The Mirror and the Light (Vile Blood – Part 1)

London, Autumn–Winter 1536

Aske: he is a petty gentleman, but the king places him at once – second cousin to Harry Percy, and kin to the Cliffords of Skipton Castle. Mr Wriothesley, newly attuned to the king’s mind, marvels at Henry’s knowledge of obscure family ties. In calling the process of the rebels a pilgrimage, Aske lends it the colour of piety. The aim of the Pilgrims, at divers times stated, is to have vile blood drained from the king’s council, and the nobility of England set up again; to have Christ’s laws kept, and restitution for injuries (as they call them) done to the church. Aske enforces an oath on those who come in his path.

He knows Robert Aske – to nod to, anyway. He is a member of Gray’s Inn, sometimes in London on business for the Percy family. Being a lawyer, Aske cannot claim ignorance. He is aware it is a gross presumption to offer oaths in the name of the king. And he must foresee – for he must be acquainted with the chronicles – what the end will be: how rank the puddle in which he swims and will one day sink.

We have all grown up on tales of Jack Straw and John Amend-All – those brave days when the commons marched on London and killed the judges and foreigners. They pissed in rich men’s beds, tore up their poetry books, and used altar cloths to wipe their arses. Their leaders were mean clerks and spoiled priests, Straw and Miller and Carter and Tyler, none of whom went by their right names; as for Amend-All, he is immortal, a self-made man green as spring, who noses up from his common grave whenever mutiny stirs. These rebels wrecked palaces and stormed the Tower of London itself. They smashed whatever they could find to smash – there were not so many mirrors in those days. On Cheapside they set a chopping block, and demanded the heads of fifteen of the king’s councillors, including the Lord Privy Seal. If they could not catch the men they were hunting, they hung up their coats instead and shot them with arrows.

In those days the King of England was a child. There was no good governance. Labourers and craftsmen were oppressed by statute, every trade on a set wage, whatever the price of grain. They endured the poll tax – no wonder that they set the heads of its begetters on spikes. Yet all the while, like Robert Aske, they called themselves loyal subjects, and shouted, ‘God bless our king.’

It is a hundred and fifty years since that broil. It is eighty years or more since Jack Cade called himself Captain of Kent and led his rabble to London Bridge. But to the rustici, you might as well say it happened last Easter, or before the Conquest. They say they want no taxes and will pay none, and they protest against imposts never levied and never imagined. And as the king says to him – when did you hear of a tax so light and pleasant that every man clamoured to pay it?

The common folk of England live on songs and tales and alehouse jokes. Spending their pence on candles to burn before holy images, they live in the dark, and in the dark take fright. Let us say a calf is born dead. By the time the tale crosses a field, it is a calf with two heads. Cross a stream, and it is a calf with two heads, chanting backwards in Latin, and some friar is charging a shilling for a charm against it. So it goes, in half a day, from abortion to Antichrist: and somehow, everybody is poorer except the priests. Pastors warn their flock that if they do not send tribute to Rome, trees will walk and crops will blight. They make them dread the fire of Purgatory, which eats to the bone; they ask, can you bear to see your dead folk burning – your helpless old mother, your dead little children, bound in agony and screaming for your prayers?

Now it is hard for them to hear the gospel news: there is no Purgatory, only Judgement. God is not a market trader, selling mercy by the pound. You cannot buy salvation, nor can you delegate a monk to work out your salvation for you.

‘In Lincolnshire,’ Mr Wriothesley says, ‘they believed the Pope was coming to their aid, in his own person.’

The king snorts. ‘They may as well say, a giraffe is coming. They do not know what a pope is.’

Perhaps they do not know what a king is either. Their leaders tell them that Henry has made himself God. Now if a child falls sick between Truro and Newcastle, they lay it at the king’s door; if a well dries, if the butter spoils, if a bucket leaks: everything that is out of joint with them, from a fall of hailstones to a cricked neck, they blame on the court and council. Their grievances run like streams underground, welling up from the Scots border to Dover, till the whole land is flooded with nonsense. How is it some verse against Cromwell, sung in the street in Falmouth, is chanted next day in Chester? The further he travels from London, the stranger Cromwell gets. In Essex he is a scheming swindler, a blasphemer and renegade Jew. Spread him east to Lincoln and he is notorious for his knowledge of poisons. In the dales of Yorkshire he is a magus, with the stars and moon on his coat, while in Carlisle he is a ghoul who steals children and eats their hearts.

He, Lord Cromwell, goes to London, to keep his hand on the city. The rebels have no cannon, but London’s walls are ornamental these days, you could knock them down with a dirty look. The Pilgrims boast they will strip the city bare and carry the glitter back to their caves. London dreads the north. Old people recall how Richard the usurper brought his outlanders down, bare-legged and wild-eyed, their speech uncouth, their actions worse: they burned ledgers for fuel, and would kill a man’s geese in his own backyard.

At the Rolls House and Austin Friars, he receives the city worthies, to soothe them and spur them on. At the Tower he ships out the king’s armaments and melts plate into coin. Then he hurries back to Windsor to parse true and false news and head the king’s council; whoever is notionally in charge, he writes the agenda. All information that comes in, if it is fresh, is wrong: if it is stale, it is possibly accurate, but also useless. Every order that goes out from the king contains its countermand: if this has occurred, do that, but if you are delayed or deceived, by no means do the other, but write and ask us. Be cautious but don’t delay. Strike boldly, but not too expensively. Use your judgement, but refer all to the king. The commanders in Lincoln, in Ampthill, in Yorkshire are trying to will themselves inside the heads of the councillors in Windsor, while the councillors strain to see far-off rills and bogs, dells and crags, cattle droves and goat tracks: terrain they have never visited, even in dreams.

Luckily, Lord Cromwell has been everywhere. He knows the eastern ports, the castles on the high fells. For the cardinal he used to ride to Durham. He could go north himself, get more certain news, and escort some of the king’s treasure to pay the troops. ‘But suppose they seized your person?’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘Suppose they asked a ransom?’

