The Mirror and the Light (Wreckage (II) – Part 3)

On his first night he cannot sleep. He walks in the garden till dusk, deciding what needs to be done first: some old rotten stumps to haul out, and fresh planting. He walks the rooms of the house, replanning them, extending them: hall, great chamber and gallery, chapel and library, and the kitchens, sculleries, pantries; the wood store and coal store, wet larder, dry larder, bakehouse. This chamber could be for Call-Me, he thinks, when he stays, and Richard could have this corner room next door – new windows, perhaps? There is still material left over from the king’s rebuilding of Hampton Court, he can order it sent by barge. The principal chambers are served by a privy stair; he will need to set a guard there.

He knew this place in the time of his sister Kat and her husband Morgan Williams. The Williams family had a house on the river, almost under the manor’s wall. They were substantial people, good at laying plans: Thomas, they would say, you’ve not a bad head on your shoulders and if you got away from Walter you could make something of yourself. They imagined he might go as clerk to some cronies of theirs, or be kitchen steward for some dotard, work his way up to book-keeper for a great man. He pictured himself going to Morgan Williams’s tailor and getting a good town coat like his: wearing that coat when, at thirty or thirty-five, he dipped his children in old Bouchier’s font in the parish church. The manor house had always belonged to the archbishops. His uncle had worked in the kitchen one time, and half the lads he knew had picked up pennies for carting wood, for unloading at the wharf, cleaning the fishponds. It did not seem possible he would enter those gates as anything other than a labourer: that he would walk in one day with building plans in his hands, with a new owner’s appraising eye. After all, he never aimed to be an archbishop.

If you marvel at your good fortune, you should marvel in secret: never let people see you. When you are Lord Privy Seal you must walk abroad with solemn countenance, looking chosen by Jesus, like More did when he was chancellor. Once he had shrugged off his early life – the Williamses and their plans, as well as Walter, his slaps and kicks – he did not think he would ever come back to those streets. But we yearn for our origins; we yearn for an innocent terrain. Ship Lane has always been there, running downhill to the wharves. The town he knew had been a territory of back alleys and rat-runs, robbers’ dens with broken doors, keel-up boats rotting, frayed rope dissolved into vegetable matter, riverine mud and riverine gravel. His birthplace squatted there, around the bend in the river.

On his journey today from London, he felt he brought guests: Norris and George Boleyn, young Weston, Mark, and William Brereton. As he stepped out of his barge they stepped out too; they stood on the banks of the Styx, waiting to cross. They died within minutes of each other, but that does not mean they are together now. The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice. Even if they met, what would they have to talk about? When they stood before their judges they edged away from each other, as if fearing contamination. Each man had made a case against the other, hoping he might save his own life.

Get out, he tells them. Don’t think you can move in here. Pay the ferryman, and away you go. His spaniel turns in his arms as they walk in the twilight, her muzzle raised, her tasselled ears pricked; though she is small of her kind, her nose is as sharp as a hunter’s. There is always a current of disturbance, till a house settles about you: till your dog finds its way to the hearth and the sheets to the beds, the beef to the table. There is a scent in the air that reminds him of something from the past – it is yeast, perhaps, hops – though when he was a boy, they had no hops but what came in on the boat; the hometown brewers still used burdock root or marigold. Hops poison dogs, they said, when foreigners boasted about why their ale kept better.

He remembers standing behind the king, at his shoulder, as he signed the death warrants in May: Rafe Sadler, silent, at the king’s other hand: the windows open to admit soft air, and the king an unwilling scholar, truculent as some infant set down for the first time with a slate. It is hard labour for Henry, it is irksome toil, signing lives away. And the king’s hand rests, it seems, for long moments together, to allow him to view the half-made strokes – as if they might form by themselves and relieve him of the task.

Henry Norris, yes. He wills the royal arm to move. William Brereton, yes: he can feel, as if he himself were the king, the concentrated power of Rafe Sadler’s gaze on the nape of his neck. The lutenist Smeaton, yes, that is easily done, ink slips like oil onto the paper, into the vital space: resolving easily, a day or so from now, into the boy’s liquid death. As a man of no birth or breeding, Smeaton should have been strangled in a noose and, before he died, his guts pulled out before the crowd. But he had said to Henry, ‘Be merciful because …’

The king had said, ‘Why would I? Why would I show mercy, to a man who has debauched a queen of England?’

‘Mark is very young and fearful. No creature in terror can make a good death. And he must be sensible of his sins at the last, and able to frame a prayer.’

‘Do you think that a man meeting the headsman is composed?’

‘I have seen examples.’

Henry had closed his eyes. ‘Very well.’

And there Henry had paused. One saw again a child, bowed under the heavy grief of infancy: the schoolmaster’s mauvais sujet twisting in his seat, kicking his stool, watching out of the window as a blithe day draws to its close. I could be out there, the child thinks, in the last of the sun. Wherefore must I engrave these letters, does my tutor hate me that he keeps me to this task? And from the table before him, with a sigh, the king had picked up his little knife (smooth ivory handle) to mend his pen. ‘Weston,’ he said. ‘You know … he’s very young.’

Over the king’s head, his eyes had met Rafe’s. It must be all of them: no doubts, no exceptions. All are guilty.

Rafe reaches out, takes the knife and the quill, sharpens it for the king. Henry receives it with a murmur of thanks: always gracious. He takes a breath and, neck bent, patient as an ox yoked to his future, he reapplies himself to his task: Francis Weston, yes. He, Cromwell, thinks, I have done this before, surely? Some other time, some similar form of coercion?

Henry’s arm, his jewelled and heavy sleeve, trails across the table; an ink blot forms by Weston’s name, and blooms there; it unfolds, a solitary black flower, and forty years glide into ink-dark. His face does not change, he can trust it for that, but he is a child now, and standing, arms folded, feet planted apart in the posture of a man. He stands in a diffuse glow; it is afternoon sun, and it kindles in a curve of burnished copper. He sees the low rippling gleam of pewter plates, the sharp mirror flash from the blades of kitchen tools, from paring knife, boning blade, cleaver. It is Lambeth Palace, the cook’s domain: the echo of raised voices, among them his Uncle John’s.

What has occurred here? Someone is to be whipped. The kitchen steward’s hand slaps the table. The misdeed stated: who and what and why. (Well, not why, no one is interested in why.) The theft, the infraction, the breach – of manners or protocol, piecrust or bowl: the kitchen sin, the pantry crime: whatever it is, Uncle John’s senior means to skin somebody for it, he is bellowing his intentions so loud that his voice bounces around the cold vaulting above and reverberates in the chambers of the skull. And it is the eel boy who sits weeping, neck bent, knuckles pressed into his eyes, while the kitchen steward pummels him for information: the red-headed eel boy who he, Thomas Cromwell, had half-drowned in a water butt only yesterday. ‘It was me!’ The eel boy is streaked with angry tears, nose bubbling with snot, eyes screwed tight. ‘Leave me. Get off me. Enough. It was me.’

He hides his smile: a bad week for the eel boy.

It is only as the boy is hauled away to his punishment, and the knot of gawping menials disperses, that his uncle says to him, his voice low: ‘You demon, it was you, wasn’t it?’

