The Mirror and the Light (Vile Blood – Part 2)

Mid-month: Lord Clifford is besieged at Carlisle. The Duke of Norfolk is at Ampthill with the king’s forces, and with him Henry Courtenay, the Marquis of Exeter: with the marquis, though the marquis does not know it, are men watching him, on Lord Cromwell’s behalf. Norfolk has got what he wants – a troop of men at his back, the king’s commission in his saddlebag – yet still he grouches in every letter he sends. Mr Wriothesley opens them, and interprets the content to the king.

The rebels are aiming for York and the mayor believes the city is too divided to resist. The rumour is that its archbishop has already fled. Robert Aske has called down the rebels from north Yorkshire to join his host. They say they will restore houses of religion in the territory they capture. Mr Wriothesley says, I told you so. I told you, when the monks go, we should knock the buildings down after them.

He, Thomas Cromwell, goes from Windsor to London, road or river, to and from at the king’s behest – he might as well be with the armies, so uneasy his bed, so spare his diet. Even when he is on the road he feels he is still within the castle, trapped in the royal hour, the royal day. The king is querulous when he is not in his presence – he is still Master Secretary, after all, and everything works through and by him. But the king’s first need is coin. His dishes and chalices must be sacrificed, weighty gold chains signed out of the Jewel House never to return. He has never believed metal should be left to lose its lustre, or weigh down the persons of great men – it should circulate as money and multiply. But, he says to Call-Me, I would like to meet a competent alchemist this fall, or a princess who could spin gold out of straw.

In Windsor the town hugs the castle walls, and what were market stalls in King Edward’s day are dwellings now, dirty infills like dens for dwarves, clustering up to the castle ditch. The streets are packed with tradespeople come to try their luck, see what they can sell to the court, for within the castle’s tight precincts they grow nothing, can’t even stock a carp pond. All day wagons rumble uphill, across the cobbles and through the great gate, so noble folk must edge aside to give carters a path. He hears that sermons have been preached in the town in favour of the Pilgrims. He slips money to a few boys of his choosing so they can stand in line at stalls and get the gossip, and later filter into the Windsor taverns, jostling with the customers of Thameside harlots. Afterwards they seek out a priest, see what kind of confessions he likes to hear, then put it to him bald: are these rebels holy, Father? Should we take their part?

So much travelling in the cold and wet, and he wakes up aching. His dreams are oppressive: he finds himself at a landing stage, the opposite bank out of view. The river widening, nothing but the grey still water stretching away, polished pewter reflecting a silver sky: no bank in view because there is no bank, because the water has become eternity, because his flesh is dissolved in it; because his stories merge, all memories flatten to one.

His uncle John says, mind, young Thomas: if you are going to learn, you can’t go running up and down the riverbank, you have to be where we can find you. Because when Archbishop Morton – Cardinal Morton, he is now – has visitors from Rome, they’re not replete with a dish of split peas, they expect to eat songbirds basted in honey. We can’t say to them, well, Monsignors, unfortunately the boy who catches larks has gone home to Putney, because his father’s entered in a shin-kicking contest, and Tom is holding his coat and taking the bets.

It was not easy to leave Putney. There were matters that called him back; he was a boy, you whistled for him and he came. Men planned a robbery and besought him to go through a window for them, and open up the house.

‘No,’ he said.

‘No?’ said the brigands. ‘Why not?’

‘Because I fear God’s punishment.’

The chief robber said, ‘You should more fear my fist.’ And showed it to him.

Besides, they said, why would God notice a boy like you? Why would He care if you go through Mildred Dyer’s window, she being a widow with a store of money, and none but a lapdog to defend her, a cur we can kick away, or easy break its neck?

He thought, God regards every sparrow that falls. From listening at a sermon, he had this text by heart. God regards Mildred Dyer. God regards her dog Pippin. He said, ‘I disdain you. You are the sort who need strong drink before you dare jump a puddle, and on the day you are hanged my friends will laugh at you while you kick.’

The chief robber deployed his fist then, pinning him against the wall and pounding his head till the others cried, ‘Edwin, he’s not worth it.’

He did not remember the pain, perhaps did not feel it. But he remembered the taint of the man’s breath.

‘Who did that?’ Walter said, when he took his injuries home. ‘All angels help me,’ he said, when he heard the story. ‘Next time someone invites you to a robbery, say no in a civil fashion. Tell them you’ve a job on somewhere else – it’s only common courtesy.’

As he grew up, he grew into caution: to a degree. He sinned, he sinned greatly, but usually he picked his time. He saw a woman forced, and he said and did nothing. He saw a man’s eyes put out of their sockets, because he had witnessed what he should not: Jesu, he’d said, would it not have made more sense to slit his tongue? One day when he was brought up against the frontier of Walter’s schemes – some frontier he was unwilling to cross – he had said, ‘Father, do you not know right from wrong?’

