The Mirror and the Light (Magnificence | Part 1)

January–June 1540

The king’s new castle at Deal is a way station for Anna to wash her hands, take a fortifying glass of wine, and then pass on to Dover. She is escorted by Charles Brandon and by Richard Sampson, the Bishop of Chichester, that tight-lipped prelate so experienced in the making and breaking of the king’s unions.

Brandon has his young wife with him. She is of a quick, warm nature; what could be better for an uncertain bride, than to be welcomed by a smiling young duchess who will divine what she needs? You can’t expect Charles to know, Bishop Sampson still less. But Charles cuts an impressive martial figure. And Sampson will take himself off to a corner and busy himself with paperwork.

In Dover, God willing, Anna’s baggage will catch up with her. Next day she will set out – with her chaplains and her secretaries and her musicians and maids – to Canterbury, where she will meet the archbishop. She will want ready money, and so he, Cromwell, has arranged for a gold chalice to be presented, fifty sovereigns inside. As she passes through to Rochester, Norfolk will escort her with a large party of gentlemen. There are no plans for her to meet the Bishop of Winchester. That treat can be saved up. After all, Lord Cromwell’s boys say, we don’t want her to turn tail and start wading out to sea again.

The weather en route is foul. But the bride was not seasick, and thinks nothing of travelling with the rain and hail in her face. The masters of ceremony are relieved, because they have planned a huge reception at Blackheath outside Greenwich palace, and if she does not keep on schedule they will incur heavy costs. He, Lord Cromwell, expects the countryside to turn out. He has had the streets at Greenwich cleaned and gravelled, and barriers erected so the crowds don’t push each other into the Thames.

All winter at Austin Friars he has been laying in muscatel and malmsey with a view to celebration. In the bakehouse they are making Striezel to take to Anna and her ladies, and the smell of cloves and cinnamon and orange peel has crept through the house. When Lizzie was alive, Twelfth Night was their occasion to feast their neighbours. They would enact the Three Kings, their costumes patched with every gilded offcut, scraps too small for the greediest tailor. Every hand that could hold a needle would go to work, and Lizzie would make them cheer while they sewed. One year they made Anne Cromwell into a cat with a coney-skin tail, and Gregory into a fish with shining silver scales; the low winter light slid over him, and he glimmered in the dusk.

He wonders how his daughter Jenneke is faring, and when he will see her again. He does not say to himself ‘if’, because he is always inclined to think the world will turn our way. It seems strange to him that Lizzie never saw her. She would have accepted the stranger; she knew when they married he was a man with a past.

It is a long time now since the women of the house put his little daughters in their graveclothes. He has got used to a certain feeling of tightness that settles behind the breastbone, that comes around by the calendar: Easter, St John’s Day, Lammas, Michaelmas, All Souls and All Saints.

The year 1539 is drawing to its close, and when he enters the king’s presence at Greenwich with a file of business in his hand, he is prepared to find the king playing the harp, or listing the New Year presents he hopes to receive, or merely making paper darts, but in any event unprepared for work. But there is a stir in the privy chamber, and young Culpeper comes out: ‘You will never guess, sir! He is going himself to Rochester, to meet the queen.’

He pushes his files at Culpeper. ‘Wriothesley, come in with me.’

Henry is bending down, peering into a trunk the Wardrobe has sent. He stands up, cheerful: ‘My lord, I have decided to make speed and meet the bride in my own person.’

‘Why, sir? It will only be a day or two before she arrives.’

Henry says, ‘I want to nourish love.’

‘Majesty,’ Mr Wriothesley says, ‘with all respect, was this not aired in council? It was your councillors’ earnest prayer that your Majesty spare himself the journey, and greet the queen at Blackheath. And you were pleased to accede.’

‘Can I not change my mind, Wriothesley? At Blackheath there will be music and ordnance and processions and crowds and we shall not speak a dozen private words before we must ride back here to the palace, and then it will be hours before we have a chance to be alone. And I want to surprise her, and gladden her heart, and bid her a proper welcome.’

‘Sir, if you will be advised by me …’ he says.

‘But I will not. Admit it, Cromwell, you are no adept in courtship.’

True. He’s only been married once. ‘She is hardly off the ship, sir. Think how shamed she will be, if she cannot appear at her best.’

