The Mirror and the Light (Magnificence | Part 3)

The king talks as if there is some mystery, and he is trying to penetrate it. He bows his assent: yes, all that is true. Philip had wished to present Mary with a great cross of diamonds, but the councillors had deterred him. If the match were not to go ahead, would a present of such value need to be returned? It is a sticky point of protocol. Word went out to the goldsmiths, and a cross of lesser value was found.

The Lady Mary had walked with Duke Philip in a bare winter garden at Westminster, where life was shrunk to its roots. They had spoken: partly through an interpreter, partly in Latin.

When the cross was presented, Mary had kissed it. And kissed Philip. On the cheek. ‘Which is a good sign, by God,’ Brandon says. ‘For she never kissed any of us.’

‘You have not the rank,’ the king says. ‘That traitor Exeter was the last who did. Being her cousin.’

Bishop Sampson leans forward, frowning. ‘Philip is not her cousin, is he? Or if he is, in what degree?’ He jots a note to himself.

Henry says, ‘It appears to me our friendship with the German states would be greatly strengthened if we made this match.’

There is silence. The king half-smiles. He has always prided himself on the surprises he gives his councillors. ‘If I can sacrifice myself for England, why not my daughter? If I must breed for my nation, why cannot she? I am assured by Cromwell she will be conformable. He always gives me that assurance, and yet nothing ever comes of it. Bishop Sampson, perhaps you would go to her, and prepare her for marriage?’

Sampson compresses his lips. He can barely force a nod.

He, Thomas Cromwell, says, ‘In Europe they are claiming the marriage is already made, and against the lady’s will. Vaughan says Antwerp is talking about it. Marillac believes it, or pretends to. The word has gone out to François.’

Henry says, ‘They think I would enforce her?’


Henry stares at him. ‘And?’

‘And so I think, your Majesty not offended, you had better reverse your intentions, disappoint the duke, and bid him a swift journey home. Otherwise you will be doing exactly what your foes expect. Which is never good policy.’

Edward Seymour covers his mouth. Mirth escapes.

Henry is silent, mouth pursed. Then he says, ‘Very well. I shall do something else for Philip. The Garter, perhaps.’ He rubs the bridge of his nose. ‘You had better not close off his hopes. Tell him he may return. Tell him I shall always be glad to see him, at some date not yet decided.’

‘Majesty, your daughter will never marry,’ Norfolk says. ‘Cromwell breaks every match proposed for her.’

The king gets up. He rubs his chest with one hand, steadies himself with the other. They are all on their feet, ready to kneel: sometimes he exacts it, sometimes not. Norfolk offers, ‘My arm, Majesty?’

‘What use is that?’ Henry says. ‘I could better hold you up, Thomas Howard, than you me.’

The door is flung wide for the king’s exit. Call-Me falters in, and hovers. Only then do they notice that the Duke of Suffolk is still seated at the council board. He rocks to and fro on his stool. ‘Poor Harry, poor Harry,’ he moans. Tears course down his cheeks.

On 7 January the king sleeps alone, as his doctors have advised. For the next two nights, his gentlemen escort him to the queen’s rooms.

Dr Butts comes to him. ‘Lord Cromwell, it is all naught. I have told his Majesty not to enforce himself.’

‘In case injury comes to his royal person,’ Chambers says.

‘He says he will still go to her suite every other night,’ Dr Butts says. ‘So it will give rise to no talk.’

Chambers says, ‘He claims she has displeasant airs about her. You might talk to her chamberwomen. See if they are washing her well enough.’

He says, ‘You go to them if you like.’ He pictures them sousing and soaping Anna, scrubbing her in the Thames and beating her on stones; hauling her up and wringing her. ‘I would stake my life she is a virgin.’

‘He seems to have dropped that line of talk,’ Chambers says. ‘Now he only says she disgusts him. But he claims he is capable of the act itself. Or capable of emission, at least. Which will be a relief to you to know, if you have to take him to market again.’

Dr Butts whispers: ‘He has experienced … you understand us … duas pollutiones nocturnas in somne.’

‘So he thinks he could do it with another woman,’ Chambers says.

‘Has he anyone in mind?’ He thinks, I am like Charles Brandon: I am ashamed to hold such conversation.

At the next council meeting the Lord Chancellor says, ‘If the king and queen are civil to each other by day, it will help counter the rumours. And I think we can rely on them for that.’

‘When he was with the other one,’ Fitz says, ‘and he couldn’t tup her, he blamed witches.’

‘Superstition,’ Cranmer says. ‘He knows better now.’

Norfolk says, ‘Well, Cromwell? What to do?’

He says, ‘I have done nothing, but for his safety and happiness.’

He overhears a young courtier – it is a Howard of course, the young Culpeper: ‘If the king cannot manage it with the new queen, Cromwell will do it for him. Why not? He does everything else.’

His friend laughs. What alarms him is not their mockery. It is that they take no care to keep their voices low.

When the council meets they should, he feels, put down sand to soak up the blood. It is like the champ clos for a tournament, sturdily fenced to stop the spectators getting in or the combatants getting out. The king stands in a watchtower, judging every move.

That night he writes to Stephen Vaughan. He tells him what he tells everyone abroad: the king and queen are merry, and all here believe the marriage a great success.

I am lying even to Vaughan, he thinks.

Richard Riche asks him, ‘What do you hear from your daughter in Antwerp?’