‘How much do you think Henry would pay? He should set my value against what I bring in to the treasury.’

Richard Riche frowns. ‘And he should estimate, my lord, what you might bring in years to come, should God spare you.’

Call-Me suppresses a smile. Riche says, ‘Why the sneer, Wriothesley?’

‘It is not for any rebel to know Lord Cromwell’s worth.’

Riche turns on him. ‘You are not named in their songs, are you? Obscurity has its merits.’

Gregory says encouragingly, ‘They will hate you once they know you, Call-Me.’

He says, ‘I am sure you have deserved ill of them. They cannot find a rhyme for you, that’s all. They are worse poets than Tom Truth.’

An army must be supplied. With the king’s forces go the harness-makers and blacksmiths, the armourers, purveyors of soup kettles, bowstrings, blankets, buckets, trivets, rivets: and unless they are to go unpaid you need clerks to keep accounts, and the clerks need ink-horns and parchment and wax for seals. Each man in the field needs ale or beer, bacon and beef, salt fish and cheese, biscuits baked and not too old, peas or beans to boil in salt liquor, and a pot to boil them in. To get these things you need ready cash in a strongbox. When you are at war a promise will not do.

And as for the greater business of the realm – it does not stop because some arsewipes in the shires are waving pitchforks. Marriages are made and children born, and children grow and need new gowns, new household goods and minders. It is time Anne Boleyn’s child began learning her letters. The Lady Mary longs for an infant of her own to love and in default she tries to love her half-sister; the child cannot be blamed, she says, for what her mother was. As her features emerge from baby flesh, Eliza is beginning to resemble less a piglet and more the king, so these days no one suggests she is Norris’s by-blow. No child should be left floating queasily, in the space between fathers. She is still a bastard, of course. But even a bastard daughter has value on the marriage market, if the King of England acknowledges her: so her education should be that of a princess.

He has arranged a stipend for a young woman, Cat Champernowne, whom he knows to be kind and a good Latinist. He trusts Eliza will live to thank him. It is important a child’s first tutor should be gentle and like a mother, so the child is not afraid of making mistakes. Look at Gregory, who now promises so well. His first tutor was Margaret Vernon, who was prioress at Little Marlow – a small house which closed this summer. Margaret has visited him in London, to exclaim over her pupil, his height, his looks, his manners. ‘Where have the years gone? It seems only yesterday since he was learning his Pater Noster.’

No one should think he hates nuns, or monks either. Many of them have been his friends. He used to ride up to Little Marlow, making business in the neighbourhood. His mother-in-law Mercy said, ‘What does she look like, this Margaret Vernon?’

He understood the question. ‘She’s not young.’

Gregory prospered with her. Now she must prosper in her turn. He makes a note: Margaret Vernon to Malling, Kent. Malling is a solid house, she will be well enough there: for as long as Malling lasts.

He thinks of Dorothea. He draws a monster in the margin of his papers. He thinks about Dr Agostino and his potions. If there is a mystery about the cardinal’s death, he is no nearer to solving it. The solution, he must suppose, lies in the heart of the king.

When he goes to the queen’s private apartments with Rafe and Call-Me, he finds her seated as usual among her women. Today everybody is sewing and no one singing; the queen’s neckline is edged with goldsmiths’ work, from which depend single fat pearls in the shape of tears. ‘Highness,’ he says, ‘why not ask the king to fetch Lady Mary here?’

‘That would cheer us up,’ Jane Rochford says. ‘She is famous for her japes.’

The women hide their smiles. He says, ‘I think Lady Mary’s health would improve with gentle company.’

‘Do you?’ Rochford says. ‘I suppose it were pity if she went on praying till she wore out her knees. In the country one loses any looks one has.’

‘Lady Rochford speaks from experience,’ says Edward Seymour’s wife.

Rochford says, ‘If Mary is here with us, the rebels cannot take her. Nor she, for that matter, resort to them.’

‘She would never do so,’ he says. ‘I have her pledge.’

Rochford folds her hands, smiling.

Jane the queen says, ‘I would like her company, myself. I could ask the king. But he is displeased with me. Because I am not, yet.’

‘With child,’ Jane Rochford supplies.

The queen says, ‘I hear agates are helpful. You lay them next the skin.’

‘No doubt the Wardrobe will have some,’ Rafe says. ‘If not, we will get them. In Cornwall you can practically pick them up in the street.’

The queen looks surprised. ‘In Cornwall? Do they have a street?’

Call-Me steps forward. ‘If I may suggest, my lord Privy Seal? We might rehearse her Highness in a pretty speech? We might approach his Majesty by first praising him.’

Sound, he thinks. Let’s try it. ‘“Sir,”’ he begins, ‘“you have raised me to a sphere apart.”’

‘He has,’ Jane says. ‘And I heartily congratulate you, Lord Cromwell.’

‘No, your Highness,’ Jane Rochford explains. ‘That is not what Cromwell says, that is what you say. “Sir, you have been pleased to set me above all other Englishwomen.”’

‘“I all unworthy,”’ Wriothesley offers.

‘“I unworthy,”’ he says, ‘that’s very good – “exalting me into a sphere apart. With whom then can I be at ease? There is no lady of my rank with whom I can share a confidence.”’

‘Then continue,’ Rafe suggests, ‘“Sir, out of your liberality and generous, fatherly heart, please to let the Lady Mary come to court, so that I may have comfort in her society, and be merry.”’

‘Let me try it,’ Jane says. She takes a breath. ‘Sir, out of your liberality … Is it his liberality, or his something else?’

‘Liberality has a fine ring to it,’ Rafe urges.

‘Then we’ll proceed with liberality,’ Jane says, ‘and see where it gets us. But Lord Cromwell, I must raise a matter with you –’ She nods to the ladies. They exchange glances and withdraw. Rafe, Wriothesley, both fall back. For a moment, unspeaking, the queen watches her court recede. Then she detaches from her girdle a small flask for rosewater. ‘It is of great antiquity,’ she says. ‘The king gave it me. He says it is Roman.’

