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The Mirror and the Light (Salvage (Part 2))

First we must, he thinks, have a ceremony: crown Queen Jane. For Anne Boleyn I filled the streets with speaking saints, with falcons the height of men. I unspooled a mile of blue, like a path to Heaven, from the abbey door to the coronation chair: I costed it by the yard and, lady, you walked it. Now I must begin again: new banners, painted cloths with the emblem of the phoenix; with the day star, the gates of Heaven, the cedar tree and the lily among thorns.

He stirs in his sleep. He is walking the blue, the waves. In Ireland they want longbows, and good bows come in at five marks for twenty. In Dover they want money for wages for the king’s works on the walls. They want spades, scoops and forty dozen shovels, and they want them yesterday. I must make a note, he thinks, indent for them, and I must find out what ails the women at court. Call-Me has seen it, I have seen it. There is a story beneath the story. They have secrets not yielded yet.

George Boleyn’s widow, Jane, is down in Kent, trying to pick up her affairs and face her future; she has written to him about her want of money. The Earl of Worcester’s wife, Beth, has gone off to the country carrying her big belly. Not his child, despite what the gossips say. If it is a boy, the earl may fuss about its provenance. If a girl, he may shrug and agree to own her. Women can be out in their reckoning. Their midwives can mislead them.

Once in Venice, he thinks, I saw a woman painted on a wall high above the canal, stars and moon at her back. ‘Hold up that torch,’ his friend Karl Heinz had said. ‘Tommaso, do you see her?’ And for an instant he did; from the wall of the German House, she looked down at Cremuello, come all the way from Putney. He was her pilgrim, she his shrine; naked, garlanded, she touched her burning heart.

When Anne died, four women attended her. They waded in her blood. Their faces were veiled and he does not believe they were the same women who had watched and waited with her through the final week, women he had planted around her to record all she said. He believes that the king, beseeched by God knows who, had allowed her to choose her own companions for her last walk over the rough ground, the wind pulling at her clothes, and her head turning, turning, for news that never came.

Lady Kingston, he thinks, would tell me who those women were. But must I know? They will have memories of the day. They might try to share them.

Leave me, he says to them, I need to sleep. Stay at the corners of the bed, under your draperies. Swaddle that gasping head in cloth and wrap it round and round. You know what Medusa does. You cannot look in her face. You must trap her image in polished steel. Gaze into the mirror of the future: the unspotted glass, specula sine macula. We will dress the city for Jane. At every corner a paradise, with a maiden seated in a rose arbour, the roses being striped, argent, vermilion; a serpent coiled about the apple tree, and singing birds, trapped by Adam, hanging in cages from the bough.

Tomorrow he will answer the letter from George Boleyn’s widow. Jane wants to get hold of her late husband’s plate and goods. She has nothing but a hundred marks a year, and it’s not enough for a gentlewoman who will never marry again: for who will take on a woman who trotted in to Thomas Cromwell and accused her own husband of sleeping with his sister and planning to murder the king?

We shall not escape these weeks. They recapitulate, always varied and always fresh, always doing and never done. When Anne was arrested, every hour had brought him letters from Kingston, the Constable of the Tower. Rafe scrutinised them, marking some, filing others. ‘Sir William says the queen still talks of how the king will send her to a nunnery. Then in the next breath, of how she will go to Heaven, because of the good deeds she has done. He says she keeps laughing. She makes jokes. Says she will be known hereafter as Anne the Headless.’

‘Poor woman,’ Wriothesley said. ‘I doubt she will be known at all.’

Rafe looked down at the letter. ‘I will give you Kingston’s phrase. “This lady has much joy and pleasure in death.”’

‘It sounds to me as if she is in terror,’ Richard Cromwell said.

‘If that is so,’ said Call-Me-Risley, ‘her chaplains should attend to it.’

‘And also,’ Rafe read, ‘she wishes Master Secretary to know that seven years after her death a great punishment – the nature of which she does not specify – will fall on the land.’

‘Good of her to hold back,’ he said.

‘Anne may find,’ Rafe said, ‘that God will not jump to her bidding, as men did.’ He had opened another letter, run his eyes over it: ‘George Boleyn wants to see you, sir. A matter that touches his conscience.’

‘He wants to confess?’ Wriothesley raised an eyebrow. ‘Why would he do it now, when the sentence is already passed, his proven offences so rank that the most merciful prince who ever reigned would not remit his punishment? For I should think that if he were to be excused the penalty, the common people would stone him in the street; or failing that, God would strike him down.’

‘And we should spare God the trouble,’ Richard said. ‘He has much to do.’

He had noted Wriothesley’s darting look. The boys are beginning to scrap over him, who controls access. ‘Lord Rochford leaves debts,’ he said, holding up the letter. ‘He wants me to put his affairs in order.’

‘I should not have thought George would care,’ Rafe said. ‘It seems I fail in charity. I’ll go for you, sir, shall I?’

He had shaken his head. What is he, George Boleyn, but a man who got up to glory because his two sisters worked for him, on their backs: first Mary in the king’s bed, then Anne. But when the dying ask for you, you must appear in person.

Later, leading him into the Martin Tower, Kingston said, ‘It seems only you will do, Master Secretary. You’d think he’d have a friend. But then,’ he glanced about him, ‘his friends are in like case, I suppose.’

George was reading a book of devotion. ‘Sir, I knew you would help me.’ Scrambling to his feet, his words tumbling out: ‘There are debts I owe, and sums owed to me –’

‘Wait, my lord.’ He held up a hand. ‘Should I send for a clerk?’

‘No, everything is here.’ A heap of papers on the table; George pawed through. ‘Also, I have a company of players. Can you give them employment? I would not like to see them put out on the road.’

He can. He means to divert the Londoners with certain spectacles. ‘Monks and their impostures,’ he says. ‘Farnese in his court at Rome, among his sycophants.’

George was eager. ‘We have everything needful. We have a pope’s hat, and croziers and stoles, we have bells, scrolls, and asses’ ears for the monks to sport. One of my company, he plays at Robin Goodfellow, he comes with broom and sweeps before the actors. Then comes again with candle, to signify the play is done. Here, sir.’ He thrust papers at him. ‘The king gets everything, my debts too – but these small people who owe me, I don’t want them harassed.’

He took the papers. ‘Never too late to consider your fellow man.’

George flushed. ‘I know you think me a great sinner. And so I am.’

George, he saw, was not well. The skin beneath his eyes was bruised, and he was ill-shaven, as if he could not sit still for the barber. He sank down into his chair; his hand gripped the chair arm, to control its shaking, and he looked down at it as if it were strange to him, and it was true it appeared shockingly naked. ‘I have given my rings into safekeeping.’ He held up his other hand. ‘But my wedding ring, I can’t …’

It will come off later, when your hands are cold. Who will wear George’s jewels? His wife will sell them. ‘Do you want anything, my lord? Kingston does all he should?’

‘I wish I could see my sister, but I suppose you would not permit it. Better she should settle her mind and frame herself to meet God. The truth is, Master Secretary’ – he gave a little laugh – ‘I cannot imagine meeting God. I am already dead by the law, but I do not seem to know it. I wonder how I am still breathing. I need to write myself a letter, perhaps, to explain it, or … can you explain it to me, Master Cromwell? How I am alive and dead at the same time?’

‘Read your gospel,’ he said. He thought, I should have sent Rafe after all. He would have been too proud to break down in front of Rafe.

‘I have read the gospel, but not followed it,’ George said. ‘I think I have hardly understood it. If I had done so, I would be a living man as you are. I should have lived quiet, away from the court. And disdained the world, its flatteries. I should have eschewed all vanities, and laid aside ambition.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but we never do it. None of us. We have all read the sermons. We could write them ourselves. But we are vain and ambitious all the same, and we never do live quiet, because we rise in the morning and we feel the blood coursing in our veins and we think, by the Holy Trinity, whose head can I stamp on today? What worlds are at hand, for me to conquer? Or at the least we think, if God made me a crewman on his ship of fools, how can I murder the drunken captain, and steer it to port and not be wrecked?’

He was not sure if he had spoken aloud. George did not seem to think so. He had put a question, and was waiting for an answer, leaning forward, hands joined on the table. ‘Did Tom Wyatt claim he had tupped my sister?’

‘His evidence was private. It was not given in court.’

‘But it reached the king. I don’t know how Wyatt can make such claims, and live. Why Henry does not strike him dead on the spot.’

‘After a certain point, the king was not concerned with her chastity.’

‘You mean, what’s one man more?’ George flushed. ‘Master Secretary, I do not know what you call this, but you cannot call it justice.’

‘I don’t call it anything, George. Or if I must, I call it necessità.’

He was aware of George’s pisspot in the corner. As if noting his delicate attention to it – as if his nostrils had twitched – George said, ‘I would empty it myself, but they will not let me out.’ He opened his hands. ‘Master Secretary, I will not dispute with you. Neither verdict nor sentence. I know why we are dying. I am not the fool you have always thought me.’

To that, he had said nothing. But George pushed back his chair and followed him to the door: ‘Master, pray to God to strengthen me on the scaffold. I must give an example if, as I think, we observe order of rank –’

‘Yes, my lord, you will be first.’

Viscount Rochford. Then the gentlemen. Then the lute player. ‘It would have been better to send Mark before us,’ George said. ‘Being a common man, he is the most likely to give way. But I suppose the king would not have the order broken.’

And at this, he burst into tears. He threw out his arms, a swordsman’s arms, young, strong, springing with life, and locked them around Thomas Cromwell as if grappling with Death. His body trembled, his lower limbs shook, he sagged and staggered as he rehearsed what he would never let the world see, his fear, his incredulity, his hope that this was a dream from which he might wake: his eyes slitted by tears, his teeth chattering, his hands blindly grasping, his head seeking a shoulder where it might rest.

‘God bless you,’ he had said. And he had kissed Lord Rochford, as one gentleman might, leaving another. ‘You will soon be past your pain.’ Going out, he had said to the guards, ‘Empty his pisspot, for God’s sake.’

And now he is awake, in his own house. George recedes, and the taste of his tears. There are footsteps in the room. He pulls aside the bedcurtains: heavy brocade, embroidered with acanthus leaves. It is half-light. I have hardly slept, he thinks. Sometimes, if you think of money as it flows in, flows out, you can drowse; the river brings it, you comb it from the shore. But then persons step into his dream: Sir, if you require clerks for the king’s new enterprise, my nephew is exact with numbers … It is no easy matter, to break up the monasteries. It is only the small houses, and even so. Some of them have land in ten counties. Real property and movables add themselves, assets for the king’s treasury … but then out of those sums subtract the monks’ debts and liabilities, the pensions, settlements, annuities. He has had to start up a new department to handle the work of survey and audit, collection and disbursement. Sir, my son is learning Hebrew and seeks a post where he can also employ his Greek … He has thirty-four boxes stuffed with papers, left over from when he did such work for Wolsey. He must arrange their carriage. Can your son shift heavy weights? Perhaps Richard Riche should keep the boxes at his house. Freshly appointed, he is Chancellor of Augmentations, and there are no premises yet for the new court, just some space in the Palace of Westminster he must contest with mice. It won’t do, he thinks. I shall build us a house.

