The Mirror and the Light (Vile Blood – Part 3)

Truce, then. Temporary, conditional … But I believe, he tells his boys, Aske’s nerve has failed. The heart within his breast, which is no soldier’s heart, quakes at the bloodshed in prospect. Once they sit to talk, the Pilgrims lose the impulsion that has brought them so far, their confidence in their own crude strength. The winds of November will bluster through their tents; where they camp, the district will grow hostile; food will grow scarce for man and horse; their water pails will ice over in the night; boots will crack: good order will break down, disease break out. Our pockets are deeper, after all, our arguments more baffling, and we have better guns. We will temporise, and winter will come, and it will be over.

Some hours before the king retires, the groom of the bedchamber calls in four yeomen of the bedchamber, and four yeomen from the Wardrobe of the Beds bring in the king’s sheets. The straw mattress that forms the first layer of his bedding is pricked all over with a dagger, before a cover is stretched across it; while they prick and stretch, the yeomen pray for the king, to come safe through the rigours of the night ahead. When the canvas is taut, one of them seats himself on the bedframe, topples backwards most reverently, draws up his unshod feet, and rolls the width of the bed; pauses, and rolls back. If the gentlemen are satisfied there is nothing sharp or noxious beneath, the feather beds are laid down and pummelled all over: you hear the steady thud of fist on down. All eight yeomen, moving in step, stretch taut the sheets and blankets, and as they tuck in each corner, they make the sign of the cross. The fur coverlet follows, a soft swish and slither; then the curtains are drawn around the bed, and a page sits down to guard it.

So the king’s long day closes. If he decides to go in to the queen, then a procession escorts him to her door in his night robes. During daylight hours, he is so bejewelled that it hurts to look at him; he is the sun. But when he strips off his nightgown stiffly pearled, he is a phantom in white linen, and beneath his shroud his skin. To breed kings in a line of kings, he must become a naked man, and do what every pauper does, and every dog. Outside the door his gentlemen wait till he is finished. They try not to think of the maidenly queen, her blushes and sighs, and the king, his grunts of pleasure, his sweat while he ruts. Let us pray for his good success. He must fertilise the whole nation. If he is impotent, every Englishman falters, and foreigners will come by night and cuckold us.

When the king returns to his chamber, they bring a ewer of warm water, his toothpowder, his night-bonnet. In the glass he sees himself for the last time today, and glimpses the young prince he was, bowing out: king of hearts and Defender of the Faith. And in the place where he stood, a bloated man in middle age: ‘Oh Lord, I am working hard in the field, and the field of my labours is myself.’

Gregory says, ‘Father, when the king sent me to look for Merlin books, I lifted up the lid of a chest, and what did I see? I saw three volumes, on their binding the badge of the falcon, and the letters “AB”. I ask myself, does the king know they are there?’

He puts his finger to his lips.

Gregory says, ‘I think it might be like Cranmer’s wife. He knows and does not know. All of us can do this. But kings in higher degree.’

They are going to bed themselves; but he has one last mission. ‘Kitchens,’ he says.

‘You are still hungry?’ His son looks incredulous.

On the stairs he meets Rafe, with papers in his hand and tomorrow’s agenda swimming in his eyes. ‘You wish you were at home with Helen,’ he says.

Rafe pinches the bridge of his nose, blinks as if to dispel sleep. ‘What about you, master – another tryst with a lady?’

‘No, but I have a billet doux. Norfolk writes every hour.’

Rafe says, ‘The king says tonight, if it will hold off the rebels, Norfolk can promise Jane will be crowned in York. It would be to the city’s profit, so they will be keen, the king thinks. And if Norfolk is forced to it, he may offer a parliament in the north.’

‘They want to push me off my patch. They believe, get Cromwell outside London and his power will falter.’

Rafe says, ‘I don’t think the king wants to go to York any more than you do. But every week Norfolk gains by promises is a week nearer winter.’

He wonders why rebels would disperse on a promise. Himself, he would want performance.

Rafe yawns. ‘Call-Me has listed the names of all gentlemen who have been sworn by the Pilgrims. Did you know Lord Latimer is among them? Perhaps the king will hang him, and you can marry Kate Parr. In furtherance of your vow.’

‘Shame on you!’ he says. ‘When you know I am pledged to the Lady Mary, and to Margaret Douglas. I swear I will not marry below royal degree.’

Outside the king’s room the nightwatch is set; but his gentlemen, as they leave him, place his sword by his bed, with a lighted candle. In the last instance, a king must defend himself.

At Windsor there has never been enough space for the kitchens, so they are always throwing up some lean-to in the courts around, and such temporary arrangements have been subsiding and leaking fumes since Adam was a lad. He wants to know if they have damped their fires and cleaned their pans, and see it with his own eyes: no point saving your king from rebels if he is burned up by grease from a loyal turnspit. He swoops in on odd nights to catch them out – just as, on odd days without warning, he arrives at the Tower Mint and weighs their gold coins.

A mist is rising; he rubs his hands against the cold. He knows these back-courts; in all the king’s houses he knows them, the forgotten yards and unpatrolled snickets. In a corner where a wall-torch burns, he sees the jester Sexton alone in a pool of light, scuffling a deerskin football against a wall. ‘Sexton? Why are you abroad?’

Sexton scoops up the ball. ‘No curfew in Patchtown.’

‘You have no business in the kitchens.’

Sexton huddles the ball against his chest. ‘You never know where you’ll find a joke, do you?’

He lunges, knocks the ball out of the man’s grasp, tosses it up and catches it. ‘Your head, Patch.’ A slap of his palm sends it over the wall. He hears a yelp from the darkness; some stranger has had a shock.

Returning, he sees there is a guard set outside his door. The man says, good night and God bless you. The shapes of other men, armed, occupy each recess.