The glass in his hand is darkened, fragile as air. ‘It’s possible.’

‘Once it contained a sacred relic. He did not say of which saint.’ As if anticipating his question she says, ‘I don’t ask. I wait to be told.’

‘I do the same.’

‘The king tells me his dreams.’ He wonders at the expression of dread on her face. ‘He talks about when he was a child.’

‘Women want to know about a man’s childhood.’ It had not struck him before, but he has never known a woman shun an anecdote, however mendacious.

‘It is because they wish to love them,’ Jane says. ‘They cannot always love the man, but they think they could love the child he was.’

He feels unease. The glass is only a diversion – but from what? ‘The king was a very handsome child,’ he says. ‘So it is reported.’

‘Lady Rochford,’ the queen says, ‘could you stand off, please? No – further off. With the other ladies. Thank you.’ She turns her face to him, her expression opening like a flower. ‘He talks about his brother Arthur. He thinks he killed him.’

He is startled into simplicity. ‘He didn’t kill him. He just died.’

‘He killed him with envy – with wishing against him. Even when he was very young, when he was Duke of York, he wished to be a king himself, even if not King of England. It was his intention, he says, to reconquer France, then Arthur would give it him as a reward.’

‘Highness, wishes do not kill people.’

‘Nor prayers?’ Jane says. ‘It is wicked to pray for our advantage at the expense of another. But we cannot always help what comes into our head.’

He says, ‘There must be a mechanism. Like a gun or a knife or a disease.’

‘But then, Henry says, he imagined all the misfortunes that might overtake his French war. Such as flux, mud, penury.’

‘That was sage, in one so young.’

‘But he thought, I should like to be a king anyway. And God read his heart. And so Arthur died, and Henry inherited all his brother’s dignities and titles, and married Katherine his wife.’

‘Or tried to marry her,’ he says. He feels tired. ‘It was not a real marriage, of course, that is established.’

‘And Arthur never came home,’ Jane says, ‘but lies in a tomb at Worcester cathedral, where they left him at dead of winter. And Henry never goes to see him.’

After a moment she says, ‘My lord? You are going to stand there and not speak?’

He says, ‘Why now?’ Cranmer and I believed we had vanquished that spectre: in one winter’s night of persuasion and prayer, refined Arthur into thin air. But it seems Henry withheld something. We took him for the helpless victim of a spirit, rudely appearing. We did not know his shame fetched it.

He says, ‘If the king raises the matter I shall say it was a child’s fantasy, and he should dwell on it no more.’

‘Thank you. I tried my brother, Lord Hertford, in this matter. But he said, “Tush, sister, superstition.”’

‘Did he?’ He smiles.

‘You may go,’ the queen says. ‘If anyone asks what we spoke of, tell them I wanted to show you the glass and know about the Romans. I do not believe everything the king tells me.’

Rafe and Call-Me follow him out. They are twitching with curiosity. Call-Me says, ‘Do you think she will make bold and ask? About Mary?’

Rafe says, ‘I hope she will, because if Mary is here, no misunderstandings can arise, about who she meets or writes to.’

‘You see?’ Lady Rochford is behind them. ‘Even your own people do not trust Mary. But she will come with all speed. I hear she pines for you, Lord Cromwell.’

He takes her arm and steers her away. She is his ally, like it or not. She snaps, ‘I have deserved gentler treatment at your hands. And at the queen’s, I may say.’

He lets go. She rubs her arm, as if he had injured her. He thinks, if wishes were death, I would be superfluous to the state. Henry hated both his wives at divers times, but they spitefully lived on, until God put an end to one, the French executioner to the other. Henry could not wish them away, for all his power. Only I could do that. It is I who tell him who he can marry and unmarry and who he can marry next, and who and how to kill.

But perhaps it will not matter, he thinks. Perhaps the Yorkshiremen will come and slay us all.

The queen makes her request before Henry in sight of the court. Note his alert face, the modest inclination of her head. ‘Sir,’ she begins, ‘out of my unworthiness, you have been – what? – liberal. I am in a sphere. Please to bring the Lady Mary to court. I may have comfort in her society, and share a confidence.’

Henry looks at her in tender bewilderment. ‘Are you lonely, sweetheart? Of course we will have her, if it will make you merry.’

‘Merry. That was the word I forgot.’ Jane does not smile. She sinks low to the ground, collapsed inside a stiff tent of brocade and satin. ‘Will you hear me?’

What now? He tries to catch Rochford’s eye, but the whole assembly is staring at the queen. ‘My heart is moved, sir, by the divisions that arise between your subjects and your most sacred self.’

There is a rustle of consternation. This is not Jane’s own language, surely?

Henry gazes at her. ‘I take these words as they are meant. A queen has a double duty. As a wife, she feels for her husband when he is troubled. As a queen, she feels as a subject to her lord.’

‘I am only a woman,’ Jane says. ‘I do not presume to be wiser than your Grace. But my heart misgives when honourable and devout customs are left off, sanctified by usage since the world began. We must cherish them, as a son or daughter will cherish an aged father.’

Henry frowns. ‘What customs?’

‘Nan!’ he says to Edward’s wife. ‘Nan, quick.’

Lady Seymour steps forward, ‘Madam –’

Jane says, ‘Your people want the Pope of Rome. They want the statues they have known all their lives, and blessed candles, and holy days.’

Nan Seymour is urgent: ‘Madam –’

‘Let her be,’ Henry says. ‘She should be instructed, and who but I should do it? How is it, that for all the preachers who set forth the king’s supremacy, for all that has been said and written, there are still those who do not grasp that the Bishop of Rome is merely a foreign prince, out to conquer if he can? Madam, I will have no alien interfere with my rule, and I will allow no traitor to shelter behind the cross of Christ.’

Jane says, ‘They think you will take their silver crosses and turn them into coin.’

Henry says, ‘The simple people may believe it, but who leads them to do so? What manner of pastors are they, the priests and abbots who break their oath to me, and are first in the fray, swords in their hands?’