On the sword of the Calais headsman, a prayer was written. ‘Show me,’ he said. He remembered the incised words, their feel under his fingers. Anne’s lovers died by the axe, and when they were dead they were stripped. Five linen shrouds. Five bodies in them. Five severed heads. On the day the dead rise, they hope to recognise themselves. What kind of blasphemy would it be, to mismatch heads and bodies? The sheer ineptitude of these people at the Tower, you would not believe it. When the sodden load was tumbled from a cart, bare of any badge of rank, they found they had no note of who was who. He was not there – he was at Lambeth, with the archbishop – so they turned to his nephew Richard: ‘What do we do now, sir?’

He thinks, I would have opened the shrouds and looked at their hands. Norris had a scar in his palm. Mark’s fingers were calloused from the lute-strings. Weston had torn nails, like the child he was. George Rochford … George still wore his wedding ring. And the one remaining, that must be Brereton – unless, in error, they had severed the head of some passer-by?

What I need, he thinks, are men who can count. Keep track of five heads and five bodies, thirty-four boxes of papers. Can your son count? Does he mind being out in all weathers? Will he ride the winter roads? Officers have been appointed for Augmentations, honest and able men: Danaster and Freeman, Jobson and Gifford, Richard Paulet, Scudamore, Arundell, Green. Did he appoint Waters, so he could introduce him to Spillman? Then his friend Robert Southwell, and Bolles and Morice and – who? Who’s missing?

When Anne was cut in two pieces the man from Calais showed him the sword and he passed his fingers over the prayer. The steel is cold and his fingers numb; when I am cold, I shall slide off this wedding ring. He walks towards, always towards the king, his naked hands held out, no weapon. Three silken gentlemen, in his dream, turn to watch him pass, Howard faces stamped with Howard sneers. Thomas Howard the Greater, Thomas Howard the Lesser. Half-waking he asks himself, what is the Lesser for? What does he do with his time? It is he who is the bad poet. His lines go thump and flop. Me/see. Too/do. Thing/bring. Flip-flap, they go, pit-pat.

Don’t count Howards, he thinks. Count clerks. Beckwith, I did forget Beckwith. Southwell and Green. Gifford and Freeman, Jobson and Stump – William Stump. Who could forget Stump?

Me. Evidently.

You need to write everything down, he tells his people. Distrust yourself. Human memory is fallible. You are Augmentations men. Twenty pounds per annum plus generous expenses. You will never be at home, always quartering the kingdom, slicing it; you will kill horses under you, when the business of revenue is urgent. Each house of monks has different obligations, and different customs, personnel. Certain abbots say ‘Spare us’; he says, perhaps. Pay in two years’ income to the Treasury and we may give you a stay. He must steady the pace of closures, because the monks – those who wish – must be found places in larger houses. Auditors must be appointed. Several are in place already, and three are called William. And there is Mildmay and Wiseman, Rokeby and Burgoyne. But not Stump. Get out of my dream, Stump. In Christ’s time there were no monks, no Stump either. The court must have messengers, it must have an usher; there must be someone to keep back the tide of petitioners, yet open the door. Put the usher on a per diem, he will make enough from gratuities; wouldn’t you want the door opened to you, if you stood to make your way in the world? Fortune, your gate is unlatched: Thomas Lord Cromwell, stroll through.

Now Austin Friars begins to shape like the house of a great man, its front lit by oriel windows, its small town garden expanding into orchards. He has bought up the parcels of land that adjoin it, some from the friars, and some from the Italian merchants who are his friends and live in this quarter. He owns the neighbourhood, and in his chests – in a walnut chest carved with laurel wreaths, in an armoire that’s higher than Charles Brandon – he keeps the deeds that have divided, valued and named it. Here are his freedoms and titles, the ancient seals and signatures of the dead, witnessed by city wardens and sergeants, by aldermen and sheriffs whose chains of office are melted for coin, whose corpses rest under stone. Citizen tailors, citizen skinners have plied their trades here, Broad Street and Swan Alley and London Wall. Two sisters have inherited a garden; before their husbands sell it to the friars, they stroll under the fruit trees together, skins fresh in the apple-scented evening, fingers of Isabella resting on Margaret’s arm: through the braided pattern of branches they look into the sky, and their feet in pattens leave bruises on the grass. A vintner sells a warehouse, a chandler conveys a shop: the warehouse and the shop come to the prior, a century rolls by and then – his finger tracks them – they come to me. Careful, do not smudge them, their names are not yet dry, Salomon le Cotiller and Fulke St Edmund. Here are their seals, showing rabbits, lions, flowers and saints, a bird with fledglings in her nest; the city’s arms, a horseshoe, a porcupine and the Sacred Heart. History inks the skin: it writes on the hide of sheep long slaughtered, or calves who never breathed; the dead cut away the ground beneath us, so that when he descends a stair at Austin Friars, the tread falls away under his foot, and below him there is another stair, no longer visible except in the mind’s eye; and down it goes, to the city where the legions of Rome left their ashes beneath the earth, their glass in the soil, their bones in the river. And down it plunges and down, into the subsoil of himself, through France and Italy and the pays bas, through the lowlands and the quicksands, by the marshes and meadows estuarine, through the floodplains of his dreams to where he wakes, shocked into a new day: the clang of the anvil from the smithy shakes the sunlight in a room where, a helpless child, he lies swaddled, startled from sleep, feeling as if for the first time the beat of his own heart.

In his room at the Tower, Thomas Wyatt is sitting at the table where he left him, in the same bright light, as if he has not moved since the day of Anne’s death. He has a book before him, and he does not lift his gaze from it, much less rise or greet them: simply says, ‘You would like this, Master Secretary. It is new.’

He picks up the book. Verses of Petrarch; he leafs through. Wyatt says, ‘In this edition the verses are arranged in an order that corresponds to the poet’s life. They tell a story. Or they seem to. I always want a story, don’t you?’ When he looks up, his blue eyes are dazzling. ‘Let me out. I cannot sit here a day longer.’

‘Just now the king has decided that it was in the court of France that Anne was seduced into losing her maidenhead. I want him to be fixed in that opinion, and not reminded of any Englishmen who may have been near her. You are safer here.’

‘I will go down to Kent. I won’t hover in his sight. I will go anywhere you bid me.’

‘You like to be on the road,’ he says. ‘Never mind the destination.’

Wyatt says, ‘I have been adding my life up – it is ten years this year since I first went to France, with Cheney on his embassy. They said my legs were young and my stomach strong, so I was the go-between, tossed on the waves. I would turn up sweating and desperate with a killed horse under me, and Wolsey would say, “Where in God’s name have you been, boy – picking flowers?” The Lord Cardinal was a great man for speed.’

‘He was a great man for everything.’

‘Now the Boleyns and their friends are gone, you have made space for yourself. You can put your own people close to the king. Harry Norris, I see why you would want him gone. Brereton, George Boleyn – I see the benefit to you. But Weston was a boy. And Mark may have had a jewel in his bonnet, but I warrant he had not twenty pence to buy his shroud.’

‘Poor Mark,’ he says. ‘He knelt at Anne’s feet and she laughed at him.’

He imagines the cart, the pile of corpses, a canvas over them smeared and stippled with blood; the boy’s hand tumbling out, as if wanting to be held. He says, ‘I only wanted Mark as a witness. But he accused himself. I did not hurt him.’

‘I believe you. Though no one else does.’

‘Give me a few days. A week, at the outside. When you get out you will have a hundred pounds from the Treasury.’

‘I don’t want it.’

‘Believe me, you do.’

‘They will say it is a reward for betraying my friends.’

‘Jesus Christ!’ He slaps Petrarch down on the table. ‘Your friends? What friendship did they ever show you? What was Weston – a grinning puppet who couldn’t keep his prick in his breeches. Or Brereton, that braggart – I tell you, his folk in the north are well-warned. They think they write the law. But those days are done. There are no private kingdoms now. There is one law, and that is the king’s.’

‘Be careful,’ Wyatt says. ‘You are on the brink of explaining yourself.’

Or I am just on the brink, he thinks. ‘I sweated blood to save you, Tom. Your life hung by a hair.’

Wyatt looks up. ‘I will tell you why I am still alive. It is not because I fear death or am content to live in shame. It is because a woman is having my child. If it were not for that, then if you wanted Anne dead you would have had to contrive it some other way.’

He stares at him. ‘Who is she?’ He sits down on a three-legged stool. ‘You know you will tell me sooner or later.’ A thought strikes him. ‘Tell me it is not Edward Darrell’s daughter. She who followed Katherine, when the king banished her?’

Wyatt inclines his head.

‘Can you not love a woman, except she is poised to do you harm?’

‘I am as I am. It is a poor excuse.’

He says, ‘I remember Bess Darrell as a child when she was in the Dorset household. I used to do business for them. I know her father was bound in loyalty – he was Katherine’s chamberlain. But he is dead now, and the girl was never bound.’

‘You think she would have been better off with Anne Boleyn?’

Fair point. ‘Better in a nunnery. But I suppose you have your ways.’

‘I suppose I have,’ Wyatt says sadly. ‘I love her, and I have loved her a long time. It is only because she was away from the court we could keep it secret.’

When I rode up to Kimbolton, he thinks, to Katherine – was Bess there in the shadows? He remembers the old Spanish ladies; they did not trust the kitchen so they were cooking for Katherine in their own chamber, and the smell of smoke and vegetable water was trapped in their clothes. They insulted him in their own tongue, wondering aloud if he had a hairy body like Satan. He sees himself walk into Katherine’s presence, sees her huddled in her furs; the invalid smell envelops him, and from the corner of his eye he sees a slight form sliding away with a bowl. He had thought at the time, her maid carries the queen’s vomit covered, as if it were the sacred host. That must have been Edward Darrell’s daughter, golden hair under a servant’s cap.

‘I begged her,’ Wyatt says, ‘if she would not leave Katherine, then at least to take the oath when it was put to her. What is it to you, Bess, I said, if the king wants to call himself head of his church? I cited the precedents. I argued my best. Bishop Gardiner had not more force. But she would not let Henry win the argument. She was with Katherine when she died.’

‘Money?’ he says.

‘She had none. What Katherine left her was never paid. She has no protector if I fail. She knows I am married and nothing to be done there. She cannot go back to her family, carrying my child. I cannot send her home to Allington, my father will not receive her. I do not know who will take her in, because my wife’s family have turned everyone against me. This will give them occasion to rejoice. Nothing they love more, than to see me clawing my way through thorns.’

Wyatt won’t speak his wife’s name, not if he can help it. He has a child with her, a boy, but God knows how he got it.

‘Allington is your best hope. Shall I talk to your father?’

‘He is ill. I want to spare him. I dread his contempt. And I know I have earned it.’

He wants to say, it is not contempt, it is the opposite, he loves and admires you, but fortune has made him harsh. When Henry Wyatt lay in this fortress, it was not in an airy chamber but fettered in a cell, his ears straining, waiting for the footsteps of his torturers and the rattle of their keys. Torturers do not need extraordinary means, or special instruments. Opportunities for pain lie all around, in items of common use. His gaolers pulled Wyatt’s head back and wedged a horse’s bit into his mouth. They poured mustard and vinegar into his nostrils, so he was half-drowned in the acrid brew, spewing out what he could, inhaling the rest. Richard the usurper came to watch him suffer, and he urged him to give up his allegiance to the Tudor, who then lay out of the realm, a man without hope or resource. ‘Wyatt, why art thou such a fool? Thou servest for moonshine in the water a beggarly fugitive. Forsake him and become mine, who can reward thee.’