Mr Wriothesley adds, ‘And she may, of course, be overwhelmed by your Majesty’s presence.’

‘But that is why I must go! I will spare her anxiety. She will be working herself up towards great ceremonies.’ Henry smiles. ‘I shall go in disguise.’

He closes his eyes.

‘It is what a king does,’ Henry tells him. ‘You cannot know, Cromwell, you are not a courtier born. When my sister Margaret went into Scotland, King James and his hunting party surprised her at the castle of Dalkeith, he in a jacket of crimson velvet, his lyre slung over his shoulder.’

One has heard. The dashing youth with burning eyes, swift to bend the knee; the bride in the pretty confusion of thirteen summers, her cheek blushing, her body trembling.

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘May I ask, what disguise does your Majesty mean to adopt?’

They exchange a glance. When Katherine was queen she was repeatedly ambushed by Robin Hood, or Arcadian shepherds. When they threw off their disguise, lo and behold! It was the king and Charles Brandon; it was Charles Brandon and the king.

‘I have sables for her,’ Henry says. ‘Perhaps I should arrive as a Russian nobleman, in great fur boots?’

Mr Wriothesley says, ‘Unless we send word ahead, I am afraid that your Majesty might alarm his own guard. It could lead to –’

‘A shepherd, then. Or one of the Magi. We can quickly get disguisings for the other two kings. Send to Charles –’

‘Or perhaps, sir,’ he says, ‘just go as a gentleman?’

‘A gentleman of England.’ Henry is thoughtful. ‘A gentleman with no name. Yes,’ he looks downcast, ‘very well, I shall be ruled by Lord Cromwell, as all the foreigners claim I am. I shall astonish her anyway.’ He pauses and says kindly, ‘My lord, I know it is not what we agreed. But a bridegroom must have his caprices, and disguising always gives pleasure. The dowager Katherine,’ he says to Wriothesley, ‘she would pretend not to know me. Of course, she did but play with me. Everybody knows the king.’

Thomas Culpeper follows them out. ‘Your papers, gentlemen?’

Wriothesley snatches them. He, Lord Cromwell, walks away. ‘Christ,’ he says.

Culpeper says, ‘You did what you could.’

He thinks, I spoke to him as a subject to a prince. What if I had taken courage and said: Henry, I am advising you, man to man, not to do it?

Culpeper says, ‘Why are you apprehensive? Everybody praises her, don’t they? Are you afraid he will find her not as reported?’

‘Cease to hang on my sleeve, Culpeper.’

Culpeper smiles. ‘I know she will find him not as reported. We appreciate you bend the facts, Lord Cromwell, to please foreigners – but you have not described him as a god, I hope? Is she expecting Apollo?’

‘She is expecting a proper court reception. It is what her people have prepared her for.’ He turns to Wriothesley. ‘I need someone to make speed to Rochester and warn her. The king will come on the river with a small train and Anna should be ready for him. No heralds, no ceremony – he will enter her chamber and she should be astonished.’

‘So you are going to spoil his surprise,’ Culpeper says. ‘She must not know him, then she must? She will be lucky to time it right.’

‘I wonder,’ he says to Wriothesley, ‘should I have insisted I go with him?’

Call-Me says, ‘It could be worse, sir. At least he’s not going to wear his Turkish costume.’

The king intends to join the queen in Rochester on New Year’s Day, and stay overnight; even if he sends a messenger back to say how he likes her, it will be hours before word arrives at Greenwich.

So, he thinks, the news can come to Austin Friars almost as fast. He journeys home, to start 1540 under his own roof.

He goes early to his desk. It is a day found, he tells himself. But he pushes away a bundle of letters from Carlisle, picks up a book. It is Rolewinck’s history, where all the dates before Christ are printed upside down. Jane Rochford’s father sent it, and he can never just leave you to read; he writes Mirabilia! beside events he particularly enjoys.

He turns the pages to look at the pictures: Antioch, Jerusalem, Temple of Solomon and Tower of Babel. Rolewinck starts his story in the year 6615 (upside down). He is reading about the coronation of Pope Innocent – which occurred, more or less, the year that he himself was born – when his spaniel Bella runs yapping to the door. From below he can hear, ‘Happy New Year, Mr Gregory!’

