Welcome to Jin Novels dot com   Click to listen highlighted text! Welcome to Jin Novels dot com

The Mirror and the Light (Salvage (Part 1))

London, Summer 1536

‘Where’s my orange coat?’ he says. ‘I used to have an orange coat.’

‘I have not seen it,’ says the boy Christophe. He says it sceptically, as if he were talking about a comet.

‘I put it away. Before I brought you here. While you were still across the sea, blessing a Calais dunghill with your presence.’

‘You scorn me.’ Christophe is offended. ‘Yet it was I who caught the cat.’

‘You did not!’ Gregory says. ‘It was Dick Purser caught the cat. All Christophe did, he stood by making hunting cries. Now he looks to get the credit!’

His nephew Richard says, ‘You put that coat away when the cardinal came down. You had no heart for it.’

‘Yes, but now I am feeling cheerful. I am not going to appear before the bridegroom as a mourner.’

‘No?’ Christophe says. ‘With this king one needs a reversible garment. One never knows, is it dying or dancing?’

‘Your English is improving, Christophe.’

‘Your French is where it was.’

‘What do you expect, of an old soldier? I am not likely to write verse.’

‘But you curse well,’ Christophe says, encouragingly. ‘Perhaps the best I have heard. Better than my father, who as you know was a great robber and feared through his province.’

‘Would your father recognise you?’ Richard Cromwell asks. ‘I mean, if he saw you now? Half an Englishman, and in my uncle’s livery?’

Christophe turns down his mouth. ‘By now he is probably hanged.’

‘Don’t you care?’

‘I spit on him.’

‘No need for that,’ he says soothingly. ‘Coat, Christophe? Go and seek?’

Gregory says, ‘The last time we all went out together …’

Richard says, ‘Do not. Do not say it. Do not even think of the other one.’

‘I know,’ Gregory says amiably. ‘My tutors have imbued me with it, from my earliest days. Do not talk about severed heads at a wedding.’

The king’s wedding was in fact yesterday, a small and private ceremony; today they are a loyal deputation, ready to congratulate the new queen. The colours of his working wardrobe are those sombre and expensive shades the Italians call berettino: the grey-brown of leaves around the feast of St Cecilia, the grey-blue of Advent light. But today an effort is called for, and Christophe is helping him into his festival garment, marvelling at it, when Call-Me-Risley hurries in. ‘Not late, am I?’ He stands back. ‘Sir, are you wearing that?’

‘Of course he is!’ Christophe is offended. ‘Your opinion not wanted.’

‘It’s only that the cardinal’s people wore orange tawny, and so if it reminds the king … he may not like to be reminded …’ Call-Me falters. Last night’s conversation is like a stain on his own garment, something he can’t brush out. He says meekly, ‘Of course, the king may admire it.’

‘If he doesn’t, he can tell me to take it off. Mind he does not do the same with your head.’

Call-Me flinches. He is sensitive even for a redhead. He shrinks a little as they go out into the sun. ‘Call-Me,’ Gregory says, ‘did you see, Dick Purser ran up the tree and caught the cat. Father, can he have some addition to his wages?’

Christophe mutters something. It sounds like, heretic.

‘What?’ he says.

‘Deek Purser, heretic,’ Christophe says. ‘Believes the host is but bread.’

‘But so do we!’ Gregory says. ‘Surely, or … wait …’ Doubt crosses his face.

‘Gregory,’ Richard says, ‘what we want from you is less theology and more swagger. Prepare for the king’s new brothers – the Seymours will be in glory today. If Jane gives the king a son, they will be great men, Ned and Tom. But mind. So will we.’

For this is England, a happy country, a land of miracles, where stones underfoot are nuggets of gold and the brooks flow with claret. The Boleyns’ white falcon hangs like a sorry sparrow on a fence, while the Seymour phoenix is rising. Gentlefolk of an ancient breed, foresters, masters of Wolf Hall, the king’s new family now rank with the Howards, the Talbots, the Percys and the Courtenays. The Cromwells – father, son and nephew – are of an ancient breed too. Were we not all conceived in Eden? When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman? When the Cromwells stroll out this week, the gentlemen of England get out of their way.

The king wears green velvet: he is a verdant lawn, starred with diamonds. Parting from his old friend William Fitzwilliam, his treasurer, he takes Master Secretary’s arm, draws him into a window embrasure, and stands blinking in the sunlight. It is the last day of May.

So, the wedding night: how does one ask? The new bride is of such virginal aspect that it would not surprise him if she had slipped beneath the bed and spent the night rigid on her back, praying. And Henry, as several women have told him, needs a lot of encouragement.

The king whispers, ‘Such freshness. Such delicacy. Such maidenly pudeur.’

‘I am happy for your Majesty.’ He thinks, yes, yes: but did you manage it?

‘I have come out of Hell into Heaven, and all in one night.’

That is the answer he needed.

The king says, ‘The whole matter has been, as we all know, a difficult and delicate … and you have shown, Thomas, both expedition and firmness.’ He glances around the room. ‘Gentlemen – and ladies too, I may say – have prompted me: Majesty, it is not time Master Cromwell received his deserts? You know I have hesitated to promote you, only because your grip is wanted in the House of Commons. But,’ he smiles, ‘the House of Lords is equally unruly, and wants a master. So, to the Lords you shall go.’

He bows. Small rainbows flit and dance across the stonework.

‘The queen is with her women,’ Henry says. ‘She is getting her courage up. I have asked her to show herself to the court. Go to her, and speak a few comfortable words. Lead her out, if you can.’

He turns, and there at once is Ambassador Chapuys. He is one of the Emperor’s French-speaking subjects, not a Spaniard but a Savoyard. Though he has been in England some years now, he does not venture conversation in our language; his skills are not sharp enough for the kind of conversation an ambassador needs to hold. His keen ears have picked out the word ‘pudeur’ and smiling he asks, ‘Well, Master Secretary, whose is the shame?’

‘Not shame. Modesty. A proper modesty, on the bride’s part.’

‘Ah. I thought it might be your king who is shamed. Considering the events of recent days. And what came out in the courtroom, about his lack of skill and vigour with the other one.’

‘We have only George Boleyn’s word for that.’

‘Well, if the lady slept with George, as you allege – with her own brother – you would imagine there would be pillow-talk, and what more natural than that she should complain of her husband’s incapacity? But I can see that Lord Rochford cannot defend his version, now his head is off.’ The ambassador is afflicted by a brightness in the eye, a twitch of the lips: which he controls. ‘So the royal bridegroom has hit the mark. And he thinks that till last night Madame Jane was a virgin? But of course he can’t tell. He thought Anne Boleyn was a virgin, and that, believe me, strained the credulity of all Europe.’

The ambassador is right. When it comes to maidenheads, Henry is easier to play than a penny whistle.

‘I suppose he will be content with Madame Jane a month or two,’ Chapuys says, ‘till his eye lights on some other lady. Then it will be found that Jane has misled him – she was not free to marry after all, as she had some pre-contract with another gentleman. Yes?’

Eustache is fishing. He knows Anne Boleyn’s head is off, but he wants to know on what grounds her marriage was dissolved. For it had to be dissolved: death was not enough to take her child Eliza out of the succession, it had to be shown the marriage was no marriage, defective from the start. And how did the king’s clergy achieve this for him? He, Thomas Cromwell, is not about to say. He simply inclines his head and makes his way through the crush, changing his language as he goes. The new queen speaks only her mother tongue: and even that, not very often. Her brother Edward speaks French well. The younger brother, Tom Seymour – he doesn’t know what he speaks. He knows he never listens.

The women around Jane are in their finery, and in the heat of mid-morning the scent of lavender ripples into air like bubbles of laughter. It is a pity that preservative herbs can do nothing for the dowagers of England’s old families, who now stand about their prize like sentinels in brocade. The Boleyn women have melted from view: poor Mary Shelton, who thought that Henry Norris was going to marry her, and the vigilant Jane Rochford, George’s widow. The room is crowded with faces not seen at court since Queen Katherine’s day: and Jane, regrettably pale and as usual silent, is a little dough-figure in their midst. Henry has endowed her generously with the pick of the dead woman’s jewels, and her gown has been hastily sewn over with goldsmiths’ work, hearts and love-knots. As she stirs to greet him, a knot detaches itself; she stoops, but one of her attendants is quicker. Jane whispers, ‘Thank you, madam, for your courtesy.’

Her face is dismayed. She cannot believe that Margaret Douglas – the king’s niece, the Queen of Scotland’s daughter – is here to pick up after her. Meg Douglas is a pretty lass, nineteen or twenty now. She stands up with a flash of red hair, and steps back to her place. Her hood is the French style that Boleyn favoured, but most of the ladies have reverted to the older sort, concealing the hair. By Meg’s side is her best friend Mary Fitzroy, young Richmond’s wife; her husband has been and gone, one assumes, after congratulating his father on the new marriage. She is a very little wife, not seventeen; the clumsy gable gives her a scalped, wary look, and her eyes are travelling around. She sees him; nudges Meg; drops her eyes, breathes, ‘Cromwell.’

At once, both young women look away, as if to disappear him. Anne’s ladies don’t like to admit how they deluged him with gossip, once they knew the queen’s day was done. They don’t like to admit how fast they talked, what evidence they gave against her. Cromwell tricks you, they say. He puts words into your mouth. With his manner so suave, he makes you say things you don’t mean.