Christophe is sitting up for him. His spaniel is snoring; the marmoset is huddled close to the embers, chattering to himself. When he first brought the creature in, the king had said, ‘Beware, Lord Cromwell, my father had a little monkey that got hold of one of his books of memoranda, and tore it to shreds with his nails and teeth. They pieced the fragments together, but no one could read the result. And so it falls out that today there are gentlemen in luxury, who would have been beggars if my father had sent them their tax bills, and others snug in their parlours who would have been clapped in a strait prison, if the monkey had not altered their fate.’

‘Gregory is abed already,’ Christophe yawns, then absently kisses his cheek: ‘Do not sit up writing, sir.’

Christophe rolls towards his pallet, pulling off his jerkin, scratching himself as he goes. Alone, he – Lord Cromwell – takes the knife from under his shirt, and sets it down. If some north country ogre burst up the stair, would he defend his son, or his son defend him? As the king says, Gregory promises brawn and sinew, the keen level eye of the sportsman, the set jaw of a man accustomed to the weight of a helm. But still like a child he whispers in the dark: ‘The king would see Anne’s books if he pleased. Kings can see through stone walls, and hear remarks passed in the reign of Uther Pendragon. They feel more than common men – as the spider feels the finger before the finger touches it. A king is more like an animal in certain regards, but do not say I said so, it might be ill-taken.’

His head hits the pillow. ‘Might it?’ he says. ‘Well, perhaps you should err on the side of caution. Men have lost their heads for less.’

You think of the prince as living on an exalted plane, finer and higher than other men. But perhaps Gregory has a point: is a prince even human? If you add him up, does the total make a man? He is made of shards and broken fragments of the past, of prophecies and of the dreams of his ancestral line. The tides of history break inside him, their current threatens to carry him away. His blood is not his own, but ancient blood. His dreams are not his own, but the dreams of all England: the dark forest, deserted heath; the stir in the leaves, the dragon’s footprint; the hand breaking the waters of a lake. His forefathers interrupt his sleep to castigate, to warn, to shake their heads in mute disappointment. At a prince’s coronation, God transfigures him, his human faults falling away, his human capacities increased; but that burst of light has to last him. That instant’s transfusion of grace must sustain him for thirty years, forty years, for the rest of his mortal life.

He lies sleepless: Baron Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal, his mind ranging across country over the dales and rivers to where the factious in their encampments stir in their sleep and curse his name. It ranges west, far west, beyond the river Tamar, to where the sons of Cornishmen cold-sweat and heave, their ale foaming through their blood, and where Bolster in his sea cave blows giant bubbles in the midnight deeps, and dreams of swimming up for air; of planting his giant feet on hill and dale, fording the rivers in spate and demolishing the bridges with his heels; of marching to London, to net the ministers of the king, and snap their necks, and grind them up like spices to sprinkle on his porridge.

A giant cannot imagine what it is like to be a man of ordinary height. He cannot enter into their feelings. He never learns to bargain, or deceive: why would he, when he gets his way simply by cracking his knuckles?

When you are a child you think you have to kill the giant, but as you grow up you think different. Suppose you meet him by chance one day: you about your common business, picking up sticks or inspecting your rabbit traps, and he taking the air at the entrance to his cave, or toiling on a mountainside to uproot great oaks. Giants are lonely; they don’t know any other giants. Sometimes they want a boy like Jack to amuse them, to run errands and teach them songs.

Conquer your awe then, grab your chance. If you know how to talk to a giant it works like a spell. The monster becomes your creature. He thinks you serve him, but in fact you serve yourself.

He is restless – he, Lord Cromwell. He gets out of bed. Opens the shutter. Rain. He shields a candle flame with his hand. His head bobs against the ceiling. But he is not the giant – he is sprightly Jack. You leave your home and head east, you cross the sea, you think Bolster is behind you, but he is ahead. Wherever you arrive, he has arrived first. It’s here at Windsor, the swollen Thames surging under your walls, the water gurgling in downspouts and ditches – it’s here, after all the years, you find your confluence.

In his spare moments he is studying to improve his Greek. Old Bishop Fisher was in his seventies when he began the language, and he is not to be bested by a dead prelate. In a year or two, he wishes to be able to join the divines in their subtle dissection of each point of translation. This week he is reading a book of letters written by the philosophers and soldiers of those ancient times; though you wonder Alexander the Great had time for letters. Our king does not care to write his own – his writing seems to turn back on itself, so after long labour he makes no progress. Instead he corrects the manuscripts of others, or makes marginal notes of a startling nature. Probably the great Macedonian was the same – no doubt he laid aside his lyre and murmured the gist of his message, and a slave inscribed it, the Thomas Wriothesley of his day: bowing in a tent on a day of still heat, the perfume of frankincense masking the reek of elephants on the move.

Long ago in Venice he bought this book, trusting sometime he would have leisure for study. It is from the Aldus workshop, with his dolphin mark: clean, though one page marred by a thumbprint from its first owner. Sometimes he wonders who he was, and why he would part with such a work. Perhaps he is dead and his heirs sold his book, thumbprint and all. Or perhaps he lost interest in the ancient world and turned his mind back to business; tomorrow morning he will be strolling to the piazza with a basket and a street-child to carry it, shopping for olives and pumpkins, pine-nuts and garlic.

When he was an infant, Thomas was afraid of the river: of high tide as it crept around his ankles. He feared it would burst its banks and widen like the sky above us – he had no other way of thinking of it, for he had never seen the sea. He thought the river should be walled off to keep the streets safe, or banks built, to allow men to walk dry-shod above it and view its rising. Imagine then when he came to Venice. The child stirred inside him, crying, ‘Look, look what it’s done! I told you so!’