‘What, me? I was nowhere near. You heard him. He confessed.’

‘Yes, but he had no choice. God alone knows.’ John turns away. ‘Could you not rub along with the little wretch, he being a townsman of yours?’

‘People from Putney don’t like each other. You know it.’

‘You’re as twisty as a skewer, Thomas. Where will you end up?’

Whitehall, it seems. The king lays down his quill. He rubs together the tips of his fingers; right, done, deo gratias. Rafe whisks the paperwork away. Each stroke of the pen will translate into a stroke of the axe. Like the eel boy, they will understand that if Thomas Cromwell says, ‘You did it,’ you did it. No use arguing. It only prolongs the pain.

Outside the room he says to Rafe, ‘Get those warrants to the Tower before he changes his mind.’

‘Sir …?’ Rafe’s glance, puzzled, travels to his master’s hand. He is holding – how did it get there? – the king’s penknife, ‘HR’ picked out in letters of jet. Ah, he says, I had better … Rafe says, I will, I’ll take it back to him, and he says, no, you see those papers into Kingston’s hands, then you can get home to Helen before it’s dark.

Rafe goes; one parting glance over his shoulder, flash of pallor above a swirl of black. He, Cromwell, moves back towards his master, the knife in his grip. He stands in the doorway, words on his lips: Majesty, I find I have this knife in my hand, though it belongs to you.

But Henry is at prayer. Beside the table, he is kneeling, uncushioned, on the stone floor: his eyes closed. Lips move: salve, regina. The mild evening is draped around him, the rosy light.

He drops the king’s penknife on the table and walks away. Not backing, as one does, from the presence of the monarch, but assured as a man in his own house, turning from someone in mid-conversation, quitting the room and leaving the door open.

Last night young Dick Purser had said to him, ‘Master, is the queen really guilty? Did she really go to it with all those brave fellows?’

No use to say, she is not on trial for that, but for treason. A month from now, it is only the bawdry and lechery that folk will remember. ‘You want my opinion?’ He had passed his hand over his face. ‘You see, Dick, it is why we have courts of law, and judges, and juries … to protect us from the tyranny of one man’s opinion.’

Outside the king’s chamber, gentlemen servants had tried to converge on him, but he distanced them with an outstretched palm. ‘Go in to the king, he is praying but I dare say he will soon want his supper.’ He was irritated; if Henry has a mind to fall to his knees and beseech the Blessed Virgin, someone should have foreseen it and provided a hassock. ‘Light a fire, the dew is falling. Later he may ask for music …’

Clément Janequin, his psalms. The duets of Francesco Spinacino, the saltarellos of Dalza the Milanese: the pavane alla venetiana, pavane alla ferrarese: a new toccata from Capirola, quickly rehearsed from a manuscript decorated at its edges with the images of apes and leaping hares. The galliard, the basse-dance, Chansons nouvelles en musique à quatre parties: four parties now dead, or dead in effect, and five if you count George Boleyn. On other light evenings, the musicians will ease themselves to the royal threshold: the jellies go out, and the fruits roasted in honey, and as the waiters depart, the consort arrives, one with lute in hand: a single note, shivering, is drawn from a string tightened to a seraph key. With Norris, Brereton, and Weston gone, other gentlemen, chosen by Thomas Cromwell, will take their places in the privy chamber, close to the person of the king. But old servants are the best, the ones who know when you need to sing and when you need to pray. Will death stop them jotting their names on the roster, pricking their names on the list: six weeks off and six weeks on? By the third week in May, their heads are in the street. Autumn will come, the days shortening, and the shade of Harry Norris will slide back to his tasks, bobbing in a corner like a spider on his silk. There is a place, a sequestered place in the imagination, where the eel boy is always waiting to be whipped, where George Boleyn is always in his prison room, always rising in welcome: Master Cromwell, I knew you would come. As George had stood, his hands held out, an image had stirred inside him, and he was elsewhere: in some other enclosed space, the light failing, as if a shutter had half-closed. Above him a shadow, like the outstretched wing of an angel; blood in his mouth, and the curve not of feathers but of stone: and a chill, a deep chill in the marrow. A stone arch, a cellar, a crypt, where someone is waiting in the dark: someone who has apprehended pain for so long that he walks towards it, arms open, relieved that it is here at last.

He remembers himself at eighteen years of age, a shattered creature crawling from the battlefield, creeping through Italy till he came to rest – or a halt, anyway – at the gate of the Frescobaldi banking house. He did not know then whose house it was, only that he needed shelter. He had seen the city’s saint drawn on walls – the city’s patron, one should say: Hercules as an infant, crushing a snake in his fist; Hercules as a hero cleaning out the Augean stables with his bucket and his rake. So when the gate opened to his knock he crawled inside. ‘My name?’ he told the steward. ‘My name is Ercole, I can labour.’

Now when he recalls himself, helpless on the cobbles, he sees himself blackened as he crawls, as if escaping from a burning building. He walks the rooms of the manor at Mortlake, Lord Cromwell on home ground, the wash of the river familiar as the waters of his mother’s womb. He douses his light at last, and sleeps, and dreams he stands, wrapped in his cloak of night, on a wharf where the burning boats have fired the quays.

Towards morning, banging at the gate wakes the household. He rises, prays briefly, and goes down to see what the noise is about. It is Richmond’s people, come from St James’s to say the young duke is dead.

He says, ‘Is someone on the road to tell the king?’ (For once, this is not his role: Mortlake to the Dover road, one has not wings.) ‘Alert my lord archbishop. He should be ready to go to the king’s side.’

He thinks, Henry will say this is God’s punishment on him, for allowing the bishops to make new articles of faith. For stripping the number of the sacraments away.

‘Ensure word goes up-country to my lady Clinton. Remember the feelings of a mother, tell her gently – not banging on the gate and shouting it to the skies.’

Seventeen years back, when the king’s son was born, he himself had not been at court or anywhere near it, and so he had to rely on others to tell him about those days. Francis Bryan saw Bessie Blount when she first came into the queen’s household, fair as a goddess and not yet fourteen. The king would not touch her at that age; the most lenient confessor would have shaken his jowls at it. Henry danced with her, and waited a year or two, always mindful of Charles Brandon bustling behind him, ready to snap her up. Then Queen Katherine had to watch her as her little maid of honour filled out, plump and smiling and sick every morning. Katherine said nothing, only praising her glowing skin. Why, she had said, I think our little Bessie is in love.

Bessie was whisked away before her belly showed. Her family were sensible of the honour and hopeful of a son for the king. It was the cardinal who arranged everything. The king never saw her afterwards – perhaps once, after the child was born. He received the compliments, insincere, of the ambassadors: this shows your Highness well capable of siring a boy, and surely God will not long deny your Highness the consolation of one born in wedlock? But everybody knew Katherine’s courses had stopped, and she would not bear another child.

It was Wolsey who set up a household for the infant, who found the new mother an honourable marriage, who filtered the funds through – the land grants and honours. Perhaps he looked after Bessie too well. Ten years on, with his power slipping away, his enemies unlocked their chest brimming with slights and derelictions, and out crawled a musty slander. They alleged that – taking their pattern from Bessie Blount – all the maids in England wished to become concubines. Harlots had flocked to the king’s vicinity, they said, hoping for rich rewards.