Bella runs in excited circles. He calls down: ‘Gregory? Why are you here?’

Gregory bangs in. He does not pause for a greeting. ‘Why did you let this happen? Why did you not stop him?’

‘Stop him?’ he says. ‘How? He said it was to nourish love.’

‘You should have prevented it, sir. You are his councillor.’

‘Gregory, drink off a cup of this, and get warm. I thought you were staying with the queen?’

‘I came to warn you. Henry passed the night, but now he is on his way back.’

One of Thurston’s boys comes in with a platter of pastries, and whisks off the cloth. ‘Venison and currant jelly. Pike and horseradish. Plum and raisin.’

‘You see,’ he says, ‘this is why I’ve come home. At court your food has to walk half a mile, you get it cold.’

Another boy brings a bowl of hot water and a napkin, and Gregory is forced to silence till they are alone. Bella capers on her hind legs as if to divert them. He thinks of the scenes he used to stage with George Cavendish, the cardinal’s man. He would say, ‘Show me how it was, George – who sat where, who spoke first.’ And Cavendish would jump up and play the king.

He can lay out this stage in his mind, where bride and groom meet: the old hall at Rochester, the great fireplace with its carved emblems: a fern, a heart, a Welsh dragon holding an orb. He can follow the king with his train of merry men; they hold their masks loosely, playfully, because they expect to be recognised in seconds. And indeed, as they pass, the new queen’s servants kneel.

‘Anna was warned?’ he asks. ‘She was ready?’

‘She was warned, but she was not ready. The king billowed in, but she was looking out of the window – they were baiting a bull in the courtyard. She cast a glance over her shoulder, then she turned away to the sport.’

He can see what Gregory saw: the bulky shape of the king blacking out the light. And the foggy outline of the queen, with the window behind her: the blank oval of her face, a swift glance from her dark eyes, and then the back of her head.

‘I suppose she did not believe a prince would come in secret. Maybe Duke Wilhelm goes everywhere with trumpeters and drums.’

Even to nourish love, he thinks. There is talk that the Emperor has offered Anna’s brother the Duchess Christina as his bride, if he will hand back Guelders without a fight. He thinks, if I were the Duke of Cleves, I would not give my sea coast for her dimples.

‘The king bowed low.’ Gregory takes a gulp of his wine. ‘And addressed her, but she did not turn. I think she took him for – I do not know what – some Jolly Jankin dressed up for the festival. And so he stood, his hat in his hand – then her people swarmed in, and someone called out, “Madam,” and a phrase to alert her …’ Gregory falters. ‘And then she turned. And she knew who he was. And as Christ is my Saviour, Father, the look in her eye! I will never forget it.’ Gregory sits down, as if at the end of his strength. ‘Nor will the king.’

He picks Bella up, and begins to feed her a pastry, crumb by crumb. ‘Why should she be astonished? I made no false representation.’

‘You did not tell her he was old.’

‘Am I old? Is that what you would first think of, if you described Cromwell? Oh, he is old?’

‘No,’ Gregory says unwillingly.

‘She knew his date of birth. She knew he was stout. Surely, enough gentlemen from her court have passed to and fro? And Hans – Hans could have described him. Who better?’

‘But Hans will never get himself in trouble.’

That much is true. ‘What did the king do?’

‘He fell back. Any man would have been stricken. She flinched from him. He could not miss it.’

‘And?’

‘Then she recovered herself. She dissimulated marvellous well. And so did he. She said in English, “My lord and my king, welcome.”’

It was for him to say, welcome. ‘Go on.’

‘She made a smooth curtsey, very low, as if nothing had occurred. And the king smiled and uplifted her. He said, “Welcome, sweetheart.”’ What it is to be royal, he thinks. Gregory adds, ‘His hand was trembling.’

In his imagined hall at Rochester, the light is failing. Below the queen’s window, soundless, the bull-baiters roar. The dogs hang from the bull’s flesh. Slow gouts of blood patter onto the paving. ‘And the king’s gentlemen? What did they do?’

What he means is, did they see it all?

‘Anthony Browne was behind him, carrying the sables for her. But Henry waved him back. He was looking in the lady’s face and all the time talking.’

