The Mirror and the Light (The Image of the King | Part 1)

Spring–Summer 1537

Hans does not like the pavonazzo. You cannot have a king who is purple from one angle, blue from another, green from a third, who shines and shimmers wetly as if evading the artist. Stick to crimson, sir, Hans says: it is my earnest loyal advice.

The king has not decided yet what kind of portrait he wants. He might ask for anything, from a picture that covers a wall to a miniature you can hold in your palm. But he agrees to be crimson. Each ruby is a tiny kindling fire.

In the kitchen at the Rolls House, the Lord Privy Seal holds a white basin, within it a pool of green oil, in which he is dipping pieces of bread, and giving them to passing boys to taste. Mathew, bustling in for his portion, sneezes loud enough to crack an egg. ‘That will be the plague,’ Thurston says.

‘Too early for plague.’

‘Then I blame our diet. Englishmen were never made to eat fish. Salt water gets in your brain. A German can live on vegetables, he eats what he calls crowte. A Frenchman eats roots and herbs – if he’s famished you just turn him out to grass. But an Englishman is bred on bacon and beef.’

‘An Englishman may ask,’ Mathew says, ‘why we still have Lent. Now we’ve kicked the Pope out, you would think we could enjoy a dish of tripe every day.’

‘The season will be easier this year,’ he says. ‘We can have eggs. Cheese. The king allows it.’

‘Naught but yellow and white,’ Thurston says.

The French and the Emperor are fighting by land and sea. Their war makes fish scarce, and that’s the only reason the king makes a concession. Cranmer complains that at the royal court even the minor feasts of the church are held with all the old superstitious ceremonies. How then can he convince the simple people to labour on saints’ days, instead of drinking ale under a hedge: to till and sow, instead of playing skittles?

‘There are willing butchers enough,’ Thurston says. ‘A man can purchase flesh even on Good Friday, if he has a shilling and a good wit.’

He holds up a palm. ‘If I knew the names of willing butchers, I’d have to close them down.’

‘Our master is second to God,’ Mathew says, chewing. ‘First comes the king, God’s deputy, and then comes our master, deputy to the king.’ He licks his fingers. ‘Sir, they are saying the French have given you a big present. I mean, not a lion or a fighting horse. A present of money.’

He relishes the last fragment of bread, sacramentally: pepper, grass: Chapuys sent the oil. ‘The king’s not averse to us getting our living,’ he tells Mathew. ‘It’s how it’s always been. We frighten the French, and they give us money. The king himself has a pension from them, from old King Edward’s time. Not that they’re good payers.’

Mathew’s brow clears. ‘As long as it’s true. If it were a slander, we’d have to wallop them.’ He sniffs and goes out, with a speculative slap of fist into palm.

‘I’ve no strength to beat anybody,’ Thurston says. ‘An egg won’t do it for me. I want a rib of beef. I could kill Christ for a taste of bacon. I reckon that was Eve’s sin – she never erred for an apple, she went wrong for a fat rasher.’

‘Oh, stop it,’ he says. ‘You’ll make me weep.’

And yet, you wonder who thought of this arrangement: the blind haul from Christ’s birthday, through freeze and sleet to Candlemas, and then weeks of penance, raw meatless days till Easter. Mid-March the trees will leaf and the birds sing, but you can’t eat beauty. Thurston says, ‘It’s all right for His Holy Majesty, I avow he stuffs himself with sugar. He calls for mead and malmsey, and drinks the cellars dry.’

In the blink of an eye, in the space of an Ave, he is somewhere else: he is at Launde Abbey, on the cardinal’s business: on a day of buzzing heat, a young fellow laughing with the monks in a garden. This abbey, where he ate honey scented with thyme, stands in the heart of England, far from the dangers of salt water. It basks in woods and fields, and summer or winter the air is sweet. When he visited for the cardinal he looked at figures as he was bidden, but he found it so blessed a spot that he could not see it through the grid or lattice of an account book. Now he thinks: I’ll have Launde for myself, when its surrender comes. I’ll build a house, and live there when I’m old, far from the court and council. It’s time I had something I want.

He thinks, I need to go back to the Charterhouse, the London Charterhouse, to lock myself once more in argument with those monks: men unused to speech, hermit-like, but eloquent in their dislike of what they call the king’s pretensions to rule their spiritual lives. Henry is only a man, they say: but he says, what else is the Bishop of Rome but a man, and not a fine example either?

He has pleaded with the king to keep the Charterhouse open. There is no abuse and no slackness there, and they never eat meat, not once in the year, but subsist on the fruit and herbs they grow for themselves. I will turn them to us, he has said, a little and a little. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. When he thinks of the blindness of these earnest men, he wants to weep. When he thinks of Farnese, the present Pope – Cardinal Cunt, as the Romans used to call him – he wants to cross the seas and mountains and grab him by the throat.

The third week in February, the court attends the christening of Edward Seymour’s daughter. She is his first child with his present wife, and she is to be called Jane, after the ornament of the family; the queen stands her godmother. Tradition keeps the king from such an occasion, though he looks forlorn. ‘Bring my jewel back safe, my lord.’

