The Mirror and the Light (Mirror | Part 2)

Riche selects a paper from his file. ‘I have here the inventories from Austin Friars. You owned some three hundred handguns, four hundred pikes, near eight hundred bows, and halberds and harness for, as my lord Norfolk says, an army. I have heard you say, and Wriothesley will bear me out, that you had a bodyguard of three hundred that would come to your whistle, day or night.’

‘When the northern rebels were up,’ he says, ‘I was ashamed I could not turn out enough men of my own. So I did what any loyal subject would do, if he had means. I augmented my resources.’

‘Oh, you prate of your loyalty,’ Norfolk says. ‘When you would have sold the king to heretics! When you would have sold Calais to foul sacramentaries –’

‘I?’ he says. ‘Sold Calais? Look to the Lisles for that. It is to them and the Poles you should look for treason. Not to me, who owes everything to the king – but to those who think it their natural right to sweep him aside. To those who think his family’s rule a mere interruption to their own.’

Gardiner says, ‘My lord Norfolk, shall we come to Calais another day?’

He can see the bishop’s feet under the board, barely restraining themselves from kicking the duke’s shins. Presumably they are still taking testimony from Lord Lisle, and have not decided into what form of lie they will bend it.

Richard Riche taps his papers. ‘My lord bishop, I have such matter here …’

Gardiner stands up. ‘Save it.’

He, Cromwell, wants to hold Gardiner back, reason with him. Winchester knows this is silly stuff – rings, sorcerers, Valentines – and he is ashamed, no doubt, of what has come out of his own mouth. But Gardiner sweeps out, Norfolk bustling after: Riche beckons the clerk to help him with his files. ‘I wish you a pleasant evening, my lord,’ he says: as if they were at home at Austin Friars.

Mr Wriothesley looks after them. He stands up; he seems to need support, and clings to the trestle top. ‘Sir –’

‘Save your breath.’

‘When I was in Brussels, a hostage, I hear you did not lift a finger for me.’

‘That is not true.’

‘You said that if they held me in prison in Vilvoorde, you could not get me out.’

‘No more could I.’

‘That scoundrel Harry Phillips – you set me and others to entrap him, when you yourself were using him as your agent and spy.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Bishop Gardiner. You let me suffer because of Phillips. I took him in good faith to my lodging, and he robbed me, and made me look a fool.’

‘I never made use of Phillips,’ he says. ‘Truly. He has always been too slippery for me.’

‘Sir, Norfolk wants them to hang you at Tyburn, like a common thief. And because you are a traitor he wants them to pull your bowels out. He wants you to suffer the most painful death the law affords. He is set on it.’

‘You seem set on it yourself.’

‘No, sir. You understand how it is with me. I can do no other than I do, I assure you. But I want to see you treated with honour. If need be I shall petition the king.’

‘Christ, Call-Me,’ he says, ‘stand up straight. How do you think you will fare with Henry these next few years, if you are cringing and whining in the presence of a man who, you say yourself, is doomed?’

‘I trust not, sir.’ His voice is unsteady. ‘The king gives you permission to write to him. Do it tonight.’

Gardiner stands in the doorway. ‘Wriothesley?’

Call-Me tries to pick up his papers, but a letter drops out and he has to kneel on the floor to fish it from under the table. It has the Courtenay seal, and he – Essex– wants to trap it with his foot and make Call-Me scrap for it. But he thinks, what’s the point? He puts out a hand to help the young man to his feet. ‘Take him,’ he says to Gardiner. ‘He’s all yours.’

Late afternoon, Rafe comes. He hears his voice and his heart leaps. He thinks, if Henry changes his mind, it is Rafe he will send.

But he knows from the boy’s face there is no good news. ‘And yet he permits you to visit me,’ he says. ‘Is that not a hopeful sign?’

‘He is afraid you might get out,’ Rafe says. ‘He has set a strong guard. But he does not think I have a martial character.’

‘What does he think I might do to him, if I did get out?’

‘Here is Cranmer’s letter,’ Rafe says. ‘I will wait.’