He would not forsake. They dropped him bleeding on the straw, in the dark. His teeth were broken and he heaved up his guts on the filthy floor. His belly was empty, the corrosive at work in his throat; he had neither clean water nor, when he could eat, did they bring him bread. Wyatt says, ‘It is a pretty story, how a cat brought my father food. I never believed it, even when I was a child. I thought, it is a tale for children who are simpler than me. But now I see what it is to be locked away. Prisoners believe all sorts of things. A cat will come and save us. Thomas Cromwell will come with the key.’

‘I wonder, would Bess take the oath now? Katherine is dead and it cannot offend her.’

‘I have not asked her,’ Wyatt says. ‘Nor I would not. Surely Henry will not pursue her? He has enough people to tell him he is head of the church and stands next to God. And we hope that once the Lady Mary is back at court, she will help us. She must have a care for Bess – for a young woman alone in the world, who held her mother’s hand when she was dying.’

‘No doubt,’ he says. ‘But while you have been here with Petrarch, the world moves on. The king will require Mary to take the oath herself. If she says no, she will be in here with you.’

Wyatt looks away. ‘Then you must help us. It is my honour that is at stake.’

He thinks, where was honour when you lifted Bess Darrell’s skirts? He stands up from the stool and gives it a nudge with his foot. It’s a miserable seat for a king’s councillor. ‘I’ll talk to Bess. There must be a place for her somewhere. Take the king’s money, Tom. You need it.’

‘I will obey you,’ Wyatt says, ‘as my father said I should. I suppose you can err like other men, and God he knows, you may be heading for disaster. But for me all roads lead there. I reach the crossroads and I throw the dice, and whichever comes up, it is the same – it is the swamp, or the abyss, or the ice. So I shall follow you as the gosling its mother. Or as Dante followed Virgil. Even to the underworld.’

‘I doubt I’ll be going further than the south coast this summer. Perhaps down to the Isle of Wight.’ He picks up the book of verses. It is unbruised, though the binding is soft as a woman’s skin: a Venetian printing, the title set within a woodcut of tumbling putti, the printer’s mark a sea-monster. Suppose someone saved the scraps of Wyatt’s verse – the pastoral scratched on the back of an armourer’s bill, the lyric a woman lays to her naked breast? If an editor applied himself to this writer’s life, he would find a story to ruin many. Wyatt says, ‘She never leaves me, Anne Boleyn. I see her as I saw her last, here in this place.’

He thinks, I see her too, in her little hat with the feather. With her tired eyes.

He goes out: ‘Martin! Who gave Wyatt such beggarly furnishings?’

‘He’s not complained, sir. Mind you, a gentleman – he doesn’t.’

‘But I’m a lord,’ he says. ‘And I’m complaining.’

He thinks, I didn’t notice that whoreson stool when I visited the prisoner before. But I can be forgiven, as I had just come from watching the Calais executioner perform his trick.

At Austin Friars, Gregory is waiting: ‘You are sent for by Fitzroy.’

‘I saw Wyatt,’ he says.

‘And?’ Gregory is anxious.

‘I’ll tell you later.’ We shouldn’t keep the king’s son waiting.

‘Rafe supposes Fitzroy will ask you if you are going to make him king.’

‘Hush.’

‘I mean, one of these days,’ Gregory says. ‘It’s no treason to say all men are mortal.’

‘No, but it’s not your best idea either.’ He thinks, that was Anne Boleyn’s mistake. She took Henry for a man like other men. Instead of what he is, and what all princes are: half god, half beast.

Gregory says, ‘Richard Riche is here. He is writing a loyal address. Shall we go and look on? I love to watch him work.’

Sir Richard goes through paperwork like a raven through a rubbish heap. Stab, stab, stab – with his pen, not a beak – till everything before him is minced or crushed or shattered, like a snail-shell burst on a stone.

‘Hello, Mr Speaker,’ Gregory says.

‘Hello, Little Crumb,’ Riche says absently.

Handsome and leisured, his boy gazes down at Sir Richard as he toils. ‘Riche considers his name his destiny,’ Gregory says. ‘He can turn ink into cash. You have a fine mind, don’t you, Ricardo?’

‘Ingenious,’ Riche says. ‘Retentive. I would not lay a claim beyond that.’

Riche’s duty is to welcome the king, when he opens Parliament. ‘May I read to you, sir? I have got some way with it.’

He sits. ‘Pretend I am the king.’

‘Let me get you a better hat,’ Gregory suggests.

Riche says, ‘By your leave, I am ready to begin.’

He reads. Gregory fidgets: ‘You remember the hat Ambassador Chapuys had? We wanted to borrow it for our snowman?’

‘Hush,’ he says. ‘Give heed to Mr Speaker.’

‘I wonder what happened to it.’

Riche breaks off, frowning. ‘You do not like my beginning?’

‘I think the king will like it.’

‘I next compare him to Solomon for wisdom –’

‘You can’t go wrong with Solomon.’

‘– then Samson for strength, and Absalom for beauty.’

‘Wait,’ Gregory says, ‘Absalom had luxuriant hair, or else he could not have been caught by it in the boughs of a tree. The king’s hair is … well … it is less profuse. He may think you are mocking him.’

‘No one will suspect Mr Speaker of mockery,’ he says firmly.

‘Still,’ Gregory says. ‘The conduct of Absalom was often deplorable.’

‘Put your speech aside,’ he says to Riche. ‘Come and see Fitzroy with me.’

Riche is more than ready. Christophe runs up as they are leaving. ‘Do not go without me, sir. What if some ruffian accosts you? Now you are a lord, you must be attended with force at all times.’

‘And you are force, are you?’ Riche is amused.

‘Let him come with us, he likes to be useful.’

Increasingly, he thinks Christophe’s dull appearance an advantage. No one would be cautious in front of such a churl. As they go out, he takes him by the front of his livery coat, straightens him, dusts him. ‘You’re supposed to do this for me,’ he says. ‘Were you walking about in my room in the night?’

‘In the night I was asleep,’ Christophe says. ‘It was some old ghost, I suppose.’

‘Surely not,’ Riche says. ‘I never heard of ghosts that walk in June.’

There’s something in that. It was the veiled ladies – living women, as far as one knows – who attended him, till dawn came and they faded into the wall. He remembers the dappling of their garments, the streaks of darkness where they had wiped the queen’s blood on their robes.

The king has gone hunting; but because of some anxiety of his doctors, his son has stayed in London, at St James’s, the palace they have been carving out of the site of the old hospital. They have cleared and drained the ground, which was flooded by the Tyburn, and now a pleasant park stands all about. It is a retreat for the king and his family, away from the crowds that surge around Whitehall.

Inside the gateway, the courtyard is piled with scaffolding, and as they step inside workmen’s shouts greet them, and the noise of chipping and hammering. At the sight of lords, the clamour falls silent, but the space still echoes with the sounds of metal against stone. A labourer slides down a ladder and pulls off his cap. ‘We’re knocking down the HA-HAs, sir.’

The initials, he means, of Henry and the late queen: so fondly intertwined, like snakes breeding.

‘I want you to leave off for an hour, while I talk to my lord Richmond.’

The man knocks dust off his cap. ‘We dursn’t, sir.’

‘Obey this man,’ Christophe says.

‘You’ll be paid for the time,’ he urges.

‘The master of works will need it in writing.’

He drops his hand flat on the man’s head, draws him nose to nose. ‘Why don’t I write your gaffer a love letter? Tell me his name and I’ll put his initials in a heart.’ He can smell the man’s sweat. ‘Christophe, go out to the kitchen and ask for bread, ale and cheese for these fellows. Tell them Cromwell said so.’

The man rams his cap back on. ‘It’s dinner time anyway. When you see King Harry, tell him we’re raising a beaker to the new bride.’

Behind the presence chamber, in a small panelled cabinet, the young Duke of Richmond receives them as an invalid, wearing a long gown and a nightcap. ‘I ran a fever last night. So once again my physicians will not let me stir.’

A few spots of rain spatter the window. ‘It’s no sort of day, sir. Better indoors.’

‘It’s not the sweating sickness,’ Riche says reassuringly.

‘No,’ the boy says. ‘Or I would not have summoned you here, masters, lest you be infected.’

They bow, thankful that their lives are considered: common men, such as they be.

‘Nor the plague,’ Riche adds. ‘There is none in fifty miles. At least, not yet.’

He laughs out loud. ‘Remind me to keep you from my bedside, if ever I take sick. Is that the way to lift my lord’s spirits?’

Stiffly, Riche begs the duke’s pardon. But he is puzzled: what was the joke?

The boy says, ‘Riche, I thank you for your gentle attendance, but now I wish to confer with Master Secretary.’

Riche is inclined to stand his ground. ‘With respect, my lord, Master Secretary has no secrets from me.’

He thinks, how profoundly wrong you are. Riche falters, lingers, bows himself out. Fitzroy says, ‘The hammering has stopped.’

‘I bribed them with bread and cheese.’

‘They cannot work quick enough for me. I want her gone, that woman. All traces. At least, everything visible.’ The boy casts a glance at the window, as if someone were signalling him from outside. ‘Cromwell, are there such things as slow poisons?’

He is startled. ‘God save your lordship.’

‘I thought perhaps, having been in Italy –’

‘You suspect the late queen has poisoned you?’

‘My father said she would have done it if she could.’

‘But your lord father was in a state of …’ Of what? ‘He was shocked by the discovery of the late queen’s crimes.’

‘And those crimes are greater, are they not, than common report? My lord Surrey tells me he was made privy to evidence that was never given in court. Worse was done, than was ever admitted. I would have punished her more straitly.’

How? he wonders. What would you have done, sir? Hacked her head off with a rusty kitchen knife? Burned her with green wood?

‘And,’ Richmond says, ‘she was a witch.’ His fingers, restless, tug at the string of his cap. ‘Some people do not believe in witches. Though St Thomas Aquinas makes mention of them. I have heard they can sour milk, and cause cattle to abort. They can cause a horse to shy in his path – always at the same place, to the injury of the rider.’

He thinks, if it’s always at the same place, the rider should keep a grip.

‘They can wither a man’s arm. Did not the usurper Richard suffer that fate?’

‘So he maintained, and yet it was as good an arm after the curse as before.’

‘Sometimes they harm children. They can do it with prayers, which they say backward. Or with poison. Do you not think it was Anne Boleyn who poisoned my lord cardinal?’

He had not expected that. Truthfully he answers, ‘No.’

‘Yet his end was not natural. I have been told it by wise and discreet gentlemen.’

‘It may be someone bribed his physicians.’ He thinks of Dr Agostino, taken from Cawood a prisoner, his feet bound under his horse. Where did he vanish to? Straight into Norfolk’s custody. He cannot tell the boy that, if there is a poisoner in the case, it is likely to be his own father-in-law.

Fitzroy says, ‘When I was a little child – I believe I told you once – the cardinal brought me a doll. It was an image of myself, in a robe all broidered over with the arms of England and France. I do not know where it is now.’