You wonder about these traditions, that shut out a king from occasions of common rejoicing. What law puts him, at a queen’s coronation, at a dizzying height above the action in a prayer closet? As his subjects roar gloria in excelsis, he watches through a squint.

Henry kisses the queen heartily before she descends the water stair, a pale doll wrapped in sables. Lady Mary is the other godmother; the godfather, the Lord Privy Seal. Under the canopy of the queen’s barge, he makes small talk with the ladies. Audley makes efforts at an impromptu council meeting, but he ignores him; he can talk to the Lord Chancellor any time.

They are no sooner on the queen’s barge than they disembark at the pier of Chester Place. No notice of the event has been given to the Londoners. All the same a crowd gathers, and cheers for Lady Mary as she is handed to dry land. As for Jane, they look on with indifference, giving their voices neither for nor against. They know she’s not Anne Boleyn. Nor is she the dead woman they still call Queen Katherine. But he has given money to women in the crowd, and when they shout ‘God bless Queen Jane,’ there is a chorus in support. People will shout anything, he thinks, once you start it up. That’s how it must have been in Lincolnshire, when the tumult began. Some rustic bleats ‘Follow the crosses!’ and the whole county is up.

The crowd recognise him. They call out: ‘Cold enough for you, Tom?’ He is a stout godfather, wrapped in black lamb and lynx fur. You cannot say the Londoners like him, but they know he has done good work in defending the city, and that he has vowed to buy and store arms himself for their defence. No doubt they prefer him to a Yorkshire looter. A stray voice pipes, ‘Cromwell, king of London!’

His stomach lurches. His head turns. ‘Friend, if you love me, sing some other tune.’

A consort of musicians meets them, piping them indoors. Garlands of painted roses lead them into the gallery. The christening party inspect the Seymour ancestors, painted on the wall. Today’s bundle of linen must be added into the picture – perhaps down at her parents’ feet, her red crinkled face like a flower on the forest floor.

Mary has been silent on the short journey. Her face looks wan under her gable hood. When she sheds her cloak, he sees she has fixed to her gown the pendant Hans cast: a ring, after all, was not practicable. At the font she touches it, as they stand side by side: ‘You see I am wearing your verses, in praise of obedience. Though my father gave them me, I know their origin.’

He inclines his head. ‘Madam.’

‘And thank you for my Valentine’s gift. You use me beyond my deserts.’

‘You look very well today,’ he lies. ‘Crimson is your favourite colour, I think?’

She murmurs, ‘Do not make light of what you did for me.’

Why would I, he thinks, when it nearly killed me?

‘You saved me, my lord, when I was drowning in folly. When I was almost past recovery.’ Her voice runs on, rehearsing her gratitude. But she won’t look at him, he notices. Her eyes are everywhere, but never on him.

Chester Place belongs to the ancient bishopric, and Seymour is even now wrangling over the lease. A shame if he has to move now he has had the ancestors painted, and the chapel reglazed at his own expense. Winter light filters through the plumage of the Seymour phoenix; the slumbering fire beneath the feathers is so deep a red you want to warm your hands at the glow. Glass angels coo and flutter: they hold tabors and shawms, scourges and crowns of thorns. Some hold hammer and nails, to nail God to the cross: Easter will arrive, and the Man of Sorrows must bleed.

Little Mistress Jane cries heartily at the font. It is a sign, the ladies claim, that the devil is departing. ‘Women are fanciful,’ Edward Seymour says, his tone fond. His wife Nan holds court from her great bed, where they go to kiss her and give her presents. They give money to the wet nurse, and to the midwife for seeing Nan safe, and then they take wine and wafers.

All the talk is of heirs and new-borns. Sir Richard Riche has been augmented, after the birth of many daughters, by a son at last. With stout independence, in a year when all the boys are Henry, he has called his baby Robert, and talks of him excitedly, as a sturdy child and likely to live. Any increase in Riche’s benevolence is of public interest. The treason of certain northern abbots makes it sure that their houses will be pulled down, and Sir Richard will be pleasantly placed to hand out the assets. Meanwhile the news from Calais is that Lady Lisle is pregnant, her child expected late spring, early summer. It seems like a miracle, the couple have been without offspring so long. Lisle is an ageing man, of course, but Honor had seven children with her first husband, though she married him when he was fifty-three already.

The Seymours show no pleasure at the news. They have old law suits with the Lisles, so they don’t care for additions to the family. But noble dames write doting letters to Honor, looking forward to welcoming a little Plantagenet into the world. Arthur Lisle may be a bastard, but he is still old King Edward’s blood.

He spies Lord Lisle’s man of business, bobbing on the edge of the gathering: ‘Spying, Husee?’

‘I bring a christening gift, sir. From my lord and my lady over the sea.’

He has some fellow-feeling for John Husee. Lady Lisle runs him ragged with her shopping lists, and she never wants to pay for anything, so he is constantly begging for credit: and he remembers his own early days, when the Marchioness of Dorset used to send him out for orient pearls, with only the price of oysters in his purse.

The Lord Chancellor heaves in view: ‘Ho, Husee! I hear in Calais there is nothing but singing all the day. And Lisle dancing as if he never knew what gout was.’

