The Mirror and the Light (Nonsuch | Part 1)

Winter 1537–Spring 1538

‘My lord?’ a boy says. ‘A gravedigger is here.’

He looks up from his papers. ‘Tell him to come back for me in ten years.’

The boy is flustered. ‘He’s brought a sack, sir. I’ll send him up.’

His neighbours at Austin Friars think he is in charge of everything, from framing the laws to propping cellars and cleaning drains. Go to the city surveyors, he says: but they say, Yes, sir, but if you would just walk around the corner and cast an eye? For I swear my boundary stone has been moved, my foundations are cracking, my lights are obscured.

Today’s will be a problem of bodies stacking up, the ground too hard to dig. You should try not to die at the turn of the year. Hang on through the season of marzipan and mulled ale. You might even see spring.

The visitor pulls off his cap. He stares around; he sees a low-lit expanse, with nothing in it but Lord Cromwell before the barber gets to him, the Queen of Sheba hanging on the wall behind. Painted on the ceiling, the stars in their courses; on his desk, like a low winter sun, a dried orange.

The gravedigger has left the door open to a rising babble from below. ‘It sounds as if you’ve brought the whole street with you. What’s in your sack?’

The man huddles it against him. He wants to tell his tale and tell it in order. ‘My lord, I woke up this morning about four o’clock. I had such a wambling in my belly …’

Lord Cromwell settles himself inside his furs, with a soft grunt like a heavy cat. He unwinds in his imagination the sexton’s morning. The sloth with which he pushes off his blanket and rises from pallet bed. The odiferous splash of his urine. The icy shock of water to his face. His mumbled prayers, Salve Regina and God bless our king. His shirt and jerkin and patched coat, his draught of small ale. Then out he goes, spade in hand, to break the ground in the frozen hour.

In the churchyard a dozen neighbours are gathered. ‘Get over here with that shovel,’ they shout. One poor torch gives a wavering light. The parish clerk is pulling and tugging at a bundle, half in and half out of the ground.

The sexton hastens over. One swipe and he has the thing out. It is a winding sheet, muddied and torn. ‘We took it for a babe, my lord,’ he says. ‘New-born and scantly buried.’

‘That is not the infant, in your sack?’

Clods of earth shake to the floor as the man lays the sack on the table. He opens its neck and, like a witch midwife, extracts a baby, naked and cold to the touch. It is life-sized and made of wax.

Lord Cromwell rises. ‘Let me see it.’ His palm follows the curve of the skull. The face is a blank slope, as if its features have been sheared off. He touches the blunt hands, the toeless feet like tiny hooves. Below the slope of the belly the wax has been crudely scooped and scrolled to make a cock and balls. Iron nails have been forced into the flesh where heart and lungs would be. They have been skewered deep, leaving a friable rim around each entry point.

The man is afraid. ‘Turn it about, sir.’

Into the back’s broad plane, its maker has ripped a Tudor rose.

‘It is the prince,’ the sexton says. His voice is awed. ‘It is his image. It is made to waste and kill him.’

‘You know conjurers, then?’

‘Not I, sir. I am an honest man.’

He goes to the door. ‘Christophe! Is Mr Wriothesley out of bed? My compliments to him, and will he go with this fellow and see where this thing was discovered, and find out who put it there?’

He pulls the sack over the babe’s head. Says to the sexton, ‘Spread word no further.’

Christophe comes in. ‘Half London knows. You hear the canaille below, making moan as if their mothers were dead.’

‘Give them bread and ale, and get them back to their occupations.’

‘I can see the monster?’ Christophe peers into the sack. He makes a face.

He, Lord Cromwell, goes to the window, opens the shutter. A diffident area of grey; you cannot call it light. ‘Christophe?’ he says. ‘Tell Mr Wriothesley to wrap up warm.’

In less than two years, two queens have died in England, but under circumstances that have prevented the usual rites. There has been no court mourning since the king lost his mother, which must be some thirty-five years ago. Fortunately, his grandmother Margaret Beaufort left us full notes on what to do: weddings, christenings, funerals, she had it pat. The Duke of Norfolk is called on to supervise the rites, with the help of Garter Herald. The king goes into white, his courtiers into black.

On All Souls’ Eve, while Jane the Queen is still lying in state, news comes from the Tower of the death of Lord Thomas Howard. He was out of hope, his keepers say, which made him prey to any passing malaise. Lady Meg Douglas, his paramour, has been permitted by the king to join the court for the mourning period. If through the first week of November her face is swollen and blurred by tears, we need not take it that she was still attached to the late Lord Thomas; we can interpret it as sorrow for our gentle mistress. All the ladies are needed for the vigil, svelte in black, their heads bowed. They kneel on silk cushions, their closed eyelids fluttering, incense floating around them in clouds. Their hands are joined, except when two fingers delicately tap their breasts, or sign a cross at forehead and lips. In what manner they pray for the late queen, no one should enquire. The dead woman’s body is never left alone. Lady Mary leads the prayers by day. By night they leave her to the priests.