It appears, the cardinal had said dryly, I must add to my crimes the degradation of the married state, the corruption of virgins and the valorisation of pimps everywhere.

It is not, and never has been, the custom of the kings of England to attend the burials of their sons or their wives. At the death of Prince Arthur, the chief mourner was the Duke of Norfolk’s forebear, so word comes from the king that it would be fitting to follow custom, and for the rites to be arranged by the Howard that is now. And since Fitzroy was under the guardianship of the present duke, and married to his daughter, it seems proper that he should lie at Thetford, among the duke’s own ancestors. Instructions are that the removal is to be in a closed cart, the whole matter handled in silence.

‘What is Henry doing?’ Chapuys says. ‘He cannot hope to conceal that his son has died, can he?’

He says, ‘Eustache, I cannot tell you about the king’s state of mind. I am employed to make laws and mind the treasury. For the rest he has the archbishop.’

‘That dubious fellow.’

He looks at him sharply to see what he knows. ‘Heretic,’ Chapuys says. Oh, only that, he thinks. He is relieved. The ambassador turns back for a parting shot. ‘Richmond’s death is not a bad thing for the interests of the Princess Mary.’ He smirks. ‘Your bride-to-be.’

His familars gather at the Rolls House. Call-Me says, ‘My lord Privy Seal … you recall that day you went over to St James’s with Richard Riche? When Fitzroy was first taken ill? You sent Riche out of the sickroom, he told me. What happened? May I ask?’

He thinks, the son spoke treason against the father. But it doesn’t matter now.

Wriothesley says, ‘Richmond feared he had been poisoned. I heard him say so.’

‘For God’s sake, don’t start that up,’ Rafe Sadler says. ‘Or I’ll give you a slap.’

‘And so you could, little man, if you stood on a box.’ Call-Me decides to take it in good part; he is too interested in plots to be diverted. ‘If Richmond had been named in the succession bill, there would have been grounds for suspicion against Mary’s people. And even as it is, knowing Mary’s nature …’

Rafe says, ‘Never mind her nature. The king is reconciled with her. It cost our master no little trouble.’

‘Reconciled?’ Wriothesley snorts. ‘She has been forced to bow her knee. Do you think she will forgive? I do not.’

Gregory begs, ‘Boys, don’t fight. No one is poisoned. Surely.’

He says to Wriothesley, ‘Think what you like, but don’t go dragging this rumour around the Inns of Court. Or wherever it is you go.’

‘Or the brothels of Southwark,’ Rafe says under his breath.

‘Do you?’ Gregory is interested.

Rafe asks, ‘What are we going to say to Henry?’

It is the only question left. He must get down to Kent, and say something. Forty-five years on this earth, twenty-seven of them as King of England – and all he has to show for it are three bastard children, one of them now a corpse.

He goes to the Tower to see Meg Douglas, in his pocket a recent example of her verse. ‘Shall I read to you?’

Recognising her handwriting, she is startled. ‘How did you get that?’

‘Now may I mourn as one of late

Driven by force from my delight

And cannot see my lonely mate

To whom forever my heart is plight.’

‘I think you still don’t understand,’ he says. ‘There was no plighting. You can’t afford plighting. Your state was grave last week, my lady, but this week it is worse.’

‘Because Richmond is dead.’ She looks up. ‘That takes me nearer the throne. He is no longer in my way.’

God help her, she supposes that gives her some greater leverage. He says, ‘Can you imagine the king’s doleful state? They say he cannot speak for sorrow. He has been struck dumb for two days.’

She says nothing. He throws the paper down in front of her. She has written her name under the verse, what she thinks is her name now: Margaret Howard. ‘I have told the king how you were beguiled and misled. But now your eyes are opened and you are heartily sorry for what you have done. You repudiate Lord Thomas Howard, and you wish never to see him or speak to him again.’

‘But that is not true.’

‘It will be true, in time.’

‘I cannot live without Lord Thomas.’

‘You will find you can.’

‘You don’t know,’ she says.

He wants to ask her, what did you think would come out of this? That you would sit in a turret, and Tom Truth come riding over the hills, his lyre slung behind his saddle? And you at the high window, letting down your strawberry tresses? When Mary Fitzroy stood guard outside the door, did you know how your beau would secure you, with a brutal thrust that made you bleed? Did you know how he would use and spoil you?

She says, ‘My lady mother has written to me from Scotland. She says I must obey my uncle the king in all things. If I do not she will disown me.’

‘She is the king’s own sister, she understands him. After the summer we have passed, do you not think he is sensitive to his honour? You have chosen an evil hour to fall in love.’

He thinks, you have no notion how hard I am working for you. Neither had the Lady Mary. She ought to marry me, really, out of gratitude. So should you.

Constable Kingston is waiting for him outside. ‘Sir William,’ he tells him, ‘I still have hopes Jane will be crowned this summer. So move Lady Meg to the Garden Tower. She must live in apprehension till I can frame the king’s mind to mercy, and that will not be a while yet.’

‘Myself,’ Kingston says, ‘I would stop these letters going between. But I am told it is your pleasure your man Martin should act Cupid. Why encourage it, if you are trying to stop the king proceeding against her?’

‘I want their verses for the book.’

Perhaps Kingston thinks he means the statute book. Or a prayer book. ‘The book of poems,’ he says. The burning sighs. The frozen heart. Better the frozen heart than the perils of the thaw.

Kingston says, ‘Lord Thomas is a harmless young man in himself.’ There is something almost timid in Kingston’s bearing: this man of singular experience, fishing for some inkling of what comes next. ‘Pray God the archbishop can console the king in this last blow of fate. They fall so fast, I do not know how he endures it.’

It is dusk when he arrives at the Palace of St James, and at the news of his arrival, servants gather in whispering assemblies, hushing each other. The officers already wear mourning. The menials, in their livery of yellow and blue, have tied black bands about their sleeves. But all colours are fading to subfusc, the yellow bruised, the blue deepening to indigo. A man begs him, ‘Sir, my lord of Surrey is in the stableyard. He is picking the best horses for himself, and we are afraid we will be blamed.’

He quickens his step. The servant speeds along with him. ‘What will happen to us? To the household?’

‘I will take as many as I can. The king will be good to you.’

He feels no confidence in the latter. The king’s response to his son’s death, so far as one can understand it, is not sorrow but a jealous rage, as if he had been cheated of something. Norfolk has applied to him for better instructions: ‘Cromwell, what am I to do here? Closed cart? What does that imply? Shall I have to build a monument at my own expense? Or does Henry want me to shovel the boy into some common pit, like a churl who wears homespun and dines on a boiled onion?’

In the stableyard, he finds young Surrey, standing by as the groom Colins leads out Richmond’s black jennet. She is a gleaming and well-muscled creature of Spanish breed, nimble-footed in trappings of black velvet.

Surrey’s eyes flicker over him. No greeting. ‘He would have wanted me to have the beast.’

‘You must account to the king for what you take to your use. But no one will demur, if you clear it with my lord’s master of the horse.’

‘Giles will give me no trouble,’ Surrey says. ‘Besides, where is he?’