In Venice he saw, by torchlight, the whole of Heaven painted, and high above the canal a woman’s face brooding in the space between planets. He went back in daylight to view it better, and saw the world painted on a wall, with scaly landmasses and blue oceans; forests where deer sprang from coverts, where nymphs with the heads of birds sang in the trees. He saw a rider richly dressed riding into the distance, his horse’s shoes turned back to the onlooker; the hoof prints are impressed in memory, while the rider fades into an avenue of fallen columns, diminishing to a dot and vanishing from view.

Sometimes Henry says to him, ‘Still at the antique letters, Lord Cromwell? What did you learn today?’

He says, ‘I learned that ars longa, vita brevis: I learned how to say it in Greek.’

‘That is Hippocrates,’ Henry says. ‘He tells us, life is short and our task so great that we will die before we can …’

The king breaks off. It is an offence for his subjects to speculate about his death or predict it, but it is not an offence for him to speak of it himself; yet he looks chary, as if he thinks it should be. ‘“Life is short and art is long, the opportunity sudden and fleeting: experiment dangerous, judgement difficult.” I think I have the sense of it.’

He bows. ‘I am the better instructed, sir.’

Daily, daily, one must practise the courtier’s art, and nightly, the art of governance: and never get it right. Chaucer says it in our own English tongue. ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’

Just before 5 a.m. on Monday, 13 November, the merchant Robert Packington, a member of Parliament, leaves his house in the City of London to attend early Mass. A thick mist blankets the streets around Cheapside, and bells are ringing from all the parishes nearby. As Packington crosses towards the church of St Thomas of Acon, he falls to the ground. Some day-labourers, gathered on Soper’s Lane waiting for hire, will claim to have heard a boom, a blast, a crack, or a soft detonation like a giant’s fist punching a cushion.

Other churchgoers are close behind. They sprint towards the fallen man, shouting, and the labourers shout too, and the noise brings the neighbours into the street, lanterns in their hands, nightcaps on their heads, faces gaping, blankets thrown over their shoulders. By the time they reach Packington he is dead. Looming out of the mist, a woman screams, ‘Help! Murder!’ Men run for the watch.

A crowd gathers. Packington is recognised: he is well-known in the Mercers’ Company and one of our chief citizens. A surgeon arrives, and identifies the wound as a gunshot wound. No one saw the assailant.

Before seven o’clock he, Lord Cromwell, is under siege at Austin Friars. I can tell you nothing, he says, shouldering through the crowd of guildsmen; I just want witnesses. Where did the attacker come from? In what direction go? And how, in so thick a mist, did he pick out Packington? Because we suppose Packington was his target – you do not crack at random at good men going to Mass.

‘Fetch Stephen Vaughan,’ he says. He has brought his trusted friend over, to keep an eye on the Mint, and he is the man for this business, as for all business requiring sternness and a quick eye; and he has known Packington for years. The coroner comes down with his clerks. The news is broken to the dead man’s brothers. The Lord Mayor puts up a reward for information. Packington’s friends add to it. Meanwhile the labourers have carried the body back to the dead man’s house, and someone has paid them to scrub the blood away. Packington cannot have known he was shot. The surgeon says he would have felt nothing, unless the sensation of flying as West Cheap came up to meet him. He would have been dead before he could say a Pater Noster.

No one saw a strange man in the street. No one saw fire in the murk – as it might be, the match-flare for an arquebus. No one was seen carrying a parcel or wrapping, that could have disguised an arquebus. It seems possible a pistol was employed, that a man could carry in his coat and fire with one hand; moreover, a wheel-lock device, which needs no flare. There are few such weapons in London. Some countries have banned them, but that does not weigh with felons. If the pistol is still with its owner, it convicts him. If it was hidden, it will soon be found. Unless, of course, it’s at the bottom of the river: in which case he is not just a whoreson, but a whoreson with a rich paymaster, to toss such a weapon away.

Packington was a gospeller, he was a Bible man, these many years he has travelled between here and Flanders, not only on cloth business but on the business of scripture; he carried Testaments home, when it was death to do it. ‘He saw Tyndale just before –’ a mercer tells him, and he holds up a palm: ‘I cannot hear what you are telling me. If you met Tyndale yourself I must not know.’ I am your brother in Christ, he thinks, but I am also the king’s servant.

By noon he, the Lord Privy Seal, has visited Packington’s widow, a daughter of the Skinners’ Company. Rob had two stepchildren with her, and five of his own from his first marriage; the city wants to know who will make decisions for them. Chief Justice Baldwin, father of Robert’s first wife, steps forward as their guardian. ‘Guard yourself, Cromwell,’ the judge tells him. ‘I doubt not this killer has stalked you and you have never seen him.’

‘What remedy?’ he says.

‘Body armour?’ Baldwin says.

He has worn it before, in times of civic excitement, under his court robes. It is hot and as the day wears on it becomes a hoop around the ribs and a band tightening the heart. It is the same feeling you get when you are standing before the king, agenda in your hand, twenty items on it and every one crucial – and the king decides to talk about the medicinal properties of lilies. You think you might choke; you feel the ache of being bound to your desk while your nephew rides east, while Wyatt rides north, while Norfolk in some distant tent makes the fate of the commonwealth. And now he is told he is not safe in his own streets – not in his own house, not in his own bed, where Walter stands at the bedpost, sneering at him and fingering the king’s purple and silver curtains.

It is no distance from Austin Friars to where Packington fell. He sits down in the parlour of the woman who cried ‘Murder!’ He listens to her recitation of her morning, from first opening an eye to the moment she ran into the street. But it is clear she saw nothing: except in a dream, she says, two or three nights back, where she saw the city on fire. Outside a restless crowd mutters and gossips on the spot: as if the gunman might come back and do it again, so they can witness. The labourers from Soper’s Lane have changed their story. They now remember a tall man wrapped in a cloak, clutching something under it, and incanting to himself as he crossed the road.