‘I can make a search, sir. You do not think your lady mother has it?’

The boy had not thought of that. ‘I do not think so. It was after we parted. She has other children now, and I suppose never thinks of me.’

‘On the contrary, sir. You are the origin of her fortune, of her present honourable marriage and rank. I am sure you she remembers you every day in her prayers.’

For six or seven years, male children live with the women. Then without choice or discussion, one day they are plucked away, their hair cropped so their ears are always cold, and thrust into the sullen world where everyone finds fault and visits punishment, and until you are married there is no kindness unless you pay for it. It was not how he had been reared, of course. When he was five he was foraging for items for the smithy’s scrap pile. At six he was with his father’s apprentices, under their feet, accustoming himself to the white-hot sparks that leap and arc, to the ringing pitch of the anvil and the thud, thud that goes on in your brain when the day’s work is done. At seven, able to curse but barely read, he was running wild like a tinker’s son.

Richmond says, ‘I did not know when I was a child that Wolsey was of low birth. He seemed to me a very splendid man. Well, his end was miserable. He was fortunate not to die by the axe. They tell me that his heart broke on the road, and that is what killed him.’

There is that possibility. Those who think a heart cannot break have led blessed and sheltered lives. The boy shifts in his chair. ‘Do you think Jane the queen will bear a son?’

‘All England knows, my lord, she comes from fertile stock.’

‘Yes, but if it is true what was claimed in court, that the king cannot please a woman or serve her as he ought –’

‘I recommend, sir – I earnestly recommend – drop this matter.’

But Richmond is a king’s son, and he sails on. ‘My brother Surrey tells me –’ he means his brother-in-law – ‘my brother Surrey says the Parliament has done ill, in framing the new bill of succession. They have left the king to choose his own heir, when they should have named me foremost.’

Thank God the boy had the sense to send Riche out of the room. If Riche heard that, he would be straight to Henry with the tale.

‘I want to be king,’ Richmond says. ‘I am fitted for it. Surrey says my father should recognise that. If he should die now, I am not afraid of the whelp Eliza, for she is only the concubine’s child – unless, as they say, she was a foundling picked up in the street. There is not a man in the nation who will lift a finger for her claim.’

He nods; this much is true.

‘As for the Lady Mary, if I am a bastard, so is she, and I am true English and she is half-Spanish, and I am a man. Besides, they say she will not swear to my father’s titles as head of the church. And if she will not, she is a plain traitor.’

‘Mary will swear,’ he says.

‘She may say the words. She may sign a paper, if you force her. But my lord father will see through her. Mary should not thrive, nor she will not.’

When he last spoke to Richmond, the boy was content with his situation. So who can be behind this surge of unholy ambition? His father-in-law Norfolk? Norfolk might scheme, but he does it silently. No, this is Norfolk’s son, that foolish, headstrong boy, pushing his friend towards a throne that is not empty. He says, ‘Did my lord Surrey suggest to you –’

‘I am my own man.’ The boy cuts him off. ‘Surrey is my friend and he gives me good counsel, but no man will dictate my actions when I am king, nor cozen me in the way my father is cozened. I will not have women lead me.’

He inclines his head. ‘My lord, I cannot remake the succession. The new arrangement reflects the king’s will. I do not see what I can do for you.’

‘You will find a way. Every man says you are master of the Parliament. When I am king I shall reward you.’

When you are king? ‘I shall hardly live so long.’

‘I think you will,’ Richmond says. ‘My father’s leg is sore, since he took his fall in January. I am advised an old wound has reopened and there is a channel in his flesh that lies open to the bone.’

‘If that is true, then he bears the pain with great fortitude.’

‘If that is true, it cannot remain clean. It will putrefy and he will die.’

With every breath he commits treason, and does not hear it. He sees the will stirring, inside the body becoming a man’s. The strand of hair that escapes from his cap is red, the Plantagenet colour. His great-grandfather Edward would own him; the house of York would claim him; King Edward’s disappeared sons, if they had lived, would have looked like this, the gleam in the eye like light on the blade of a sword; the fine skin, where the colour comes and goes, betraying every passion. Richmond says, ‘If my lord cardinal were still alive, he would have made me king. He advised that I should be King of Ireland, did he not? In this pass, he would have wanted me to be King of England too.’

He turns away. ‘You should rest, my lord, and let your indisposition pass.’

He thinks, lions sometimes eat their cubs. Is it any wonder?

The boy calls after him, ‘Do it, Cromwell.’

He is in a state of dull astonishment, like a man dealt a blow from out of the air. God help me, what are princes? They think on murder all day long. A patricide, now: as if the season does not hold enough surprises.

Riche is leaning against the wall, gossiping with Francis Bryan. They straighten up when they see him. Bryan’s jewelled eye-patch gives a knowing wink. ‘Greetings from France. Bishop Gardiner sends you his special love, kiss-kiss. I’m only back till the turn of the tide. Collect dispatches. Whisper in the king’s ear. Check up on you. Gardiner doesn’t believe it, that you’re to be a baron. He says your luck can’t last.’

‘Does he? Kiss him back for me.’

‘Oh, I will,’ Francis says. ‘He wonders why you are so fond of Katherine’s whelp. He claims you are protecting Mary, and it will undo you. He says – mark this – “For Henry’s daughter to deny he is head of the church is as great a treason as to deny he is king.” He says, “Believe me, Francis, Cromwell will go too far, this affair will bring him down.”’

‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘You are a great aid to me, Francis.’

Riche looks uneasy. Is Master Secretary ironical? Riche can’t tell. He asks, ‘What did Fitzroy want, sir? I suppose he is in debt?’

‘How much?’ A veteran spendthrift, Bryan takes an interest in a promising youngster.

‘He spoke of the cardinal. He is in a fit of melancholy, I believe.’

Riche says, ‘If you are uneasy about his health, should we tell the king?’

‘He has the best advice. And the king will not go near him, you know how he is about any illness.’

‘But the king came to see you, sir, when you had a fever.’

‘Only when I was over it. And besides, it was a special Italian fever.’

A true, bone-shaking tertian: not like the little bouts of sweating and shivering that afflict those who’ve never been south of the Kent marshes.

‘It was a signal favour.’ Riche sounds envious.

The fever will come back, he thinks. And very likely, Henry will come back too. He does not believe the king is going to die soon – though a man may as well be dead, if his only son turns against him. The father loves the son, but not the son the father. The son wishes him gone. He wants to take his place. That is the way it is. Of course. It must be that way.

He thinks of the cardinal on the day of his arrest, Harry Percy’s men thundering in to where he lodged: the hand he laid to his ribs. ‘I have a pain,’ he said. ‘A pain as cold as a whetstone.’ If his heart broke, who broke it? No one but the king himself.

‘Shall I order the men back to work?’ Riche asks.

Francis says, ‘I’m told that one of Katherine’s carved pomegranates is still dangling in the roof timbers at Hampton Court. I can’t see it myself. The surgeons say that when you lose an eye, the sight of the other starts to fail. I shall be a blind man begging alms on the high road, and kind Bishop Gardiner will lead me.’

Rafe Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley return from Mary at Hunsdon, without a paper in hand, without her oath. Wriothesley says, ‘Why did you send us, sir? You must have known we could not succeed.’

‘How did she look?’

‘Ill,’ Rafe says.

‘The king is incensed against her advisers,’ he says.

‘In all honesty,’ Rafe says, ‘I don’t think it’s her advisers. It’s her own stubborn pride.’

‘Whichever.’ He is indifferent.

Wriothesley says, ‘Sir, never send me there again.’ Vehement, he flushes. ‘If Master Sadler will not tell you how it was, then I will tell you. The house was full of Nicholas Carew’s people, and servants of the Courtenay family, and others in Lord Montague’s livery. They did not have your licence to be there, and they boasted, it doesn’t matter now, Cromwell is naught – Mary is returning to court, and the Pope will be restored, and the world put to rights again.’

‘They gave her the title of “Princess”, Rafe says, ‘and they did not mind who heard.’

‘We greeted her as Lady Mary,’ Call-Me says. ‘She looked enraged. She expected the title of Princess, and she expected us to kneel to her. Then as we delivered your compliments she broke out, “Tell me how she died.” All she wanted was to curse Anne Boleyn. We said, she died calmly, and Rafe said –’

‘“An example of Christian resignation.”’ Rafe looks away, astonished by his own phrase: he was not even there.

‘But she did not want to hear that. She called Anne “the creature” and said she should have been burned alive. She asked what prayers she said, was she pale, did she tremble … I did not think a young girl could be so cruel, or one person of the female sex so hate another. I could have spewed, so help me. She has a black heart, and she showed it.’

Rafe is watching Call-Me. ‘Hush,’ he says. ‘It is hard, but it is done now. And besides, sir, Mary is not as strong in her resolve as her people think. She asked us, “What, Master Secretary does not come himself?” It’s almost as if she is waiting for you. So she can take the oath and it be no blame to her. She will tell the world you have threatened her, enforced her. Rome and all Europe will believe it.’

‘I had rather she obeys from free choice. Whatever the world says.’

‘Obeys?’ Wriothesley says. ‘I never saw any person less likely to yield or obey. What does she think about, abed at night? Does she lie awake devising torments? Sir, you know I do not flinch. I know what manner of things are done. I was at the Tower, when you hung the friar up by his hands –’

‘I didn’t –’ he says.

‘– and I did not demur. I understood his cries were those of a treacherous knave who could still see his duty and save himself –’

‘I didn’t,’ he says. ‘Rafe? Tell him.’

‘You misremember,’ Rafe says gently. ‘There was talk of hanging him up. But it only happened in your imagination.’

‘It happened in the friar’s imagination,’ he says. ‘That was the point. I set his fantasy to work.’

‘Then set Mary’s to work,’ Call-Me says. ‘See if her fantasy will sicken her, as she sickened me. She thinks her cousin the Emperor will crest the sea on a white horse and sweep her away across his saddle. Tell her that no one will rescue her, and that no one will speak for her, but her father will hurt her and bend her to his will.’

June: the Duke of Richmond walks in procession with the House of Lords. How like his father he is, onlookers say: heavy muscle already under the hot drag of the Parliament robes. His handsome face is flushed with portent, as if he feels his future in a warm breeze.

The king seems to enjoy Richard Riche’s speech of welcome. He is not averse to the comparisons: King Solomon, King David. And he has forgotten that Absalom said, ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.’

It’s not only the folk at Hunsdon who believe that with the change of queen, the tide will turn, and England go back to Rome. As sufficient answer, he – Lord Cromwell – brings in a measure: An Act Extinguishing the Authority of the Bishop of Rome. The title is a guide to its content.

As Parliament meets, so too bishops meet in Convocation. They rustle and grumble, censure and debate – old bishops, new bishops – my bishops, as Anne used to call them. They wrangle dawn till dusk about the sacraments of the church, their nature and number; which ceremonies are laudable, which idolatrous; who should be allowed to read the gospel, and in what language. He, Lord Cromwell, is enthroned among them as Henry’s deputy, Vicegerent of the church under God and the king; where once, in Archbishop Morton’s day, he was the littlest and the lowest of the boys who scrubbed vegetables in the kitchen at Lambeth Palace. Gregory exclaims, ‘To think my father is over all the bishops!’