‘At his prayers, I hazard.’

‘I thought you did not believe in prayers for the dead?’

‘Perhaps Giles Foster does.’

Black elongates the young man’s spider limbs. As he turns, a red-gloved hand on the horse’s mane, a low shaft of sunlight catches him and he glitters, head to toe, as a web glints with dew. On closer inspection, it proves he is sewn over with diamonds. He should have thrown a cloak around himself, even at the risk of dimming his lustre; high-bred though the jennet is, she still smells of horse. Surrey reaches for the bridle. ‘Will you step out of my way, Cromwell? I want to walk her.’

He does not move. ‘It would be charity in you, as you and my lord were so brotherly, to give employment to some in his household.’

‘I suppose you have taken your pick already? I should have thought your retinue was bloated enough. I see your livery everywhere about the town. You employ some stout ruffians, Cromwell. I have never seen such evil countenances, and such readiness to fight, as I see in your people.’

It is true that he employs men who by reason of their dubious histories cannot find another master. He does not feel equal to explaining this to Surrey. He says, ‘I grant you, appearances are often against my boys. But I do not believe they will fight unless for good cause.’

‘Not even if provoked?’

‘Ah – in that case I could not say.’

He thinks, I could snap you in two, boy. He runs a hand along the jennet’s gleaming hide; the beast stirs, and he finds the tender place between the ears, rubs it. Surrey is crying: he buries his face in the bright saddle-cloth emblazoned with the dead boy’s arms. ‘He was my friend,’ he says. ‘But you, Cromwell, you would not understand it – the friendship that is amongst men of ancient lineage and noble blood.’

I understand, he thinks, your nose is running like any stable-lad’s. ‘Your father would not like to see you weep. Take this like a Christian man, sir. Richmond is gone where no harm can touch him, nor spoil the flower of his youth. He was a king’s son, but he will find a father in Heaven.’

Surrey’s face is mottled: tears, rage. ‘Cromwell, I wish I were dead,’ he says. ‘No, I take it back. I wish you were dead.’

He remembers the breakup of York Place: the rattle of treasure into the chests of other men, the scramble onto the river. He has many of Wolsey’s people among his own. The dukes took others. I wonder, he thinks, if Charles Brandon retains that clown who used to keep the hearth and chimneys at Esher? It gives him satisfaction, to think of Suffolk being smoked like a herring, from the year 1529 and every winter till now: and from now, unto the ending of the world.

He answers a summons from Jane the queen: finds her with a book in her lap, a Book of Hours. He thinks, I know that volume. It belonged to the other one.

Jane holds out the book. ‘This is hers, Anne Boleyn’s. She and the king passed it between them. The king has written an inscription, under the Man of Sorrows.’

He takes the book from her. Christ is kneeling, his flesh gory from head to heels, each bleeding cut fine as a wire. The picture is set within a border of peapods and ripe strawberries: the king has written some lines in French. ‘Lady Rochford has kindly translated it for me,’ Jane says. ‘I am yours, Henry R, forever. And then she replied to him.’

He cannot see the reply.

‘Look under the Annunciation,’ Jane says. ‘She had hope, of course, in those days. She thought she could bear a son.’

He finds the picture. A coy virgin with lowered eyes is getting good news: the angel of the lord is right behind her.

Jane recites, ‘By daily proof you shall me find/To be to you both loving and kind. Do you think she was kind to him?’

‘Not often.’

Jane’s hand moves over the book’s binding, as if it were a living creature she is soothing. ‘Sometimes, when the king has, so to speak, visited me, then he falls asleep in my bed. But he soon wakes because he has bad dreams. Then he kneels by the bed. He cries out, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. To that he appends Latin I do not follow. Then the gentlemen of the privy chamber come, and walk him back to his own chamber.’

‘And you, madam, I trust you then take your rest?’

Jane nods to Mary Shelton, who stands at her elbow. Mary curtseys and goes out, giving him a weary smile.

‘You all like Shelton,’ Jane says. ‘The king likes her.’ She waits till the door is closed. ‘My ladies say that if a wife does not take pleasure in the act, she will not get a child. Is that true?’

Jane waits. It seems that, humbly, she would wait all day: she knows she asks questions to which answers are not likely.

He says, ‘Perhaps consult with your lady mother? Or one of the elder dames here at court might advise you – the Countess of Salisbury?’

‘They will have forgotten. They are old.’

‘Your lady sister, then. Because she has two fine infants, I hear.’

‘Bess puts heart into me. She tells me, say an Ave, Jane, and the king will soon spend. She tells me she did not have much joy in her own marriage bed. With Oughtred it was like a military manoeuvre. Brisk.’

He bursts out laughing. Sometimes you forget she is a queen. ‘He did not beat a drum, I hope?’

‘No, but she always knew when he was on his way. Bess says, she wouldn’t mind a bouncing new husband. A willing young one whom she could teach. But the infants come when they will, she says, pleasure or not, and never mind what the physicians say.’ She holds out her hands for the book. ‘Forget this. I should not have asked you. You can go to the king now. Today he is not dressed as a Turk.’

In the king’s privy chamber he is surprised to meet Rafe. ‘You are on the rota, Master Sadler?’

An esquire says, waspish, ‘Master Sadler has his own rota. He is always here.’

‘He talks about my lord of Norfolk,’ Rafe says. ‘He is angry with him. And he has sent for Richmond’s inventories.’

‘Meg Douglas, does he say …?’

‘Not inclined to mercy.’

‘Right,’ he says.

A Genoese tailor is draping the king in black velvet. He greets the man, motioning him out. Henry says, ‘You practise still that Italian tongue.’

And its variants. The king knows enough Italian to sing an amorous ballad, but not enough to talk about money.

The tailor retreats, bowing, folds of night draped across his arms. ‘I am amazed,’ the king says, ‘that the Duke of Norfolk should so far forget himself as to ignore my wishes. I said a closed cart. I said, discretion. Now I hear that black riders went before.’

‘He did not want to dishonour a king’s son.’

‘He defied my intentions.’

‘He did not perfectly understand what they were.’

Henry stares at him: that’s no excuse. ‘Tell him I shall send him to the Tower.’

‘I durst not take that message.’ He surprises himself – because, as he delivers this useful lie, he smiles.

Henry is disarmed – like someone who discovers a child’s fear, and sees an easy means to dispel it. ‘If you fear Thomas Howard, then of course I shall relieve you of your task. I did not think you feared anyone. You should not, my lord. You have my authority.’

‘The Tower is filling up,’ he says. ‘Your lady sister has written from Scotland, begging that her daughter’s life be spared.’

‘I own Scotland,’ Henry says. ‘After Flodden I should have taken it back.’

He thinks, you did not have the men or the money. You did not have me. ‘The cardinal used to say, marriages work better than wars. If you want a kingdom, write a poem, pick some flowers, put on your bonnet and go wooing.’

‘Good advice,’ Henry says, ‘for any prince whose heart is his own. Or one who has the disposal of other hearts. But if princesses dispose of themselves to men of no fortune, only because they like their verses, then I do not know what world we live in any more.’

‘I move you to mercy,’ he says.