Husee makes a reverence. ‘I am explaining to my lord Privy Seal, sir – I have to list everything my lady Beauchamp has, for her lying-in, so my lady can get the same.’

‘Oh, I see that,’ Audley says. ‘She would not want any less for herself, in terms of her hangings, her gold plate, and so forth.’

‘My lady wondered,’ Husee says, ‘if she should come over for her confinement, so the child can be born on English soil.’

He, Lord Cromwell, rolls his eyes. ‘Calais is English soil. As the Lord Deputy’s wife, I hope she grasps that.’

Husee turns to him. ‘But if she’s to be confined there, she wants the silver font sent from Canterbury. Can you put in a word, sir?’

‘I’d send the archbishop to carry it, if Lisle would bestir himself. I hear of two priests preaching treason through the streets, and the governor turns his head and does naught. Tell him to truss them up and put them on a boat, addressed to me at the Tower.’

He thinks, if Cranmer turned up, font or no, Honor would bar the door. She would sprinkle holy water on the threshold, and throw blessed salt in his eyes.

‘I hear Lady Beauchamp has ermine caps,’ Husee says. ‘And if I could get the embroidery pattern for her nightgowns, my lady would be well pleased with me.’

Clearly we can expect no business to be done in Calais this year. Arthur Lisle defers to his wife, and he will never cross her while she is in pup. He says, ‘I mean it, Husee, you tell your master – either he catches me those priests, or he must come himself to answer for them. I am not patient for ever. Perhaps your lady mistress encourages him to slack his duty, but tell him I am watching him. I will have him out of his post and at the gallows’ foot, if he tries to play me for a fool.’

Husee sucks his lip. ‘I’ll tell him.’

‘Look out,’ Audley says. ‘The queen.’ He steps back, clutching his bonnet to his chest, as if Jane were a runaway horse. ‘Madam – we are speaking of Lady Lisle. Her great hopes of an heir.’

‘Marvellous, isn’t it?’ Jane sounds bored.

‘May God in His own good time make your Highness a happy mother too. Your sister-in-law sets a glad example.’

‘Does she?’ Jane is puzzled. ‘I shall hardly be a happy mother, if I have a girl. I should think I will be sent back to Wolf Hall in a basket, like a fowl unsold on market day. What do you think, Lord Audley?’

She turns away. Audley’s jaw drops.

He looks around. ‘My lady Rochford, spare me a moment?’

Nothing urgent in his tone. Can he have mistaken Jane’s meaning? A pregnant woman will not usually stand godmother to another woman’s child, as she deems her future too precarious. He steers Lady Rochford aside. ‘It is true her courses have not come,’ she murmurs. Like Mary, Jane Rochford won’t look at him – her eyes are on the guests. ‘Her titties are swollen. She won’t speak till she’s sure. Let’s hope it’s stuck fast, eh?’

He stares at the queen. ‘Let me know when she decides to tell Henry.’

‘Yes,’ Jane Rochford says, ‘make sure you are at hand. He will be in a humour to hand out favours. He might give you … whatever it is you lack. Though that’s not much, is it, my lord Privy Seal?’

Five minutes, and the whisper has spread. Edward Seymour has his sister by the elbow: ‘I believe you have hope. Your Highness.’

‘We all have hope,’ Jane says sweetly.

Edward looks as if he would slap her: playing games, at a time like this! ‘We have waited long enough, sister.’

‘Oh, Edward.’ She sighs. ‘You are so eager for promotion.’

‘When are you safe to speak?’

He, Cromwell, says, ‘Highness, why delay?’

‘Because …’ The queen contemplates her reasons. ‘Because once the king has hope of a son, what will there be, to make him say his prayers?’

He and Edward exchange glances. She’s right. Whenever one of his queens has been with child, Henry has always been sure it is a male. Once he has an heir in the womb, once he can say again, ‘God is pleased with me,’ what will there be to refrain Henry from every desire? He might free all the prisoners in the Tower. Or he might go to war on a whim. King François is in the field himself, reports say: laying sieges, ordering up the big guns. Henry grunts and colours when he speaks of it. His leg is sore, and Thurston is right: the more miserable he is, the more sugar he requires.

He puts his hand on Edward’s arm. ‘Listen to your lady sister. Say nothing yet.’

In idle moments he has been planning a cake he could give the king for Easter: a huge marzipan one, gilded balls on top. Perhaps he will keep it for when the news comes out.

Jane’s eyes are like deep ponds on a still day.

As the short afternoon darkens, he is back at the Rolls House, writing letters to Flanders. They say Pole has spent all his money, and the Pope has given him none: but still Reginald struts, with his title of papal legate, trying to sell the idea of an invasion of England. Lord Darcy, and no doubt some other of the rebel lords, have sent him letters; we do not need to read them, to know the rebels take Pole for their king in exile.

Now he has learned through back channels that Pole is asking to talk to him: Reginald wants him to cross over to Calais, then meet on Imperial territory, both parties with safe-conduct. He, Lord Cromwell, has thought it wise to bring the matter into daylight: so he loses his temper in the council chamber, shouting that if he should find himself in a room with the traitor Pole, only one can emerge alive.