‘I am not over them, I am only –’ He stops. ‘True. I am over them.’

Since the week of the lady’s death, his archbishop has been elusive. Now, trapped in a side room, Cranmer makes himself busy, pulls out a bundle of writing. The papers are inked with amendments. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘where Bishop Tunstall has written all over me. So now,’ he picks up a quill, ‘I am going to write all over Bishop Tunstall.’

‘You do that,’ Hugh Latimer pats his archbishop’s shoulder. ‘Cromwell, how is it that Richard Sampson has been made a bishop? He has so papist a flavour I think I am chewing the Bishop of Rome himself.’

Cranmer says, ‘He made speed with the king’s annulment, that is why, it is his reward. Though I wish the king … I wish he had elected a period of reflection, between the two …’ his voice fades, ‘… before the new …’ He puts the papers down. He rubs the corners of his eyes. ‘I cannot bear it,’ he says.

‘Anne was our good lady,’ Hugh says. ‘So we thought. We were much misled.’

‘I heard her last confession,’ Cranmer says.

‘Yes,’ he says. ‘And?’

‘Cromwell, you do not expect me to tell you what she said?’

‘No. But I thought your face might tell me.’

Cranmer turns away.

Latimer says, ‘Confession is not a sacrament. Show me where Christ ordained it.’

Cranmer says, ‘You will not get the king to agree.’

Henry likes to utter his sin and be forgiven. He is sincerely sorry, he will not do it again. And in this case perhaps he will not. The temptation to cut off your wife’s head does not arise every year.

‘Thomas …’ the archbishop says. He pauses. His face mirrors an inner struggle. ‘Thomas … about the manor at Wimbledon …’

Hugh stares at him. Whatever he thought Cranmer was going to say, it wasn’t that.

‘Since it pertains to your new title,’ Cranmer says, ‘you will want it, I suppose. At present it belongs to me – to the archdiocese, I should say.’

‘And the house at Mortlake,’ he says. ‘If you would. The king will compensate you.’

Hugh Latimer says, ‘You can hardly demur, Cranmer. You owe Cromwell money.’

The bishops mean to beat out some statement of common faith, which will stand against the malice of ill-wishers and the misconstructions of fools; which will please the German divines, with whom they wish to come into concord, but will also assuage the fears of the king, who distrusts novelty, and German novelty above all. They mean to issue a statement, if it takes them till next Easter to do it. Considering the differences they have to reconcile, and the parties they wish to please, you would be surprised if they could contrive it before the sun goes out and the earth grows cold.

We need the counsel of dead men, Hugh Latimer says. Father Thomas Bilney should be here with us. He taught us the way and the truth. He opened our insensate hearts. But Little Bilney was burned in a ditch in Norwich, and his bones thrown to dogs: and whenever you think about it, you can hear Thomas More, chuckling.

It is Latimer, as Bishop of Worcester, whose sermon opens the session. ‘Define me first these three things: what prudence is; what is the world; what light; and who be the children of the world, who of the light.’

Latimer smells of burning too. The air sparks around him as he walks.

The king, bearing in mind his daughter’s care for her status, orders the Duke of Norfolk to visit her at Hunsdon and get her compliance; Norfolk, after young Richmond, ranks highest in the land.

Norfolk calls him in, to complain of a fool’s errand. But the duke is, he points out, lucky to have any errand at all. In the days after his niece’s death, as Norfolk admits, he did not know which way to run; except that he did good service at her trial, he thinks that Henry would have banished him and taken his title away. Now, fuming with impatience, he rattles as he paces. About his neck is a heavy gold chain, where the emblems of the Howards alternate with the Tudor rose. Under his shirt, in a filigree case, he wears the relics of saints, faded hairs and splinters of bone; on his sword hand, a stout gold band, set with a greyish diamond like a chipped tooth. ‘I told Henry,’ he says, ‘look here, I have no parlour manners, I am no man for sweet-talk with some little coquette. If Mary were mine – but no use to think of it.’ As if restraining an impulse, the duke folds one fist into the other.

The Duchess of Norfolk had once told him that when Thomas Howard wanted to marry her – she having a sweetheart already – he had stormed into her father’s house and threatened to break the place up; and so she had given way to him, to her rapid regret. Perhaps Mary will do the same? The duke’s voice runs on, anticipating knock-backs: ‘… so the girl will say … then I say … I declare the whole realm considers her obstinate, disobedient, worthy of exemplary punishment – but the king, out of his gracious and divine nature – is that right, Cromwell, do I say divine?’

‘Try “fatherly”. It gives the same idea, without hyperbole.’

‘Right,’ the duke says, uncertainly. ‘Gracious and fatherly, et cetera and so forth – the king considers that as a woman, frail and inconstant, she is easily led – but she must name them, those who are feeding her obstinacy – and she must say if she will or will not recognise his full authority and submit to his laws – which frankly, it seems to me, Cromwell, is the least a king should require of a subject. Then she, et cetera and so forth, must forswear all attempts to seek remedy from Rome – is that correct?’

He nods: all quarrels are to be pursued in English and here at home.

A young man is at his elbow, bowing. It is Thomas Howard the Lesser. Ah, he thinks, I dreamed of your verses: flip/snip, lip/pip, love/dove.

The Greater is not pleased to see his half-brother. ‘What brings you out, boy, crawling from under some trull’s skirt?’

‘Sir – my lord –’

‘An idle generation.’ Norfolk sucks his lip. ‘Naught but riddles and games.’

‘What would your lordship like instead?’ the young man says. ‘A war?’

He suppresses a smile. ‘Tom Truth,’ he says.

‘What?’ The young man jumps.

‘Is that not how you style yourself? In your verses. Your man, Tom Truth.’ He shrugs. ‘The ladies share these things.’

The duke laughs – though perhaps it’s more of a snarl. ‘Master Cromwell here, he knows what the ladies are up to. Naught is secret from him.’

‘No harm sharing verses,’ he says. ‘Even poor ones are not a crime.’

Tom Truth reddens. ‘The king wants you, sir.’

‘Me too, of course,’ Norfolk says.

‘No, your Grace. He only wants my lord Cromwell.’ The boy turns his shoulder to the duke. ‘If you please, the king has hit Sexton the jester. The fellow made a – well, a jest. Now he has got a bleeding pate. God help him, he chose the wrong moment. His Majesty has received a letter from a cousin of his, and he is screaming as if it came hot from the pit and signed by the devil. And I do not know – we do not know – which cousin writ it. He has so many.’

So many cousins. So few of them what they ought to be, loyal or true. ‘Let me through,’ he says. ‘All will be well. Give you good day, my lord Norfolk.’ He says to Tom Truth over his shoulder, ‘Pole is the name of his cousin. Reginald Pole. Lady Salisbury’s son.’

As he walks towards the king’s apartments, there is a bounce in the soles of his boots. He is aware that in his wake, the Howards are agitated – the Lesser Thomas has grabbed the Greater’s arm, and is whispering urgently. Whatever it is, it must keep.

In the guard chamber Sexton is sitting on the floor, his legs spread out before him as if he has just been felled. The injury is hardly worth rubbing, but he is holding his head and bleating, ‘My brain doth leak.’

He stands over him. ‘Why are you here, Patch?’

The man looks up. ‘Why are you? Unless you want my job.’

‘I thought you were fled. I heard the king turned you out last year.’

‘Aye, he did, and beat me too, because I called his woman a ribald. And Nicholas Carew took me in, out of his charity, till my jokes were in season again. Which they are, aren’t they? Now the whole world knows what Nan Bullen was. She was as common as a cart-way. She would go to it with a leper in a hedge.’

He says, ‘The king has got Will Somer now. He doesn’t need you.’

‘Aye, Somer, Somer, that’s all I hear. Sexton? Kick him out, his day’s done. “Thomas Cromwell,” all say, “he is good to masterless men – he took in the cardinal’s folk when they were turned out.” But not Patch – no, kick Patch in the ditch.’

‘I’d kick you in the midden if I had my way. You mocked the cardinal, that was nothing but good to you.’

‘So how am I still alive?’ Sexton says. ‘The four masquers are dead, who dragged the cardinal to Hell; and Smeaton too, only for making a pig’s bladder of old Tom Wolsey’s head, and kicking a doll up and down, and singing a ditty while winding sausages from its gut. They are dead as you could require, and I hear you buried them with their wrong heads, so when they rise on the last day, Smeaton will be George Boleyn, and the addled pate of Weston joined to Gentle Norris.’

He thinks, much occurred to shame us, but that did not occur.

‘It is heavy work, executing. I suppose you were too busy to think of Patch.’ Sexton hauls up his checkered robe and scratches himself. ‘Lord Tom from Putney. You put the jesters out of occupation and make them beg a living. Let Somer watch himself. Who needs make a joke, when the jokes are walking and talking and calling themselves by the title of baron?’

He has to step over the man’s legs. ‘Pull down your clothes, and get away, Sexton. Never let me see you here again.’

When he enters the royal presence, Henry says quite pleasantly to the buzzing swarm, ‘Will you allow me to have conference now with my lord Privy Seal?’

There is a stir – Henry is, for the first time, speaking his new title aloud. After the stir, a shuffle – then a scuttle backwards, bowing. They cannot go fast enough, swept by the king’s stare.

Henry has a thick folio in front of him. His hand lies on it, as if forbidding it to open. ‘Before you were my councillor …’ He stops, and looks into empty air. ‘Pole,’ he says. ‘His book has come, out of Italy. My subject, my liegeman, Reginald Pole. My cousin, my trusted kin. How can he sleep at night? The one thing I cannot endure,’ Henry says, ‘is ingratitude, disloyalty.’

While the king goes on to enumerate the things he cannot endure, his councillor’s eyes rest on the book. It is not, to him, a closed book. He had warning. He is only surprised at the extent of it. There must be three hundred leaves, each leaf veined with treason. He knows the story, but that will not stop the king’s need to rehearse it – the history of the Pole family, their grievance and grudge: the long butchery before the Tudors, when the great families of England hacked each other apart on the battlefield; when they murdered each other with the headsman’s axe in the kingdom’s market squares, and hung body parts on town gates. The process that has put the manuscript on the table, this summer’s day, began before any of us were born: before Henry Tudor landed in Milford Haven and marched through Wales under the emblem of the red dragon on a banner of white and green. That banner kept on marching, till it was laid by the victor on the altar at Paul’s. He came with a ragged army, with a prayer on his lips: he came for the salvation of England, with a broom to sweep the charred bones out, and a rag to mop up the gore.

And what was left of the old regime, after the battle was won, after Richard Plantagenet was dropped naked into his grave? Old King Edward’s sons vanished into the Tower and never came out. His bastards and daughters remained, and a nephew, a child not ten. After showing him to the people, the Tudor locked the child away. He never denied his title, Earl of Warwick: just denied him the right to threaten the new regime.

Henry Tudor was blessed with many children, but then they themselves must breed. A bride for Prince Arthur, the first son, must be secured among the princesses of Europe. The King and Queen of Spain offered one of their daughters, but made a stipulation. They hesitated to part with Catalina to a country so easy to destabilise. His whole reign, Henry Tudor had been plagued by dead men rising and claiming the crown; and though young Warwick was locked up, what would stop some pretender raising troops under his name? So the claimant must die: not in some hole-and-corner scuffle, some stabbing or smothering, but in daylight, on Tower Hill, by the axe.