‘My niece is a shame and a disgrace. She gave herself to the first man who asked her. She gave what was mine to give.’

He thinks, I wish Cranmer were here. It is the bishop’s task to show how sins can be forgiven or redefined: to prove how adultery is not adultery, and killing no murder. It is he who holds the key to the walled garden of the king’s mind; he knows its shady walks, its allées, its rank corners where sunbeams never creep. ‘It seems to me,’ he says, ‘if a word is given lightly, in haste, by a young person, without the advice of sober friends, under the intoxication of love, without knowledge of where it will lead … I ask myself, sir, does God in His wisdom not wink at such a promise?’

‘God is not mocked,’ Henry says. ‘As St Paul is pleased to tell us, men reap what they sow, and women too. To take an oath and not to mean it, that is blasphemy. And if words are no more than breath, if words are air … if they are not bonds, if they are not honour …’

‘I speak of lovers. Not princes.’

The king turns his face away. ‘True, there is a difference.’ A pause. ‘There are great lords and rash young women who have cause to be grateful to you, my lord Cromwell.’

He inclines his head. He thinks, Wriothesley will be amazed, that once again I have let Norfolk wriggle away, when I have him on the hook. He imagines himself shouting through to Thomas Avery, who does his accounts: invoice him for my fee, mercy is not gratis.

The king indicates a bundle of papers – inventories, as Rafe had said. He leafs through. ‘See Lady Mary gets the silver plate from Richmond’s household. The gold plate to me, of course.’ He turns the pages. ‘These sables and the lambskins, they should be sent to my officers of the Wardrobe. The tapestries … Moses found in the bulrushes … the plagues of Egypt … Moses leading his people through the deserts of Sinai … Make sure my son’s household stuff does not leak away to his mother’s people. I have done a great deal for Bessie – Lady Clinton, I should say – and am not inclined to do more. And beware of Norfolk’s daughter too – I want her goods listed, so we are sure they are not suddenly augmented by what should come to me.’

‘She will be due a settlement, sir. She is my lord of Richmond’s widow, even if she is still a maid.’

Henry snorts. ‘You wonder if she could be a maid, when she has embroiled herself in this affair of my niece, and filthied her own name. What should a virgin know of assignations, of back stairs and greased locks?’

So this is how it will be. He will use Mary Fitzroy’s misjudgement to cheat her of her dues and enrich the treasury. There could be worse punishments.

‘Let her father take her back to his own country,’ Henry says, ‘and see she lives chaste. A convent would be best.’ He glances down at the lists. Satin coats fringed with silver; habits of green velvet, to ride in spring through the woodlands when blossom smothers the bough. An image of St Dorothea with a basket and garland; Margaret of Antioch stamping on a dragon; George stamping on a dragon also, with his sword, spear and shield, an ostrich feather on his head. Spoons, chalices, bowls, censers, pyxes, holy water stoups; gold chains with enamelled white roses, red roses with ruby hearts. It is the king’s pleasure to read out the inventories, as if he is reading them to his dead son: I gave you life, and I gave you all this.

‘A small salt carved of beryl.’ Henry frowns. ‘The cover set with a ruby, its foot garnished with pearls and stones. They do not say what stones. And I do not recall it.’

‘A new year’s gift from my lord cardinal. The year escapes me.’

The king looks up. ‘How unlike you. I understand Surrey took the black jennet.’

‘And its tack.’

‘Tell Giles Foster I want the bay and the sorrel.’

‘Sir.’ He bows his head.

‘Mary Fitzroy may have geldings, to take her wherever she is going.’ A sour smile. ‘You think me heartless? Giving and receiving, when my son is bundled off to lie among strangers? But as the psalmist bids me, placebo Domino in regione vivorum. I will please our Lord in the land of the living, since it is only in the land of the living that we can do anything at all.’ Henry looks into the distance. ‘I hear my cousin Reginald Pole has been called to Rome. The Pope has charged him to lead a crusade against me. He is to visit the French court and stir them into action.’

‘I wonder how?’ The French armies have just marched into the land of Savoy. Their king has broken two treaties, so the Emperor is after his blood. François has more to do than attend on Reynold when he rolls up, lugging his volumes of canon law and bleating about his ancient lineage.

He says, ‘The French will do nothing for him. And the Pope has not given him ships, nor money, nor men.’

‘But he has fortified him with spiritual power.’ Henry’s mouth twists. ‘He is to take to the road.’

Henry fed this ingrate, Pole. But now he feels the poisoned lash of the Plantagenet tail, he feels the bite of the back-fanged snake. Henry leans forward. He seems to choke. You can almost feel his heart galloping – his face is as pink as Easter veal. With one flat hand he slaps the arm of his chair. ‘Traitor,’ he says. ‘Traitor. I want him dead.’

He waits for the fit to pass. Says, ‘The wars your father fought are not over yet. But I assure you, sir – means may be found in Italy, to rid a traitorous subject. Wherever Pole moves, my people will follow.’

Henry looks away. ‘Do what you must. I have told you before this, how Pole’s family laid a curse, after young Warwick was beheaded. My brother Arthur died at fifteen. My son Richmond, at seventeen.’

The king used to explain his lack of heirs by saying he had married his wife unlawfully. Now it seems the Poles are to blame. It is the more useful explanation, as things stand; there is no juice left in the other one.

‘You saw Margaret Pole at L’Erber,’ Henry says. ‘Or so I am informed. Keep going there. I should not doubt the whole family, I suppose. Yet I do.’

The king makes a signal. He bows himself out. Henry calls after him, ‘Dieu vous garde.’

He is glad Henry did not tax him on his visit to Margaret Pole. He does not want to say he went there to see Bess Darrell. He does not want to raise Wyatt’s name. The king says a man is forgiven, but that does not mean a man’s offence is forgot: and a woman can be pulled down, and stifle in his wreckage. The countess had left him alone with Bess, and her sewing. But then, as he was leaving, a servant intercepted him: My lady countess will see you.

The servant had led him to a panelled closet, the countess’s private oratory. Here, you were shut away from the noises of the city – hooves on the cobbles, shouts of draymen, clattering and hammering from the workshops beside the walls. A table was set up for Mass, draped with rich brocade; the altarpiece was of silver, shining indistinct figures going about pious lives. It reminded him of one Anselma had, in Antwerp years ago. Though as Lady Salisbury is one of the richest dames in England, it is likely hers is of greater value.

Margaret Pole had turned to him. ‘I hope you have not left Mistress Darrell in tears?’

‘Why would I?’

She had unlocked her writing box. ‘Here.’

‘Is this your son’s own hand?’

‘He has those about him who do the office of secretary. Italians, perhaps. I do not know their names.’

No, he thinks, but I do.

‘Believe me, Master Cromwell, I am no traitor. Why would I be? Henry has done everything for me. It has been a slow and painful path, from that low place I occupied when my father Clarence was attainted, to the honour I now enjoy.’

‘Surely you cannot remember your father. You cannot have been five years old.’

‘Even a child knows when one goes to prison and never comes out. My father did not die by the axe, he – God knows how he died, but I trust he was shrived, he did not lack a priest or die in his sin. I learned early, what treason was, and what follows it. I have seen four reigns – my uncle King Edward, my uncle the usurper, then the first Henry Tudor, and now his present Majesty, whose name I have reason to bless.’

