The Mirror and the Light (Corpus Christi | Part 3)
They set great store by dreams, these families. They are always writing them down under seal and sending them to each other by fast courier. Many nights, it seems, they dream the king is dead. Sometimes they dream Jane Seymour comes in her shroud, to tell the king she hates him and he is damned.
He says, ‘You cannot go back among the Courtenays because they will not exist. When you leave here you will go to Allington.’
She looks up. ‘And what will I do there?’
‘Live and make no stir.’
‘You will bring Wyatt home?’
He nods. ‘Though I cannot say when.’
‘They say the king is not satisfied with him.’
‘He is not satisfied with any of us.’
He thinks, we do not even know that Wyatt is still alive. But I trust his skill in locating his peril and moving away from it. Or not, if stasis is best: Wyatt stood while a lioness stalked him.
Bess Darrell says, ‘Lord Montague calls England a prison. He says it has been a prison these last six years.’
‘Too kind a gaol for him to leave,’ he says. ‘They sicken me. They are cowards. If he had flown across the sea to Reginald, at least I would respect him. He would have shown himself a man, to be taken under arms.’
‘It would have made your task easier,’ Bess says. ‘No doubt of their treason then. But apart from what I have supplied, you have nothing but Geoffrey’s nonsense, and hearsay and rumour and kitchen boys’ gossip. They will not oblige you, Montague and Exeter, unless you rip their treason out of them, and you cannot do that.’
‘I am very ingenious,’ he says sadly. ‘And your testimony is a great help.’
‘But think, my lord. If you call a traitor everyone who has voiced a dislike of the king or his proceedings, who does that leave alive?’
‘Me,’ he says. Henry and Cromwell. Cromwell and Henry.
‘Exeter thinks the world will turn,’ Bess says. ‘He knows Henry is afraid of excommunication. He thinks a show of force will bring him back to Rome.’
‘He will not turn,’ he says. ‘Too much has been said and done in England. The king cannot resist change even if he would. Let me live another year or two, and I will make sure what we have done can never be undone, not by any power on earth. And even if Henry does turn, I will not turn. I will make good my cause in my own person. I am not too old to take a sword in my hand.’
‘You would take arms against Henry?’ She seems entertained, more than shocked.
‘I did not say that.’
She looks down at her hands, wearing Wyatt’s ring. ‘Oh, I think you did.’
Mid-November: with the first foul weather, you may witness a Cambridge man, a priest, committing a slow public suicide. One man, taking on the king: one puny challenger against the giant, his person small as a crumb, his weapons straw.
His name is John Lambert, though he was born Nicholson. He was ordained priest, and knew Little Bilney, who converted him to the gospel. He went to Antwerp, chaplain to the English merchants; his path crossed every dangerous path, Tyndale’s included. Thomas More, he says, tricked him back to England. Then old Archbishop Warham – Canterbury, that was – hauled him up for heresy, charging him in forty-five articles, which he rebutted. Yes, he admitted, he had studied Luther’s work, and he found himself the better man for it. He agreed with Luther that it was lawful for a priest to marry. The question of free will, he called too hard a matter for a simple man. But he believed only Christ, not priests, could forgive sin. Scripture has all we need, he said. We do not need the extra rules Rome has made up.
In the middle of the hearing, Warham died. The case was allowed to lapse. But the passage of four, five years has not made Lambert cautious. At Austin Friars – no clerks present, no record kept – Thomas Cranmer has reasoned with him. He, Thomas Cromwell, has argued with him fiercely. And Robert Barnes has stood by, his face pinched with dislike and fear: bursting out at last, ‘You – whatever you call yourself – Lambert, Nicholson – you will ruin us all.’
Cranmer had said, ‘We do not quarrel with your views –’
‘Yes, we do,’ Barnes said.
‘Well then, we do – but the chief thing is, be circumspect. Be patient.’
‘What, wait till you crawl in my direction? Play the man, Cranmer, stand up for the truth. You know it now, in your heart.’
Barnes says, ‘Lambert, you question baptism itself –’
‘There is baptism in the scriptures. But not of infants.’