Treason was alleged: an escape plot. Who believed it? The young man, a prisoner since childhood, was a stranger to ambition; he knew no knightly exercises, he had never taken sword in hand. It was like killing a cripple; but Henry Tudor did it, so as not to lose the Spanish bride. With Warwick dead, his sister Margaret was in the hands of the king; he made her safe with marriage to a loyalist. ‘My grandmother wed her to Richard Pole,’ the king says. ‘It was a modest match, but honourable. It was I who reinstated her in her former fortunes. I revered her family for their ancient blood. I pitied their fall. I made her Countess of Salisbury. What more could I do? I could not give her brother back. I could not raise the dead.’

Catalina, the Spanish princess, knew what lay behind her marriage. In her whole life after, she tried to atone to Margaret Pole. She placed trust in her, making her Lady Governor to Mary, her only child. ‘But,’ Henry says, ‘I have been told there is a curse.’

Don’t repeat it, he thinks. Repetition is the only force it has.

‘The marriage with Katherine was made, and in weeks Arthur was dead. Thereafter, as you know …’

He thinks of Katherine’s miscarried children, their blind faces and their vestigial hands joined in prayer. ‘It was not I caused Warwick’s death,’ Henry says. ‘It was not even my father, it was Katherine’s people. I do not know why my father allowed the Spaniards to put a bloody hand into this realm’s affairs. How long must I suffer, to ease the conscience of Castile? And what more can I give Warwick’s family? I have promoted them. I have enriched them. Other kings would have kept them low.’

So much is true. They have worked on your shame, he thinks. ‘Who can read Margaret Pole, sir? Not I.’

Henry says, ‘Her son Montague has never liked me. To speak truthfully, I have never liked him. His brother Geoffrey is not a man to trust. But Reginald, I had hopes there – a gentle soul, one worthy to be cherished – or so I was told. I paid for his studies. I funded him to travel in Italy. I trusted him to go to the Sorbonne for me, to put my case in the matter of my annulment.’

His first annulment, he means. ‘I heard he put it very well.’

‘I would have rewarded him. I would have made him Archbishop of York. You know he is in minor orders, he is not yet a priest, but my thought was, he might quickly be ordained, and as the see was vacant after Wolsey – but he would none of it. Said he was too young. Not worthy. I should have known then, he meant to turn.’ The king thumps the folio. ‘All I asked of him was one word out of Italy – a statement, a scholar’s opinion, something I could set before the world, to show his family’s support. I told him, I do not need a book, I have books enough, I need just a word, to justify how and why I am head of my own church. And I waited. In great patience. And I was promised and promised, but nothing forthcame. Always some reason for delay. The heat, the cold, an outbreak of disease, the poor state of the roads, the untrustworthy nature of messengers, and his need to remove, to travel, consult some rare volume or some learned divine. Well, now it has come at last. It is a book after all.’ The king looks exhausted, as if he had written it himself. ‘And worth the waiting, because now the scales fall from my eyes.’

He moves to pick up the manuscript, but the king drops his hand on it. ‘I will save you the trouble. First there is a note to me, cold and insolent in tone. After that, each page more bitter than the last. I am a greater danger to Christians than the infidel Turk. He calls me a Nero, and a wild beast. He advises the Emperor Charles to invade. He claims that for the whole of my reign I have plundered my subjects and dishonoured the nobility. They are now ready to revolt, he claims, lords and commons both, and he exhorts them to do so, to rise up and murder me.’

‘It must appear to your Majesty –’

‘And I am damned,’ Henry says. ‘Hell gapes for me. Or so he says.’

‘– it must strike your Majesty that a rising, such as he advocates, cannot only be against somebody. It must also be for somebody.’

‘Of course. You see how it all works together? Pole exhorts Europe to take arms against me, and at the very same hour, my own daughter defies me. Tell me this – why is Reginald not a priest yet? When he is so fond of his prayers? I will tell you why. Because his family schemes to marry him to my daughter.’

Neat, if they could do it. Mary Tudor carries the best blood of Spain. Unite it with Plantagenet blood: that’s the thinking. The Pole family and their allies dream of a new England: which is to say, an old one, where they rule again.

‘I believe,’ he says, ‘that the Lady Mary regards your Majesty’s favour more than that of any bridegroom. Even if Heaven sent him.’

‘So you say. But then you always defend her.’

‘She is a woman, she is young. Trust me, your Majesty, she will see her duty, she will comply. These people who call themselves her supporters, they take advantage of her. I don’t believe she can penetrate their schemes.’

The king says, ‘I lived with her mother for twenty years, and I tell you, she could penetrate any scheme. You said yourself, if Katherine had been a man, she would have been a hero like Alexander.’

He had once said to Cranmer, the dreams of kings are not the dreams of other men. They are susceptible to visions, in which the figures of their ancestors come to speak to them of war, vengeance, law and power. Dead kings visit them; they say, ‘Do you know us, Henry? We know you.’ There are places in the realm where battles have been fought, places where, the wind in a certain direction, the moon waning, the night obscure, you can hear the thunder of hooves and the creak of harness and the screams of the slain; and if you creep close – if you were thin air, suppose you were a spirit who could slide between blades of grass – then you would hear the aspirations of the dying, you would hear them cry to God for mercy. And all these, the souls of England, cry to me, the king tells him, to me and every king: each king carries the crimes of other kings, and the need for restitution rolls forward down the years.

‘You think me superstitious,’ Henry says. ‘You do not understand me. However Pole’s family offends me, I am fastened to them, by the history that binds us together.’

The bonds of history can be loosened, he thinks. ‘If there was a crime, it is an old crime. If there was a sin, it is stale.’

‘You cannot enter into my difficulty. How can you?’

You’re right, he thinks, how can I? Ghosts don’t oppress the Cromwells. Walter does not rise by night, ale pot in hand, chisel in his belt, roistering by the wharves and showing his bruised knuckles to Putney. I don’t have a history, only a past. ‘Given my poor understanding, what shall I do for you, sir?’

‘Go and see Margaret Pole. She is here in London. See if she knew about her wretched son’s book. See if his brothers knew.’

‘They will disclaim it, I am sure.’

‘I ask myself, what did you know?’ The king’s eyes rest on him. ‘You do not seem amazed by it, as I was amazed.’

‘Your Majesty will remember why my lord cardinal employed me, in times past. It was not for my knowledge of the law. There are lawyers enough. It was for my connections in Italy. I am good to my friends there. I write them letters. They write to me.’

‘If you knew, you could have stopped it.’

‘I could have stopped Reginald sending the book to your Majesty. But he was determined to speak his mind. I could not, for example, stop him sending it to the Pope.’

Henry pushes the book across the table. ‘He swears there is only one copy, and this is it. But why should I believe him? In two months it could be printed and read everywhere. Likely the Pope is reading it now. And the Emperor too.’

‘I suppose Charles needs to be alerted. If he is to lead this invasion force that Pole seeks.’

‘They will never make landfall,’ Henry says. ‘I will eat them alive.’

Now everything falls away, the pain, the doubt and the jaundiced fear that has shadowed Henry this last hour. Now he slaps his hand down on the book, and a cannibal glint in his eye reminds you: dog eat dog, but no man eats England. He rises from his chair. You think he is going to say, Fetch me Excalibur.

But these are not the days of heroes and giants. He tells the king, ‘I believe men in the Pole livery have been seen at Hunsdon, with messages for Lady Mary – though of course, we do not know that she has read them. The Courtenays are there too, though she is forbidden visitors –’

‘The Courtenays? Lord Exeter himself?’ The king is shocked.

‘No. His lady wife. I think Lady Mary could not prevent her. You know what she is, Gertrude Courtenay.’

‘She will thrust herself in, by God. She tries my patience. Tell Exeter he is expelled from the council. A man who cannot control his wife is not fit to serve his country.’ Henry frowns. His mind runs over sundry faces. ‘What about Riche, shall we have Riche on?’

He would just as soon the council were smaller. But it would help to have another man with a head for figures.

‘Good. You can tell him,’ Henry says.

Richard Riche on the council! He can see Thomas More, turning in his grave like a chicken on a spit. As if he can see it too, Henry points to the folio. ‘Pole says I murdered More and Fisher. He says that he hesitated to write against me, loyalty constrained him. But when he got the news of their deaths, he took it as a message from God.’

‘He should have taken it as a message from me.’

Henry walks to the window. ‘Get Reginald back here.’ His form shows faintly in the leaded panes. His clothes seem to weigh heavy on him, and he can hardly raise his voice above a murmur. ‘Promise what you like. Assure him what you like. Tell him to come back to England. I want to look him in the eye.’

In the watching chamber, a knot of councillors, whispering. He walks into their midst. They fall silent. He looks around the circle. ‘Did you hope he would beat me about the head, like Patch?’

Word has leaked out. Pole’s book has come, Henry mislikes it, it calls him Nero. William Fitzwilliam says, ‘Pole could not have timed it worse if he had tried. It will go hard with Mary, if Henry thinks her complicit.’

‘This looks black for Pole’s family,’ says Lord Chancellor Audley. ‘It looks black for all the ancient blood. The Courtenay family too.’

‘Exeter is off the council. You’re on, Riche.’

‘What, me?’

‘Hold him up, Fitzwilliam.’

‘Jesus! Thank you!’ Riche says. ‘Thank you, Lord Cromwell.’

‘It was the king’s idea. I think he liked what you said, about Absalom.’

‘What?’ the Lord Chancellor says. ‘King David’s son? He that hangs in the tree by his hair? What did Riche say about him? When did he say it?’

Someone takes Lord Audley aside, and explains it all to him.

Riche looks dazed. Fitzwilliam says, ‘Crumb, you had warning of this book.’

‘I have entered into the mind of Reginald like a worm into an apple.’

‘When? When did you know?’ Fitzwilliam’s mind is busy.

Riche says, ‘No wonder you dealt so boldly these last weeks. With that card in your hand. No danger now the king will revert to Rome.’

‘The lad is getting an education,’ he says to Fitz.

I have been watching Pole for a year, he admits – as in Italy the young man procrastinates. Tortured by his own prose Reginald scribbles, then erases. He amends, and then he writes more and does worse. But the day must come, the letter be signed at last – the ink blotted, the papers rolled and tied, and the messenger summoned to carry it to England. Anne Boleyn’s death would speed the matter: for Pole would think, ‘Now Henry’s resolve is weakened, now he is ready to repent, now I will threaten him with damnation and scare him back to Rome.’ So he might, if he had modulated his argument. But Reginald does not understand Henry, not as a man: still less does he comprehend the mind and will of a prince.

‘I have met him,’ he says. ‘Pole.’ He remembers a fledgling scholar, body neither tall nor short nor stout nor lean; fairish hair, broad pleasant countenance. Reginald’s plain exterior gives no idea of the elaborate, useless nature of his mind, with its little shelves and niches for scruples and doubts. ‘One time I believe I laughed at him,’ he says. The boy had prated about how virtue should rule nations. I do not disagree, he had said; but read some books to bolster your scant practical experience. The Italians understand these matters.