By the time Jane is taken to Windsor for her burial, the rumour outside the gates is that the king had her cut open while she was alive. She could not be delivered of her child, so ‘Save my son!’ he ordered. From Cornwall to Durham, they are singing ballads about it. How the babe and his father prosper, and the mother lies in clay.

In the first days of mourning the king has sequestered himself, as a king ought, seeing no one but his confessors and the archbishop, who comes to pray with him.

The council conduct their business alone. Wanting to ask one question and ask it urgently, they look nobly intent, like men trying to hold back a fart. Finally, some lord pipes up: ‘My lord Cromwell, when might our noble sovereign, having regard to the parlous state of the succession –’

‘Right,’ he says. ‘I’ll go and ask him, shall I?’

He gets up heavily. ‘Mind my papers,’ he says to Edward Seymour. Collecting Call-Me to watch his back, he sets off towards the privy chamber. Marching smartly by his side, the Duke of Norfolk; beside him, the duke’s son Surrey, so elongated by black that his legs seem to be multiplied like the legs of a great spider.

‘Well,’ Norfolk says, ‘it falls to you to get him through this, Cromwell. Through it and out the other side and a married man again. No disrespect to our lord prince, but we all know how easily a babe is snuffed out.’ He scowls. ‘So have you got a list?’

‘Of course he has a list,’ Call-Me says. ‘But he has more reverence than to produce it, my lord.’

Surrey is treading on his father’s heels. Like Meg Douglas, he has been permitted to return to court to join the mourning. ‘Do not speak to the Lord Privy Seal,’ Norfolk orders him. ‘Do not even glance at him, boy, or you will incur my displeasure.’

Surrey casts up his eyes to the gilded roses on the ceiling. He sighs, shifts from foot to foot, fidgets his dagger in its scabbard. Short of taking out his privy member and waving it, there is no more he could do to establish his presence.

‘It seems to us,’ Mr Wriothesley says, ‘the king is not ready to talk about a new wife. As your lordship says, it falls on my lord Cromwell, so let him pick his time.’

‘Let that time be soon,’ young Surrey snaps. ‘Or my father will force the point.’

‘What did I tell you? Silence!’ Norfolk glares at his son. ‘The king’s grieving. Of course he’s grieving. Lovely lady, who wouldn’t? But the Emperor and France are creeping close to a treaty, which is very displeasant to us; what would make them quarrel, faster than a marriage? Let Henry claim a bride from France. We can stipulate not only a good sum of money with the girl, but military aid, should Charles attempt anything against us.’ He rubs the tip of his nose. ‘We are all very sorry about the queen, of course. But it can turn to advantage. All is for the taking, Cromwell.’

‘Though not your taking,’ Surrey says.

‘Cease, sirrah!’ Norfolk roars.

‘My lord Privy Seal would prefer –’ Wriothesley says.

Norfolk cuts him off. ‘We know what he’d prefer. Marriage with some gospeller’s daughter. But that will not happen, and you know why? Because it derogates from the honour of our sovereign. Henry wears a crown imperial. He is beholden to none. But the best of these Germans is a mere prince’s daughter, and the Emperor is their overlord – whatever they pretend.’

‘The king is free to choose a lady of any rank,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘He could choose one of his own subjects. That has been known.’

He says to Norfolk, ‘I will not put a foot forward in this matter unless I have the council behind me, and Parliament too.’

‘Oh, I trust you,’ Norfolk says. ‘I do not think you will go venturing on your own, my lord Privy Seal.’

‘Or your head will fly off,’ Surrey says.

‘My lord –’ he is hovering, ‘– I must go in to the king.’

‘Let me come in with you,’ the duke says.

‘Introduce you suddenly?’ he says. ‘Like a surprise?’

‘Say I am right outside. Say I offer fatherly comfort and counsel.’

‘My lord father,’ Surrey says, ‘do not let these fellows impede –’

Irritated, he puts his palm on Surrey’s chest, stops him dead. ‘And look, I need no blade,’ he says.

They walk away. He shrugs. ‘I’m human.’

‘Of course.’ Call-Me makes it sound like a warm endorsement. ‘What do you hear from Cleves?’

‘No great praise, neither of the lady’s face nor person. Though I am not discouraged. No one has had much opportunity of seeing her, these people keep their women very close. She sounds amiable. The age is right. And the Cleves councillors are keen, I hear.’

Keen enough to keep her off the market. Anna. Twenty-two years old. Never married.

The king is waiting: heavy-faced, heavy-eyed. He turns his head, and it seems like an effort. ‘There you are, Crumb.’

‘Norfolk would like an audience. He threatens to talk to you like a father.’