‘– and you question the eucharist, the sacrament of the altar. Now, if you do that, if you do it openly, I cannot protect you and I will not, and he,’ he points to the archbishop, ‘will not, and he,’ – he points to the Lord Privy Seal – ‘he will not either.’
‘I tell you what I will do,’ Lambert says. ‘I will spare you torment. I will go over your heads. I will put my case to the king himself. He is head of the church. Let Henry judge me.’
The king – let no man be astonished – has risen to the challenge. At Whitehall he will debate with Lambert in public. ‘Cromwell, are the ambassadors coming?’
Europe calls the king a heretic – so now let Europe see and hear him defend our common faith. Pole asserts he is inferior in learning to men like More and Fisher, the blessed dead. He will show the contrary. Rows of benches are set out for the spectators.
‘Pray God the king does not get a fall,’ Rafe Sadler says. ‘Lambert is a student of languages. He can cite the scriptures in tongues ancient and modern.’
He is rueful. ‘I always told the king, English is enough.’
He thinks, for every point Lambert scores, I will smart.
He has done his best to deter Henry from putting on this show. He does not need to answer Lambert, he tells him – he has bishops to take care of it. But Henry is not listening. It is only the day before the debate that he senses the discomfort of his advisers. ‘What, do you fear for me? I am well able for any heretic. And I must carry the torch of faith high, where my friends and enemies can see it.’
He says, and when will your Majesty begin to carry it? ‘About noon,’ Henry says. ‘And by twilight we should be done.’
Early on the morning of the hearing, he receives Lisle’s wife, over from Calais. There is no one, other than Stephen Gardiner, whom he would less like to see before breakfast.
He knows Lady Lisle dislikes him. She dislikes what he is – a jack-in-office – and makes him feel that his manner, his address, gives him away as a pot-boy. All the same, she chatters gaily about the terms on which she will sell him her Gloucestershire property. You would think all was merry in Calais; she does not mention the stream of disaffected informants who roll up to his various houses, some of them still green from the sea-crossing. She does not mention the folk in custody at the Tower, though surely they are cousins of hers; all these people are related. Only she says, ‘I hear you are busy, Lord Cromwell. Never too busy to get land, are you? I said to my husband, depend upon it, Cromwell will make time for me. He wants what I have.’
‘How is my lord Lisle? John Husee says he is melancholy.’
‘It would cheer him to have reward for long service.’
‘The king has offered him two hundred pounds a year.’
‘I would it were four hundred.’
He suppresses a smile. ‘I will ask. I promise nothing.’
‘If the king speeds well with the heretic, he will be in a giving humour come this evening. Well,’ she gets up, ‘I must speed away myself. The sooner I am back in Calais, the better my lord will like it. He says he would rather lose a hundred pounds than spend a week without me.’
‘If he had it to lose,’ he says, before he thinks.
‘That’s up to you,’ she says. ‘Try and work it, won’t you, Master Cromwell?’ She laughs, excuses herself. ‘My lord, I should say.’
‘Yes, you should,’ he says. ‘You should know by now.’
‘I mean no slight. What the king has made you, that thing you are. But do you wonder my lord is miserable? So many nobodies are enriched, while we must scrape.’
Lady Lisle cannot get women to serve her, she is so demanding. But old Lisle is in love with her, he thinks: his hard, bright, selfish bride.
It is gone ten o’clock. At Westminster the bishops are waiting: the members of the king’s council, the gentlemen of the privy chamber, the mayor, the aldermen, officers of the London guilds. Christophe helps him into his coat. ‘Bishop Gardineur will be with you,’ he reminds him. ‘Today he will enjoy himself, for surely this poor Lambert will burn? For who can deny baptism? Before St Christophe was baptised, he was a dog’s-head cannibal. His name was not Christophe, but Abominable. After he was baptised he was human, and could pray. Before, he could only bark.’
He says, ‘I know your name is not really Christophe. You had another. Fabrice, was it not?’
‘Christophe was my Calais name. On Calkwell Street. Before Fabrice I was Benoît, a very good little boy. But it does not matter what I was christened. I have forgot.’
He thinks, it is not baptism that will undo Lambert, it is corpus Christi, it is the body of Christ.
