The Mirror and the Light (Nonsuch | Part 2)

Did you ever hear of St Derfel? No shame to you if you did not. He is called ‘the strong’ or ‘the valiant’, and was one of Arthur’s knights; he built many churches in Wales, and at length retired to a monastery and died in his bed.

In a church in the diocese of St Asaph stands his effigy, a giant made of painted wood, astride a giant stag. Derfel is a jointed figure, with mobile eyes that blink. The Welsh believe he can bring souls out of Hell, and on his feast day in April they come five hundred strong, with cattle, horses, women and children to be blessed. For the priests it is a prime money-making proposition.

Hugh Latimer has suggested a bonfire of statues at Paul’s or Tyburn or Smithfield. But Derfel is a special case: his legend says that if you set fire to him, a forest will burn down. For safety’s sake you could just hack him up; but best not in front of the local people.

He sends his man Elis Price to deal with it. Elis comes of a noble Welsh house; he worked with his father, in the cardinal’s time. Just bring me Derfel, he tells him, leave the stag behind.

Monks go down fast this spring. Beaulieu. Battle. Robertsbridge. Woburn and Chertsey. Lenton, where the prior is executed for treason. The monks present themselves as having lived like beggars, in garments ragged and patched, and without firewood or food stores. They have sold the firewood, of course, they have sold the grain, and unless you are swift on their trail they will pawn or bury their treasures.

Objects retrieved are sent to him: seals with the faces of abbesses and bearded theynes; a crozier with a head of ivory, bearing the face of Christ; herbals and missals, and long-hoarded silver coins decorated with the heads of petty kings. He saves for himself a map of the world, its four corners stalked by lions. He keeps it for a memento of the earth as it used to be.

They bring him compendia of superstitions, the ghost-books kept by monks, and at Austin Friars (or wherever he finds himself this spring) they read aloud after supper: when the nights are growing lighter even the jittery can stand the strain. They make him laugh: a ghost in the form of a haystack? A ghost that helps a poor man carry a sack of beans?

The purpose of ghost stories is extortion, generally: to frighten poor folk into paying for prayers and charms to protect them. He reads of a man who, on pilgrimage to Spain, met the half-formed corpse of his son, miscarried at six months. The pilgrim does not know his child, but the child, a tallow-coloured object in a shroud, is able to speak out and claim his father.

He rolls up the parchment and says, destroy this tale. And let’s give thanks we have a living prince at last.

He thinks about Derfel, his powers. Why would you want the damned fetched back from Hell? There’s a reason God put them where they are.

The end of April, the king’s doctors seek a consultation with certain councillors: two earls and himself, Privy Seal. Fitzwilliam says, ‘Is this about the bad leg?’

‘The King’s Majesty’s wound,’ Dr Butts corrects. ‘We try to keep it open to keep it clean. But it tries to close.’

‘It is its nature,’ Dr Cromer explains. ‘We fear a crisis approaches. Dead matter trapped within.’

‘What do you advise?’ Edward Seymour asks.

The doctors look at each other. ‘What we always advise. We must thin his blood. He should keep a spare diet. Water his wine. Gentle motion only.’

‘Hopeless,’ Fitz says. ‘It is the hunting season.’

The king is planning a progress. Essex, then north as far as Hunsdon, to see the little prince.

‘He needs to keep the leg up,’ Cromer says. ‘Can you not talk to him, Lord Cromwell? You are very great with him these days, everybody says.’

‘So they do.’ Does Fitzwilliam sound galled, or is that imagination?

He says, ‘There was a professor at Padua who worked out the recipe for a long life.’

‘I suppose it did not involve jaunting around Essex,’ Cromer says.

‘One must eat the meat of the viper, nutritious and light. And drink blood.’

‘Animal blood?’ Edward Seymour is repelled.

‘No, human. And when you have got your foaming beaker of it, you powder it with gemstones, just as one powders milk with nutmeg. The professor was called to Constantinople, where –’

‘He lived to be 120 and became the Sultan?’ Fitzwilliam asks.

‘Sadly not. He failed in one of his cures and the Ottomans sawed him in half.’

‘St Luke protect us!’ Cromer exclaims.