Walter’s face grew dark. But he said in a tone mild in the circumstances, ‘Listen, son, this is what I know: right is what you can get away with, and wrong is what they whip you for. As I’m sure life will instruct you, by and by, if your father’s precept and example can’t get it through your skull.’

The thief Edwin had said, while he sucked his knuckles, ‘Be glad of that, boy, a gift from me. You may go begging for a beating hereafter: Satan himself wouldn’t soil his paws.’

On 16 October the rebels enter York. York is the second city in the realm. England is collapsing in on herself, like a house of straw.

When the news comes he is in London, scraping together ten thousand pounds so Norfolk can pay his troops. A message comes from Wriothesley: the king wants him, wants to see him as soon as humanly possible. Another letter follows, another …

When he arrives at Windsor a knot of councillors surges around him, long-faced. The king is at prayer. In his private closet? No, he is addressing God from a grander place, the chapel of St George’s.

Bishop Sampson says, ‘Cromwell, he waits on you.’

‘But you have told him? That York is lost?’ Only in that moment does it strike him that they might have held back the news for him to break.

But it appears Rafe Sadler has done it: Rafe is with him now. Oxford says, ‘I doubt the king will blame you too much, my lord.’

For the fall of York? How could he be to blame? But someone must be …

Lord Audley says, ‘I doubt even Wolsey could have changed the wind these last weeks.’

No? Wolsey would not have fled York, like the present archbishop. He says, ‘No rebel would have dared to rise within a hundred miles of my lord cardinal. Active force would have met him, if he did.’

To St George’s, then. He pushes through the councillors. ‘Come on, Call-Me.’

Wriothesley says, striding beside him, ‘Death has made the cardinal invincible, sir?’

‘So it appears.’ Though Wolsey never speaks to him now. Since he came back from Shaftesbury he is without company or advice. The cardinal bounces in the clouds, where the Faithful Departed giggle at our miscalculations. The dead are magnified in our eyes, while we to them appear as ants. They look down on us from the mists, like mystic beasts on spires, and they sail above us like flags.

The king is in the chantry chapel, high above the Garter stalls. He climbs, and on the tight spiral of the stair the chambers of his heart squeeze small. From here, he knows, the king looks down on his ancestors, at the murdered King Henry – sixth of that name – in his tomb.

He ducks into the low doorway. The king is kneeling, back rigid, seemingly at prayer. Rafe Sadler is kneeling behind him, as far away as the space will allow. Rafe turns up his face, imploring; as he, Lord Cromwell, passes him, he flips his cap over his eyes.

There is a cushion; it’s better than the bare boards. For some time he kneels in silence, directly behind his monarch.

In Florence, he thinks, I played at calcio. It is a game of many players, more a mêlée than a sport. The young men of family would turn out their stouter servants, twenty or thirty to each team. Mad Englishman, he: his excuse being that, as his Tuscan was not perfect, he did not know the rules.

He can hear the king’s breath, his sigh. Henry knows he is there: he gives himself away by a twitch of the muscles at the back of his neck.

Ten minutes into the game you would be bloodied, the ball itself basted in snot and sand and gore, your breath short, your long bones juddering, your feet stamped to a paste and your hair yanked out in handfuls: but you never noticed or cared, once you got hold of the ball. Forward you charged, ball tucked against you, a whoop of triumph sailing over the rooftops; but when you had run ten paces, some bellowing lunatic would hack you behind the knees.

Henry puts his hand to his nape, like someone who has been brushed by a gnat. His sacred head half-turns; he lifts his gaze, wary. ‘Crumb?’ he says. As if it were the start of a prayer: though one with no particular efficacy.

He waits. The king heaves a deeper sigh: a groan.

Mother of Sorrows, the game hurt when it stopped. Though when you were playing, you never felt a thing.

Henry crosses himself, and begins to struggle to his feet. Would a hand to help him be welcome, or bitten?

‘York? How can York fall?’ When the king turns his face it is dismayed: as if somebody has cut a gash in it, opened his brain to the light.

Rafe, in the shadows, stands behind him.

He scoops up his cushion. It is embroidered gold on crimson: ‘HA HA’, it says. Henricus Rex. Anna Regina.

Rafe takes it from him as if it were hot.

If this were Florence, he thinks, I would boot that cushion over Santa Croce. Her memory with it.

The king says, ‘Tonight I shall dine in the great hall.’

‘Majesty,’ he says.

‘I must appear in great …’ the king falters … ‘glory, you understand me? Where is the Mirror of Naples?’

‘Whitehall, sir.’

He thinks Henry will say, take a guard and fetch it. The king takes no heed of distance or weather. He wants to blaze before his subjects in the great pearl and diamond that was the treasure of France.

‘Whitehall?’ Henry says. ‘Never mind.’ It appears he only has to think of the Mirror to feel glorified. He always says, when the French ask for it back, ‘Tell François my claim to that country is stronger than his. One day I shall ask for more than jewels.’