The king had watched him, head tilted, as if sceptical about his sudden passion. To reinforce it the Lord Privy Seal had shaken his fist in the direction of Dover. Richard Riche had gaped at him, and the Lord Chancellor dropped his penknife in shock.

He sands his papers. The prospect of an heir, he thinks, will strike Pole a blow to the heart. Though if Jane is in a happy condition, it changes our plans. The king will want to stay by her side this summer. He will never go north. There will be no coronation in York.

Christophe comes in. ‘That Mathew, sneezing,’ he says. ‘If he has a disease, you will not be able to go to court.’

At any time, the king is always afraid of contagion. And now, of course, every precaution will be necessary.

Christophe says, ‘Call-Me is here for his supper.’

He thinks, Mary looks at me as if she doesn’t know who I am.

Supper is pike, with rosemary and fried onions. Call-Me says, ‘I hear when Rafe is done in Scotland he will go to France.’

‘I shall try to get him home first. Helen says she is sick for the sight of him. She is expecting a child in the autumn.’

‘I suppose by now she knows the signs,’ Call-Me says. ‘It seems they took a liking to Rafe, the Scots?’

‘Who would not like Rafe? He goes to France now with messages to King James. James lingers there, does he not?’

‘Rafe will meet Bishop Gardiner while he is in Paris. He cannot avoid it. Gardiner is asking for his recall.’

He pokes his fish around the plate. ‘God forgive me, but I wonder why He ever made pike?’

Mr Wriothesley extracts a bone. ‘I imagine the bishop’s return would be as welcome to your lordship as hemlock in a salad.’

He sighs. ‘It will be a while before we taste salad. I hear from France there will be no cherries till July.’

Christophe brings almonds and dried fruit. Mr Wriothesley says, ‘I perceive how the Lady Mary is continually applying to you for money and favours. Lady Rochford says,’ he smiles, ‘that Mary avoids looking at you, only for the great love she bears you. You are too dazzling a sight for her maiden eyes.’

‘We have to be gracious to Lady Rochford,’ he says. ‘Without her, the king and queen might not be married. Anne Boleyn would still be queen.’

And our heir unconceived. It appears that despite his sharp ears, Call-Me has not caught on to the day’s most important news, because he only wants to talk about Calais. ‘Lisle is careless. You do well to warn him, sir. It is not only papists he is harbouring. It is sectaries, they say. Sacramentaries.’

‘So Chapuys tells me.’ He eats a fig, meditatively. ‘I’d rather be in bed with a scorpion than with Honor Lisle.’

‘I too,’ Christophe says loyally, coming in with cheese. ‘I would squash her beneath my foot. Are you sitting up writing your king book tonight?’

Call-Me turns a curious glance on him. But he does not ask.

When the northern lords have made their excuses for their conduct during the winter past, the king sends them home wearing the badge of St George. He decrees the red cross a mark of allegiance for all men who have a coat to pin it on: wear a red ribbon, or sew a red thread that connects you to your sovereign. Because though the rebels are stood down, and the weapons confiscated, there is no truce in the war of words. The south calls the north traitorous; the north calls the south heretical. The north says, you have abused us for a thousand years: all we represent is a barrier between you and the Scots, a wall of corpses to delay them, while you have time to lock up your wives and daughters and put your gold in store.

The southerners say, have you ever been to Dover? Have you ever stood on the cliffs and seen the lights on the French coast, and considered how narrow is the Narrow Sea – how much we risk, and how much we pay, to save you from the slavers and pirates and barbarians who have been battering our shores since shores were thought of?

He says to the king, in the north they have contempt for the king’s peace, they want to administer their own murders. If Norfolk cannot subdue them they will fall into their old savagery, where each eye or limb or life itself is costed out, and all flesh has a price. In our forefathers’ time a nobleman’s life was worth six times that of a man who followed the plough. The rich man can slaughter as he pleases, if his pocket can bear the fines, but the poor man cannot afford one murder across his lifetime. We repudiate this, he tells the king: we say a man of violence cannot go free because his cousin is the judge, no more than a wealthy sinner can make up for his sins by founding a monastery. Before God and the law, all men are equal.

It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every shire are wedded to what their nurses told them. They do not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in better ease. But new times are coming. Gregory’s children – and, he adds quickly, your Majesty’s children yet to be born – will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read the Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs. They will see that a prince exists not to sit a horse in a plumed helmet, but – as your Majesty always says – to care for his subjects, body and soul. The scriptures enjoin obedience to earthly powers, and so we stick by our prince through thick and thin. We do not reject part of his polity. We take him as a whole, consider him God’s anointed, and suppose God is keeping an eye on him.

Until these blessed days dawn, ‘Let’s have peace,’ he says: ‘Peace is cheap.’ Everyone agrees the north must be governed better, but by whom? Thomas Cromwell thinks we need able men, but the Duke of Norfolk thinks we need noble men.

When fresh insurrection breaks out, it is led by a man who owes the Lord Privy Seal a great deal of money. His name is Francis Bigod: a boy in Wolsey’s household, an Oxford scholar, zealous for the gospel till lately; a man on friendly terms with our archbishop, with Hugh Latimer, with Robert Barnes; on friendliest terms of all with my lord Cromwell. So what does it mean, what can it mean, that such a man is riding about the countryside talking wild and waving a sword, swearing to take back Hull for the rebels, seize the town of Beverley, launch a force against the port of Scarborough? He is tired of people asking him, what does it mean, and whence comes this? Did you quarrel? As if he were responsible for Bigod’s bloody caprice.