‘They would still pray for the king,’ Jane says, as if bargaining, ‘if they could pray for the Pope too.’

He thinks, I must end this if the king will not. ‘Madam, there can be no double jurisdiction. Either the king rules, or Rome.’

‘And it is not a question,’ Wriothesley warns.

Henry says, ‘Her Grace will withdraw.’

Jane is shaking. ‘They are too much burdened with taxes.’

The king leans forward. ‘The burdens of tax do not rest on the shoulders of labourers, or small husbandmen. Dives, the rich man, knows and has always known how to pass off his interests as the interests of Lazarus, the beggar.’

Jane stares at him. ‘Yes. Possibly. I do not understand the subsidy or the revenue. But my lord – take care of your thoughts as well as your deeds. What you say by night haunts you by day, and what you refuse by day will return by night.’

Nan Seymour takes one arm, Jane Rochford takes the other; they lift her to her feet. The king says, ‘Jane, understand this – I dispose for my subjects, body and soul. A prince answers before the strait court of Heaven for his proceedings, and when he dies will be judged by standards of which ordinary men are quit. God gives him graces: God gives him wisdom, policy and prudence, and these virtues are his to exercise, by methods of which he is the only arbiter. I am the earthly shepherd of God’s sheep. It is a prince’s part to provide not only for noble families but for obscure ones, and not only for scholars and magistrates but for the untutored and the poor, for the whole commonwealth of his people – both for their corporeal welfare, and their spiritual good.’ He adds, benign, ‘The duty is laid on me, and the world shall see me discharge it.’

‘Amen to that,’ Mr Wriothesley says. The courtiers clasp their hands together – they would applaud, if the king gave the nod. The Lord Chancellor murmurs, ‘Eloquence, sir.’ There is a rumble of appreciation from Sampson, Bishop of Chichester; the Earl of Oxford, who is Lord Chamberlain, sighs like a farm-girl in a feather bed.

The king says, ‘We are willing to consider all lawful petitions. Willing to spare any ceremony or image, if it is not baneful. However.’ He lifts his eyes, and positions his gaze deliberately above the head of his wife. ‘When you are fruitful, that will be the time we give ear to your complaint.’

As the women draw Jane away, ‘Follow,’ he says curtly, to Rafe, to Call-Me. He wants this crowd dispersed. It is like when a cart overturns in the street. ‘Pass along,’ the constables shout. ‘Nothing to see, pass on.’

Wriothesley catches his arm. ‘Has Carew been with her? Or the Courtenays?’

‘Perhaps,’ he says, ‘it proceeds from her own misled and gentle heart. She lacks good companions. I wish her sister Bess Oughtred might be got from the north.’

Rafe slaps his arm to alert him: Lady Rochford at sword’s length. She says, ‘I hope you don’t blame me.’

He says, ‘It hadn’t occurred to me. But now that you mention it …’

He thinks, you have destroyed one queen, is one enough?

Richard Cromwell writes from the town of Lincoln, which has now been seized back for the king. The gentlemen are disappointed that the foe has melted away. They went out to shed blood, not to parlay. Richard feels cheated himself, it is clear. The work he does, doorkeeper to his uncle, is not warlike enough for his nature.

Charles Brandon, to pin Lincolnshire down, will need to reserve a force and keep it in the field for the duration. ‘What is Charles doing?’ the king says. ‘I hope he is not too lenient. He should make an example of these beasts. Their women will creep to him, I suppose, and sue for pardon. Charles cannot abide to see a woman weep.’

‘We are none of us indifferent to it,’ he says. Henry stares at him.

It has never been possible to count the king’s subjects – not with certainty. Only the angels know how many are baptised and how many buried. We have the muster rolls of years past to see what each district can marshal: what archers, pikemen, how many horse and foot; how many helmets and coats of mail, what spears, war hammers, poll axes, swords; what gentlemen they have to lead them, whether novices or veterans. But we do not have windows into hearts, to say who is true. There is no single enemy, there is no one place he is; when one head is cut off then, Hydra-like, he grows another. They are rising in Cumberland and Westmorland and as far south as Derbyshire. In the towns of north Yorkshire they gather ten thousand strong. From Durham they descend with the banner of St Cuthbert, streaming silks of crimson and white. In Cumberland, four captains go in procession with relics before them. They have trumpeters, and heralds crying out their names: Captains Pity and Charity, Poverty and Faith.

He has their true names: Rob Mounsey and Tom Burbeck, Gilbert Whelpdale, John Beck. Captain Cobbler, the great traitor of Louth, is a shoemaker by trade, as his name may well attest: under his real name, Nicholas Melton, he will answer when the day comes. Meanwhile we can guess, from reports reliable and unreliable, that in the north fifty thousand men are in the field. There is no army the king can command or deploy that can meet, outmanoeuvre or halt such a force.

So: talking must hold the rebels back. But by now the king hardly wants to talk. He does not ask if the rebels’ demands are reasonable. He says he is their sovereign and they have no right to make any demands at all.

At his palace in Kenninghall, the Duke of Norfolk chafes and fumes, igniting himself like one of the rebel beacons, firing off several letters a day. He burns to fight: release him to go north; he will go tonight, by God, he will not be stayed! He will even serve under Brandon, he pleads. In Windsor young men pass the duke’s letters around, smirking: they are all Lord Cromwell’s servants, his discepoli, flocked after him from London. They see out the day with him, eating and drinking and talking of God and man till the candles burn down; and they see it in with him, keen as little dogs that scratch your door at first light.

The weather is not fit to hunt, so the grooms who keep the king’s outer apartments do not stir much before six. They rise by custom, by regulation, for unless he is sick or at the chase the king’s mornings are the same. The grooms rouse the esquires of the body, who take up their pallets, wash and dress themselves and carry in the king’s under-linen. It is they who hear the king’s first words each day, his first prayers, and report any special requests he has, so Lord Cromwell may see them on their way to fulfilment. One day Henry says, his voice sleepy, ‘Could you fetch Norris?’

They gape at each other. Each man struck dumb. The king pushes back the coverlet, as if impatient.