Stephen Gardiner, sweeping in: he checks his pace, they halt, they square up; they do off their hats to each other, respectful men, elaborately polite. But with Stephen, politeness only ever lasts a blink.
‘I don’t know what you have been doing in my absence,’ Stephen says. ‘I don’t know why you would tolerate an anabaptist. Unless of course you are one.’
In fantasy, he takes off his coat again. He rolls up his sleeves, and punches Stephen on the nose. It is dismaying to him, that Stephen has been gone three years, and his urge to knock him down is as strong as ever.
‘Is it likely?’ he says. ‘These people you call anabaptists will take no oaths. They will serve no kings. Not only do they deny the commonwealth their labour, the magistrate their obedience, but they deny the child his book. They love ignorance. They say we live in the last days, so why learn anything? Why tend crops, why store grain: there is no need of a harvest.’
‘Oh well,’ Gardiner says, ‘one sees their point, if Christ’s coming is imminent. Which I do not believe. But I thought you might.’
‘You know I have nothing to do with this sect.’
‘Perhaps not.’ Stephen smiles. ‘After all, you take conspicuous thought for the morrow. You lay up treasure on earth, don’t you? Indeed you do little else.’
‘Now you are back in the jurisdiction,’ he says, ‘you will see what I do.’
At midday the king comes in, announced by trumpets. The day is dark but Henry is wearing white from head to foot. He looks like a mountain that one hears of in fables, made of solid ice.
The king takes his place on the dais beneath his canopy of estate. The tiered benches are packed. The clergy sit at the king’s right hand, his noblemen on his left. The hall is hung in splendour, a blur of pennants and flags, and tapestry has been brought from the Wardrobe, so that giant Bible figures preside over the scene: Daniel, Job, Solomon without Sheba.
He, the Vicegerent, takes his seat. Bishop Tunstall gives him a courteous nod. Bishop Stokesley glares. Dr Barnes appears like a graven image. Cranmer seems to have shrunk. Hugh Latimer keeps leaping up and down, running to this one and that, tapping shoulders, whispering, passing notes. He says to Cranmer, ‘Has Hugh briefed the king?’
‘We have all briefed him.’ Cranmer seems surprised. ‘Have not you?’
‘I would not presume. He is closer to God than I am.’
When they bring John Lambert in, his step is firm, his face resolute. But as he looks around him, takes in the grandeur of the hall, you can see he is overwhelmed. He stares at the king, at his shining slopes, and then begins an obeisance – he does not know whether to bow or kneel.
He, Thomas Cromwell, sees Dr Barnes smile. He hears Stokesley shift on his bench, a smug rustle. He swings around and glares: ‘A little charity?’
‘Hush,’ Cranmer says.
They have built a platform so Lambert can be seen from all parts of the hall. He stops before it, like a horse that has seen a shadow in the trees. Urged to mount the steps, he creeps up as if it were a scaffold. He faces the king. His head turns, seeking faces he knows, but when he finds them, in the dim light of noon, he finds them stony.
Henry leans forward. This hearing has no precedent, therefore no rules, but the king has decided to run it like a courtroom. ‘Your name?’
John Lambert is used to defending himself in small rooms. He is courageous, but he is not a man who has ever had to rise to an occasion: and here is his king, the maker of occasions.
His voice seems faint, as if it is coming from another era. ‘I was born John Nicholson. But I am known as John Lambert.’
‘What?’ The king is shocked. ‘You have two names?’
Lambert recoils. He sinks onto one knee.
Gardiner murmurs, ‘Wise move, fellow.’
The king says, ‘I would not trust a man with two names, even if he were my own brother.’
Lambert is taken aback by the king’s plain speaking. Did he expect a learned oration? That is to come: but Henry moves, unerringly, to the ground of their quarrel. ‘The body of Christ. Is it present in the sacrament?’
When the king says corpus Christi, he puts his hand to his hat, in reverence.
Lambert observes the gesture. His shoulders hunch. ‘Your Majesty being so well-learned, a prince of rare sagacity –’
‘Lambert, Nicholson,’ the king says, ‘I did not come here to be flattered. Just answer.’
‘St Augustine says …’
‘I know about Augustine. I want to hear from you.’