Judge Baldwin is unstrung by the morning’s events. ‘Tall man in a cloak? How does that aid us? We did not think it was a naked dwarf did the deed.’

‘But Lord Cromwell,’ the men plead, ‘he looked Italian.’

‘How does an Italian look, in a thick fog?’

They shuffle their feet. He gives them some coins anyway, for showing willing. ‘You’re too soft,’ Baldwin says, but he says, have mercy, Baldwin, they are only boys, and they carried the corpse – in acting as good citizens, they lost their earnings for the day.

‘Listen, Cromwell. You don’t get a good name among the lowly by sharing their concerns and handing out coin. You get their respect by overlooking them, as if you did not understand their sort, and your own belly had never been empty.’

‘I could not so belie myself.’

‘I’m not telling you what to do. I’m telling you how it is.’

Vaughan says, ‘Do not advise my lord how to be lordly. A great man is open-handed.’

The labourers follow them, encouraged to more suggestions: perhaps the miscreant was a Yorkshireman? ‘We would walk in the procession for the obsequy, sirs, if we got black gowns and fourpence. Pity he was felled on his way into church, and not his way out, for he might have flown straight to paradise and be looking down on us now.’

There is no Purgatory for Packington. He will rest quiet till, at the end of time, he takes a final boat to meet his God. A pity to have survived so many sea crossings, and Thomas More’s persecutions, and the simmering fury of the London clergy, only to come to grief outside your own front door. There is no time to mourn, though the dead man has been his friend these many years. By ten o’clock the mist has dispersed, a pale sun shining from a clear sky. By the Angelus bell it is grey again, but for an hour the air is sprinkled with flakes of gold, as if Heaven has thrown some lustre on dead Packington. Funeral in two days, the family are told, three at most. Father Robert Barnes to preach. It’s what the dead man would have wanted.

It’s a miscalculation. Barnes’s sermon is so inflammatory that he has no choice but to take him into custody. Better in my hands, he says, than in the Bishop of London’s prison. The city has not forgot the case of Richard Hunne. It may be twenty-five years, or nearly that, but the shame is still fresh. This godly merchant, shut up in the Lollards’ Tower, was found hanged: never was there such a hanging, with blood on the flags and blood on the walls. The authorities claimed Hunne had killed himself, in despair at his own heresies. The stool on which he was supposed to have balanced was well beyond reach of his feet.

At Windsor he stands at a casement with Henry, watching the rain. The wind moans in the chimney. The room seems drained of light, as if each window were a device for sucking it out and dribbling it feebly into the day outside.

The king says, ‘Brighter? In the west? Do you think?’

‘Not really.’

Henry sighs. ‘The eye of faith, it must be.’

It occurs to him that he has answered absently, as if to a child or a member of his own household. Henry is fretful, his mind hopping here and there, and when he is in this humour it is best to keep your head low, like a birdcatcher. ‘Do you know what I liked best this summer?’ the king says. He corrects himself: ‘I mean the summer before? I liked Wolf Hall. Once in a while every prince wishes he could lay aside his duties, and live for a year as a private gentleman. Because a gentleman bides content; he dances in the great barn decked with garlands, he sees the harvest home and knows every harvester by name.’

He says nothing. He has the boy Rob in his service, down in Wiltshire reporting on who comes and goes. Not that he suspects the Seymours, but it is no harm to have a source. The king says, ‘I was innocent in those days. I did not understand the Boleyns and their treason. But once I did understand it, and cleared them out of the court, I thought everything would be better. Yet here I am, one summer passed and one winter passing, my son Fitzroy is dead, I have bastardised both my daughters, I have no heir and, as far as I understand, no hope of one. My subjects are in rebellion, my coffers are empty, and my cradle empty too. So tell me, Thomas, how is this better? How am I better off than this time last year? Last year, my subjects were not shot down in the street.’

Still he says nothing. We must trust the gale of self-pity will blow itself out, and presently it does. Henry straightens up. ‘There are thirty thousand loyal men advancing on the town.’ Pontefract, he means. ‘Fear not, my lord. It will soon be back in our hands.’

Henry puts a hand on his shoulder. In that anointed palm there is vertu. Once consecrated, a king can heal. So why does he not feel healed?

As they bow themselves out Mr Wriothesley says, ‘You were at a loss there, I think. You did not utter, sir.’

He says, ‘Leave the king long enough, and he will start to cheer himself up. You must not crowd him, Call-Me. Did he not tell you so?’

When he goes to the Tower to see Barnes, it is without the body armour: it will stop a dagger, but it would not have saved Packington, and why would it save him? No breastplate but Jesus, and Thomas Avery as clerk. It is another foggy day, and it has not lifted by afternoon: rain just holding off, but the air as damp as if the afternoon had been rubbed with snails.

Barnes is at his books, but at the sound of the key he jumps up in alarm: a volume skitters away from him, he tries to catch it, picks it up from the floor and comes upright with his face red.

‘Are they looking after you?’

Barnes falls back to his stool. ‘Every time I hear footsteps in the passage, my heart …’ He taps the table, a broken rhythm. He sees Lord Cromwell is not alone: ‘Who is this?’

‘A good Christian. So be at your ease.’

‘Ease?’ Barnes laughs.

Avery says, ‘This custody is for your protection.’

‘You think it is I who needs protection? What about Cromwell here? Perhaps we should all take each other into custody?’

‘As soon as my lord has the city quiet, you will be free.’

Barnes is himself again, tidying the papers before him. ‘Most men would not believe you. But your master said the same when he locked up Wyatt – you will soon be free. And he kept his word. Though why he would extend himself for such a saucy fellow, I cannot imagine. Wyatt is hardly a promoter of God’s cause.’