‘Sir,’ one ventures, ‘Norris is dead.’

The king yawns. ‘What?’ He spoke out of his dream, and as his feet hit the floor, he has forgotten it.

But the grooms stumble out, babbling: ‘My lord Cromwell …’

‘He must have been half-asleep. But tell me if he asks for Norris again.’

Mr Wriothesley laughs. ‘Why, are you going to supply him?’

Riche says, ‘You cannot raise the dead.’

‘No? That’s not my experience.’

He nods to the esquires: they bow in their turn, and go in to Henry with their perfumes and linen cloths. It is their honour to rub down the king’s person till his skin is tender and pink, then raise the lids of cedar chests and shake out his shirts, soft as April air. All those garments are gone long since, that Katherine embroidered with Spanish blackwork, and now they are stitched by paid and proficient hands, with lions and laurel crowns.

Hovering beyond the door, inventories in hand, is the Yeoman of the Wardrobe. A page bears a box of jewellery so the king can make choice; but first the king sits on his velvet stool for his barber. While his beard is trimmed and his hair combed his physicians come in, and gather in a black knot with their basins and urine flasks. They smell his breath, and enquire into his sleep and dreams.

The poor labourer owns his sleep and his stool, and can sell his piss to the fuller, whereas the king’s piss and stool is the property of all England, and every fantasy that disturbs his night hours is recorded somewhere in a book of dreams, which is written in the clouds massing over the fields and forests of his realm: every stir of lust, every frightful waking. Should he be costive, he is ordered a potion; should his bowel be loose, its product is taken away in a bowl under an embroidered cloth. They can only judge what is within him, by what comes out: a pity he is not made of glass.

Then a signal passes room to room, hot water comes in a silver ewer, and cloths of diamond weave and the softest nap: scissors clink in a basin, and the most deft of the esquires cleans and re-bandages the sore leg. The process brings tears to the king’s eyes. He jerks his chin away, and studies the tapestry or the ceiling. ‘All done, sir,’ they say, as if to a little child.

Unsteadily, he stands: is Cromwell there, any news? In his closet he kneels at his prie-dieu, his chaplain ready beyond the lattice. The king’s prayers are Latin prayers, and his hand beats his breast: his head bows, for we are all sinners, we sin as we breathe. Why is it when our eyes water with pain our mouth fills with the taste of phlegm and blood? Why do tears sting, after they have been blinked away? With a creak of wood he stands, leaving the cleric in a private cloud of incense: and as soon as he leaves his inner rooms, a laundress creeps in for yesterday’s shirts and the soiled bandages, and the king’s bed is unmade, the sheets tossed onto the floor, his velvet coverlets shaken and folded: beating and scrubbing begins, scouring, for no speck of dust can ever come under his eye, lurking in the pinions of a carved angel, or in the plaster curls of a Wild Man, or between the toes of a marble god.

Once the king leaves his inner rooms and enters his privy chamber, his natural body unites to his body politic: here he is dressed and presented to the world, a bulky, new-barbered man scented with rose oil. As rebels run free in the north, and the members break faith with the head, a kind of mutiny or civil war has broken out in the king’s body.

The doctors stop him: ‘Lord Cromwell, you have influence with our sovereign: could you persuade him to rise earlier from table?’

‘Not I,’ he says. A man who is accustomed to hard riding will fatten when he leaves off, and he knows it from his own person. When he was young in the cardinal’s service he would ride forty miles a day, forty the next, forty the day after: many horses but only one Cromwell. These days he is coddled by clerks who chase about at his whim. He says, I am fifty, and even at thirty I was never lean. He does not take his belly, as the king does, as an insult to God’s design, nor dwell on days when he did great exploits in the saddle. After Mass the king sits with Gregory working through the score sheets from old tournaments. Their voices are low and absorbed, their heads together, decoding the notches on the staff: jousts are transcribed like music, the anthems of violent and passionate men. ‘See where he misses.’ Henry’s fingers stab the line. ‘That is not because he is unskilful, but because he is aiming for the head.’

‘It is chancier, sir,’ his son says.

‘But here he aims lower and begins to succeed. Two hits, and on the third he breaks his lance. Atteint, atteint – and then, broken on the body.’

The joust is not his model for public affairs. You don’t want your opponent to see you coming. The last thing you want is a tent and a flag. Mr Wriothesley complains of the time wasted. ‘I see it makes him happy, impressing young Gregory. But as far as business is concerned, not enough is done to justify the royal hour.’

The king flaps the score sheets down. ‘I could have made a living at it, riding through Europe, one tournament to another, if I had not been called to rule.’ His hands knead Gregory’s shoulders: ‘Look how this young master is putting on muscle.’ He ruffles his hair. ‘Daily practice is what I advise. If you cannot get into the tilt yard, still you can wear your armour for an hour. That way, you start to bear the weight as if it were a silk jerkin.’

‘Sir, even on a Sunday?’ Gregory says.

‘Ask your father.’ The king winks. ‘He is over the church, you know. I know him for an unholy fellow, making up accounts on the Sabbath, rattling away on an abacus and taking his pleasure. So why should you not have your sport? There is nothing like the wearing of harness, for any man who wishes to be lean as well as strong. With the heat inside, surplus runs from you like fat from a spit-roast.’

There are those who believe – and perhaps the king is one of them – that the health of the land depends on the health of its prince, and on his beauty besides. If you speak of an ordinary man you might say, ‘He cannot help his face.’ But a king must learn to help it. If he is ugly, so is the commonwealth. If the king is sick, so is his realm. Old men will tell you how the king’s grandfather King Edward grew soft in middle age, his eye always rolling in the direction of any woman at court, wife or maid, under the age of thirty. He lolled on a daybed with supple flesh, while his own brothers plotted against him, and when one brother was dead the other plotted alone: so golden a prince, lucky on the battlefield, blessed by God, was spoiled by sloth and neglect of business, because you cannot have your hand on your ministers when your fingers are creeping up a cunt. Even King Edward’s sons, two likely young sprigs, were pulled out like weeds and their corpses thrown God knows where.