He thinks, I must be ready for Henry’s death. But how shall I be ready? I cannot imagine.

In the king’s absence, he sits down to new duties. All over the realm our castles are being surveyed and repaired. The king will ride ten miles but his minister’s mind will range three hundred. Fortifying costs money and he has to find it.

Thomas Cranmer comes to see him. ‘Two items, Thomas.’

‘How are you?’ he asks. The archbishop still looks as if he has a pain behind his eyes.

Cranmer puts down his folios: no small talk. ‘First, Mary Fitzroy. Her husband Richmond has been dead a year and she has not had her settlement. The king has said to me, Look here, my lord archbishop, you know the marriage was not consummated? So she and my son were not properly married, and I need not pay out.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘I said, “Of course they were married – in the sight of God and man. You must pay what is due, and do it quickly.” So he sulked.’ Cranmer opens his folio. ‘They say that as his lord father got older, he cared for nothing but money. Henry is going the same way.’

Even the cardinal had his areas of illusion where Henry was concerned. It seems Cranmer has none. Yet he agrees to carry Henry’s conscience, which is burden enough for a whole bench of bishops.

‘Second item, Father Forrest,’ Cranmer says. ‘Katherine’s confessor, when she was queen. He praises all popish ceremonies, and preaches clean contrary to scripture. He has abused the king’s patience these five years and more. Now I fear he must burn. I will bring him to Paul’s Cross. Hugh Latimer begs to preach to him. He believes he can bring the sinner to Christ. And at a hopeful sign, we will unloose his bonds.’ Cranmer’s tone is dry, precise; but his hands shake. ‘I hope he will abjure. He is a man near seventy.’

He has been watching Forrest for years. ‘The king would not trust his penitence. If you do not burn him I will hang him.’

Cranmer says, ‘The council must witness his death. So that the ambassadors note it, so the smoke is smelled in Rome. You yourself must be there. And Bishop Stokesley.’

‘Oh, the Bishop of London will come,’ he says. ‘Never doubt him. He will close his eyes and breathe in the stench, and he will pretend it is you and me and Robert Barnes on the pyre. I do not trust him any more than I trust Stephen Gardiner.’

Gardiner is coming home. He gives such offence to Frenchmen that we dare not keep him as our envoy. The quarrels of great men are copied on the Paris streets. Gardiner’s boys are taunted when they step out of doors: ‘Call yourself fighters? You are timid as mice. You came here with an army, and you let a girl throw you out.’

‘Yes,’ the English boys shout, ‘and we took your witch Joan and burned her, and all your victories did not save her from our fire.’

Joan the Maid was consumed by flame in 1431. You would think they would find a fresher taunt. But even the market wives curse our ambassadors, and throw ordure on their best clothes.

Stephen should learn to be immune to insults, he says. Look at me, I take them as compliments. Norfolk calls me vile blood. The north calls me a heretic and a thief. The eel boy in Putney used to say to me, ‘Yah, Thomas Cromwell, you miserable gibbet-bait, you toss-brain, you remnant, you crumb: your mother died rather than look at you longer.’

As the Duke of Norfolk would say, the old insults are the best.

‘You Irish,’ the eel boy would say, ‘you flying smut from Satan’s forge; I’ll pillock you, I’ll fillet you, I’ll set your hair on fire.’

And in reply he said naught. He never said, ‘I’ll spit you, I’ll stab you, I’ll carve out your bloody beating heart.’

Till, of course, he did.

The king is up-country when news comes of his collapse. He, Cromwell, takes an escort and rides at once.

It crosses his mind, of course: make for the coast before they block the ports. If Henry dies, what friends have you? Whichever way you go you could be stopped on the road. By the Courtenays, if they can move fast, rallying troops for Mary. By Margaret Pole, by her son Montague. By Norfolk, his forces galloping cross-country.

We have been here before, the king dead or near-dead: the tilt yard at Greenwich, January 1536, with Henry shelled of his armour: the roaring of his injured horse, the shouts and prayers, the clamour of denunciation and blame. He feels once again a needle-tip of panic, working under his breastbone.

But at journey’s end only a single figure comes out to greet him: Butts, looking bone-weary: ‘Still alive,’ he says.

‘Lord Jesus.’ He falls from his saddle.