He is reading Pole’s letter. It is bitter, as she says.

‘I scarcely knew my poor brother Warwick. He was a child when Henry Tudor shut him away.’

‘To keep the peace,’ he says.

‘To secure the throne. Our blood being so near it, and so much nearer, in truth, than his.’

‘But the Tudor won the battle. God favoured his army. He won England in the field.’

‘And none of us,’ she said sharply, ‘ever contested his victory. When my brother was led to the scaffold, I was quick with child, but I would have come to court to petition for him. I would have begged to wear mourning for him, and observe the proper rites, in which I would have found some solace, I dare say – but one does not pray for a traitor’s soul, nor wear black for him. At a traitor’s demise, one must smile.’

‘I do not think the old king would have required that.’

‘You did not know him. In those days no one was safe. When the Henry that is now came to the throne – well, then we thought we had come to the promised land. To right all wrongs, was his express desire: to make restitution, to see justice done. I had been widowed then for years. When my husband died I had to borrow money to bury him. But Henry restored me – in fortune, in title. He and Katherine bestowed on me the inestimable favour of making me governor to their daughter, their only child, trusting in me to fit her either for the office of consort to some great prince, or to rule as a prince in her own right. Henry favoured and promoted my sons –’

‘And they all married rich heiresses,’ he said. ‘Except Reynold, who as we know has his eye on a greater prize.’

She had positioned herself with her back to him, staring down into the courtyard. Whatever was going on there, she found it of interest. ‘I do not understand my son. I concede he has behaved with foolish ingratitude. But he is innocent of any greater design. He is drawn to chastity, to a celibate life. He would not wish to marry.’

‘Not even a king’s daughter?’

‘You must not judge others by yourself, Cromwell.’

She turned her head, to see that blow hit home.

‘All these years,’ he said, ‘you have learned to dissimulate. You say it yourself – you smile when you wish to weep. It must work the other way – weep when you would like to smile? So though you appear abashed by what Reynold has done, how can the king know you are sincere?’

She spread out her hands. ‘I can only appeal to the history that lies between us. I am a feeble woman, who never wore plate armour, nor links of mail. I have no breastplate, but faith in God. I have mounted no defence against my detractors – but trusted in the king, and in his skill to recognise those who are fit for his company and service.’

‘But now you see me,’ he said, ‘in his company and service. And you wonder if Henry knows anything at all.’

‘You are useful to him. How could I doubt it? And I did not mean to deprive you of your title just now. I am elderly and it takes one a while to become accustomed to new usages. We think of you as plain Master Cromwell.’

‘Well,’ he had said cheerfully, ‘if you could learn to think the Tudors rightful kings of England – and you say you could – I am sure you can come to think of me as Lord Privy Seal. And should I ever forget that I was born one of the lower sort, I will presume upon our friendship, madam, and beg you to remind me.’

That jolts you, he thought: ‘our friendship’: that sickens your stomach. That a Putney boy should presume! He says, ‘You claim that your son is not ambitious to rule. But others may be ambitious for him. Others may plan and intrigue for him, at home and abroad.’

Her eyes dart like birds in their nest of violet shadow. ‘I? You mean, I would do it? You accuse me?’

‘Great families are subject to reversals. For a decade, they climb; then their enemies hurl them down; then they overthrow their enemies, and lead them in a Roman triumph, in chains. It used to be that, if you and your kind stuck doggedly to the wheel of fortune, you would rise as far as you had fallen. But then comes a fellow like me, and knocks you clean off the wheel. Be advised, I can do it.’

‘There is a proverb,’ she said, ‘the truth of which is hallowed by time. “He who climbs higher than he should, falls lower than he would.”’

‘A feeble saying, and feebly expressed. It leans on that same conceit, the wheel. What I say is, these are new times. New engines drive them. Still,’ he smiled, ‘I congratulate you. You have said what my lord of Norfolk would say, but he dare not.’

‘The duke is a time-server,’ she said coldly. ‘He forgets, there were lords of Norfolk, before Howards held that title.’

‘But there were no lords Cromwell. Not before this. You hope there may be none after. But it is the present you must reckon with. You cannot pray nor curse me away – your women’s weapons are no use against me, nor the weapons used by priests, I am proof against them too. If the men of your family would relish an open fight, I am ready – I will fight any day for Henry against papists and traitors.’

Stock-still against the window’s light, she had stood with hands clasped, her voice frigid. ‘I am glad we have spoken plain. What Reynold has done against the king – God knows, I have never felt so sharp a sorrow; not when his father died, not when some other of my children have died. I shall write to him and advertise him of this. And I am sure you will read my letter by some means, either before it leaves these shores or after – so I shall not detain you now, while I write it. But I shall counsel you, my lord, and I beg you to hear me out. You speak of new times and new engines. These engines may rust before you have wheeled them to the fight. Do not join battle with the noble families of England. You have lost before you ride out. Who are you? You are one man. Who follows you? Only carrion crows, bone-pickers. Do not stop moving, or they will eat you alive.’

The low civil tone in which the countess said this had left him without a rejoinder. She had inclined her head, and walked out of the room.

He possessed the ground. The writing box gaped open; but she was right, he had no interest in its contents.

Outside his escort waited, marshalled by Richard Cromwell. His people carry clubs and daggers, and are ready to move on anyone who casts them a second glance. From Dowgate it’s but a step to Austin Friars, but death threats come in daily, some of them in verse. The Londoners who jostle them, the Londoners whose indifferent eyes skim over them, see no more than a sober merchant with his household about him, hurrying to a ward meeting or guild dinner. But there are those who have his features engraved in memory: so they claim, when they threaten to strike him down as he walks. Thank God I am not memorable, he thinks. One coarse-featured sway-belly, like my father in his prime: better clothes, though.

He says to Richard, ‘I have no illusions about the countess. Her sons have been feeding our secrets to the Emperor for years. Young Geoffrey Pole, the brother – he was so often at Chapuys’s house that Eustache had to beg him to stay away.’

The bell at All Hallows gives tongue, then St Mary’s after it. Richard says, ‘But you can see why the king fights to think well of them. It was he who restored their fortunes, and he does not want to take himself for a fool.’

St John Baptist rings out; then Swithun strikes up; further off, the bells at Paul’s. Across the street Richard shouts: ‘Humphrey Monmouth, or do my eyes deceive?’

The merchant, his old friend, halloos in reply. With his companion, he threads between two carts, steps over a stream of horse piss. He, Cromwell, claps their shoulders: ‘Will you come up to Canonbury to hunt?’

‘I will hunt with you,’ Robert Packington says. ‘Old man Monmouth can come and watch.’

Monmouth elbows him. ‘Old man! You’ll not see forty again, sir! I shall ride out with my falcon in your company, Thomas.’

It is a usual conversation. They raise the name of Tyndale, as he knew they would. He says courteously that he has done all he can through official channels, and now awaits the outcome. He turns the subject – the family, are they all well? But Packington turns it back: ‘Any visitors from Antwerp?’

‘The usual,’ Richard says, cautious.

‘No one new?’