Before he can come at the new queen, her family sweep in: her mother Lady Margery, two brothers. Edward Seymour looks discreetly joyous. Tom Seymour looks rumbustious, and is dressed with a lavishness that even George Boleyn might have thought de trop. Lady Margery’s glance stabs the old dames. None of them have kept their looks as she has, nor have their girls become queen. She makes a deep, straight-backed curtsey to her daughter, then rises with an audible snap of knee-joints. The poet Skelton once compared her to a primrose. But now she is sixty.

Jane’s pale glance washes over her family. Then she turns her head, and lets it wash over him. ‘Master Secretary,’ she says. There is a long pause, while the queen masters her diffidence. At last she whispers, ‘Would you like to … kiss my hand? Or … or anything at all … like that?’

He finds himself on one knee, lips touching an emerald he had kissed on the narrow hand of the late Anne. With her other hand, with her stubby little fingers, Jane brushes his shoulder; as if to say, ah dear, it’s hard for both of us, but somehow we’ll stumble through the morning.

‘Your lady sister is not with us?’ he asks Jane.

‘Bess is on her way,’ Lady Margery says.

‘Only,’ Jane says, ‘it’s all been so sudden. Bess never thought I would be getting married. She is still in mourning for her husband.’

‘I think she should come out of black. Let me help dress her. I know the Italian clothiers.’

Lady Margery subjects him to a sharp scrutiny. Then she turns, and flicks a dismissive hand at the dowagers. For a moment, these great ladies lock their eyes with hers. They inhale, as if in pain. They lift their hems, and drop back a few paces. They see they must allow the bride’s immediate family to surround her, and pose the indelicate questions that must be asked the day after a wedding.

‘So, sister?’ Tom Seymour says.

‘Voice down, Tom,’ says brother Edward. He glances over his shoulder; he, Cromwell, is standing as an impassable barrier between the family and the court.

‘So,’ the new queen says.

‘We only require,’ her mother says, ‘the merest word of reassurance. As to how you find yourself this morning.’

Jane considers. For a long time she looks at her shoes. Tom Seymour is fidgeting. You almost think he’s going to pinch his sister, as if they were in the nursery still. Jane takes in a breath. ‘Yes?’ Tom demands.

Jane whispers, ‘Brothers, my lady mother … Master Cromwell … I can only say I find myself wholly unprepared for what the king asks of me.’

The brothers stare at Lady Margery. Surely the girl knows how a man and woman couple? And besides, she is not a girl, isn’t that the point?

‘Surely,’ Lady Margery says. ‘You are twenty-seven years old, Jane. I mean, your Grace.’

‘Yes, I am,’ Jane agrees.

‘The king should not have to coddle you like a thirteen-year-old,’ her mother says. ‘If he showed himself impatient, well, that is how men are.’

‘You’ll get used to it,’ Tom encourages her. ‘There’s a price to be paid for everything, you know.’

Jane nods miserably.

‘I am sure the king was not unkind,’ Lady Margery says firmly.

‘No, not unkind.’ Jane glances up. ‘But my difficulty is, he wants me to do some very strange things. Things I never imagined a wife had to do.’

They look at each other. Jane’s lips move: as if she were trying out her words, before daring to expose them to the air. ‘But I suppose … well, I hardly know … I suppose there are things men like.’

Edward looks desperate. Tom begs, ‘Master Secretary?’

How is he to intervene? Is he responsible for the king’s tastes?

Lady Margery’s face is taut. ‘Unpleasant things, Jane?’

‘I think so,’ the queen says. ‘Though I have no experience of them, of course.’

Tom looks wild. ‘My advice,’ he says. ‘Accommodate him, sister.’

‘The point is,’ Edward says, ‘this … whatever, his desire, his command … does it conduce to getting a child?’

‘I wouldn’t have thought so,’ Jane says.

‘You’ll have to talk to him,’ Edward says. ‘Cromwell, you’ll have to recall to him how a Christian man behaves.’

He takes Jane’s hands between his. It is a bold move but he can see no alternative. ‘Your Grace, put aside modesty, and tell me what it is the king requires of you.’

Jane slides her hands away. She slides her pale little person away, and nudges aside her brothers: she falters in the direction of her king, her court, her future. She whispers as she goes, ‘He wants me to ride down to Dover with him, and see the fortifications.’

Unsmiling, Jane walks the length of the great chamber. Every eye is on her; she looks proud, someone whispers. And if you knew nothing of her, you might think that. Henry stretches out his arms, as one does for a child learning to walk, and when he has her, he kisses her, full on the mouth. His lips form a question; she whispers an answer; he bends his head to catch it, his face full of solicitude and pride. Chapuys is in a huddle with the old dames and their menfolk. As if he were their envoy – as if he were their envoy to Cromwell – the ambassador peels himself away and says, ‘She appears to be wearing all her jewels at once, like a Florentine bride. Still, she looks well enough, for a woman who is so plain. Whereas the other one, the more she dressed up, the worse she looked.’

‘Latterly. Perhaps.’

He remembers the days, when the cardinal was still alive, when Anne needed no ornament but her eyes. She had dwindled away in those last months, her face pinched. When she landed at the Tower, and slipped from his grasp and fell at his feet on the cobbles, he had lifted her and she weighed nothing; it was like holding air.

‘So,’ Chapuys says. ‘While your king is in this merry mood, press him to name the Princess Mary as his heir.’

‘Pending, of course, his son by his new wife.’

Chapuys bows.

‘Press your master to speak to the Pope,’ he tells the ambassador. ‘There is a bull of excommunication hovering over my master. No king can live like that, threatened in his own realm.’

‘All Europe is keen to heal the breach. Let the king approach Rome in a spirit of penitence, and undo the legislation that has separated your country from the universal church. As soon as that is done, His Holiness will be pleased to welcome his lost sheep, and accept the restitution of his revenues from England.’

‘With interest paid, I suppose, on the missing years?’

‘I imagine the normal banking rules will apply. And also –’

‘There is more?’

‘King Henry should withdraw his delegates to the Lutheran princes. We know you are holding talks. We want you to break them off.’

He nods. In sum, Chapuys is asking him to destroy the work of four years. To take England back to Rome. To recognise Henry’s first marriage as valid, and the daughter of that marriage as his heir. To break off diplomacy with the German states. To forswear the gospel, embrace the Pope, and bow the knee to idols.

‘So what shall I do,’ he asks, ‘in these brave new days? I mean, me personally? Thomas Cromwell?’

‘Back to the smithy?’

‘I think I’ve lost the blacksmith’s art. I’ll have to take to the road as I did as a boy. Cross the sea and offer myself as a footsoldier to the King of France. Do you think he’d be pleased to see me?’

‘That is one course,’ Chapuys says. ‘On the other hand, you could stay in post, and accept a generous retainer from the Emperor. He understands the labour involved in returning your country to the status quo ante.’ The ambassador smiles at him; then swivels on his heel, his arms held out in greeting. ‘Cara-vey!’

That plush frontage, that deep chest emblazoned with gold: who can it be, but Sir Nicholas Carew? The grandee, in a lilting tone, corrects the ambassador’s pronunciation: ‘Car-ew.’ He waits for it to be repeated.

Chapuys signals regret. ‘It is beyond me, sir.’

Carew will let it pass. He fixes his attention on Master Secretary. ‘We should meet.’

‘That would honour me, Sir Nicholas.’

‘We must arrange an escort to bring the Princess Mary back to court. Come out to my house at Beddington.’

‘Come to me. I’m busy.’

Sir Nicholas is annoyed. ‘My friends expect –’

‘You can bring your friends.’

Now Sir Nicholas heaves closer. ‘We made a bargain with you, Cromwell. We expect it to be honoured.’

He doesn’t answer Carew, merely adjusts him so that his path is clear. Passing him, he touches his hand to his heart. It looks like the gesture of a man suddenly anxious. But that’s not what it is, and that’s not what he’s doing.

At once his boys are beside him.

Richard asks, ‘What did Carew want?’

‘His bargain honoured.’

It is true what Wriothesley says: there was a bargain. In Carew’s version: we, friends of the Princess Mary, will help you remove Anne Boleyn, and afterwards, if you grovel to us and serve us, we will refrain from ruining you. Master Secretary’s version is different. You help me remove Anne, and … and nothing.

Richard says, ‘Do you know that the king had Carew’s wife in his bed? Before Carew married her, and after?’

‘No!’ Gregory says. ‘Am I old enough to know? Does everybody know? Does Carew know they know?’

Richard grins. ‘He knows we know.’

It’s better than gossip. It’s power: it’s news from the court’s inner economy, from the counting house where the units of obligation are fixed and the coins of shame are weighed. Richard says, ‘I could like her myself, Eliza Carew. If a man were not a married man …’

‘Out of our sphere,’ he says.

‘When has that stopped you? It’s only a fortnight since you and the Earl of Worcester’s wife were shut in a room together.’

Getting evidence.

‘And she came out smiling,’ Richard says.

Because I paid her debts.

Gregory says, ‘And she’s big with child. Which people do talk about.’

‘Let’s go,’ Richard says, ‘before Carve-Away comes back. We might laugh at him.’

But their names are called: Rafe, whisking around a corner. He has come from the king, and his expression – if you could parse it – is a compound of reverence, wariness and incredulity. ‘He wants you, sir.’