He walks to the window with it; he has not his spectacles, he needs some brought in. The paper seems to shake as he unfolds it. Cranmer, having heard of his treason, expresses himself both sorrowful and amazed: he that was so advanced by your Majesty: he whose surety was only by your Majesty: he who loved your Majesty, as I ever thought, no less than God … he that cared for no man’s displeasure to serve your Majesty: he that was such a servant, in my judgement, in wisdom, diligence, faithfulness and experience, as no prince in this realm ever had … I loved him as my friend, for so I took him to be; but I chiefly loved him for the love which I thought I saw him bear ever towards your grace …

… but now …

He looks up. ‘Now it comes … on the one hand, on the other …’

… but now, if he be a traitor, I am sorry that I ever loved or trusted him … but yet again I am very sorrowful …

He folds the paper. Fear seeps from the fold. He says, ‘You must understand, Rafe, Cranmer and I agreed long ago, that if one of us looked set to go down, the other would save himself.’

‘That may be, sir. But I think he should have got himself to the king’s presence. If the archbishop had been in peril of his life, would you have stood by? I don’t think you would.’

‘Don’t make me answer questions. It’s been questions all day. Cranmer does what is in him. It is all any man can do. Rafe, what happened to my picture? That Hans made?’

‘Helen took it, sir. She has it safe.’

‘Where is The Book Called Henry?’

‘We burned it, sir. I took my people to your house before Wriothesley came there. We burned a great many things, and raked the ashes into the garden.’

‘Absence speaks.’

‘But not clearly,’ Rafe says. ‘I do not believe they can bring a single substantial charge against you. John Wallop has written from France, with what he can dredge up. They say it was the common talk there that you meant to make yourself king.’ Rafe bows his head. ‘François sent a letter, and the king had me English it and read it out to the council. I myself.’

‘It was a test. I hope you passed.’

‘François says, now Cromwell is gone we can be friends again. I am clear in my own mind that this was what he broached with Norfolk in February. And therefore it is no wonder he and Winchester have been so bold. All their conferences behind the hand, their dinners and their masques … and of course they have the girl, parading her where the king cannot help but see her.’

‘Rafe,’ he says, ‘would you bring me some more books? Petrarch, his Remedies for Fortune. Thomas Lupset, The Way of Dying Well.’

Lupset was tutor to the cardinal’s son. He wrote not a moment too soon, for he was dead at thirty-five.

Rafe says, ‘Do not yield. Do not resign yourself, I beg you. You know the king is impulsive …’

‘Is he? We always say so.’ But perhaps his caprices are designed to keep us working and keep us hoping. Anne Boleyn thought till her last moment that he would change his mind. She died incredulous.

When Rafe goes out he turns back to Cranmer’s letter. He sees the question that his archbishop leaves for Henry: Who will your Grace trust thereafter, if you cannot trust him?

That evening he sits down to write to the king. The late afternoon had brought Fitzwilliam, with a fresh file which he ran through briskly: moving on to new ground, with conversations alleged, confederacies, conspiracies and – a strange one this – breaching the king’s confidence by talking about his futile nights with the queen. ‘But everybody knew,’ he had said, baffled. ‘And he gave his permission for me to talk to you, and to people in Anna’s household.’

‘He doesn’t recall that now,’ Fitzwilliam said. ‘He thinks you have made him a laughing stock.’

Fitzwilliam and his hangers-on had pestered him for half an hour. Not once did his fellow councillor look him in the face till at last they took themselves out for their supper.

Christophe sets out ink and paper. He can write by nature’s light; it is dusk, but a window gives onto the garden. What can he say? Once Henry had told him, ‘You were born to understand me.’ That understanding has broken down. He has sorely offended, and all he can do is argue that whatever his offence, he has not committed it wilfully, or out of malice: that he trusts God will reveal the truth. He begins with the usual phrases expressing his lowliness: one cannot do too much for Henry in this way, or at least, a prisoner cannot. Prostrate at the feet of your most excellent Majesty, I have heard your pleasure … that I should write such things as I thought meet concerning my miserable state …

He thinks, I have never limited my desires. Just as I have never slacked my labours, so I have never said, ‘Enough, I am now rewarded.’