‘We shall need the trumpeters.’ Henry’s voice is small in the great spaces of the chapel. ‘Rafe, are you lurking there? My duty and my love to the queen’s grace. If she pleases to wear the sleeves with my monogram that Ibgrave sent in June, I shall wear the matching doublet.’

Far below them – in the mirror of time you can see them – the Garter knights weep in their stalls, their dead skulls rattling inside feathered helms. But the king straightens his shoulders, tilts up his chin. Later Rafe will say, ‘You have to admire how he took the news, when York fell. You would have thought someone had given him a thousand pounds, instead of a kick in the teeth.’

By suppertime he is so harassed by messengers that he has to send Rafe to whisper in the king’s ear and beseech pardon for his absence. They say the mayor of York has got the treasure out of the city, but can he keep it safe? The Pilgrims will be able to finance their cause from what remains, fleecing the rich citizens. Within York’s walls are crammed forty parish churches, a dozen great houses of religion untouched by the Court of Augmentations. That the place seethes with papists, he has long known; but where would York be, or any of those great wool towns, if he did not work continually to patch up peace with the Emperor, to keep their ports open, and if he did not represent their cause, persistently, to the merchants of the Hanse? If he met Aske he would ask him, how is it in the interest of the north, to threaten those who can best prosper your people?

He says to Rafe, ‘Lucky the King of Scots has gone to France. If he were at home, he might be mustering to come down on us.’

The word from Paris is that James has not yet married a wife. Instead he is doing a lot of shopping.

Rafe says, ‘James has left his council at home to govern. They have an eye to their opportunity, I suppose. I do not know if they would venture to declare war.’

They don’t have to declare it. At calcio, nobody ever declared war. The result was wreckage, all the same: a field strewn with teeth, and (one had heard of it) gouged eyes. No one was actually stabbed but sometimes, inadvertently, players fell onto each other’s knives.

Letters done. He sands his papers. Tonight I can no more. ‘I’m hungry, Call-Me. Perhaps it is not too late to join our master.’

At the end of the great hall where servants sit and boast, he can see Christophe hard at work. Christophe tells people he has been to Constantinople, where he advised the Sultan. At his palace in the twisting lanes of that metropolis, perfumed fans would agitate the air, and plump women, in their skins as God made them, would lie about on divans, with nothing to do all day but work a curl around their forefinger and wait for Mustafa Cromwell to come home, and call for sherbet and virgins.

But in Windsor the light is low outside, and grouped about the king in their furs, his senior councillors: Audley the Lord Chancellor, John de Vere Earl of Oxford; a bishop or two. At the queen’s right hand, Lady Mary is seated. Mary’s eyes pass over him. No signal, except a faint pursing of the lips. On the queen’s other hand is the Marchioness of Exeter, Gertrude Courtenay. It is her office to hold the queen’s fingerbowl, should she require it, while Lady Mary hands her napkin. Glancing down the hall to Gertrude’s entourage, he sees Bess Darrell, and Bess Darrell sees him.

He approaches the king. About his neck, as deputy for the Mirror of Naples, Henry is wearing a rough-cut diamond the size of a large walnut. His doublet of crimson satin is sewn all over with gold and pearls, picking out the queen’s initial. Jane’s crimson sleeves are stiff with matching letters: H, H, H again.

Without looking at him, Henry stretches out an arm for a bundle of dispatches. The king’s attention is fixed on some fantastical tale being trotted out by – blood of Christ, how did he come here? – Master Sexton the jester.

‘I thought you had forbidden him the court, sir?’

Henry’s smile is wary. ‘True, I boxed his ears. But poor fellow, he has no other way to earn a living. Will Somer is sick. He has a colic. I have recommended oil of bitter almonds. An Italian remedy, I think?’

Sexton skips across the floor, chanting:

‘Will is sick and ill at ease

I am full sorry for Will’s disease.’

The king says, ‘Have you not had your supper? Take your places.’

‘Has he washed his hands?’ Sexton bawls. ‘Go lower, Tom. Which is the table for shearsmen? Which is the table for the blacksmith’s lad? Go lower. Keep walking. Trot on till you get to Putney.’

‘Master Wriothesley,’ the king says, ‘my scribe. Take your seat …’

‘What, Wriothesley?’ Sexton bawls. ‘My ink-horn, my splot, my blotch? Frig him, ladies, and he spurts ink. Tell me, Blotch, where’s your friend Riche? What do they call him, Sir Purse?’

Call-Me turns pink. He takes his place. It can only be moments before the king checks Sexton from such bawdy talk, which is never to his taste, let alone that of his wife and his maiden daughter. The ladies will not understand his crudities, of course. Gregory used to call Riche ‘Purse’, but Gregory was young then – he didn’t know it means a cunt. Unless, of course, he did.

Sexton lurches towards them. ‘What, Purse is among the Pilgrims? We may never see him again, which would not make you cry, would it, Master Blot? No, Blot brooks no rival – he would be glad if the rebels cooked and ate Purse, and spat out what they could not stomach. All know how he betrayed Thomas More. I wonder any gentleman speaks to him.’ He rolls his eyes around the company. ‘I wonder even Cromwell speaks to him.’

