot continue an abuse which is an affront to reason, just because folk from overseas come by the thousand to gawp at it.

The town is full. He stays at the prior’s lodgings, but every room is taken at the Porpoise, the Dolphin and the Mitre, at the Sun, the Crown and the Checker. The Bull Inn has even filled the bad rooms at the back, that overlook the shambles on Butchery Lane. The monks have had plenty of notice. They are not offering any resistance. They are only glad the priory itself is to remain open – or rather, be refounded by the king. Becket’s shrine is not the first to be broken. The method is to strip the precious metals and gems, weigh and value them, and arrange transport to the king’s treasury. Then, rebury the supposed saint in some decent but obscure spot.

On a fine autumn night they clear the precincts of the cathedral. Prior Goldwell begs to be excused the exhumation and retires to bed. The Vicegerent’s party sits by the hearth till the small hours. When the night office is done, the hour for Lauds approaching, he gives the nod to Dr Layton, his commissioner.

A young monk leads them by a short route to the burial site. Keys turn behind them, bolts are slammed, bars dropped into their guards. The vast nave stretches away, a black and echoing expanse in which he has set men with dogs. He can hear their scrambling paws and their panting as they strain at their leashes. These are ban-dogs. Their jaws are like vices. They will nab any intruder and have him on the floor screaming. ‘Sweeper!’ their keepers call. ‘Sturdy!’ ‘Diamond!’ ‘Jack!’

The monks of the advance party have lit torches around the tomb. He walks towards the light. He counts his witnesses: Layton’s clerks, the chosen townsfolk. He wants every man where he can see him, no one loitering in the cavernous space. ‘Loose the dogs.’

In the space of a breath, the black void fills with snarling. ‘Jesu,’ Christophe says. ‘They sound like roving demons.’

He puts out a hand and finds the boy’s shoulder. ‘Stick close.’ Even a Frenchman knows the legends of the shrine. As for those huddled bystanders from the town – guild officials, aldermen – they have been brought up on stories of those who, mishandling a saint’s relics, were consumed by plague or leprosy, or were choked by invisible nooses and died twitching on the floor.

‘We are ready,’ he says. A monk is walking towards him and his eye catches the glint of metal. His hand flies to his chest, to his knife. But as the man steps into the flicker of light he sees it is not a weapon he is holding but Becket’s skull. He has it tucked against his robes, as if it were a shy pet animal that feels the cold.

‘Give it here,’ he says. A cap of silver holds together the crazed fragments of bone. The lips of thousands have grazed this relic; but he is a whore’s client with no time for kissing. He holds Becket up, eye to hollow eye; he looks into his vacancy. He turns the skull up, to see where it was chopped from the backbone. There is no record that the four knights cut off Becket’s head. His admirers did that, later.

‘Shall we have a look at the rest of him?’ Dr Layton asks.

Now that the jewels and gilding are prised off, what rests on the flags is a serviceable iron chest, such as our forefathers used time out of mind. His fingertips graze its surface: common rust. ‘Jesus, Layton,’ he says, ‘the monks missed a chance here, they could have scraped down the rust every spring and sold it for more than you could charge for powdered unicorn.’

‘Hold up a light,’ Layton says.

The chest has been sealed around with lead. ‘See if it is still tight.’ A workman crouches and examines the seal, feeling his way along the join. Dr Layton squats beside him: ‘You would swear it has not been disturbed in years, my lord.’

Their anxiety is that the bones have been stolen by some dissident monk: that they have been sent by a courier to Rome, or tucked in some private ossuary till old times come again. But if the seal is intact, ‘I could have been in my feather bed, Dr Layton.’

‘Oh, I would not miss this,’ Layton says. ‘Not personally.’

The workman straightens up. ‘Shall we do off the lid, sirs?’

A monk says, ‘God in His mercy protect us.’

He is aware that some of the witnesses are retreating from the circle. ‘Don’t go too far, or the dogs will have you.’ The workman is a stonemason, and has brought his own bag of tools. A blacksmith, he thinks, made them all. Some nameless smith three centuries past melted the lead to make the seal which we will now split and rip. He says, give us a chisel. He fingers the business end, passes it back. Some smiths cannot make chisels, or punches either – they have to re-dress them after every job. Walter used to say, you must wait, wait, wait, till the colour fades from sunset-red to ash. It’s the last three hammer blows that count.

