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The Mirror and the Light (Twelfth Night | Part 1)

Autumn 1539

In August Hans rolls up the bride, brings her home, and slaps her on a panel for the king’s inspection.

‘I had to be quick,’ Hans says, ‘make sure she was dry before I could take my leave. I brought Amelia too, the young one. But frankly, Amelia is not so much.’

‘Show me Anna first,’ he says. He steps back to admire her, a shining princess who is more metal than flesh. Her clothes mould her, like the armour of some goddess, and look as if they would stand up by themselves. You drag your eyes upwards from her gleaming breastplate to her face. It is a serene oval, vulnerable, bare. It is not so young and rosy as Christina’s, but shows a modest charm. She has tender eyes, veiled: the Holy Virgin, brooding over her unexpected turn of fortune. ‘Henry should like her,’ the painter says. ‘I would. You would. It is a good picture. You would not guess how I sweated over it.’

‘Show me Amelia,’ he says.

Should Duke Wilhelm die without heir, Anna as the elder stands to inherit more. Amelia would require extraordinary beauty, to make up for her lesser prospects.

He examines her. Darker. Face longer. Her brows defined. ‘She reminds me of the other one. Boleyn.’

Hans turns her to the wall.

Henry stands before the image of his bride and his eyes, like those of his councillors, travel from her middle upwards. Time passes: the sand running through the glass, the river flowing to the sea. Henry nods. ‘Very well. I shall hear more of her from our envoy Dr Wotton, shall I not?’ He hesitates, with a flicker of a smile. ‘Tell Master Hans, all good.’

Edward Seymour has written from Wolf Hall. He is flush with the success of the recent royal visit, reassured that his family will lose no pre-eminence with the king’s remarriage. He says, the king should take the Princess of Cleves, we need the alliance, and from all I hear she is a gracious lady and will give him more children; I do not think he can do better.

The Duke of Suffolk gives his voice in council: it is right and proper that our king should marry into a royal house. The Seymours are a good enough family, no doubt, says Charles: but the marriage brought the king no credit abroad. As for the house of Cleves – do they not travel down the Rhine in boats drawn by silver swans?

He, Cromwell, smiles. ‘Perhaps in former times, my lord Suffolk.’

The Emperor is reported to dislike the match very much. The French are disaffected, the Scots grizzling. Our king is hunting. Most days he keeps well. The physicians report a feverish cold and a worrying stoppage of the bowels, but next day he is back in the saddle, with Fitzwilliam and a party of ladies, and together they kill a dozen stags. His party travel from Grafton to Ampthill, to Dunstable, down through Bedfordshire, and the king is merry, easy company, as he has not been for many a year. He is Henry the Well-Beloved, with a wife in prospect and a feather in his cap.

And he, Cromwell, makes a survey of the king’s game, because he is chief justice and keeper of the forests, parks and chases that lie north of Trent. His survey begins in early June, in Sherwood Forest, and by September his people have counted 2,067 red deer and 6,352 fallow deer, clerks recording their lives in a parchment book of sixty-eight pages. They have scoured the greenwood and know the secrets of its undergrowth life; but they have not found Robin Hood, or the green men who shoot and feast with him.

Within a week or two Hans has painted the bride again, from memory and from his larger portrait: so that the king can carry her with him, he has confined her in an ivory miniature. ‘Look, my lord Norfolk,’ Henry says. ‘Is she not well and seemly?’

Norfolk grunts. His eyes travel sideways waiting for him, Cromwell, to speak.

Once they had recovered from the dinner of reconciliation, he and Norfolk had to learn to be in the same room again. He had abased himself with an apology. Norfolk had snorted. Fitzwilliam slapped their backs: ‘Shake hands like Christians.’

He touches the duke’s bony calloused palm: showing willing. Though he is not sure Norfolk is even a Christian. He worships his forebears. He has been as greedy for monks’ lands as any man in the realm, but says he will not let Thetford Priory go down, because his folk are buried there. Or rather, he will have it reformed into a college of priests, who will pray for the souls of his ancestors. The duke explains it, as he stamps alongside him: ‘They will pray for them, Cromwell, as long as this world endures.’

He says politely, ‘That’s a lot of prayers.’

Wotton’s report is in. As the king’s representative, he has seen Anna at home with her mother. The Duchess Maria – the dowager – is a sober Catholic matron who keeps her daughters close to her elbow, and has brought them up simply, narrowly, piously. It is not thought proper in Cleves for young ladies to be troubled with books or tutors. Accordingly, Anna speaks no language but her own.

‘Cromwell will be able to talk to her,’ Henry says. ‘He knows all modern tongues.’