He can only say, Bigod asked some strange things of me lately. He asked how the king could be responsible for our souls: as if there were some other candidate on earth, better qualified. He asked if he, Bigod, could preach in the pulpit, like a priest. When I said no, he asked, could he be ordained a priest? Though he was married?

He is brainsick, perhaps, his wits turned. But his folly will undo his countrymen, leading them to the fight through weather in which only a novice would campaign. And Bigod is not so mad he cannot be responsible for his actions. The king’s pardon was once and once only: after that, martial law.

Hans comes to him. ‘He has decided he wants a wall painting.’

‘Is that more difficult?’

Hans rubs his beard. He wants to talk terms; he wants to go on the royal books, with board and lodging and a workspace at Whitehall for the life of this project and beyond. He asks for a guarantee of thirty pounds a year, and then he will turn down other commissions and call himself painter to the King of England.

‘Thirty?’ He frowns. But after all, Hans has a mistress and two children to keep, apart from his family over the sea.

Hans says, ‘There is a piece of wall in the privy chamber here, I measure it at twenty-two feet.’

‘The privy chamber? That’s where he wants it?’

‘I should hardly put it there without his permission.’

‘I thought he would want it in the presence chamber. To awe the whole world.’

‘No. He just wants to awe you. And his attending gentlemen. And I suppose any poor foreigner he brings in for a tour.’

Of course, the privy chamber is not as private these days as its name implies. The king does not reckon to be alone there. If he wants solitude, or the company of one or two, he finds himself a sanctum in every house: a corner room where he tunes a lute, or a secret book store up a winding stair.

Hans says, ‘I do not mind if few people see it, as long as the right people see it. I plan to place his head’ – he indicates above his own head, ‘about here. No harm to give him an extra inch or so.’

‘In the leg,’ he suggests, ‘not the body. Or you mean elsewhere?’

Han sniggers. ‘I will draw him with gown well-parted, so the world can see the wonder. A generous wad of quilting.’

‘How big will it be? The painting, I mean.’

Hans stretches his arms then wheels about, demonstrating in space. ‘He wonders if he should have his father painted too.’

‘In the same picture?’

‘It can be done.’

And his mother, why not? A line of kings and queens, stretching into the blue distance. And an unborn child hovering, like a shadow of a bird against glass.

‘So he must be available to me,’ Hans says. ‘For drawings. They must be detailed, it will take time. Afterwards I can dispense with his body. He need not be present. I can meet separately with his clothes.’

‘You did not give me that choice when you painted me.’

‘But I failed with you,’ Hans says curtly. ‘You should have been painted by some other master, a dead one, for God He knows, you looked dead. You know Antonello, that fellow from Messina? He would have dragged some expression out of you.’

He has seen this master’s work. When Antonello painted the grandees of Venice, he captured the sceptical raised eyebrow, the flicker of a sour smile. But the Venetians didn’t like his work; he knew too much about them.

‘By the way,’ Hans says, ‘how is your daughter?’

‘Gone home.’ He intends to say no more.

‘She did not like England? Or she did not like you?’

Hans, he thinks, has likely known about Jenneke for years. It would explain certain snatches of conversation, broken off: sideways glances, sly. ‘Hans,’ he says, ‘don’t ask questions unless you know what to do with the answers.’

March, 1537: day by day, at the Tower and at the Rolls House, the Lord Privy Seal unpicks the events of the year past. With witnesses, with interrogatories before him, with clerks and Mr Wriothesley, he is laying bare, day by day and name by name, the machinery of revolt.

‘So you say you were coerced into rebellion? That you took an oath against your will? Please name the rebels who resorted to you, and say when. How were they armed? Did they use force against your person? Did they threaten force against your person? You say your horses were seized, your thatch fired, your wife insulted – you have witnesses? You allege the rebels set fire to your property, which included movable goods to the value of …? You did not have an inventory? Ah, I see, they burned your inventory. And what did you do, to counter their threats? Did you not send messages to your friends for help? You did, and they did not stir? Why not? What had you done to them, to cause them to abandon you?’

Mr Wriothesley wears the sables sent him as a present by our man in Brussels. Christophe builds up the fire. He, Lord Privy Seal, now keeps his own wine store here at the Tower. He has a strongroom, to lock up the interrogatories, so no one can interfere with them overnight, writing between the lines. Helpers come in and out – Augmentations men, his relative John ap Rice, and a useful cleric called Edmund Bonner, a fussy, clucking little man with an eye for the ladies and an ear for gossip. The bishops, still working on their new statement of doctrine, send him weighty folios every night: from the snivelling wrecks at the Tower, he goes home to number the sacraments. The interrogations grind on through the spring. For every answer he has six questions. He is willing to pinch a man with pains, if nothing else will work, though the threat will do more, and he regards it as a defeat if he has to call for chains and heated irons.