‘Nothing,’ he says.

Riche says, ‘It may be as well. The king has a sharp nose for heresy. Of course, my lord, since you have been such a traveller in this world, you may have other offspring, unknown to you. Do you ever think of that?’

‘Yes, Wolsey mentioned it a time or two.’ He thinks, if Jenneke made a claim on me now, I don’t know if I could meet it. He ushers Riche out as Wriothesley comes in. Clearly he has been eavesdropping on Riche, because his face is flushed. He says, ‘That man has no feeling at all. He is a tissue of ambition.’

He thinks, but that is what Riche tells me about you. But while I rule, you do your best for me, and your best is very good. I must place my trust, even if I have misgivings. I cannot work alone. The Seymour boys have their own interests at heart, why would they not? In these strange times Suffolk is my well-wisher, but Suffolk is stupid. I cannot count on Fitzwilliam for support, he is busy defending his own position, and blames me because he is blamed. Cranmer is frightened, he is always frightened. Latimer is disgraced. Robert Barnes I would not trust with his own life, let alone mine. Manuals of advice tell us you should fear weak men more than strong men. But we are all weak, in the presence of the king. Even Thomas Wyatt, who can face down a lion.

A realm’s chief councillor should have a grand plan. But now he’s pushing through, hour to hour, not raising his head from his business. The city is full of Germans – official, unofficial – who believe that he will make the king a fit ally for Luther. Lord Cromwell, they coax, we know that it is you who day by day softens the force of last summer’s laws. ‘We know in your heart you wish a more perfect reformation. You believe what we believe.’

He indicates the king, standing at a distance: ‘I believe what he believes.’

At Austin Friars he goes out to see his leopard. Dick Purser knows the beast’s habits, her sullen whims, her episodes of dangerous friskiness. ‘Dick,’ he says, ‘you mustn’t think you can get friendly with her. You mustn’t think you can let her out.’

He looks at the brute and she looks back at him. Her golden eyes blink. She yawns, but all the time she is thinking of murder. She gives herself away by the twitching of her tail.

Dick says, ‘What would she say if she could speak?’

‘Nothing we would understand.’

‘I never thought I would be keeper of such a beast, that day you came to get me from More’s house.’

He puts his arm around the boy’s shoulders. Dick Purser is an orphan; it was More and Bishop Stokesley who hunted and hounded his father, setting him in the pillory and shaming him as a heretic, and it was their ill-treatment, he is sure, that killed him. More wanted credit for taking in the boy; and credit again, for whipping heresy out of him. Sir Thomas bragged he had never struck his own children, not even with a feather. But he did not extend the courtesy to the children of others.

He himself had turned up, dry-mouthed with rage, on More’s doorstep. He would not send a servant to do it, nor would he wait in the outer hall for More to be at leisure. ‘I’ve come for Purser’s son. Give him to me, or I’ll lay a complaint against you for assault.’

‘What?’ More said. ‘For correcting a child of the house? People will laugh at you, Master Cromwell. Anyway, the rascal has vanished. Fortunately he took only what he stood up in. Or charges would lie.’

‘I hear he took your blessing. You could see the marks.’

‘He’s probably run to your house,’ More said. ‘Where would he seek shelter, but a heretic roof?’

‘Beware an action for slander,’ he said: one lawyer to another.

‘Bring one,’ More said. ‘The facts would be aired. Your book trade connections. Your dubious associates. Antwerp, all that. No … you go home, you’ll find the wretch at your gate. Where else would he go?’

To the wharves, he thinks, to the docks. To take ship. To do what I did. He could do worse. Or then again perhaps he couldn’t.

Now he pays Dick Purser twelve pounds a year. He gets fourpence daily for the leopard’s keep.

He goes to see Lord Rutland, Chamberlain of the Queen’s Household. Their conversation is circumlocutory, but Lord Rutland is clear that he does not meddle in bedroom matters.

He will speak to his wife, he offers. Lady Rutland speaks to the senior lady among the Germans. Next day Anna leaves off her bonnet and appears in a French hood, the oval framing her face and showing off her pretty fair hair.

He says to Jane Rochford, ‘Is there a colour that would make her skin look fresher? The king keeps mentioning Jane.’

‘Jane was not fresh,’ Rochford says, ‘she was pallid. She looked as if she lived under an altar cloth. Not that she was so holy. She spent her time frightening Anne Boleyn.’

Mary Fitzroy says, ‘You cannot expect the queen to glow, my lord. She hears the king is unhappy, and the more English she learns, the more explanation she will require.’

‘Oh, I don’t think she will,’ the child Katherine Howard says. ‘She has heard that the king’s first wife was divorced because she kept asking God to pardon him, using a loud voice in Latin. And that he killed Anne Boleyn because she gossiped and shrieked. And that his third wife was beloved because she hardly talked at all. Therefore she aims to imitate Jane. Only not die.’

Rochford says, ‘Perhaps you’d like to come in yourself, my lord, and wash and dress her? We’ll stand her naked before you, and you can do the rest.’

He says, ‘If she confides in you, come to me.’

Through the interpreters he learns what Anna expects of marriage. Her parents did not marry for love, but love followed. They wrote poems for each other. She understands the king has written verses in his time, and wonders when he will write one for her.

The ambassadors of Cleves ask, ‘This long while past, when your king was without a wife, did he take mistresses?’