‘I fear not,’ he says. ‘Master Sadler is a better man for German. I learned mine in Venice, and from the Nuremberg merchants mostly. It is not like the tongue the Lady Anna speaks. Nor am I equipped for conversation such as ladies like, knowing only the terms for buying and selling.’

‘If I am truthful,’ Norfolk says, ‘I never know what we are meant to talk to women about. They don’t like anything a man likes.’

He says, ‘My wife had no languages, but she knew everybody in the wool trade. She could keep books as well as any clerk, and when I came home from a journey she would have sent to Lombard Street and she would have the morning’s exchange rates jotted down in columns. She could always tell you how currency was moving.’

They make their progress past the king’s guards. ‘I think you like being low-born,’ Norfolk says. ‘I think you’re boasting of it, Cromwell. Being a tradesman.’

The king’s chamber servants meet them, bowing. Whatever roof shelters Henry, hunting lodge or palace, the etiquette is the same, a ring of protection sealed by familiar faces and expert hands: by a monogrammed close stool with a kidskin seat, by a stack of linen cloths for a sore royal backside; by a holy water stoup, by great blazing candles of wax at close of day, by the sanctuary of velvet bedcurtains. But now Henry smiles and blinks in the sunshine, a summer king.

The duke dives in. ‘Majesty! I think you might employ my son Surrey on a mission to Cleves. An envoy of noble blood would gain us credit, surely?’

He, Cromwell, frowns. ‘I don’t think we need credit. We are past that stage.’

‘It is true,’ Henry says blithely. ‘All Duke Wilhelm’s councillors are in accord. We need not disturb your boy. I know he is occupied with our defences in your own part of the world. It were a pity to divert him.’

Norfolk’s brow furrows. ‘What about the money? What will she fetch?’

He says, ‘Wilhelm will give a hundred thousand crowns with his sister. But it will remain on paper.’

‘What, not pay it?’ Norfolk is shocked. ‘Are they paupers?’

Henry says, ‘We are pleased to waive what is due. The duke is young and has great charges. You know he has entered into Guelders, which is his right. But he must be ready to defend it against the Emperor.’

He, the Lord Privy Seal, has told the Cleves delegation, ‘My king prefers virtue and friendship to hard cash.’ Relieved, the Germans exclaim, By God, what a very gallant gentleman he is! But we expected no less.

‘The arrangement must not leak out,’ Henry says. ‘Wilhelm would be shamed. Soon I shall call him my brother, so I would wish to spare him embarrassment.’

‘What about her journey?’ Norfolk says. ‘It costs, moving a princess.’

‘We have ships,’ Henry says.

The duke bristles. ‘Any impediment? Affinity? Are they kin?’

‘Anna is the king’s seventh cousin.’

‘Oh,’ Norfolk says, ‘I suppose that’s all right. We need no interference from the Pope, then. By Jesus, no!’

The king says, ‘I confess I was surprised we have no language in common, but our envoys say she has a good wit, and I am sure she will learn our tongue as soon as she puts her mind to it. Besides, everybody speaks a little French, even if they say not – do you not think so, my lord Cromwell?’

‘Duke Wilhelm’s advisers speak French,’ he says. ‘But the lady –’

The king interrupts him. ‘When Katherine came from Spain to marry my lord brother, she spoke neither English nor French, and he had no Spanish. The king my father had thought, no matter, she is said to be a good Latinist, they will get along that way – but as it proved, they did not understand each other’s Latin either.’ The king chuckles. ‘But they had goodwill towards each other, and were soon affectionate. And of course, we will be able to make music together. If she does not know the words to English songs, I am sure she will know them in other tongues.’

He says, ‘In Germany, I understand, great ladies do not have music masters. A lady there would lose her good name by singing or dancing.’

The king’s face falls. ‘Then what will we do after supper?’

‘Drink?’ Norfolk says. ‘They are great drinkers, Germans. They are known for it.’

‘They say the same of the English.’ He gives the duke a fierce look. ‘Lady Anna takes her wine well-watered. And they do not forbid music, not at all. The Duchess Maria listens to the harp. Duke Wilhelm travels with a consort of musicians.’

All this is true. But our men in Cleves have told him the duke’s court is sedate to the point of tedium. By nine at night every man has gone to his own chamber, not to issue out till daylight. You can’t get so much as a glass of wine without troubling some high official for the keys.

‘My wife and I will hunt,’ the king says. ‘We will enjoy the pleasures of the chase.’

‘I believe she can ride, Majesty.’

‘She must. She has to get about,’ Norfolk says.