‘Does he?’ Henry dredges up a smile. ‘Let us hope I turn out better than young Surrey. I shall try to be a credit to him.’

‘He says it is your duty to marry again.’

Henry looks into the middle distance. ‘I could be well content to live chaste my remaining days.’

‘Parliament will also petition your Majesty.’

‘Then I must set aside my own wishes, I suppose.’ The king sighs. ‘What do we hear of the widow, Madame de Longueville? I feel I could be interested in her, if in any lady. The noble house of Guise would be flattered by an approach.’

Marie de Guise has been described to him: a bouncing, vivid redhead with two young sons, her husband six months buried. ‘They say she is very tall.’

‘I am very tall myself.’

He thinks, we could send Hans to paint her, and measure her at the same time. ‘There is a difficulty, Majesty. The King of Scots wants her.’

Henry is glacial. ‘I do not call that a difficulty.’

‘Her family might stick over the dowry.’

‘What, haggle with me?’ The king is annoyed. ‘There are other Frenchwomen. And I have not yet said I will marry at all. I will not get such a pearl as Jane again.’ He rubs his eyes. ‘Talk to me again in a week, my lord. I will try to make you a better answer.’

Fresh from watching by the corpse, stiff-kneed and bored and cross, Jane Rochford steps into his path. ‘I have need of instruction.’

He stops. Smiles slowly at her. ‘Will you take it?’

‘We ladies do not know how to order ourselves without a mistress. Do we stay or go?’

The queen’s household is broken up, and Lady Mary set to withdraw to Hunsdon, or some other place. If there is no queen’s side at court, there is no need for women at all. ‘But if we are all sent away,’ Lady Rochford says, ‘what will we do in case of a sudden bride?’

‘Look to the direction of your seniors,’ he says. ‘Lady Surrey. Lady Rutland.’

‘When shall I be senior enough to count?’ She is waspish. ‘I have served three queens now, and I trust to serve a fourth.’

‘Uncle Norfolk wants a Frenchwoman,’ he says.

She laughs. ‘The French must have bribed him. I thought he would offer a Howard. The old dowager duchess, across the river at Lambeth, she has a houseful of girls.’

‘Perhaps none of them are ripe for breeding?’

‘I dare say the king would be trying to marry Bess Seymour, if she had not wed your son. One woman in a family is never enough for him. Has not Jane other sisters? I know there are Bible texts against it. But the king rules over the church now. And we know what he thinks of the scriptures. “Read on, masters, there’s always another verse!”’

‘Your reckless tongue,’ he says. ‘I may not always be able to save you.’

‘Save me? Is that what you do?’ Jane Rochford shakes out her black skirts, and rubs her back to ease its ache. Sometimes he sees an expression of concentration in her eyes, as if she is trying to fathom where she mistook her turning. You leave a trail of bread and the ravens eat it. You drop cherry stones, and they grow into trees. ‘Are they happy,’ she asks idly, ‘your newly-weds? Bess looks as if she carries a secret. She has the shadow of a double chin. Unless I mistake, you are on the way to becoming a grandfather.’

He is at that age when one loses old friends. November saw Humphrey Monmouth’s funeral; he wanted to follow the burial party himself, but Rafe said, ‘Careful, sir, Monmouth was Tyndale’s protector once: do not antagonise the king, do not take a risk for the sake of a dead man.’

Other mourners brought him word of what passed: a simple interment, before dawn. Monmouth refused candles or papist emblems, but he left money in his will for sermons. He wanted no funeral bell, but provided for the bell-ringers to have their fee: which was like him, a man who considered the humble and the poor.

He, the Lord Privy Seal, had packed up the silver cup Monmouth bequeathed him, and ridden down to Mortlake to be at home with Gregory and his wife. He gave notice that for the next fortnight he would see no one, do no business but the king’s. Till now, Cromwell no more refused work than a dog refuses mutton. But he had felt bruised: not only by the queen’s loss, but by his failure to lay hold of Reynold.

Henry says, ‘You promised me you would put an end to Pole. When he returns to Italy, you told me, I will have him struck down as he leaves his lodging, or ambushed on the road.’

‘Majesty, I do not know how to intercept a man who is never where he is expected. My people wait for him at some chosen place, but then he falls from his horse, and is carried into a refuge, and is three days nursing his bruises. We anticipate him at the next town, then we hear he has missed the way, wandered off in a circle, and ended where he began. He is too stupid to be killed.’

Henry says, ‘You’ll have to learn to be stupid too, won’t you, Crumb?’

He is bound to show his face, whether he feels better or not, at the Christmas court at Greenwich. It is a small court still in black, where Master Johan the tumbler tries to raise a smile. Rather than music and dancing, there are plays, mounted and devised to pique the king’s interest: masques with fantasy castles, with princesses inside them. The king’s eye follows Margaret Skipwith, a blithe little maid of honour. ‘He wouldn’t, would he?’ the Lord Chancellor says. ‘He wouldn’t give the Lady Mary a stepmother younger than herself?’