Mine accusers your Grace knoweth, God forgive them. For as I ever had love to your honour, person, life, prosperity, health, wealth, joy and comfort, and also your most dear and most entirely beloved son, the Prince his Grace, and your proceedings, God so help me in this mine adversity, and confound me if ever I thought the contrary.

They are rewriting my life, he thinks. They represent that all my obedience has been outward obedience, and all these years in secret I have been creeping closer to Henry’s enemies – such as his daughter, my supposed bride. Perhaps I should have told him the truth about Mary. But I will spare her now. I cannot help my own daughter, I can only help the king’s.

What labours, pains and travails I have taken according to my most bounden duty God also knoweth. For if it were in my power, as it is in God’s, to make your Majesty to live ever young and prosperous, God knoweth I would. If it had been or were in my power to make you so rich as ye might enrich all men, God help me, I would do it. If it had been or were in my power to make your Majesty so puissant as all the world should be compelled to obey you, Christ he knoweth, I would.

He thinks, ten years I have had my soul flattened and pressed till it’s not the thickness of paper. Henry has ground and ground me in the mill of his desires, and now I am fined down to dust I am no more use to him, I am powder in the wind. Princes hate those to whom they have incurred debts.

For your Majesty has been most bountiful to me, and more like a dear father (your Majesty not offended) than a master.

Certain threats his father used to make ring in his ears. I’ll pound you to paste, boy, I’ll flatten you, I’ll knock you into the middle of next week.

I have committed my soul my body and goods at your Majesty’s pleasure …

Well, Henry knows that. I have nothing, that does not come from him. And no hope, but in his mercy and God’s.

Sir, as to your common wealth I have, after my wit, power and knowledge, travailed therein, having had no respect to persons (your Majesty only excepted) … but that I have done any injustice or wrong wilfully, I trust God shall bear me witness, and the world not able justly to accuse me …

It is not only kings who cannot be grateful. The fortunes he has made, the patronage he has dispensed: these count against him now, because favours that cannot be repaid eat away at the soul. Men scorn to live under an obligation. They would rather be perjurers, and sell their friends.

Brother Martin says, when you think of death, cast out fear. But perhaps that advice is easier to take if you expect to die in your bed, with a priest buzzing in your ear. Gardiner will press for heresy charges and burn him if he can. He knows about that: the green wood, the vagrant wind, and the dogs of London whimpering at the smell.

The king might grant the axe. That is the best he can hope for, unless. There is always unless. Erasmus says, ‘No man is to be despaired of, so long as the breath is in him.’

He signs off: Written with the quaking hand and most sorrowful heart of your most sorrowful subject and most humble servant and prisoner, this Saturday at your Tower of London.

He dries the ink. One cannot help but lie. His hand is not notably quaking. But it is true his heart is sorrowful. He sits with his hand to his chest, rubbing it a little. ‘Christophe,’ he says, ‘fetch in my supper. What am I having?’

‘Thank Christ! I thought you had lost your appetite. We have strawberries and cream. And the Italian merchants have sent you their sympathy and a cheese.’

The merchant Antonio Bonvisi used to send food to Thomas More, dishes fragrant with spice. But More would push them aside, and say to his servant, ‘John, can you find me a milk pudding?’

The Duke of Urbino, Federigo di Montefeltro, was asked what it took to rule a state. ‘Essere umano,’ he said: to be human. He wonders if Henry will reach the standard.

There is no reply to his letter. No direct reply, at least. Beginning early, in tender summer dawns, the interrogations proceed into the hot afternoons, when the broad light in the chamber grows dusty. Sometimes the sessions are quiet and industrious, sometimes they are more like exchanges of insults than any proceeding of state. Like Fitzwilliam, Call-Me cannot look at him. He says, ‘He did this,’ and ‘He did that,’ as if Thomas Essex were not in the room. When Gardiner graces them with his presence he is grave, dry, judicious, careful to suppress the bubbling anticipation he must feel.

The clerk Gwyn sneaks back a time or two. Norfolk does not notice him because a clerk is beneath his notice, unless he offends. The clerk entertains him – the prisoner – by sometimes casting up a glance to Heaven, or turning down his mouth in disbelief at what he must record. Till Riche bursts out, ‘I am not content with this clerk. He keeps looking at the prisoner.’