Lambert flinches. He is kneeling now and he does not know at what point he can stand up. It is a form of torture he has devised for himself. The king glares at him. ‘Well? What do you say? Is it Christ’s flesh, His blood?’
‘No,’ Lambert says.
Stephen Gardiner slaps his knee, lightly. Bishop Stokesley says, ‘May as well set fire to him now. Why drag it out?’
The king’s face flushes. ‘What about women, Lambert – is it lawful for a woman to teach?’
‘In case of necessity,’ Lambert says. The bishops groan.
And the word ‘minister’, the king demands, what does he take to be its meaning? The word ‘church’? The word ‘penance’? Should the faithful make private confession? Does he think priests may marry?
‘Yes,’ Lambert says. ‘Any man should, if he has not the gift of chastity. St Paul is clear in the matter.’
Robert Barnes says, excuse me. He gets up, blundering over the feet of the learned divines.
‘My lord archbishop,’ the king says, ‘will you stand up now, and show Lambert or Nicholson why he is wrong?’
Cranmer rises. Cuthbert Tunstall leans forward: ‘My lord Cromwell, why does Lambert have two names? It seems to trouble the king as much as his heresies.’
‘I believe he changed it to evade persecution.’
‘Hmm.’ Tunstall sits back. ‘He had better have changed his views.’
Cranmer is on his feet. His manner is tentative: ‘Brother Lambert …’
The people at the back shout they cannot hear.
Robert Barnes has returned. Excuse me, lords, pardon me: blundering over their feet again. He looks sick. Perhaps he has been. Cranmer says, ‘Brother Lambert, I am going to show you some passages in scripture which I believe prove you wrong, and if you admit my texts well-founded, then I think you must concede to my opinion and the king’s. But if –’
Stephen Gardiner is shifting in his seat. While Cranmer makes his case he keeps up a buzz of commentary, no doubt too low for the king to hear. Bishop Shaxton shushes him. Hugh Latimer glares at him. Stephen ignores them, and even before Cranmer has finished he is on his feet.
Cuthbert Tunstall says, ‘My lord of Winchester, I believe I am listed to speak next?’
Gardiner bares his teeth.
Tunstall looks about for help. ‘Gentlemen?’
Cranmer slumps in his chair. Hugh Latimer says, ‘Perhaps the Vicegerent is next?’
He, Cromwell, holds up a palm: not I.
Bishop Shaxton is waving the list. ‘You are number six, Gardiner. Sit down!’
The Bishop of Winchester takes no notice at all. He just carries on, talking a man to death, tripping him and goading him into the flames where he will scream and bleed.
Two o’clock. The king is magisterial. He is nimble, he is trenchant; he is, at times, humble. He does not want to kill Lambert, that is of no interest to him. He wants to out-reason him: so that in the end, Lambert will crumple and confess: ‘Sire, you are the better theologian: I am instructed, enlightened and saved by you.’
You would not hear François engage with a subject in close debate, nor would he be capable of it. You would not find the Emperor fighting to save the life of a miserable subject. They would bring in their Inquisitors, and break Lambert in the torture room.
He, Cromwell, thinks of the tournament, the score sheet, the record of each atteint: broken on the body. Each time the king collects his horse and couches his lance, he pauses, makes Lambert some kind of offer. A prospect of mercy. Your life – if you withdraw, concede, and then beg. Asked if he believes in Purgatory, Lambert says, ‘I believe in tribulation. One may go through Purgatory in this world.’
‘It is a trick,’ Hugh Latimer mutters. ‘The king does not believe in Purgatory himself.’
‘Well, not today,’ Gardiner says.
Three o’clock: piss break. Origen cited, St Jerome, Chrysostom, the prophet Isaiah. Outside, Gardiner says, ‘I cannot think why the old charges against Lambert were ever dropped. A change of archbishop is no excuse. You should have been on top of that, Cromwell.’
Stokesley says, ‘You don’t seem to be taking much interest in the case, my lord Privy Seal.’
‘I wonder why,’ Gardiner says. He spies Latimer. ‘What about you, are you profiting from the king’s learning?’
Hugh growls like a terrier before a bull.