‘But he is no papist,’ Avery says. ‘He saw their manners in Italy.’

‘The Pope will unleash his terror now,’ Barnes says. ‘This is only the beginning. Where is that ingrate Pole? Or have you lost sight of him?’

‘Still in Rome. They say Farnese lodges him above his own chamber, and means to make him a cardinal.’

‘He should refuse,’ Barnes says.

‘Did anyone ever refuse to be made a cardinal?’

Barnes says, ‘I thought you would have worked him some mischief weeks back, when he was in Sienna. If Thomas More can reach out his hand to strike at Tyndale, being himself dead, then I think that you, being a quick and vigorous man, should be able to strike down Reginald.’

He says, ‘I like my life to be full of interest, Father Barnes. Nothing about killing interests me. And Reynold’s heart was not always cankered.’

As soon as he unravels the conspiracies of such people – unknotting them with a casual hand, and deliberately looking the other way – they insist on entangling themselves again, and whistling and shouting till they get his attention. Margaret Pole, the renegade’s mother, is in her castle at Warblington: too near the coast for his comfort. He imagines her in a tower with a mirror, signalling to boats at sea, which land and discharge the enemy. If it takes just one man to shoot dead a member of Parliament, it takes just one to shoot dead a king; his heart can burst like a common heart. The spot where Packington died is five minutes from the gate of Margaret Pole’s town house; for all we know, the killer issued from behind her wall.

Barnes says, ‘I hear that Henry put on a bold face with the Pilgrims’ delegates. But that in private, he is very much afraid.’

In truth, it was all he could do to stop Henry apologising to the envoys, who came to Windsor and will travel back under safe-conduct. The king declared to them that, contrary to their belief, he had as many noble advisers now as at the beginning of his reign: he offered to name them, earl by earl, baron by baron, so the north country men could count up for themselves. That is not the way forward, he had thought. But at the king’s command, he withdrew and left the field clear for his sovereign to exercise his charm.

He says to Barnes, ‘The king believes his subjects are loyal for love of him. He is not by nature inclined to believe they conspire.’

‘But you are training him to believe it?’

‘Only a fool sees plots where there are none. Any crime may begin in impulse – a rash man, an angry man, a fool the worse for drink. But an impulse will not sustain rebellion. Nor can anyone rebel alone. It needs forethought. It needs confederacy. By the nature of the thing, there is conspiracy.’

‘Then Henry must learn to help his good nature,’ Barnes says. ‘Unless you teach him to deploy it towards our German friends. Or the Swiss pastors. Thomas, all their goodwill is wasting away. They are tired of talks without result. Every chance of alliance is there, if we strike agreement on doctrine. But without a helping hand, England will go down.’

Picture Albion: a lonely ship on the ocean, the feet of her crew perpetually damp. The wind adverse, the storm blowing, the ports closed against her by chains stretched across the harbour mouths. The ignorant and fantastical people of the north say Henry is the Mouldwarp, the king that was and the king to come. He is a thousand years old, a rough and scaly man, chill like a brute from the sea. His subjects drive him out, and he drowns in his own tidal waters. When you think of him, fear touches you in the pit of the stomach; it is an old fear, a dragon fear; it is from childhood. He says to Avery, ‘Would you leave us? It is for –’

‘My own safety. I know.’ Avery bows; pulls the door behind him as he goes.

‘A good young man,’ he says to Barnes. ‘I trust him with my life, but some things he should not hear.’

‘Things about our dread sovereign,’ Barnes says. ‘Do you dread him? I do. As much for what he will not do, as what he might. For his hesitations, which ruin us.’

‘I think I make an advance. When I was first in his service he thought of our Zürich friends as no more than blasphemers who eat sausage in Lent. And Luther, he believed he was the son of a demon, who foams at the mouth when Mass is said. But what you must remember about the king – he was brought up to heed priests and to ask forgiveness for everything he does. You may kick out the confessors and tell him he is justified, but he still has a priest in the head.’

‘He must be enraged with you,’ Barnes says bluntly.

‘Yes, though he tries to disguise it. He is angry that he has to defend me for my vile blood. But he cannot cast me off. Or it will seem as if he has allowed rebels to dictate to him.’

‘That is poor security. To think you hold office at their pleasure.’

‘It’s all I have, Rob.’ He gets up, stretches. ‘I am going to see Tom Truth now.’

‘Oh yes,’ Barnes says, ‘the fornicator. What I hear is, he makes extravagant promises to any keepers who will bring him to Margaret Douglas and leave him there an hour. But the keepers laugh at him. They don’t trust his money.’

‘I ought to get myself locked up,’ he says. ‘Then I might learn a thing or two.’

‘Don’t say it.’ Barnes touches his crucifix. ‘Shall I bless you?’

‘Oh,’ he says, ‘don’t put yourself out.’

He bursts out laughing: he feels light, no plate armour, no chain links, only the knife under his shirt. He has removed Margaret Douglas to the convent at Sion, put her under the care of the abbess. But perhaps her lover does not know that.

His old friend Martin is waiting to escort him. ‘Lord Thomas sets up for a poet, Martin. What do you think?’

‘Not one-tenth of Mr Wyatt’s wit. Nor his application to the page.’

‘You are becoming acquainted with the highest in the land.’

‘Amongst whom I count yourself,’ Martin says reverently. ‘Though I trust it shall be many a day before I see you here.’

‘Why not trust it will be never?’ Avery says.

Martin is startled. ‘I meant no ill-will. I am ever grateful to his lordship.’

Thomas Avery disburses the customary coins, for Lord Cromwell’s godchild.

Tom Truth, unshaven for two days and unprepared for visitors, doesn’t know whether to spit at him or kneel to him. It has perplexed better men. ‘Sit down,’ he tells him. Avery looks into his portfolio and passes him a paper. ‘From Lady Margaret. May I read?