Since then Reginald has been frightened of him. He speaks ill of him: says he is a devil, and you can’t speak worse than that. And yet, when a travelling scholar calls on him, or a noble young Italian wishing to improve his English, Pole never thinks to ask, ‘Could this be an emissary of Satan, alias Cromwell?’ Time was, Reginald was tempted by Luther’s teachings; we know how he wobbled onto that course, and wobbled off again. Time was, he doubted the Pope’s authority; his doubts were recorded. Pole’s folly is, that he thinks aloud. Some apprentice phrase, modelled on Cicero, trembles in the air; he believes no one hears. He writes, and he thinks no one reads; but friends of Lucifer look into his book. At dusk he locks his manuscript in a chest, but the devil has a key. Demons know every crossing-out and every blot. His ink betrays him. The fibres in his paper are spies. When he lies down at night, the horsehair in his mattress and the feathers in his bolster are eavesdropping on England’s behalf, as he supplicates, in hedging, quibbling terms, whatever form of God he believes in that day.

Fitz says, ‘You could bring the Poles down now. The whole family.’

‘Except for Reginald,’ Riche chips in. ‘He is out of the jurisdiction.’

Lord Audley says, ‘A good point, Mr Speaker. But you leave one singing bird in the cage, to lure another home.’

Riche says, ‘How is that on the point, Lord Chancellor? It is rather the opposite, do you not think? Pole being free, his song lures out the others. We see treason on the wing.’

‘Oh,’ Audley says. ‘Yes, I suppose you are right.’

He says, ‘I could have brought them down two years ago.’

‘The prophetess,’ Fitz says, ‘Eliza Barton, there was a great traitor. That was like them, to shelter behind the skirts of some deluded little nun who thought God talked to her. Only – tell me if I am wrong – did not Barton favour the Courtenay claim over the Poles?’

‘The difference between the families kept eluding her,’ Riche says. ‘That was my view. I believe Master Secretary is right. Let their designs play out. We should stay our hand. They will hang themselves.’

‘By God, a councillor already,’ Fitz says. He snatches Riche’s hat off and lopes the length of the chamber, throwing it up to the Tudor roses in the ceiling. Is that a stray HA-HA lurking up there? The Lord Chancellor, loyal soul, is squinting up and craning his neck.

L’Erber, the Pole house: Margaret, the countess, looks up at his entrance, but does not speak.

What’s she doing? Needlework, like any beldame. Her hawk’s profile is lowered over her work, as if she is pecking it.

Margaret’s son, Henry Lord Montague, winces visibly at the sight of him. ‘Master Secretary. Please sit.’

He would rather stand. ‘I take it you know what’s in the book, more or less? The king keeps it close. He will treat you to some extracts, but he would like you to write to your brother in Italy, to tell him he is not offended.’

Montague stares at him. ‘Not offended?’

‘Your brother is welcome to return to England to put his case.’

‘I ask you,’ Montague says, ‘would you come, if you were Reynold?’

Reynold: that’s what his family call him. A name with a liquid, subtle nature.

‘The king would offer him a safe-conduct. And you have always found the king a man of his word.’

Montague says, ‘We, his family – I tell you, Cromwell, we are amazed by my brother’s proceedings. I think you knew more of this than we did.’

‘Shall I tell the king that you repudiate him?’

Montague hesitates. ‘That is strong …’

‘Deprecate.’ Margaret Pole speaks. ‘You may say we deprecate his writings and are dismayed.’

‘Astonished,’ he suggests. ‘Struck by sorrow and frozen with horror, to find he sets up his judgement against the king’s. That he belies his prince, slanders him, threatens him with invasion, and tells him he is damned.’

‘I am not my brother’s keeper,’ Montague says.

‘Someone must be. If not you, then me. Reginald needs to be locked away for his own protection. At present, I stand between you and the king’s displeasure.’

‘Good of you,’ Montague says.

‘I stand also between the king and his daughter. You must see that, before this book arrived, the Lady Mary was in jeopardy through her own foolish pride. But now, because the king suspects she is complicit in this, her position is graver still. And it is your family who has put her in danger.’

Montague is a languid man, hard to arouse, hard to bait. It is Margaret Pole who puts down her work and speaks. ‘We helped you pull down the Boleyns, when they were threatening your life.’

‘I took the risks of that enterprise. Not you.’

‘You owe us a debt,’ she says, ‘and now you do not have to pay it. You knew the book was in preparation. You knew all that would occur.’

‘Can you explain that to Nicholas Carew? He doesn’t seem to take it in. I owe him nothing. I owe you nothing, madam. The obligation is on the other side. And whether Mary lives or dies – I will not say it is in my hands, but it may be in yours. I look for your aid to keep her in the land of the living. Where I think she can do most good.’

‘Her mother, God rest her soul, made me her Lady Governor,’ Margaret Pole says. ‘How would I repay Katherine’s trust, if I advised the princess to act against her own conscience?’

Montague says, ‘I do not see, Cromwell, what is your interest in this. You appear to want to save Mary from herself, and save her from her friends too. But you cannot imagine she will favour you thereafter?’

‘Should she become queen,’ Margaret Pole says, ‘and I hope and pray she never has that misfortune, then she will at once, surely –’

What? Put me in the Tower? Strike off my head? Make me Lord Chancellor?

‘My lady mother …’ Montague warns.

‘Ah, I see the Treason Act,’ Margaret says gaily. ‘I see its trip-wire. It is a crime to envisage the future. We are trapped in the hour we occupy.’

‘In past months,’ he says to Montague, ‘you have spoken with the Emperor’s man Chapuys, and assured him that England is ready to rise against the king.’ He holds up a hand: do not interrupt me. ‘Only two, three weeks ago, in the West Country, we saw simple people in arms.’

‘That is Courtenay land,’ Montague says. ‘So tax them with it.’

No loyalty among thieves, he thinks. ‘It is lucky for you no great harm is done, and the country now quiet. But any repetition – any further breach of the king’s peace, in any part of the realm – it will be hard for you to show you are not the instigator.’

‘But could you show that he is?’ Margaret puts in. ‘Because in my poor understanding, it is for the accuser to demonstrate guilt.’

‘That should not be a matter of great difficulty. Besides, the common law provides ways to protect the realm from traitors. I mean an attainder, by which no trial is needed.’

Margaret is still. She glides her needle into her cloth. Her father died this way.

‘Madam,’ he says, ‘do not by your resistances and your evasions and your plots corrupt a good king who has done everything in his power to recompense your family for what it has suffered. Pray for concord, as all good Christians ought. And write the Lady Mary a letter.’

‘You will carry it?’ Montague says.

‘Give it to your friend Chapuys. That way, the young lady will not say it is forged.’

Margaret says, ‘You are a snake, Cromwell.’

‘Oh no, no, no.’ A dog, madam, and on your scent. He interposes his reassuring bulk between her person and the light. Margaret is sewing a border of flowers. It is the emblem of her family, the viola: known also as the pansy, or heart’s-ease. ‘I compliment you. I am surprised your sight is still sharp enough for that work.’

She reaches for her scissors. ‘I have seen other days, and better.’

He sends nephew Richard to the Tower with an order to free Thomas Wyatt. The arrival of Pole’s book, as news of its content seeps and leaks through the court, has caused such a stir that no one is looking Wyatt’s way. No one has seen the text, but when they guess at what is in it, their guesses are not bad enough; they cannot imagine its bitter prolixity, its heedless squandering of the favour of the living, its praise of dead men. Rumours of new arrests are flying. Lady Hussey, who once served in Mary’s household, is whisked into the Tower. He sends Wriothesley to talk to her. She admits that when, by the king’s grace, she had licence to visit Hunsdon at Whitsuntide, she addressed the Lady Mary as Princess.

‘She claims it was old habit,’ Wriothesley says. ‘She swears she did not mean, God strike her, to claim that Mary was Henry’s lawful successor. She spoke unthinkingly. She says.’

Richard Cromwell, banging in. ‘I told Wyatt, go down to Kent and never dwell on the dead. Stay there till he’s told. Constable Kingston wants to know, will he need lodgings for any other noble prisoners, and if so, can you say how many and specify their rank and sex and age, and tell him when they will be arriving? He wants to be ready.’

‘Is Kingston not always ready? You astonish me.’

‘Sir,’ Wriothesley says, ‘I know you pity the Lady Mary. But let her go now.’ He says to Richard, ‘She looks modest as any maid, she speaks low, she shrinks from men, but when Sadler and I went to Hunsdon – if she had a dagger I swear she would have stuck it in me, when I told her how neat a job the man from Calais made.’

She’s hard to like, he says. That’s all he will say.

As Henry takes his place at the council board, he rests a fist on the table to steady himself; he moves cautiously, steering himself so as not to knock or jolt. Courteous, he murmurs his thanks to his new councillor, as Riche eases back a chair to give clear passage to his bandaged leg. ‘Sworn in, Riche? Good.’ He falls into his seat with a little grunt, and grips the council board to drag himself towards it.

‘A cushion, Majesty?’ Lord Audley suggests.

Henry closes his eyes. ‘Thank you, no. Today there is only one matter –’

‘A more capacious chair perhaps?’

The king’s voice shakes, ‘– one salient matter … Thank you, Lord Audley, I am comfortable.’

He catches the Lord Chancellor’s eye, and presses a palm across his own mouth. But Richard Riche is not so easily suppressed. At the sight of Edward Seymour: ‘You here, sir? I did not think you were sworn?’

‘Well, it appears –’ Edward says.

‘It appears that I want his opinion,’ the king says. ‘In this instance at least. These are matters that come very near me. You understand, Riche?’

Edward is the king’s brother now; of course he wants his advice. But Edward sits awkwardly on a stool at the end of the table. He looks like a man who is on trial, to see if he gives satisfaction; perhaps his sister is in the same case.

Richard Riche cannot settle. He leans over to whisper: sir, is this truly a meeting of the council, or some other form of conference? He, Cromwell, whispers back: just sit still and listen. Fitzwilliam looks around. ‘Where is my lord of Norfolk?’

‘I have directed him,’ Henry says, ‘to avoid my sight.’

Good news for Fitz. His quarrels with the Howards go back a decade and more. ‘You should never have sent him to Mary, sir. You know what he is. He talks to a woman as if she were a town wall and he has to breach her.’

‘I do not think,’ the Lord Chancellor says, ‘that you should speak of the king’s daughter as “a woman”.’

‘Well, what else is she?’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘If I call her a lady, it does not alter the case. Norfolk was the last man to do anything with her.’

Henry says, ‘I admit, I chose ill. It is not likely she will yield to force.’ Is there a hint, in his tone, of perverse pride? ‘We must choose another messenger. Perhaps my lord archbishop, with his gentle persuasions …’

Fitz stares at him. ‘She hates Cranmer. How would she not? Cranmer divorced you from her mother. He called her the product of incest.’

‘And so she is.’ The king bows his head. ‘It was a great sin – committed, as you know, in ignorance.’