It takes some time for all the spectators to file to their places, to cease coughing and settle. Then all eyes turn to him, the king’s Vicegerent. He lurches to his feet. ‘Majesty, having heard your reasoning, and that of the bishops, I have nothing to add, and I do not think anything is wanting.’
‘What?’ Gardiner says behind him. ‘Nothing is wanting? Go on, Cromwell, reason on the case. You think no one wants to hear you? I want to hear you.’
The king glares. Gardiner throws up his hands, as if in apology.
It is Lambert’s turn to speak. And turns are observed – except by Stephen. Lambert has negotiated himself from his knees to his feet, but four hours have gone by and nobody has offered him a chair. Twilight: his shoulders sag. The torches come in. As their light plays over the faces of the bishops, the king says, ‘It is time, Lambert. You have heard all these learned men. So now, what do you think? Have we persuaded you? Will you live or die?’
Lambert says, ‘I commend my soul into God’s hands. My body, into your Majesty’s. I submit to your judgement. I rest in your clemency.’
Don’t, he thinks. Not there.
Henry says, ‘You hold the sacrament of the altar to be a puppet show.’
‘No,’ Lambert says.
The king holds up a hand. ‘You say it is an illusion. That it is an image only, or figure. You are confounded by one text, the words of Jesus: Hoc est corpus meum. It is the plainest text of all. I will not be a patron to heretics. My lord Cromwell, read the sentence against this man.’
He picks up the documents. In such cases they are prepared in advance. Stokesley says he alone has burned fifty heretics, and even if he is just bragging, there is a form for the next part of the procedure that is well-rehearsed. He stands.
‘Give it good and loud,’ Stokesley says. ‘Let us hear you at last, my lord Cromwell. Leave the wretch in no doubt as to his fate.’
After the edict is read, the guards take Lambert out. The king inclines his head to his audience, with the sober piety of a churchman: which, for this afternoon, he has been. When he lifts his chin, his expression is exalted.
At a signal, the trumpeters step into the hall. They blow a fanfare to see the king out. Six trumpeters. Sixteen pence each. Eight shillings for the treasury to find. The king is thinking of forming a new guard, called the Gentlemen Spears, with new livery. The way he’s going, he’ll want trumpeters every hour.
Barely six o’clock, but black night outside. The winter has taken its iron grip. ‘That was grim,’ Rafe says.
He agrees. ‘Poor fellow.’
Rafe says, ‘I did not mean Lambert. He brought it on himself.’
‘I believe Gardiner brought it on him.’ He is angry. ‘He sets his claws back on English soil and this occurs. I think he has been to the king behind my back. I think he has been pulling at his sleeve – telling him how the French are disgusted at our reformation, how the Emperor is appalled – how he must prove himself a good Roman at heart. As if his great cause is some silly quarrel that can be patched within a fortnight, and seven years’ work dismissed –’
‘It is too late now for a speech,’ Rafe says.
His household guard is here, ready to take him home. The crowds are dispersing. The fanfares are done, the trumpeters are strolling away. He calls them over, reaches in his pocket to give them some drinking money. They touch their caps to him. He turns back to Rafe. ‘I hope it does not seem I disdained the king’s efforts. I did not. He reasoned very well.’
Rafe says, ‘It appeared that you did not know what to do.’
He thinks, I did know. But I didn’t do it. I could have given my voice for Lambert. Or at least walked out.
‘Barnes played the hypocrite,’ he says. ‘But for the grace of God he would be standing there himself, accused.’
Rafe says, ‘Rob has done himself no harm today.’
Rafe leaves the rest unsaid. They go out into the cold. He thinks, I could have quoted, I could have cited. What has all my reading been for?
He puts his arm across Rafe’s shoulders. Rafe never fleshes; he is no hunter nor tennis-player, he is meagre as a boy, breakable. ‘Never fear,’ he says. ‘We shall prosper, son.’ The cold stings their faces.
It is not many days till the burning. He sends to Lambert food and drink, words of consolation and pity, but he asks himself, how can these be received? He knows I did not speak for him. I sat in the cockpit among those eager hard-eyed men, with the taste of blood in their mouths, and I did not lift a finger. Or raise my voice, except to read the sentence. But if the king would not consult me, what could I do? In all of The Book Called Henry, there is no precedent for it.