He nods. ‘You boys go home.’ Then a thought strikes him. ‘But Richard –’

His nephew turns. He whispers. ‘Do you attend Sir William Fitzwilliam. See if he will stand my ally in the king’s council. He knows Henry’s mind. He knows him as well as any man.’

It was Fitzwilliam who came to him, last March, to spell out to him how the Boleyns were detested, and how this detestation might unite natural foes, give them a common interest. It was Fitzwilliam who hinted at the king’s own need for a change: who did it with the calm authority of a man who had known Henry since his youth.

Richard says, ‘I think he will follow your star, sir.’

‘Find out his hopes,’ he says. ‘And raise them.’

‘Sir –’ Rafe prompts.

He takes Rafe’s arm. A knot of gentlemen turn their faces, and watch them pass. Rafe looks over his shoulder as the gentlemen fall behind, arranged as if waiting for Hans to paint them: silken hose, silken beards, their daggers in scabbards of black velvet, crimson velvet books in their hands. They are all Howards, or Howard kin, and one is the Duke of Norfolk’s young half-brother, who shares his name: Thomas Howard the Lesser. No danger of confusing the two. The Lesser is the worst poet at court. The Greater never rhymed in his life.

Rafe says, ‘The king is not as sanguine as he appears. He is not sure now of what he believed yesterday. He says, is justice served? He does not doubt Anne’s guilt, but he says, what about the gentlemen? You remember, sir, what ado we had to get him to sign the warrants? How we stood over him? Now he has fallen into doubts again. “Harry Norris was my old friend,” he says. “How is it possible he betrayed me with my wife? And Mark – a lute player, a boy like that – is it likely she would sin with him?”’

Time was a king lived under the eye of his court. He ate in the great hall, spoke out all his thoughts, shat behind a scant curtain and copulated behind one too. Now rulers enjoy solitude: soft-slippered servants guard them, and in their recessed apartments noise is hushed. As the minister heads for the inner rooms, hat in hand, he institutes an inner process whereby he becomes pliable, infinitely patient. Usually, in cases of disturbance to the king’s peace of mind, he would call on the archbishop. But not in this matter. Since the former queen was indicted, Cranmer has had no peace of mind to spare.

At the door of the privy chamber he is ushered through. In the old days – that’s to say, a month ago – the king’s gentlemen would be vigilant to intercept him. You would expect Harry Norris, sliding out: I regret, Master Secretary, his Majesty is at prayer. And how long will he be praying, Harry? Oh, the whole morning, I don’t doubt … Norris fading away, with a charming smile of apology; while from behind a closing door he would hear a giggle from that little ape Francis Weston.

The courtiers ask, is it possible, really, that the queen was bedding such a grinning pup as Weston?

What can you do but shrug?

The king is seated, slumped, elbows on knees. In the hour since he left the public gaze his verdant sheen has greyed. Charles Brandon is with him, standing over him like a sentinel.

He makes his reverence: ‘Majesty.’ And a polite murmur, as he rises: ‘My lord Suffolk.’

The duke gives him a wary nod. Henry says, ‘Crumb, have you heard this story about Katherine’s tomb?’

Suffolk says, ‘It’s in every tavern and marketplace. At the very instant Anne’s head leapt from her body, the candles on Katherine’s tomb ignited – without touch of living hand.’ The duke looks anxious to have it right. ‘You need not believe it, Cromwell. I don’t.’

Henry is irritable. ‘Of course not. It is a story. Where did it start, Crumb?’

‘Dover.’

‘Oh.’ Henry had not expected an answer. ‘She is buried in Peterborough. What do they know of it in Dover?’

‘Nothing, Majesty.’

He’s going to plod like this, till Henry sends Brandon out.

‘Well, then,’ Brandon says. ‘If the tale began in Dover, you may be sure it came from France.’

‘You defame the French,’ Henry says, ‘and yet you take their money, Charles.’

The duke looks mortified. ‘But you know I do.’

‘Of course, Majesty,’ he says, ‘my lord Suffolk takes certain sums from the Emperor too. So it all balances out.’

‘I know the arrangements,’ Henry says. ‘God knows, Charles, if my councillors did not take retainers and pensions, I would have to pay them myself, and Crumb here would have to find the money.’

‘Sir,’ he says, ‘what is to happen to Thomas Boleyn? I see no need to disturb him in his earldom.’

‘Boleyn was not a rich man, before I raised him,’ Henry says. ‘But he did some service to the state.’

‘And he is heartily ashamed, sir, of the crimes of his daughter and son.’

Henry nods. ‘Very well. But as long as he does not employ that stupid title, Monseigneur. And as long as he stays away from me. He should go to his own country, where I don’t have to look at him. So should the Duke of Norfolk. I don’t want to see Boleyn faces or Howard faces or any of their kin.’

He means, not unless the French or the Emperor take it in their heads to invade; or if the Scots come over the border. If war breaks out, Howards are the people you send for.

‘Then Boleyn remains Earl of Wiltshire,’ he says. ‘But his office as Keeper of the Privy Seal –’

‘You can do that, Crumb.’

He bows. ‘And if it pleases your Majesty, I shall continue as Secretary.’

Stephen Gardiner was Master Secretary, until – as Mr Wriothesley points out – he was displaced. He doesn’t want Stephen erupting into the king’s mind, spilling his putrid flatteries in the hope of recall. The way to prevent that is to offer to do all the jobs himself.

But Henry is not listening. On the table before him is a stack of three small books bound in scarlet leather and tied with green ribbons. Beside them, lying open, his walnut writing box: a relic from Katherine’s day, it is ornamented with her initial, and with the emblem of the pomegranate. Henry says, ‘My daughter Mary has sent a letter. I do not recall I gave her permission to write to me. Did you?’

‘I would not presume.’ He wishes he could get the letter out of the box.

‘She seems to entertain expectations about her future as my heir. As if she believes Jane will fail in giving me a son.’

‘She won’t fail, sir.’

‘That is easy to say, but the other one made promises she could not keep. Our marriage is clean, she said: God will reward you. But last night in a dream –’

Ah, he thinks, you see her too: Ana Bolena with her collar of blood.

Henry says: ‘Did I do right?’

Right? The magnitude of the question checks him, like a hand on his arm. Was I just? No. Was I prudent? No. Did I do the best thing for my country? Yes.

‘It’s done,’ he says.

‘But how can you say, “It’s done”? As if there were no sin? As if there were no repentance?’

‘Go forward, sir. It’s the one direction God permits. The queen will give you a son. Your treasury is filling. Your laws are observed. All Europe sees and admires the stand you have taken against the pretended authority of Rome.’

‘They see it,’ Henry says. ‘They don’t admire it.’

True. They think England is low-hanging fruit. Exhausted game. A trophy for princes and their huntsmen. ‘Our walls are building,’ he says. ‘Forts. They will not dare.’

‘If the Pope excommunicates me, France and the Emperor will get a blessing for invading us. Or so the Pope will tell them.’

‘They will not go to war for a blessing, sir. Think how often they say, “We will crusade against the Turk.” But they never do it.’

‘Those who conquer England will get their sins remitted. Which amount to a great heap.’

‘They will be adding new sins all the time.’ He stands over Henry: time to remind him what the bloodletting has been for. ‘I am talking to the Emperor’s man every day. You know his master is ready to make an alliance. While Anne Boleyn was alive he felt obliged to keep up a quarrel with you. But now you have removed the cause of that quarrel. With the Emperor at our side, we need not fear King François.’ (Though, he thinks, I am talking to him, too: I am talking hard.) ‘And should the Emperor fail us, there are friends to be had among the princes of Germany.’

‘Heretics,’ Charles Brandon says. ‘What next, Crumb? A pact with the devil?’

He is impatient. ‘My lord, the German princes are not heretics – they are like our prince – they give a lead to the people of their territories, and refuse to hand them body and soul to Rome.’

Henry says, ‘My lord Suffolk, will you leave us?’

Charles looks mutinous. ‘As it pleases you. But remember what I say, and lift your chin, Harry. I got a fine son on my wife last year, and I am older than you.’

He strides out. The king looks after him: wistful, as if the duke were going on a journey. ‘Harry,’ he repeats. His own name is tender in his mouth. ‘Suffolk forgets himself. But I will always be a boy to him. I cannot persuade him that neither of us is young any more.’ His hand steals out, furtive, and caresses the books, their soft scarlet covers. ‘Do you know that Jane has no books of her own? None except a girdle book with a jewel, and that is of little worth. I am giving her these.’

‘That will give her much pleasure, sir.’

‘They were Katherine’s. They are devotional in nature. Jane prays a great deal.’ The king is restless; he looks as if prayers are his best hope. ‘Crumb, what if some accident befalls? I could die tomorrow. I cannot leave my kingdom to my daughters, the one truculent and half-Spanish, the other an infant – and neither of them born in wedlock. My next heir would be the Queen of Scotland’s daughter, but my sister being what she is,’ he sighs, ‘we cannot be wholly sure Meg was born in wedlock either. And I ask you – a woman, weak in body, weak in will – can she rule, with all the frailty of her sex? No matter if she is blest with firmness, with nimble wit – still the day comes when she must marry, and bring in a foreigner to share her throne – or else exalt a subject, and who can she trust? A woman ruler, it is only storing up trouble – you may stave it off for ten years, twenty, but trouble will come. There is only one way. We will have to bring young Richmond forward as my heir. So I put it to you – how will Parliament take it?’