He tells the doctors, ‘You forget the king is a newly married man. A man who wishes to produce strong children cannot do it on a vegetable diet.’

True, the doctors say, but neither can he eat as much as he did when he exercised every day. Not without an imbalance of the humours and congestion in the organs, a sluggish digestion and a fat liver.

Afternoon: he sits with the king in his library, where books are kept in great chests, volumes covered with embroidered velvet or scented leather, emblazoned with the royal arms or the badges of former owners. When our forefathers defeated the French under Great Harry, we shipped their manuscripts home across the sea. They were mirrors for princes, texts that prescribed how to be a king: they were written for kings to read.

‘Great Harry was not only a soldier,’ the king says. ‘He took his harp on campaign. He composed songs, but all of them are lost.’

In the king’s prayer book is portrayed King David, who plays his harp. Turn the page: David studies his psalter – it is an edition, in miniature, of the volume our king now holds. His red beard curled, his gown loose, the King of Israel sits at his leisure, holding in his hand the very book in which he is pictured.

‘Come, Gregory,’ the king says. ‘You are fond of stories of Merlin. My father had many books made about him. Choose and read.’

‘Are you not afraid of him?’ Gregory says. ‘His prophecies?’

‘Not I,’ the king says. ‘Merlin has been killing me these ten years. I have had my bones rotted and my head cankered, and as for London Bridge, I cannot count how many times it has crumbled, and this very castle in which we now sit washed downriver and into the sea. I am inclined now to doubt when I hear his pronouncements.’

‘Wizards are made like other men,’ Gregory says. ‘Offer Merlin an abbey. It could not hurt.’

‘Tell the Master of Augmentations,’ the king says, laughing. ‘I shall like to see Riche’s face.’

He is surprised the king does not burn such books. Merlin is popular in certain quarters, and you can see why he gets so much credit. He foretold a day would come when churches would be flattened and monks forced to marry; where German heathens sat at table with the king, and true noblemen were herded starving from the hall. But of course, Merlin also said that the river Usk would boil, and that bears would hatch out of eggs; that the soil of the future would become so rich that men would leave farm work and spend their days in fornication.

The scholar John Leland, the king’s antiquary, is travelling through the land looking to see what the monks have, that might be good for the king’s own libraries. He himself, on his journeys for Wolsey, would ask to see anything of interest. Often as not, he would meet with stony-eyed exclusion: ‘Sir, I regret that text was lost years ago.’ Or, ‘Ah, no, Master Cromwell, I fear the worm has got it.’

He says, ‘They thought I might steal their prizes for the cardinal.’

‘He was known to be acquisitive,’ the king says.

He looks away. Sometimes the king speaks well of Wolsey. Sometimes not.

The king says, ‘What happened to the cardinal’s books of conjuring?’

‘I have no memory of them, sir.’

‘Perhaps my lord Norfolk took them,’ Gregory says. ‘He took most things.’

The king says, ‘Is it true that Wolsey had the spirit of Oberon bound to him, to serve for a term of years?’

‘I don’t credit such tales, Majesty. They’re only to get money out of you.’

‘I only partly credit them myself,’ Henry says. ‘But Oberon is a very powerful spirit.’ The king stirs, he rubs his leg, he gets to his feet. ‘Walk,’ he says.

Mr Wriothesley falls in with them, and Richard Riche. The king cannot wander about his palace by himself. The yeomen of the guard, who assemble in the watching chamber, are supposed to line his route. Where is the queen? In her own apartments, among the women: but her offence forgiven. ‘She pities the poor,’ the king says. ‘It is a woman’s part. I would not have her otherwise. And she hates all talk of war. She fears for my person. It is largely to soothe her that I have not gone north myself.’

He sees Wriothesley and Riche exchange a glance. Riche says, ‘Your Majesty has never been north, I think? Though what reason to go now, of course – among ingrates who more regard their goblins than their God?’

The king says, ‘A man who has reigned twenty-eight years, not passing a day without the cares of state, should be able to place his faith in his liegemen. Among the northern lords I mistrust Lord Dacre, but not only he. I thought I could count on Lord Darcy, yet even as he prates of his loyalty he complains of his rupture and his stiff joints.’ The king looks down from the oriel window, over the new terrace. ‘Let us hope he can oil himself and go into action, but now he tells me that at Pontefract the garrison is under strength, they have no guns, they cannot feed all who flock there, and the walls are falling down. Why does he tell me this, except to discourage me?’ The rain slashes against the window. ‘And the Earl of Derby – it is known there are malcontents in his train and they hate you, Cromwell – besides, all Stanleys are turncoats, they will watch to see which way the battle goes before they join it. Now Henry Clifford –’

‘Our strength in the border,’ Riche puts in.

The king frowns. ‘His tenants grumble against him even in years of plenty, so will they obey him now?’

‘Clifford is a hard man,’ he says. ‘Even Norfolk says he is a hard man, but we can count on him. As also Lord Talbot with his great train –’

‘Always our mainstay,’ Riche offers. Our?

The king says, ‘Talbot is another ancient man – but yes, loyal to me and mine.’ He stops, grimaces. ‘Norfolk, I suppose, must be permitted to ride north.’

Norfolk’s father was seventy when he sliced up the Scots at Flodden. Our duke has some seven years left, to do anything as famous as that. ‘Norfolk will work hard for your favour,’ he admits. ‘He relishes a battle, even if it is only country folk. He thinks we have enjoyed peace too long.’

‘I tell you what it is, the loyalty of the Howards.’ Henry limps; he puts out a hand to steady himself against the Lord Privy Seal. ‘John Howard, who was grandfather to the Norfolk that is now, was known to declare that if a stock of wood or a standing stone were King of England, he would defend its title – if it were named so by Parliament.’

‘It shows a high regard for the standing of Parliament,’ Richard Riche murmurs.

‘But he fought against my father!’ The king turns on Riche. ‘Do you not comprehend that, you dolt? He took Richard Plantagenet for king.’