‘Our king is virtuous,’ he says.

‘We do not doubt it,’ the ambassadors say. ‘Though there could be other reasons.’

He says to Fitzwilliam, ‘Advise the king to make some public demonstration of his affection.’

‘You do it,’ Fitz says.

‘No, you.’

Fitz groans.

Later that day, before his assembled court and the Germans, Henry calls for the queen, takes her by the hand. ‘Come, dear madam.’ He looks around his councillors – their faces, willing him on.

He grapples her to him. Anna’s forehead rests against his gem-studded breast. As if she might struggle, the king holds her fast. As if she might escape, he tightens his grip.

Anna’s body is rigid, flattened. Her mouth is buried in his furs. She attempts to twist sideways, so she can breathe. Her hand, bunching up her skirts, contracts into a fist. Her head strains backwards. She emits a gasp. Then, her back to the witnesses, she is silent.

Gregory whispers, ‘Perhaps he has killed her?’

Wriothesley says, ‘Majesty … would it be best if …?’

‘What?’ Henry releases the queen. He steps back as if to say, there now – you all saw I tried.

Anna peels away from him. She seems unsteady. Her gaze flutters to Fitzwilliam, to Gregory, to the men she knows, and she moves stiffly towards them, a hand extended, limp as if the fingers were broken. Branded in her cheek is the imprint of the king’s gold chain.

By the end of January Wyatt has obeyed the orders that come from London by every messenger, carried on every tide. He has put in the tip of his knife to prise open a gap between the Emperor and François.

Wyatt has appeared before Charles, the occasion public and grand. Why, he asks the Emperor, do you not keep your promises? We have extradition treaties, and yet you allow English traitors free passage to join that monster, Pole. Are you so ungrateful for all my king has done for you?

‘Ungrateful? I?’ The first gentleman of Christendom flashes into rage. His councillors, in shock, pull back into a huddle and confer. One of them steps forward: ‘Perhaps we have misunderstood you, Monsieur Guiett? Or perhaps you misspoke? After all, French is not your first language.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with my French,’ Wyatt says. ‘But I can repeat it in Latin if you like.’

Charles leans forward. How dare your master use that word, ungrateful? How can a charge of ingratitude be levelled against an Emperor, by the envoy of some poor little island full of heretics and sheep? An inferior person, a king, cannot expect gratitude. The Holy Roman Emperor is set above mere kings. Their natural position is at his feet.

Wyatt draws back. ‘All is said, sir.’ In seeking to insult Henry, the Emperor has insulted all princes, his French ally included.

When Wyatt’s letter arrives Mr Wriothesley reads it out. ‘It is like a play!’ William Kingston says. A tentative smile spreads over the faces of the councillors. There are matters that lie between François and Charles – old quarrels – always ready to spark. Once the fire takes hold and burns their treaties, Englishmen can sleep safe.

‘Then, Cromwell,’ Norfolk says to him, ‘we will not need your German friends, will we? Your friend Wyatt works contrary to your purpose.’ The duke enjoys the thought. ‘Should he succeed, what a fool you will look.’

At Valenciennes on the river Scheldt, Charles and François part company. The Emperor takes a power and moves east. ‘And Wyatt with him,’ he says to Henry. At his elbow to needle him.

For a day or two they are without news. Then it becomes clear that Charles is heading towards his rebel city of Ghent. The citizens know what to expect. Charles has already executed one of their leaders, a man of seventy-five, by putting him on a rack and pulling his body apart: having shaved him first, trunk and poll, so that he was bald as a new-born babe.

Henry says, ‘The Emperor loves warfare. When he leaves Ghent he will march on Guelders. And Duke Wilhelm will call on my aid, which I cannot well deny him. And if I were to be drawn into war, it would not be by my desire, my lord Cromwell, but – strangely – by yours.’

Richard Riche comes to consult him about the pensions list for Westminster Abbey. The abbot says he is dying, but perhaps this is a ploy to get a better pension? The abbey is to be a cathedral now, and (if he lives) the abbot will be its dean. Henry will not demolish the sacred place where kings are crowned. Nor will he disturb his mother and father, who lie in bronze above ground, and below ground in lead; all day candles stout as pillars flicker around them, bathing them in a greenish perpetual light. The abbey’s relics will be moved, but images and statues survive. Doubting Thomas kneels to put his fingers into the bloody gash in his Saviour’s breast. St Christopher carries his God, who crouches on his shoulders like a favourite cat. On the walls of the chapter house, St John sails to Patmos, a forlorn exile blotting his eyes. The useful camel and the dromedary pace the desert sands, while the roebuck tramples verdure beneath delicate hooves, and the patriarchs and virgins stand shoulder to shoulder with the confessors and martyrs, their beady eyes alert. The monuments of dead monarchs draw together, as if their bones were counselling each other; and the prophetic pavements beneath them, those stones of onyx, porphyry, green serpentine and glass, advise us through their inscriptions how many years the world will last.

‘Why do they need to know?’ he asks Richard Riche. ‘It’s a wonder to me any of the monks could live past thirty.’ As their rule forbids them to consume flesh in their refectory, they keep a second dining room, where they can satisfy their appetites for roast and boiled meats. At the solemn feasts of the church, they make a dish they call Principal Pudding. They use six pounds of currants, three hundred eggs, and great bricks of suet. They showed it him once as it was getting ready, as if they were giving him a treat: a fatty, oozing mass, a welling bolster speckled black as if with flies. ‘It is worth suppressing the abbey,’ he says, ‘to suppress the pudding.’

