The Mirror and the Light (Wreckage (II) – Part 1)

London, Summer 1536

Do you know why they say, ‘There’s no smoke without fire?’ It’s not just to give encouragement to people who like fires. It’s a statement about the danger of chimneys, but also about the courts of kings – or any space where trapped air circulates, choking on itself. A spark catches a particle of falling soot: with a crackle, the matter ignites: with a roar, the flames fly skywards, and within minutes the palace is ablaze.

Early July, the grandi hold a triple wedding, combining their fortunes and ancient names. Margaret Neville weds Henry Manners. Anne Manners weds Henry Neville. Dorothy Neville weds John de Vere.

My lord cardinal had these things at his fingertips: the titles and styles of these families, their tables of ancestry and grants of arms, their links by second and third marriages; who is godparent and godsib, guardian and ward; the particulars of their landed estates, their income, their outgoings, their law suits, ancient grudges and unpaid debts.

The celebrations are graced by Norfolk’s son and heir, Henry Howard Earl of Surrey. The young earl intends to pass the summer in hunting, with the king and Fitzroy. Since childhood he has been a companion to the king’s son, and Richmond looks up to him. Surrey is conspicuous in all he does: laying down the cards and throwing dice, playing at tennis and betting on it, cantering in the tilt yard, dancing, singing his own verses and inscribing them in the manuscript books kept by the ladies, where they decorate them with drawings of ribbons, hearts, flowers and Cupid’s darts. His marriage to the Earl of Oxford’s daughter is no bar to gallantry. We give poets latitude – we need not think Surrey performs all he promises. He is a long youth: long thighs, long shins, long parti-coloured hose; he picks his way on stilts among common men. His disdain for Lord Cromwell is complete: ‘I note your title, my lord. It does not change what you are.’

The triple wedding makes the king project other weddings. His niece the Scottish princess is a great prize, as she is now very near the throne. If Jane the queen should fail and if Fitzroy cannot command the support of Parliament, Margaret Douglas will some day rule England. No one wants a woman; but at least Meg is bonny and has shown herself governable. She has been under the king’s guardianship since she was twelve or so, and he is as fond of her as if she were his own daughter. Cromwell, he says, make a note: we will find her a prince.

But the king hesitates, the king delays. The difficulty is repeating, it is intractable, it is the same he faced when his daughter Mary was his heir, when (briefly) the child Eliza was his heir. Choose a husband for a future queen, and you are also choosing a king for England. As a wife she must obey him: women must obey, even queens. But what foreigner can we trust? England may become a mere province in some empire, and be governed from Lisbon, from Paris, from the east. Better she should marry an Englishman. But once he is named, think of the pretension it will breed in his family. Then think of the envy and malice of those great houses whose sons are passed over.

You watch at Jane the queen and you say if, and when she. The women prick off, on papers they keep, the days when they expect their monthly courses. Probably they keep papers for each other, casting a practised eye, ready to spread good or evil tidings. It is not yet two months since the king’s wedding, and already you sense he is impatient for news.

With Fitzwilliam and young Wriothesley, he melts away from the wedding party to shuffle papers in a side room. Fitzwilliam has regained his chain of office as Master Treasurer. The king has pardoned him for his outburst in the council chamber; it was done, Henry has said, out of love for us. The treasurer fingers his chain now; he speculates on what maggots of ambition might be burrowing into the mind of the Duke of Norfolk. ‘I tell you, Crumb, if young Surrey were not married already, his father would be coveting the Scottish princess for him – or the Lady Mary at the least, in case ever she is restored in blood. Because when his niece Anne was alive, Norfolk could boast that a Howard sat on the throne – and that is not a boast he likes to give up.’

Not that she ever took any notice of Uncle Norfolk, he says. The late queen chose her own path, she heeded to no one. Not me, not you, and not the king, in the end. Anyway, he says, the long youth is fast married, so Uncle Norfolk is out of hope there. ‘And even if Surrey were free,’ Mr Wriothesley says, ‘I doubt Lady Mary will favour that family again. Not after Norfolk threatened to beat her head to mash.’

The king himself goes to Shoreditch for the marriage celebrations. He and his suite are dressed as Turks, in velvet turbans, breeches of striped silk and scarlet boots with tassels. At the end of the evening the king unmasks, to general astonishment and applause.

The young Duke of Richmond leaves early, heated and flushed from dancing and wine. So does Mr Wriothesley, though his exit is more sudden. ‘Sir, I am going to Whitehall, and as soon as I …’

Fitz looks after him. ‘Do you trust him? Gardiner’s pupil?’ He rubs his chin. ‘You don’t trust anybody, do you?’

‘We all need second chances, Fitz.’ He flips the treasurer’s chain of office. This last week or so, whenever Cromwell comes near, Lord Audley clutches his own chain in mock-panic.

Just Audley’s little joke. He knows well enough by now that he, Lord Cromwell, has no ambition to be chancellor. Master Secretary’s post gives him warrant for anything he needs to do, and keeps him close to Henry day by day, privy to his every sign.

By mid-July, arrangements are under way to set up the Lady Mary in a household of her own. Following her visit to Hackney – to the house that will now be known as King’s Place – she has returned to Hertfordshire. After the tears, the promises, after her father’s vows that he will never let his daughter out of his sight, a period of reflection has set in: he should, the king feels, keep her at arm’s length to quash any rumour he means to make her his heir again. Lady Hussey, the wife of her former chamberlain, remains in the Tower after her rash mistake at Whitsuntide. The king will not have his daughter disrespected, but he doesn’t want people calling her ‘princess’ either. And he wants the situation to be clear to Europe: his daughter needs him, he doesn’t need her.