‘Majesty,’ Edward Seymour says, ‘we are all cognisant – there is no need – spare yourself –’

‘Forgive me if it appears the weight of twenty years is on my shoulders.’ The king seems calm, resigned: but I know, he thinks, that dangerous twitch of his mouth. ‘Since in Christendom for a clear generation it has been debated in every students’ hall, bawled out in every pulpit, and jangled in every alehouse, I have no objection if the matter be stated again. Though the scripture is clear that such a marriage is not licit, I believed, in those days, that the Pope had power to dispense. I know better now. My daughter Mary is the product of a union illegitimate. If Katherine would not acknowledge the sin in this life, as she would not, then I fear she will suffer for it in the place where she is now.’

Peterborough, he thinks.

‘For my part,’ the king says, ‘my eyes being opened to the abusions and pretences of Rome, I have wrought for seven years to rid myself of that accursed jurisdiction and to lead my country on a true path to Christ. If I have not atoned by this time – then, gentlemen, I know not how, and I know not when. To be defied by my daughter, to know that my own kin and cousins urge her on, to be reviled in my own house by that monster of ingratitude, Pole – to be called heretic and schismatic and Judas –’

‘No, sir,’ Riche interrupts. ‘It was not your Majesty that Pole called a Judas. It was Bishop Sampson, for acting as proctor in your divorce.’

‘Our new councillor is an exact man.’ Henry turns to Riche. ‘Then what does he call me? Antichrist, is it? Lucifer?’

Day star, he thinks, bringer of light.

‘So I warn you,’ Henry says. ‘If I hear one voice raised in support of that errant creature my daughter, I shall know I am hearing treason. I am taking advice. I have called in the judges to consider what is the best way to bring her to trial.’

Fitzwilliam slaps his palm on the board. ‘Trial? Jesus save us! Your flesh and blood? I implore you, think before you do this. You will make yourself a monster in the sight of all.’

He cuts in, ‘Majesty, Mary is ill.’

‘The king will be ill!’ Riche says. ‘Look at him!’

Edward Seymour whispers, ‘Riche, forbear.’

Henry turns to him. ‘Tell me, Crumb, when is she not ill? I wonder if so weakly a creature can be mine. Her brothers and sisters all died. I wonder how she lived. I wonder what God meant by it.’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘Well, if you don’t know, Harry, who does? You are His deputy, are you not? You know all our fates.’

‘I know yours,’ Henry says.

Henry glances up to the doors. A nod, and the guards would march in. Richard Riche sits frozen on his bench, jaw dropped, fingers poised as if to make a note. Edward Seymour half-rises: ‘Pardon, Majesty. Pardon Master Treasurer’s plain speaking. We are all … we are all over-wrought …’

Henry sighs. ‘Over-wrought, abused, exhausted. True, Ned, we are. Go on, Fitzwilliam, take yourself out of the council chamber before I have you taken, my patience is not infinite, neither with you nor my daughter. So, Crumb, tell us about her illness. What is it this time? I heard it was cramps, then fever, then headache, then toothache.’

‘I am afraid it is all of them. She writes –’

‘Let me see her letter.’

The letter is in his pocket.

‘I shall send for it, sir.’

‘Some of you councillors know more of my daughter’s mind than I do myself.’ Again, that tight smile: Henry is in pain. ‘Master Secretary promised me he could get her compliance – that he would make her swear the oath without stirring himself from Whitehall. But he too has failed me.’

Fitzwilliam is almost out of the room; but he turns to face the councillors, his papers held across his chest. ‘Some of us are trying to save you from yourself, Majesty. You are flailing and injuring all about, because Pole has insulted you. Reckon with your enemies, not your friends. As for Mary – lock her up, yes, keep her close where she can do no harm – but that you should go so far as to consult the judges, that you should consider bringing your own daughter before a court – because what then? I tell you, she is guilty. What needs a judge? What needs a jury? She will not swear the oath and she will give you her reasons, as Thomas More would not. She will say she is not a bastard, but a princess of England, and that you are no more head of the church than I am. Then what will you do? Cut off her head?’

Audley turns down his mouth. ‘Brave man.’

‘Dead man,’ Seymour murmurs.

He, Lord Cromwell, rises from his place. He strides across the room, grasps Master Treasurer by his coat, trips him off-balance, tumbles him backwards and bundles him towards the doors. They open smoothly, like the gates of Hell. He seizes the treasurer’s chain of office, trying to loop it over Fitz’s head. The councillor bellows, the chain twists; Fitz threads his fingers into it; they tussle. ‘Hands off me, Cromwell,’ Fitz bawls, and swipes at him with his other fist. But he has a grip on the chain and he hauls Fitz nose to nose, spitting into his face, ‘Give it over, you dolt.’

Fitz comprehends. He yields his grip. He yelps, a finger still caught, as the chain flies free. A shove in the chest: Fitz staggers backwards. The doors slam.

He, Lord Cromwell, crosses the room and drops the chain on the table before the king. Clank.

‘No, that won’t do,’ Henry says. ‘Getting up a fight for my benefit, when I know you agree with him.’ His fingers reach out for the chain, the gold still warm from where it lay against a velvet chest. ‘Still, I applaud your effort, my lord. Fitz is no mean weight.’ He won’t look at his councillors. ‘Bring Lord Montague to see me. I wish to read him extracts from his brother’s letter. Fetch Bishop Judas – strangely enough, I find Sampson is one man on whom I can rely. Perhaps we should bring Gardiner back from France. He usually has ideas about what to do, and none of you seem to know. Remind Sir Nicholas Carew I forbid him to communicate with my daughter. Tell the Courtenay family I know their practices. Warn them of my extreme displeasure. Commit Francis Bryan to the Tower. I hear he has been hawking his opinions about the town, saying that Mary is ill-used and I am an unnatural father.’

‘Oh, you know Francis,’ Edward Seymour says. ‘He doesn’t mean it. He loves your Majesty.’

‘And Fitzwilliam?’ Audley is frowning. ‘Must we appoint a new Master Treasurer?’

‘Fitzwilliam,’ the king says gently, ‘is not greatly to be blamed. He is my old friend, and I think you commonly say, you councillors, that he understands me better than any man alive.’ Henry looks around the table, fearfully leisured; all their hours are his. ‘You see,’ he says, ‘I do know what you councillors say, and how you scheme to govern me, and talk of who I love and who not. If there is one being in this world a man should trust, it is his maiden daughter. She should have no will but his, and no thought but what comforts him; in return, he protects her, and works her advancement. But Master Treasurer has no children. God has so disposed it. Not being a father, he cannot feel what I feel, and he does not know what I have suffered these last weeks. For I have never varied: Mary knows what declaration I require of her, and has known since the oath was first framed. If she chose to believe my title and right was some whim of that woman lately dead, then she was much mistook, and much misled, and if she has entertained some notion that I will creep back to Rome, she is a greater fool than I thought her. But what you do not see, what none of you seems to understand, is that I love my daughter. I think of all my children dead in the cradle, or dead before they saw the light. If I lose Mary, what have I? Ask yourselves … what comfort have I in this breathing world but her?’

The room is silent. I felt, Audley will say later, that I should cross and say ‘Amen.’ Not even the new councillor is crude enough to say, ‘In fact, Majesty, you have young Richmond,’ or remind him of the ginger pig Eliza, squalling somewhere up-country. But Edward Seymour is frowning: if the king has nothing, where does that leave sister Jane, where does that leave the family at Wolf Hall?

‘So, good Master Secretary,’ the king says. ‘Lord Cromwell – as you love me and love my service, you will bring this matter to a conclusion. We shall not come here to debate it again.’

The king puts his palms on the table and levers himself to his feet. The councillors tumble from bench and stool, and kneel. They kneel till he is out of the room. Even when the doors are closed after him they do not speak. Till the Lord Chancellor says, ‘Conclusion? What does that mean?’

‘God knows,’ he says.

Riche says, vehement, ‘I wish I were never a councillor! I wish I were in China.’

Seymour mutters, ‘I wish you were in Utopia.’

Mary’s letter, which is still in his pocket, tells him: Cromwell, I can go no further, I can concede no more. I will sign no articles that slander my mother the queen. I will never agree my father is or ought to be head of the church. Do not let them push me, do not let them entreat me, I have moved as far as my conscience will let me move. You are my chief friend and sustainer. My very trust is in you.

‘I think he wants you to kill her,’ Edward Seymour says.

The cardinal, in his day, used to laugh about the time when the young Henry thrust a leg forth from his gown and invited the French ambassador to admire his calf. ‘Has your king a leg like that?’ he asked. ‘Tell me, has he? King Francis is a tall man, I know, but is he broad in the shoulder like me?’

Now the same prince, dragging away from the council chamber, wraps his gown about himself, the fine calf visibly bandaged, his face puffy and pale. Henry is the site, his body the locus, the blood and bile and phlegm; his burdened and oppressed flesh the place where all arguments come to rest.

At the Tower, Francis Bryan says, ‘Was this where you kept Tom Wyatt?’

‘Airy,’ he says, ‘isn’t it? I always get good lodgings for my friends.’

‘One in, one out.’ Francis slides low in his chair, and looks around him; one eye patched, the other bleared. ‘I take it house arrest would not have been enough?’

‘You’re safer here. That’s what I told Wyatt.’

‘I hear you are Privy Seal. You climb so fast, my lord, the kingdom has not ladders enough.’

‘Ladders? I have wings.’

‘Then flit into the dusk,’ Francis says, ‘before they melt.’

‘The king thinks Mary would not defy him unless a man were behind her. In chief he suspects your brother-in-law Carew.’

‘Old Carve-Away.’ Francis laughs. ‘He paints a picture of himself, the loyal chevalier in black armour. He gives Mary to understand he will make her queen.’

There is no note-taker. Only Lord Cromwell’s own folder of papers, on the table where the book of Petrarch’s verse lay: the putti, the sea monster, the binding soft as skin. His hand does not move. Time enough to write. ‘Carew, then. Who else?’

‘Lord Exeter’s tribe. And snivelling little Montague.’

‘If the king fetches them in, will you give testimony?’

‘Yes. If it’s me or them. Why should I be better than Tom Wyatt?’

‘No one ever thought you were.’

‘But you don’t want to bring them in, do you? You’d rather cut deals.’

‘It is my merciful nature prevents me –’

Francis snorts. ‘Nothing prevents you. But you cannot destroy Mary’s people unless you destroy her, and you don’t want to lose her, and you don’t think you can control Henry, if he keeps killing close to home.’

He remembers Francis standing beside the scaffold, sweating in his leather jerkin, waiting to sprint to the Seymours with the news that Anne’s head was off. If you want speed, choose Francis Bryan. Your impulses ripple beneath his skin, ready for action. If you want someone bribed, if you want someone charmed, if you want some secret and dirty dealing, you know where to go. If you want the unspeakable thing spoken, then give Francis the nod. ‘I know you, Cromwell,’ he says. ‘You think yourself a cautious politic man. But you are a gambler, like me.’

‘Not like you. You would crawl to the card table if you were poisoned. When you go blind you will sniff out the cups and wands. Your fingertips will feel out the spots on the dice.’

Francis says, ‘Another man, from the place where you come from, would get himself to a quiet spot and count his takings. Not Cromwell. He will have all to rule. If Seymour’s girl makes the king a son, who will oversee his princely education, but Cromwell? If Fitzroy is named heir, Cromwell is in his graces. If Mary survives to reign, she will always know that Cromwell saved her life.’

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