‘And tho that I be banished him fro’

His speech, his sight and company,

Yet will I, in spite of his foe,

Him love, and keep my fantasy.’

Tom Truth lurches at him. He straightens his arm and fends him off.

‘Give me that!’ Truth comes at him again. He grips a handful of the lover’s jacket and dumps him down on a stool.

‘Do what they will, and do their worst,

For all they do is vanity,

For asunder my heart shall burst,

Surer than change my fantasy.’

He passes the paper back to Avery. ‘By her “foe”, do you think she means me? I hope not, considering I saved her life. She told me she was done with you, my lord, but it seems not.’

Lord Thomas jumps up. He is ready for him. Again he puts him down. ‘Wait – I have also a verse from you to her.

‘Thus fare ye well, my wordly treasure,

Desiring God that, of his grace,

To send in time his will and pleasure,

And shortly to get us out of this place.’

He raises an eyebrow. ‘Are you going somewhere?’

Truth is winded. That was a hard dunt in the belly.

‘Well,’ he says, ‘let us say you simply wanted a rhyme.’

‘The king should release me.’ Truth rearranges himself, his crumpled person. ‘As matters stand in the north, he needs every man.’

‘Every man he can trust.’

‘The Yorkshiremen have you on the run. Their abbots will curse you.’

‘Curses with me have none effect, because I give them no credit. They may curse till they combust.’

Truth says, ‘My brother Norfolk will speak for me to the king.’

‘I think the duke has forgot you. He is busy with the rebels. Not fighting. Bargaining.’

‘Is he?’ Truth looks mortified.

‘We are outnumbered in the field. He has no choice but to give way.’

‘He will not keep promises to low men,’ Truth says. ‘He will not be bound. No more will the king be bound to you, Cromwell. The harder you try to bind him by your deeds, the more he will detest you. I pity you, for there is no way forward for you. He will hate you for your successes as much as your failures.’

Truth has done some thinking, while he has been locked away. He says, ‘I make sure that my successes are the king’s, while my failures are my own.’

‘But you cannot do without the Howards,’ Tom Truth says. ‘You cannot rule without noble blood. And my brother Norfolk would rather fight in an honourable contest –’

He interrupts him: ‘Honour is a luxury, when someone is trying in earnest to kill you. Your brother knows that. As for you, your bad verse will choke you. I need not lift a finger. There are some prisoners I forbid to have paper. I might forbid you. For your own good, of course.’

He gets up. Avery steps out of his way. At the door a spirit jumps up and intercepts him: George Boleyn, arms gripping him, head heavy on his shoulder, tears seeping into his linen and leaving a residual salt damp that lasts till he can change his shirt.

By the first week of December, any sympathy for the rebels – sympathy which he has retained, for their ignorance – has melted away. Their communications from the peace talks are vomitous torrents of insult and threat. The commanders are obliged to exclude Richard Cromwell from the sessions, as the rebels will not sit down with him. All Cromwells, they declare, should be killed or banished. Parliament has no authority to dissolve abbeys – and it is not a real parliament anyway, because it is packed with the king’s sycophants and elbow-hangers.

All this – and yet they expect a general pardon. They will get it, because their numbers are so great, even though they do not spare the king himself, reminding him that a prince who rules without virtue can be deposed, and they do not find any virtue in his adherence to Cromwell. They mention Edward II, Richard II: kings murdered by their own subjects, because they kept favourites, persons of high ambition and low morals. To compare Lord Cromwell, as they do, to Piers Gaveston … when their jibes are read out, certain councillors bite their lips, others turn their faces away. Because you would not feel it safe to laugh, if you had seen the king’s white face.

Richard Riche says privately, perhaps it is an argument why the king should show himself to his subjects in the north. They would soon perceive he is not the sort of man who keeps a catamite. And that, even if he were, he would not so use the Lord Privy Seal.

He says, it is not for any unnatural vice that the people hated Gaveston: it was because he was base-born, and the king made him an earl. It was because the king made him rich, and he went in silks. But then, he was not English-born: that weighed too, with the ignorant.

Do not mock Ricardo Riche. At least, not to his face. He has stood up well to the hatred directed at him in recent weeks. He understands that there are sins that governors may, perhaps must, commit. The commandments for a prince are not the same as those that govern his subjects. He must lie for his country’s good. We do not need a translation from the Italian, to understand that.

The rebels call him, Lord Cromwell, a Lollard. It is a term almost antique, though when he was young, men and women were burned for it. He hears a woman’s voice in the air, on a breeze blown from his childhood: ‘A Loller, that’s one who says the God on the altar is a piece of bread.’

He is small; his belly is empty; he is far from home. Motherly, she takes his hand as they are jostled in the crowd: ‘Stick by me, sweetheart.’ She bats at the men in front of them, their solid wall of backs, and they part for her, saying, ‘Sister, watch out, you’ll have that child trampled!’

‘Let us through,’ she says, ‘he’s come a long way. Show him how the filthy creature dies, the enemy of God, so he gets a good view and remembers it when he is a man grown.’

Some memories from his childhood he can entertain. John in his kitchen, even Walter in his forge, all accompanied by the smell of burning. But when a memory like this rises up – and in truth there is no other like this – he slaps it down like a man killing a mole with a shovel.

The king tells his council – savouring the moment – ‘I mean to invite our chief Pilgrim to join us for Christmas.’

Aske? There are gasps of surprise – simulated, as Lord Cromwell has taken care to prepare the councillors. After all, it’s his idea.

‘It is Aske who has chief credit with the rebels,’ the king says. ‘I shall probe his heart and stomach. And he will see that I am a monarch both generous and just.’

The only danger – and we cannot get around it – is that Aske will also see that Henry is not the puissant warrior of ten years ago, and he will carry word back to Yorkshire. The king wishes to be known as Henry, Mirror of Justice. But perhaps he will be known as Henry the Bad Leg.