Riche draws back into himself so far that he seems to be trying to retract into his ribs, like a man squeezed by Skeffington’s Daughter. He begins his apologies, but he – Lord Cromwell – cuts him off. Young men, and Riche is young enough, do not understand that to this very day, nothing in this kingdom counts so much as how your forefathers behaved on the field at Bosworth.

‘The Howards made a grievous error there,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘And it cost them their dukedom.’ He is so keen to distance himself from Riche’s folly that he has passed to the other side of the king and appears to be hanging on his elbow.

‘The present Howard keeps before him that example,’ he says. ‘He would never offend.’

‘Well, he does offend,’ Henry says. ‘And I perceive that you, Riche, do not know what a king is. A king is made by God, not Parliament. Parliament proclaims his title, furbishes his authority – but where in the scriptures does it mention Parliament? Contra, there are numerous mentions of what submission the subject owes to his prince, and of how the powers that be are ordained of God. If these Pilgrims cleaved to true religion as they claim, they would know this. And they would beg pardon on their knees and straightway go home.’

‘And would you pardon them, sir?’ Mr Wriothesley asks.

‘Stand further off, Call-Me,’ the king snaps. ‘I don’t like to be crowded.’

Mr Wriothesley’s mouth drops open. Call-Me? How has this private joke rolled into the public sphere? Henry is displeased; he signals to them to fall behind, and limps on alone, into the darkening afternoon.

‘I perceive your fingers were a-twitch for pen and paper,’ he says to Riche. ‘But he has said it all once, and he will say it again.’

There are things the king has not voiced, yet must suspect: that behind the banner of the Five Wounds, there are other invisible banners, sewn with the emblems of the Courtenays and Poles. Gentlemen of ancient houses have turned out to defend the Tudor – but they must be watched closely, their deeds as well as words. Some captured rebels have freely confessed that they hope the Pope will send another king, Reginald Pole by name, who will wed the Princess Mary, and turn her father Henry out to beg. The Pilgrims claim they crusade for the Virgin in her innocence and purity. But knowingly or not, they serve the pride of Gertrude Courtenay and Margaret Pole – the young woman who would like to be queen of England, the old woman who deems she already is.

‘Sir,’ Richard Riche pulls at his elbow, ‘I have notification – that is, I am required – I am advertised that I could be useful, that I should go up to York, that I should show myself –’

‘Why don’t you do that?’ he says. ‘York might be safer than here.’

Mid-October: at Lincoln Richard Cromwell is now encamped with Fitzwilliam and Francis Bryan. He is called into every council, and gives Fitz credit for it. Other lords would prefer to keep him out, but Fitzwilliam stands our fast friend, he writes: no one may speak ill of Cromwells, in his presence. He writes that Bryan hopes to encounter Aske in single combat: two one-eyed men grappling for glory, as in tales of old. He writes he misses his home and his uncle: ‘Comfort my poor wife.’

He wonders, should he bring Frances under his own roof? He is not short of roofs; she might go to Stepney or Mortlake. If any malcontents should penetrate London, they would attack Austin Friars. God knows what they would expect to find. A great heap of treasure: confiscated chalices winking with gems. Precious relics, such as twigs from the burning bush, and a box of the manna that fell on the Israelites in the desert.

He writes to Richard in his own hand: here we are all well if not contented, Mrs Richard is impatient for your return as am I but the king must be served, temperately, carefully. At idle times, while you are waiting for action to begin, do not let your companions draw you into games of chance. If you refuse they will jeer, look at Cromwell’s nephew, he is not good for the money: but if you take part, they will find some excuse to brand you a cheat. We are agreed Norfolk and his son must join the campaign; but if you come in young Surrey’s path, get out of it, he will work you a mischief if he can. Do not be drawn by any slander to myself. They will say what they must to provoke you, at a time when every man’s weapon is ready in his hand.

He ends each day buried under a weight of dispatches; with every piece of news that comes in, he seems to know less. If Aske were fighting in your own cause, you would call him a robust captain, and godly too, because he directs his ragbag army to pay for what it takes from the country people. But do his soldiers heed him? Or have they run beyond his control? Loyal gentlemen fleeing the north bring their reports. Aske says, hold back: his sergeants say, march. Aske says, don’t ring the bells, his soldiers ring the bells; he says, don’t fire the beacon, and they fire it. His own brothers have deserted his side and galloped for sanctuary. And yet they say his rise was foretold in a prophecy. The north has long been expecting him, a one-eyed messiah. How did he lose his eye? No one knows.

Henry says: ‘Vile blood: what is it, that these rebels cry it down? There have always been mushroom men.’ Grown up overnight, he means. ‘Both my father and my grandfather would agree, a common man can be as good a servant as a duke. Being humble-born, they have no interests of their own – only solicitous to serve their master, from whom they derive all their fortune.’

He says, ‘If my lord of Norfolk were here, he would tell your Majesty that, having no family, such men have no honour. They will do anything, without scruple.’

‘But they have souls to save,’ the king says. ‘So not anything, I do suppose. Did you know Reginald Bray? Bray came from nothing. Worcester grammar school, if I recall. But he was a wise and expert man in my father’s cause. The great lords had to be very pleasant to him, for they feared every word he might drop in the king’s ear.’

Bray must have been dead thirty years, more; how could he have known him? But the calculations of princes run beyond mortal span. He says, ‘I know his resting place, sir.’

Bray is buried here at Windsor, within St George’s, which his munificence helped build. (Though so is John Schorne, a priest who conjured the devil into a boot.) He has seen Bray’s emblem high in the air, his rebus frozen in stone and glass. I should find one at ground level, he thinks, and abase myself on it. Bray took over the king’s finances; he made money for himself by the way. Henry says, ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire. Bray went into battle against the Cornish rebels. He acquitted himself gallantly.’

For a clerk, he thinks. Is the king suggesting that he should put down his pen and pick up a sword? Despite all that has been said?

‘You remember the Cornish,’ Henry says.

He nods. ‘I was a boy then.’