Each blow rings. One, two, three. He would rip open the chest himself, but: dignity of his office, the king’s Vicegerent, Cromwell of Wimbledon, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal. Knight of the Garter.

The mason exhales as he stands up. He walks around the chest and repositions himself, kneeling.

‘Another torch,’ he says. The flames lick, sway, and behind him there is a cry: ‘Up there!’ He whirls around, a black storm of velvet and fur. The dogs set up a thunderous barking. High above, a shape cuts through the space, swaying. He glimpses the edge of a wing – the outline, against the heights, of a huge bird or bat.

Cowled monks plummet to their knees. A body goes down and a head hits the flags. He calls for more light. Lanterns bob in the nave. The handlers whip back the dogs. ‘Oh, by the thighs of Mary!’ shouts Christophe. High in the roof, thrown across the scaffolding, a stonemason has left his coat. It stretches its arms, as if swimming through the black air.

The fallen man is slapped about the face and levered to the vertical. He is led away, shaking, by two fellow witnesses who will dine out on it for years. There is some uncertain laughter.

‘I suppose that’s not your coat?’ Layton asks the mason.

The man shakes his head. He would cross himself if not encumbered with a chisel in hand. ‘By St Barbara, I swear it moved,’ a monk exclaims.

He says mildly, ‘Masters, as you see, it is but a garment.’

Are these Englishmen? Are these the conquerors of Agincourt? Fear jumps and runs like fleas under the skin. Someone trundles up with a long pole and a short ladder, and prods at the coat as if it were a hanged man subject to indignities by the state. He says to the mason, ‘Master? Will you proceed?’

Three more blows. Each one shuddering its way into the body, making the heart pound. ‘Crowbar,’ he says.

When the lid of the chest moves, a smell creeps out, a stench like a plague pit. It is like a knock with a cudgel. Every man steps back. He has a flask of aqua vitae in his coat. He takes a swig from it and passes it to Christophe. The boy gulps, coughs. ‘I am on fire,’ he says gratefully. ‘Why did you not give me this before?’

‘I am ready,’ the mason says. ‘Assist me, sirs?’

One-two-three: master and man heave the lid aside, upending it on the ground. Dr Layton is at his shoulder. In the shadows the monks trample and snuffle and pray out loud.

Inside the chest there is not enough to make a man. The saint’s ribs are gone, unless ribs are what form this residue; his fingers dust through it. The long bones have been crossed – forearm and shin, thigh bone and the thick bone from the upper arm. They form a square: laid in the centre of it, a skull.

The mason says, ‘Christ alive! Shall I, sir? Or will you?’

‘You,’ he says. ‘Hold up so all can see. If I do it myself they will not believe it. They will think it is a conjuring trick.’

Arm raised aloft, the workman displays the skull. The witnesses gasp. The dogs set up a roar. Their shapes plunge and dart. ‘Down, down!’ their keepers shout. Only the cloth man hangs overhead, serene.

Well, says Dr Layton, either the silver skull is Becket or this one is; no saint is so special he has two heads.

The stench, he notices, is dissipating, or dispersing into a general foulness: the cooling sweat of fear, the fasting breath of early morning. He could swear some monk has pissed himself – or let us say it is one of the brutes running in the nave. He can pick out their shapes now, their muscular bouncing frames, their open jaws and lolling tongues. He turns up the skull between his hands. His fingers explore the calvarium. They emerge through the battered eye sockets. ‘Well – whence comes this second relic?’

If this is Becket’s skull, who is the nameless wretch in the silver cap, kissed more in death than in life, the lips of princesses pressed to his noddle? Did he die of an ague? Did he choke on a plum stone? Did the monks say, ‘Nobody owns this fellow, we’ll make him into a Becket?’ Then bump his cadaver into a yard, and go at it with a hatchet?

He lays the naked skull back in the chest, between the crossed bones. This shrine is as thorough a forgery as you will get, he remarks. We do not even know if these are Becket’s, these thighs, these shins. There could be any number of confused corpses here.

How cold it has grown: as if the year had leapt from leaf-fall to Advent. Dr Layton rubs his hands. ‘Are we done, my lord? I will make a note of everything we have found. I have witnessed with my own eyes.’

The bell rings for the dawn office. When they step out into the air, they can see their breath. The stars fade around them. ‘My lord Cromwell,’ one of the monks says, ‘we have prepared …’

‘Another tomb will not be needed. The king wants the bones.’

The man gapes at him. Only the cloister’s long discipline stops him from crying out in distress. ‘He will not be buried here?’