Butts is drying his hands on a linen towel, its hem embroidered with a pattern of periwinkles. ‘His Majesty rose from the table, and then fell under it. We drew him out black in the face, breath short and rapid. He coughed up blood, and I think that saved him, for then he drew breath. You must not go in. He is too weak.’

‘Let me pass,’ he says.

The silken lout Culpeper is hovering around the king, with a knot of physicians and chaplains. He recalls Henry asking once, ‘Why is it that whenever disaster strikes there is a Howard in the room?’

The boy says slyly, ‘We needed you earlier, Lord Cromwell. I heard how at Greenwich the other year, you raised his Majesty from the dead.’

‘I had the honour,’ he says curtly.

Around the king’s person there is a smell of liniment and incense. Henry is propped by a mound of pillows, his bandaged leg bulky beneath a damask cover. His cheeks are fallen in and his colour bad. He blinks: ‘Cromwell, there you are.’ His voice is weak. ‘In your absence, I fear we took a tumble.’

The royal ‘we’. No other person was involved.

‘Have you any letters from Wyatt?’ Henry pushes the covers off. His leg is fatly bandaged. ‘I have nothing this week. And nothing from Hutton in Brussels either. Is someone stopping our messengers, or are they reporting straight to you these days? Who is the king, you or me?’

Our sovereign lord is back, he thinks; for an hour speechless and choking, but now imperious: the mirror of all rulers, his flickering light scarcely visible against the sunlight of a May morning.

Henry says, ‘Cromwell, I remember Greenwich. When I. When you.’ He cannot easily speak of his death. ‘I do not remember the fall. Only blackness. I thought myself extinct. My senses were stopped. I believe I saw angels.’

He thinks, at the time you said not.

Inside a tent the king was stretched out his full length, pale as paper. Henry Norris was intoning the prayers for the dead. The Duke of Suffolk was bawling like a teething babe. Outside the Boleyns were shouting their own names, and Uncle Norfolk was bellowing that he was in charge now: ‘Me, me, me.’

‘Yesterday,’ the king says, ‘you were far away, and I thought I should die alone.’

He recalls the howling surge of servants and lords, his bellowing for quiet; his palm on the king’s chest, the pounding of his own heart. Then beneath the horsehair padding of the king’s jacket, a fibrillation, like a scamper of shrews’ paws. After a second, Henry gasped; he groaned; he coughed violently, and uttered, ‘Thomas Cromwell.’ The shocked lords wailed, ‘Lie down, lie down!’ but Henry levered himself upright; his eyes turned, and took in the scene. Alive again, he looked at England. He saw her dark valleys and green fields, her broad silver waters, her nightingale woods. He saw her just laws, her free people, he heard their prayers.

Dr Butts is back, a urine flask in hand. ‘Majesty, you must not think of transacting business today.’

‘No?’ Henry says. ‘Then who will rule, Dr Butts?’

It sounds like a civil enquiry. But it makes the doctor step back.

‘We are talking of my fall at Greenwich,’ Henry says. ‘Reminiscing.’ He spits the word out.

Butts says, ‘God protect your Majesty.’

‘He did,’ Henry says. ‘I heard every man in that tent believed I was dead, except Cromwell. He stood over me and felt the beating of my heart, when others had given me up.’

He thinks, I could not allow you to be dead. Who had we for sovereign? Mary, a papist, who would have killed all your ministers? Eliza, still in the cradle? The unborn child in Anne’s womb? And how is it better now? I still have no plan, I have no route out, I have no affinity, I have no backers, I have no troops, no right, no claim. He thinks, Henry should give me the regency, give it me now. Set it down and seal it: multiple copies.

The king says, ‘I suppose now the embassies will be spreading it to the world that I am dead again.’

‘If you will spare me, I will go back to Westminster. I will visit the ambassadors in person and assure them I have seen you alive with my own eyes.’

‘Oh, and they’ll believe you,’ the king says. A fit of coughing shakes him. Butts says, ‘My lord Privy Seal, enough for now.’

‘The poisoned vapours from the wound rose right up to my brain,’ Henry says. ‘But tell them – I don’t know – tell them I had a megrim. A fall. A fright. Tell them I will be back in the saddle within days.’