‘But I am not sure if she shoots. She can learn.’

The king seems puzzled. ‘They don’t hunt either, the ladies? Do they sew all day?’

‘And pray,’ he says.

‘By God,’ Norfolk says, ‘she’ll be grateful to you, for taking her out of that place.’

‘Yes.’ Henry sees it in a new light. ‘Yes, her life must have been a trial, bless her. And no money of her own, I suppose. She will find our ideas quite different. But I trust –’ He breaks off. ‘Cromwell, you are quite sure she can read?’

‘And write, Majesty.’

‘Well, then. When she is married and here with us, she will find honest pastimes. And when all is said, it is a wife we want, not a learned doctor to instruct us.’

Henry draws him aside. He looks over his shoulder to see that Norfolk is out of earshot. ‘Well, my lord,’ he says, diffident. ‘It has been a long road to get here. I thought no one would have me.’ He laughs, to show it is a joke. Not have the King of England? ‘Only I regret the Duchess of Milan. I shall be angry if I hear she is promised to some other prince. And I am sorry I never saw her with my own eyes. I had inclined myself towards her.’

‘I regret it was not to be. But this way, you owe nothing to the Emperor.’

‘Kings cannot choose where to bestow their hearts,’ Henry says. ‘I see I must frame myself to love elsewhere. But you can tell Master Holbein I am pleased with his picture of the Duchess Christina. I think she is standing in the room, and about to speak to me. Tell Hans I shall not part with it. I shall keep it to look at.’

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Perhaps not in the new queen’s view, sir.’

The king says, ‘Give me some credit, my lord. I am not a barbarian.’

He goes to the Tower. He walks through the apartments where the queens of England sleep, the night before they are crowned; where Anne Boleyn spent her last days. Jane never lodged here, she never lived long enough to be crowned, there was always the plague or the rebels, or we were going to do it in York – but in the end we never did it at all. A tinker from Essex, drinking in the Bell not far from where he stands, has given scandal to the folk of Tower Hill by bawling in his cups that Jane was murdered by her own child. Edward will be a slaughterer, the wretch shouts, just like his father.

You know the end of this story. The watch comes, and bears the tinker away. What is such a fellow fit for, but to be whipped at the cart’s arse or hanged? Lord Cromwell stands before the image of the late queen, painted on the wall by an uncertain hand. He sees a pale round face, a fall of yellow hair. He wonders, will it double for Anna? Or must I repaint? I should not like to obliterate such a good lady. Anne Boleyn is lurking within the plaster, her dark gaze burning through.

He thinks, I wish the court would call Anna by that name, not use Anne. But women are to be named and renamed, it is their nature, and they have no country of their own; they go where their husbands take them, where their father and brothers send them. A trip down the street for them can be as big as a voyage across the sea. Jane Rochford talked about it once. I was given like a hound pup, she said, though with less thought: I was handed over, my future gone. (And her father, Lord Morley, such a grave and patient scholar.)

While he is at the Tower he visits Margaret Pole. No prayer book at hand, no sewing in her lap, she is sitting idle in a shaft of sun, which lights her long Plantagenet face; she looks like one of her foremothers, set in a glass window. ‘My lady?’ he says. ‘I trust you are comfortable. You must prepare for a long residence.’

‘Better than the other thing,’ she says. ‘Or does the king hope this winter will kill me? I see that would be a way forward for you.’

‘If you have complaints of your treatment, put them in writing.’

‘I know why you keep me alive. You still believe my son Reynold will come and redeem me. You think he will hand himself over for love of me.’ She considers him. ‘Would you have done so much for your mother, Master Cromwell?’

He is stony. ‘If you require anything, put that in writing too.’

‘You will soon know better about Reynold. He would not cross the street to save a woman, though she were the woman who bore him.’

‘He cares more for a plaster statue,’ he suggests.

‘In truth he envies me my state. He thinks I have the chance to earn a martyr’s crown.’

‘By being churlish to me? You can say what you like to me, madam. I have heard it all before. You can call me plain Cromwell or call me a cur. It will not alter my policy.’

‘I have noticed,’ she says, ‘common men often love their mothers. Sometimes they even love their wives.’

In the first week of September a contract of marriage is signed in Düsseldorf. Wilhelm’s envoys are on the road that same day, to carry the papers to England. Everyone is happy except Archbishop Cranmer, who says, ‘I am afraid, my lord.’

He stifles the impulse to say, aren’t you always?

‘To lack a common language, it is not a trivial thing. Believe me, I know.’

‘I thought you were happy with Grete.’