The Lord Chancellor chirps, ‘Anne Bassett is a pleasant sight – Lady Lisle’s girl.’

‘She has enjoyed a French upbringing,’ he says. ‘Like Anne Boleyn.’

Audley frowns. ‘But she seems a biddable wench, and I have seen him looking at her, and her English is fluent enough.’

‘She cannot write it,’ he says. ‘She can barely write in French.’

‘What?’ Audley goggles at him. ‘You read her letters? Little Anne Bassett?’

Of course he does. He needs to know everything that goes into Calais, or comes out. On the chance of unguarded information, he can endure accounts of what buttons and fringes Mistress Bassett craves, and what cramp rings and ribbons Lady Lisle sends.

He says, ‘The king will not be happy with a maid of sixteen, whatever he thinks. He needs a woman of competent age, who will get on briskly with breeding, and knows how to keep him entertained meanwhile.’

He turns his attention back to the play. There is a party of boys from Eton, and Charles Brandon’s players, and Lord Exeter’s men. Sometimes Pride and Folly speak, as if they were persons: Humblewise and Good Council answer them, in verse.

The common people who gather in inn yards and barns have plays of their own. Not a village that does not boast King Arthur on a hobby horse, or Robin Hood. Robin Hood in greenwood stood/Good yeoman was he. He wears garments of the same colour as the trees, so he can steal like a sprite through copse and dell. He takes to wife one Marion; they make their promises beneath the green bough. He ambushes friars who deviate from the beaten track, knowing them by the scent of cheap wine and loose women that creeps before them through the sweet air; their bags are full of money, screwed out of poor folk for pretended forgiveness of their sins.

Robin Hood sings ballads about his deeds while he is doing them. A hundred times he escapes the noose and the sword. In the end he is betrayed and bled to death by a false prioress. His blood runs into the soil, red into green, and another Robin springs up, to wear his jacket and bear a quiver of arrows at his back.

The man who takes Robin’s role must be broad in the shoulder. He must speak with some accent of education, not mouthing his lines like Arthur Cobbler. If he plays with skill in his home village, he will be asked to the next: and so to the town, where he will become famous.

There are other outlaws whose deeds are renowned: Clym of the Clough, Adam Bell, Will Scarlet, Reynold Greenleaf and Little John. Old stories can be rewritten. It is good to get such personages harnessed in the king’s cause. Besides the green men we recruit knights of old, like Sir Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick: they cross the plains and forests on intelligent horses which sometimes talk.

All these men have a reason for leaving home. Sometimes they are booted out of it, by the malice of a stepmother or a witch; sometimes they are wrongfully set up for a crime. If traduced, they will strive to clear their names; if betrayed, they cannot rest till they have revenged. In the course of their wanderings they battle giants. They are sold to pirates. They are locked up and they burst the locks. They hide in caves with hermits. They lead armies against Rome. Sometimes they go mad, and no wonder. They get the girl and lose her again – or else, at the point of consummation, she turns into an animal, or her flesh falls to ash.

But in stories the odds are evened. The devil knocks down our hero, and up he gets. The outcast is restored to his rights. The youngest brother, called simple, becomes the richest of all. The gruel-fed serf feasts on the sweet flesh of the roe, and the swine boy strides from his hovel and builds a crystal house.

He calls up John Bale: a Carmelite, eloquent and embittered, who has thrown off his habit and married a wife. Could you, he asks, write a play about the villainous Archbishop Becket, who defied his king? About the sorry end he came to, knocked on the head like a calf by three stout and loyal knights?

‘A play in English?’

‘Latin is no good to us here.’

Bale asks for time to think about it. At court, Queen Jane’s Players give their final performance, before their troupe is broken up.

At Candlemas the court goes out of mourning and the talk is of an Imperial bride: Christina, Duchess of Milan, the Emperor’s niece. ‘A very pretty little widow,’ Chapuys calls her: married at twelve to Francesco Sforza, widowed at sixteen, believed still a virgin.

Christina’s father was once King of Denmark, but was dethroned. At present Denmark has a Lutheran king, who has seen the Bible translated, and has already made links with the German princes. The Emperor aims to bring him down, and perhaps put Christina in his place. Though England would lament the loss of an ally against the Pope, she might gain, through Christina, not only Denmark but Sweden and Norway, those fields of snow and ice with their harbours and great shining shoals; their waters where a thousand whales can feast on cod and bring a thousand friends, and still tomorrow there are more fish than there were yesterday. And their forests of which we hear, stretching in low lines below bare mountains, with store of timber for building ships.

Besides, they say she is of a sweet disposition and might suit him.

‘I would emphasise the sweetness,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘The rest is conjecture.’ He pinches the bridge of his nose. ‘You could feel out the terrain, Crumb.’