‘So do you keep looking at me,’ he says. ‘I am not content with you, Richard Riche. You speak as if I have been a traitor all the years you have known me. Where has your evidence been till now? Did it fall out through a hole in your pocket?’

Riche says, ‘It is no small thing, to indict a man so close to the king. I sought guidance. I prayed about it.’

‘And your prayers were answered?’

Riche says coldly, ‘Oh, yes.’

Once again Gwyn packs up his penknives and quills without demur, though not without a backward glance. Another clerk comes in and ahems over how to continue, until Norfolk snarls at him to start anywhere. In this way the hours pass, marked off by the bells from St Peter ad Vincula and from the city outside the walls. The questions never make more sense than they did on the first day, nor does the picture of his life ever reflect the reality as he sees it. The mirror presents an alien face, eyes askew, mouth gaping. Lord Montague, and Exeter, and Nicholas Carew suffered this estrangement from self; and Norris and George Boleyn before them. Montague had said, ‘The king never made a man but he destroyed him again.’ Why should Cromwell be an exception?

Florence made me, he thinks. London unmade me. In Florence the bell called Leone announces the dawn even to the blind. Then rings Podestà, then Popolo. At Terce, when the law courts open, Leone and Montarina summon litigants and advocates to their business.

When he was an infant, his sister Kat used to tell him the bells made the time. When the hour strikes, and the music shivers in the air, you have the best of it; and what’s left is like a sucked plumstone on the side of a plate.

Lord Audley shows his face: shifty, ashamed. I created you, Audley, he thinks. I promoted you above your deserts, to have a compliant chancellor: and you have grown rich. ‘I thought you were with me, my lord. You always posed as valiant for the gospel, but I think you were only valiant for my favour. You swore to be my friend for life.’ He adds, ‘I have it in writing.’

Fitzwilliam absents himself. Perhaps he has said to the king, I know Crumb is no traitor, I cannot do it?

‘He is busy,’ Wriothesley says.

Riche says, ‘He is appointed Lord Privy Seal in your place.’

Norfolk says, ‘There is more matter than your arrest, for trusted men to deal with. There are more men in this realm, than Cromwell.’

‘But none so necessary to the commonweal,’ he says. ‘I am surprised your son Surrey is not here to gloat.’

He thinks, if they let that spider in, I shall put my boot heel on him.

He is suspicious of Gardiner’s absence: what is he working at? Charles Brandon comes in, and confirms that Cromwell said that if he were king he would spend more time in Woking. He remembers another occasion: ‘The king gave Crumb a ring from his own finger. And Crumb said, “It fits me exactly, it needs no adjustment.”’

‘And what do you draw from that?’ he asks. ‘That I am the right size for king? What is the right size, my lord Suffolk? Are you not nearer it than me?’

He is saddened by Brandon. To Norfolk, a Cromwell is just a blot to be erased, like a discrepancy in book-keeping. But Brandon’s family made their name by audacity. He hoped there might be some fellow-feeling. Charles cannot settle to his questions, but walks about, and in time walks out of the room, calling sharply to his folk to accompany him, as one whistles to a dog.

Wriothesley says, ‘You are aware that Lord Hungerford is arrested?’

‘Hungerford?’ He thinks that, in dwelling on Brandon, he has missed something. ‘What has Hungerford to do with me?’

‘That is something we mean to find out,’ Riche says. ‘He has written you many letters, and you have written him many replies, copies of which Master Secretary Wriothesley has extracted from your files.’

Hungerford is a West Country gentleman: a good enough lieutenant, active in his district’s affairs. He is a wife-beater too, and his lady wants to be free of him; only a few days before his arrest, he, Thomas Essex, had set in train a process of official separation. He says, ‘One must use such people. The king cannot be served only by saints.’

‘An old woman has laid grave accusations against him,’ Wriothesley says. ‘She is called Mother Huntley.’

Christ help him, he thinks. We all have a Mother Huntley in our lives. Mine is called Richard Riche.

‘The charges involve sorcery,’ Norfolk says. ‘Well, Cromwell here, he knows all about that! Conjurers’ books in his cellar, were there not? When the wax doll was found, of our little prince, Cromwell could not wait to lay his hands on the culprits and their villain texts. And yet he told young Richmond, God rest him, that there were no such things as witches! When we all know that witches have done the king harm.’