‘And so I was. But I chose her for myself. We had spent time together. We could not talk except through others. But we felt that ease between us, that betokened a happy household.’

He says, mischievous, ‘My lord of Norfolk says, no point talking to women, you can do your husband’s part without it.’

‘Norfolk?’ Fitzwilliam is coming in with the other councillors. ‘All he knows is to fell a maid and jump on her.’

‘I believe it,’ Charles Brandon says. ‘No way with women.’

Cranmer says, ‘Very well, you are pleased to make sport of me. But I do not believe the king should let others choose his bride. Did he not say to the French, bring your ladies to Calais, so we may talk? Did he not say, I cannot be beholden to any man’s choice, the thing touches me too near?’

‘He wanted to marry Christina without seeing her,’ Charles Brandon says reasonably. ‘He trusted her picture, and he heard Mr Wriothesley say she had dimples.’

Fitzwilliam says, ‘He had his pick before. He picked Boleyn. She was his choice entirely. His unholy mistake, which we had to clear up.’

Cranmer opens his mouth to reply, but he, Cromwell, says, ‘I think you should be silent on the topic of matrimony. What has it to do with bishops?’

Cranmer looks cowed. He makes a sign as if to say, peace.

All summer the council runs after the king, up-country, following the slaughter of deer. Bishop Gardiner soon arranges to have himself kicked in a ditch. Those six articles that Parliament passed have made him over-confident. When the name of Robert Barnes is raised in council, Gardiner sniffs; then he shuffles his papers, unpleasantly; then he picks up his folio and slams it down again on the table, until he, Lord Cromwell, says, ‘What?’ and the king says, ‘Let us hear it, Winchester.’

‘Heretic,’ Gardiner says.

He says, ‘Dr Barnes is the king’s chaplain. He has been deployed for some months in winning friends for us, in Denmark and among the Germans.’

‘So I am told,’ Gardiner says. The bishop’s nose is a beak, his hooded eyes gleam; the suffering man on his pectoral cross scowls at the company. ‘I suggest we look at a man’s friends, to know who he is. If Barnes is not a heretic himself, he is black with heretic pitch. Defiled.’

‘But he is my accredited envoy,’ Henry says. ‘If I find him sound, so must you. I defy anyone to show how or where I have departed from holy and catholic doctrine, or show where in this realm heresy is entertained.’

‘I’ll tell you where,’ the bishop says. ‘In the houses of the Lord Privy Seal. At his very table.’

Audley says, ‘But I have heard Cromwell say he wished Luther were dead.’

Gardiner flushes. ‘But since those days, Luther has praised him.’

‘I did not solicit the praise.’

Gardiner turns in the king’s direction, sweeping his paw across the table as if sweeping off dice. ‘I do not claim he is a Lutheran. That is not my complaint.’

‘What is he, then?’ Brandon says.

Gardiner turns to him. ‘You mean, my lord Suffolk, what other heresies are available, to such a man? Lord Cromwell has friends in Switzerland – can he deny it? – and like Luther they write to laud him, he is their great hope. We know what they believe. The Holy Sacrament is not holy. Corpus Christi is a piece of bread and may be bought at any stall.’

‘I am no sectary,’ he says.

‘No?’

‘I am no sacramentary.’

Gardiner leans towards him. ‘Perhaps you would like to say what you are? Instead of what you are not?’

Lord Audley says, ‘These sectaries, Stephen – do they not hold their goods in common?’ He grins. ‘I should not like to be the knave who tries to hold Cromwell’s goods in common. By God, he would get a buffet!’

The king leans forward. His voice shakes. ‘Winchester, you may leave us.’

‘Leave? Why?’

The king’s beard bristles. He looks like a hog’s pudding about to burst its skin. He, Cromwell, advises, ‘My lord bishop, go before the guard comes in.’

Gardiner has the sense to lurch to his feet, but he cannot forbear to give his stool a kick. It is an exit from the royal presence only Stephen would dare, he tells Wriothesley later: rude, churlish, possibly final?

‘But now he will be plotting out of sight,’ Call-Me says. ‘I’m not sure it’s better.’

Call Me had stood outside the council chamber; heard the king scream his opinion of the bishop; been dashed against the wall by Gardiner, with a shove and a snarl of ‘Get out of my way, Wriothesley, you damned traitor.’

Audley comes out. ‘By the Mass, gentlemen, I think one of these outbursts will land Winchester in the Tower. He can’t read the king, can he?’

Wriothesley re-adjusts the hang of his short cloak, resettles his cap. ‘My lord, did you receive word of Bishop Stokesley? He is ill.’ They turn to look at him. ‘Not likely to last the night.’