Henry raises a hand to dismiss him. Versions multiply as soon as a tale is told. He knows his own story: at Greenwich the royal heart fluttering, faint as a god’s breath in a glass bubble. He recalls himself praying, but others recall him doubling his fist and pounding the king’s chest hard enough to split his ribcage. And Christophe, who was at his side all that wretched hour, claims he bounced the king’s person up and down by the shoulders; that he seized him by the ears and bellowed into his face: ‘Breathe, you fucker, breathe!’

May comes, and the king is planning a dynasty. ‘If I could get Madame de Longueville, I am sure she would give me a house full of sons, which would be a great comfort to England, if anything but good came to Edward. Our first son together would be Duke of York. The next would be Duke of Gloucester. Our third, I think, Duke of Somerset.’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘Have you forgotten she is pledged to Scotland?’

Henry never forgets anything. But sometimes he believes a king’s caprice can alter reality.

The King of France, it is said, is proceeding to Nice, where he will meet the Emperor. It seems the only way to break their amity is for Henry to choose a bride from one party, thereby insulting the other.

His councillors caution, ‘No haste, Majesty. As soon as you choose, you forfeit advantage. You can marry only once.’

‘Can he?’ Fitzwilliam mutters. ‘This is Henry we’re talking about.’

Henry says, ‘Cromwell, I want you to entertain Ambassador Castillon. You were too brisk, threatening to knock him down. Now you must mend the damage. I want you to use emollient words. Feast him. If you want anything from my larder or pantry, just say the word.’

Lately he has been tormenting Thurston with a design for a spit driven by a system of gears and pulleys, which uses the fire’s draught to turn the meat at a steady speed. ‘Voilà,’ he says, impaling a chicken. But Thurston turns down his mouth: there are plenty of boys, so wherefore a machine?

Boys produce burnt bits, he says. Or some parts cooked, some raw. This way, you have a regulated action. Stoke up the fire, and the faster it goes, the faster the spit turns. Bank down the fire, and –

Try again, master, Thurston says. The machinery is so much bigger than yon pitiful pullet.

When Castillon and the king’s councillors arrive, they sit down to turbot, baked guinea fowl, and a cress salad dressed with vinegar and oil. The salmon is roasted with orange zest, and young fowl deboned and baked into what the English call Lombard pasties, though he never met a Lombard who knew aught of them.

Once they are alone, the ambassador drops his napkin, like someone discarding a flag of truce. ‘The leg will not heal, you know. Next time he will not be so lucky, nor will you.’

He does not answer. It seems his silence leads to a certain overconfidence on Castillon’s part. When next in the king’s presence he comports himself like a tavern companion, recommending Madame Louise, the sister of Madame de Longueville. ‘Take her, Majesty, she is better-looking than her sister. Besides, the elder is a widow, the younger a maid. You will be the first to go there. You can shape the passage to your measure.’

Henry guffaws. He slaps the ambassador on the back. He swings away, his back to the Frenchman, the smile wiped from his face. ‘I cannot abide bawdy talk,’ he whispers. He calls over his shoulder, ‘Excuse me, ambassador, if I leave you. My chaplains attend me to Mass.’

A day or two later the king is away again with a hunting party. Rafe is with him, and Richard Cromwell rides between, back and forth with letters and messages better not trusted to paper. When Richard arrives at Waltham, he is told the French ambassador is there before him, and that he must wait; then that various councillors have been summoned to see the king; then that he must stay overnight.

Rafe, covered in apologies, takes Richard’s letters in, saying he will put them in the king’s hand himself. Richard says, ‘Don’t apologise for him, Rafe. It is no fault of yours. What does he think he is about?’

Richard is incredulous. It is without precedent, for Cromwell business to be deferred.

Next day Richard rides back with his letters answered. ‘But I don’t like it, sir,’ he says. ‘Norfolk was there by the king’s side, strutting like a player king; for two pins I would have wrung his neck. Surrey with him, the pricklet. Both of them giving out how the king was displeased with you, finding you favour the Emperor. Norfolk was linking arms with the Frenchman. They only wanted a fiddler and they could have danced.’

What’s Henry up to? I may belittle you, he said. I may reprove you. But do not be misled. My trust is in you.