‘Gregory,’ he says, ‘did Hans paint her truly?’

‘He would not dare do other, would he?’

‘And she is beautiful?’

‘Not sideways. She has a long nose. But you know he had no time to draw her from all angles. She is pleasant-looking. She is a little marked with smallpox, but I only saw that when the sun chanced to come out. The king cannot have seen it, he had turned his back.’

She is lovely in the shadows, then. And when facing front. He could almost laugh. ‘Is he disappointed?’

‘If he is, he did not show it. He led her by the hand. They went aside and sat down with the interpreters. He asked how she liked England and she said, very well. He asked, how was she entertained in Calais, and she said, very well. He congratulated her on making the voyage so bravely, and asked had she been on the sea before? When they translated this, she looked startled.’

He pictures the king, sweating with the effort. His eyes roaming around, looking for a diversion.

‘The king called for music. A consort came in and they played “O fair white hand that heals me”. She attended to it very sweetly. She said, through the interpreter, she would like to learn to play some instrument. The king said, easier when young. She said, I am not so old, and my fingers are kept supple by plying my needle. The king asked, could she sing, and she said, in praise of Mary and the saints. He said, would she sing, and she said, not before all these lords, but I will sing when we are alone. And she blushed.’

‘That is a very proper modesty.’ Think of Anne Boleyn; she would have sung in the street, if she thought it might get her some attention.

‘We say we like modesty,’ Gregory picks up one of the pastries, and Bella, at his feet, touches him with her paw. ‘But really we prefer it when maids show their favour plain. We like to know we are well-accepted, before we begin to court them. I should never have dared speak to Bess, if you and Edward Seymour had not helped me. If a woman might despise us, we would rather avoid her.’

And when we find the courage to present ourselves, he thinks, we do not want to see shock on her face. ‘So you think damage is done?’

‘I don’t see how she will undo that first moment, even if she were the Queen of Sheba.’ Gregory takes a bite of his pastry; Bella leans against his shin and adores him. ‘They went into supper. She was very attentive, turning her eyes to everything he said. It is a poor beginning, but considering one cannot talk to her, I like her very much, and so do we all. Fitzwilliam himself says, she is as good a woman as he will find if he scours Europe.’

‘I think he has scoured it,’ he says. ‘I have, at least. Well … he will understand, when he thinks about it, that she was startled. And you say yourself, he was happy enough afterwards.’ He considers. His eye falls on Lord Morley’s history. ‘We must roll back time. It will be as if the king blinked, and then lived that first moment again.’

Gregory says, ‘But is that how time works?’ As the pastries disappear, the plate’s pattern emerges. Fatto in Venezia, it depicts the Fall of Troy: the wooden horse, the screaming women, the rolling heads, and the towers in bursts of flame.

Wonderful, how they get it all in.

He arrives at Greenwich not long after the king. ‘My lord, his Majesty is in his library.’

Henry sits amid boxes of books. ‘These are from Tewkesbury Abbey.’ He rises heavily from his chair. ‘Cromwell, we have not had the papers from Cleves about the Lorraine marriage, the pre-contract. It was stated emphatically the lady would bring them with her, but it appears she did not. Even the least suspicious man would ask himself why they have still not shown them, after all these months.’

He begins to speak, but the king holds up his hand. ‘I cannot proceed. I cannot marry her till I am sure she is clear of all past promises.’

The king closes one fist in the other. ‘I find the lady nothing so well as she is spoken of. Fitzwilliam wrote from Calais and praised her outright. Lisle too. What made them do so?’

‘I have not seen her, sir.’

‘No, you have not seen her,’ the king says. ‘You have been at the mercy of reports, as have I, so you cannot be blamed. But when I encountered her yesterday, I tell you, I had much ado to master myself. A great outlandish bonnet with wings sticking out either side of her head – and with her height, and stiff as she is – I thought to myself, she looks like the Cornhill Maypole. I believe she had painted her mouth, which if true is a filthy thing.’

‘Her attire can be changed, sir.’

‘Her complexion is sallow. When I think of Jane, so white and clear, a pearl.’