At Hackney she had said, in a low voice meant only for him: ‘Lord Cromwell, I am bound to you: I am bound to pray for you during my life.’ But it may be that fortune turns and he needs more than prayers. He has called in Hans, to design a present for her. She is a young woman who needs presents, he feels. He wants to give her something that will outlast the pretty saddle horse, something to remind her of these last perilous weeks: the brink, and who pulled her back from it. He is thinking of a ring, engraved with proverbs in praise of obedience. Obedience binds us together; all practise it, under God. It is the condition of our living as humans, in cities and dwelling houses, not in hides and holes in the fields. Even beasts defer to the lion: beasts show wisdom and policy thereby.

The engravers are cunning. They can write a prayer or verse very small. But, Hans warns, such a ring must be of a certain weight, and perhaps more than a woman with small hands can conveniently wear. But she can hang it on a chain at her girdle, just as she can hang an image of her father, in miniature – where formerly she carried two or three pious tokens, emblems of those saints to whom maidens pray: St Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, or Felicity and Perpetua, eaten alive in the arena.

Hans has a round face, practical and innocent. He would not say things against you, with a covert meaning: surely not.

‘Or why should you not,’ Hans says, ‘have it made into a pendant? A medal? You could get more good advice on it, that way.’

‘But a ring is more –’

‘More of a promise,’ Hans says. ‘Thomas, I wonder that you can be so –’

But then a message comes in, to tell him to attend the Duke of Richmond. He never manages to finish a conversation these days, in his own household or in the king’s, in stable yard or chapel or council chamber. ‘Yes, I’m on my way,’ he says. And to Hans, ‘Give it some thought.’

He leaves the table strewn with sketches – his offers, Holbein’s emendations. There is something he needs to repeat to Mary, because he hasn’t said it strongly enough. These last few years you have carried a great burden, and carried it alone – and look at the result. You are stooped, you are worn, you are bowed under the weight of your past, and you are only twenty years old. Now let go. Let others bear the burden, who are stronger, and appointed by God to carry the cares of state. Look up at the world, instead of down at your prayer book. Try smiling. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel.

Not that you can put it like that to a woman. Stooped, worn – she might take it badly. Sometimes Mary looks twice her age. Sometimes she looks like an unformed child.

At St James’s, Richmond’s people usher him to the sickroom, shuttered against the midsummer heat. ‘Dr Butts,’ he says, nodding, and makes his bow to a miserable heap under the bedclothes.

At the sound of his voice the young duke stirs. He pushes the covers back. ‘Cromwell! You did not do what I said. I told you Parliament must name me heir.’ He punches a pillow away, as if it were interfering with his rights. ‘Why is my name not in the bill?’

‘Your lord father is still advising on the matter,’ he says easily. ‘The bill permits him liberty to decide who follows him. And you know you stand high in his favour.’

Attendants cluster around the bed, and under the doctor’s eye they ease the boy back against the bolsters, shake the quilts, swaddle him. A great bowl of water stands atop a brazier, bubbling away to moisten the air. Richmond leans forward, coughing. His face is burning, his nightshirt patched with sweat. When he masters the fit he subsides, white as the linen. He touches his breast. ‘Sore,’ he tells Butts.

Dr Butts says, ‘Turn on your afflicted side, my lord.’

The boy slaps out at his attendants. He wants to view Cromwell and he means to do it. He begins to talk, but there is little sense in what he says, and presently his eyelids flutter and close; at a signal from the doctor they ease away the cushions and settle him.

Butts makes a gesture: creep over here, my lord. ‘Usually I would keep him upright to ease his breathing, but he needs to sleep – I have prescribed a tincture. Otherwise I fear he would be up and fomenting trouble. He was fretting about poison. He mentioned you.’ The doctor pauses. ‘I do not mean to say he accused you.’

‘Some men always think they’re poisoned. In Italy one hears it.’

‘Well,’ Butts says, ‘in Italy they are probably right. But I said to him, my lord, poison most usually shows in gripes and chills, vomiting and confusion, a burning in the throat and entrails. But then he talked about Wolsey, the pain in his chest before he died –’

He takes Butts by his coat, unobtrusively. He doesn’t want this conversation public. The outer chamber is seething with people – retainers, well-wishers, probably creditors, too. Safe in a window embrasure, he murmurs: ‘About Wolsey – I do not know how young Fitzroy heard it, but what is your opinion? Could he be right?’

‘That he was poisoned?’ Butts looks him over. ‘I really have no idea. More likely his heart gave out. Consult your memory, if you will. I admired your old master. I did all I could to reconcile him with the king.’ Butts seems anxious: as if he fears he, Cromwell, is nourishing a grudge. ‘Dr Agostino was with him at the end, not I. But they say he starved and purged himself, which is never advisable while travelling in winter … and think what he was travelling towards. A trial or an act of attainder, and the Tower. The fear would act upon a man.’

He says, ‘The cardinal was not afraid of the living or the dead.’

‘And he told you so, I am sure.’ It’s clear the doctor thinks, why fret about it now? ‘Do not think I heed young Richmond’s talk. When the king is ill he believes the whole world is against him. The boy is the same, a bad patient. When the fever was high he said, “I blame the Howards for this – Norfolk has no father’s heart towards me, he only loves me because I am the king’s son – and if I am not to be king, I am no use to him. Besides,” he said, “Norfolk does not need me now – he has thought of another way towards the throne, he will get it by fair means or foul.”’

‘They could not be fair means,’ he says. ‘If you think about it.’

‘I would rather not,’ Dr Butts says.

‘Any witnesses to my lord’s words?’

‘Dr Cromer was standing by. But with God’s help and with our science, we have suppressed the fever and with it all talk of treason.’

‘So if not poison, what does ail him?’ Apart from pique, he thinks.

The doctor shrugs. ‘It is July. We should be elsewhere. You are bringing in too many laws, my lord. Let Parliament rise, and we can all quit London. They say that Cain invented cities. And if it was not he, it was someone else fond of murder.’ The doctor is turning away, but then he hesitates. ‘My lord, about the king’s daughter … Dr Cromer would wish me to speak for both of us. We consider you have done a blessed work. You have done better than we healers could. Her spirit was so taxed by papish practices that her health and judgement failed. But they say your lordship’s presence at Hackney worked on her like a potion from Asclepius.’