‘Prise the silver from the skull,’ he says. ‘Have it weighed and list it with the other metal. Put what remains back into the chest, with the other skull, and indeed any more skulls you may turn up; it would not surprise me if that treacherous knave had six heads. I shall take the chest with me today. Give it to Monsieur Christophe here. You need not reseal it.’

The dogs are chained, led away – whining and grumbling, but wagging the stumps of their docked tails. After their night’s work they are hungry for breakfast. As are we all, if we can cough up the poison from our throats. ‘Give me that flask again?’ Christophe says.

He passes it over. ‘Keep it.’ He pulls Christophe close and says in his ear, ‘Get the bones to Austin Friars. If anyone asks where they are, they went on a cart and you never saw them after.’

He thinks, I want to be able to locate the knave at a moment’s notice. The king spits at the name of Becket, but give him a year or two and he may change his mind, and make him a saint again. Sad, but those are the times.

The king has approved new injunctions this month. The Bible is to be read, the people are to learn their Commandments and their Creed, the priest is to teach them, a little and a little every week. ‘But my lord Cromwell,’ the king says, ‘do not make my church strange to the people. Keep those images worthy of reverence. Retain all laudable ceremonies. Do not outrage my subjects with new and alien practices.’

The Germans say, ‘We know you are on our side, Cromwell, no matter your caution.’ Hugh Latimer says, ‘More honest men have been promoted under you, these last five years, than in a hundred years before.’ Thomas Cranmer says, ‘You have given everything for the gospel: you have risked everything, everything you have and are.’ Robert Barnes says, ‘Suppose the king is losing his nerve?’

He feels as if their words are echoing in his head. He walks away. He is very tired: bone-weary, he says to himself. He wonders, where is my daughter Jenneke this morning? He feels as if he is drunk, as if he had emptied the flask himself; and he remembers a day, Putney, the riverbank, long ago, walking home in the dawn: he sees himself as if from the treetops, swaying from side to side, a small striving figure in the white light, with a taste of vomit in his mouth.

October brings Stephen Gardiner: rolling up from Dover with his baggage, aware he returns from France under a cloud. Bess Darrell, listening to the talk in papist houses, is sure that someone within our French embassy had contact with Reginald Pole last year, and told him where to move to avoid the king’s agents. It would be neat to find Stephen was the traitor. The bishop has always been a stout defender of the king’s title of Supreme Head. But those who know him have long believed what he says is different from what he thinks.

It has been good work to keep Gardiner out of England for three years. Now he sets Bonner, who is to succeed him as our envoy, to truffle through Stephen’s files for any trace of those mishaps that occur in a diplomat’s life. Bonner takes to it with relish. To give him rank, he has been promoted Bishop of Hereford, and can hardly believe his luck. His letters from France are gleeful, yet full of rancour and complaint, couched in phrases that make my lord Privy Seal laugh. His predecessor, he reports, was obstructive in the handover, and leaves behind him an embassy guest list that shows how much he enjoyed papist company. And his common table talk was how the king could be reconciled to Rome without losing face: and how he, Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, was the man who would bring it about.

‘Look,’ he says to Rafe: he hands over Bonner’s letter. What caterpillars these men be, who digest all before them, who fatten on the king’s favour, who bite jagged holes in the commonwealth. They cocoon in dusty corners; one day they will split their casing and emerge in gaudy, flaunting their Roman vestments.

Bonner complains of Wyatt too. Wyatt was rude to him when they were in Spain, insufferable when they were in Nice. He was secretive. He was nonchalant when they were in peril. His housekeeping is extravagant: harlots pass in and out of the lodgings of his entourage. And also, Bonner says, Wyatt bears a grudge against the king about his imprisonment two years back, a grudge which he often airs.

He finds that believable. He finds it natural. A petty clerk like Bonner, he will never understand a man like Wyatt, unconstrained in action or speech. I have always been surprised, Richard Riche says, that Wyatt should be an ambassador. He seems to me to come from a former age, when such gallantries as his did not have to pass through the king’s accounts.

Francis Bryan has crawled back to England sick enough to die. The king has kicked him out of the privy chamber, though Bryan swears all his excesses have been in England’s service. His people take him off to the country, and write to Lord Cromwell begging for a kind word. ‘You know you would miss him sorely,’ Richard Cromwell says. ‘Anytime you don’t know what to do, you say, “Arrest Sir Francis Bryan!”’

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