John Lambert’s end is a grand occasion. At Smithfield there are stands for the dignitaries, hung with the emblems of England, furnished with plush cushions. Every councillor is on parade, who is not actually sick in bed: each man hung with his chains of office, and the Garter badge for the elite. Seats with the best view are reserved for the principal ambassadors, for Castillon and Chapuys.
The day is a fiesta of pain. He has never seen a man suffer so. A spectator cannot make his eyes blind. He can only close them for moments together. He thinks, thank God that Gregory is safe down in Sussex. He could not look when Anne Boleyn died, and that was but a heartbeat: less.
Lambert is an hour dying. At his side, attending my lord Privy Seal, is a small boy, Thomas Cromwell, alias Harry Smith. There is a smear of ash on his bare arm; his body, beneath his jerkin, is cloudy with bruises.
In the starlit hour, Cranmer comes to see him. A pastoral visit. ‘You are not well?’
He will not admit to that. ‘Awake at all hours,’ he says. ‘It is Master Traitor Pole, he makes so much paperwork with his machinations.’
The archbishop looks helpless himself, exhausted. He, Lord Cromwell, calls for wine for him, for food if he will take it: a capon’s wing, plums. Cranmer shuffles in his chair. He blows his nose. He says, ‘You know, what we have begun will not come to fruition in one generation. You are past fifty. And I, not much less.’
‘Gardiner asked if I thought we were living in the last days.’
Cranmer darts a glance at him. ‘But you do not. Surely.’ The archbishop is biting his lip, like a man lifting a splinter with a needle.
‘I can see why good men want to believe that Christ is coming. We want His justice, when justice seems so long delayed.’
‘You think Lambert did not have justice?’
He looks up. It is not a trap.
He says, ‘You can’t pick and choose, if you serve a prince, week to week or cause to cause. Sometimes all you can do is lessen the damage. But here we failed.’
Cranmer says, ‘We must not make Thomas More’s mistake. He thought Henry’s conscience was his to command.’
The door opens. Cranmer starts. ‘Ah, Christophe –’
Christophe puts down a platter. ‘I think my master ought to have a holiday.’
‘Beyond my remit,’ Cranmer says faintly. ‘You know, when I was a boy I did suppose an archbishop could do anything. I supposed he could do miracles.’
‘I never gave it a thought,’ he says. ‘Christophe, bring fruit.’
The boy trundles out. He says, ‘The light of Christ leads us to some murky places.’
The archbishop is looking at his roast fowl. He says, ‘I cannot touch flesh. Not this evening.’
He says, ‘Have you ever seen a hawk keep killing, when the prey is dead?’
Cranmer flinches. ‘No,’ he says, ‘no. I think the king was … he surprised me … he was judicious, he was, at times, he was almost … fatherly.’
Ripping and stamping, rage in the eye. Sipping blood from the body cavity, then slashing again at the flesh.
‘Fatherly,’ he says. ‘Yes, he was.’
He thinks, after I saw Joan Boughton burned, I went home to my little life and I did not know if it was true or if I had dreamed it. I wondered if I might see her in the street, an elderly body about her business, going with her basket to buy cloves and apples for a pie.
Cranmer says, ‘But what else could we have done? Lambert chose his answers. It lay within his power to make others.’
‘I do not think it did.’
Cranmer considers that. To fill the silence he asks him, ‘How is your lady?’
‘Grete?’ Cranmer speaks as if he had other wives, one or two. ‘Grete is afraid. And tired of hiding. I assured her when I brought her to England that the king would be brought to a different opinion, and that we would be able to live freely like any couple. But as it is …’
His voice dies away. We are living on borrowed time, in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert; we sleep lightly and some nights hardly at all.
He says to Cranmer, ‘So what now? After this? If the king can burn this man he can burn us. What shall I do?’
‘Maintain your rule as long as you can. For the gospel’s sake I shall do the same.’
‘What use is our rule, if we could not save John Lambert?’
‘We could not save John Frith. Yet look at all we have been able to do, since Frith went into the fire. We could not save Tyndale, but we could save his book.’