Asclepius, the doctors’ god, learned his art from a snake. He could bring his patients back from the edge, or beyond it; Hades grew jealous, fearing lack of custom. ‘I take no credit,’ he says. ‘It was more that she warmed to the company, and ate her dinner. She is given to fasting. As if she is not meagre already in her person.’

‘If the king should ask our opinion,’ Butts says, ‘we are inclined to give it heartily in favour of her marriage. My fellow physicians have shown me where, in the writings of the ancients, such cases are described – young girls who are fervent, studious, given to fantasies, and prone to starving themselves if forced into any course that does not suit. They are virgins, and there lies their disease – if their single state is prolonged, they will see ghosts, and attempt to hang and drown themselves.’

‘Oh, I should say we are clear from that.’ He wonders, can you help seeing ghosts? Don’t they just turn up and make you see them? When people raise the cardinal’s name, he asks himself: if I had been with him in the north, would he have succumbed – to poison, to fear, to whatever? Some said it was self-slaughter. He thinks of the cold dark weather, the back end of 1529: Thomas Howard and Charles Brandon kicking their way into York Place as only dukes can kick, tossing Wolsey’s treasures into packing cases; clerks humming under their breath as they listed plate and gems; the chilly scramble to the water gate, the dripping canopy of the barge, the phantom jeering on the riverbank from voices in wet mist. At Putney horses met them, and they rode over the heath: there came Harry Norris in a lather, flinging himself from the saddle with an incomprehensible message from the king. He saw the spark in Wolsey’s eyes, his face light up; he thought the horror was over, that Norris was coming to lead him home, and he knelt to him – the cardinal, kneeling in the mud.

But Norris shook his head, and spoke in the cardinal’s ear, and pretended to be sorry. When hope drained away the cardinal’s strength went with it – as if by operation of a spell he was changed, suddenly elderly, fumbling, heavy. They dusted off their hands and hoisted him into his saddle, put the reins in his hand as if he were a child. No dignity, no time for it – and that knave Sexton, his jester, giggling and capering till he stopped him with a threat. They rode to the cardinal’s house at Esher: to the fireless grate, the unprovisioned kitchen: to truckle beds, lighting their way with tallow candles on pewter prickets. The cellar was full, at least: he sat up, drinking through the night with George Cavendish, one of the cardinal’s men – too scared, if he was honest, to sleep.

If I had known how it would end, he thinks, what would I have done different? Ahead was a harsh winter: half-drowned in puddles, unfed, unkempt, daily and desperate he forged across the Surrey bridleways in half-light, bringing his master news from Parliament – what was said against him and what was done, Thomas More’s twisted sneers and Norfolk’s common slanders: never in time for meat or sleep or prayer, always leaving and arriving in the dark, heaving himself onto a steaming horse: a winter of fog and wet wool and rain cascading from slick leather. And Rafe Sadler at his side, drenched, frozen, and shivering like a greyhound whelp, nothing but ribs and eyes: bewildered, bereft, never complaining once.

Yet here he is at St James’s: six years on, Baron Cromwell, the sun shining. Over the heads of Richmond’s retainers, Mr Wriothesley calls his name. Shouldering through, he swats the air with his feathered cap, his face glowing, his shirt neck unlaced.

‘Don’t go in there,’ he says, barring the way to the sickroom. ‘Fitzroy will accuse you of poisoning him.’

Dr Butts chuckles. ‘I see you are agog with news, young man. Well, I leave you to tell it. But whatever the urgency, do not hurry in the heat. Let your hat be on your head and not in your hand – the rays are too burning for one of your fair complexion. Be advised, tepid liquids are more refreshing than cold, which may cause colics. And do not be tempted to jump into rivers.’

‘No.’ Wriothesley stares at him. ‘I wouldn’t.’

The doctor touches his cap in farewell. Wriothesley asks his retreating back, ‘Will Fitzroy mend?’

Butts is tranquil. ‘I have seen off worse trouble.’

Wriothesley talks at him; they walk into a blaze of sunshine, feel the heat on their backs. ‘Sir, I have made pressing enquiries, among the Scottish princess’s folk.’

‘To what end? Put your cap on, by the way. Butts talks sense.’

The young man places his cap carefully, though he lacks a mirror to admire its angle; he looks closely at his master, as if trying to see a little Call-Me reflected in his eyes. ‘I have been sure this long while that something is amiss with her – I had been turning it over in my mind for weeks – her furtive manner whenever you were by, as if she was afraid some mischief would be found out – and also –’

‘You thought the ladies were making secret signs to each other.’

‘You laughed at me,’ Wriothesley says.

‘I did. So what have you found? Not a lover?’

‘You will excuse me, sir, for running ahead of you – it came to me at the wedding, but I could not speak till I had proof. I questioned her chaplain, and her men Harvey and Peter, and the boys who see to her horses, in case she had ridden out to some tryst. And they were not shy to speak – all except the chaplain, who was afraid.’

He begins to get the drift. ‘I wonder that I could be so simple. So who is he? And who knew? Which of the women, I mean?’

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘Sir, I leave the women to you.’

The scuffling and haste, the sudden vanishing of papers, the shushing, the whisk of skirts and the slammed doors; the indrawn breath, the glance, the sigh, the sideways look, and the pit-pat of slippered feet; the rapid scribble with the ink still wet; a trail of sealing wax, of scent. All spring, we scrutinised Anne the queen, her person, her practices; her guards and gates, her doors, her secret chambers. We glimpsed the privy chamber gentlemen, sleek in black velvet, invisible except where moonlight plays on a beaded cuff. We picked out, with the inner eye, the shape of someone where no one should be – a man creeping along the quays to a skiff where a patient oarsman with bowed head is paid for silence, and nothing to tell the tale but the small wash and ripple of the Thames; the river has seen so much, with its grey blink. A rocking boat, a splash, a stride, and the boots of Incognito gain the slithery quay: he is at Whitehall or Hampton Court, wherever the queen goes, with her women following after. The same trick suffices on land: a small coin to the stables, an unbarred door or gate, a swift progress up staircases and through flickering candlelit rooms to – to what? To kisses and illicit embraces, to promises and sighs, and so to feather bed, where Meg Douglas, the king’s niece, disposes herself against the pillows and waits for her pleasure.