Still: the game is worth the candle, and there is nothing to lose from sport with the chief Pilgrim. In our forefathers’ time, the rebel Jack Cade had a good run before he was quartered, and his fractions sent back to his shire. The king will dandle Aske like an infant. Large presents, large promises: a gold chain and a crimson jacket. He will overawe him: trust the king for that. A man’s dealings with Henry are a measure of him. They are a mirror to his weaknesses and vanities. You believe you are a man of ready address, you have rehearsed the encounter in your mind, but such is the overwhelming effect of his presence that you are overcome by holy fear and not able to utter a word.

‘What shall I do, sir?’ he says. ‘I should not meet Aske.’

‘Keep the feast with your own people.’ The king adds: ‘Be at your Stepney house. Then if I want you, you can get to Whitehall in an hour.’

He, the Lord Privy Seal, instructs Bishop Gardiner in France to quash the rumours that are rolling abroad. It is not true that Henry is besieged in Windsor Castle. Nor that he, or any Cromwell, has been stabbed to death in London on Chancery Lane. On the contrary, Cromwells are looking forward to the feast. Richard returns from the north; he comes with the plaudits of his senior commanders, Suffolk and Fitzwilliam.

By mid-month the rebel armies are dissolving themselves. Aske is to come to court under safe-conduct. News comes that the King of Scotland has compacted for his match with the French king’s daughter; he and Madeleine will be married at Notre Dame on New Year’s Day. The match will see hearty accord between Scotland and France, which is much to our disadvantage. ‘What can I do but wish him joy?’ the king says. He dictates a letter, waving aside offers to phrase it for him. ‘Having certain knowledge … your determination and conclusion for marriage … daughter of our dearest brother and perpetual ally the French king … et cetera, et cetera … congratulate with you in the same … desire Almighty God to send you issue and fruit thereof …’ the king’s voice drips disdain, ‘that may be to your satisfaction and to the weal, utility, and comfort of your realm.’

‘Bravo, sir,’ Wriothesley says. ‘A wonderful powerful phrasing.’

The king says, ‘James has already nine bastards that I know of.’

Edward Seymour: ‘Majesty, I think he shall have no issue by Madeleine. I hear she is dying.’

‘Then why would Scotland want her?’

No one answers. Perhaps to have a daughter, any daughter, of so great a king. And to get a hundred thousand crowns, which is more money than James has seen in his life. The king says, ‘We will see how she likes the voyage to Caledonia, and the rough manners when she gets there.’ But his voice yearns for her: ‘They say she is beautiful …’

‘James must have wooed her with jewels,’ he says, ‘because he cannot speak the simplest word of French. All that shopping was not for nothing.’

‘So does Madeleine speak Scots?’ Henry says. ‘That seems hardly possible. Would you not want to talk to your wife? Have some companionship with her? Still, he will not need her instruction in the bedchamber. He seems to know his business there.’

At Stepney, hedgerow berries are humble jewels, bright as beads of blood. The walls are hung with pine boughs, and the great wreaths of vines take two men to carry and hang; they were woven in autumn, when the branches would still flex. Blossoms from the drying rooms are bundled and gilded and ribboned, and as the weather grows dry and sharp, the panelled rooms fill at dawn and sunset with washes of blush-coloured light. He has been waiting for a clear day to see the apple trees pruned, and he goes out with his gardeners. ‘Do not venture on the ladders, sir. Do you stand back, and watch the shape as we cut.’

The middle of the tree we call the crown. We take out any shoots that are frictious against each other, those that are growing backwards, inwards, any way they shouldn’t. We thin the new shoots and as we cut we are aiming for the shape of a goblet. When the balance is right, we clip the shoots, cutting back to an outward-facing bud. By three in the afternoon, though sweat is running in channels inside our jerkins, our gloved hands are stiff as clods and our voices in the air are faint, like birdsong in a distant paradise. We say, all done lads, and we get under cover and warm our hands around hot spiced ale. We have come through queasy days, his gardeners say. Please God all our builders and our cooks will be back with us for the feast, and Mr Richard in his glory.

We raise a cup to the warriors, picking their way south through the frightened shires. Then we sing a song, and cross ourselves, and pray for the apple trees. Indoors, we unlock the room called Christmas, with its costumes for mermen and magi and talking animals. We fit together the spikes of the great star that hangs in the hall.

What survives from this year past? Rafe’s garden at midsummer, the lusty cries of the child Thomas issuing from an open window; Helen’s tender face. The ambassador in his tower at Canonbury, fading into twilight. Night falling on the rock of Windsor Castle, as on a mountain slope.

In back alleys not yards from where the martyr Packington died, sailors offer nutmegs stolen from their ships’ holds at three times the November price – which is already a duke’s ransom. To show seasonal goodwill, a party of London rascals have set on members of the French embassy as they are enjoying a Christmas drink at the Cock and Keys in Fleet Street. They chase them, shouting ‘Down with the French dogs!’ The day ends with one dead Frenchman and another in a grave condition from stab wounds.

Gifts by the cartload roll up to his door: fat swans, partridges, pheasants. And Ambassador Chapuys, chuckling at the misfortunes of the French. He sits him down over a quiet supper and evades his close questions about the north. They are not really questions; because of his links with Darcy and other slippery souls, Eustache probably has better information than we do.

‘Well,’ the ambassador says, ‘the writers of the almanacs said this would be a great year for secrets.’

He grunts. ‘Greater for expenses.’

‘Henry must eat his Christmas dinner from pewter. All his plate is melted down to coin.’

He shrugs. ‘We have a great host to pay off. We must have turned out fifty thousand, at short notice.’

Chapuys does not believe the king had fifty thousand men, but all the same he cannot help working out the expenditure.