Very ill, he thinks. ‘I believe they will urge your Majesty to trust in God and use your best endeavours to get a son of your marriage. In the interim, we can make an instrument that allows your Majesty to name a successor at your pleasure. And you need not reveal your choice. Any such person might be too much emboldened.’

Henry appears to be only half-listening; which means he is listening hard. ‘I had her library inventoried.’ The late Anne, he means. ‘There was seditious matter, and much that bordered on heresy. And in her brother’s books, too.’

Those fine French volumes: the names of George and Anne set side by side, with the Rochfords’ sable lion and the falcon crowned: his traces darkly inked, This book is mine, George Rochford. He waits. The king is quieting his conscience: he is assuring himself that the Boleyns and their friends were enemies of God. He doubts any book of theirs would be objectionable to him; or to Henry either, if his mind were more resolute. The king picks up one of the scarlet volumes. He glances into it, while he broaches his real concern: ‘The Commons will say to me, the crown is not yours to dispose of.’ A small hiccupping laugh: ‘They will put me in my place, Crumb.’

‘True.’ He smiles. ‘They may even call you Harry. But I have ways around them, sir.’

‘Who is Mr Speaker this session?’

‘Richard Riche.’

‘I see,’ Henry says. ‘Do you sleep at nights, Crumb?’

The question is not barbed: the king means no more than he says. ‘Only,’ Henry adds, ‘the Privy Seal is a great office of state, and as you are my deputy in church affairs, and the bishops meet soon in Convocation – and if you remain Master Secretary, as I am pleased you should – it is a burden of work no man has carried before. But then, you are like the cardinal, you can do the work of ten. I often wonder where you come from.’

‘Putney, Majesty.’

‘I know that. I mean, I don’t know what makes you as you are. God’s mystery, I suppose,’ Henry says, and leaves it at that.

In the guard chamber, Charles Brandon is waiting for him. ‘Look here, Crumb, I know you’re angry with me. It’s because I didn’t kneel when that whore’s head was smitten off.’

He holds up a hand, but you can no more stop Charles than you can stop a charging bull. ‘Bear in mind how she persecuted me!’ the duke roars. ‘She accused me of swiving my own daughter!’

Every head in the crowded hall turns. His mind ranges over Charles’s offspring, born in and out of wedlock.

‘As if it were Wolf Hall!’ Charles shouts. ‘Not,’ he adds in haste, ‘that I believe those slanders about Old Sir John. It was Anne Boleyn said he was tupping his own daughter-in-law. She only said it to draw attention from her own sin with her brother.’

‘Possibly, my lord, but do you wonder that she had a grievance against you? You told the king she had to do with Tom Wyatt.’

‘Aye, I said so – and I admit it! Can you stand by, and watch your friend made a cuckold? Not that Harry liked the news – he kicked me out like a dog. Well, he’s the king, he kills the messenger.’ He drops his voice. ‘But I would always, because I am his friend, I would always tell him what he should know, even if he ruins me for it. I propped him in his saddle, Crumb, when he was a green boy in the lists. I held him steady when he couched his first lance, to run against a knight and not a foe of painted wood – I saw his wrist tremble in its glove, and I said naught but, “Courage, mon brave!” – which I learned of the French, you know. No bolder man at the tournament than Harry, after his first course or two. I could help him, for I was a seasoned fighter – I was older, you see, and still am.’ The duke’s face clears. ‘Your little lad Gregory, he shapes in the tilt yard. Very fine turnout, cuts a good figure, nothing wanting by way of harness, weaponry, very sound, very gallant. Your nephew Richard, there’s a stout fellow – perhaps a touch rustic – came late to it as we all know, but he has some weight behind him – no, I tell you, he and Gregory, they are of that breed, always Forward, Forward! – they show no fear. It must be in the blood.’ The duke looks down, from his towering height. ‘You must have blood, must you not? I reckon a man could do worse than be born of a blacksmith. Better than some quill-nibbling clerk who is half-goose. Iron in the blood, not ink.’

Charles’s father died at Bosworth, close to the person of Henry Tudor. Some say he was bearing the Tudor banner, though truth is hard to pluck from a battlefield. If he fell beneath that banner, a living hand picked it up; the Tudors ascended, and the Brandons with them.

He says, ‘My father was a brewer as well as a blacksmith. He brewed very bad ale.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it,’ Charles says sincerely. ‘Now look – what I wish to impart is this. Harry knows that he did wrong. First he married his brother’s wife, then he had the misfortune to marry a witch. He says, how long must I be punished? He knows very well what witches do – they take your manhood away. They shrivel your member and then you die. Now I’ve told him – Majesty, don’t brood on it. Fetch the archbishop in, discharge your conscience, and start again. I don’t want this in his mind – following him, like a curse. You tell him to press on and never look back. He will take it from you, you see. Whereas me – he thinks I’m a fool.’ The duke thrusts out his vast hand. ‘So – friends?’

Allies, he thinks. What will the Duke of Norfolk say?

At Austin Friars there are always crowds about his gate, shouting his name and thrusting papers at him. ‘Make way, make way!’ Christophe gathers up an armful of petitions: ‘Get down, rats! Do not harass Master Secretary!’

‘Oy, Cromwell!’ a man shouts. ‘Why do you keep this French clown, are there no Englishmen to serve you?’

That sets up a cry: half of London wants to get inside these gates and get a position with him, and now they shout out their names, or those of their nephews and sons. ‘Patience, friends.’ His voice carries over the crowd. ‘The king may make me a great man, and then you can all come in and warm yourselves by my fire.’

They laugh. He is already a great man, and London knows it. His property is walled and guarded, his gatehouse manned day and night. The keepers salute him; he passes into the courtyard, and through a door beside which, left and right, are two gaps through which one could slide a blade, or slot the muzzle of a gun; they are aligned so any malefactor can be pierced or blasted from both sides at once. His chief cook, Thurston, had said to him, ‘Sir, I am no military man, but it seems excessive to me: having killed your foe at the gate, would you slaughter him again at the door?’

‘I neglect no precaution,’ he had said. ‘The times being what they are, a man may enter the gate as your friend and change sides while he crosses the courtyard.’

Austin Friars was a small place once: twelve rooms, when he first took the lease for himself and his clerks, for Lizzie and the girls, for Lizzie’s mother Mercy Prior. Mercy has now entered into her old age. She is the lady of the house, but she mostly keeps to her own part, a book open on her knees. She reminds him of an image of St Barbara he saw once in Antwerp, a saint reading against the noise of a construction site, backed by scaffolding and raw brick. Everybody complains about builders, the time they take, the mounting expense, the noise and the dust, but he likes their banging and thudding, their songs and their chat, their shortcuts and secret lore. As a boy he was always climbing about on somebody’s roof, often without their knowledge. Show him a ladder and he was up it, seeking a longer view. But when he got up there, what could he see? Only Putney.

In the great hall, his nephew Richard is waiting for him. Standing under the tapestry the king gave him, he opens a letter from the king’s daughter, written in her own hand.

Richard says, ‘I suppose Lady Mary thinks she’s coming home.’

He is heading for his own rooms, shaking off the clerks who sway after him, weighed down by files of paper, by bulging books of statute and precedent, by parchments and scrolls. ‘Later, boys …’

In his chamber the air is sharply scented: juniper, cinnamon. He takes off his orange coat. In the dimness of the room, shuttered against the afternoon, it blazes as if he handled fire. There were certain miserable divines, in darker days than these, who said that if God had meant us to wear coloured clothes He would have made coloured sheep. Instead, His providence has given us dyers, and the materials for their craft. Here in the city, amid dun and slate, donkey’s back and mouse, gold quickens the heart; on those days of grey swilling rain that afflict London in every season, we are reminded of Heaven by a flash of celestial blue. Just as the soldier looks up to the flutter of bright banners, so the workman on his daily trudge rejoices to see his betters shimmer above him imperial purple, in silver and flame and halcyon against the wash of the English sky.

Richard has followed him. He closes the door behind them. The sounds of the house recede. He puts a hand to his chest – that habitual motion – and from a pocket inside his jacket, he takes out a knife.

‘Still?’ Richard says. ‘Even now?’

‘Especially now.’ Without the weight next to his heart, he would hardly know himself.

‘Carry it on the street, yes,’ Richard says. ‘But at court, sir? I cannot imagine the circumstance in which you could use it.’

Nor can I, he thinks. It is because I cannot imagine the circumstance, that I need it. He tests the blade against his thumb. He made his first knife for himself, when he was a boy. That was a good blade, and he misses it every day.

‘Go and get Chapuys,’ he says to Richard. ‘My compliments to him, and may I give him supper? If he says no, tell him I feel a lust for diplomacy – say I must have a treaty before sunset, and if he won’t come I’ll fetch in the French ambassador instead.’

‘Right you are.’ Richard goes out. And he, lighter by the orange coat, lighter by the knife, runs downstairs into the fresh air of an inner courtyard, and crosses to the kitchens to see Thurston.

He can hear Thurston before he sees him: some underling wishes he had never been born. ‘Told you once,’ Thurston roars, ‘told you twice, and next time, boy, that you use that mortar for garlic, I will personally knock out your brain, place it in the said mortar, pestle it to a fine paste and give it to Dick Purser for feeding the dogs.’