Call-Me says, ‘It is Thomas Howard. The younger, I mean. Norfolk’s half-brother.’

‘Thomas the Lesser,’ he says.

‘Your man, Tom Truth. Wooed her with his verses, sir. Undressed her with his wit.’

Wreckage, he thinks. Winter and spring we watched Anne, but should we have watched another lady? Truth was on the river, Truth was in the dark; Truth stripped to his shirt and his member jutted beneath the linen, while the Princess of Scotland lay back and parted her plump white thighs. For a Howard.

He says to Call-Me, how did Meg contrive to be alone with him? There are some sharp old dames at court. My lady Salisbury for one, Margaret Pole – still in post about the new queen because, though the king is enraged with her son, he would rather have the countess where he can see her. And of course, to save face, we are still pretending to the world that Reynold’s poisoned letter has never been received: that the wretched document is still in Italy, where Pole plays with his phrasing.

Many things have occurred, that we pretend have not occurred. This must be another. ‘We’ll talk to Meg first,’ he says. He pictures her running towards him, hair loose and streaking behind her, like Atalanta in the footrace: her mouth open, emitting a steady wail.

First comes her shock, indignation, denial: how dare he enquire into her life? I am informed … he says, and she says, ‘How? How are you informed?’

‘By your own people,’ he says. He sees how hard she takes that, bursting into hot angry tears the size of apple pips.

Her friend Mary Fitzroy, Norfolk’s daughter, stands behind her chair. ‘And what have the servants told your lordship?’ She makes their words contaminated, even before they are aired.

‘I am informed that Lady Margaret has resorted to the company of a gentleman.’

Mary Fitzroy presses a hand on Meg’s shoulder: say nothing. But Meg flashes out: ‘Whatever you think, you are wrong. So don’t look at me like that!’

‘Like how, my lady?’

‘As if I were a harlot.’

‘God strike me if I ever thought so.’

‘Because I tell you, Thomas Howard and I are married. We have given our promise and it holds good. You cannot part us now. We are every way married. So you are too late, it is all done.’

‘It may not be too late, at that,’ he says. ‘Let us hope not. But when you say “every way married”, I cannot guess at what you mean. Look at Mr Wriothesley here – he cannot guess either.’

On the table before them are the sketches for the Lady Mary’s ring. Mr Wriothesley fingertips the sheets together, solemn, like an altarboy. His glance rests on the papers, where lines lace and intersect: ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he murmurs, and plants a book on the sheets to secure them.

Good. We don’t want Meg picking one up and blowing her nose on it. He asks Mary Fitzroy, ‘Will you not sit?’

‘I do well on my feet, Lord Cromwell.’

‘Let’s set the facts down.’ Mr Wriothesley pulls up a stool, expectant eyes on Meg. When her handkerchief is sodden she balls it up and drops it on the floor, and Mary Fitzroy passes her another: it is sewn over with Howard devices, so Meg dabs her cheeks with the blue-tongued lion of the Fitzalans. ‘Cromwell, you have no right to cast doubt on my word. Take me to see my uncle the king.’

‘Better off with me, my lady, in the first instance. Certainly I can broach it with the king, but first we must think how to present your case. Naturally you wish to keep your good name. We understand that. But it is of no help to you or to me to insist you are married, since you and Lord Thomas have pledged yourself without the king’s permission or knowledge.’

‘And,’ Wriothesley says, ‘we will not lie for you.’ He picks up a pen. ‘The date of your pledge was …?’

A fresh flood of tears, another handkerchief. He thinks, what is Mary Fitzroy to do? She cannot own many more. She will have to pick up her skirts and start ripping up her underlinen. Meg says, ‘What does the date matter? I have loved Lord Thomas a year and more. So you cannot say, and my uncle cannot say, that we do not know our minds. You cannot part us, when we are joined by God. My lady Richmond here beside me will bear out what I say. She knows all, and if it were not for her help, we should never have enjoyed our bliss.’

He raises his eyes. ‘You kept watch for them, my lady?’

Mary Fitzroy shrinks into herself. She is very young, and to be dragged into this debacle … ‘You gave the signal,’ Wriothesley suggests to her, ‘when your seniors were gone? You encouraged them to meet? And you witnessed their pledge?’

‘No,’ she says.

He turns to Meg: ‘So no one was present when these words were spoken – I say “words”, I will not dignify them as “pledge” or “promise” –’

Deny it, he tells Meg under his breath: deny the whole and deny every part, then persist in denial. No words. No witnesses. No marriage.

Meg flushes. ‘But I have a witness. Mary Shelton stood outside the door.’

‘Outside?’ He shakes his head. ‘You can’t call that a witness, can you, Mr Wriothesley?’

Wriothesley looks at him fiercely. It is he who has found out the plot, and he doesn’t want it talked away. ‘Lady Margaret, have you and your lover exchanged gifts?’

‘I have given Lord Thomas my portrait, set with a diamond.’ Proudly, she adds, ‘And he has given me a ring.’

‘A ring is not a pledge,’ he says reassuringly. His eye falls on the drawings. ‘For example, look at these – I am having a ring made for the Lady Mary. A pleasant token that indicates friendship, nothing more.’

Mary Fitzroy interrupts. ‘It was only a cramp ring, such as acquaintances exchange. It was of little worth.’

Wriothesley says, ‘And next you will tell me it was a very small diamond.’

‘So small,’ Mary Fitzroy says, ‘that I for one never noticed it.’

He wants to applaud. She is not afraid of Call-Me; though sometimes, he thinks, I am.