He, Thomas Cromwell, stands looking up at the fan vaulting of the new chapel. ‘I swear the pendants are shifting. When I was first here they looked true.’

‘It is only the building settling,’ the monks say. ‘It happens, my lord.’

There is an indulgence granted to those who attend a Mass here, which all of us will need one day: it is called the Stairway to Heaven. St Bernard in a vision saw souls ascending, rung by rung into eternity; angels give them a hand to balance, as they hop off the last rung into bliss. It is easy to climb. Harder to know what to do when you get to the top. As we labour upwards, the Fiend shakes the foot; and treads can snap, or the whole structure sink in boggy ground. He says to Riche, ‘Ricardo, do you think there is a flaw in the nature of ladders, or a flaw in the nature of climbers?’ But it is not the sort of question to which the Master of Augmentations likes to apply his mind.

At the end of the month Edward Seymour goes to Calais, Rafe Sadler to Scotland. If King James wants a favour, he tells Rafe, he should cultivate his uncle Henry, rather than embroil himself with François, who will use Scotland as a vassal state. And if Rafe can detect any rift between James and the Pope, he should widen it. The King of Scots should be shown the advantages of taking control of his own church, and alerted to the resources of his monasteries: every ruler wants money, and here it is for the taking.

Rafe’s journey is slowed because he has to take a string of geldings, which the king wishes to present to his nephew.

‘Write to me,’ he says, ‘at every opportunity.’

The loss of the boy is like a cold wind on his neck.

When the court moves to Westminster, they go by river, accompanied by merchant ships, musicians aboard. A salute is fired from the Tower. The citizens line the trembling banks and cheer.

At Westminster the king continues to visit the queen every second night. The Germans ask, ‘Majesty, when will the coronation be?’ He, Cromwell, reminds the council it was planned for Candlemas; but Candlemas is past. Norfolk says, ‘We know why you want her crowned. You think once the king’s laid out the money, he won’t send her back.’

‘Send her back?’ He has to simulate outrage.

From the queen’s side of the palace, silence. The women brush by him frowning: there is always somewhere they have to be. There’s a question he ought to be asking Anna, but he doesn’t know what it is; or perhaps an answer that she needs from him. In stories, when you are in the forest you meet a lady, veiled and shrouded, and she asks you a riddle. If you get it right her clothes fall off at a glance. Her body glides into your arms, and her light merges with yours. But if you get it wrong she withers into a hag. She puts her hand on your member and it shrinks to the size of a bean.

He brings Charles Brandon to Austin Friars. He shows him the leopard, with which Charles is well pleased, and then takes him into his confidence: the king now affirms that as he will never love the queen he cannot do the act. ‘Cannot, will not – to the state, it is all one.’

Suffolk looks grave. ‘Given up completely, has he? I didn’t know that. Does Thomas Howard know? Do the bishops know? Any other man, you could suggest …’

He cannot imagine what Charles is going to say.

‘You could suggest, try thinking about another woman. But if Harry thought of another woman, he’d want to marry her. Then where would you be?’

At court he studies Norfolk’s niece. When a man’s eyes rest on her, which is very often, she ruffles her feathers like a plump little hen.

Thomas Howard is to go to France, the king says. He wants to penetrate the mind of François and thinks a great nobleman might succeed. ‘It needs someone of my lord Norfolk’s stature,’ he says.

Young Surrey says to his hangers-on, ‘It is only by Heaven’s providence that the king has a nobleman left to send. Cromwell would extinguish us all, if he had his way.’

Wriothesley pursues him: ‘Sir, you see Norfolk is eager to begin his mission? When before, sent abroad, he always dragged his feet? And I fear his French is not adequate.’

‘Perhaps he will stay quiet and get a name for wisdom.’

Richard Riche says, ‘You might try that sometime, Call-Me.’

Norfolk will have the support of Sir John Wallop, now appointed resident ambassador. Valloppe, the French call him. He is an experienced diplomat, but he would not have been the Cromwell choice: too friendly with Lisle, for one thing. He has his boy Mathew in Calais now, so he knows what goes on in the Lord Deputy’s house. He is waiting for one incriminating letter to turn up on his lordship’s desk, or perhaps in her ladyship’s sewing box – a letter to, or from, Reginald Pole.

In the days before he embarks, Norfolk is seen at Gardiner’s house in Southwark. ‘It is natural my lord should take advice,’ he says equably, when reports are brought to him. ‘Because Gardiner was our ambassador in France for so long.’

‘It is not that,’ Wriothesley says. ‘They are working something together.’

‘Yes. Well. I am working something myself.’

When Norfolk sees the surprise I have for him, he will never stir from his hearth again.

The Lenten fast of 1540 is kept in the strict old manner, under the eye of Gardiner and his friends. It is as well to let them have their way in small things, where they are vigilant. Thurston gets them through on saffron bread, onion tarts with raisins, baked rice with almond milk, and a new sauce for salt fish made with garlic and walnuts.

On Valentine’s Day, preaching wars break out. Gardiner against Barnes, Barnes against Gardiner. They are both bitter men, but Gardiner has nothing to lose, while Barnes stands in peril of his life. Barnes will break, as he once did before Wolsey. It’s not his faith, but his temperament that will fail. He is not Luther. Here he stands: till Gardiner knocks him across the room.