He takes out The Book Called Henry. (He keeps it under lock and key.) He wonders if he has any advice for himself. But all he sees is how much white space there is, blank pages uninscribed.

At Father Forrest’s burning are present, besides himself and Thomas Cranmer, the Lord Mayor of London; Audley the Lord Chancellor; Charles Brandon Duke of Suffolk; Thomas Howard Duke of Norfolk; Edward Seymour, in his dignity as Earl of Hertford; Bishop Stokesley, of course. They are at Smithfield for eight in the morning. Forrest is brought from Newgate, drawn on a hurdle, wearing his Franciscan habit. He is set on a platform to hear Hugh Latimer’s sermon.

Hugh talks for an hour but he might as well be pissing in the wind. Forrest has the strength to cast his words back at him, saying he has been a monk since he was seventeen years old, and a Catholic since he was baptised, and that he, Latimer, is no Catholic, for only those who obey the Pope are members of God’s universal family: at which the crowd groan. The rest of what he says cannot well be heard, but at a signal the officers pull him from the platform and carry him to the stake, his feet off the ground. He hangs limp, mouthing prayers.

Now there is a flourish of trumpets, a beating of drums, and into the arena comes the Welsh idol Derfel. Eight men bear him, which is needless, but it makes a show; and in mockery of his pretensions to strength, the idol is bound with ropes. The crowd laugh and sing. It is said Derfel can burn a forest; let’s see if he will. At a word of command, he is set down, upright. At another word, his limbs jerk, his eyes wink, his wooden arms rise imploringly to Heaven. ‘To the devil with him!’ the crowd call. The officers dismember Derfel, take up their hatchets and begin to reduce him to firewood.

Father Forrest has now let slip every chance the king and Cranmer and Hugh Latimer have offered. He has chosen his dreadful end and must endure. Thomas More used to say that it hardly made a man brave to agree to burn, once he was bound to the stake. He, the Lord Privy Seal, calls out, ‘Forrest! Ask pardon of the king!’

For this is what Forrest has omitted to do. This is what every offender does, though he feels himself to be guiltless, in order to mitigate the wrath that may fall on those who he leaves behind: so that the king will heed their pleas, and not strip them of all they have.

But Forrest is a celibate. He has no sons and daughters, or none that he knows. And as he is a friar, and they do not own property, he has nothing for the king to take. All he owns is his habit, now tattered, and his skin, muscles, fat and bone.

‘Beg pardon of your king!’ he calls out: he, Cromwell. He does not know if Forrest can hear him.

He thinks, it is too late to stop it now. A martyr may burn fast or slow. The faggots may be dry and stacked high, so he is hidden from the crowd and the flames take him in minutes and he dies in a roar of heat. But since Forrest has refused even a word of contrition, this will be a slow burning. The friar is hoisted by a chain around his waist, and the fire is set below him, at his feet.

Dry-eyed he watches, and watches everything. He does not steal one glance at the faces of his fellow councillors. He thinks, there must have been some point at which we could have bargained with Forrest. There must have been something we could have offered, to make him yield a point and save himself this agony. It is against his nature to think that no bargain can be struck. Everybody wants something, if only for the pain to stop.

When the heat reaches him Forrest draws up his blistered bare feet. He contorts himself, screaming, but is obliged to let down his legs into the fire. He draws them up again, he twists in his chain, he roars, and Derfel crackles merrily; and this stage seems to last for a long time, the flames reaching ever upward, and the man’s efforts to escape them ever more feeble, until at last he hangs and does not resist, and his upper body begins to burn. The friar raises his arms, which have been left free, as if he is clawing towards Heaven. The fibres of his body are shortened and shrivelling, his limbs contorting whether he will or no, so that what seems like an act of adoration to his papist God is only a sign that he is in extremis: and at a signal, the executioners step forward and with long iron poles reach into the flames, hook the roasting torso from its chain, and pitch it into the fire below. It goes with a scream from the spectators, a rush and spurt of flame; then we hear no more from Father Forrest. No more from warrior Derfel, the great idol of Wales: he is ash. Cranmer says, close to his ear, ‘It is over, I believe.’