Sometimes the king, in playing chess, hesitates with a piece in his hand, while in his head he plays out a series of fantasy moves, which he would never attempt in life. As black to his white, one must simply wait it out; Henry is more averse to risk than he pretends. After long deliberation, a nudge to a bishop is the most he ventures, or a pawn unleashed to its limit.

Now the king’s negotiators are ready, the canon lawyers and linguists, the theologians and the accountants. In a dozen cities of France and the Low Countries, quartering Europe from Lisbon to Düsseldorf, they will meet with their peers, earnest and expert men, their dark garments relieved by a single, weighty gold chain: men who are followed by their own line of clerks with folios, with maps and charters, with trees of precedence and lineage. When negotiations are at their stickiest, the team can be reinforced by emissaries from home, bringing news of the king’s good health and his hopeful disposition to whichever match is in question.

He, the minister, must move on all fronts: bustle from board to board, pushing six queens at once. In the space of hours, the game may be kicked over. One might bring arrangements to a point, only to be knocked back by a coup within some foreign chancellery. Or just as you are signing off the finances, the girl might die. Sometimes a returned envoy will say, ‘Go yourself, Lord Cromwell, you would speed the business along.’ But he sets his face against it. His appearance in any foreign city would cause amazement and consternation and lead to inflated expectations, lending too much weight to one set of negotiations at the expense of others.

February, the king sends Philip Hoby into France. Hoby is a gentleman of the privy chamber: a gospeller, good-looking and keen, and well-briefed by himself, the Lord Privy Seal. The king thinks he has a chance of Madame de Longueville, despite the King of Scots’ claims that they are affianced. But there is no harm in looking at her sister, Louise. There is another sister, Renée, who they say is bound for a convent; perhaps she could be enticed from her beads by the prospect of becoming Queen of England?

And while Hoby is across the sea, he might call on the Duke of Lorraine’s daughter. Don’t fret, he tells his clerks, you don’t need to remember all these ladies individually: not till the king chooses one, and changes her fate. They are all cousins, mostly papists, and mostly called Marie or Anne.

The Duchess Christina is at the court in Brussels, with her aunt, who is regent in those parts for her brother the Emperor. Early in March, he commissions Hans to go out with Hoby and paint her. On 12 March, Hans is granted a three-hour sitting.

‘I think,’ Henry says, when he sees the drawing, ‘that we might have a little music tonight.’

Christina is straight and tall, clear-eyed. When I have made the painting, Hans says, you will see she is so young she has dew on her. She is grave, she is poised: but there is a hint of a smile. You imagine she might put down the gloves that she twists in her fingers, and slide a warm palm against yours. Our envoy Hutton says she has three languages besides Latin. She speaks softly, gently, in all of them, and lisps a little.

The king craves her, the privy chamber gentlemen tell him. He says we should remember her in our prayers, as if she is our queen already.

But also he says, ‘Madame de Longueville has red hair. So I would feel I knew her, as if she were my family. And she has a tried and tested womb.’ He looks at Christina’s drawing again. ‘Now I do not know which lady to love.’

‘Yon Christina has a look of my niece Mary Shelton,’ Norfolk says.

‘I think he has had enough of your nieces,’ Charles Brandon says.

But Shelton is still free. Henry always liked her. He could wed her right away. Thomas Boleyn is soon back at court, perhaps to press the case: they are very close, these families, very greedy. Boleyn is still Earl of Wiltshire despite all. He is grey, drawn, less flesh on him than doctors like to see. He wears his Garter badge and a gold chain, but he wears them against the subdued garments of a private gentleman, and neither he nor his small entourage boast nor strut nor pick fights with the servants of the Seymours. He speaks to my lord Privy Seal in a low confidential tone, as if they were old friends. ‘We have seen such times, Lord Cromwell,’ he says, ‘if I consider what has befallen in England, since my late daughter came up – we have seen events crowded into a week, that in ordinary times would have sustained the chroniclers for a decade.’

Rather than waste time he, Lord Cromwell, decides to force the point: ‘Majesty, you are thinking of Mistress Shelton?’

Henry smiles. ‘Perhaps it is time she was married. Though not necessarily to me.’

He bows himself out. The king is not in a mood to confirm or deny. He thinks, the late Harry Norris had a daughter, did he not? She must be of age now to come to court. Useless to say to her, stay away; stay in the country, keep yourself intact. Brides frisk like silly sheep to the slaughter; like martyrs to the circus, when they hear the lion roar.

The new French ambassador, Castillon, presents himself. He is one of those good fellows who parade their honesty, always showing you the palms of his hands.

He looks him up and down. ‘Monsieur, I think your accord with the Emperor, it is only a winter truce?’

Monsieur Castillon sighs. ‘We must try to settle a permanent peace, when the chance offers. My master is keen to show the world he is a Christian king.’