The Londoners, crouching under makeshift shelters, jostling beneath oiled canvases, listen to their sermons with their eyes screwed up against the rain, their hair plastered and their ears a-swill. Yet old wives say we shall have a hot summer. For now, as the poet says, no fresh green leaves, no apple trees, but thorns. Iron winter has a grip, the day he goes to Henry to ask for mercy.

‘Is this about Robert Barnes?’ Henry says. ‘It appears I was much deceived in him. Gardiner says he is a rank heretic. And to think I entrusted him with England’s business abroad! You are close enough to the man, you were derelict in not knowing his opinions and laying them bare. I suppose you did not know them?’

‘I am not here to speak for Barnes.’ In his mind he goes out of the room and comes in again. ‘I am here about Gertrude Courtenay, sir. We might release her. Keep the evidence on file. Her fault is credulity, which women cannot help; and loyalty to those passed away, a thing your Majesty understands.’

‘Katherine is never truly dead, is she?’ Henry sounds exhausted. ‘And there are some who will never accept she was not my wife.’

‘Lady Exeter will need means to live, so if your mercy further permits, I will arrange an annuity out of her husband’s lands.’

‘God curse him,’ Henry says. ‘Very well, release the woman, keep Exeter’s child in ward; I want no traitor whelp running free through the realm.’

He makes a note. Henry says, ‘Cromwell, could you have a child?’

He is startled. ‘I think you could,’ Henry says. ‘You are of common stock. Common men have vigour.’

The king does not know they wear out. At forty a labourer is broken and gnarled. His wife is worn to the bone at thirty-five.

‘I thought I would get another son from this marriage,’ the king says, ‘but there is no sign God intends it.’ He sinks into his chair, turns over a few leaves of paper. ‘We might write to Cleves this moment. You could write at my dictation, as we used to.’

He says, ‘My eyes are not what they were.’

So much for common stock. ‘But you still write letters,’ Henry says, ‘I am familiar with your hand. I want you to ask Wilhelm himself where those papers are, that show if his sister was married, because –’ He leans his elbows on the table, his head in his hands. ‘Cromwell, can we not pay her off?’

‘We could offer her a settlement, yes. I do not know how much we would have to find to placate her brother. And I do not know how to salvage your Majesty’s reputation, if you renounce a lawful match. It would be hard to hold up your head before your fellow princes. Or come by another wife.’

‘I could come by one tomorrow,’ Henry says harshly.

The door opens, cautiously. It is the boys with lights. ‘Bring candles here,’ he says. But the king seems to have forgotten the letter. Henry waits till they are alone again, but even then he does not speak; till the warm light diffuses through the room and he says, ‘You remember, my lord, the day we rode down to the Weald? To see the ironmasters, and find out new ways of casting cannon?’

An icy vapour breathes on the windowpanes. Henry’s diamonds, as he moves, look like steel beads, or those seeds that fall on stony ground. He waits, the quill beneath his fingertips. ‘Those were brighter days,’ the king says. ‘Jane could not travel, being great with my heir. She did not like me to leave her, but she knew we had long planned the excursion, and your lordship’s press of business being what it is, and the duties of a king being what they are, she would not ask me to forbear. I remember rising early and, it being about St John’s Day, it was light before the permitted hour for Mass; Jane said, will you tarry till your chaplain comes? And I tarried, because the fears of a woman in that condition, they must be heeded. It will be only two nights or three, I said, though we shall take it at an easy pace. We shall listen to the birdsong and ride, like knights of Camelot, through the woods. We shall enjoy the sunshine.’ Henry pauses: ‘The sunshine, where did that go?’

‘God made February, sir, as well as June.’

‘Spoken like a bishop.’ Henry looks up. ‘I want you and Gardiner to be reconciled.’

We tried that, he thinks.

‘At Easter, sit down together.’

‘On my honour, I will attempt it.’

Silence. He thinks, perhaps what I said was not good enough? ‘I will make peace if I can.’

The boys have not closed the shutters. He rises to do it. Henry says, ‘Leave those, I want what light there is.’ Beyond the glass gulls swing by, as if they have mistaken the towers of Westminster for a sea cliff.

Henry is watching him. His vast hands have fallen onto his gown, limp and empty. He says, ‘But when I think about it, Cromwell … I recall we never made that journey.’

‘Into Kent? No, but it was projected –’

‘Projected, yes. But always some reason we could not go.’

He sits down again, facing the king. ‘Let us say we did, sir. It is no harm to imagine it.’ England’s green heart: distant church bells, the shade of the trees from the heat. ‘Let us say the ironmasters gave us their best welcome, and opened their minds to us, and showed us all their secrets.’

‘They must,’ Henry says. ‘No one could keep secrets from me. It is no use to try.’

He goes out: one hand against the wall, he utters a prayer. The Book Called Henry has no advice for him.

The king has moved from his native ground: as if he has entered another realm where cause does not link to effect; nor does he care how he opens his heart. Think of the days when the Boleyns came down. The king had written a play, about Boleyn’s monstrous adulteries. He kept it in a little book in his bosom, and tried to show it to people.

In January he said, Cromwell, you are not to blame. Now you can hear him thinking: one thing, one thing I wanted him to do for me, and he would not.