Edward Seymour looks as if he will spew. ‘You have not seen this before?’ he asks him. ‘I have seen it too often.’

The official party begins to disperse. What does one do for the rest of the day? Work, of course. ‘A cruel death,’ one of the guildsmen says. He says, ‘A cruel life, brother.’

The day he saw a woman burned, he was – what – eight years old? He was run away, or so he told himself: he had travelled from his home in Putney by foot and by cart, spending one night in a hedge. Next day he begged some bread and milk at a back door, and got a ride on a boat that put him down by the wharves under the Tower. He meant to go on a ship and be a sailor, but seeing the crowds surging in their gaiety he forgot his purpose. He said, ‘Is it Bartholomew Fair?’

A man laughed at him. But a woman said, ‘He’s only little, Will.’ She looked down at him. ‘Holy Mary, your face could do with a wash.’

He did not like to say he had wakened in a hedge. Will said, ‘What’s your name?’

‘Harry.’ He offered his hand. ‘I’m a blacksmith by trade. You, Will?’

The man grasped his hand and squeezed it. Too late, he realised Will meant to torture him; it was his idea of a jest. He thought his bones would crack, but on his face he retained an expression of polite indifference. Will dropped his hand as if in disgust. Tough lad, he said.

The woman said, ‘Come with us, young Master Harry, stick by me.’

Clinging to the woman’s apron, he stood fast in the heave of the crowd. She patted his shoulder and then let her hand rest there – as if she were his godmother, or somebody who wished him well. ‘Here comes the city!’ a man yelled. A trumpet announced a procession: men of dignity bearing staves of office, wearing gold chains. He had never seen such men, except in a dream. He saw the swing of good wool and the sheen on velvet coats, and a bishop arrayed like a sunburst, a gold cross carried before him. ‘You’ll have seen a hanging?’ Will said.

‘Oh, many a one,’ he boasted.

Will said, ‘Well, this isn’t a hanging.’

When they dragged the old woman forth, battered and bound, he looked up into the face of his godmother and said, ‘What’s she done?’

‘Harry, you need to see her sizzle,’ his godmother said. ‘She is a Loller.’

Will said testily, ‘Lollard. Have it right.’

The godmother ignored him. ‘She is of the devil’s party, eighty years old and steeped in sin.’ She raised her voice above the roar. ‘Let this boy through!’

Some made way, thinking it a pious work to show a child a burning. Still, the crowd thickened. Some were praying aloud but others were eating yeast buns. Standing behind him, his guardian no longer smelled of the linen press but of excitement and heat. He twisted back towards her; he wanted to bury his head in her waist, to lock his arms around her. He knew he must forbear, or Will would squeeze his neck as he had squeezed his hand; and seeing him turn, thinking he was trying to get away, Will shoved him: ‘This boy is a heathen. What parish spawned you?’

Caution made him say, ‘I don’t have a parish.’

‘Everybody has a parish,’ Will scoffed. But then the crowd began to bellow out prayers. A preacher shouted above them. He said the pain of earthly fire was but a feather touch, a May morning, a mother’s caress, when compared with the agony of the flames of Hell.

When the fire was set the multitude carried him forward. He tried to swim against its tide, crying out for his godmother, but his voice was lost. He saw people’s backs, but he smelled human flesh. You had to breathe it in, till the wind changed. Some weakly folk wailed, others were sick at their own feet.

Afterwards when the excitement was done, the Loller reduced to bone, rendered to fat, to paste, the dignitaries departed and the ordinary spectators began to break up and go their ways. Some were drunk, swaying with arms linked, hullooing and pumping their fists and shouting as if they were at a bullfight. Others were sober, gathering in muttering groups. They had homes to go to: he, not. Putney seemed distant, as if it were a place in a story. ‘In a town by a river dwelled one Thomas Cromwell, with his father Walter and his dog. One day he strayed away, to seek his fortune in a foreign land …’

He wondered how long it would take him to reverse the story. Putney was clear the other side of London, and you are not always lucky, you do not always get a ride; and if they knew where he had been and what he had seen, surely every man and woman would curse him.