Wriothesley has not his patience: but then, he is young, and he has a family he would like to see sometimes. He will touch his elbow: ‘Sir, this is a mild pain, and we have a stubborn rebel before us, and it is late. I believe he can stand more.’

But he thinks, no, none of us can stand anything. Scrape our skin, and beneath it there is an infant, howling.

He says, ‘You could try listening. That’s how you find things out.’

‘But if he says nothing?’

‘Then listen to his silence.’ Listen through his silence. Imagine what you could give him, to make him speak – instead of what you could take away. Perhaps he must die, and he knows that; but some deaths can be faced and some not. What is it worth, to be spared castration, and the apprehension of it? You could offer him the shock of the axe, the carpet of blood, not the panic of half-hanging and the agony of the knife in the bowel. It is all about anticipation, he tells Call-Me. Give him something to live for, or offer him a death that spares him shame. Assure him that, whether or not he helps us, the king will pay his debts and look after his family: such small mercies can make a felon weep and break his will.

In no other country could this happen. In the domains of François or Charles there would be no truces, negotiations, or sessions of question and answer that stretch from Advent to Trinity. Once apprehended the noble suspects would be tortured and killed and the common dead would be butchered and lie under the open sky. He says, where we cannot avoid severity, we can still temper justice with mercy. Where loyal men have been despoiled of property, the crown will compensate them. Where the king has been well-served, there must be rewards. Where his authority has been held in contempt, retribution must be swift and public. In the north Norfolk hangs truce-breakers from the trees. He hangs them in chains if he can get them, but iron is so dear, and rope will do. Their wives come by night to cut them down, but the king says any women who are caught must be straitly punished. He wishes the corpses to hang there through Easter and into the warm weather: as you hang a maggoty crow on a fence, as an example to other birds not to steal your crops. In London, heads are spiked on the bridge, and limbs of traitors are nailed to the gates. But the cold weather stops them rotting and the citizens are sickened by the sight.

By the middle of February young Bigod is captured. His captains are in ward. Tyburn waits for them, in season: no rush. The summer will clean up the winter’s spoilage. Thomas Cromwell will never recover the money he is owed. Nor will Henry learn he should bury the dead.

He sends for Thomas Wyatt to see him at the Rolls House. Like every loyal gentleman he has been in the saddle against the rebels, but there is another task for him. He has long begged to be sent out of the kingdom. Now he is going as ambassador to the Emperor. It means pursuing Charles across Europe summer and winter: an ideal posting for a restless man. The role needs honest force and honeyed words, and a certain willingness to obfuscate about the intentions of the King of England: and as Wyatt says that to him nothing is ever clear, and no truth is a single truth, he seems the man for the job.

The Emperor continues to urge that Lady Mary should marry the brother of the Portuguese king. He recommends Dom Luis as wise, discreet and loving. He will be content to reside in England, rather than carry the princess from her native land.

‘Wyatt,’ he says, ‘ask the Emperor how much he will pay us for Mary. Put it suavely – but do not be misled if he names great sums, ask him how he will secure the debt. The king will not part with her for promises.’

‘You don’t want this match,’ Wyatt says.

‘More to the point, she doesn’t.’

‘What do you want?’

‘Only to protect her.’

‘The king needs a friend in Europe,’ Wyatt says. ‘The kind of special friend he can only get through a marriage.’

‘The king could get a troop of friends in Switzerland, and among the German princes. All we need is to agree a bare statement of doctrine, and we will have allies enough.’ He frowns. ‘And if a marriage must be made, better Eliza than Mary.’

‘You are a long thinker, my lord. The young lady is, what, four this year?’

‘So it cannot be consummated,’ he says. ‘Not for ten years – and that would be early. Twelve years, if we plead she is delicate. It will not be a true marriage, so if it turns out not to serve us we can set it aside.’

‘You guard Mary’s virginity,’ Wyatt says.

He shrugs.

‘You were her Valentine. Wriothesley is telling everyone how he carried a handsome present to her.’

At the court’s annual feast – Wyatt well knows – we draw lots for our Valentine. So no one is left out, young or old.

‘One never knows with Cremuello,’ Wyatt says. ‘I remember when the rumour was that you were making your addresses to one Mistress Seymour, who is now queen.’

Cold as a stone he says, ‘What gave rise to that idea?’

‘She would have been better off,’ Wyatt says.

‘The queen is not unhappy.’

‘You would know, my lord. You know much about women that is hidden from the rest of us. How to advance them. How to undo them.’

Last summer, then, abrades Wyatt’s temper, frays his inner peace. Though he has slipped the noose, he must be unpicking the rope, shredding the fibres in his fingers. ‘Wyatt,’ he says, ‘such talk will undo me. Is that your intention?’

‘Put yourself in my place. In every conversation we have held for a twelvemonth, I have had to ask myself, is he trying to save me, or is he trying to drown me? Am I precious cargo, or thrown overboard?’

‘Well, proof of the pudding,’ he says. (Let the poet do what he can with that image.) ‘You are still breathing.’

‘And yours till my last breath.’ Wyatt stands up and stretches. ‘I would follow you to the ends of Christendom. Whither go I now, chasing Carolus.’

Wyatt seeks himself in the mirror. In some invisible adjustment, his finger brushes the feather in his cap. ‘Look after Bess Darrell while I’m gone.’