He thinks, it would be hard to free him but not impossible. It would be a victory to Norfolk and his ilk, it would be encouragement to the papists and an end to the new Europe. How often do you get the chance to reconfigure the map? Perhaps once in two or three generations: and now the chance is slipping away. Wyatt and the operation of time will break France and the Emperor apart, and we will be back to the old, worn-out games that have lasted my lifetime.

Then Harry will want a new wife, and God knows who. A song drifts into his head, it must be one Walter sang:

I kissed her sweet, and she kissed me;

I danced the darling on my knee.

Next he will choose some papist, and I will wish I were far away. If I had stayed in Italy I could have had a house in the hills, with white walls and a red-tiled roof. A colonnade shading its entrance, shuttered balconies against the heat; orchards, flowery walks, fountains and a vineyard; a library with frescoes depicting animals and birds, like the paintings in the chapter house at the abbey.

At the Frescobaldi villa the girl came every morning with her basket of herbs. You struck the jars of oil as you passed, and the note told you how full they were. After the kitchen boys stopped picking fights with him, he taught them English catches and rhymes. Under blue Italian skies, they sang of misty mornings, of ash and oak, of sudden loss of maidenheads in the month of May.

Then one day the master whistled him to the counting house, and he left his apron on the peg. After that, among the Frescobaldis he became a confidential aide. Visiting the Portinari family, he was a friend of the young men of the house. No one said, here’s the blacksmith’s boy, don’t let him in. When he left the Frescobaldi bank he went to Venice. There at his workplace they had a long chest with carved panels, showing St Sebastian stuck with arrows. Every night he used to pack the ledgers away, dropping the key into his pocket; he had never given the martyr a glance. So how is it he can see him now? There are longbowmen on one side. Crossbowmen on the other. He is pierced from every angle.

He walks away from the king’s rooms. I kissed her sweet, and she kissed me …

In the next days he finds his benevolence is tested and his patience is running short. When a spy is taken and proves resistant, he does not go along to the Tower to bribe or cajole or trick him; he values speed. Rack him, he says: and appoints three men to take down the result. Come to me first thing in the morning, he says, and tell me of your success.

Before Norfolk arrives home from France, he has invaded the duke’s own country. He has closed Thetford Priory, where the duke’s forebears lie. They have been witnessing miracles at Thetford for three hundred years, ever since they turned up a cache of relics, neatly labelled, that included rocks from Mount Calvary, part of Our Lady’s sepulchre, and fragments of the manger in which the child Jesus was laid. Now comes the greatest miracle of all, Thomas Cromwell, the Putney boy: who holds that the passage of time does not add lustre to fakes, and that there is no need to reverence a lie because of its antiquity.

What is to happen to the honoured dead? John Howard is buried here, shot out of his saddle at Bosworth and dead before he hit the ground. So is the duke’s father, that same Thomas Howard who pulped the Scots at Flodden, and spread their broken limbs over the fields. And this is where, more recently, young Richmond was deposited, the king’s bastard and the duke’s son-in-law.

Will the family have to build new tombs? It is an insult to the Howard name, Norfolk shouts, and a crippling expense as well. He comes to him with a question: ‘Cromwell, do you hold me in contempt? Mind yourself. I shall have your guts.’

‘Fighting talk,’ he says. ‘We haven’t had such talk since the cardinal’s day.’

‘My father must be prayed for,’ the duke roars. ‘If not at Thetford, then somewhere else.’

Riche says, ‘What, you mean at Lord Cromwell’s expense?’

He thinks, why don’t you just give up on him, your old dad? Let him take his chances?

‘“Flodden Norfolk”, they called him,’ the duke says. ‘A father named after a battle. How do you like that, Cromwell?’

Howard takes himself off, cursing. He has been cursing since he returned from France; once there, he had been advised to cultivate François’s mistress, as the way to the king’s confidence, and he is still peppered with shame at having to beg favour from a woman.

Wriothesley says, ‘He takes such pride in his ancestors, I do not think he will forgive you for turning them out. And I do not think he has disclosed all the dealings he had with the French, not by a long way.’

Richard Riche says, ‘The French hate you. And Norfolk encourages them.’

Wriothesley says, ‘Did I not advise you, sir, when the Boleyns came down? Break Norfolk, I said, while you have the chance.’

Robert Barnes comes to Austin Friars: once again the drowned man, washed up his stairs. If he had known Barnes was coming, he would have had them stop him at the gate.

Barnes says, ‘Winchester thinks, if he pulls me down, you go down with me.’

He nods: that seems a fair summary. ‘You could run,’ he suggests.

‘Not this time,’ Barnes says. ‘I am too tired. You always say, prudence. Circumspection. How long must God wait, for England to embrace true religion?’

‘Another decade,’ he says. ‘Not long, by His standards.’

Barnes stares at him. ‘You mean till Henry is dead? But what if the prince never reigns? What if Mary comes in?’

‘Then we’re all dead,’ he says.

On 12 March, the Earl of Essex, Henry Bouchier, falls from his horse, breaks his neck, and dies on the spot. ‘God forgive me,’ Charles Brandon says. ‘On the king’s wedding day I made a jest about him, that he was not long for this world.’

‘My lord,’ he says, ‘it is nowise your doing.’

Where will old Essex go? Straight to Judgement? Or will he lie quiet in his grave till the Last Day? Will he work off his sins in Purgatory for half a million years, or is he already at his destination – at the top of the Stairway to Heaven, or in a pit of the Inferno reserved for earls?