‘I remember that day,’ Riche said. ‘It was at St James’s, at the time Fitzroy fell ill. Cromwell sent me out of the room, and I often wondered what passed. That is how it has always been – Wriothesley, you will bear me out? He seems to confide in you, then suddenly excludes you from his councils.’

‘Now we see why,’ Wriothesley says.

‘However, to the matter in hand,’ Riche says. ‘Lord Hungerford has employed a conjurer to find out the date of the king’s death.’

He thinks, Henry does not fear a false horoscope. He fears a true one: a fate that he must walk towards. He says, ‘A man like Hungerford makes enemies among his neighbours. It is an easy thing to allege.’

‘Do not take it lightly,’ Lord Audley says. ‘I assure you, the king does not.’

Hungerford may be a brute, but he is hardly a danger to the commonweal. Two weeks ago he would have been sweeping such charges off his desk and onto some lesser desk.

Riche says, ‘He is also charged with violating a member of his household. Per anum.’

‘God save us – not Lady Hungerford?’

‘A servant,’ Norfolk says. ‘Luckily his own, not some other gentleman’s. He will die for it.’

‘But more to the point,’ Wriothesley says, ‘he is detected as a papist. A chaplain in his household had contact with the rebels in the north. We have it documented.’

‘Why did you not know?’ Riche says.

‘Because he lied to me?’ he says. ‘If I could detect every lie, I could set up in a temple as an oracle.’ He pictures himself in an olive grove. ‘Far away from you.’

It is past dinner time and he is hungry. The duke is hungry too, but those days are gone when they might have shared a table. Christophe comes in with a chicken. A half-hour passes, in which he eats heartily enough. When his guests return, Riche follows the others with an affected dawdle that means he has something to say. He takes time in setting his papers down, squaring them up. ‘Wyatt is much enriched.’


‘He is granted land from Reading Abbey. From Boxley and Malling. And here in London, St Mary Overy, and the Crossed Friars, and St Saviour in Bermondsey.’

‘He has long coveted those properties.’

Riche smiles. ‘I believe he has more than he thought he would get.’

‘He will take it as a challenge. He will soon run through the income, believe me.’

Wriothesley leans forward. His face is flushed. ‘My lord, do you not ask yourself, why now? It is done by his Majesty’s direct command. He finds Wyatt deserves well.’

As he did at Anne Boleyn’s fall. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘what is unlucky for others is lucky for Thomas Wyatt. God smiles on him.’

Wriothesley mutters, ‘Again, ask yourself why.’

‘Is that a question?’

Wriothesley is mute.

He, Lord Cromwell, turns to Riche. ‘No man knows better than you that grants like these are not made by snapping the fingers. Wyatt’s grants were set in train months ago, when I recalled him from his embassy. They needed only the king’s signature.’

‘He could have withheld it,’ Wriothesley says, ‘if Wyatt did not please him. Clearly he did.’

Of course Wyatt would be questioned: how not? It seems he has given answers, helpful or at least not disagreeable to the king. But under what constraint, under what pressure? Perhaps Bess is having another phantom child?

‘Wyatt knows your secret dealings,’ Wriothesley says. ‘And, as he has often boasted, the thoughts of your heart.’

‘Not that they are anything to boast about,’ he says. ‘You strain my charity, Wriothesley. Still, when I am set at large, I will try not to hold these things against you.’

Once again that fluttering, behind his ribs, of the organ whose workings have cost Wyatt himself so much pain. Love slayeth my heart. Fortune is depriver of all my comfort … My pleasant days, they fleet away and pass, But daily yet the ill doth change into the worse.

He says – the words emerge suddenly, unguarded – ‘What will you do without me? When a man such as Wyatt goes to work, he works for those who appreciate him. Without me you will read the lines as written, but you will never read between them. Marillac will make fools of you, and Chapuys too, if he returns. Charles and François will scramble your brains like a basin of eggs. Within a year the king will be fighting the Scots, or the French, or likely both, and he will bankrupt us. None of you can manage matters as I can. And the king will quarrel with you all, and you with each other. A year from now, if you sacrifice me, you will have neither honest coin nor honest minister.’