‘Mine too,’ he says. ‘But I wish François would show a little more warmth about our marrying a Frenchwoman.’

‘You are not set against it? Personally?’

‘I only want to make my king happy.’

Castillon says, ‘Your king must be very clear what he offers.’

‘You can talk to me about that. I do the money.’

‘But I am speaking of a pact, a military alliance –’

‘Talk to Norfolk. He does the soldiers.’

‘Norferk is far more friendly to us than you.’

‘Perhaps because you pay him more, ambassador.’

In dealing with the French he always feels he wants Wolsey’s advice. The French were terrified of the cardinal. They called him le cardinal pacifique, in the hope he wouldn’t smite them.

Since new year, the rich and fertile county of Kent has been swept by rumours of the king’s death, which are passed between the patrons of the Checkers in Canterbury, and carried by fish-sellers door to door. They say he is dead of a flux, a fever, a cough, and that it is a pity he did not die seven years back. They also say that a tax will be placed on every horned beast, as well as a poll tax on their owners, and it will be set high so as to enrich Thomas Cromwell, and bring honest farmers to their knees.

Anyone spreading such a rumour can expect to be nailed to the pillory by his ear on market day. But the origin of such lies can seldom be traced. Nor has he found who made the wax child. Mr Wriothesley had followed a trail of names, but they led to ruined or empty houses, or to men who call up such a blizzard of nonsense when questioned that you are driven out of their workshops, your head aching from verbiage and mercury fumes. The London wizards bear a grudge against Lord Cromwell, and no wonder. He has watched them since the cardinal’s death. He has confiscated their alembics and retorts, their snakeskins and secret bottles containing homunculi, their orbs and robes and wands. He has impounded their Clavicula Salomonis for calling up the dead, and read their texts in mirror writing; he has tossed to his code-breakers their almanacs in unknown tongues. Anyone who wishes may open his chests and inspect their cloaks of invisibility: which they claim he has converted to his own use.

The north is quiet as winter ends. But then from York comes a report of one Mabel Brigge, attempting to witch Henry to death. She is a widow, aged thirty-two, so robust that every year when Lent comes her neighbours pay her to fast for them. For a fee, she will fast for a godly purpose, like the recovery of a sick child. But she will also make a black fast, that aims to waste its victim. Now she is fasting against the king and the Duke of Norfolk. Every hour Brigge goes without food, king and duke will dwindle.

‘She is not fasting against me?’ the Lord Privy Seal asks. He is surprised.

But his informants say, ‘She has seen the duke face to face. She feels she knows him. She says he is a promise-breaker. She says he has spoiled the north.’

When the duke hears this he will be spurring north to hang Brigge in person. The king has flesh enough to see out any widow, but Norfolk has not an ounce to spare. You know my will and testament, Norfolk writes, that I gave you in a box? Send it back to me, Crumb, I must remake it. I am so short of money I shall have to sell land, and that comes hard. For God’s sake put some abbeys my way.

He, Lord Cromwell, almost rips up the paper in a rage. Has he not just made a bargain with the duke for the abbey at Castle Acre? Can nothing sate the brute?

February goes out with stormy weather, bringing down the west pier at Dover. In far-off lands they are preparing for war: the Venetians and the Emperor are to go against the Turks, with the Pope’s loud encouragement. But with a scent of spring in the English air, Lord Cromwell feels more himself. In the council chamber he is the focus of calm, though the king continues skittish, contrary. Henry says, ‘I will open my mind to you,’ and you can see him busily packing its contents into strongboxes, like a man stowing his assets against thieves. He says, ‘Do feel you can speak freely to me,’ and already he is adding up the bill. Gregory says, ‘He is a king after all, he does not think as we think, he does not know what we know. I would be afraid to argue with him as you do, father, lest God strike me dead.’

I argue, he says, to make him argue back: to make him say what he thinks and what he wants. Seven years I have stood at his elbow while he sets a course. I found him in low water, the cardinal gone who was captain of his ship: bereft of good advice, gnawed by intermittent lusts, frustrated by his advisers, hamstrung by his own laws. I filled his treasury, made his coinage sound; I packed off his old wife and got him a new one of his choosing; while I did this I soothed his temper and told him jokes. If like a princess in a fairy tale I could have spun a babe from straw, I would have worked a year of nights. But he has his prince now. He has paid a price for him, but good fortune never comes free. It is time he knew that; it is time he grew up.

Besides, there is reason to be cheerful. Even when the king has expressed a desire to be alone, he will call in Lord Cromwell to debate a text with him, or idly throw dice. Those councillors are unwelcome now, who hulloo as if they were on the hunting field, or talk to a solitary and sorrowing man as if they were addressing a troop from horseback. He needs a voice pitched low, a listening ear: when he talks of how women have made him suffer, he needs someone who will not show incredulity.