He passes the cold room where two peacocks hang on a rack, their throats cut, weights on their heels. He rounds the corner, meets the face of the chastened boy: ‘Mathew? Mathew, from Wolf Hall?’

Thurston snorts. ‘Comes from Wolf Hall! He comes from the pit!’

He is astonished to see the boy. ‘I brought you here to clerk for me, not for kitchen work.’

‘Yes, sir, I told them so.’ A pale, modest young man, Mathew had brought his letters courteously each morning, last year when the king had visited the Seymours. He had thought him too personable and deft to be left in the country; the boy’s face lit up when he’d asked, would you like to come away and see the world?

‘This boy is out of his right place,’ he says to Thurston. ‘There has been a mistake.’

‘Good. Take him. Take him away before I do him some mischief.’

‘Off with this.’ He indicates the boy’s spattered smock.

‘In truth, sir?’

‘Your day has come.’ He helps the boy free himself and emerge thinner, in shirt and hose. ‘How’s your friend Rob? Do you hear from him?’

‘Yes, sir. And he does as you bade him, he keeps an eye out, who visits Wolf Hall, and he faithfully writes down their names. Only I could not come at you, to give his news.’

‘I am sorry for your rough treatment. Cross the court and ask for Thomas Avery – say I have sent you to learn the household accounts. Perhaps when you have mastered that, you might go into some other family for a while.’

The boy is hurt. ‘I like it here.’

‘Despite this churl?’ He indicates Thurston. ‘If I sent you away, you would still be in my service.’

‘Would I go under another name?’ The boy hitches an imaginary coat on his shoulders. ‘I understand you, sir.’

Thurston says, ‘I’m glad somebody does.’

Around them, two dozen boys are dragging panniers across a stone floor, sharpening their paring knives, counting eggs, pricking off an inventory and plucking fowl. The house goes on without him, its arrangements complete. In here the blood puddings are stirred, the fish gutted; across the court, the bright-eyed clerks perch on their stools, hungry to incise. Here the chafing dish and the latten pan, there the penknife and the sealing wax, the ribbon and silk tags, the black words that creep across the parchment, the quills. He remembers the day in Florence, when the call came for him in his turn. ‘Englishman, they want you in the counting house.’ And how, leisurely, he had untied his apron, and hung it on a peg, and left behind him the copper pans and basins, and the row of lipped jars for oil and wine that stood together in an alcove, each as high as a child of seven. He had run up the stairs two at a time, and as he passed the sala he heard the drops of water falling from the wall fountain into its marble basin, a tiny erratic drum-beat, pit-pat … pit … pat-pit. The boy scrubbing the steps got out of his way. He sang: Scaramella’s off to war …

He says to Thurston, ‘Chapuys to supper. It will be just the two of us.’

‘Of course it will,’ Thurston says. He sieves his flour, allowing little puffs and billows to rise between them. ‘Somebody said to me, that Spanish fellow, that one who is always at your house – he and your master plotted it all between them to kill the queen, for she was in the way of their friendship.’

‘Chapuys is not a Spaniard. You know that.’

Thurston gives him a look that says, it is demeaning and futile to differentiate between foreigners. ‘I know that the Emperor is the King of Spain and lord of half the world. No wonder you want to be in bed with him.’

‘I have to be,’ he says. ‘I clasp him to my bosom.’

‘When’s the king coming again to dine?’ Thurston asks. ‘Mind, I expect he’s lost his appetite. Wouldn’t you, if your bollocks were insulted in open court?’

‘Would I? I don’t know. It’s never happened to me.’

‘The whole of London listening,’ Thurston says with relish. ‘Of course, we don’t know for sure what George said, it being in French. We speculate it was along the lines of, the king can get it up, he can get it in, but he doesn’t last long enough to please a lady.’

‘See,’ he says, ‘now you wish you’d learned French.’

‘But that was the gist of it,’ Thurston says comfortably. ‘If you can’t please a lady, she don’t get a child, or if she does, it’s some puny object that never lives to be christened. You remember the Spanish queen. When she was young she dropped them by the dozen. But they none of them lived, except for that little lass Mary, and she’s the size of a mouse.’

At his feet, eels are swimming in a pail, twisting and gliding; interlacing in their futile efforts, as they wait to be killed and sauced. He asks Thurston, ‘What are they saying on the street? About Anne?’

Thurston scowls. ‘She never had friends. Not even among the women. They say, if she went to it with her brother, that would explain why no child she got would stick in there. A brother’s child, or a child got on a Friday, or one got when you shove it in from the back – it’s against nature. They shed themselves, poor sinful creatures. For what’s the point of them being born only to die?’

Thurston believes it. Incest is a sin, we all acknowledge; but then so is congress in any position other than the one approved by priests. So is congress on a Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion; or on Sundays, Saturdays and Wednesdays. If you listen to churchmen, it’s a sin to penetrate a woman during Lent and Advent – or on saints’ days, though the calendar is bright with festivals. More than half the year is accursed, one way and another. It’s a wonder anyone is ever born.

‘Some women like to go on top,’ Thurston says. ‘That’s not godly, is it? You can imagine the sort of runt that would result from that carry-on. It doesn’t last the week.’

He speaks as if a child were a stale cake, a fading flower: doesn’t last the week. He and Lizzie had lost a child once. Thurston made a chicken broth to strengthen her and prayed for her while he diced the vegetables. That had been at Fenchurch Street. He was just a jobbing lawyer in those days, and Gregory was still in skirts, and his daughter Anne not weaned, and his little daughter Grace not even thought of; and Thurston himself was just a family cook and not the master chef he is now, with a brigade at his command. He remembers how, when the broth was put before her, Lizzie had cried into it, and they took it out untouched.

‘Are you just going to stand talking,’ Thurston says, ‘or are you killing those eels for me?’

He looks down into the pail. When he was a cook, he kept his eels in their watery world till the pans were hot. Still, it’s not worthwhile to argue. He turns back his sleeves. ‘Skin them while you’re about it,’ Thurston says.

‘In my days in Italy, as a student,’ Ambassador Chapuys says, ‘I never took more than bread and olives for supper.’

‘Nothing more healthful,’ he says. ‘Sadly, our English climate does not permit it.’

‘Perhaps a handful of tender broad beans, still in their pod. A small glass of vin santo.’

It is Gregory who, to honour their guest, brings in the linen towels and the basin. The ambassador’s fingers ripple through sprigs of dried lavender. ‘You will be hunting this summer, Master Gregory?’

‘I hope so,’ Gregory says. He dips his head; the ambassador blesses himself and offers up a grace. One forgets Chapuys is in holy orders. How does he manage about women? Either he is celibate or, like his host, discreet.

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses; the coverpanes at each place are worked with silver garlands. ‘Bon appetit,’ he says to the ambassador. ‘I’ve had a letter.’

‘Ah yes, from the Princess Mary. And she says?’

‘You know what she says. Now listen to what I say.’ He hunches forward. ‘The princess, as you call her – the Lady Mary – believes her father will welcome her back to court. She thinks that with the change of wife her troubles are over. You must disillusion her, or I will.’

Chapuys takes a portion of eel between finger and thumb. ‘She blamed Anne Boleyn for all her afflictions these last years. She is convinced it was the concubine who had her separated from her mother and shut up in the country. She reveres her father and believes him at all times wise. As a daughter should, of course.’

‘So she must take the oath. She has evaded it, but now I see no help. All subjects must take it, when the king requires.’

‘Let me be exact about what you ask of her. She must recognise that her mother’s marriage was of no effect, and that she, though the king’s eldest child, is not his heir. She must swear to uphold, as the king’s successor, the little daughter of Boleyn, whom he has just killed.’

‘The oath will be revised. Eliza will be excluded.’

‘Good. Because she is Henry Norris’s bastard, as I understand it. Or is she the lute player’s? This is excellent,’ he says, addressing the eel. ‘So what does Henry intend now? My master will not accept young Richmond in Mary’s place. Nor, I think, will the King of France.’

‘Parliament will settle up the succession.’

‘Not Henry’s whim, then?’ The ambassador chuckles. ‘Have you told Henry?’

‘Mary claims she has no desire to be queen. She says she will support whatever successor her father chooses. But she cannot accept her father as head of the church.’

‘That is also a difficulty,’ the ambassador admits.

Old Bishop Fisher refused the oath, and last year Henry executed him. Thomas More refused it, and he too is shorter by a head. He says, ‘Mary is living in a fool’s paradise. Does she think we are headed back to Rome, because Anne Boleyn is dead?’

Chapuys sighs. ‘It grieves me, Thomas, that in the old days we were in Rome at the same time and did not know each another. How congenial, if we had been able to take supper together! Did you ever try those little ravioli, stuffed with cheese and herbs? They were light as air, if the cook knew his job.’ The ambassador adjusts his napkin over his shoulder. ‘The Emperor wishes the king success, of course, in his new marriage. He is sorry that your master did not pause to consider a bride of the Emperor’s choosing. With not much trouble, he could have had the Duchess of Milan, a tender little widow of sixteen. But it is done now, and we must make the best of it – the Emperor believes that if Madame Jane has a son, it will conduce to peace and stability. And from your point of view, mon cher, make Henry more …’ his eyes move sideways, ‘tractable. So despite what the lady’s brother said of his impotence, we must wish the king – how does Boccaccio put it? – “a resurrection of the flesh”.’

A boy brings the veal; he himself, Cromwell, takes up the carving knife.