He takes a day off, and walks the grounds of Austin Friars with his gardeners, Mercy Prior leaning on his arm. The wood of the garden arbour is sodden to the touch and the walls have grown plump pillows of moss. The stakes that support his young trees seem to be quivering with their own, green inner life.

He invites Richard Riche to supper, to ask what can be done for the other Bess – Lady Oughtred. ‘Her husband left her mean provision. She wants a house of her own.’

‘The Seymour family has deserved well of the king,’ Call-Me says. ‘Riche, you might help her to some abbey?’

Riche says, ‘You will find she is positioning herself for a new marriage. I am surprised, sir, your friends among the ladies have not mentioned it. She will look high, and quite proper she should. The Earl of Oxford is mentioned.’

John de Vere is an old widower: two wives killed under him already. He is the fifteenth earl. Imagine, he thinks, being the fifteenth anything.

Thurston has tried a new cod dish – garlic, saffron, fennel. Just white and yellow, as he said: it looks as if they’ve sicked it up. ‘I hear you will have Quarr Abbey,’ he says to Call-Me. ‘Good rents for you from the manors. And the woods are worth a clear hundred pounds, are they not?’

Ten monks at Quarr, all of whom desire continuance in their vows. Some thirty-eight persons waiting on them. White stone, sea views, fifty-five pounds of debt: not a large house, but there are lands in Devon that, obligations discharged, should come to Call-Me within six months. ‘I am thinking about Launde for myself,’ he says.

Riche says, ‘Launde will not come down yet. It is worth four hundred a year.’

‘I can wait.’

He watches the platter of fish go out. He is struck by a happy thought, and it has nothing to do with abbeys at all.

He seeks an audience with the queen. ‘When is your sister Bess coming to court? You will need her company through these next months.’

‘I suppose so,’ Jane says. She counts on her fingers. ‘It seems a long time to October.’

There is a rustle that spreads from where she sits, through the room, through the court, through England and across the sea. At last, the news is public.

‘My lord Beauchamp, I felicitate all your family,’ the court says. Edward’s handsome face relaxes into smiles; he bows and passes on, as if in a radiant cloud, to send a message down to Wolf Hall and a message to his brother Tom, who is with the king’s fleet.

Now the space around the queen becomes a blessed space. All displeasant airs and discordant sounds must be banished. The jelly creature within her flinches at harsh words or bright lights and Jane must be protected from them, as from strong sunlight or draughts. Only the finest cloth must touch her skin, and no scents assail her but the sweetness of summer grass and the light spice scent of petals. The paws of attending lapdogs must be wiped before they can impose on her person. No courtiers who sneeze or cough, or who know anyone who sneezes or coughs, must come in her vicinity. Only beautiful sights must meet her eyes: though, he says to her, ‘We cannot do anything about me, madam.’

When the king meets his council the gentlemen pound the table in their glee. ‘A great day for our nation,’ they shout, and ‘This will astonish the Emperor,’ and ‘This will put France’s great nose out of joint.’

Henry says, ‘There is no need the news should go out to the common sort.’ He sounds strained. ‘Not yet awhile.’

‘I think it is out,’ Fitzwilliam says, ‘and not a man or woman in England who does not wish your Majesty well and pray on his knees nightly that the queen will give you a sturdy boy.’

Henry says, ‘I wish the cardinal were –’ He breaks off. He, Thomas Cromwell, looks down at the documents on the table. The council rises, the babble of congratulation still floating in the air. ‘Fitz, stay,’ Henry says. ‘Cromwell?’

The noise recedes: laughter below; laughter above, perhaps, the cardinal applauding from somewhere beyond the primum mobile. The dead watch us, zealous in old causes.

The king says, ‘Jane wants to make a pilgrimage to Becket’s shrine.’ He frowns. Canterbury does not hold good memories: it was where the prophetess Eliza Barton rose up, and gripped his arm and told him he would soon be dead.

Yet Barton was hanged. And Henry flourishes. God confound all false prophets! ‘Of course we will go,’ Henry says. ‘The queen must go where she likes, while she can safely travel. Even so far as Wolf Hall, if she has a fantasy to it. But my lord – my lord Privy Seal?’

He wants to put his hand on the king’s shoulder, as he sits sweating in a cold room; the lords of the council have taken the cheer and the warmth with them, and there is no power in the stray shafts of spring sun that trace a shivering line down the wall.

The king says, ‘I am a man who … my hopes … after so long … and I want to be sure …’

Fitz raises his eyebrows.

‘When I married the queen, that is, before I married her … I need not remind you of the circumstances, but rest assured that though I was hasty, yet I am constant in my affections –’

‘Spit it out, sir,’ Fitzwilliam says.

‘Are we truly married?’ Henry says. ‘When I entered into that compact, there was nothing to impede or frustrate it?’

‘You mean,’ he says, ‘nothing about the queen that you should have known?’

Fitz sounds shocked. ‘I am sure you found no reason to question that gracious lady’s virginity.’

Henry colours faintly. ‘Not at all. But are you certain you did all you should, as my councillors? The most diligent enquiries? You can be sure she was absolutely free to enter into matrimony?’