There is some incautious sniggering. The king frowns. But Master Sexton bowls on. ‘The commons cry for bread, Majesty. Why not give them Crumb?’

The queen moves a hand to cover her mouth. Her embroidered sleeves flash initials: H, H, H. Lady Mary is looking at the table linen with some attention, as if it needed darning. Henry says, ‘The fellow is impertinent, but you must take it in good part, my lord.’

‘The Pilgrims will crumb you,’ Sexton shouts. ‘They will crumb you till you are crumbed back to flour.’

The king says, ‘Do not answer, it will goad him.’

‘If the Emperor comes you will be crumbed and fried. You will be sizzled like the heretic Tyndale.’

He should heed the king’s word, yet he must speak: ‘We do not know for certain that Tyndale is burned.’

Sexton says, ‘I could smell him from here.’

Bess Darrell is a flitting presence by candlelight, a wraith. He cannot help but belly out her gown with the shape of the child that never was.

‘My lord Privy Seal.’ She considers him. ‘Creeping about the apartments of the ladies, by night.’

‘See me as Master Secretary. In that capacity I get everywhere.’

She laughs. ‘So your friend is at court.’ Mary, she means. ‘She is a dangerous friend to have.’

‘How is that?’ He is playing stupid: feeling out the rumours.

‘She thinks you have offered to make her queen one day. She thinks you have an understanding. Tacit, of course.’

Hardly an offer, he says, indifferent, but she says, ‘Do not disdain the rumour. It may buy you a little credit with the Poles or the Courtenays, and you may need it one day.’

‘Why, do they think the Tudors will go down? Do they say so?’

‘Never in my hearing. But my mistress Gertrude hopes the king will take advice and put the government into the hands of honest men. If abusing Lord Cromwell were treason, you could hang her tomorrow.’

‘I could hang half the peerage. I am glad your marchioness is at court, under our eye. Though I can think of people I would rather look at.’

‘Can you?’ She is teasing him. ‘Meg Douglas?’

‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘I like her so well I keep her under lock and key. But tell me, does Mary confide in your mistress?’

‘Mary says nothing to anybody. She bides her time.’

Bess’s face raised to his: a sweetly encouraging face, her eyes warm. Does she think he will speak out for Mary’s rights and damn himself? He would not put it past this young woman to hold a double hand in the game. He turns away: ‘Are the Courtenays good to you? They have not reproached you about Wyatt?’

She lays a flat hand on her person. ‘There is no sign Wyatt was ever here. The Courtenays do not mention his name.’

He thinks, they are persons of limited capacity and Wyatt is too hard for them to fathom. Bess says, ‘Verses are written to damn him. They circulate here at court. Because in the spring he stood with you, and not with the Boleyns.

‘To counterfeit a merry mood

In mourning mind I think it best.

But once in rain I wore a hood

Well were they wet that barehead stood.

‘Blood,’ she says. ‘The precipitation of our age. They think he walked away and left his friends to die. I wonder where those five gentlemen are now? For that matter, I wonder where Wyatt is.’

‘With the king’s army. I cannot be more exact, we are all like planets driven out of our courses. But I hear he does great deeds with his Kentish men. Does he not write to you?’

‘Of course. But you know Wyatt. He would not put a date or place, he would not like to be pinned to it. He does not say anything usual, like “Commend me to my friends,” or “My heart is your home for ever.”’

‘I am sure it is. Who would not grant you the freehold?’ She darts a smile over her shoulder and melts into the darkness, as fleetly as she came. He rubs his fingers together, as if he had tried to catch at her linen and caught a spider’s web instead.

He has almost gained his own door when another woman steps into his path, a candle in her hand. Jane Rochford is as precise and fresh as if she were going to Matins. ‘Cromwell? Where have you been? She wants to see you.’

‘The queen? At this hour?’

‘The Lady Mary.’ Rochford laughs. ‘She is her father’s daughter. She does not sleep, so why should anyone else?’

Mary wears a furred nightgown of stiff crimson brocade. ‘I hope they are keeping you warm,’ he says. ‘And well-provisioned?’

He had told the household officers, block out the draughts, build up her fires, send in extra fuel: bread, wine and boiled meats to go to her chamber each day at dawn.

She says, ‘The great breakfast is needless now. If you remember, it was so that I did not have to dine in the hall in company, and sit lower than little Eliza. In those days when my title was degraded, and Eliza was styled princess.’

She does not ask him to sit. He would not, anyway. He says, ‘We have worked so much between us that I forget some of our ploys. I must ask you, my lady – you have not been approached?’

‘The rebels may use my name, but they have no permission from me.’