‘I believe …’ Chapuys pauses, to let the servant go, ‘… I believe there is a general bewilderment in Germany. Your heretic friends know that Madame Jane was lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. They ask, has Cremuel lost his senses? Why would he destroy the concubine, who was a heretic like himself, and replace her with a good daughter of Rome?’ He dabs his mouth. ‘Unless Cremuel has a plot. But then, I say to the Emperor, Cremuel always has a plot. And as the evidence of the last fortnight shows us, his plots succeed.’

‘I was not responsible for Anne’s death,’ he says. ‘She herself brought it about, she and her gentlemen.’

‘But at a time of your choosing.’

He puts down the knife. The handle gleams, mother of pearl. ‘I could hardly dictate the timing of their quarrels.’

‘You told me that you did not know how to put an end to her, but you must do it, or she would kill you. You said you would go to your house and imagine it, how it might be. It seems your imagination is the most powerful in England. I dare say Henry was appalled at what emerged, once the investigation began.’ Chapuys wipes his fingers. ‘What a picture you have put in the mind of all Christian men! The Queen of England on her back with her skirts hauled up, “Come one, come all!”’

‘You must toss and turn at night, dwelling on it.’

‘Henry Norris, the king’s great friend. Francis Weston, some vain youth who was wandering past when she chanced to be naked. That north country ruffian Will Brereton. The boy Smeaton … she was not too proud to go to it with the poor child hired to play the lute. But why would she be? She was pleased to rut with her own brother.’ Chapuys puts down his napkin. ‘I understand how it was – Henry is tired of her, he wants the little Jane, he says, “Cremuel, find me a reason to be rid of her.” But he cannot have been prepared for what you would uncover. Perhaps he will not forgive you, mon cher, for exposing him to ridicule.’

‘On the contrary. He is promoting me.’

‘Yet the business must rankle. He may think about it later. But come now – I should congratulate you. You are to become a milord. Baron Cromwell of –’

‘Wimbledon.’

‘No,’ Chapuys says. ‘Choose some other place. One I can pronounce.’

‘And I am to be Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal.’

‘Ah. Privy Seal is greater?’

‘Privy Seal is all I could desire.’

The ambassador takes a sliver of veal. ‘You know, this is very good.’

‘I warn you,’ he says. ‘If Mary enrages her father, it will come home to your door.’

‘If your cook ever wants a new post, send him to my door also.’ Chapuys picks up the carving fork, and admires its tines. ‘We know that the princess will not take an oath which declares her father head of the church. She could not swear to what she regards as an impossibility. Perhaps, rather than persecute her, Henry would let her enter a nunnery? She could not then be suspected of wanting the throne. It would be an honourable retreat from the world. She could go into one of the great houses, where in time she might become abbess.’

‘Yes. Shaftesbury perhaps? Wilton?’ He puts his glass down. ‘Oh, spare me, ambassador! She will no more enter a convent than you will. If she cares so little for the world and all in it, why does she not take the oath and have done? No one will trouble her then.’

‘Mary may agree to give up her claims on the future, but not on the past. She will not believe that her mother and father were not married. She does not agree to have her mother called a whore.’

‘She was not called a whore. She was called Princess Dowager. And you know that after they separated Henry maintained her honourably and at some expense.’

‘Look, Katherine is dead.’ The ambassador speaks with passion. ‘Let her rest, yes?’

She doesn’t, though. Katherine pulls and drags at her daughter. She walks by night, at her side her lean and ancient counsellor Bishop Fisher, and in her hands a parchment pleading her cause. When the news of Katherine’s death came, there was dancing at court. But on the day of her funeral, Anne Boleyn miscarried a child. The corpse had risen from her bier, and bounced her supplanter till her teeth rattled: shaken her, till the king’s son came loose.

‘Ambassador,’ he puts his fingertips together, ‘let me assure you, Henry loves his daughter. But he expects obedience, as a father and a king.’

‘Mary gives first place to her Heavenly Father.’

‘But what if she were to die, with the sin of disobedience staining her soul?’

‘You are a ruffian, Cremuel,’ Chapuys says. ‘You cannot help yourself. Threaten, when you ought to conciliate. Henry will not kill his daughter.’

‘Who knows what Henry will do? Not I.’

‘This is what I tell the Emperor. Henry’s subjects live in fear. I exhort my master: it is your Christian duty to free England. Even the usurper Richard, the Scorpion, was not abhorred as is this present king.’

‘I discourage that phrase, “the present king”. It comes near treason. Anyone who uses it must have another king in view.’

‘Treason is only a crime in those who owe loyalty. I owe Henry nothing, except perhaps a formal thanks for his hospitality – which is no better than perfunctory, and far inferior’ – the ambassador bows – ‘to your own. All Europe knows how frail is his grip on the future. Only last January –’

Put the fork down, he thinks; stop stabbing me. The memory is sharp: a day of dazing cold and confusion, and he dragged from his desk to witness a catastrophe. The king’s horse had come down in the tilt yard. Henry took a blow to the head and was carried to a tent. He looked dead; we thought he was dead, as he lay like a bloodless effigy, no breath, no pulse. He remembers laying his hand on Henry’s chest, and feeling for the frailest thread of life – but what the bystanders told him, after, was that he called on God and then struck the king with enough force to break his ribs. What had he to lose? Shuddering, wheezing, retching, the king sat up – back in the land of the living. ‘Cromwell?’ he said. ‘I thought I should see angels.’

‘Very well,’ Chapuys says. ‘We will not mention his accident if it puts you off your supper. But it must be acknowledged that there are men in England, the best blood of your nation, who remain loyal sons of Rome.’

‘Do they?’ he says. ‘How can that be? Because they have all taken their oath to Henry. The Courtenays have taken it. The Poles. They have recognised him not only as their king to whom they owe their duty, but as head of the church.’

‘Of course,’ Chapuys says. ‘What else could they do? What choice did you give them?’

‘You think oaths mean nothing to them, perhaps. You expect them to break their word.’

‘Not at all,’ the ambassador says soothingly. ‘I feel sure they would not move against their anointed king. My anxiety is that, inflamed by the justice of their ancient cause, some renegade supporter of theirs might give the king his death blow. A dagger thrust, it is easily done. It may be, even, it needs no human hand to strike. There is plague that kills in a day. There is the sweating sickness that kills in an hour. You know it is true, and if I were to shout it out to the populace at Paul’s Cross, you could not hang me for it.’

‘No.’ He smiles. ‘But ambassadors have been murdered in the street before now. I only mention it.’

The ambassador bows his head. He picks at his salad. A leaf of sweet lettuce, a spear of bitter endive. The boy Mathew comes in with fruit.

‘I am afraid once again we have failed with our apricots,’ he says. ‘It seems years since I ate them. Perhaps Bishop Gardiner will bring me some, if he comes over.’

Chapuys laughs. ‘I think they would be dipped in acid. You know he is assuring the French courtiers that Henry has plans to take your country back to Rome?’

He did not know, but he suspected. ‘In default of the apricots I have preserved peaches.’

Chapuys approves. ‘You do them in the Venetian fashion.’ He takes a spoonful and looks up, slyly. ‘What will happen to Guiett?’

‘What? Oh, Wyatt. He is in the Tower.’

‘I know well where he is. He is where you can watch him, while he writes his baffling verses and riddles. Why do you protect him? He should be dead.’

‘His father was a friend of my old master, the cardinal.’

‘And he asked you to cover for his son’s delinquencies?’ Chapuys laughs.

‘I gave my word,’ he says stiffly.

‘I perceive such a promise is sacred to you. Why? When nothing else is sacred? I do not understand you, Cremuel. You are not afraid, when you should be afraid. You are like someone who has loaded the dice.’

‘Loaded the dice?’ he says. ‘Is that what people do?’

‘You are playing with the greatest men in the land.’

‘What, Carve-Away and those folk?’

‘They know you need them. You cannot stand alone. Because if the new marriage does not last, what have you? You have Henry’s favour. But if he withdraws it? You know the cardinal’s fate. All his dignities as churchman could not save him. If he had not died on the road to London, Henry would have struck off his head, cardinal’s hat and all. And you have no one to protect you. You have certain friends, no doubt. The Seymours are grateful to you. The councillor Fitzwilliam has been a go-between, helping rid the concubine. But you have no affinity of your own, no great family at your back. For when all is said, you are a blacksmith’s son. Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown.’

In January when I thought the king was dead, he thinks, when they burst in shouting, I leapt up and said, ‘I’m coming, I’m right behind you’ – but before I quit the room I sanded the paper and dried the ink, and I picked up from the desk the Turkish dagger with the sunflower handle, which lay there as an ornament: so I had one knife in the coat, and one knife extra; then I went and found Henry, and I raised him from the dead.

‘I remember those little ravioli,’ he says. ‘At the Frescobaldi house, once Lent was over, we used to stuff them with minced pork. At the family table they liked them sprinkled with sugar.’

‘How typical of bankers,’ Chapuys says, sniffing. ‘More money than taste.’

Wriothesley sails into Austin Friars as they come from evening prayers. Richard says, ‘Call-Me is here, but you’ve had enough today – shall I sneck him off?’

‘No. I want him to go and see Mary.’

‘You trust him with that?’

‘I will send Rafe too, if the king will spare him. But Mary is tender of her status and she may think Rafe is too much associated with …’

‘With us,’ Richard says.