‘There was no pre-contract,’ Fitz says, ‘if that is what troubles your Majesty.’

‘But was she not once courted by William Dormer?’

‘It was something and nothing,’ Fitzwilliam says.

He says, ‘It was nothing.’

Fitz says, ‘To be blunt, sir, the Dormer family would not come to a settlement. They concluded the Seymours were not –’

‘Rich enough,’ he finishes.

‘So you think there was nothing between them?’ The king gets to his feet. ‘If you are sure. Because I need to be sure. Because I cannot start hoping again, it will kill me. I have lost Richmond. I never had a son born in wedlock, that lived. I must know that this time I am safe. That no one can question his birthright. I have been patient. Surely God will reward me now.’ There is a glitter of tears in his eyes. He, Cromwell, turns away, and Fitzwilliam turns, so they do not see them spill. But the king says, ‘I should know you by now, eh, Crumb? If ever a man was thorough, you are that man.’

The king squeezes his shoulder. There is a new magic in the royal touch. It transmits a vision, a vision of what England could be. You imagine the city of London in the days when prophets walk its streets, when angels cluster on gable ends; you look up as you leave your house, hearing their strong wingbeats in the air.

At his first session with Hans, the king can hardly walk for the weight of ornamentation. ‘How best to do this, Master Holbein?’ His face is solemn, attentive.

Hans waves his hand towards the privy chamber gentlemen, the pages, the hangers-on: it is a motion of erasure.

The room empties. Space clears around the king. ‘Can I stay?’ he asks.

Henry says, ‘You may sit with me, my lord Cromwell, but I don’t require conversation.’

He smiles. ‘I’ll stay if your Majesty will grant me five minutes when Hans is done.’

Henry does not reply. He has fixed his gaze on nothingness and he looks as if he is thinking about God. He, Master Secretary, clears himself off to the window, sits on a stool and looks through his papers. His spaniel flops down at his feet. There is no sound in the room but her gentle snoring, except with the king’s every respiration, his garments shift and sigh: as if, a fraction after the king breathes, his clothes breathe too. Behind the silence, he begins to hear other sounds: footsteps above, a scuffling outside the door, a soughing wind that tests the window’s glass in its frame. Every so often he glances up at Henry, in case he wants anything. After a time the king grows tired of God, and starts watching his minister instead. ‘I wonder you can see to read.’

‘I am fortunate.’

‘Mm,’ the king says. ‘You should bathe your eyes with a decoction of rue.’

As he works at his drawing Hans purses his lips and sucks his teeth. He bites down on his lower lip. He hums. As he stands back and lets out his breath there is a sibilance, very nearly a whistle.

The king says, ‘We should have music, perhaps.’

‘Master Hans is doing his best to supply it,’ he says.

Henry says, ‘What did you want with me, my lord Privy Seal?’

‘To talk about the King of Scots, by your leave. You know he is still in France, he has not set forth with his bride. Her father is apprehensive at the thought of her putting to sea. They say she is so frail you can see through her.’

Henry snorts. ‘It is Scotland who is apprehensive. He is quaking. He has been boasting to François he will kick my throne from under me, and now he must reckon with the consequences. He is afraid one of my ships will take him as soon as he is out of port.’

‘Indeed, but now he appeals to your Majesty as a gentleman – he wants to shorten the voyage, land with his bride at Dover and have safe conduct to the border.’

Henry says, ‘What, have his train eat up everything in their path, and sow sedition as they march? Parade in their strength through the north country, showing their banners? Does he think I’m a fool?’

Hans breaks off humming. He coughs.

Ah well. It is a chance lost, of a meeting between two monarchs, uncle and nephew, who have long avoided each other.

The king’s hand rests on the pommel of his dagger: ‘Like this?’ he says to Hans.

Hans says, ‘Perfect.’

Henry eases his shoulders, flexes his knees. Portrait-taking freezes muscle, makes feet hard to manage, makes elbows feel as if they belong to someone else. The harder he tries to hold still, the more the king fidgets. He says, ‘I have messages from Ireland. They want you to go over for a season, my lord Cromwell. They think you could bring order. I do suppose you could.’

‘So am I to go?’

‘No. They might murder you.’

Hans hums.

The king shifts his stance. ‘When are the bishops going to utter?’

Since early in the year the bishops have been working on their profession of faith. It is only last July that the ten articles were issued, and gave birth to months of debate. The king hopes a new statement will consolidate opinion. But every time the bishops send Henry some text, he writes over it and makes nonsense of their propositions. Then the papers go back to Thomas Cranmer: who emends the king’s emendations, and corrects his syntax while he is about it.

Hans says, ‘Would your Majesty be so gracious as to turn his face? Not to Lord Cromwell, to me?’

Henry obeys. He stares at the painter and speaks to his minister: ‘Has Lisle’s man been here? I marvel Lady Lisle has not taken to her chamber. She must be near her time.’

‘Your Majesty will be the first to know.’

Hans says, ‘If she has a boy Lord Lisle will shoot off cannon, so if it is a still day they will hear it in Dover and put a rider on the road. I hope the walls of Calais do not fall down.’

‘Master,’ he whispers, ‘you forget yourself. Apply to your trade.’