Which is to say, yes, I have been approached. And as he moves towards her – he, Lord Cromwell – she does not move, except that with a little hitch she draws her nightgown together, hiding the white of her linen; and at once lets it go, as if she knew the gesture to be ridiculous. He is close enough to touch the cloth of her gown, but of course he does not. ‘You favour that crimson, I perceive, you and the queen both – may I ask, is it from Genoa?’

‘I believe so. The queen sent her brother Edward to Hunsdon, to see what apparel I needed. I said, my father’s favour is clothing enough, but he begged me to ask for whatever I wished. Edward Seymour is a fine gentleman. It is a pity he is a heretic.’

‘Edward is guided by the king, as are we all.’

God forgive me, he thinks, but she is exhausting. And starved of touch, her rank forbids it.

She says, ‘I hear the council is discussing a marriage for me. With the young Duke of Orléans.’

‘The French are discussing it. I’m not sure we are.’

The French will not take her unless Henry makes her his heir. This, of course, he will not do; but could some compromise be reached, a French marriage would detach her once and for all from the Emperor and the Spanish. Therefore, we are talking.

He says, ‘You see yourself with a Spanish husband, very likely.’

She hesitates. ‘The king is such a good father that he would not marry me against my own wishes.’

Answer the question, he thinks. She turns her back on him, as if incidentally. ‘And your own care of me has been so tender that it is like that of a father.’

He can see her face in a glass, only she does not know that. Someone has made her aware that we are linked, if only by rumour. She is warning me off. Well, he thinks, I am warning her. ‘Would you not like to marry an Englishman?’

‘Who?’ The question jumps out at him.

She stares at him through the mirror. Her heart is in her mouth. Let’s leave it there.

A restless supper: a worse grace. He can hear the rain on the leads, its trickle and swirl. Well were they wet that barehead stood … His meal lies heavy, and as he goes to his desk – the last messages have come in from Yorkshire – he finds himself thinking of his spectacular bed: the king has given him a set of covers and bed hangings, purple woven with silver tissue, emblazoned with the royal arms. You are mine asleep or awake, Henry is saying: like a lover. You could keep a troop of horse in the field on what the gift has cost him, but Henry must feel he is worth the expense. He lights another candle, and calls in Christophe to build up the fire. He has used up his court allocation of coals and wood but he says, hang the expense, say it’s for me, and if anybody queries it, just knock them down, will you?

Christophe grins. I fetch Rafe to talk to you? Or someone to sing? But he says, no, no, I must get to this, it won’t wait; but then he rests his head on his hand and perhaps dozes, and he is now here, now there: now lit by the tentative flicker from the hearth, now by the sunlight on the water of the Thames at Lambeth, forty-odd years back: but what is forty years, in the life of a river?

I kept this back for you, Uncle John says. Got to eat it when it’s just warm. Too hot or too cold and you don’t get the beauty of it. A cook has to learn. It can’t always be leftovers.

It is an aromatic custard in a white dish. He saw the gooseberries earlier, tiny bubbles of green glass, sour as a friar on a fast day. For this dish you need fresh hens’ eggs and a pitcher of cream; you need to be a prince of the church to afford the sugar.

His uncle stands over him. The custard quakes in waves of sweetness and spice.

‘Nutmeg,’ he says. ‘Mace. Cumin.’

‘Now taste it.’

‘And rosewater.’

John’s smile is a benediction. ‘Nothing is so green as a summer in England, Thomas. Those who have voyaged yearn for it. They dream of a bowl such as this.’

On the silk road; in the heat of the plains where neither rill nor brook trickles in three days’ march; in the fortified towns of barbarians, where you can cook an egg by cracking it on the stones; in the places at the edge of the map, where the lines blur and the paper frays: by Mother Mary, says the traveller, by the maidenhead of St Agatha, I wish I were in Lambeth and had a dish of gooseberries and a spoon.

He shakes his head. This dish lacks some final flourish … He pictures himself, forty years on, standing where John stands now. He is the master-cook, he wears velvet: he never goes near a flour bag, nor flying hot oil: papers in hand, he issues his orders, and at his behest a boy who looks very like himself tosses slivers of almonds in a latten pan; then he spoons them into the cream, freckling it.

And then he might, if he had made an elderflower cordial, venture to add a drop or two.

The boy he can see has his own curly head, his skinned knuckles, his feet cold on the stone-flagged floor. He wears a patched jerkin of sad colour. Beneath his clothes are the prints of his father’s fingers: bruises reversing nature, turning from the autumn black-purple of the elderberry to the pale yellow-white of the flowers.

All his flesh is dappled with these shadows. Walter can’t help it, John says, he lashes out. Our own father may God acquit him was the same.

If you go out on a morning in late June, after the dew has burned off, you can pick the finest elderberries from the top of the bushes, employing a hooked stick or giant to help you. When you have carried them home, you spill them by handfuls onto a scrubbed tabletop. Breathing in their honeyed scent, you sift them for the best-formed blossoms, your fingertips gentle; then you paint each petal with white of egg. If you dip them in sugar, which as the servant of a rich man you can afford to do, you can keep them a year. On a cheerless November day, when the idea of summer has dropped out of the world, you can lay the crystallised petals on the surface of a cake, each one a five-pointed star: to enchant the eye of a lady, or to tempt the jaded palate of a king.