‘There’s nothing on paper, is there?’ he says to Meg. ‘I mean, other than …?’

The rhymes, he thinks.

The girl says, ‘I will not give you my letters. I will not part with them.’

He looks at Mary Fitzroy. ‘Did the late queen know of these dealings?’

‘Of course.’ She sounds contemptuous; but whether of him, or the question, or of Anne Boleyn, he cannot say.

‘And your father Norfolk? Did he know?’

But Meg cuts in: ‘My husband –’ she relishes the word – ‘my husband said, let us be secret. He said, if my brother Norfolk hears of this, he will shake me till my teeth fall out, so let us not tell him till we must. But then –’ Meg closes her eyes. ‘I don’t know. Perhaps he did tell him.’

He remembers the day at Whitehall – he in conversation with Norfolk, Tom Truth trotting up with a message – when he had said, ‘The ladies show your verses around,’ the poet had panicked. He grabbed his kinsman’s arm and as he, Cromwell, walked away, the two Thomas Howards fell into furious whispering. When he thinks back, he reads an irate, confused expression on the duke’s face: what, you’ve done what, boy? It all fits. It would not be like Norfolk to make a plot ab origine, with so many fissile elements, but he can believe Tom Truth has appealed to him for protection and that the duke, after blasting and damning him, has worked out how he can turn this folly to his family’s advantage.

He leans across the table towards Meg. If she were not a royal lady – and she is at pains to point out she is – he might pat her hand. ‘Dry your tears. Let us think afresh. You say that Lord Thomas has visited you in the queen’s chambers. All come there, I do suppose, for purposes of pastime. They come to sing and make merry. There need be no sinister intent. So over the months – in that very busy place – you have been drawn into some conversation, and Lord Thomas admires you, as is natural, and he has said, “My lady, if you were not far above me –”’

‘He is a Howard,’ Wriothesley says. ‘He does not think anybody above him.’

He holds up a hand. His scene is too gorgeous to be interrupted. ‘“If you were not far above me, and intended by the king for some great prince, I swear I would beg your hand in marriage.”’

‘Yes,’ Mary Fitzroy says, ‘that is exactly how it was, Lord Cromwell.’

‘And you of course said, “Lord Thomas, I am forbidden to you. I see your pain, but I cannot assuage it.”’

‘No,’ Meg says. She begins to shake. ‘No. You are wrong. We are pledged. You will not part us.’

‘And being a man and ardent, and you so lovely and a great prize, he did not desist – he presented you with verses – he – well, and so on. But you stood firm and permitted him not so much as a nibble of your nether lip.’

He thinks, I shouldn’t have said that. I should have made do with ‘kiss’.

Meg stands up. Her handkerchief is bunched in her fist – this one is scattered with the Howards’ silver crosslets, light as summer snow. ‘I will unfold this matter to the king alone. Even despite this dignity to which you are raised, he will not permit you to hold me and question me and make such imputations, that I am not married when I say I am.’

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘My lady, can you not grasp the point? It would be better for you to be seduced and slandered, and to have ballads sung in the streets, than to promise yourself in marriage without the king’s knowledge.’

Mary Fitzroy says, ‘For the love of Christ, sit down, Meg, and try to comprehend what my lord is telling you. He is trying his best.’

‘He cannot part what God has joined!’

Mary Fitzroy raises her eyes to his. ‘I am sure Lord Cromwell has been told that before.’

He smiles. ‘We must ask ourselves, Lady Margaret, what marriage is. It is not just vows, it is bedwork. If there were promises, and witnesses, and then bed, you are fast married, your contract is good. You would be Mistress Truth, and you would have to live with the king’s extreme displeasure. And I cannot say what form that would take.’

‘My uncle will not punish me. He loves me as he loves his own daughter.’

She falters there. From her own mouth, she hears it, and now she understands: how does the king love his daughter? Two weeks past, Mary stood on thin ice. It was cracking under her feet. Only Thomas Cromwell would walk on it to retrieve her.

Call-Me rises, as if Meg might faint. But the princess sits down neatly enough. ‘The king will say I have been foolish.’

‘Or treacherous.’ Mr Wriothesley stands over her: he looks almost tender now.

Meg says, ‘My marriage is not a crime, is it?’

‘Not yet,’ he says. ‘But I am sure it will be. We can get a bill through before Parliament rises.’

Mary Fitzroy says, ‘You are making a law against Meg Douglas?’

‘You can see the sense of it, my lady Richmond. Ladies do not always know their own interests. Sometimes they do not know how to protect themselves. So the law must do it. Otherwise, any poet can try to carry them off as a prize, and if he succeeds he makes his fortune, and if he fails he suffers nothing but a blow to his pride. That cannot be right.’

‘You do not write verse yourself?’ Mary Fitzroy asks.

‘Why enter a crowded field?’ he says. ‘Mr Wriothesley, would you take a note for me?’

Call-Me resumes his seat and dips a quill. He dictates: ‘An Act against those who, without the king’s permission, marry, or attempt to marry, the king’s niece, sister, daughter –’

‘Better throw in aunt,’ Call-Me says.

He laughs. ‘Throw in aunt. The offence will be treason.’

Mary Fitzroy is incredulous. ‘Marrying will be treason, even though the woman consents?’

‘Especially if she consents.’

‘Tra-la,’ Call-Me says, scribbling. ‘Trolley lolly … hey ho … hey derry down, penalties the usual. I’ll get Riche on the wording.’

‘Luckily,’ he says, ‘in this case there is no issue of consent. It is doubtful Lady Meg really made a marriage, because it lacks consummation, as Master Wriothesley says.’

‘I do?’ Call-Me raises his sandy eyebrows, and blots the paper.

Mary Fitzroy says, ‘Meg, nothing of an unchaste nature occurred between you and Lord Thomas. You will say that and you will stick to it.’

‘Lady Margaret, you have a good counsellor in your friend.’ He turns to Mary Fitzroy. ‘You should be with your husband. I will give you an escort to St James’s.’