Golden lights waver on the ceiling. They play on the crimson plaster roses, the green leaves between, the blood-washed thorns. ‘It is the journey,’ he says. ‘All those tedious miles with a baggage train, then the delays, and the voyage.’ He thinks of the hail in her face on the Dover road. ‘As for the papers, I cannot guess why the ambassadors have not brought them. But we are assured the lady is completely free. We know there was no pre-contract. We know the parties were not of age. You said yourself, sir, it is no great matter.’

‘It is a great matter, if I think I am married, and find I am not.’

‘Tomorrow,’ he promises, ‘I will talk with the queen’s people.’

‘Tomorrow I meet her at Blackheath,’ the king says. ‘We start at eight o’clock.’

It is forty years since a bride came here from a far country: the Infanta Catalina, who brought Moorish slaves in her entourage when she left Spain to marry Arthur. That wedding was public and splendid. This time the marriage celebrations must give way to the church’s rites for Epiphany. All hangs, therefore, on the public welcome he has devised for Anna.

At Greenwich he lies in bed, listening to the wind.

What means this when I lie alone?

I toss, I turn, I sigh, I groan.

My bed to me seems hard as stone

What means this?

He wonders, where does Wyatt lie tonight? With whom? I dare swear he is not alone.

I sigh, I plain continually.

The clothes that on my bed do lie

Always methinks they lie awry

What means this?

Only a raging storm will stop tomorrow’s reception. The king may decide to delay the marriage, but he cannot leave his bride out on the heath. He cannot undo the anticipation of the countryside, when it has been stirred up by heralds, and the welcome proclaimed through London.

Three times he rises and opens the shutter. There is nothing to see but a muffled, starless black. But the drumbeat of rain falters, dawn stripes the sky in shades of ochre, and the sun feels its way out of banks of cloud. By nine o’clock, when he is at Blackheath on horseback, there is a white haze over the fields: in that haze, the freefolk of England. A steady roar comes from the river, where hundreds have turned out in any craft they can command, their home-made flags and banners hanging limp in the still morning. They are bashing drums and tootling fifes, bawling out songs and sporting on their persons knitted roses. Some are toddling along the banks inside pasteboard castles, their heads sticking out from the crenellations, and others have fabricated a canvas swan of monstrous size, which turns its neck from side to side and waddles along, a dozen pair of feet in workmen’s boots emerging beneath its feathers. Harness bells jingle. Men and horses breathe vapour into the air. He finds he is sweating inside his velvet. He is irritating even himself, trotting up and down, on and off his horse, his eyes everywhere, mouthing pointless exhortations: stand here, move along, attend, follow, kneel!

Charles Brandon tips his hat to him. ‘Weather a credit to you, Lord Cromwell!’ He laughs, and spurs off to join the other dukes.

The chaplains, the councillors, the great officers of the royal household, file in their ranks: the gentlemen of the privy chamber, and the bishops in black satin; the peers, the Lord Mayor, the heralds, the Duke of Bavaria wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece; the king himself, in a wide expanse of light, mounted on a great courser, in purple and cloth of gold, his garments slashed and puffed, sashed and swagged, so studded and slung with belts of gemstones that he seems to be wearing a suit of armour forged and welded for Zeus.

The queen waits for the royal party in a silken pavilion. He prays the wind will not get up and toss it in the river. Anna is dressed in the best fashion of her country, her caul topped by a bonnet stiff with pearls, her gown cut full and round, without a train. She glitters as they enthrone her on her mount, side-saddle and facing left in the English fashion. No one knew what to expect from a German: Spanish ladies ride to the right; he hears the Lord Chancellor say, thank God for that, we do not want him to think of Spaniards. He says stiffly, ‘Nothing has been left to chance, my lord. I have spoken with her Master of Horse.’

By afternoon – drums, artillery, several changes of clothes – the glow has gone from the sky and the air is dank and greenish. Gardiner rides up: ‘How did you hold the rain off?’

‘I sold my soul,’ he says calmly.

‘I hear there was an upset at Rochester.’

‘You know more than I do.’

‘So I do. High time you admitted it.’ Gardiner smirks and rides away.