The clerk says, ‘Lord Cromwell is ill. We should perhaps pause?’

He turns his eyes on the boy. ‘Bless you for your courage.’

He is sweating. Norfolk says, ‘Oh, I think he is fit enough. It is not as if he has endured any pains – which are spared him, at the king’s direction, even though he is not nobly born.’

So the day passes, and another. Treason can be construed from any scrap of paper, if the will is there. A syllable will do it. The power is in the hands of the reader, not the writer. The duke continues with his outbursts, and Riche with insinuations that seldom connect one line of questioning with another. Mostly he can answer them; sometimes he has to refer them to the papers they have impounded, or lost. The truth is, as he confesses, he has meddled in so much of the king’s business, that it is impossible even for a man of his capacity to recollect everything said and done. ‘It is hard to live under the law,’ he says. ‘A minister must, unwittingly, transgress at divers points. But if I am a traitor,’ he wipes his face, ‘then all the devils in Hell confound me and the vengeance of God light upon me.’

Left alone at the end of the afternoon, he sits unpicking the fabric of the recent past, and always the thread leads him back to May Day. Thomas Essex at Greenwich, coming and going from the tournament ground, clerks following him with the king’s business; the earl – that is, myself – throwing out a command here and there. Richard Cromwell in the arena, knocking down all comers. Our feasting of our friends and enemies, our style and courtesy, our sprezzatura, our lavish display: May Day undid us, for the envy and rancour it bred could no longer be suppressed. Richard has compounded with some Italians to paint a mural of his triumph in his house at Hinchingbrooke; they mean to decorate the whole room. The time may come when the scene is bitter in his eyes, but he should paint it anyway. He should not give backword to the Italians – it is how they get their living.

Within nine days of his arrest, they have put together enough matter against him to bring a bill of attainder into Parliament. They question him about religion, in order to add further charges. They ask about what he did in Calais, who he protected there. They delve further into their cache of forgeries, out of which they can adduce what they like. Norfolk says to him, ‘When Mr Wriothesley went through Antwerp on the king’s business, you gave him messages for heretics.’

‘I gave him a message for my daughter. My own blood.’

Norfolk says, ‘You think that makes it better?’

He says, once again, ‘Let me see the king.’

Norfolk says, ‘Never.’

He supposes that Henry, for an hour or two together, believes firmly in both his heresy and his treason. But surely he cannot sustain the delusion? For the rest of his hours, he does not care what is true. He cultivates his grudge and grievance. No councillor can ever placate him, assuage this sense of grievance, slake his thirst or satisfy his hunger.

Before he has been a week in prison, Rafe brings him word of how the Emperor received the news. Charles seemed dumbfounded, dispatches say. ‘What?’ he asked. ‘Cremuel? Are you sure? In the Tower? And by the king’s command?’

One day the door opens; he expects Gardiner but it is Brandon again. Charles sits down, sighing heavy, on a little upholstered stool, so his knees rise absurdly under his chin. ‘Why doesn’t your lordship take this chair?’

But Charles sits like a penitent, puffing and sighing and looking around the room. His eyes search the painted walls, those scenes of paradises, verdant hills and brooks: ‘Is she behind there? The other one?’

‘Not in her own person, my lord. She lies in the chapel, at rest. As for the picture, I painted her out.’

‘What? Personally?’

‘No, my lord. I had a professional do it.’

He pictures himself, sneaking by night with a huge obliterating brush. ‘You’re a good fellow, Charles,’ he says. ‘I’d rob a house with you, if I had to.’

Brandon grins behind his big beard. ‘Have you robbed many houses?’

‘In my wild days, you know.’

‘We all had those,’ Charles says.

‘I wouldn’t rob a house with the king. You’d say to him, “Stand there and whistle if the watch comes,” and at the first footfall he’d scramble off and leave you to it, your leg over the sill.’