Mary says, ‘Fitzroy doesn’t need me. He doesn’t even like me. He doesn’t count me as his wife. My brother Surrey takes him whoring.’

Blunt as her father. ‘My lady,’ he says, ‘you bear much blame for this intrigue. As we have not yet defined the scope of the new law, we do not know what penalties you might face. But I doubt the king will pursue you, if you are watching at his son’s sickbed. Do not fret over Lady Margaret, she will be well-attended at the Tower. But unless you want to go with her, I advise you to get to St James’s and stay there.’

Meg is on her feet, bursting into tears again; she clings to the back of her chair. Mr Wriothesley rises and takes charge. He is firm and cool. ‘Lady Margaret, you will not be put in a dungeon. No doubt Lord Cromwell will arrange for you to have the late queen’s apartments.’

He gathers his papers. ‘Come, my lady,’ Mary Fitzroy pleads, ‘do this as befits your royal dignity. Do not make these men have to carry you. And thank Lord Cromwell – my trust is in him, he will divert the king’s anger if any man can.’

He thinks, it will be diverted to Tom Truth: Henry will hate his proceedings. He stands by the wall till the women are gone, sweeping by him without a word. But the Princess of Scotland is still protesting: ‘What harm can I take by telling the truth?’

Her voice rings in the stairwell, then she is gone. Call-Me says, ‘I thought she would never grasp your saving hand.’

‘She’s not by nature stupid. She’s in love.’

‘It’s lucky it doesn’t make men stupid. I mean, look at Sadler.’

Yes, look at Sadler. Besotted with his wife, and no blunting of his wits at all.

Mr Wriothesley’s mood has softened. With Meg in the Tower, he knows he will have another chance to bring her down. ‘Were you ever in love, sir?’

‘It’s eluded me.’ He remembers asking Rafe, what is it like? Although Wyatt has alerted him to the signs. The burning sighs, the frozen heart. Or is it the other way around?

He thinks, I must make shift to help Bess Darrell. I am caught up in this fresh Howard knavery, while Wyatt’s child is growing inside her. ‘I want Francis Bryan. Is he at home or abroad?’

‘Favours to call in?’ But Call-Me is restless, excited; he does not pursue it. ‘Who’s going to break it to the king that Meg is married?’

He sighs. ‘I am.’

‘I would not like to be in Norfolk’s shoes. His niece disgraces him in spring, and his half-brother in summer. You can easy pull him down now.’ Call-Me flits a glance at him. ‘If you want to.’

He thinks, I don’t know that I do. Whether the duke planned this misalliance, or just concealed it, it is a grave matter. But no graver than crimes in the past, for which I appear to have forgiven him. ‘Suppose the Scots come over the border? If not Norfolk, who would go up against them?’

‘Suffolk,’ Wriothesley says.

‘And if the French come in by the other door?’

‘You were a soldier, sir.’

‘A long time ago.’ I carried a pike. Or I was the boy to the man who did; one fights as a unit. I was a child. Now I am fifty. I could perhaps win a brawl in the street, though I would rather stop one. ‘I have aged into accommodation, Call-Me. As you have noticed, this hour past. It would be a meagre triumph to have saved the king’s daughter, if he now turns and executes his niece.’

‘But why,’ Call-Me says, ‘would they let a year pass – in love, as she says – and only then take a vow? I think he was not so passionate, till the date Eliza was declared a bastard, and Meg stepped nearer the throne.’

‘Unless he was weary of making rhymes without result. Surely they took the vow so he could bed her?’

‘Surely. And what if inconvenience should ensue?’

He shrugs. Meg must trust to luck. And sometimes a woman gets a child, but loses it before anyone knows it but herself. It’s only afterwards they tell you about such things: twenty years on, sometimes. Call-Me says, ‘The king will want her pressed on the date and the witnesses.’

‘Then we’ll press Tom Truth. He already thinks I know more than I do.’

‘Most people think that,’ Mr Wriothesley says.

‘He fears everybody knows where his cock has been just by reading his rhymes. But Norfolk’s daughter has a stout heart. She should be on the king’s council. You recall how she tried to bar the door to me, on the day Anne was crowned?’

Wriothesley doesn’t know, why would he? What Call-Me witnessed was the public show, the seething crowds, trumpet blasts, banners, snorting horses, trampling hooves. Anne, fragile, heavy with child in the humid heat, must sustain three days of ceremony under the hostile eyes of the people. The flower of England’s nobility, under protest, carried her train. At the altar, the weight of the crown bent her neck. If her face shone, that was not sweat – it was a sense of destiny. Her hand, itching for so long, took a sure grip on the sceptre. Archbishop Cranmer smudged her forehead with holy oil.

Then after the ceremony she withdrew, away from the gaze of the city and its gods, to a chamber where she could lay aside her robes. He followed. He had seen the look of glazed fatigue on her face. But now he must get her up and out, to the feast in Westminster Hall; if he could not, short of carrying her, then he must speak urgently to the king, because rumour spreads like a blaze in thatch; if Anne was too exhausted to be propped up in public view, they would say she was taken ill, they would say she was losing the child.

At the chamber door he met Norfolk’s daughter, an obdurate fourteen-year-old shocked to her marrow: ‘The queen is undressed!’ Anne’s voice, fractious, called out to him, and setting the little girl aside, he stepped in. On a high bed the queen lay on her back like a corpse, her thin shift draping the mound of her belly. Her narrow hand rested on her person, as if she were calming the prince within; her hair was loose and fell around her like black feathers. He had looked at her in pity and in wonder and a kind of appetite, imagining that he himself had a woman heavy with child. She turned her head. A ripple of hair slid away, spilled over the side of the bed. In an impulse of – what, of tidiness? – he had lifted the strand, held it for a moment between finger and thumb, then smoothed it with the rest.

Mary Norfolk had yelped, ‘No! Don’t touch the queen.’