19 October, the city of Hull capitulates to the rebels. In Doncaster, mayor and chief citizens are compelled to take the Pilgrim oath. In the chapel at Windsor, the dead knights in their Garter stalls bow over their shame in an agony of colic that no oil of almonds will ease: inside their helms they moan, earls of Lancaster and earls of March, Bohuns and Beauchamps, Mowbrays and Veres, Nevilles and Percys, Cliffords and Talbots and Fitzalans and Howards, and that great servant of the state, Reginald Bray himself. There are more dead than living; why can they not fight?

When evening comes a blue light fades in the north windows, and the river is sucked into the darkness, as if into a universal sea. The south windows are shuttered, the courts below fall quiet, and the watch is changed at the foot of the king’s privy stair. The tapers are brought in, and mirrored sconces redirect a shivering light; the king’s private rooms, painted and gilded, shine like a jewel box.

The king says, ‘I remember my father’s passing … Bishop Fox came to me at Evensong: “The king your father is dead: God save your Majesty.” I said, at what hour did his soul depart? And Fox never answered. I guessed by that my father had lain untended, cooling in his death sweat, while his councillors plotted at their leisure. For two whole days after that, his ministers pretended he was still alive.’

He thinks, they meant well. They wanted everything ready for a smooth accession.

‘Think how they had to dissimulate,’ the king says, ‘walking around Greenwich with unaltered countenance. I could not have done it myself, being a natural man, incapable of deception. You see how, my lord, by the time my councillors proclaimed me, they had already started lying to me. As soon as you are king, nobody tells you the truth.’

‘I might …’ he says.

‘You might mollify it,’ Henry says. ‘Or tell what truths you think I can bear. Though I will not say, “My lord, I want truth unadorned.” I will not make that claim. I have my share of human vanity.’

He is afraid Gregory will laugh.

Henry says, ‘I wanted two months of my eighteenth birthday, so they named my grandmother regent. But then on Midsummer Day, Katherine and I were crowned together.’

The songs tonight are Spanish: a boy sings about contests with the Moors, airs less martial than melancholy. Messages are brought to the Moorish king: God keep your Majesty, here is bad news. Las nuevas que, rey, sabras/no son nuevas de alegria … The notation is strange to him, the voice part inked in red.

Henry says, ‘You know when you see a little child placed on a chair, its legs dangling? You smile and pity the child, do you not? Imagine a young man placed on a throne … you feel as if your feet are in the air, like that …’

He sees Gregory smile. He thinks of Helen, before she was Rafe’s wife, bringing her little children to Austin Friars and setting them on a bench, their legs thrust straight out before them.

The king says, ‘My father said that the surest sign that Heaven favoured his reign was the birth of a prince so soon after his marriage to my sainted mother. In January they were wed, and in September they had Arthur in the cradle. It is no sin, you know, to go to bed once you are betrothed, or if it is a sin, it can easily be absolved. They were blessed with a numerous family after. I remember us together at Eltham, gathered in the great hall, the day Erasmus came to see us.’

‘May God rest him,’ Gregory says. He hopes Erasmus will not rise, to write more books.

The king’s hand moves to cross himself; his jewels catch the light. ‘I would be eight years old, I think, a bonny child and a toward wit. I sat under the canopy of estate, and to my right my sister Margaret, being about ten years old, already betrothed to Scotland. My sister Mary on my other hand, her hair white like angels’ hair. And Edmund still a babe, he was held in some great lady’s arms I suppose. I had another sister, Elizabeth, three years old when she died, I have no memory of her, but they said she was as lovely as Mary, and a great pity she died, for she could have been married thereafter, with advantage to our polity. Edmund himself lived not long after. And my sister Mary is dead now. And Arthur. There is only myself left. And Margaret, far beyond the border.’

It is hard to know whether the king is congratulating himself, or commiserating with himself. His lips are stained by many cups of a strong and sweet malvasia; he blots with his napkin, eyes distant. ‘The burden of kingship,’ he says, ‘no man can imagine it. All my life, to be a prince: to be observed to be a prince; all eyes to be set on me; to be an exemplar of virtue, of discretion, of excellence in learning; to have a mind young and vigorous yet as wise as Solomon; to take pleasure in what others have designed for my pleasure, or be thought ungrateful; to discipline all my appetites, to unmake myself as a man in order to make myself as a king; to waste not a minute lest I be seen to waste it; for idleness, no excuses; always alert to prove, always to show, that I am worthy of the place God appointed me … When I was a young man I suppose I showed the calf of my leg to an ambassador and said, “There, has your French king a calf as good as that?” And my words were reported, and all Europe laughed at me, a vain idle boy, and no doubt people laugh still. But being young I asked myself, if God had formed François better than me, which prince did He favour most?’