The most part of the court does not care. Except on Sundays or if they are taken sick, they do not give a fig for the disputes of Gardiner or Barnes. They only want to know what will happen to Essex’s title. The earl had no heir. His son-in-law expects to get the nod, but no one knows where to lay their bets.

Palm Sunday, news comes of the death of John de Vere, fifteenth Earl of Oxford. This death is not a shock; Vere has been unwell for months. His heir is of full age and will succeed as sixteenth earl; and it is assumed he will also be appointed to his father’s office of Lord Great Chamberlain, the head of the king’s household.

‘Not necessarily,’ Mr Wriothesley says. His family being heralds, he has these matters at his fingertips. ‘Vere was named to that office in the year 1133, in the reign of the first Henry. And there have been very few chamberlains since who were not of that blood. But it is not theirs of right. The king can appoint whom he pleases.’

He has no time to discuss it. There is a new ambassador he must receive. Cleves has sent us a resident at last. His name is Dr Carl Harst and he has previously represented Duke Wilhelm in Spain. He has no English, and no documents: also no lodging, a meagre allowance and very little style about his clothes or his person. He says to Wriothesley, ‘I wish they had sent a better sort of man – I am afraid the court will laugh at him.’

‘At his expectations,’ Wriothesley says, ‘certainly – for they are all wrong.’

By now, Duke Wilhelm will have had a letter from his sister. Writing herself in her native tongue, Anna has told her brother she could wish for no better husband: she thanks her family for promoting her happiness.

Lady Rochford has spoken to him. ‘She does not know what to do. She pretends all is well but she is like a jackdaw waiting for figs to ripen, living on hope.’ Rochford laughs. ‘Lent is over, and no man however pious can refuse his wife. We say to her, “Madam, what does he do? Once the candle is out?” She says, he kisses me and says, “Good night, darling.” Then in the morning, he rises and says, “Farewell, sweetheart.” We said to her, madam, if this is all that occurs, it will be a long time before we have a Duke of York.’

‘Hush, Jane,’ he says.

‘Everybody is talking. How long do you suppose you can keep it from the Germans?’

Footsteps behind them: one of the maids. ‘You seem to be everywhere, Mistress Howard.’

Katherine gazes up at him. ‘Yes.’

He prices her up. ‘New dress?’

‘Uncle Norfolk.’

‘Do you bear a message, or have you come here to dazzle my senses?’

She dips her head. ‘The queen and Lady Mary will walk in the gallery with you. My lord.’

Outside the rain runs down the windows: lead men on rooftops spout it from their maws.

The ladies of Anna’s privy chamber have already told him that her meeting with the Lady Mary has not been a success. Against all the evidence, Mary takes Anna to be a Lutheran; while Anna has been made wary by her own people, who have long assumed Mary spies for the Emperor.

In the gallery he walks with a lady on either hand: Anna spring-like in yellow, Mary in her favoured crimson. ‘Rain again,’ Anna says, showing off her English.

‘I fear so,’ he says.

Henry has said to him, talk to her, Cromwell: can’t you talk to her? I dare not, he said, and Henry said, why not, if I give you leave? He had thought, because I do not know what you want me to fetch away from the conversation. Do you want her to turn herself into a woman you can love, or a woman you can repudiate?

Mary says, ‘I understand your friend Dr Barnes will soon be in ward. And other preacher friends of yours.’

She leaves a pause for him to say, Barnes is not my friend. He does not fill it. Anna walks beside him, blithe, unheeding, her fingertips on his coat. He feels as if the Lutheran clock is still in his palm, the fidget of its workings disturbing his pulse. Its case was made by an artist; its machinery, by a gunsmith.

‘What does Barnes expect?’ Mary says. ‘First he says he recants. Then he repeats his errors. Were you there?’

‘Yes, madam. Days and days of sermons.’

‘Let me have notes on them,’ she says. As if he were her clerk. He bows. She says, ‘I believe all is awry in Calais.’

‘Lord Lisle is expected here for the Garter feast. No doubt some reckoning will be made.’

‘Strange times, my lord. Two great lords dead.’

The gallery is hung with the king’s new tapestries, depicting the life of St Paul. A queen, a king’s daughter and a brewer’s son, they have walked the road to Damascus, blinded by the light; they have sailed the Middle Sea. Now they pause before the Sorcerers of Ephesus who, converted by the saint, are burning their books. He feels he would like to reach into the weave and pull them out of the fire.

At Gardiner’s house they have capons with figs, Crustade Lombarde and chopped chicken livers with hard-boiled eggs; they have spiced wine custards and jellied veal. He, Cromwell, is there at the king’s command, and he looks at his dinner because he does not want to look at the Bishop of Winchester. He does not want to look at Thomas Howard either. He did not even know he was going to be there, until he saw his barge moored.

Coming in, he says, ‘Why are you here, my lord duke? I thought there was plague in your household. You should not be near the king.’

‘I’m not,’ Norfolk says. ‘I’m near you.’

Gardiner seems inclined to emollience, like a good host. ‘I understand a servant died, but my lord had not been within fourteen miles of him.’

‘He didn’t die, and it wasn’t the plague,’ Norfolk says. ‘Nobody else in the house took sick. Nothing ails me, I assure you. At this time of year I eat a tansy pudding to purify my blood.’