True. Dead men are at work. Their cause is not lost. They labour on, screened from us by smoke.
When Cranmer has gone his household supply him with candles and wine and draw his door closed. They subdue their voices and walk as if wearing felt slippers. He takes a fresh sheet of paper and begins to write a letter. To my very loving friend Sir Thomas Wyatt, knight, the king’s ambassador with the Emperor.
He writes, The king’s Majesty, my lord prince’s grace, my ladies his daughters, and the rest of his council be all merry and in good prosperity …
When I was a young man, he thinks, I needed all my strength. Pity was a luxury I might one day afford, like fine white bread or a book; a sound roof over my head, a light of amber or blue glass, a ring for my finger; an ell of pearled brocade, a lute, a beechwood fire; a safe hand to light it.
The xvith day of this present …
Origen says for each man God makes a scroll, which is rolled and hidden in the heart. God inscribes with a quill, a reed, a bone.
… the king’s Majesty, for the reverence of the holy sacrament of the altar …
He thinks of adding, our monarch wore white. Head to toe he shone. Like a mirror. Like a light. He writes, I wish the princes of Europe could have seen it, heard it – with what gravity he strove for the conversion of this poor miserable wretch …
His hand moves across the paper, the ink unites with its weave. The firelight stirs, a candle flame bows and blurs. He remembers riding with Gregory across the downs, under a silver sky: the light without shadow, like the light at the beginning of the world.
If those princes had been with me today, he writes, they would have seen Henry’s learning and marvelled at it. They would have witnessed his judgement, his policy: they would have seen him as – he lifts his pen for an instant from the page – the mirror and light of all other kings and princes in Christendom.
Among his papers he still has a verse from Tom Truth’s pen. It has become loose from its poem, but he has it by heart.
But since my fancy leads her so
And leads my friendship from the light
And walketh me darkling to and fro
While other friends may walk in sight …
Even the worst poets, from time to time, hit on a felicitous phrasing. You can see the flicker, as the human form passes from light to dark and back again. He looks around the room. The subdued glow of the turkey carpet. His books bound in kidskin and calf. The silver plate, reflecting himself to himself: the mirror and light of all councillors that are in Christendom.
He puts down his pen. He thinks, this letter will not do, tomorrow I will fill in the gaps; or perhaps not, tomorrow they want me at the Tower. He is too tired, too shaken, too riven by horror and desolation to describe in any detail the judgement of Lambert, let alone his last day. He writes, I doubt not some of your friends who have leisure shall by their letters advertise you of the whole discourse …
Let them. He closes his eyes. What does God see? Cromwell in the fifty-fourth year of his age, in all his weight and gravitas, his bulk wrapped in wool and fur? Or a mere flicker, an illusion, a spark beneath a shoe, a spit in the ocean, a feather in a desert, a wisp, a phantom, a needle in a haystack? If Henry is the mirror, he is the pale actor who sheds no lustre of his own, but spins in a reflected light. If the light moves he is gone.
When I was in Italy, he thinks, I saw Virgins painted on every wall, I saw in every fresco the sponged blood-colour of Christ’s robe. I saw the sinuous tempter that winds from a branch, and Adam’s face as he was tempted. I saw that the serpent was a woman, and about her face were curls of silver-gilt; I saw her writhe about the green bough, saw it sway under her coils. I saw the lamentation of Heaven over Christ crucified, angels flying and crying at the same time. I saw torturers nimble as dancers hurling stones at St Stephen, and I saw the martyr’s bored face as he waited for death. I saw a dead child cast in bronze, standing over its own corpse: and all these pictures, images, I took into myself, as some kind of prophecy or sign. But I have known men and women, better than me and closer to grace, who have meditated on every splinter of the cross, till they forget who and what they are, and observe the Saviour’s blood, running in the soaked fibres of the wood. Till they believe themselves no longer captive to misfortune nor crime, nor in thrall to a useless sacrifice in an alien land. Till they see Christ’s cross is the tree of life, and the truth breaks inside them, and they are saved.
He sands his paper. Puts down his pen. I believe, but I do not believe enough. I said to Lambert, my prayers are with you, but in the end I only prayed for myself, that I might not suffer the same death.