The dead woman spoke: ‘Let him. He has earned it.’

Her eyes snapped open. They moved over him. She gave him her strange, slow smile. I knew then (he would say later) that Anne would not stop at the king, but consume many men, young or old, rich or poor, noble or common. But at the last, she did not consume me.

He remembers her swollen feet, blue-veined, bare. How helpless they seemed, as if on that hot June day they might be cold.

At the king’s command, a lodging is prepared for Tom Truth. Constable Kingston comes in person, and suggests the upper floor of the Bell Tower, which has a good fireplace. Let’s put a hopeful face on it, Kingston says, and assume the king will show mercy, and the young man will still be alive this winter.

He says to Kingston, ‘You know the turnkey Martin?’

‘I know him. One of your gospellers.’

‘Martin ought to attend Lord Thomas,’ he says. ‘He respects those who write verse.’

Kingston stares at him as if he were ignorant. ‘They all did it. All those late gentlemen.’

‘George Boleyn, certainly,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘And Mark, I concede. But can you see Will Brereton juggling with terza rima? As for Norris, he was more interested in listing his emoluments and tabulating his assets.’

Kingston says, ‘They tried their hand. I am no judge. But the queen said there was only Wyatt who could do it.’

‘Sir William,’ he says, ‘ask your wife to sit with Lady Margaret, as she sat with the late queen. Let me know what she says.’ He adds, ‘I do not say it will end the same way. Let Lady Kingston encourage her to think she can live and thrive, if she sees her duty.’

‘I hear you will bring in a law,’ Kingston says. ‘It seems harsh, to make them commit a crime in retrospect.’

They try to explain it to the constable. A prince cannot be impeded by temporal distinctions: past, present, future. Nor can he excuse the past, just for being over and done. He can’t say, ‘all water under the bridges’; the past is always trickling under the soil, a slow leak you can’t trace. Often, meaning is only revealed retrospectively. The will of God, for instance, is brought to light these days by more skilful translators. As for the future, the king’s desires move swiftly and the law must run to keep up. ‘Bear in mind his Majesty’s remarkable foresight, at the trial of the late queen. He knew the sentence before the verdict was in.’

‘True,’ Kingston says. ‘The executioner was already on the sea.’

Kingston has been a councillor long enough. He should know how the king’s mind works. Once Henry says, ‘This is my wish,’ it becomes so dear and familiar a wish that he thinks he has always had it. He names his need, and he wants it supplied.

‘But surely he won’t kill her?’ Kingston says. ‘The Princess of Scotland! What would her countrymen say?’

‘I don’t think the Scots have a use for Meg. They think she is an Englishwoman now. Still,’ he says, ‘I always pray for a good outcome. As for Lord Thomas – I’m sure the Duke of Norfolk will make his plea.’

‘Norfolk?’ the constable says. ‘Henry will throw him downstairs.’

No doubt, he thinks. I hope I am there to witness. ‘Be ready, Sir William. That’s all I advise. I wouldn’t like you to be caught out.’

After all, it’s nearly two months since the death of the queen. Quite possible that Kingston’s inner machinery will have rusted. The constable says, ‘Whatever occurs, I suppose we wouldn’t be having that fellow back?’

‘The Frenchman? No. Good God. I can’t afford him.’ Back to old-fashioned hacking. Of course, the Howards are stout for tradition. They wouldn’t want to die with any refinements.

‘He did a fine job,’ Kingston says. ‘I admit that. Beautiful weapon. He let me see it.’

He thinks, we all killed Anne Boleyn. We all imagined it, anyway. Soon I’ll hear that the king himself came down and said, ‘Master Executioner, can I try the swing of your blade?’ It’s as Francis Bryan said: Henry would have killed her one day, but in the event some other man saved him the trouble.

He remembers the weight of the weapon, when the Frenchman put it in his hand. He saw the light flash on the steel and he saw that there were words written on the blade; he drew his finger over them. Mirror of Justice. Speculum justitiae. Pray for us.

At Austin Friars, they admire Mr Wriothesley: his tenacity, his willingness to back his belief that there’s no smoke without fire. And lucky for Meg Douglas that he did not hesitate, once he grasped the facts. ‘Because imagine,’ Richard says, ‘if someone had walked in and found her naked in the arms of Truth.’

Richard Riche says, ‘I would not offend the king in such a way and expect long continuance in my life.’

Riche is busy drafting. The new clauses won’t necessarily stop royal persons doing stupid things. But they will create a formal process for dealing with them, when they do. The question is, who is complicit in Meg’s crime? He had asked for the rotas, to see which ladies were attending the queen – the dead one – during March, April and what she saw of the month of May. But the haughty dames who arrange such matters – Lady Rutland, Lady Sussex – had simply raised their eyebrows at him, and hinted that the whole thing was a mystery. Whereas with the king’s privy chamber, as Rafe Sadler says, you have a list, you know who should be where, and when.

Not that it necessarily works. Vagrant habits took hold this spring.

Approaching the king with the bad news, he had found him in a huddle with his architects, plotting to spend some money. ‘My lord Cromwell? Which of these?’ He had flourished a baton patterned with egg-and-dart moulding, which he was narrowly preferring to laurel wreaths.

‘Wreaths,’ he had said. ‘I have something to tell you.’ The draughtsmen rolled up their plans. His eyes followed them to the door.

Once the king had grasped what he was being told, he had shouted at the top of his voice that the business should be kept quiet. The baton was still in his royal hand: if Meg Douglas had been standing there, he would have broken the eggs over her head and stuck her with the darts. ‘I want no repeat of what happened in May, a royal lady before a public court. Europe will be scandalised.’

‘Then what shall I do?’

Henry dropped his voice. ‘Choose some neater way.’ As for Truth: ‘Draw up a charge of treason – I want it recorded in the indictment that the devil inspired him. Unless it was my lord of Norfolk?’