If you wonder if Lord Cromwell is succeeding, look how he and his people are augmented. Mr Richard is seized of abbeys in the county of Huntingdon. He means to seat himself at Hinchingbrooke Priory, after rebuilding work of course, and establish himself in that county as a beacon of loyalty to the king; while at the same time, Mr Gregory is set up in east Sussex.

The great abbey at Lewes brings with it a generous spread of houses and estates. Gregory will be sworn in as a justice of the peace, and he will have all the help and comfort and advice he needs while he feels his way into his role as one of the chief gentlemen of the region. The aim is for him to be able to host the king this summer, so rebuilding must hurtle along. Giovanni Portinari is assembling his demolition crew, ready to take down the church. He, Lord Cromwell, imagines the apple blossom shaking from the boughs, and the flight of the doves from their cotes: stone heads of devils and angels springing from the stonework as if fired from cannon, their shards rolling underfoot. The bell metal alone should fetch seven hundred pounds.

In March his grandchild Henry is born, and christened in the old font at Mortlake. Well, Master Gregory, the king says, you make a father with great speed! The child is healthy, the mother in good spirits, and Lady Mary is godmother. She does not come to Mortlake herself but she sends a gold cup and gifts to the midwife and nurses.

Lady Bryan has our prince safe, wrapped so tight in his gilded swaddling bands that no nail can pierce him nor pin sneak between his ribs. One day when Edward is King of England, we hope Henry Cromwell will be by his side, his first cousin.

By March, the Emperor is willing to open talks about Christina. The two Imperial envoys, Chapuys and Mendoza, are invited to Hampton Court as privileged guests. They visit the prince, and pay their respect to Lady Mary and Lady Eliza. Lady Mary plays proficiently on the lute. Asked for a private interview, she politely declines it. Eliza squeaks a pretty Latin verse, in which she has been rehearsed by Cat Champernowne, his appointee.

Next day Chapuys sends him a present of two hundred sweet oranges. He ships half down to Sussex for his son and grandson, and walks around Whitehall giving the rest out. The Bishop of Tarbes, newly arrived to join the French embassy, encounters him in air made lively by their zest. ‘Do not pretend to be glad to see me, Cremuel,’ the bishop says. ‘I know the Imperialists make you great offers –’

‘They give me oranges,’ he says.

‘I hear that since last year you are much enriched from spoiling the monks – you and your son and your nephew Mr Richard. In England you write the laws to suit the robber.’

Ambassador Castillon puts a restraining hand on his colleague. Then he turns, glad of a diversion. ‘My lord Norferk!’

Norfolk nods towards the king’s door: ‘He in there, Cromwell? Take me in.’

He says to the Frenchmen, ‘My lord is like a poor foundling these days. For ever wheedling and beseeching. Take me in, take me in.’

Norfolk leaps as if pricked with a bodkin. ‘Do you do this for pleasure, Cromwell? Do you obstruct me so you can work me into a fit of choler?’

‘You work yourself,’ he says coolly.

‘Who are you to advise on a royal wife? You are nothing but an old widower, you cannot get a woman because you think yourself fit for a princess and you will not take less.’

He sees, from the corner of his eye, the two Frenchmen exchange glances. He turns on the duke. ‘And is the king to be advised on marriage by a wife-beater?’

Sweat springs from Norfolk’s brow. This is what they have come to, for all the friendship they swore last autumn – standing outside the king’s privy chamber bawling insults.

‘Make way, make way!’ call the ushers. Henry emerges. He eyes Norfolk. The duke sinks to one knee. The king ignores him. ‘Messieurs, my lord Cromwell – come in.’

They begin well enough, Castillon hinting he has a surprise: ‘A proposal about the Lady Mary, that I think will be very gratifying to your Majesty.’

‘I am all ears,’ Henry says. ‘Lord Cromwell, likewise, is all ears.’

‘Majesty,’ Castillon says, ‘our dauphin is already wed – but could not Lady Mary marry my master’s second son?’

The king groans. ‘We have been here before. Cromwell, tell him.’

He says, ‘Your master wanted a guarantee that Lady Mary would succeed to the throne.’

Castillon bows. ‘You have a son and heir now, of course. But the Lady Mary’s virtues are known throughout Christendom. So what could be more pleasant than a double wedding, father and daughter? The king will be honoured to give you any French lady you choose.’

The king says, ‘Not excepting his daughter Marguerite?’

The ambassador is ready. ‘If a year or two were allowed, till she is sixteen, perhaps …’

‘I am forty-six,’ Henry says. ‘I am not seeking a companion for my old age. If I am to marry, I should do it now. Madame de Longueville would suit me. She cannot really mean to marry the King of Scots. Such a stupid, beggarly knave –’

Castillon is taken aback. ‘James will wed her before the summer. The promise is firm.’