‘God have mercy,’ he says, grave and pious.

The season looks better already. Stephen off the council, Stokesley twitching his last. Clear skies.

He rides into Kent. At Leeds Castle, standing under the great walls and down by the moat, he talks to his son Gregory, air and water encircling them, the scudding clouds reflected in the blue, the whole world fluid and flickering. ‘I am expecting couriers from Cleves. Once the contract is signed here, Anna can set out. I do not like a long sea journey for her, not at this time of year. If Duke Wilhelm can get her a safe-conduct, I am going to bring her overland to Calais. The moment she touches English soil, I want you to be there, paying reverence on my behalf.’

‘In Calais? Shall I cross?’ Gregory’s eyes widen, as if he is looking at the sea.

‘And your Bess will be amongst her ladies when she arrives. I want Anna to look to us for anything she needs – for company, for advice –’

‘For interpreters,’ Gregory says. ‘I hope my French will suffice, when I am across the sea.’

‘You will thank me for your Latin too, and that I kept you to your books.’

‘Oh, the books,’ Gregory says. ‘I was oppressed by them. I thought you meant to have every volume printed, and to force the content into my head.’

He turns his head to look at his son. The stiff breeze ruffles Gregory’s hair, and whips the water into ridges. He drops his eyes to the water’s edge, where a scum of stalks and dead leaves heaves against the stonework, solid as a serpent’s back. ‘You cannot know too much. I meant it for your comfort.’

‘I was afraid of you.’

But of course, he thinks, it is usual for a son to fear his father, it is the way the world is made. ‘I tried to be a tender father to you. I never once struck you.’

‘You were too busy to strike me.’

‘Well,’ he says, ‘I suppose I could have delegated it. Come in. The wind is getting up.’

To the left of him, through two tall pointed arches, willow trees and a scudding sky. They duck through a doorway, turn sharp right to climb the stairs into the great hall. From the chapel you can look down into the water, shifting blue to grey and back to blue; it is a mirror to every change in the weather. It was Henry Guildford, God rest him, who put in the upper floors here, the wide windows and great fireplaces – before Anne Boleyn rousted him out of his offices and he went home to fade and die. A few pomegranates are left from the old days – Gregory shows him – and carvings of castles which, he tells his son, represent the turrets of Castile. Six queens have lived here at Leeds, and now it shelters the blacksmith’s great-grandsons: little Henry now toddling in his smocks, the baby Edward swaddled in the cradle. ‘There is a Mass book here,’ Bess says, ‘which they say belonged to Queen Katherine.’ She fetches it from its locked chest. He turns the pages in search of inscriptions.

He rides into Huntingdonshire, to see nephew Richard. After all, he will have no holidays till this time next year. All summer Lord Lisle has been sending over from Calais a procession of evangelicals, men whom he says should be examined in London, as he cannot deal with them. Once they disembark, Gardiner sets about them with relish, bullying them into swearing to every pernicious article he has pushed into the statute book. Stephen may be off the council, but he is still a power. Where does he find his boundless malice? Servants he has planted tell him, ‘What Winchester wants to force out of the Calais men is a connection to you, Lord Cromwell. He tries to goad them into naming you, into claiming your protection. If they have ever been in the same church as you, ever stood through the same sermon, Gardiner looks to make something of it.’

So what to do? It is half his work to protect the friends of the gospel from themselves, to keep them circumspect and keep them out of custody. Fevered brethren will fall foul of Parliament’s new articles. Then it will be, ‘Good Lord Cromwell, deliver us from prison!’ What if he cannot? If he, Cromwell, speaks boldly for the Calais men, it will be worse for him, and no better for them; so he must act, if he can, secretly, dexterously, to mitigate the damage Gardiner and his friends will do.

He is happy to ride away from Westminster, where everybody is watching everyone else. Richard is building his new house at Hinchingbrooke. A little convent has been closed, that has been there time out of mind, its numbers dwindling. Workmen, breaking up an old floor, have come to him, mattocks in their hands, dismayed: ‘Mr Richard, see what we have turned up …’

He goes to see. The workmen kneel and pray while the bones are lifted. At first it is hard to tell how many of God’s creatures are jumbled here. Two sets of bones, as Richard thinks, but they are not two nuns, as you might expect: one of them has a huge jawbone and giant-killer’s shoulders. Already the builders are making up stories about them. They are a runaway lord and lady, absconding for love of each other, whose flight has been arrested by a jealous count, or earl, or petty king. Standing hand in hand, they have been slain by their pursuers. No one can stop them mingling their persons now.