‘You are always very tender of your person,’ he says. ‘You too, my lord bishop.’ They sit down. Wine is poured. He turns to Norfolk. ‘I remember when Stephen was secretary to my lord cardinal, and we both went to Ipswich, to prepare for the opening of my lord’s college. I put up the hangings myself because they were so slow, and I carried in benches and trestles – and this good companion of mine, he stood by and directed me, and advised me out of his charity not to strain my back.’

Gardiner says, smiling, ‘I only exert myself in a good cause.’

Norfolk bangs his goblet on the board. ‘Ipswich?’ Never was the word spat out, as the duke spits it. ‘To get funds for his wretched school at Ipswich, Wolsey pulled down the priory at Felixstowe – and that was my priory. I rejoiced when his college was closed. I hope it falls in ruins. By God, how is it this realm is so unjust? If it is not Wolsey cheating me, it is his worshipper here. Wolsey was your God, Cromwell. Your butcher God.’

‘I must agree.’ Gardiner puts down his knife. ‘It amazes me, Cromwell, that you still do not see Wolsey for what he was. He was corrupt and he was grandiose. You know yourself that when he lost the king’s favour he wrote to foreign princes, asking their aid. Without the king’s knowledge, over the king’s head, he set up his dealings as if he were a prince himself. What do we call such a man? We call him a traitor. If someone had given you the brief, you yourself would have convicted him.’

‘Aye,’ Norfolk says. ‘You would not have broken sweat. Still, I suppose it is something, that a man like you feels gratitude. What had you, when you came to court? Wolsey owned the shirt on your back. Now stir yourself, and show your gratitude to the king, who has done so much more for you. Take your Germans and kick them out of door.’

A boy approaches with a jug. Stephen frowns at him: the boy drops back to the wall. It is not like Thomas Howard to be the worse for drink, but he must have had a skinful before he left his house. It is to give him courage, he thinks: and by God he will need it.

He bunches his fist. He bangs it on the table. The dishes leap. ‘The whole council approved the match. You signed, Thomas Howard, as I did. As for the lady, the king could not get her here fast enough.’

‘No, by the saints,’ Norfolk says, ‘it is you who burdened and chained him. And I tell you, he wants to be free. Have you not seen him looking at my niece? He cast a fantasy to Katherine the first time ever he did see her.’

‘If you want power,’ he says, ‘get it like a man. It does not become your grey hairs, to play Pandar.’

‘God rot you!’ The duke stamps his feet, pushes back his chair, hauls his napkin loose from his person. Gardiner has opulent linen and it looks as if he is fighting his way out of a tent. ‘I’ll not sit here to be called a bawd!’

As the duke stands up, he stands up too. The servants flatten themselves against the wall. There is a red blink in the corner of his eye. There is the knife at his heart: cold under his coat, ready in its sheath, and his hand moves to it, as if it acts by its own will.

But Gardiner steps between them. ‘No fists today, my lords.’

Fists? he thinks. You don’t know me. I could carve him like a goose, before you were out of your seat.

Smiling as if it were a ladies’ bowling match, Gardiner flings his hands in the air. ‘Well, my lord Norfolk, if you must leave us, you are a busy man.’ He smiles. ‘We will give your dinner to the poor.’

When the duke has made his noisy exit, shouting for his guard and his bargemen, they sit down again, and Stephen reaches across the table and pats his arm.

‘Say it, Stephen.’ He is glum. ‘“Cromwell, you forget yourself, we’re not in Putney now.”’

Stephen signals for the wine jug. ‘Insult is a fine art. I wondered for a moment if he knew who Pandar was. I thought you might have been too subtle.’

‘No, not today,’ he says. ‘I’m not feeling subtle at all. Forgive me. I see we must make efforts towards each other, and I can do better, and will. I am sure I have things you want, where I could oblige you, and there are things I want –’

‘You want Barnes let out,’ Gardiner says. ‘Is he reformable, do you think? I am always sorry to see a Cambridge man go into the fire. I spoke for him, you remember, years back, when he came before Wolsey.’

‘If you say so.’

‘Otherwise he would have gone straight to the Tower. Which would have saved time, I suppose. I see no good he has brought to England, for all his traffic as ambassador. The king repents him that Barnes was ever employed.’

They bring in pickled greens, and pears in an aromatic syrup, and quince marmalade. Stephen says, ‘Norfolk is precipitate, but he is right. Don’t you feel the wind changing? You told the king that without the Germans he was destitute of friends. And that was true. But once the alliance melts away, Henry will be courted again, by France and Emperor both.’

‘I do not understand how Norfolk thinks he can see the future. When usually he cannot see the end of his nose.’

‘You forget, it is only weeks since he was in France himself. I believe that François made overtures of friendship that were – I will not say hidden – but they were private. Entrusted to the duke, but not to you.’

So, he says.

‘I know you have people of yours in every man’s service, at home and abroad. I know they are spying and prying and copying and purloining from chests and thieving keys. I have suffered from them in my own house.’

‘As I have suffered, Stephen. From your men.’

‘But you are not omniscient. Nor are you omnipresent. Have you been thinking you were? Did you think you were God?’

‘No,’ he says. ‘God’s spy.’

‘Then spy out the facts,’ Stephen says. ‘If the king believes he does not need the friendship of Cleves, then considering his intractable dislike of the lady, there is only one course, which is to work out how to free him.’