Thomas More had said once, can a king be your friend? He thinks, the first time I came into Henry’s presence, it was like the Fox and the Lion. I trembled at the sight. But the second time, I crept a bit nearer and had a good look. And what did I see? I saw his solitude. And like Fox to Lion, I stepped right up and parleyed with him, and never looked back.

The king says, ‘I have got no good of my sister Margaret or her marriage with the Scot. She has been a trouble and an expense all her life. And see now her daughter going the same way, intriguing with Tom Truth.’

He has been hoping the king will be good to Meg Douglas, and let her move from the Tower to some easier custody; now, he sees, is not the time to broach it.

‘They are saying in the north that you want to marry her.’

Gregory is caught unawares: ‘What?’

‘You need not deny it,’ the king says. ‘I tell everyone, Cromwell would not presume. Not even in his dreams.’

He feels obliged to state, ‘Nor do I.’

The king says, ‘Do you know, there are some who claim the old Scots king did not die at Flodden? They believe he escaped the battlefield and took ship to become a pilgrim in the Holy Land. He has been seen in Jerusalem.’

‘Only in fantasy,’ he says. ‘Did not Lord Dacre, who knew him, inspect his naked remains? And my lord of Norfolk will tell you, you could put your fist through the holes in his surcoat where the blades had pierced him.’

Henry says, ‘I was winning battles in France at the time, I cannot know. But I wonder if princes do die, as common men die. I feel my father watches what I do.’

‘Then surely, sir, he sees your difficulties, and admires your resolution?’

‘How can I know that? If the dead can see us, be sure they do not like the world to change from what they knew. Nor do they like their power disrespected. Norfolk’s father took credit for Flodden, but in Durham they credit St Cuthbert with the victory. They march behind his banners now.’

The king holds up a hand to the lute player: ‘Thank you, leave us.’ The boy stuffs his music back into his budget and goes out backwards. The king picks up his own lute. Oh shining moon light me all the night … Ay luna tan bella, light me to the sierra. He says, ‘I loved Katherine. Did you know that? Despite all that ensued.’

He thinks, if he forgets the words I cannot assist him here. Though it is a fair bet that the night will cloud up at some point and hide the moon. The ladies look down from the towers of the Alhambra. The horsemen curvet below, on white mounts with gilded hooves, pennants streaming from their lances. All the troupe, Moors and Christians both, file together into the antique darkness, a blur of gold against the night: cities are besieged and cities fall, warriors burn with the fires of love and are consumed.

Henry sings: I am the dark girl, the rose without thorn. He says, ‘Katherine claimed she loved me. So why did she try to destroy me?’

He makes no answer. He has mastered silence, but to better effect than More.

The king’s eyes rest on him. ‘The children who died in her womb, I think they did not want to be born, they did not care to live in this peevish world. But where did they go? They say there is no salvation for the unbaptised. Some think God would not be so cruel. And God is not as cruel as man. God would not sew a man in a cow’s hide, and set dogs on him.’

His servant John Bellowe is alive, it transpires. Richard Cromwell has seen him, and patched him up and set him to work again. It is true he was taken prisoner, roughly used, and set in the stocks at Louth. But he is not blinded or mauled by dogs. He hopes no one explains to Bellowe the death they thought he had died. Hearing such a tale, a man might lose his confidence in his fellow man.

The old king’s advisers, he thinks, knew trade and the law. Bray died in his bed. But his protégés, Empson and Dudley, were arrested before they knew the old king’s soul had passed. They were haled out of their houses and dragged through the April dawn along Candlewick Street and Eastcheap and so to prison. They were charged with the crime of massing troops in the capital, plotting to seize the person of the young Henry. It was an unlikely charge. They fell because the people hated them. They were the old king’s bad angels, but God he knows, they kept him in funds.

There are moments when as he goes about his duties he feels a fierce exultation – he, Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal. But he would never admit it to any person: they would lecture him about the mutability of fortune. Look at his life: does he need a reminder? He says to Rafe, vanity compels us to to pretend we plan every step. But when the cardinal came down I stood before the lords of England like a naked child waiting for the whip. I sent you oiling to Norfolk, ‘Can Master Cromwell have a seat in the Parliament house, he will do much good for your lordship?’ Christ, yes, Rafe says, I thought he would have kicked me to Ipswich.

There is a time to be silent. There is a time to talk for your life. He saw Henry’s need and he filled it, but you must never let a prince know he needs you; he does not like to think he has incurred a debt to a subject. Like the old king’s ministers, he labours day and night for his prince’s increase. The Italian Niccolò says that when a prince has such a servant, he should treat him with respect and kindness, advance him to honours and promote his fortune. Perhaps when the book is put into English our prince will read it.