‘I tell you, Eustache,’ he says, ‘you are much deceived about Englishmen, their temper. You talk to the wrong people. The Poles and the Courtenays don’t know what is happening, I know what is happening. The Emperor boasts of what he will do here when his troops come. But Charles will do naught, because it is a bad precedent when a prince helps another prince’s subjects to rebel. It gives his own people the idea they might do the same.’

‘Go on thinking that,’ Chapuys says, ‘if you find it comfortable.’

They eat in contemplative silence: spiced venison, teal, partridges, and oranges thin-sliced like sunbursts. A shaft of light makes its way over the fallen snow, picking a path to the year ahead. The court rides through the city of Westminster and east to Greenwich, a moving trail of darkness against the frost. The Thames is a long glimmer of ice: a road in a frozen desert, a trail into our future, a highway for our God.

When the ambassador leaves him, it is three in the afternoon and feels much later. He sits down in gathering dusk to work through his day-books, compile his memoranda for the first council meetings of the new year. Christophe brings him wine in a goblet of Venetian glass. He says, ‘This belonged to the cardinal. I bought it from the Duke of Norfolk.’

He buys the cardinal’s property when he can, wherever he sees it, hangings and plate and books from his library: the new owners feel so guilty at the sight of him that they do not refuse his offer, which he pitches insultingly low. If things are not for sale he gets them back somehow. Look at this tapestry, under which he now sits, which depicts the Queen of Sheba in bold colours and gilt thread, her mild face like the face of a woman he once knew. Wolsey owned this hanging; the king took it when Wolsey fell: one day, in an overflow of generosity, the king gave it to him. Or, as he thinks of it, gave it back.

‘Sometimes,’ he says to Christophe, ‘I am like you, I imagine other lives I might have had.’ If Henry has a princely double, perhaps he has one as well, leading a safer life in Constantinople. Compared to Henry, a sultan is placid.

‘I could have been a Frenchman like you,’ he tells Christophe. ‘I could have been a Lowlander.’

Christophe glances at the wall. ‘If you had married that woven lady.’ He does not mean the Queen of Sheba: that would be more outrageous than marrying the Princess Mary. He means Anselma, the Antwerp widow whose likeness has got into the weave. Maybe it is not so surprising to find her there. A master must have models. Perhaps the man who made the design passed her one day, running with a message to the quayside, or glimpsed her as they left Mass together at the church of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe: and thought, who is that supple widow, with that slab of an English on her arm?

He says to Christophe, ‘Will you bring The Book Called Henry? I think I will write down my thoughts. And more lights, if you will.’

‘Do not miss your supper,’ Christophe says. He sees how his household are trying to take care of him. Fussing over me, he says, as if you were my godparents.

He takes up his pen. God bless the work.

You cannot anticipate or fully know the king. Thomas More did not grasp this. This is why I am alive and he is dead.

This is not a book you could take to the printer. It must be for the eyes of the few.

Your enemies will continually belie you, and fix you with the blame for the malfeasance of others or for simple misfortune. Save your breath: any exculpation is too late. Do not be weakened by regret, and do not let regret weaken the king. Sometimes a king must act on imperfect information, and afterwards sanctify his impulses.

He thinks, suppose I fell ill, and were like to die? What would I do with the book then?

Do not be afraid to ask for what you want. Ask and it shall be granted: but first cost it out. The king wishes to appear magnanimous at the least expense to himself. This is a reasonable position for a ruler to adopt.

I could leave it to Gregory or my nephew or to Rafe Sadler. But I will not leave it to Ricardo or Call Me. I doubt if there is much I can teach them. Or much they can learn.

The king believes that even if he were not king, he would still be a great man. This is because God likes him.

He needs to be liked and he needs to be right. But above all he needs to be listened to, with very close attention.

Never enter a contest of wills with the king.

Do not flatter him. Instead, give him something he can take credit for.

Ask him questions to which you know the answers. Do not ask him the other sort of question.

This year has been what every year is: one long royal day, from the king’s first stirring to his slumber. Yet it has drawn to one singular moment, as glass concentrates the rays of the sun. Time has distilled to a single heartbeat, to the instant of the cut: the Frenchman with his sword, his perfectly calibrated motion. Then the women holding up their hands, their fingers stiff with loathing; bending their backs, lugging the corpse away, tears glistening on their cheeks.

In the old stories, a great mirror is set before the palace of the king. It is as wide as the sky, and three thousand warriors guard it. It is reached by five-and-twenty steps of porphyry and serpentine. Even by night they guard it, when it reflects nothing but a kingdom blanketed in darkness, and perhaps the faint etched line of a star.

Keep your eyes clear. Remember he is a king first and a man second. This is where Anne went wrong. She began to think he was only a man.

He looks up. The room is empty, except for those who do not count. At such moments the phantom Wolsey would walk in, and peer over his shoulder, and tell him what to write, large white hands with their glinting rings heavy on his shoulders.

Sometimes he needs to imagine how it would have been, if the Cornish had come to Putney, bellowing and drooling and trampling everything in their path. Sion Madoc’s dad had told him, ‘They’ll take a child like you and roast him on a spit.’ He had laughed and said, ‘I’ll spit their arses.’ In his black heart he wished for them, he wanted to hear their tread. Hear it, and you don’t have to imagine it. Let the face of their giant crest the rise; or just see the crown of his head, and then you don’t have to think about him any more, you don’t have to picture him, you know the worst: walk with him one red mile, as he tears apart the neighbours and tosses their limbs into ditches.

And what then? Either he kills you, or you are one of those left, picking up remnants of Putney and gathering it into baskets.

Do not turn your back on the king. This is not just a matter of protocol.

He is about to close the book, but he dips his pen, adds a final line:

Try and keep cheerful.