Mr Wriothesley, on the other hand, descends from a family of heralds. Heralds have a status all of their own, and they are keen on according to others what is due to them and no more. Call-Me comes in with parchments in hand: ‘When shall we begin addressing you as Lord Cromwell, sir?’

‘Soon as you like.’

‘I wonder … now that you are elevated, would you like a fresh look at your provenance?’ He unrolls coloured devices. ‘Here we see the arms of Ralph Cromwell, of Tattershall Castle, who was Lord Treasurer to the great Harry who conquered France.’

We have been here before. ‘I am nothing to Lord Ralph’s folk, nor they to me. You know my father and where I come from. If you don’t, you can ask Stephen Gardiner. He sent a man down to Putney to dig out my secrets.’

Call-Me longs to ask, and did he? But he holds to his point. ‘You should revisit the matter. The king would feel more at ease with you.’

Richard says, ‘He could hardly be more at ease than he is.’

‘But you would be the more esteemed if you had an ancient name. Not just by your peers, but by all the common people, and in foreign courts too. They slight you, abroad – they are saying that Henry has dismissed you and appointed two bishops to govern.’

‘I would lay a wager one of them is Bishop Stephen.’ He admires these speculative worlds, that grow up in the crevices between truths. ‘What else are they saying?’

‘That the lovers of the concubine have been quartered, she forced to watch before she was burned. They take us for barbarians like themselves. They say her whole family is locked up. I can see the lady’s father will have trouble convincing people he is not dead too. I suppose you spared him because …’ Call-Me hesitates. ‘I suppose he fell in with your wishes, and you need to show people that you can reward them for doing that.’

If you call it a reward, the life Thomas Boleyn will lead now. He says, ‘I believe in economy of means. The headsman has to be paid, you know, Wriothesley. Do you think he practises his trade gratis?’

Call-Me checks, and blinks, and takes a breath: earnest, he sticks to his task. ‘They are saying that the Lady Mary is back at court already, and wearing the jewels of the late queen. They say that the king has in mind to marry her to the French king’s son, the Duke of Angoulême, and that the prince will come and live in England, to be trained up as king.’

‘I hear she is disinclined to matrimony.’

‘You have broached it then?’

‘One must keep French hopes alive.’

Call-Me is not sure whether he is being teased. He – Lord Cromwell – examines the other Lord Cromwell’s coat of arms. ‘I prefer the Cornish choughs I got from the cardinal. Anything today from Calais?’

In Calais, the spites and feuds of the leading families are enclosed by the town walls: those crumbling walls, England’s defence, are a sink of expenditure, and riddled by rumour, undermined by intrigue. Calais is a sort of purgatory; pained, one waits and waits, not for forgiveness but for a favourable wind. What is said in the citadel is carried across the sea, hissing, rustling, amplified by the waves; it breaks against the king’s attention in Whitehall. Calais is our last foothold on the mainland. Its pale is our last territory. It should be ruled by the strongest and steadiest man the king has. Instead it is ruled by Lord Lisle. Lisle is the king’s uncle – one of old King Edward’s bastards – and Henry is fond of him, having found him a genial playmate when he was a child. Already he is pestering for some advantage from recent events. Mindful of the need to be constantly in the king’s thoughts, he had Harry Norris in his pocket, pushing his name forward for sinecures and promotions. That’s all gone now, Norris being worm-food.

Call-Me says, ‘It’s Lisle’s wife who causes the trouble. She is a shrew and I hear she is a papist. You know she has daughters from her first marriage? She was always trying to get one of them placed with Anne. She will want to try again with our new queen.’

‘I think Jane is supplied,’ he says. ‘Call-Me, I want you and Rafe to go up to Hunsdon and try and talk Mary into sense. But be gentle with her. She’s not well.’

Mary’s letter is in his pocket. Even in his own house he dare not leave it down. Mary says she has a rheum in her head. She cannot sleep. Her teeth ache. It would comfort her to see her father. False friends keep them apart. When the false friends are cast aside or smitten by the sword of justice, when the false counsellors are elbowed into the Thames, her father the king will turn to her, she says – the scales falling from his eyes – and see her for what she is, his true heir and daughter.

But first the king must send for her. Bring her to the light of his presence. Till then she is the maiden embowered. She sits in the closed garden, ready to be discovered. She lies under an enchantment, in a thicket of thorns, and waits for someone who has the commitment to hack through.

‘Go yourself, sir,’ Wriothesley says.

He shakes his head.

‘Perhaps you do not want to be the one to bring her bad news.’

‘She loves her father,’ he says. ‘She cannot believe – well – but she must be brought to believe. He will not tolerate defiance. Not from a child to whom he gave life.’

The sun is declining: a last ray of warmth flits across the books on his table: the Decretals of Pope Gregory, a copy heavily annotated, and marked with the monogram ‘TC’ – Thomas Cardinalis. In the shifting twilight, shadowed like water, he can see a figure of the king’s daughter: huddled into herself, her face pale and set. It entrances him, the stealthy movement of the light where she forms herself, a living ghost. She does not look at him; he looks at her. ‘You must tell her, Wriothesley, “Obedience, madam, is the virtue that will save you. Obedience is not servility, either of your person or your conscience. Rather, it is loyalty.”’

‘Well,’ Call-Me says, ‘yes … if you think I should address her as you might address the House of Commons. I might suggest, I suppose, that with obedience comes some diminution of responsibility.’

‘That might ease her mind. But Call-Me, don’t speak to her as if she were a little girl. And don’t try to frighten her. She is brave like her mother and will strike out, she is stubborn like her mother and will dig in. If she angers you, step back and let Rafe speak. Appeal to her womanly nature. To her daughter’s love. Tell her how much it hurts her father,’ he puts a hand to his heart, ‘tell her it hurts him, here, that she should put the dead before the living.’

The outlines of Master Wriothesley have blurred; he sinks into indistinction, as if the night were lapping at him. He would like the princess to linger, till she melts in the heat of his will: till she dissolves into acquiescence – which she will, if only he can find the right phrases to unresolve her.

‘Sir,’ Wriothesley says, ‘I think you know something no one else does.’

‘Me? I don’t know anything. Nobody tells me a thing.’

‘Is it something to do with Wyatt?’

Rafe has told him that verses are written against Wyatt, coded accusations and bitter jokes, circulated by the courtiers within breath of the king’s own person. A paper is inserted into a prayer book, or tucked into a glove, or played instead of the king of spades. ‘They are all afraid,’ Call-Me says. ‘They are looking over their shoulders. They don’t know if more charges will be laid. I was deep in talk with Francis Bryan, and when Wyatt’s name came up, he lost the thread of what he was saying, and he looked at me as if he had never seen me before.’

‘Francis?’ He laughs. ‘He was probably drunk.’

‘The women are afraid too, it seems to me. When I carried a message to Jane the queen, there were glances – hushing, and shuffling, and signs between them –’

‘My poor boy! You come in and women make signs at each other? Has this happened before? Tell me what the signs were and I will try to interpret them.’

Call-Me flushes. ‘Sir, it is not a joke. The queen – I mean, the other one – she is paid out for her evil dealings, but there is more. There is something else. You go into a room, you hear a door bang, you feel someone has run from your approach. But at the same time, you feel that someone is watching you.’

Someone is, he thinks.

‘Everyone believes,’ Call-Me says, ‘that it was Wyatt’s testimony that condemned Anne – but they do not know why he would give it, because they think him brave and reckless and …’

‘Witless?’

‘Not that, but he is very gallant – and they think, what did Anne do to him, to turn the honey to gall? They imagined he would be buried in her tomb with her, rather than –’

No wonder you break off. Sometimes our fantasies make a leap, sudden and precise, like dancers in a line. We see the arrow chest, barely wide enough for one. ‘They think Wyatt should have died for love? When they would not cross the street for it?’

He thinks of Wyatt in his prison, as dusk slips through the runnels and estuaries of the Thames, where the last light slides like silk, floating, sinking; it is the light that moves, when the stream is still. Wyatt seems distant to him, as if held in a mirror; or as if he had lived a long time ago. He says, ‘Safe journey tomorrow. Remember everything Mary says. As soon as you leave her, write it down.’

He goes to his room, Christophe thumping along behind him. ‘The ridiculous Mathew,’ Christophe says. ‘I hear he is promoted. You should send him back to Wolf Hall. He is more fit for a pig-keeper than for a servant to a lord.’

‘I could go up and see Mary myself,’ he says. ‘There and back before anyone knew I was gone.’

He closes the door of his chamber, shutting the day out. Christophe says, ‘Like when we went up to Kimbolton, in secret to see the old queen. When we stopped at the inn, and the bold wife of the innkeeper –’

‘Yes. Enough.’

‘– jumped into your bed. And next morning you said to me, “Christophe, pay the reckoning,” and gave me your purse. And then when we got to Kimbolton we went to the church. You remember I whistled, and the priest appeared?’

He remembers the stone devil, his serpentine coils; the archangel Michael, his wings with teal-coloured feathers, his sword raised to hack.

‘We all thought you would make confession. We hoped to hear it. But you did not. Besides, even if we are sorry for a thing, we cannot be forgiven if we fully mean to do it again.’