‘The workmen take them to be very ancient,’ Richard says. ‘I suppose we will never know what their names were. But it did not seem right to put them down in the nuns’ graveyard.’

He imagines the bony virgins, shrinking from the presence of a man of heroic size. ‘And so?’

‘So I put them back where I found them,’ Richard says. ‘I can live with them under my floor, they are not likely to get up and walk about at night. I was obliged to allow prayers for their souls, the workmen would have downed tools if I had done other. But I will not let them alter my building plans.’

Already the neighbourhood believes that a drowned nun wails about the place, lamenting her sins and looking for the shameful babe she bore. Drip, drip, she comes at twilight, the sodden train of her habit slapping the stone floors. He says to Richard, perhaps she did not drown herself at all, but left a note and ran off to a new life, like Robert Barnes.

When the delegation from Germany arrives – Duke Wilhelm’s people, and envoys from Saxony – the king is still hunting. He sends word that he, Cromwell, should leave aside all other duties, and devote himself to them. By the third week in September the king is at Windsor and ready to receive them himself. His representatives are waiting to conclude the matter: the Duke of Suffolk, Cranmer, Audley, Fitzwilliam and Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham. It is a selection that should satisfy all parties, except for Norfolk and the Bishop of Winchester, who think they should have the rule of all. The Duke of Saxony, who is Wilhelm’s brother-in-law, is clear that he will not make a diplomatic alliance with England while the six articles are in force; he will not tolerate practices that have no warrant in scripture. ‘But we are sure, Lord Cromwell,’ the envoys say, ‘that you will be able to ease Henry to a better way of thinking, now that you are fit and well again. After all, if you had been on your feet and in your Parliament house, those articles had not passed. Once Lady Anna is here, the bridegroom will be mellow, persuadable, and you will press your advantage.’

Melanchthon himself, they say, is writing to the king to urge him to rescind the new laws. It is no shame in a prince, to have second thoughts.

When the king’s team enquires into the old contract that Cleves made with the Duke of Lorraine’s son – the one where the parties were still children – they are told the documents are still not to hand. He, Lord Cromwell, thinks they have probably lost them; it happens. ‘My bride can bring them when she comes,’ the king says. He does not want delay. The Emperor is in France – made welcome on the soil of his old enemy. He is riding to the Low Countries on a mission of revenge: the city of Ghent has revolted against him, and he means to get its submission in person. It would be easier for him to go by sea, but he is afraid of English waters. Our ships might sail out to intercept him. A storm, even, could drive him onto our shores.

‘That would be an ill wind,’ the Imperial ambassador says. He seeks safety in proverbs because he has nothing useful to offer. As for Marillac, you get nothing from him: ‘Oh, I wouldn’t know about that, my lord, I must refer it upwards.’ Or, ‘This is beyond my remit – I say that without prejudice, of course.’ If Marillac could find a way to stop the wedding, he would exert himself, but meanwhile he dines with the Spaniard and boasts, ‘All Europe rejoices in the continued amity between our masters.’

‘I think we had better get Wyatt back in harness,’ he says to the king. ‘Send him to join the Emperor on his progress through France. If anyone can seed trouble, Wyatt can.’

Wyatt has had the summer at Allington with his mistress. He should be well-rested. His Italian intrigues have come to nothing, because the king will not back any scheme that puts English boots on foreign soil. Wyatt is disappointed, but the king says, ‘Your friend here, I mean Lord Cromwell, has always advised me that such ventures cost too much, and one never knows the final bill.’

On 5 October, early in the morning, the marriage articles are signed at Hampton Court. There is no need to read the banns because Cranmer has waived them. Now nothing is wanting but consummation. The king hands a ring to the Cleves delegation, though he demurs with a smile from putting it on any gentleman’s finger, as would have been the practice in former times. He says, ‘When my sister Mary married King Louis, God rest his soul and hers, the duc de Longueville came over as his proxy, and we were all witness in the great hall at Greenwich. They said their vows, and Longueville gave her a ring and kissed her, and they signed – then she was sent away to put on her nightgown’ – the king blushes faintly – ‘and they lay down on a bed together, and Longueville parted his gown – out came his hairy leg, naked, and touched her – truly, when I thought about it afterwards, there were young girls present, and I did not think it was necessary or seemly. But the French expected it.’

That is what the French are like, the Germans say. A coarse nation, always pushing for things to be done their way.

The king is sending gifts to his bride, and a letter. He looks shy, as if he’s going to say, can you write it for me, Crumb? ‘What language shall I use?’

‘Latin or French, Majesty, it is indifferent. Duke Wilhelm will make the contents known to her.’