‘But is it free?’ Henry asks. ‘Hearts should be free. Milord Cremuel will tell you. He is a great promoter of love matches.’

Tarbes says, ‘Try to understand this. My king regards James of Scotland as his own son. He will not break a promise that knits our two lands in their ancient amity.’

Castillon urges, ‘Why not consider the Duchess of Vendôme?’

He does not wait for the king, but cuts in: ‘James saw her and did not like her. Why should we?’

The king says, ‘I do not want to take a lady I have not seen. The thing touches me too near.’ He raises a finger, and lays it precisely beneath his collarbone, on the puff of white linen that shows above the buttercup yellow of his jacket. ‘Perhaps she and some other ladies could come to Calais? Then I might make the crossing, and see them for myself.’

‘What?’ Castillon can no longer contain himself. ‘Do you think it is a horse fair? You want us to trot them out like fillies, the noblest dames of France? Perhaps your Majesty would like to mount them too, before making choice?’

He says, solemn, ‘If they are virgins on arrival, we will send them back intact. I swear it.’

‘Excuse,’ Tarbes says curtly. Red in the face, the ambassadors turn aside to mutter to each other. He wishes now that Norfolk were here, to see his show.

The ambassadors turn back. ‘No,’ Tarbes says. ‘No meeting.’

‘A pity,’ he says, ‘since the king and I are going to Calais anyway. From there we will pass to the Emperor’s territory, to meet with Christina and her councillors. We mean to take Lady Mary – and Lady Eliza too, if her keepers do not object to the voyage for her.’

He feels Henry’s gaze swivel to him: will we, do we?

‘Then I wish you joy of the Duchess of Milan,’ Castillon says. ‘I hear she is very much afraid of what awaits her, and is begging the Emperor to marry her anywhere but England. Has your Majesty considered that it might be difficult to find any lady to marry you at all?’

‘Why?’ the king asks.

‘Because you kill your wives.’

‘Take that back,’ he says. He is standing, so are the ambassadors; he thinks, there may be two of you, but I kill giants.

Castillon turns to Henry. His voice shakes. ‘You say your first wife died in the course of nature, but many believe you poisoned her. Your second match was widely deplored, but no one imagined you would end it with a beheading. Now it is said – even by Cremuel, in fact especially by he – that your third wife perished of neglect in her childbed.’

He says, ‘I should not have said that.’

‘No, you should not,’ Henry says mildly. ‘My dear ambassadors, you cannot understand – you do not know our court or our ways – Cremuel worked not a little in the making of my marriage with Jane.The whole realm has reason to be grateful that he did so. Cremuel’s son is married to the queen’s sister. He feels to her as to his own kin. After her death, his shock and sorrow caused him to speak in haste. There was no neglect. How could there be?’

‘Our position is –’ Tarbes begins.

‘Your position is back on the boat,’ he says, ‘unless we hear an abject and prompt apology.’

Henry holds up a hand. ‘Peace. The ambassadors have some right on their side. I have been ill-fated.’ He bows his head, then looks up from under his brows. ‘But I do not lack offers.’

He says, ‘Be assured, gentlemen – we are at a point, with the Duchess of Milan.’

‘At a point?’ Castillon is outraged. ‘Cremuel, why do you not pack your bags and present yourself to the Emperor as his own true servant? You serve him better than you serve the King of England.’

Henry says dryly, ‘I find myself satisfied.’

He says, ‘Even if my king does not take Christina, he will marry into Portugal. And Lady Mary will wed their prince Dom Luis. What could be more pleasant than a double wedding?’

It is hard to know whether the ambassadors are dismissed, or whether they dismiss themselves. But on the threshold, Castillon stops, defiant: ‘My master and the Emperor mean to extend their truce till midsummer. Mary will lose her chance. Dom Luis will marry my master’s daughter – with whom, I tell you, he will be delighted.’

They are gone. The door closes after them. The king says, ‘They should stop trying to frighten me. I have been king nearly thirty years and they should know it does no good.’

They have been speaking French, and continue to do so, as the footsteps fade.

‘So, Cremuel,’ Henry says, ‘I hope you will not run away to Charles, but stay.’

Henry’s eyes are on his portrait of himself, massive, on the wall of the chamber. His own eyes consult the image of his master. ‘What should I want with the Emperor, were he emperor of all the world? Your Majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light of other kings.’

Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light. He says, ‘You know, Crumb, I may from time to time reprove you. I may belittle you. I may even speak roughly.’

He bows.

‘It is for show,’ Henry says. ‘So they think we are divided. But take it in good part. Whatever you hear, at home or abroad, I repose my faith in you.’ He smiles. ‘When one speaks French, one finds oneself saying Cremuel. It is hard to resist.’

‘And Norferk,’ he says. ‘And Guillaume Fitzguillaume.’

The dead queens blink at him, from behind their broken mirrors.