He sees himself in the glass, stripped to his shirt, a startling flash of white. Out of his brocade and velvet, his person is broad, a graceless slab of muscle and bone. His greying hair is cropped, so nothing softens the features with which God has punished him – small mouth, small eyes, large nose. He wears linen shirts so fine you can read the laws of England through them. He has a green velvet coat that was made for him last year and sent down to Wolf Hall; he has a riding coat of deep purple; he has his robe from the last coronation, a darkish crimson in which, said one of Anne’s ladies, he looked like a travelling bruise. If clothes make the man, he is made; but no one ever said, even when he was young, ‘Tommaso looks handsome today.’ They only said, ‘You’ve got to be up early to get ahead of that squat English bastard.’ You can’t even say he looks well on a horse. He just looks useful on a horse. He gets in the saddle and he goes somewhere. He sets an ambling pace, but he is there before anyone else.

The night is warm, but Christophe has lit a small, crackling fire, and set the perfume pan to burn. Sweet herbs, frankincense: these drive off contagion in any season. A bank of beeswax candles, ready for the touch of a taper; ink at his hand, his day-book ready on the table, turned to a blank leaf in case he wakes and remembers something for tomorrow’s list. I think I shall rest tonight, he says to Christophe, and Christophe says, the ambassador has long departed, even Call-Me is turned out, Master Richard is at home with his wife, the king is saying his prayers, or perchance he labours with the queen to please her; birds have tucked their heads beneath their wings, the prisoners of London are snoring in the Tower and the Marshalsea, the Clink and the Fleet. In the precincts of Austin Friars, Dick Purser has loosed the watchdogs. God is in His Heaven. The bolts are on the gates.

‘And I,’ he says, ‘am at home in my own chamber for once.’ Seven years back, when Florence was besieged by the Emperor and begging for French aid, the burgesses went to the merchant Borgherini’s house: ‘We want to buy your bedroom.’ There were fine painted panels, rich hangings and other furnishings they thought might make a bribe for King François. But Margherita, the merchant’s wife, stood her ground and threw their offer back in their faces. Not everything in life is for sale, she said. This room is my family’s heart. Away with you! If you want to take away my bedroom, you will have to carry your loot over my corpse.

He would not die for his furniture. But he understands Margherita – always supposing the story to be true. Our possessions outlast us, surviving shocks that we cannot; we have to live up to them, as they will be our witnesses when we are gone. In this room are the goods of people who can no longer use them. There are books his master Wolsey gave him. On the bed, the quilt of yellow turkey satin under which he slept with Elizabeth, his wife. In a chest, her carved image of the Virgin is cradled in a quilted cap. Her jet rosary beads are curled inside her old velvet purse. There is a cushion cover on which she was working a design, a deer running through foliage. Whether death interrupted her or just dislike of the work, she had left her needle in the cloth. Later some other hand – her mother’s, or one of her daughters’ – drew out the needle; but around the twin holes it left, the cloth had stiffened into brittle peaks, so if you pass your finger over the path of her stitches – the path they would have taken – you can feel the bumps, like snags in the weave. He has had the small Flanders chest moved in here from next door, and her furred russet gown is laid up in spices, along with her sleeves, her gold coif, her kirtles and bonnets, her amethyst ring, and a ring set with a diamond rose. She could stroll in and get dressed. But you cannot make a wife out of bonnets and sleeves; hold all her rings together, and you are not holding her hand.

Christophe says, ‘You are not sad, sir?’

‘No. I am not sad. I am not allowed to be. I am too useful to be sad.’

My first thought was right, he says: I should not go to Mary, or not yet. Let it run … see what Rafe and Call-Me bring back. He thinks, the cardinal would have known how best to manage this. Wolsey always said, work out what people want, and you might be able to offer it; it is not always what you think, and may be cheap to supply. It didn’t work with Thomas More. He was a drowning man who struck away the hands stretched to save him. Offer after offer was made, and More took none. The age of persuasion has ended, as far as Henry is concerned; it ended the day More dripped to the scaffold, to drown in blood and rainwater. Now we live in an age of coercion, where the king’s will is an instrument reshaped each morning, as if by a master-forger: sharp-pointed, biting, it spirals deep into our crooked age. You will see Henry, profound in deception, take an ambassador’s arm and charm him. Lying gives him a deep and subtle pleasure, so deep and subtle he does not know he is lying; he thinks he is the most truthful of princes. Henry says that he, Cromwell, is too humble a man to deal with foreign grandees, so he stands against the wall and keeps his eyes on Henry’s face. Afterwards he will have his own hurried conversation with the ambassador: Cremuel, am I to believe him this time? And he will say earnestly, You should, ambassador, you must. Do you think I am new-hatched? He tells me this now, but what will he say next week? Trust me, ambassador, I swear I will keep him to his word. Yes, but by what do you swear, now you have thrown out the holy relics?

Then he puts his hand on his heart. By my faith, he says. ‘Ah, Master Secretary,’ the ambassador will say, ‘your hand is on your heart too often. And your faith I think is a very light matter and changeable from day to day.’

And then the ambassador will glance over his shoulder, and edge towards him. ‘Meet me, Cremuel. Let us dine.’

Then the dice is shaken in the bone cup – and never mind who is humble. He will deal and deal again and, brimming to confide, the ambassador will unfold his grievances. My master, my master the Emperor, my master the king … he is very like your master in some ways … and I should hazard, my dear Cremuel, that day by day your anxieties are not unlike mine. The envoy will then proffer little bluffs and double-bluffs, looking keenly to see how they are taken; and when Cremuel nods and says, ‘I see,’ then they are gaining firmer ground; with the lift of an eyebrow, the flicker of a smile, they proceed, negotiating the necessary falsities with the ease of men skipping over puddles. His new friend will understand that princes are not as other men. They have to hide from themselves, or they would be dazzled by their own light. Once you know this, you can begin to erect those face-saving barriers, screens behind which adjustments can take place, corners for withdrawal, open spaces in which to turn and reverse. There is a smooth pleasure in the process, a gratifying expertise, but there is a price too: a bilious aftertaste, a jaundiced fatigue. Jean de Dinteville had said to him once, have you ever considered, Cremuel, why do we lie and lie? And when we make our deathbed confession, will force of habit carry us to Hell?

But that again was a ploy; just something the Frenchman was trying out on him. In Henry’s own council chamber, with or without the king’s presence, there is a conspiracy of gestures, of sighs, a counter-point to what can be spoken aloud; but when a messenger from the privy chamber comes in to say, ‘His Majesty is delayed,’ there is a shuffle and covert relief. The councillors may speculate as to why: gone riding, perhaps, or bowels recalcitrant, or just feeling lazy – or tired, who knows, of the sight of our faces? Someone will say, ‘Master Secretary, will you?’ And led by him through the agenda, they will begin their round of scrapping and cavilling, but with a furtive camaraderie they would not like Henry to witness, for he prefers his councillors divided. If councillors frown at the foe, the king can smile – ever-gracious prince. If they bully, he can reward. If they insist, he lulls, he coaxes, charms. It is his councillors, as mean a crew as ever walked, who carry his sins for him: who agree to be worse people, so Henry can be better.

It is June and the nights are short; but when the city gates are closed, the fires covered, then he, Cremuel, draws the bedcurtains and is shut in with the business of England. Outside this room, this bed, a long darkness stretches away, to the seashore and across the waves: to the walls of Calais, through the sleeping fields of France, across the dark snow peaks and through Italy to the sultanates. Night covers London like a blanket, as if we were gone already and under our pall, black velvet and a cold silver cross. How many lives have we, where we sleep and dream, and lost languages flow back into our mouths? All knew Cromwell, when he was a child. Put an Edge on It, they called him – because his father sharpened knives. Before he was twelve, he was his father’s little debt collector: amiable, smiling, tenacious. At fifteen he was on the road with his bundle, bruised and fleeing, heading for another bruising and another war; but at least, as a soldier of King Louis, he was paid to receive blows. He spoke French then, the argot of the camp. He spoke whatever language you need for trading and bartering – anything from a canvas sack to a saint’s image, tell me what you want, I’ll get it. At eighteen, two of his lives were behind him. His third life began in Florence, in the courtyard of the Frescobaldi house, when he crawled smashed from the battlefield; propping himself against the wall, he saw with glazed eyes his new field of endeavour. In time the master called him upstairs: the young Englishman, able to disentangle the affairs of his compatriots, and then to become perfect in the business of his new masters, trusted, discreet, reverent to his elders, never fatigate, nor despondent, nor overthrown by any demand. He is not as other Englishmen, his masters said, when they sent him to their friends: does not brawl in the street, does not spit like a devil, carries a knife but keeps it in his coat. In Antwerp he began afresh, clerk to the English merchants. He is Italian, they cried, full of sleight and guile – whisking up a profit out of air. That was his fourth life: pays bas. He spoke useful Spanish, and the Antwerp tongue. He left it – left the widow Anselma in her waterside house full of shadows; you must go home, she said, and meet a young Englishwoman of good fortune, and I hope she will make you happy at bed and at board. In the end she said, Thomas, if you do not leave now I shall pack your bundle and throw it in the Scheldt – take this boat, she had said, as if she thought there might never be another.

His next life was with his wife, his children, with his master the great cardinal. This is my real life, he thought, I have arrived at it now: but the moment you think that, you are due to take up your bundle again. His heart and mind travelled north, with the cardinal into exile; it ended on the road, and they buried him at Leicester, dug in with Wolsey. His sixth life was as Master Secretary, the king’s servant. His seventh, Lord Cromwell, now begins.

Click to listen highlighted text!