He says, ‘No one who can tell us anything we don’t know.’

They part with hearty farewells. The merchants go chattering away. He and Richard walk on, silent. He says to Richard, ‘What?’

‘They sound as if they are planning a surprise. Perhaps it’s a present?’

He doesn’t need to say, I don’t like surprises.

Richard looks at him sideways. ‘So will you? Kill Reynold?’

‘Not in the street,’ he says.

It is a conversation for Austin Friars: for his private rooms. He says, ‘Francis Bryan would do it. He would rise to a challenge. Make a name for himself. He must sometimes wonder, what is the point of my life?’

‘Bryan?’ Richard makes a tippling motion.

‘True.’ He thinks, what other desperate men do I know?

‘I’ll go.’

Fear touches him. ‘No.’

‘I would need a company of rogues, but from what you say I could find them easy, in any Italian town. There are some gentlemen who might try to manage the business from afar. Now, I am not saying I would put the knife in myself. But I am saying I would see it done.’

‘I need you here, Richard,’ he says. God knows how much. ‘Tom Wyatt would do it. The king would forgive him everything. He would make him an earl.’

Richard hesitates. ‘The people about Pole … they might turn him. There are some subtle wits at Rome. I love Tom Wyatt, no man more, but he is not proof against sudden persuasion.’

He says, ‘When we ride to Kent to join with the king’s party, we will visit Allington, you and me, whether the king goes there or no. Sir Henry writes that he is failing. I am his executor, and should consult with him. And Tom Wyatt would be glad to see you.’

Richard slides a paper out of his pocket. ‘This came.’ He has been carrying it near his person. ‘Another verse. Not stolen. Offered freely.’

This time he knows it: Wyatt and none other. It is not strange if, once again, he laments those lost. Call it two and a half months – late May to Lammas-tide. The dead are no longer fresh, but copper-green flesh is still adherent to their bones. The verse is about slippage, fall, reversal of fortune, the casting down of the great by the great: around the throne thunder rolls, circa regna tonat; even as he sits under his canopy of estate, the king hears it, he feels it shudder in the stone flags, he feels its reverberation in the bone. He pictures the bolts, hurled by the gods, falling through the crystal spheres where angels sit and pick the fleas from their wings: hurtling, spinning and plunging till, with a roar of white flame, they crash down on Whitehall and fire the roofs; till they rattle the skeleton teeth of the abbey’s dead, melt the glass in the workshops of Southwark, and fry the fish in the Thames.

The Bell Tower showed me such sight

That in my head sticks day and night.

There did I learn out of a grate …

He cannot tell if Wyatt writes lean or learn. From the Bell Tower, no use to lean: you cannot see the scaffold on Tower Hill. But then, what had he to learn? He could not be ignorant of what was to pass. He did not think the men would come back with their heads on their shoulders.

He thinks, I didn’t have to go to the Bell Tower. This sorry procession to extinction – it was always in my sight. Chapuys had said, ‘You went to your house and dreamed it, then it came to pass.’

On the day of Anne’s death, Gregory saw Wyatt standing at a window; Wyatt looked down at him and made no signal. Did he watch the deer on her last run, her heart labouring, her gait failing? One supposed his eyes were inward, his gaze trained on nothing: where nothing soon would be. He has an image in his mind – and either it is a distant memory, or it is inserted there by a verse – of Wyatt’s hands scratched and bleeding, a tangle of roses in his grasp.

But surely, he thinks, it is Wriothesley I remember, at Canonbury: standing at the foot of the tower in the garden, the light fading, a sheaf of peonies in his hands.

They are in Kent, and the king calls him at dawn: he comes in, the locks rattling open, to free his prince from the oppressions of the night. Henry sits in his nightgown on a gilded and fringed stool, while a pale, perfect morning dawns outside the panes, and his features emerge from shadow, as if God were making him for the occasion.

The king begins, as he often does, as if they had just been speaking, and for some slight cause had broken off: a door opening, or a spark flying from the fire. He says, ‘In the days when I wanted her, and could not have her, when we were apart, Anne Boleyn and I, let us say I was at Greenwich, she was here in Kent – in those days I used to see her standing before me, smiling, just as if she were real, as real,’ the king stretches his hand out, ‘as real as you, Cromwell. But now I know she was never truly there. Not in the way I thought she was.’

The room smells sweetly, of lavender and pooled beeswax. Below the window, across the gardens, a boy is singing.

‘The knight knocked at the castle gate

The lady marvelled who was thereat.’

Henry lifts his head, listening. He sings:

‘She asked him what was his name

He said, Desire, your man, madame.’

When he steps forward into the full light, he sees Henry is crying silently, tears running down his cheeks. ‘The archbishop has given me a saying to guide me. It comes from the book of Samuel. “When the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept … But now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”’

Some fool comes in with a ewer of hot water. He waves the man back again. ‘A child’s loss is grievous, sir; it is as if we drag their corpses with us, all our days. But it is best to lay down your sorrow in some safe and consecrated place, and then walk on, looking to better times.’

‘I thought I had been punished enough,’ Henry says. ‘But it seems I will never be done being punished.’

‘Sir –’

‘You cannot know. You have only lost daughters, not sons. When my own day comes …’

He waits. He cannot guess how the king will conclude.

‘… you understand my wishes, and should you survive me I charge you to honour them. I wish to be buried in the tomb that the cardinal prepared for himself.’

He inclines his head. There is a sarcophagus of black touchstone, in which the cardinal never lay. All the parts are preserved, laid up in store. They await use, by someone who values himself in the sight of God and man, and wishes his name continued. Wolsey brought the artist over. Benedetto worked on it year after year, but as soon as he put in his account, the cardinal thought of something else. There are twelve bronze saints, and putti bearing shields emblazoned with the Wolsey arms. There are sober angels who bear in their hands pillars and crosses, and dancing angels with curly hair, their garments floating about them as they caper and skip.

‘You should be glad, Crumb,’ Henry says. ‘You always want to save money.’

‘Only if it sits with your Majesty’s honour.’

‘The angel who bears the cardinal’s hat,’ Henry says, ‘he will bear a crown instead. The griffins at the feet – I thought they might be wreathed in roses. Golden roses.’

‘I’ll talk to Benedetto.’

The artist has never gone home. Perhaps he has been expecting the cardinal to rise from the dead, with fresh suggestions? By now one of the skipping angels has developed a crack, between the fingers of his left hand. Benedetto says, no one will know, Tommaso. Not when he’s gilded and dancing up there on his pillar. But I’ll know, he says.

The king tells him, ‘Erasmus is dead.’

‘So I hear.’

‘I saw him first when he came to Eltham when I was a child. You would have seen him at Thomas More’s house, no doubt.’

The great man’s eyes passed over him, over Thomas Cromwell: saw him and forgot him. He says, ‘He civilised us.’

The king says, ‘Then he died with work to do.’

Henry seems frightened of himself, frightened of what he might say or do next. He seems weary, as if he might leave off being king, and just walk out into the street and take his chances.

The knowledge of this collapse of morale must be kept from the court. William Fitzwilliam catches him, outside the king’s door. ‘Before we left London,’ Fitz says, ‘he told me he thought he would have no more children.’