He had offered no comment. Meanwhile – as one of Truth’s own rhymes states, ‘False report as grass doth groweth.’ Word has got around that Lord Thomas is arrested, and so it is assumed that he has been revealed as one more lover of the late Anne.

At the Bell Tower he and Wriothesley approach Truth by the turret stair, passing the lower chamber where Thomas More’s shadow squats in the dark with the shutters closed. He puts his palm against the wall, as if feeling for a minute tremor in the stonework that would tell him More was talking in there: chattering to himself, jokes and stories and proverbs, scripture verses, mottoes, tags.

Christophe comes behind with the evidence. It is not stained bed sheets, but something nastier. The poems – Tom Truth’s and Meg’s mixed with others – have come to him in sheaves – some found, some left, some handed over by third parties. The papers are curled at the edges, and some are folded many times; they are written in divers hands, annotated in others; scribbled, blotted and smudged, they vary in skill of construction, but not in content. I love her, she loves not me. O she is cruel! Ah me, I shall die! He wonders if any of Henry’s poems have got mixed in. It was alleged, against the recently dead gentlemen, that they had laughed at the royal verses. But the king’s handwriting, fortunately, is unlike any other hand. He would know it in the dark.

In his upper room, Tom Truth is staring at the wall. ‘I wondered when you would get here.’

He – Lord Cromwell – takes off his coat. ‘Christophe?’

The boy produces papers. They look more crumpled than he remembers. ‘Have you been chewing them?’

Christophe grins. ‘I eat anything,’ he tells Tom Truth. As he, Lord Cromwell shuffles through the papers and prepares to read aloud, Truth becomes irate and tense, like any author whose work is under scrutiny.

‘She knoweth my love of long time meant,

She knoweth my truth, nothing is hid,

She knoweth I love in good intent,

As ever man and woman did.’

He looks at Tom Truth over the paper. ‘Nothing is hid?’

‘Have you tupped her?’ Mr Wriothesley asks.

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ Tom Truth says. ‘What opportunity? With your eyes on us?’

Many-eyed Argus. He holds the paper at arm’s length. ‘Can you go on, Mr Wriothesley? I cannot. It’s not the handwriting,’ he assures Truth. ‘It’s that my tongue refuses to do it.’

Mr Wriothesley takes the paper by one corner.

‘What helpeth hope of happy hap

When hap will hap unhappily?’

‘Perhaps it sounds better if you sing it,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘Shall we have Martin fetch a lute?

‘And thus my hap my hope has turned

Clear out of hope into despair.’

‘Pause there,’ he tells Wriothesley. He accepts the paper back, between finger and thumb. ‘It seems you declared yourself, even at the risk of a rebuff. She knoweth my truth, nothing is hid. At this date she does not seem amenable. Though it is usual, is it not, to say that you love the lady more than she loves you?’

‘It is considered polite,’ Wriothesley assures him.

‘And yet she loved you well enough to give you a diamond.’

Tom Truth says, ‘I do not know if I wrote this verse.’

‘You have forgot it,’ he says. ‘As would any man of sense. Yet in the fifth stanza you write, Pardon me, your man, Tom Truth. Which you rhyme, unfortunately, with growth.’

Christophe sniggers. ‘Even I know better, and I am French.’

‘There is many a Thomas at court,’ the accused man says, ‘and not all of them tell the truth, though I am sure they all claim to.’

‘He’s looking at us,’ he says to Thomas Wriothesley. ‘I hope you aren’t saying one of us wrote it?’

Call-Me says, ‘All the world knows you go by that name, so you may as well stand to it. You have married her, her servants say.’

Tom Truth opens his mouth, but leafing through the pages he cuts in: ‘You ask her to ease you of your pain.’

‘Would that be the pain in your bollocks?’ Christophe says.

He quells him with a look; but he cannot help laughing. ‘You have been in love for a certain space – Although I burn and long have burned – and then you make some pledge – why would you do that, unless to make her think it is lawful to go to bed?’

Wriothesley says, ‘The lady tells us there are witnesses to the pledge.’

When the pause prolongs, he says, ‘You need not reply in verse.’

Tom Truth says, ‘I know what you do, Cromwell.’

He raises an eyebrow. ‘I do nothing, unless with the king’s permission. Without that, I don’t swat a fly.’

‘The king will not permit you to ill-use a gentleman.’

‘Agreed,’ Wriothesley advises, ‘but don’t try Lord Cromwell’s patience. He once broke a man’s jaw with a single blow.’

Did I? He is astonished. He says, ‘We are tenacious. In time you will confess you meant to do ill, even if you did not achieve your purpose. You will acknowledge your error to the king, and beg his pardon.’ Though I doubt it will forthcome, he thinks. ‘We understand your situation. You come of a great family, but all you younger Howards are poor. And being of such exalted blood, you cannot soil your hands with any occupation. If you want to make your fortune you must wait for a war, or you must marry well. And you say to yourself, here I am, a man of great qualities – yet I have no money, and no one regards me, except to confuse me with my elder brother. So I know what I’ll do – I’ll marry the king’s niece. Odds-on I’ll be King of England one day.’

‘And till then I can borrow against my expectations,’ Wriothesley adds.

A line of Wyatt’s comes to him: For I am weak, and clean without defence. In Wyatt’s verse there is a tussle in every line. In the verse of Lord Thomas, there is no contest at all, just a smooth surrender to idiocy. Though he is staunch under questioning – you must concede that. He does not weep or beseech. He just says, ‘What have you done with Lady Margaret?’

‘She is here in the queen’s rooms,’ Mr Wriothesley says. ‘Though probably not for long.’

They leave him with that ambiguous thought. The harmless truth is that Meg may have to be lodged elsewhere if the king decides to go ahead with a coronation, because by tradition Jane will spend the night there before her procession to Westminster. The king had talked of a ceremony at midsummer. But now there are rumours of plague and sweating sickness. It is not wise to allow crowds in the street, or pack bodies into indoor spaces. The Seymours, of course, urge the king to take the risk.