It came into his mind to go under the stand where the dignitaries had been, and live in it as in a house. Nobody stopped him. Nobody saw him. The sawn planks for his roof, he sat cross-legged on the damp ground. Time passed. He was aware of persons who waited on the fringes of the spectacle, as if waiting for the field to empty. One had a basin, another a basket. Still they lingered, as if afraid. The executioners returned with their iron bars, whistling, and smashed up the bones that were left, raking through the remnants.

Crouching in his new dwelling, he watched them as if from a great distance. His body felt cramped and frozen. The bones of his hand throbbed where Will had squeezed them. It came on to rain and the men dropped their tools and sought shelter. Water dripped between the planks above his head. He counted the drops. He caught them in his cupped hand and he drank them. He felt them run inside him and freeze to ice.

When the bones were shattered the officers wiped off their crowbars on the grass, pulled up their hoods and tramped from the field. They did not look directly at those waiting with basin and basket. But one of them spoke over his shoulder: ‘All yours, brothers.’

The men called brothers began to grub and scrape the ground. He crept out, telling them his name – Master Harry, blacksmith – and informing them of all that had passed. We know, they said, we saw. They said, this lady died for God’s word, Harry, and we are come to gather what remains. They smeared on the back of his hand a long streak of fat and ash. Remember this day, they said, as long as it pleases God to give you life.

He told them what the priest had informed him, about the feeble nature of earthly fire, how it was a cooling draught compared to the raging flames below. He rolled up his sleeve and showed them the puckered streak of flesh where he had seared himself at the forge. A woman said, that must have hurt you sore, sweetheart. He said, it is no hardship to a man to have a scar. My dad has many a one. ‘You go home now, son,’ a man said to him.

He said, ‘I don’t know how.’

They went their ways. He returned to his dwelling house under the stand. The sickness had quelled and he was hungry. He thought, the heel of a loaf would do me. He knew that in time he would have to sally out and steal something, but for now he must be quiet and still, because what if the men came back to pull down his house? They might haul him out, saying, ‘Here is a Lollard boy.’ They might start another fire and throw him on it, as a man throws a last bundle on a cart.

No one came. The light was waning. He was not afraid of the old woman’s ghost, but he was aware of company. In the smoke that still lingered, he could see certain shapes, low and slinking. At a distance but looping closer, the dogs of London.

To see them was to know their histories. Not one of them, he supposed, had name, kennel nor master. They were scabbed and scarred and limping, bowed and worn like shadows. For hours they must have lurked, keeping their distance, chins on their paws, drooling. When the officers were at work they dared not advance, for fear of stones thrown or a slingshot that would blind an eye. They were shivering with fright, but hunger made them brave: it made them dare all, while the smell of burned meat lay heavy on the air.

At first they came on their bellies. Then they rose to a crouch, their backs still dished, quivering with fear but always forward. They circled; they lifted their muzzles and sniffed the wind. They licked their lips. They drew nearer. Their eyes passed over him. They would have been afraid of the city dignitaries, of the officers, but they were not afraid of him, a ragged boy. The circle tightened. At any sound they crouched, froze. But still they closed in.

The Lollard was lean pickings, no more fat on her than a needle. When they realised nothing was left but her smell, would they turn on him? Chunk of Putney flesh: one can bite out his throat and lick his blood.

The space under the stand was tall enough for him to stand. The dogs raised their hackles. They hesitated for a moment; then came on, teeth bared.

His pockets were empty. He had no weapon, not even a pebble. He took a breath. He lurched forward with a shout: fuckoffbeastsyoufuckoffand die.

The dogs checked. They bolted, they scrambled backwards. But then they halted. They melted into their hunched, lumpen forms, and watched him. Then once again they formed a loop and began to creep towards him, flat to the ground, muzzles towards the stake. Will had asked him, What do you want so far from home, a child like you? A priest had said: ‘God sees into the righteous heart: He leads us to Sion.’

He threw up his arms, yelling, cursing. He pitched from under the stand, his left arm flailing, his right arm stretched towards the dogs as if to give them a blessing: but he made the horn sign at them, he made the fig.

He turned his back on the execution ground. He began to stumble away from the day he had passed: dazed, blundering westwards, knowing yesterday he walked with the sun behind him, till the world giddily swung, and a crowd swamped him and swept him up, and a godmother took him by the hand and towed him through it, saying, ‘Let this child to the front, he needs to see her suffer, hereafter it will make him a saint.’