‘I don’t think he’d go robbing, in all conscience,’ Charles says. ‘He’d be breaching his own peace, wouldn’t he? And who would he rob? He can distrain our goods if he likes, and pauperise us all.’ He rubs his forehead. ‘I’m glad to hear you make a jest, Crumb. Look here …’ He levers himself to the vertical. ‘Look here, and this is my advice. Confess you are a heretic. Claim you have been misled. Ask Harry to see you face to face and reason with you, to bring you back to true religion. He’d like that, wouldn’t he? You remember how he enjoyed himself, at the trial of that fellow Lambert? Sitting above the court, all arrayed in white?’

‘Lambert was burned,’ he says.

Charles is deflated. ‘Well, that was my idea, and now I’ve delivered it, so I …’ He heads for the door, plunges back. ‘Your hand?’

He gives it. Charles pummels his shoulder, as if they were watching a dog fight.

When Brandon has gone he thinks, he is right, Henry would take pleasure in converting me. But there is a reason why Charles’s solution will not answer. His enemies will show (to their own satisfaction) that he denies the Eucharist, and no heretic of that sort can save himself, even by recantation. What condemns him is the first of those pernicious articles they passed through Parliament last year when he was sick. His Italian fever is killing him after all.

The bill of attainder has its second reading on 29 June. Between the first reading of the bill and its second, between the second and the third, he is a dying man. When the bill passes, then by law he is dead. The only thing uncertain is by what process they will make him a corpse. If the king prefers to punish him for heresy, he will die by fire, perhaps beside Robert Barnes and his friends; if for treason, then likely enough he will go to Tyburn, to be cut up alive. Even the bugger Hungerford will get such grace as the headsman offers, but he, God knows. He dreams he is facing a door painted scarlet, or not painted but bathed in scarlet, and the wall is the same hue; the surface is wet, the floor, the wall, and the room behind the door is wet and scarlet too.

It has stopped raining. Looking out from his windows in the queen’s lodging, he can see the summer dying back. He remembers the whole world a-swill, in those years before the cardinal came down. He remembers fetching Rafe to the house at Fenchurch Street, and how he dripped on the floor, and Lizzie unwrapped him from his layers. He thinks, she died before I had anything. I had Austin Friars, but it was a lawyer’s house. When I was the cardinal’s man she never saw me for weeks on end. I might as well have been a sailor on the sea. She stood at the head of the stairs, wearing her white cap. She said, ‘Let me know when you are coming home.’ I wrote my will, after she was dead, and what I had to leave to my son, in those days, was six hundred pounds and twelve silver spoons.

On the day the bill of attainder passes, Stephen Gardiner comes back. He wraps his coat around himself as if he is chilly. ‘I have come to ask you about the king’s so-called marriage.’

The turn of phrase is enough to make him understand what is required. ‘I will write it all down for you. From the beginning.’

‘Omit nothing,’ Gardiner says. ‘From your first negotiations with Cleves to the night of the supposed marriage. You must set forth all you heard of the lady’s pre-contract with Lorraine, and record faithfully what you know of the king’s dislike of and unwillingness to the marriage.’

He raises an eyebrow. Gardiner says, ‘Lady Rochford and others will testify that there was no consummation. The doctors will confirm it. If she came here a maid, she leaves as one, as the king – entertaining doubts that the match was valid – refrained himself from carnal copulation.’

He thinks, I could be like George Boleyn: I could set down such matter as would raise blisters on Henry’s face. But I have a son, and two grandsons, and a nephew, and my nephew has heirs. George had no children. He says, ‘Getting a new wife was always my task. It falls to you now, does it? I suppose it will be Norfolk’s niece? What has happened to the queen?’

‘The lady of Cleves has already left the court. The king has sent her to Richmond. He has promised to join her there. But of course, he will not. It was necessary to stop her womanish lamentation – or at least, to allow it to go on at a distance.’

He thinks, she must have been frightened, poor soul. And no one to look to her welfare. ‘I suppose money will salve the smart.’

‘There will be a settlement. I will come to that. The annulment comes first. The king says, Cromwell knows more of the matter than any man, except my own self. You must write the truth on the damnation of your soul. You will be required to take an oath.’

‘Why would I refuse?’ he says. ‘I would also take an oath I am a true servant and that my faith is the catholic and universal faith, not varying from that professed by the king. It were strange if my word should hold good in the one matter, but not the other.’

‘You are a dying man,’ Gardiner says. ‘They are known not to lie. Do you want me to send Sadler, to help you write?’