‘Yes,’ Henry says, ‘but I don’t know what to put. The usual compliments, I suppose. After all,’ he cheers up, ‘she is not a lady who is used to love letters. It is a great thing, I find, to know she has never looked at a man before. Like Jane. Jane had no fancy towards anyone, until she knew of my honourable regard. Even then, she was not easy to persuade, was she? Such immaculate ladies are not found these days. But it appears you have discovered one other.’

By 20 October the ambassadors of Cleves are back in Düsseldorf. The Emperor grants a safe-conduct for Anna to pass through his territories. Much as he mislikes the alliance, he will not harass a lady on her matrimonial journey; his aunt, his regent in the Low Countries, insists the Princess of Cleves should be shown every courtesy and even provided with an escort.

Thurston says to him, ‘You know that cat that you fetched from Esher in your pocket, in the cardinal’s time? Master Gregory took against him, and called him Marlinspike? Well, I think I saw him on the wall the other day, with a piece of a rabbit under his paw. But I said to myself, can any cat live that long?’

He says, ‘The cardinal’s cat would be a prodigy of nature, I suppose. How did he look?’

‘Torn up a bit,’ Thurston says. ‘But aren’t we all?’

This winter, the king is taking the surrender of the great abbeys, with their manorial titles and broad acres, their watercourses, fishponds, pastures, their livestock and the contents of their barns: every grain of wheat weighed, every hide counted. If some geese have flocked to market, cattle strolled to the slaughterhouse, trees felled themselves, coins jumped into passing pockets … it is regrettable, but the king’s commissioners, men not easy to deceive, could not go about their work without their presence being heralded: the monks have plenty of time to spirit their assets away. Treat the king fairly, and he will be a good master. When St Bartholomew surrenders and its bells are taken to Newgate, Prior Fuller is granted lands and a pension. Officers of the Court of Augmentations move into its great buildings, and Richard Riche plans to turn the prior’s lodging into his town house. In the north country, Abbot Bradley of Fountains settles for an annual pension of a hundred pounds. The Abbot of Winchcombe, always a helpful man, accepts a hundred and forty. Hailes surrenders, where they displayed the blood of Christ in a phial. The great convent at Syon is marked for closure, and he reminds himself of Launde, where Prior Lancaster has been in post for three decades, which is too long. It has not been a pious or happy house these last years. When questioned the prior would always declare, omnia bene, all’s well, but it wasn’t: the church roof leaked, and there were always women about. All that is over now. He will rebuild it, a house after his own liking, in England’s calm and green heart. In dark weather he dreams of the garden arbour, of the drifting petals of the rose, pearl-white and blush-pink. He dreams of violets, hearts-ease, and the blue stars of the pervink, or periwinkle, used by our maids as lovers’ knots; in Italy they weave them into garlands for condemned men.

In November he writes in his memoranda, ‘The Abbot of Reading to be tried and executed.’ He has seen the evidence and the indictments; there is no doubt of the verdict, so why pretend there is? The days of the great abbeys died with the north country rebellion. The king will no longer countenance subversion of his rule, or the existence of men who lie awake in their plush curtained lodgings and dream of Rome. Thousands of acres of England are now released, and the men who lived on them dispersed to the parishes, or to the universities if they are learned: if not, to whatever trade they can find. For their abbots and priors it mostly ends with an annuity, but if necessary with a noose. He has taken into custody Richard Whiting, the Abbot of Glastonbury, and after his trial he is dragged on a hurdle through the town and hanged, alongside his treasurer and his sacristan, on top of the Tor: an old man and a foolish, with a traitor’s heart; an embezzler too, who has hidden his treasures in the walls. Or so the commissioners say. Such offences might be overlooked, if they were not proof of malice, a denial of the king’s place as head of the church, which makes him head of all chalices, pyxs, crucifixes, chasubles and copes, of candlesticks, crystal reliquaries, painted screens and images in gilt and glass.

No ruler is exempt from death except King Arthur. Some say he is only sleeping, and will rise in an hour of peril: if, say, the Emperor sends troops. But at Glastonbury they have long claimed Arthur was as mortal as you and me, and that they have his bones. Time was, when the abbey wanted funds, the monks were on the road with their mouldy head of John the Baptist and some broken bits of the manger from Bethlehem. But when that failed to make their coffers chime, what did they arrange to find beneath the floor but the remains of Arthur, and beside him the skeleton of a queen with long golden hair?