It was not the first crime he had seen, but it was the first punishment. Much later he learned the woman’s name, Joan Boughton. She was no beggar, as she appeared, but a woman of education; a lord mayor of London had been among her folk.

Nothing protects you, nothing. In the last ditch, not rank, nor kin. Nothing between you and the fire.

In a day or two he fetched up back in Putney. These were the first nights he spent in the open, but not the last. At home they had not missed him. His father hit him, but that was usual. Whatever dereliction had driven him to run, they had forgot it; soon it was subsumed in his next fault, because he could not help but sin: he was of all God’s creatures, his dad said, the most wretched. He did not wait for the priest to tell him more: Walter’s bellow was loud in his ear.

It was years before he realised the boy who went to Smithfield was not the one who came home. The child Thomas still crouched under the stand, vigilant as the dogs, his hands cupped to catch the rainwater, the icy drops on his palm. It is a work he has never undertaken, to go back and retrieve himself. He can see that small figure, at the wrong end of time; he can feel the heave of its ribs as it tries to cry without uttering. He can see and feel, without pitying the child; only suspect that, to keep the streets tidy, someone ought to collect it and send it home.

Summer approaches. The French ambassador says to him, ‘Limping, my lord Cremuel?’

‘I got an injury long ago in your country’s service. The leg sometimes lets me down.’

Castillon says, ‘I wonder your king does not think you are mocking him.’

Leave that to the King of Scots. The second week of June, Madame de Longueville lands at the town of Fife, and is met by James and his nobles. She looks bonny; she has had a luckier voyage than the Princess Madeleine. With the blessings and acclamation of their countrymen on both sides, she and James ride to their wedding.

The Emperor, meanwhile, seems to have cooled towards the project of our marriage with Christina. The king tells our man in Brussels to spend whatever money it takes, to make it happen. But it is spelled out to the English that since their king was formerly married to Katherine of Aragon, who was Christina’s near kin, they will need a dispensation from the Pope. In which matter, Ambassador Mendoza says, you may find you have made a difficulty for yourself.

Archbishop Cranmer says, I wish all this diplomacy would stop, this casting of Master Hans to the four winds and this bandying of women’s honour. The king’s bride should be someone he knows and feels he can love. Because Henry thinks marriage should not be contracted without love. He used to sing a song about it in Katherine’s day: I hurt no man, I do no wrong/Love true where I did marry …

But the council says, if a king makes a love-match once in his life, count him lucky. He can’t expect to do it again and again.

Since the king cannot have a wife he occupies himself in building. A new palace is to arise in Surrey, not far from Hampton Court. It is designed to create hunting grounds stretching many miles. At first it seems that a modest lodge will do, but then the king decides it will be one of the wonders of the world. He indents for Italian craftsmen and fetches in all the building stone from the demolition of Merton Abbey. He clears the manor house that stands already, with its farms, barns and stables, and knocks down the ancient parish church. He buys up tracts of adjacent manors. He orders a thousand loads of timber and begins building brick kilns.

Thomas Lord Cromwell, Vicegerent and Privy Seal, no longer has time to oversee the king’s building. He is able to advise on the choice of Italians, but the king is pleased to place Rafe Sadler in charge of the project. Anything Cromwell does for the king, Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley will be able to do: in time, and between them. He has trained them, encouraged them, written them as versions of himself: Rafe as the plain text, and Mr Wriothesley in cipher.

The building of the marvel goes on through the summer of 1538. When the king has a new wife he will place her in it, as a jewel in its setting. Meanwhile, separated from us by the Narrow Sea, the ladies of Europe watch the misty land through crystal mirrors; down the winding flowery path the messengers of the king advance, on high-stepping white steeds. In the old stories, princesses are never too old or too young or too papist. They wait patiently for the prince seven years and more, while he does his valiant deeds, and they spin out their fates from a single thread, growing the while their long golden hair.

Sometimes the king weeps for his late wife. Where shall we find a lady so benign, so meek, and so comely as Jane? As he cannot he amuses himself with the creation of the new palace, the rarest ever seen: and the name of the palace is Nonsuch.