The French ambassador reins in beside him: ‘Cremuel, I have simply never seen so many fat gold chains assembled in one place. I commend you, it is no small matter to keep five thousand people on time and in their ranks. Though frankly,’ he sniffs, ‘the whole of it does not equal even one of the ceremonial entries my king makes in the course of a year. And they would be, I believe, twenty or so in number.’

‘Truly?’ he says. ‘Twenty occasions like this? No wonder he has no time to govern.’

Marillac’s horse shifts under him, sidestepping. ‘What do you think of the lady? She is not as young as one expected.’

‘I do not like to contradict you, but she is exactly the age one expected.’

‘She is very tall.’

‘So is the king.’

‘True. On that account he wanted to marry Madame de Longueville, did he not? A pity he did not work harder at it. I hear she will give King James a child this spring.’

He says, ‘The king has good expectation of children with this lady.’

‘Of course. If she can rouse him to action. Be honest, she is no great beauty.’

He admits, ‘I have hardly seen her as yet.’ It is as if they are conspiring to keep him away from her. He can see only a stiff, bright-coloured figure, like a painted queen on an inn sign. She has ridden the last half-mile to meet the king, both of them on horses so splendidly trapped that you can hardly see their hooves as they tread the ground. Meg Douglas follows in first place, and after her Mary Fitzroy. The ladies of the court travel behind in a line of chariots. Gregory’s wife wears the revenue of two manors on her back, but it is his pleasure; it is a long time since he had a woman to dress, and he says to Marillac, ‘Look, my son’s wife, is she not handsome?’

‘A credit to you,’ Marillac says, and indicates with his whip: is that the Scottish princess? And is that Norfolk’s daughter, my lady Richmond? ‘No new husband for her yet?’

There was talk last year of marrying the girl to Tom Seymour, but nothing came of it, no doubt because her brother knocked it back; Wolf Hall is a hovel, as far as Surrey is concerned, and the Seymours are peasants who live by trapping rabbits.

He wonders, why does Marillac care about Norfolk’s daughter? Has he got a French husband in mind for her? The French give Norfolk a yearly pension but perhaps they are looking for closer ties?

Bess glances in his direction; he raises a hand, but in a stealthy way, in case he appears to be giving a signal for some démarche. In the next chariot come the maids of honour: Lady Lisle’s daughter Anne Bassett, and Mary Norris looking chilled, and Norfolk’s plump little niece Katherine, gawping about her as if she were in church.

The ground has been cleared to make a path for the king and queen right to the palace gates. They ride together into the inner court. There they dismount and the king, taking her arm, leads his bride into the palace, sweeping his great plumed hat about him to show her, all this is yours, madam, all that you see. The music from the river follows them: fading only as he, Lord Cromwell, follows them indoors, where the torches are already lit in welcome.

It is now that he sees her close for the first time. He has braced himself, his face fitted with a carefully neutral expression. But there is nothing to offend. Quite the opposite; he feels he knows her. It is true her complexion is dull, but it is as Gregory says, she is a pleasant-looking woman, who might be married to one of your friends; the city wife of a city merchant. You can imagine her rocking a cradle with one foot, while talking about the price of pork.

Anna looks him over. ‘Oh, you are Lord Cromwell. Thank you for the fifty sovereigns.’ One of her entourage speaks in her ear. ‘Thank you for everything,’ she says.

Sunday morning: he breaks it to the delegation from Cleves that the bridegroom wants a delay. They are taken aback. ‘We thought we had been through all this, Lord Cromwell. We have furnished copies of everything relevant.’

He maintains a civil stiffness; he does not want them to see he is as exasperated as they are. ‘The king is enquiring for the originals.’

We have explained again and again, they say, that we do not know what those would be: since the promises of a marriage, such as they were, were rolled up within a larger treaty, which was several times amended, and so …

‘I advise you to produce them,’ he says. He sits down, and, though it is early, indicates a jug of wine should come in. ‘Gentlemen, this should not be beyond our wit to solve.’

Not all the Cleves gentlemen are fluent in French. One nudges another: what did he say? ‘May I refer you to precedent? When Queen Katherine – I mean, the dowager Katherine, the late Princess of Wales –’

Oh yes, they say, Henry’s first wife …

‘– when her mother Isabella married her father Ferdinand, they needed a dispensation from the Pope, but it was delayed –’

Ah, we understand, they say. Rome angling for more money, was it not?