‘My father took us to the Tower. He had faith in that fortress to stand, even if they looted the city.’

It is not just in the north they hate taxes. At the fringes of the kingdom they do not understand England to be one nation, with borders we all must pay to defend. When the Cornish broke out in rebellion they said they would not pay to secure the north against the Scots, for they did not know what a Scot was. They were led by a lawyer, one Thomas Flamank, and a blacksmith they called An Gof: ‘blacksmith’ is what it means, his name tells you what he was. Gathering forces as they rolled up-country, they marched towards London, and before them strode a giant, name of Bolster. Possibly he did not lead them but guarded their rear, for nobody saw him – he was always out in front or just behind.

At the Williamses’ house in Mortlake, where he ran errands in exchange for his dinner, they poured scorn on giants, roaring with laughter as they told the story of one of Bolster’s Cornish mates, a sad and lonely giant who played quoits on Sundays with his only friend, a spry lad called Jack. One day the giant patted Jack on his pate, and his fingers went through the bone as if it were piecrust. The giant’s cries made the welkin ring, while Jack’s brains ran down his chin like gravy.

He told his sister Bet, ‘Giants were descended from Cain, who killed his brother. There were hordes of them on the earth before they drowned in Noah’s flood. They were tall, but not so tall their heads came above the water.’

Bet said nothing.

He said, ‘Trojan Brutus fought those that survived, and put them to the sword. He was the mighty man who invented London.’

Bet said nothing again.

‘Bolster?’ he said. ‘Is that really his name? Because that’s ridiculous.’

Bet said, ‘Are you going to tell him that to his face?’

The more nobody saw Bolster, the more the fear of him grew. He was ten foot tall, or twelve foot, with arms like the sails of a windmill and iron-shod feet that could burst a head like a grape. In Putney, their homes stood in the path of the rebels; and he a boy, some twelve or thirteen years old, stood ready to knock hell out of Bolster’s kneecaps.

In that commotion time, Walter turned a shrewd penny, outfitting his friends in third-hand armour, bashing breastplates into shape. Privately he said he feared not, because he knew about the Cornishmen’s ale. It takes twenty-four hours to make, and they brew it wherever they camp. They down it by the pail, creamy brown and fizzing, and it gets you drunk like nothing else. Then it makes you spew all next day.

At Blackheath the rebels were destroyed by the king’s army. Many knights were made on the battlefield that day. An Gof and the lawyer were hanged and quartered, their bloody parts sent back to be displayed where they were born. But Bolster was never hanged. No gallows would be strong enough. The world is wide and he is in it somewhere. Perhaps he lies fathoms deep, breathing through his gills like a fish, till he is ready to swim up to the light and begin his career afresh. A giant is not used to inaction. Nor is my lord Privy Seal. This frustration, this constraint, as the last of the leaves fall and the early frosts begin, takes him back to his early life, before Bolster was thought of, and before he set his foot on the ladder to rise in the world: before he knew there was a ladder: back to the days when other people were in charge of his fate: before he knew there was fate: when he thought there was only the smithy, the brewery, the wharves, the river, and even London seemed distant to him, or, to speak truth, he had no idea of distance: when he was no more than seven years old, and his uncle John and his father settled his destiny between them, and he said scarcely a word.

His uncle John said: ‘I tell you what, brother. Thomas is no use to you yet, he is only underfoot. So why don’t you let me train him up?’

They’re inside the doorway of the brewhouse. The smell blankets him. He comes up to John’s elbow. His father is moving in the dimness, heaving some chests around; he wonders what’s in them. ‘Oh, just stand there, brother!’ Walter says. ‘Just stand there and watch a man break his back!’

John says, ‘Do me courtesy of listening when I speak to you.’

Walter dumps the box he is hauling. ‘What?’

‘Let me take Tom to Lambeth. The kitchen steward’s a good friend to me.’

‘You want to make him into a cook? No lad of mine will be known as Platterface.’

‘He won’t be bound,’ John says. ‘What harm?’

‘I suppose he can make me a posset in my old age. Stew a fowl. All right.’ Walter laughs. He thinks he’ll never be old. He thinks he’ll always have teeth. ‘Mind, Tom, obey your uncle, or you’ll be baked in a pie.’

‘You’ll be minced.’ John slaps him around the head to seal the agreement. Already there’s something solid about him, that inclines people to cuff and slap him, perhaps because it makes a satisfying noise. But as they walk away, John says, ‘You need a skill, Tom. You don’t want to be like your dad, good at nothing but trouble.’

He says, ‘There’s a box under his bed with three padlocks.’

‘Gold, I don’t doubt,’ John says. ‘Where from I don’t like to think. But take him out of his parish, and how would he thrive? They all know him in Putney and none dares cross him. But let him walk abroad without his bully boys, then it’s a different tale.’

Think of that. For the first time, he imagines Walter through the eyes of an indifferent stranger: sees a squat bruiser, unshaven, his belt holding him together. A scoffing, jeering ruffian, looking for a fight; and being Walter, he never looks far. Everybody’s agin him and hoping to do him down, filch what’s his. Filch them first, is Walter’s maxim, and that’s how he thrives. He clip-clops through life to the sound of other people grieving: sniffing out weakness, anybody sad or lost, so he can inflict them.

He says to John, ‘Everybody in Mortlake knows my dad. Everybody in Wimbledon. I’ll get the smithy when he’s dead.’

‘What’s going to kill Walter,’ his uncle asks, ‘unless the hangman? You’ll be a labourer till you’re thirty if you wait on him. I can’t teach you his business, but I can teach you mine. You need a trade you can carry with you. Even in a foreign country folk always want cooks.’

‘I wouldn’t know their dishes,’ he says.

‘A light hand with a sauce, and you’re welcome anywhere.’ John sniffs. ‘I’d like to see Walter make a cream sauce. The bugger would curdle as soon as he looked at it.’

He thinks, my uncle is jealous. My father is a famous fighter, and he’s only good at flouring things.

But he says, my good uncle, I would like to learn your trade, where do we begin?