He does not want Rafe to see him do this last act. He thinks, the annulment will annul me. ‘I know what is required,’ he says coldly. ‘Leave it with me, my lord bishop. Now kick yourself out.’

He sits down. The facts marshal themselves in his mind, the phrases form themselves in order, but before he can write, he sheds a tear and thinks, I am in mourning for myself: with these papers, my usefulness gone. I could not do it again: the years of sleepless toil, the brute moral deformation, the axe-work. When Henry dies and goes to judgement, he must answer for me, as for all his servants: he must account for what he did to Cromwell. I never strove to replace him. All over England there are standing stones, petrified forms of men who hoped to rule: Stick stock stone, As King of England I be known. For their presumption they are condemned to stand for a thousand years, two thousand, in wind and rain; around them are smaller stones, the forms of the wretches who were their knights. Count them and – by a peculiar enchantment – you never get the same number twice. The destruction goes beyond counting. It goes beyond what the pen can record.

His narrative is the work of many hours. Sometimes Christophe comes in and peers at him, and offers a dish of raspberries, or wafers, or comfits. But he is absorbed in his story: Rochester, the bull-baiting, the lady from Cleves at the casement; the king blustering and hot in his disguise as English gentleman. The play at Greenwich, where the Romans tottered and fell; the king abed, kneading his bride’s belly and breasts.

Sometimes his mind drifts away, as it must: far from this room, beyond the city walls, across the fields and into the forest. The cover is dense, as in the years before trees were cut down for houses and ships, and all the creatures now extinct are alive again, for good or ill: the beaver in the stream, the wolf gaining on you with his long stride. When a man does not know which path to take he scatters crumbs from the loaf he carries in his hand, but the birds swoop behind him and eat them. He takes off his shirt and tears it into strips, and ties a strip to a branch at each fork in the road, but the ogres who live deep in the wood tread after him and steal the linen to bind their wounds: for ogres are always fighting. He labours on, and talking trees snigger about him, hiding their expressions of contempt behind their leaves.

When his tale is done he writes the superscription: To the king, my most gracious sovereign lord his royal Majesty.

But he cannot think how to end it. It may be the last letter they will allow. So he writes I cry for mercy. He writes it again, in case Henry should be distracted: mercy. And once again, mercy, to get it into the royal skull, to pierce the royal heart.

He has dated it: Wednesday, the last day of June. With heavy heart and trembling hand.

This time it is true. It is trembling. He looks at it as if it is some other man’s hand. Of all the words he has written, will this plea endure? Rats have eaten the laws of ancient times. They relish fish-glue and vellum; anything that was once alive, they will eat it, and then out of habit, they will eat what is dead; from the margins they chew their way in, to the secret history of England. It is the glory of the men who have worked with Cromwell that instead of merely cursing the vermin they have patched, they have mended, they have stretched a point to replace a gnawed vowel; they have been ready to substitute a digested phrase with a clause that will help the crown. But what has it availed? He has lived by the laws he has made and must be content to die by them. But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.

Rafe comes to take the letter. He has no seal, so he folds it, and before he gives it over he hesitates, trapping it under his palm. ‘I always told Henry, frightening people is cheap but it doesn’t get the best results. If you want a prisoner to yield you everything, offer him hope.’

Rafe says, ‘I have read how the philosopher Canius, when Caligula’s hangmen came for him, they found him playing chess. He said to them, “Mark this, I am winning – count my pieces on the board.”’

‘I make no such bold reply,’ he says sadly. ‘Canius still had his queen.’ He pushes the letter across the table. ‘Here. Everything he wants is in that package. Will Cleves make war on us now?’

Rafe says, ‘It appears the duke is content to leave his sister here in England. And if she does not oppose him in anything, the king will make her fair and honourable terms.’

‘Why would she oppose him? Poor lady.’ To make a winter journey, he thinks, and find herself unwanted at the end of it.

Rafe says, ‘Duke Wilhelm is talking to the French. Word is they have offered him a princess, and an alliance.’

‘Ah, so he is not marrying Christina?’

‘No, he cannot make terms with the Emperor, or not at this time. They say the French princess is unwilling.’