‘But everything else was ready, and so Ferdinand’s people stepped aside and created what was required … papal seals and all.’

So what are you advising? they say.

‘I would not presume to advise. But do what you must, to satisfy the king. Search your baggage. Look between the pages of your Bibles.’

We need time to confer, they say.

‘Be quick,’ William Fitzwilliam says, coming in.

Oh, we will, they say. We cannot brook delay. The rumours would be running everywhere, imagine what the French would say, imagine the lies the Emperor’s people would spread. They would be saying he does not like her. Or that she finds him too old and stout and is protesting she will not do it.

‘You gentlemen must come to the council after dinner,’ he says, ‘and spell out to them the danger of such rumours. The king will join us when he and the queen come from Mass.’

He walks to the council chamber with Fitz. Fitz tugs his arm. ‘Is there no help for it? Henry is seething inside, I know him.’

True, he thinks, you know him. He threw you out of the council, stripped of your chain of office: till he changed his mind, or I changed it for him.

‘The papers are an excuse,’ Fitzwilliam says. ‘He dislikes her or he is frightened of her, I know not what it is. But mark this, Cromwell – I will not be stuck with the blame, just because it was I who met her in Calais.’

‘No one seeks to blame you. It is his own fault, if fault there is. For rushing about the countryside like a love-lorn youth.’

The councillors are already assembled. Cranmer is seated, as if his strength has given out; he makes to rise, then sinks down again. The Bishop of Durham inclines his head: ‘My lord Privy Seal.’ His tone suggests he is consecrating something; or handling fragile remains, ready to disintegrate.

He nods. ‘Your Grace.’ Tunstall knows the Lord Privy Seal has been examining his affairs for months: enquiring what he does up in Durham, and what he truly believes. So these days he takes his seat charily, like a man who thinks he might have it kicked from under him.

Thomas Howard bustles in. He looks bright-eyed, as if there were something to celebrate. ‘So, Cromwell. He wants to get out of it, I hear.’

He sits down, not waiting for the duke to sit. ‘The King of France and the Emperor are seeing in the new year together. They have not been so close in our lifetime. They are like planets, gentlemen, and their conjunction draws sea and land after them, and makes our fates. They have a fleet and funds to come against us. Our forts are still building. Ireland is against us. Scotland is against us. If we are not to be overrun this spring we need the princes of Germany on our side, either to send men to our aid or to engage our enemy till we can defeat him or force a truce. The king needs to make this marriage. England needs it.’

Charles Brandon looks mournful. ‘He agreed to it. He signed up. He cannot jib now.’

Norfolk says, ‘What happened at Rochester?’

‘I can’t say. I wasn’t there.’

Norfolk’s nose is twitching. ‘Something passed between them. Something mislikes him.’

Lord Audley says, ‘I agree with my lord Suffolk. The king has gone too far in the matter, he would need a very sound reason to withdraw now. He was convinced before that she was free to marry. And she seems a good enough woman to me.’

‘Perhaps you do not understand a prince’s requirements,’ Norfolk says.

‘No?’ Audley gives him a glance that would peel an egg. ‘If she does not come up to them, your Grace, I for one am not to blame.’

‘Cromwell thinks the king should blame himself,’ Fitz says. ‘For going with haste to Rochester.’

‘Blame himself?’ Tunstall says. ‘The king? When has that happened? You would think Cromwell had never met him.’

He says heavily, ‘I suppose I might institute a delay.’

‘What good would that do?’ Fitz asks.

He thinks, time might soften the memory of the moment they met. Henry might forget the look in her eye. But he does not know if Fitz witnessed it. So he says nothing.

Cranmer, good Christian that he is, refrains from saying, I told you so. Instead he says, ‘I accede to all your reasoning, my lords. And yet I am afraid the king’s conscience will be troubled, till he sees papers that will satisfy him. He has been deceived before. He should not enter into matrimony unless he gives his hearty consent, body and soul.’

Cranmer is too good to live. He forgets his own troubles and considers only Henry’s. He speaks across Norfolk to the archbishop: ‘The Cleves ambassadors have come to me just now with an offer. Two of them will stay here as sureties, till the papers are sent.’