The bones proved durable. They survived a fire that destroyed most of the abbey. Over the years they attracted so many pilgrims that Becket’s shrine waxed jealous. Lead cross, crystal cross, Isle of Avalon: they wrung out the pennies from the credulous and awed. Some say Jesus Himself trod this ground, a bruit that the townsfolk encourage: at St George’s Inn they have an imprint of Christ’s foot, and for a fee you can trace around it and take the paper home. They claim that, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea turned up, with the Holy Grail in his baggage. He brought a relic of Mount Calvary itself, part of the hole in which the foot of the cross was placed. He planted his staff in the ground, from which a hawthorn flowered, and continues to flower in the fat years and the lean, as the Edwards and the Henrys reign and die and go down to dust. Now down to dust with them go all the Glastonbury relics, two saints called Benignus and two kings called Edmund, a queen called Bathilde, Athelstan the half-king, Brigid and Crisanta and the broken head of Bede. Farewell, Guthlac and Gertrude, Hilda and Hubertus, two abbots called Seifridus and a Pope called Urbanus. Adieu, Odilia, Aiden and Alphege, Wenta, Walburga, and Cesarius the martyr: sink from man’s sight, with your muddles and your mistranscriptions, with the shaking of your flaky fingerbones and the compound jumble of your skulls. Let us bury them once and for all, the skeletons of mice that mingle with holy dust; the ragged pieces of your tunics, your hair shirts clumped with blood, your snippets and your off-cuts and the crisp charred clothing of the three men who escaped from the Burning Fiery Furnace. That lily has faded, that the Virgin held on the day the angel came. That taper is quenched, that lighted the Saviour’s tomb. Glastonbury Tor is over five hundred feet high. You can see for miles. You can see a new country if you look, where everything is fresh, repainted, re-enamelled, bleached, scrubbed clean.

The king picks out jewellery for the bride. The gems repose in caskets of ivory and mother of pearl. The letters ‘H’ and ‘A’ are entwined in plaster and glass: a strange sight, after such labour to erase them. The king says, get me musicians from Venice, against the coming of the new queen. If they bring new instruments, so much the better.

The Princess of Cleves will arrive in a godly nation. Printing of his Bible speeds. Mr Wriothesley asks him, ‘Sir, did the French send you the sheets they impounded? Why would they favour you?’

He doesn’t answer. Mr Wriothesley looks hurt: as if he has not been trusted.

‘Bonner has been helpful,’ he says, ‘working among the French. He is not the blunderer you take him for.’

When Edmund Bonner returns from France he will be appointed Bishop of London. It will ease conditions for our preachers. Bishop Stokesley may be worm-food, but so is Thomas More. The smell of them lurks above ground, and their brawling supporters are ever alert to pull gospellers from the pulpit.

‘I know Bonner is your man,’ Wriothesley says, sulking. ‘But he won’t last, the French don’t like him.’

‘They don’t like me,’ he says.

You gain a point and lose a point, gain and lose.

The ladies gather at court, ready for the new queen. The matrons Lady Sussex and Lady Rutland have the sway, and say who can have what place and what duties, and what they should wear. Margaret Douglas, the Princess of Scotland, is the senior lady by rank. Her friend Mary Fitzroy is brought up from the country to serve. The Lord Privy Seal’s family are in place: Edward Seymour’s wife Nan, Gregory’s wife Bess. Lady Clinton will be on the strength, Richmond’s mother; but not Lady Latimer? The boys of Austin Friars are dismayed. How will Lord Cromwell woo her, they ask, digging each other in the ribs. We know he writes her great letters: but she has been so long now from court, she will have forgot his many charms.

Jane Rochford will head Anna’s privy chamber. She has a sufficient income, since Thomas Boleyn died. She could retire to Norfolk and live in her house at Blickling. But what would be the point of that? She is not much over thirty, for all she has seen. ‘How do you like the new maids of honour?’ she asks idly, as they pass in a chattering knot. Their short veils swish after them, and their French hoods are pushed as far back as they dare.

He smiles. ‘They seem very young this year.’

‘That is you, getting older. The maids are the usual age.’

‘That one looks familiar.’

Jane Rochford hoots with laughter. ‘I should think she does. That is Norfolk’s niece. Catherine Carey, Mary Boleyn’s girl. You had a passage or two with her mother.’

He is shocked: Mary’s little daughter, grown up to marriageable age. ‘I never had passage with Lady Carey.’

‘And the moon is made of cheese,’ Lady Rochford says. ‘Calais, have you forgot? Harry Norris said to me, Mary Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell are out in the garden together, I do not think it’s for their health, do you? I said to him, No, Harry, but for their recreation, and he laughed. Oh, dear Lord, he said, suppose he makes a little Cromwell?’

‘That we were in the garden, I concede.’

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