‘Hush,’ he says. ‘He is ashamed of himself. He thinks he is done for, only because he cannot follow the chase as he did when he was young.’

This summer, the king will not hunt on horseback. The game will be driven to him as he stands in the butts, crossbow loaded, poised to shoot. He can ride well enough, keeping an ambling pace, but not across rough country, because of the jolting to his leg.

‘It seems to me,’ Fitzwilliam says, ‘that he has some principle of rotation in his head, by which he humiliates his councillors in turn.’

‘True. At the moment it is Norfolk’s turn.’

‘At the council board he walks about behind us. He hovers like a cutpurse. If I met such a man in Southwark, I would turn and knock the felon down.’

He laughs. ‘But what would you be doing in Southwark, Fitz?’

‘When he gets himself behind us, we must rise and kick our stools away and turn and face him, which throws us off, makes us forget what we were saying – and then, if we address him, is it kneeling or standing?’

‘Kneeling is safest.’

‘You don’t.’ Fitz sounds accusing. ‘Or not so much as you did.’

‘I have too much business with him. He knows not to cripple me.’

‘Even the cardinal knelt.’

‘A churchman. He was trained to it.’

The cardinal, in his days as master of the realm, had spoken of God as if He were a distant policy adviser from whom he heard quarterly: gnomic in his pronouncements, sometimes forgetful, but worth a retainer on account of his experience. At times he sent Him special requests, which the less well-connected call prayers; and always, until the last months of his life, God fell over Himself to make sure Tom Wolsey had what he wanted. But then he prayed, Make me humble; God said, Sir, your request comes too late.

His servant John Gostwick has been checking the inventories of the Duke of Richmond. Among Fitzroy’s effects he finds a doll: no wooden mammet for a common child to play with, but the lively image of a prince.

‘Item: a great baby lying in a box of wood, having a gown of white cloth of silver and a kirtle of green velvet, the gown tied with small aglets of gold, and a small pair of beads of gold and a small chain and a collar about the neck of gold.’

Gostwick had called him to see it: he stood looking down at the likeness of the dead boy. ‘Wolsey gave him this. Keep it carefully, in case the king wishes to have his son in remembrance.’ The infant, he recalled, did not know his own father; the king gave me titles, Richmond had said, but the cardinal gave me a striped silk ball.

The summer passes. The king’s entourage winds through the leafy shires. In the deep woodlands, where the king may not venture, you meet the wily shades of boars and wolves, extinct forms: the stag who, between his antlers, bears the cross of Christ. He says to Fitzwilliam, ‘If he cannot hunt, we must teach him to pray.’

On the last day of July they are at Allington Castle. The king has wondered aloud if it might be time for Thomas Wyatt to receive the honour of knighthood. His father would like to see it, he says, as he enters into his old age, and whatever has lain between us, Wyatt and I, it is forgot; I know his faithful mind to me.

What he disliked was the short silence, among the gentlemen of the privy chamber, when the king mentioned Wyatt’s name.

Henry Wyatt says to him, ‘Thomas, I doubt I shall see another winter.’ One by one, those gentlemen depart, who served the king’s father, whose memories stretch back to King Edward and the days of the scorpion; men bruised in the wars, hacked in the field, impoverished, starved out, driven into exile; men who stood on foreign quays and swore great oaths to God, their worldly goods in sacks at their feet. Men who sequestered themselves in musty libraries for twenty years and emerged possessed of inconvenient truths about England. Men who learned to walk again, after they had been stretched on the rack.

When the men that were then look at the men that are now, they see companies of pretty painted knights, ambling through the meadows of plenty, through the pastures of a forty-year peace. Not, of course, if you live on the Scots border, where the raiding and feuding never stops, or on the Kent coast within sight of France, where you hear the war drums across the Narrow Sea. But in the realm’s heart there is a quiet our forefathers never knew. Just see how England is breeding: go out into the town, and the faces you see are those of children, apprentices, shining young maids.

Don’t look back, he had told the king: yet he too is guilty of retrospection as the light fades, in that hour in winter or summer before they bring in the candles, when earth and sky melt, when the fluttering heart of the bird on the bough calms and slows, and the night-walking animals stir and stretch and rouse, and the eyes of cats shine in the dark, when colour bleeds from sleeve and gown into the darkening air; when the page grows dim and letter forms elide and slip into other conformations, so that as the page is turned the old story slides from sight and a strange and slippery confluence of ink begins to flow. You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbour’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for; is this my essence, twisting into a taper’s flame, or have I slipped the limits of myself – slipped into eternity, like honey from a spoon? Have I dreamt myself, undone myself, have I forgotten too well; must I apply to Bishop Stephen, who will tell me how transgression follows me, assures me that my sins seek me out; even as I slide into sleep, my past pads after me, paws on the flagstones, pit-pat: water in a basin of alabaster, cool in the heat of the Florentine afternoon.

Time was when the cardinal knelt in the dirt, and he saw he was mortal, flawed and old. On Putney Heath, Harry Norris stared down at him, bemused, and his people had to hoist him on his mule; his heart and will had failed him, and with his heart, his joints. The jester Patch stood by cracking jokes, and he almost struck him, he should have struck him – but then how would that have helped the cardinal, his goods confiscated, his chain of office torn from his neck, and now his fool rolled in the Surrey mud with his skull cracked?

When they came to Esher, to the empty house, he had climbed to the top of the gatehouse, wanting to know if they were pursued. New-built when Wayneflete held the see of Winchester, improved by my lord cardinal, no place was more pleasant, when it was staffed and scrubbed; when the fires were blazing and the beds made and the arras hung, when the buffet was stacked with gold and silver plate; when meat was slapped and seared, fruit chopped and skewered and basted in butter, and all the air perfumed with scorching and sweetness. No one had known, even yesterday, how brutally they would set his master on the road, on the river, propel him to these gaunt rooms, the ovens cold, the fires ash, the thick walls not so much repelling the cold as encasing it, like a reliquary.

From the top of Wayneflete’s tower, the countryside beneath him was more imagined than real, stretching away in the darkness. It will soon be All Hallows, he thought. It seemed to him time had shuddered and slowed, as if the transit of heavenly bodies was retarded by the catastrophe that had overtaken his master and all England. It was drizzling. There were lights in the river. As he climbed down, the voices of those below curled up to him – rounded, as if in song. But when someone spoke his name – ‘Thomas Cromwell’ – it was very close, as if in his ear.

Some trick the building has, he thought. The staircase was a spiral of brick, and he had seen it by day, flesh-coloured, flowing from floor to floor. In the dimness where the torch-light failed, the brick was the hue of stale blood, but each twist held a slit of light, like a promise. Delivered to the foot, he emerged and blinked, a child born into a harsh world.

They had found candles to light the lower chamber. ‘Who will cook my supper, Tom?’ the cardinal enquired.

‘I will, I can cook.’

‘Come here, you’re cobwebbed.’ It was George Cavendish, one of the cardinal’s gentlemen. ‘Allow me, Thomas.’

He let George brush him down, passive as an animal: his eyes on his master, a bereft old man in borrowed clothes. He stood with his back to the brick, feeling the beating of his own heart: waiting to see what he would do next.