Norfolk says, ‘Stable them till Easter? By the Mass, no!’

‘It seems unnecessary,’ Cranmer says. ‘We do not doubt the people in Cleves have made diligent search. I do not even doubt the lady is free. But it is the king’s doubts we have to reckon with.’

The door opens. They kneel. ‘Well,’ Henry says, ‘what have you devised for my relief?’

‘Nothing, sir,’ Cranmer says.

‘That is honest, at least. I begin to suspect there is less honesty in my councillors than a king should look for, and no good faith in those who offer themselves as allies and friends.’ Henry looks around, addresses Suffolk: ‘Charles, you were there in Windsor last September, were you not? When Duke Wilhelm’s people swore they would bring the documents full and entire?’

‘Aye, that they did,’ Brandon says. ‘Otherwise we would not have put our hands to the marriage treaty, would we? But,’ he says gently, ‘I think it is done now, you know.’

‘We can hold off a day,’ Fitz says. ‘Cromwell thinks so. Though I do not see the point.’

‘I am not well-handled,’ Henry says. ‘You may as well rise, gentlemen, I see no point in sitting here with you. Cromwell, walk with me.’

‘Well, you have seen her now,’ Henry says. ‘Is it not as I have told you?’

He says, ‘She is a very gentle lady, all agree. And it seems to me her manner is queenly.’

The king snorts. ‘It is for me to know what is queenly.’ He checks himself. ‘I was wrong about her mouth, perhaps.’

Sweet as a berry. Naturally red. He decides not to say so. It is a hopeful sign, if Henry will admit he has misjudged her in the smallest particular.

The other councillors have fallen behind, but the king’s guard keeps pace, obliged to close their ears. He says, cautiously, ‘You do not think she is like her picture, sir?’

‘I do not fault Hans. He drew her as well as he could considering all the –’ the king dashes a hand against his jacket ‘– the armour. She is so tall and stiff.’

‘Her height lends her distinction.’

‘Have you inspected her shoes?’ the king demands. ‘I think she must wear raised soles. Tell her women, there is no ordure on the floor of our houses. I don’t know what she is used to.’

It can all be altered, he says, clothes, shoes, and the king says, ‘So you keep telling me. But if I had known before what I know now, she would not have come a foot into the realm. It is a matter of …’ The king shakes his head. He pats his garments, as if he is feeling for his heart.

Monday, 5 January: two of Anne’s people, Olisleger and Hochsteden, come to his own chamber on the north side of the palace, where they take a solemn oath that Anne is free to marry, and commit to search out all relevant documents within three months. Their offer to remain in England, Henry has waved away, adding that Anne’s entourage is bloated and that they should feel free to take some of their countrymen with them when they go. Each principal gentleman in her train is to have a reward of a hundred pounds to speed him on his journey.

An agreement is drawn up and they sign for England: Cranmer, Audley, himself, Fitzwilliam, Bishop Tunstall.

Cranmer, his face harrowed, heads to the queen’s room, a great Bible following him in the hands of an interpreter. Inside the Bible, if you looked, you would see a picture of the king handing the scriptures to the people, who mill at the bottom of the page, where they cry ‘Vivat Rex!’ or ‘God Save the King!’ – the lower orders preferring English.

The king glowers at his councillors, and retires into his inner rooms. Musicians come and set up their instruments and play.

In a short time Cranmer returns. Anna has taken an oath without hesitation, he says, to state that she is perfectly free from any marital tie. ‘She said she was glad to do it. She was by God’s grace most prompt and certain. She almost had the book out of my hands, so eager is she to please your Majesty. She wishes to be married without delay.’

He thinks, she is afraid of her family. What they will say, if she is sent back.

Henry groans. ‘Is there no help for it? Must I must put my neck into the yoke?’

He was right to think that when she came from the sea the bride would be rebaptised. She left the ship as Anna. Now she is landlocked as plain Anne, as if the king and all his treasury has not a syllable to spare.

Tuesday morning, raining, the councillors convene at seven. Usually he begins his working day by six, but he has put off all other petitioners, asking only for any dispatches from abroad to be treated as urgent.

Mr Wriothesley is perched on a table, watching him get into his wedding outfit. ‘What dispatches are you expecting, sir?’