In Sienna you may see a fresco, where Good Government is set out on the wall, so that everyone can see what peace looks like. Peace is a woman: she is a blonde; her hair is braided, and her head leans upon her hand, which is turned so that you see the tender white skin of her inner arm. Her dress is of a fabric so fine that, when it falls away from her breasts, it skims the length of her body and drifts into graceful pleats and folds, into an area of mystery between her relaxed, parted legs. Her feet are bare: they look intelligent, like hands.

On the opposite wall, Bad Government has taken Peace by the hair. She is panicked, screaming, jerked to her knees.

He remembers the great jars in Florence, their cool curve under his hand; they seemed to him to be speaking to each other, edging closer so their sides touched and chimed. Oil and wine, in jars with sounding depths; bread and wine, God’s body; the torn manchet loaves at the tables of the rich, fine white bread while the poor eat barley, rye. At Windsor in the king’s chamber a gentleman brings in more tapers; the light flutters across the ceiling like an influx of cherubim. The king consults the songbook. He sings that he burns without surcease: a mountain girl, unloved, a maid from Estremadura.

He and Rafe exchange glances. Rafe, who knows the Spanish tongue well, looks as baffled as he is. Henry says, ‘Crumb, have you talked to my daughter? You know the French have offered for her?’

‘I find their approaches tepid. Not to mention offensive. They assume your Majesty will not have a son, when all likelihood is that you will.’

‘Write to Gardiner,’ Henry says. ‘He can tell François we are not interested.’ He bends his head over his lute again. ‘Though perhaps we should get Mary wed before her bloom fades entirely. She is not like her mother. Katherine was a beautiful creature, at her age.’

Call-Me says, ‘The French must have a spy among the queen’s women. I swear they know when she has her courses.’

‘That will be Jane Rochford,’ he says.

‘You know that, sir?’

‘No,’ Rafe says. ‘But Lord Cromwell is a gambling man.’

Their supper tonight was lamprey pies and whiting and Suffolk cheese, and pheasants killed with their own hawks. You rise from table and it is as if you have been invited to a feast by a magician in a tale. You think you have been in the king’s chamber two hours but when you step outside, seven centuries have passed.

As October enters its third week, Lord Darcy surrenders Pontefract Castle to the rebels. The distinguished men who have sheltered there – among them Sir William Gascoigne, Sir Robert Constable, and Edmund Lee, Archbishop of York – are compelled to take the Pilgrim oath.

He has channels open, across the Narrow Sea. Among the French councillors are those who urge the Pope to sieze the moment and publish his bull of excommunication. Once it is public, all Henry’s subjects will be loosed to join the rebellion. He says to Rafe, ‘Put the word out to the gentlemen in the privy chamber, and let them spread it among their friends – if I find any have written to Rome, I shall take it as proof of treason without further enquiry.’ He says, ‘Our hope now is that the Bishop of Rome will not act because he cannot understand what is happening in the north country. How should he? We hardly know ourselves. And if Pole is advising him, he can scarcely know Pontefract from the kingdom of Cockaigne.’

The king sends Lancaster Herald to Pontefract with a proclamation. Robert Aske refuses to let him read out his message, but civilly offers him safe conduct out of the castle and town. He and his Pilgrims will stay true to their cause, they say, and will march on London.

Norfolk has proceeded from his home at Kenninghall to Cambridge, from Cambridge to the north. He claims he is grieved to the heart at the actions of Lord Darcy, who by blood or marriage is related to the greatest families of the north, and who appears to have declared for the Pilgrims. Surely there is a misunderstanding? Space must be left around this magnate, so later he can claim he has been misunderstood.

Darcy sets himself up as the bluff old soldier, but his nature is double. The cardinal was good to him; Darcy betrayed the cardinal, drawing up the indictment that fed the king’s anger. He swears great oaths that he is true, but these three years past he has been talking to Chapuys, enquiring as to the chances of troops from the Emperor.

Garlanded by praise for his fidelity from the Lord Privy Seal, the aged Lord Talbot is ordered to march towards Doncaster. Now the fightback has begun: though the prescription is to avoid any actual fighting, swerve engagement where possible. What is essential is to secure the bridges and the main highways, pen the Pilgrims north of Trent. At Windsor he sits by the king, working out what terms will entice the foe. It is for him, the vile Cromwell, to make the king’s language emollient. Offer what you must, to induce the bands to disperse. Corrupt them from within. Set gentleman against servant, rustic against monk. They have no common bond but their banner, and what is it? Painted cloth.

Norfolk writes he neither eats nor sleeps, except in the saddle. For an hour he gets his head down and he is roused three times, each time by fools bringing in messages that contradict each other. ‘Take in good part whatever promises I shall make unto the rebels … for surely I shall observe no part thereof …’

I will, the duke indicates, lie for England. Send me approved lies by the next courier. Send them by your fastest horse.

Near Doncaster, the Pilgrims halt their army. The duke halts his puny forces. His heart is broken, he complains, at having to talk to these traitors, instead of plough them under; all the same, he meets their leaders, listens to their complaints. Norfolk gives a safe-conduct to two Pilgrims, gentlemen, to take a petition to the king.